Boy Meets Grr

   The water drops overnight. It leaves a girl in the reeds by the road. I don’t see her the first time I go past. That’s how it is walking that same skinny road every day. The water’s higher than it ever was. It’s swallowed trees and sunk the old stone houses. Laps against the path. One day it’ll cut off the way around the back of the buildings and I should have gone around the front way anyway. So, no, I don’t see her the first time. Was thinking other things.
   On the way back though I get to the corner of the field where the buildings start and the rest of the way back is that thin path of mud between the wall and the water and these two fucking idiots are there as well.
  “Well darn,” I say, and that I say under my breath but I’m guessing it travels in the cold because they both look up and I get looked up and down. Like they don’t know who I am.
   So I’m the odd one out but they’ve been poking at something down in the mud and it turns out to be a girl. (This was all back when we used to be more scared of each other than the way we all came back.)
   Wherever the sun is way up above all this, it’s not even close to this side of the stupid cancer that grew up here those few years back – The Garden Vista Lakeview Home of Heroes Apartments Park – and down here we’re in the dark and the cold behind them all. They’ll be finished one day, all those buildings, and I don’t believe anyone really will live there because they don’t go up very high and they’re all too close together. Any engineer would laugh.
   Fishermen, I think, these two. They came out here with rods, the kind you’re not supposed to use because the “lake” is protected but stores sell them on the other side of the Apartment Park. Well whatever, because this is the way home and I have to go past so I keep walking. The guy squatting by the water’s edge stands up and I don’t think I’ll be using these shopping bags as weapons today, or ever, all I have to do is walk on by, but…
   The one out in the mud closes up the girl’s coat. Neon pink, for what it’s worth. One of bubble coats. But there she is, face up, just as surely not breathing as any other of the dead fish we used to find. As white as one of them too, and misshapen.
   It is a girl though, because of the long hair. Maybe a man could have long hair, but not bronzed like that, and I’m not going to say any more and I’m not going to see any more. That’s all I get before I give up wanting to care anymore – because we’re about as likely to find how she got here as we used to be at finding where all the dead fish came from that one time – but coloured hair, pink neon coat, legs submerged; regular height for a girl, I guess. Probably would have been slim.
  “Finder’s keepers,” I tell the guy by the edge.
   That, of all things, is what gets them off her. Skinny Guy and Squatter look around like somewhere on this thin strip of mud there’ll be some other authority.
   Up close the skinny guy is just another worker. “You can’t do that, officer,” he tells me.
  “Can’t do what?”
  “Be so irresponsible!”
   I don’t want to say levity is costly, but it is. It just is. Because I laugh right then, and it takes a while but I wind up with my hands on my knees coughing all that laughter away.

   I used to have an inhalation for whatever this condition is, but then the milhos started handing out pills instead. That’s when you knew they were scraping the bottom of their bottomless barrel. Someone had shut off the international well, and only the truly countryside people went into the hospitals anymore. So I just live with the headaches. Sometimes when you’re doing other things it’s like they’re not even there. But that same dull knot at the base of my skull, and sometimes consciously letting my shoulders down. I pull my hat off and suck on fetid frozen air.
  “You keep trying to breathe,” she says.
   All right sure, for that I’ll open my eyes. She hasn’t moved. They aren’t moving. Fuck me if pretty much everything hasn’t entirely stopped all around me.
   I don’t see her lips move. But that was her. Rich voice, like a singer. And the common tongue without a trace of accent. Which completely is not what you’ll hear around here, even from me.
   I suck on air. This’ll happen sometimes too, a sense of panic, but it’s really not me this time, it’s the air. It’s thickened into a stillness. The lapping lake has… turned to glue?
   I’d go to her. Step around the two men beside her. But in getting there I’ve stepped onto water and found it like clear, shiny sand.
  “Don’t breathe,” she says.
   She’s looking up past that guy’s back, right up at me, blown out black eyes sunk in red and I don’t see those busted lips move.
   Then I’m clawing up the bank again, and it’s hard. Like I’m wearing a yoke right on top of that headache.
   So fuck this, because I do want to breathe. I want to breathe all the air. I want to be fit again. To get strong and move through the space around me like I own it or I’m on top of it. But I get sad and fuck this and I do just let it go, close my eyes, just stop. And I wait like that for a while, wondering when the pressure will start back up, when my face will feel like a tire inflating.
   I can see corrugations in the water, raised in unmoving ripples.
   Mist in the air like something wrong with my eyes.
   Her too. Just as still as everything else. An awkward doll.
   Sitting up.

Boy Loses Grr

   I don’t want to say levity is costly, but it is. It just is. I wind up with my hands on my knees coughing all that good humour away.
   I used to have an inhalation. I used to puff on that thing every morning and get around all day like a normal person. Then all the functionaries at the milhos had left were those old-fashioned pills, and I don’t think those fuckers even knew what they were handing me, but I took them. You can still find them sometimes in alley pharmacies and I should have been on the lookup for more since last week but it’d been too fucking cold…
   Headache is back. That same dull knot at the base of my skull, and I have to consciously let my shoulders down. Slip my hat off and let my shaven scalp get cold.
   Dickheads looking at me funny. Skinny still wants to know what I’m going to do.
  “You two,” I say. I point at both because I’m remembering. “And you,” I say over my shoulder because I hear a third. I take a step sideways too, out of the triangle, and we make a square now: me, her, them, and him, the new guy. I wait for them to remember that I’m remembering, or to think that I’ve thought and to think that I know. But they don’t.
  “Who is she?” I rub my head. I have water in my shoes. One shrugs, the other shakes his head. “And who are you?” I ask the new guy. Kinda surrounded now. Taxi driver, looks like. Has that greased up look, the kind you get from being inside when everyone else is outside getting windblown and powdered by the dry air.
  “Well shit,” I say, and goddammit I step up onto the bank. “Get her out then,” I say, to see if they well. “Come on, you were poking at her before, you can grab her now too.” People do choose odd moments to get finicky. I draw my baton.
   Coloured hair. Pink neon coat, legs submerged. Regular height for a girl, I guess. Probably would have been slim. That’s all I get.

  “You keep trying to breathe,” she says.
   I don’t see her lips move. I don’t see anything move. But that was her who spoke.
   Rich voice. The common tongue without a trace of accent. Which is not what you usually hear around here. And I know what she said but I can’t breathe. It’s not me this time, it’s the air. It’s thickened into a stillness. The lapping lake, too, has… stopped.
   I’d go to her. Step around the two men beside her. But in getting there I’ve stepped onto water and found it like clear, shiny sand.
  “What?” I say, stuck behind Skinny.
  “You keep trying to breath,” she says. She’s looking up past Skinny’s shoulder, across his back, at me. I do see her nod but I don’t see those busted lips move.
   Then I’m clawing up the bank again. It’s hard. Like I’m wearing a yoke right on top of that headache.
  “Don’t breathe,” she says.
   So fuck her, because I want to breathe. I want to breathe all the air. To be fit again. To get strong and move through the space around me like I own it or I’m on top of it. But I get sad and fuck this and I do just let it go, close my eyes, just stop. And I wait like that for a while, wondering when the pressure will start back up, when heat will rise and my face will begin to thunder.
   I can see corrugations in the water, raised in unmoving ripples.
   Mist in the air like something wrong with my eyes. Can’t focus.

   I look at her. She’s as still as everything else. An awkward doll now. My mouth moves. I want to.
  “You can,” she says, and I take that breath, a simple and slow intake, chill in my lungs and tickling in my throat. Calm.
   I watch this doll for a while. Long enough I begin to worry when this peace will end. Then the sky falls in and everyone starts shouting.

Boy Meets Grr

   The water drops overnight. It leaves a girl in the reeds by the road. I don’t see her the first time I go past. It’s like that sometimes walking that same skinny road every day. I don’t get distracted. I’m just bored. I’d like to watch the water. All the trees it swallowed and the old houses it sunk. The fucking permanent mist. I’d like to see the red under the clouds like they used to get. Or the keen edges in the snow. But I’ve been here too long. They could have left some other way around all these buildings. Plans said this shitty little path will be a shitty little lake walk. This wall that marks the end of the buildings was supposed to be a plain of grass and garden. That’s what the cartoon scenery painted on the wall used to show. So, no, I don’t see her the first time.

  “Why are you even here,” he says.
  “Fuck, Tommy. Can’t we go two minutes?”
   Then it’s two taps at my shoulder, backhand.
   Grabbing his wrist goes wrong. I turned in my seat and reached across myself. That was going to be easier than trying some kind of pansy shove from up close. But my seat goes out from under me. I still get his wrist, but I’m yanking him down with me and we collide. Something makes a resounding and painful clonk on my head, right where my forehead meets my crown. I grunt, he yelps, and his other hand comes up past my face, scratching. Then I realise I landed and it hurts and I’ve caught the table behind me with the back of my head. We’re on the greasy floor together.
   Then we’re both on our knees together, face to face, hands clasped straight down between us, his on mine, mne on his, trying to keep them out of the fight. And even as I’m in over my depth – fat friend approaching, cook moving in – I see this fucker has gone a little wide eyed and I maybe can just end this here. I lean into him, clonk him on the forehead with my own, and he doesn’t push back while I’m getting up. He has blood in his mouth.
   I make myself loud. “No,” I say – pitching the word both as an answer and as a command. He’s set himself to chuckling and his hands have gone limp in mine. “Not from here,” I say.
   He spits.
   I curse and shove him backwards up against his own table. “No, not from here.”
   My hand at my forehead comes away bloodied. This shithead has spit blood in my face too.
  “How about you?”

   I’m coming back and I get to the corner of the field where the buildings start and the rest of the way back is a thin path of mud between the wall and the water and these two fucking idiots are there as well.
  “Fuck,” I say, and that I say under my breath but I’m guessing contempt travels through the air like any other radiated feeling. They both turn and look me up and down like they don’t know who I am.
   If the dislike comes from anywhere, it’s just that with as few people as there are here now I spent too long just not even acknowledging who these two idiots are. We could probably still be friends. But then I had to go and see her.
   I curse again.
   They look at me like I’m the odd one out here. They’ve been poking at a body in the water and it’s the living they want to be afraid off. (This was all back when we used to be more scared of each other than the way we all came back.)
   It’s a long second standing there like that.
  “Morning,” I say. “Fishing again?”
   I hate the fishing fucks. They show up here and throw a line out into the still water. They’re not supposed to do that, but stores sell equipment now. Or used to.
   The guy squatting by the water’s edge closes up the girl’s coat. The other one clutches at himself like pulling his own coat closed (though he’s perfectly well buttoned up) and takes a step backward. Squatter looks around at that. He shifts aside too then, taking a squatted steps sideways, and there she is, face up, but just as surely not breathing as any other of the dead fish we used to find. White like them too, and misshapen.
   Granted, a dead girl is more important than a dead fish, but we’re about as likely to find her owner as one of them too. Can’t leave her there though.
  “Finders keepers, dipshits,” I say.
   That, of all things, is what gets them off her. Skinny Guy and Squatter start looking around like somewhere on this thin strip of mud there’ll be some other authority than me.
   Skinny wants to be the one now. “You can’t do that, officer,” he tells me.
  “Can’t do what?”
  “Be so irresponsible!”
   I laugh.