Jiminy Cricket, I’m tired.
I have a brief image of how and what I shot. I had no idea a pistol would do what it did, kick so hard. I’d fired past this kid, and he’d been so angry. We’d been thrown together but in effect apart since I’m still walking and he’s out cold.
And fuck me, I’ve come out even this far to get away from them. Here the air smells harsh and scoured. Under that frozen clarity there is a strain of burning – not unpleasant – but also an undertone of spoilage. I suppose that’s a good sign? In summer it’d be a whole lot worse. Right now the snow has put down a lot of the stink, mashed it into the ground and laid down on top of it. And left all the dull colours sharpened. Corners and walls have edges now.
I could be glad to be alive but there is also gasoline in the air and I’m tired in my body. It isn’t yet overwhelming. And so that’s what keeps me standing up: that I’m not done yet. And what keeps me going is I soon will be. Meanwhile, standing is hard and cold and I can feel the heat of fever. So fuck all that, I will go inside.
But I stay where I stand anyway.
Which is odd.
You see, the doors to this place are wide open. I even have money. Inside someone’s turned a shopping cart upside down and left it beside the entryway. Maybe it’s been pushed aside already? And beyond lies very dimly the claustrophobic cornucopia of a tiny corner store supermarket. I think perhaps we are saved.
Hello, says the kid, and I jump so far in fright I fall over.
The day is the darker for all the walking I’ve done. I’ve had it. Granted, a landscape populated only by the plus-size structures the people left behind has an element of the spiritual to it, but that’s just awe. I should be looking for food, not rolling my hands around a ball of nothing attempting to invoke—whatever bullshit she’d sold me as her prize for—
You know, I didn’t even do anything for her, not really. This has been some fool’s errand. And it takes standing atop a dusty flyover to see that?
I start the trudge down, kicking my toes against the roadway to shift my feet further forward inside my shoes. I’m going to have blisters tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I am damn thirsty, and if that was an open doorway I spied up ahead, it better not have been open like that when I came past the first time.
Wait a minute.
The kid stands close. “You have blue eyes.”
“I do,” says I, and I step away from the kid though he holds on. “What the fuck?” I turn on whoever has grabbed my flung out other arm.
Another hand comes in over my shoulder and past my head. “Ba!” says the boy, pretty much directly into my ear, but that’ll be the shirtless old guy hanging onto me he’s yelling too.
This is where I’d like to run but where I have to settle for yanking my own limbs against the very unexpected tenacity of this old man. The fuck is he hanging onto me for?
“The fuck are you hanging onto me for!”
I direct this at both of them, wriggling and struggling as I am against them both.
“Ba!” says the kid again, and I could slap him. That particularly ineffectual cry of the child against the parent that you hear over and over here is surely one of the more enervating aspects of the environment.
The old man grabs my shirt. The slavering, snapping, black-eyed father lunges at I don’t know what – at me or at the floor – but he rides down the front of me and like my collar is my yoke, I go down with him. The kid comes down with us too, but in some kind of stupid sympathy because nothing was hauling him down, except maybe I clamped my free arm to my side when I went down.
I’m a bit slow in such situations, not that I get into them, and I expect us to all to shortly be dusting the incredible amount of dirt down here off our sides, and that I’ll have some room to more properly comport myself again.
It’s a short hop therefore from lying next to me for the father to have a hand pressing my skull, the other at my collar, and his teeth around the tendons of my neck.
“Goddamn,” says I, and I put my hands on my hips.
“Hi, hello,” I say. “Anyone home?”
The small space is crowded with crowded shelves. Plucking bottled water from one puts my back against another. No one squeezes in behind the counter to take my money.
I gasp to a halt drinking off half the bottle of tangy neon water to wipe my lips and call out hello again.
Then I drink again.
“Yo ren ma?”
Biologically speaking, a large drink of water doesn’t spread out from your stomach that fast, but that’s exactly what it feels like. I blink more easily, my shoulders loosen. It was goddamned cold and made me cough, but I do feel better. I recap the empty bottle and consider my options.
The large front windows are obscured by posters on the glass outside and shelving against the walls inside. This leaves most of the store in darkness.
“I’d like to pay now.”
How to choose with this wide a range of nearly nothing – oily snacks, spongy potato chips, desiccated noodles, ranks of sauces in jars, bags of salt, varieties of snacks little different from cubes of sticky sugar. There has to be something. Maybe I can find a light switch.
“Hello,” says the boy. “Where are you come from?”
“Me?” I square up to this silhouette in the door. “Back that way.” I points.
“Oh,” he says.
A young man, taller than me. Like a reed. Wide across the shoulders but not deep. Plenty of sports at college.
“We can go now,” he says.
“How’s that?” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says.
“Okay. I just need a few things.”
And this is entirely weird because people don’t touch me around here, but that’s when he steps forward and takes my arm.
“Goddamn,” says I, hands on hips.
The trudge back has been long and the day has grown darker with it. What the fuck was I thinking. Standing atop a tangled and tiny flyover, I wince at the memory of me standing atop a rise. There I’d been rolling my hands around a ball of nothing because I had been attempting to invoke… powers. I should have invoked a car or a taxi. I start the trudge down.
The ugly roadway is joined by two on either side that rise up from under the flyover, and they all squeeze into a lesser roadway between stolid, three-story apartment buildings and, paradoxically, collections of palm trees. Coming off that long walk through the open, sliding down here between this urban outskirts blight is both disheartening and welcoming. I’ll at least be able to lie down once I get back.
Meanwhile, I am damn thirsty.
So I’m watching about and thinking even the grubby snow looks tempting and then there it is. At street level on the right, half hidden behind the hump of a steeply rising driveway between the buildings, huddles a darkened convenience store.
And like any other invitation, the front doors, poster-emblazoned glass doors on rails, have been left slid all the way open.
That better not have been like that when I came past the first time.
The road itself is beautiful – flat, broad, and black. New. Bordered by muddy ditches. Patches of fluffy snow pile up like white mould. Beyond the ditches lie half-houses, chewed up halfway by construction equipment that cut their swathe through the area leaving grime and broken walls, and curious pieces of furniture hanging off edges. I guess if the road project had been completed, those half-houses and the muddy earth would have been paved over, replaced by more dun chocolate and candy-coloured apartment buildings. Eight stories tall, endless pairs of apartments long. Fussy places with tiny wrought iron balconies. As empty as I think all the buildings I’ve passed have been.
I’ve come too far.
The man had spat when I left him behind. Funny in its own way because he truly did shout some word to get all that phlegm out, some heavily aspirated choking vocalisation high in his throat. I’d grinned. If nothing else, it had placed the guy pretty much exactly where I’d left him. Not following.
Only now, I have to turn around and go back there because there’s been nothing here either.
I grow colder standing there considering just what to do right now because I am standing right in the middle of the middle lane. Ahead is a flat and half-finished landscape of abandoned construction, the blacktop dipping down with the land before rising again through a line of older apartment buildings. Behind is the top of the rise I came up over and isn’t it interesting how exposed I feel. There’s no one I know of to come tearing up and over that hill. I’d hear a car, anyway, right? Why can’t I stand out here?
Because rules, man.
How the society used to work. You followed the conventions and had your way smoothed. And conventionally, big metal death machines – lounge chairs in air conditioned shells – cars – would use a road.
And possibility being what it is, maybe you don’t mess with that kind of option just to make a point.
Or you do, if somehow it’ll tell you what you’re missing, that key to what no one had before…. all the powers in the world.
Wait, no one had this before? I could ask her, I guess. But I don’t think she’s going to answer questions like that.
I can hear my stomach. I blow out a puff of the little heat I have left and turn around. Time to go….
I finally find a place. Outside the school, down a deserted street, up some stairs. What they have back here is a tent town. Should be the unnecessarily expansive grounds of the admin building for defunct factory behind. Closed then, abandoned now, although who knows for sure in all these makeshift alleys. Grey noon acts like a cover for the whole place.
How do, I say.
The man inside this tiny place on a corner looks out at me.
That hurt? He says.
What hurt? I say.
I have a gash up the inside of my left forearm. I bound it when it happened but it needs attention. I keep both fists on the table. I don’t know what he’s talking about. Never trust a man with a moustache, that’s all I know. He has a bushy black handlebar under a round nose and small eyes with pretty lashes.
How about..? I gesture at his wall, a grimy tarpaulin and a set of shelves with plastic containers holding sad collections of various vegetables.
He shakes his head, though he stands in his shadows before a black stove. I don’t want to step in too far. I’d be cornering him in that little place he has made for himself in there – everything darkened by grime and cooking oil.
I do smell meat cooking though.
Why don’t you tell them?
Tell who what?
The people you’re talking to what happened when you conjured a man stirring ingredients over a charcoal fire.
Now’s the time for a decently withering stare, but who stares down an eyeless corpse? And who does it with that laugh raking nails down the chalk board of my spine again?
You said it man
I don’t jerk like a puppet though. I just turn and walk outside.
I have eyes, you know. You’ll see them soon enough.
And that was something she yelled after me.