Along with just being generally grabby, the kid blunders into me. Which I find more immediately frightening than the half-hearted warcry he yells at my back. I take off. But arms close around my shoulders.
I don’t ask him what he’s doing. I don’t want to know what he’s thinking. I’m yanked off balance, and I just want to punch the fuck in the head.
“Get off me!”
Not an original imprecation to toss out at a time like this, but I’m not really thinking very much just now. The kid’s dug in, bent his knees and lent backwards, and I have to lunge back at him to get my feet back under me. I get my knee into his thigh, and I can dig in, pull back on him. I’m the bigger man, fuck, I should be able to drag him out of here. But I’mm gritting my teeth and the idiot boy is hanging on, his own angry face locked into whatever the fuck it is he wants now. I can see it right there in the glimpse I get, some fucking damn thing driving him and all I can see is the drive, not the reason.
“Gan shenme fucking lai de, you miserable fucking—”
In my vitriol, I have no particular skill with the local language. All the physical strength I need has deserted me, any idea I had of myself as strong is being pulled out of my by this fuckhead’s freaking mysterious tenacity—
And I realise just a little too clearly where that force may have come from. I writhe, I twist, I turn – I’m like in a dream where I can’t get out of bindings – I have to see his eyes…
Does he say anything?
We watch the kid’s father from the front door.
He’s my father, says the kid.
Well yeah, but so that means he doesn’t?
The kid at some point has tied the older man to a chair. And left him in the corner of the store. There wasn’t much to do for him now.
He’s kinda messed up.
So is yours, the kid says. You said.
I can’t make out this kid. He’s deferential to the point of characterlessness. He could be a cardboard cut of some teen pop sensation.
Yeah, I did, I say. She talks though. Your guy, he’s like you. Not very many words.
We watch the old man make his slow movements. The kid didn’t really tie him up well, just wrapped a sheet around his body and the chair back, and secured it with a knot. The man rolls his hands and shifts his feet.
I love him very much, says the boy.
And who wouldn’t, right? A mottled old man starting to stink, eyes full of catarrh, and sallow skin hanging in folds from his face. Messed up.
Would you say he’s dead? I ask. Because mine, she’s young and she doesn’t move at all. If you couldn’t hear her, you’d say she’s dead.
Young? he says.
Yeah, like twenty or something, I say.
Then I have to duck.
Death? Goddamn, man. You talk about it like it’s a thing. It’s dissolution.
I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this tirade.
You’ll be no more, she says.
Okay, okay, I say.
It’s not a fucking parade.
Fuck’s sake, I just asked.
Got it. Message received.
Sure, you try living with a god. Thin-skinned motherfuckers. And overbearing. And so, so very prone to cursing. If we had a thesaurus…
So I’m going out then, I say.
Yes, you are going out.
And if you do die, she says. We’re through.
Fine by fucking me, I say.
I look her up and down.
In the words of the prophet, what have you done for me lately?
Get the fuck out of here.
And so I’m out in the snow again. Fuck really knows why. I’m just supposed to keep coming out here and acting like everything’s normal. But it’s not. For one thing, there are no other people left. Except for one or two guys. And maybe that kid. I’ll go and see him, I reckon. It’s too cold for just walking around.
Except, I don’t like that kid much. I don’t know how to describe people much. I don’t know what goes on inside them. But I want to call him pious, except there is no religion here, no system of belief.
Which isn’t even a little bit ironic. As soon as your god is made flesh, they’re diminished. They aren’t supposed to be visible. You aren’t supposed to meet them at all. You can intuit, you can narrate, you can make up visions and all sorts of holistic shit, but if you find one of them half-dead bobbing in frigid lake water, they aren’t all that anymore.
Honestly, I need to get away from here as soon as I can.
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.