Page 17

   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…

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Page 16

   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.

Page 15

   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.
   Don’t.
   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.
   What?
   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.

Page 14

   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.

Page 13

   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.

Page 12

   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.

Page 11

  “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.
  “Holy crap!”
  “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.

Page 10

  “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.

Page 9

   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.
   Fuck.
   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.
   Conventions.
   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….
   Home.

Page 8

   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.