Atonement with the Temptress

   They’re already set up when I get there, to the back room, these people. Neighbours mostly. People I know by sight and as little as possible by actual meeting. (Policing is hardly the task of someone interested in people.) But if I knew these people before, I don’t know them now, lined up as they are like angered performers in local political ballet, backs to me, arms stretching for the far corner of the room where no one stands. A selection of people from the neighbourhood who aren’t already outside or in the front room. As silent and wholly restrained as everyone everywhere else now.
   I like this silence.
   The anesthetic of the plague.
   Now almost as an afterthought they continue to paw.
   Very, very slowly.
   Them too, the inspector and the girl, but they’re not asleep either. They’re upright like me.
   Hi, I say. I comes up off the floor in this forest of filthy white bodies, illuminated only by the torchlight she slashes about the room. She sweeps light across me and I a, blinded for a moment. In the freezer-like cold of the room, she seems to radiate.
   I don’t understand what they’re saying. They appear to be discussing the room, its contents, and from time to time, me.
   From the man bent low at my elbow, jaw upthrust, spittle stays slung halfway out toward where his hand reaches, across the shoulder of the fellow in front of him. His face is contorted in anger. But who can be sure. They’re stopped right as they were some moments ago, and how often does the expression of the moment convey all that the expression over time will? Perhaps he was laughing, joyful, and was caught just now in roaring out approval. The others too. Greasy hair stuck out in unmoving hanks mid swing. Clawed fingers skinny bare branches on winter trees.
   No smell.
   Stop, she says. She looks right at me and thought she’s on the other side of the room she speaks into my ear.
   Stop testing this room, she says.
   If I were to leave, to crawl out from between these statues, what would I find outside? In fact, none of this can last, this sliver of peace won’t stay, and nor should I. When these… people, with their barely abridged violence… all come back, I should not be here among them.
   So where can I go?
   Even now they writhe, I realise.
   The inspector sighs. The humans are mutating, he says. Just keep calm. He draws a revolver.
   There’s something I’d like to try, I say.

Threshold Trials Whale

   I saw him hit – the point of contract – my eyelids kind of followed him down because that’s when I’d closed my eyes.
  “God damn it.” He still struggles. Writhing on the ground. Rolls onto his back. It was only three floors. There’s about zero I can do until he stops fighting himself, but I’m holding my breath for the shouting and screaming to start, so I start over. “God damn you, Wilbur.”
   Bloodied face, some smears on his chest. The rest of him looks, maybe surprisingly, just as filthy as always, that same dun colour, getting redder. He begins to bellow.
  “God damn you, Wilbur. Are you drunk?” The top floor is a tiny bar. He must have been inside to get onto the roof. Owners are away, I guess. “Willy, stop fucking moving!”
   On his back, elbows tucked into his side, hands in rigid fists at his waist, he arches his back and says hnng through a clenched jaw. Hnng, hnng. Goes into a convulsion.

  “You can’t go back there.”
   I’m astounded by this kid. I’m back there already. “Official business,” I say.
   The whole store wants to know what I’m up to now. They’d piled out to see Wilbur. All followed.
   Back here back here is not very attractive. I must have learned once about discipline and health code, but “Where’s the phone?” is what I say.
   He’s defiant. “Yes!” he says.
  “What?”
   I have to back up. Everyone, me included, has a phone of their own, but for a call like this, no one wants their number attached.
   But wouldn’t you know it, there’s Wilbur anyway. Now, I have my banger, and it’s a toy like everyone else’s, will throw a steel spike a short distance, but I have never used it, not on a person. So, lucky I suppose, everyone’s turned their backs on me now. They are that way an essential barrier. Then they all want to come back into the room with me. Goddamn Wilbur, up and growling. Like no one knew this was going to happen.
   They all start yelling.

Master of The Two Worlds

   I’m old enough to be her father. In the lunge, our teeth clash. If there were soft and rosy lips gently upturned, presently they are engaged in curses. I do too. “Sorry,” I say.
   She holds her arms out. “Again,” she says.
  “Minute,” I say, hand up. I rub my gums. Remember my traffic cop days, one stop-hand in the air, the other vigorously waving. “Got some blood.”
  “God, it doesn’t matter,” she says.
  “Might,” I say, and for once I’m not extemporizing. While we’d stood there the day had closed down around us. The white grey of the sky had become the gauzy haze of a mist, and we might have been nowhere if we weren’t still standing in mud. And figures were moving ahead of us.
  “Are they in the water?” I say.
   And behind.
  “Move!” she says.
   I’m not too worried. We’ve been here before. So meanwhile, I smile. Which is absurd. That was no kind of kiss really. I smile anyway.

Rescue From Without

   I’m yanked backward. The kid has me by the collar. The girl takes my arm.
   I’m suddenly and instantly savagely angry. Even as I stumble, I have condemned these two. They might change that with their later actions, but they will pay for this one. You do not grab an officer of the law, much less this one that is me.
   But the front doors are under assault too. Neighbours. Women in high heels. Short workers in woolen suit coats. A sudden and great many pressed against the glass. Squashed in among them an old man shrieks. One of the door shatters and bellowing bodies fall inward and tumble down beside my table.
   I yell at them, “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING!” I suppose that applies to everyone because I slip the boy’s grip too. If I had a stick or a tool, I would beat all of them. “GET OUT OF HERE!” The grumbling, moaning mass barely shifts at all. They press closer if anything. Absurdly, I am reminded of riding a train and how like an attendant I am, shoving people backwards, refusing them entry.
   No one fights me. They barely even look, just roll their eyes and paw the air. In frustration, I may even kick a neighbor. It is their own fault. No one believes me in that regard. They won’t believe how worthless and wasteful this sickness is. How useless the sufferers become. And how deeply, truly, significantly, they should NOT AT ALL BE KEPT IN TOWN.
  “GOD GLARE AT YOU ALL!”
   A hand sliding up the back of my leg upends me and I comes down cursing on me elbow and shoulder. That old man, the first of them in here. God glare at him, the most awkward man alive, strains forward with black and hammering jaws and takes a mouthful of my trousers.
   I slides backward, pulled bodily away. Coincidentally jamming my instep into that man’s chin and tipping his head hard backwards. With which result I am both pleased and horrified.
   The boy has his mouth to my ear, which is unpleasant. “Come on,” he whispers.
   Previously so dull, the worst kind of stupid, my neighbours have come into some manner of alertness. Tables squeal forward under their push to get inside. “Going up.”

   Immediately on the left through the back door are wooden stairs. The grinning man perches there.
  “Out the back,” I says.
  “No, no,” whispers the boy. I slips past anyway, down the slim hallway. “Oh,” I says and there I stops. The girl pushes past.
   There is a back door, and it is open a crack. Enough to send a dim spear of morning light across the floor. And that room is piled with people. Sprawled among much abused cooking tables and before cupboards. The owner lies among them, head and shoulders thrust into the far corner, bulging at the belly, identified by his blue shop coat. He bars the door.
  “So you see?” says the girl.
   I don’t see. I don’t look. She steps over anyway. No one is following us. I sees her black boots. She holds out her hand, sleeve pulled back. I looks at the roof.
  “No,” I says. Shakes my head. I has to take her elbow and guide her arm away, turn her aside. “No, thank you” I tells her. “Just leave me alone.”
   Into the stillness steps the inspector.

The Magic Flight

   The short ride over here had been a nearly straight shot with no one else on the road. Wide roads wet with snow, skinny footpaths sheltering under trees, low concrete buildings.
   A tiny shop beside the restaurant had sold me more booze. I’d pocketed the bottles and gone inside. That one kid had watched me come in. I’d sailed in and come to rest at a table by the window. Taken a mouthful of white alcohol and let it roughen the insides of my cheeks.
  “Hey bro.”
   I cough. Eyes fill up. Goddamn Bao slaps the table and guffaws. I have to push the fucker away.
  “Memories are golden when shared with a friend!” he says. Doesn’t drink.
  “Ni shi nar de ren?” she says.
   Golden hair, flat. She stares at the table.
  “You can’t be here.”
  “What, who’s the—? Jesus, kid.” Because he did startle me. He looms beside the girl.
   Now, I have my banger. It’s a toy like everyone else’s, converted. You work it by hauling back a lever then pulling another one out of the way, but I have never used it, not on a person.
   I point out the front window. “What’s that!” I yell, and while they’re not looking at me, I get up. “Did you see that too?! Quick!” I say. “Get after it!”

Atonement With The Father 1

   They writhe, I realise. Me moving through this molasses of clothes I have on, they, these bodies, writhe upon me too, so slowly they might not be moving until the pressure they apply becomes apparent, squeezing tighter.
   I could slip under them like a blanket and hide. They’d slip down onto me and in the morning I’d wake, soaked.
   The inspector, for that is what he had been, is tidy in an open-necked shirt, a dark suit, and a thick overcoat he has yet to remove. “Are you the perfect man, Mister Bao?” he’d asked.
   I should have run. To run is always best.
   A cup appears at my shoulder, nearly tipped across my reclining form, but I collect it from beside the gun.
  “With true friends,” I’d said at the time, lifting my cup to the inspector, “even water is sweet enough.”
   They’d laughed and sent me here.
  “He who would sacrifice his conscience to ambition,” he’d said, “will burn a picture to obtain the ashes.” They’d said I had black fingers and could not stay in the capital.
   I should have run.
  “Drink up,” she says.
  “Holy shit,” I say. And I laugh. Floating in the air like swimming in a pool, pressed upon by raging victims of the plague who have no more speed than a tree, and poked and pressed by this girl who cannot possibly be a girl because in frame she is the only one of us with agency and power. And I’d forgotten a moment she was there in order to reflect on my own shortcomings.
   I ask her what she is. I might have used strained tones to do it too. And she just says eh? But not as a question. She wants to catch my attention.
  “Wo beautiful ma?”
   She is. Luminous and glistening like clear crystal in white stone, black hair swimming like reeds, that gold that was in her hair transferred to her clothing as spun silk and intricate diagram.
   A pair of underdressed men appear at the doors. Stumble forward. Behind them an old man. They fall in through the door.
   Inspector, I say.

Woman as the Temptress

   She looks right at me and thought she’s on the other side of the room it’s like she speaks into my ear. Hold it right there, she says.
   And I’m like, Nu-uh little sister, aren’t you the fucking whore who was after me before. Look, chastise me later and just help me the fuck out of here.
   I fully realise I am running off at the mouth, but I’m surrounded by people immobile in poses of barely abridged violence. The lights are on too, by the way, and that wasn’t true a minute ago either. AND I JUST DON’T WANT ANY OF THESE PEOPLE TOUCHING ME ANYMORE OKAY?!
   Yeah, I know you, I say, because she’s looking at me stunned. You work for Tommy Cleatus and you tried it on with even me last night!
   I’m not sure of my times any more. I don’t think it was last night. But there weren’t any days in between so what other night could it be. But a sense of dislocation remains. File that away with all the other things I’ll care about when I get outside. I heave at two of the men on top of me.
   No, she shouts. And I mean really shouts. It hurts my ears. No.
   Gun’s not working by the way. I’m aware the spike has travelled a millimeter more out of the barrel. I wave the whole thing before me and curse too. Mostly wriggle. People move like struck and then stuck. It’s bizarre. I toss the banger in frustration. When it leaves my hand it stops right where it hangs in the air.
   I am surely dreaming. And I’d say it out loud but she’s yelled again and I am not to move. I know that intellectually. I recognize her words. But they have no meaning. Not out of that half-dead face with hair floating like she’s underwater. She weaves between arms like an eel and right now, because I can’t lift any of these worthless arseholes off me, I believe my bowels may release.
   Wait, wait, wait, I tell her, hands up.
   And I really wish she would.
   But then she’s right in front of me, hanging over the top of these bodies, peering at me like I am the curious beast, and I really don’t think I have those dead eyes that she has.
   She softens.
   No, no, I say, because really I can’t do anything other than beg.

The Meeting With The Goddess

   If I knew these people before, I don’t know them now. They paw and scrape and try to bite. I strike. I have my elbows across my face. Someone walks upon my legs. A wave of people come down on me.
   On and on, slapping and stabbing.
   More arrive. Festive, almost. Pressing and shoving. Reaching in waves. Urgency lost. It was the dogs, goddammit, always the dogs, I should have known. But the first surge of fear has left these people, my neighbors. The anesthetic of the plague is upon them. Now almost as an afterthought they continue to paw.
   Someone has my ankle. Under all this weight I move like swimming in sharp-elbowed glue. My knee connects with someone’s chin. Loud enough that over all this grunting I hears that clackery clack. I’d gone deaf a moment to the yelling, hearing only myself, but it comes back to me now.
   That battered drunkard is the face I sees most. Peering at me down over the top of this mess. He’s stayed upright and his stupefied confusion has that other quality to it, the merely human. Fuck me if I’m not going to cling to him like a lifeline.
   Banger, I say. Get my goddamn gun!
   If I were going to surface, I should have done it by now. But in the black all around me I am having trouble breathing. Holding down on him, (and that’s me, that “him” – I’m stepping away from myself already). These hands leaning on his chest, as his breath runs out. Shouldn’t have shouted so soon. A welcoming, warming fatalism rises up for me now. I’m just him, the other guy who won’t make it.
   More than just being dragged upon, he is being promised endless dissolution. Not a condition of being ripped apart, because those things end, but a separation from any form of defense, even that of identity. There is not even any they performing this operation. This is just everything he will not escape.
   I burst out of sleep.
   Come on, lad, I hear someone say.
   They meet in the middle, he and the girl. He comes up off the floor surrounded by a forest of filthy white bodies, upright and frozen. First thing she does is blind him with her torch. She stands in a bare patch surrounded by sleepers. In the freezer-like cold of the room, she seems to radiate.
He pokes her in the chest with the pistol. She’s smaller than him, he ought to be able to push her around, the only glowing colour in the room. Outrage flits across her face. He drops his banger away a fraction ahead of her swipe.
   She doesn’t move.
   In the slow motion that has overtaken the room, the trigger pull takes forever.
   The spike displays itself at the head of the barrel of his toy gun. The room comes to a halt. Spittle stays slung halfway out of mouths. Chunks of greasy hair stick out mid swing. Clawed fingers litter the room like skinny branches on winter trees.
   The girl contorts her face. She bubbles over with oaths.

The Road of Trials

   My big mistake was staying here at all. In this room. In this village. In this worthless province at all. All those bigger choices leading to littler choices leading to little spaces, leading right into this friggen corner where I’m pressed by jostling, shouting neighbours I barely have the strength to despise. I begin to bellow.
   Ahhhhhh.
   I push on the wall. Put my back into the people who’ve pressed in here, yelling at me. Sergeant, they say. Sergeant. And I tell them only ahhhh until I am red in the face and very concerned that shortly I will collapse back against the wall and they will all crush me.
   For a very short amount of time I am glad of all of them. A human shield of countryfellows.
   I go under.

The Belly of The Whale

   Dead man slides inside when I pull open the door. I squeal. What angry shouting is going on up front blots out that particular shame, but I’m going to remember it, even as I watch the man flop to the floor, because I know him.
   But I don’t know the fellow pawing his way in after him. I’d like to tell him to hold it right there but he has hands on my uniform sliding down my front. I step backward. The guy falls forward right down on top of the owner of this fine eating establishment. “Hold it right there,” I say.
   There’s a third man out there too in the back alley, splotching forward in the rain, gripping himself by the arms.
   We are, I realise belatedly, surrounded.
   A good golden dog shoots out into the rain from behind me, bounding over the two men in the doorway. Not modest, those dogs. But they will tackle a walking dead man and that’s what we have them for. Dog leaps for the fellow’s midsection.
  “Door!” I bellow.
   I have to kick away hands. “DOOR!”
   Instead of help with the mess before me, I first get elbowed, then shouldered, then wholly pressed forward into the wall beside the door. None of this is what any of us have practiced. With my cheek flat to the wall I curse the lot of them. The plague is upon us and we let it straight in.
   I’ll not be dwelling on my own role in that. If I hadn’t opened the door, we’d all be squashed in here regardless. The snuffling, shouting and outright screaming says there are a lot of people out front, a whole lot more than there should be, and my god we’re all going to die.