All Cannot Be Fathomed – The Lights

Forrendh hunkered down into her furs. The way would be open to her in the morning, once the blizzard subsides. For now, she channeled heat through mu’Lyssar that had been carved into the cave walls thousands of years ago. Wind and snow piled up at the mouth of the cave. Forrendh wiped the sleet from her brow and hair before it froze in place. Though she was sheltered from the wind and snow, her cheeks and nose still stung from the cold. It was a pervasive cold; one that could linger despite the Lyssar and the charred wood and bones in the hearth. Countless generations of magicians had used the caves of southern Tarkhbad before Forrendh, carving runes and holes in the stone. There was always nuts and dried fruit in the deeper recesses, or an extra blankets stuffed with down.

Bathed in a dull, orange light, Forrendh chewed on a joint of dried elk. She still had most of her teeth and the cold kept the meat from rotting. In her age, hairs grew on her chin as much as her head and her bones creaked like dusty chimes. Her sled dogs were growling and fighting over a leg of meat. She had named them after the colour of their coats; black, smoke, grey, dust, dusk, and snow. Smoke was gnawing on the bone, dusk held his tail between his legs.

“Good tea, good, mmm,” Forrendh told herself, nodding at the iron kettle. It tasted mostly of muddy water, but it was warm. It spread to her fingers. “Smells, it does, smells.” There were no salt or herbs in the cave’s icy stores, but there was old hay, ashes of old bones, dried tealeaves, and a mouldy blanket Forrendh found, covered in dust.

As it always did when the winter coiled about her, when she found herself in a dull silence, Forrendh’s mind wandered to Degress. To her rosy cheeks and single copper plait. She shifted beneath the furs, hoping the Lyssar would hold out the night. Before she was born, they had found a shaman in the cave, frozen, after the Lyssar had malfunctioned and the heat coil failed to perpetuate throughout the night. They’d snapped his fingers off when they tried to drag him back the coming summer. But, Forrendh had inspected the runes herself and the runes had been mended recently. So, she drifted off with thoughts of her granddaughter’s rosy cheeks and copper hair.

***

The tracks were fresh, dirty water slowly freezing in the indentations. The Desoro people of the White were not friends of Tarkhbad province, but, they held a certain kind of respect for shamans like Forrendh. She had a pouch of crafts to trade; a fine-worked steel dagger and carved bone hilt, a flask of Varangian whiskey, small mu’Lyssar works which generated heat, and a great helm forged by the royal blacksmith at Tarkhbad Keep. The helm was solid steel, padded with leather and felt, and worked into the shape of a snarling ice bear, a beast the Desoro people held in reverence.

Summer was short in the White. No relics brought warmth or sunlight, only cold and ice. Few trees broke the snowy horizon, and those that did were stunted and drear. The great Ostspikes rose to Forrendh’s right, their peaks frowning in sullen clouds. In all other directions, there was an unbroken, vast realm of snow and white and shadow.
The Desoro people saw her first, Forrendh was sure. She didn’t know where they could hide, but, in her rangings in the White, she was sure they had made camps in the Ostspikes. Four of them urged their squat sows across the snow, but, she knew there were more of them, hidden. The leader was an old man, with a face carved from stone and nightice, a grizzled beard studded with white. Beside him, rode a woman, perhaps his wife, who’s hair was short and black, and who’s skin was pale as milk. Behind them were two young men, both with beards, one red and one black, and not enough teeth between the two of them. All wore thick furs and drawn hoods so Forrendh could only guess at their build.

The man hailed Forrendh in his own tongue. He did not smile.

“The merchant’s tongue, the merchant’s tongue, speak you that, aye?” Forrendh had studied the Desoro people’s speech, but, she found her accent was too strong to be understood.

“Aye, I do, eccscythe,” the wife answered. Her eyes were blue as ice at noon, and her cheeks weren’t flushed despite the wind and cold. “This one roaring at you is named Jhureg Benethorson, son of Benethor Khellegson. I have the pleasure of being Zoe of Fenway. What brings you to the White?”

“A Divinghawke she is, Divinghawke.” It was rare to see a greenlander at Tarkhbad Keep. Any further south was all but unheard of.

“Aye, though in my day ’twas called Boarhall Province. I never cared much for Tade Boarhall, but, Vyctora Divinghawke should never have sat his throne. He shat all over the province when he did that. Small wonder there was rebellion.”

Forrendh remained silent. The pain of Divinghawke Province was of little concern to her. She had her own pains to occupy her mind. Rosy cheeks. Copper braids.
Jhureg Benethorson growled. The two lads adjusted themselves on their mounts.

“Why are you here?” Zoe of Fenway asked again.

“Your husband seems angry, yes, angry.”

“Jhureg is not my husband. The Desoro do not take husbands or wives. Rearing a family in the Ostspikes is too hard; the threat of death and loss, too imminent. The community is broader, with less emphasis on the relationships of two people, but on all. But, traveler, you are not answering Jhureg’s question and you have not told us who you are.”

“Yes, yes.” Forrendh shivered. Her dogs were eyeing the Desoro people uncertainly. Steam was billowing from their mouths and their sides were heaving. “My name is Forrendh of Tarkhbad. I have been sent by Lord Tarkhbad to come and commune with the Lights. The Lights, mmm.”

Zoe of Fenway spoke quickly with Jhureg Benethorson. The old man nodded and growled. The two men behind them casually moved their arms to axes at their sides. Zoe replied, her voice cool and soothing. Forrendh could barely hear them; Carkrest had been saying for years that her ears were failing, but, she now managed to catch ‘merchant’, ‘ice’, ‘food’, and something that could mean either ‘bear’ or ‘angry’, depending on context. The youth with a red beard said something that Jhureg laughed aloud at. Forrendh regarded her pining dogs. Black was the oldest. She had always been Degress’ favourite as a pup. Summer was never warm in Tarkhbad, but, the snow would thaw for a span or more and then Forrendh would watch Degress and black run over the spring grass and flowers. Even then, black was quick as a winter gale.

“Jhureg wants you to turn around and return to your stone tower.”

Forrendh laughed. “What we want and what we get are not cut from the same bread.”

“The Desoro have a similar expression, though I don’t think I could translate it well enough.” The corners of Zoe’s mouth twitched. “I said that your passing could be of use to us.”

“You didn’t lie, no.”

“He said the last shaman from Tarkhbad to walk through the White brought steel. He still has the axe.”

Jhureg held a simple axe for Forrendh’s inspection. The quality certainly spoke of Tarkhbad, but the makersmark was not one she recognised. It was an old weapon, the shaft having been replaced several times.

“I think I may have a few things he’ll like, yes, a few.” Forrendh drew out the Varangian whiskey and a burnished copper chain. She gave her dogs a little meat and fumbled with some of the fastenings on her sled again. She found some tinder and flint, and withdrew the steel dagger and offered it to the Desoro. Jhureg grinned as he took the dagger in his hand, and the red bearded youth had an eye on the whiskey. The other youth offered a massive ice bear pelt in exchange. It was white as snow, heavy and warm. The Desoro worked hides and furs better than any in Gaera and a pelt such as this would fetch a year’s worth of gold stars at Frumcynn. The inside was layered with fine ermine fur, and studded with pockets. A bronze badge could fasten it at the neck. Steel and whiskey would never buy such a cloak.

“A fine fur,” Forrendh declared.

Zoe nodded. “And this is fine steel. Though we cannot call this an even trade.”

Forrendh shrugged and unveiled the ice bear helm. “Steel for fur, bear for bear.”

Jhureg began to bark, his face ruddy and grim. Soon, he was wearing his new helm and Forrendh was wearing her new cloak. She almost felt warm, though that cold was still there and would never fully retreat. The young men kicked their sows into a trot and they vanished across the snow, towards the Ostspikes. Jhureg spoke to Zoe, gesturing southwards. His eyes were like burnt shards of obsidian beneath the visor of his helm. Zoe nodded solemnly.

“Jhureg says that the Lights have been wild,” Zoe explained. “He said you will see much and more in them. He hopes you do not lose yourself.”

“I haven’t yet, Zoe of Fenway, no.”

“And he asks for you to tell him what you see. He said that what happens in the Lights affects all.”

Forrendh nodded. “Any effect, however small, will send ripples.”

Zoe shook her head, “No. This is something bigger, something, less subtle. Be well, Forrendh of Tarkhbad.”

***

Her dogs pulled her out beyond the mountains and stunted trees. To a place where the horizon was round and unbroken and where it was night for months at a time. It was bitterly cold. None of Forrendh’s skin was exposed to the air. Otherwise, it would be black and detached in hours. Dawn only manifested as a pink razor in the north, never touching the glassy smoothness of the White.

For days, Forrendh followed the turning of the stars. The two vivid pinpricks of the Runner and the Chaser marking the way south. At times the sky was dark with clouds and Forrendh had to listen to An’elyserra, hoping it would lead her safely. Tonight, the sky was midnight blue, cold and vast and studded with stars. The Runner and the Chaser burned bright overhead through the clouds.

The altar was simple. Ancient runes carved into flat stone tiles. A tall, smooth relic which glittered like pearl. No roof. No candles. No carpets or murals. Just a wide expanse and a space to worship it.

The dogs huddled together against the wind, grey was staring off at the pink light to the south east as it winked out and they were all plunged into a night that stretched for a world. Ice had permanently gathered on the altar, writhen about the corners of the stone and the edges of the relic, sculpted by the wind. Forrendh sat herself down at the altar and placed her fur-clad palm upon the relic’s skin. For skin, she felt, it was; alive somehow. If she thought about Degress, her tears would freeze on her cheeks. There was a pain in her jaw as she clenched it tight against the cold and the past.

The Lights would come when the clouds were gone. When the stars were strewn across the sky as fine and clear as sand. Forrendh sat on the altar, drank some herbal tea, ate a handful of rust-coloured paste made from mushrooms and leaves, and waited.
They started either late in the night or early in the morning. It was impossible to tell in the White. The wind was roaring in Forrendh’s ears and the dogs were howling. She thought she could hear laughter, or the ringing of a china bell. She looked up and saw the first pulses of colour in the sky. They came from beyond the White, from a night that never knew the sun. From the birth of ice. First, there were shimmerings in the sky, faint and smokey. They were reflected in the Relic, bringing a soft glow to the icy altar. Before long, the sky opened up, a deluge of awe, like a spilling rainbow. For the first time in days, shadows were riven in the snow and tiles and fur, Forrendh could see wisps of ice tearing across the flat, icy expanse.

The Lights were chaos, like the kaleidoscopes a tinker brought to Tarkhbad one spring. She and her friends had stared into the small tube for hours until Forrendh had thought she could see through to another world. She could feel her fingers and toes growing numb, not from cold, but from her tea and paste. Her tongue was itchy. Soon, the cold wasn’t so cold. Forrendh’s head began to cloud.

The colours overhead began to form themselves; slender legs, cloven hoofs, massive antlers, shaggy fur. The moose trumpeted and shook Forrendh’s chimey bones. It took a step forward, staring intently at Forrendh on the altar. It looked sad.

“There will be pain. So much pain.”

Forrendh knew this. There is always pain, she thought. Pain in my knees, pain in heartbreak, pain in the capitol, though the Deifa know what they bemoan.

“No. There will be loss. You will lose, yet, you will gain.”

The great moose convulsed and split into a thousand kines, all gnashing their teeth and biting at each other’s necks. When, at last, one remained with blood dripping from its lips, its ears grew into a single copper plait. In the vast sky, Degress stared down at Forrendh. She was crying or was she laughing?

“Gran, Gran. Wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, run, run. Magic will be eaten by castles, but it will eat its chains, but the chains will run with blood, unless you wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, run, run.”

“Degress.” The tears froze on Forrendh’s face, they hurt her eyes and they scratched, but they did not melt. They were hard and cold as armour. “Degress, black’s here.”

“I know, Gran.”

“Degress…I’m sorry, yes, sorry.”

“No, Gran, you’re not.”

It had been seven years. Seven years of long winter and fleeting spring-summers. Seven years of hiking through the White, of treating with the Desoro tribes, of bringing tidings and pelts to Tarkhbad Keep. Seven years without pause, because Forrendh was convinced if there was so much as an instant of quiet, ghosts would tear through the now and carve the skin from her face. But, there was no reason to make so much noise and drown out the ghosts. There never had been. Forrendh had known this all along, she just needed to hear it. No fault had been hers, and her blame was baseless.

“Thank you.”

“No. Thank you. Now, first, wake up.”

By the time the Lights were extinguished, Forrendh’s frozen body was as still and cold as the ice on which she sat.

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A Series Of Stories – II

Jonathan Sunderland’s spoon was halfway to his mouth. His hand was trembling with the slightly sleepy suggestion of a tremor. More of a neural spasm than a full-blown syndrome. That being said, the Cheerios on his spoon, of which there were four, jostled each other somewhat violently and pearls of milk fell from the gleaming, just washed spoon, to plop in his bowl or splatter on the table since Jonathan was carrying his spoon at a point just above the lip of his bowl and the plops of milk were unsure exactly where to land. Plop. Plop. He was reading the paper. Bits of it covered the table. His wife was doing a cross word as she readied herself for work – only an apple for me, Jon.

Plop.

There he was. Clear as print.

Jonathan Sunderland, father of two and beloved husband, dead at forty five.

None of the expected questions were, however, burning through his head. He never once wondered if it was it some kind of prank; something that Hayase had cooked up. It didn’t occur to him that there might be another Jonathan Sunderland out there; it’s a common name and he was reading a big newspaper.

Plop.

What did occur to Jonathan Sunderland, because it was more important than the veracity of his own death, was the shock he felt when his life could be so concisely doctored to fit into a single sentence. Jonathan Sunderland, father of two and beloved husband, dead at forty five. Albeit, there were a few sutured clauses, three extra people, and forty five unmentioned, yet barely hinted-at years of life, but still. There was no fanfare. No consolidation of his life. The editing job he’d dedicated six years to, apparently, hadn’t been worthy of print. Neither had his childhood friends, or college classmates. The cereal he was slowly spreading across the editorials had more rings of shredded grain than he had words in his life. If life were a soup, Jonathan was, apparently, the spinach that boiled down to a small, shrivelled, husk that wasn’t even afforded the possibly lush green colour it had once had. It just couldn’t decide.

Plop.

The milk was warm now. Sun was coming through the kitchen window, strong. But still, he didn’t take a bite. If he did, it would be a lie. He could swallow the Cheerios. Prove to them that he was bigger than them. Better. That he had more. He had a family, and they, just a flotilla of soon-to-be victims. But, he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. Because the milk would curdle in his mouth and the Cheerios would be stale. It would be an empty gesture. One that only served to seal a few more steps of sanity before him. Eventually, he would run out and then he’d be further along the road from his home than he knew how to deal. He’d be lost. He’d be lost on a road of lies that he himself had built and laid and sealed and hummed along while doing it because he was sure, he was certain, he was better than those Cheerios, he was fine, and that’s what made it all the worse; that he himself had built it and hummed. Fucking hummed. But he had to stop the infrastructure of deceit. The clouded road that just wound around, that moved wherever he felt it ought to at the time, with no clear destination in mind. Just a road of faux-fulfilment. Fauxfillment.

Plop.

Bella and Mars were out the door; not a mention of even an apple, let alone a quality breakfast of better-than-my-life Cheerios. Just a scattering of footsteps by the door as they thrust bony feet down into boots. A clattering of the door handle. A laughing goodbye.

Johnathon remembered the night Mars was conceived, but, he couldn’t quite place Bella. Had it been the time he and Tiffa had taken the Friday off and imposed their own three-day weekend? They’d driven out to the north coast. To a beach where the waves rolled in salty curls, unbroken. Their sound almost carried the car the last half an hour to a hotel with a crown of white stars and an old desk clerk. Maybe it had been at a friend’s new year’s party in the city, when, after six and a half champagnes on Jonathan’s part, and a tremendous seven, by the lovely Tiffa, they had found themselves stumbling through a forest of jackets and overcoats with tickets and mints in the pockets, in an air so thick and close and cold that Jonathan could here Tiffa’s voice, quiet as it was, he could almost lick it as she sighed aloud. A porcelain sigh. They could hear the party beyond the closet, but, it was removed. It was not their world. They had created a world, a world that smelled of mints, that was enfolded by jackets, a world that smelt of Tiffa, and Jonathan. They’d hung onto each other long after the fireworks and unabashed kissing of The Moment outside, because, in their world, The Moment meant nothing, what mattered was Their Moment. And that was, to their great fortune, every moment. For ten minutes after Tiffa’s porcelain sigh, Jonathan tried to find his left shoe, but it was camouflaged completely in the darkness, buried amongst the roots of jackets and coats and scarves. Tiffa kept laughing and it sounded beautiful. Later, someone had, cocktail in hand, asked Jonathan what had happened to his shoe. Made a joke about Cinderella. They’d returned home in the early hours of the morning, as a faint purple was blemishing the eastern horizon and the gears that keep the world together slowly whirred to life.

Plop.

Eying the quavering spoon, Jonathan began to glare. He won’t eat it. He won’t. It became a kind of test of will. A last show of strength. It had always been him against the Cheerios. He’d never known it, but it was. Everyone can find a nemesis in a cereal bowl. Jonathan was just surprised that he’d found his match.

Plop.

Trying to dream up the night Bella was conceived was difficult. It was akin to peering down a deep hole full to the brim of inky black, leaning in and trying to scope out the sides which would only peel away and crumble, and Jonathan would dart his hands frantically into every crevice natural and newly torn, trying to find it, but there were so many holes and it was so dark and his hands were growing cold and numb and he had slipped and was falling, before he new anything, shooting his arms out to either side to slow himself as much as to sift through the memories, which oddly enough, felt like mud and had this horrible stench of old, warm milk, and there was a ringing in his ears as the wind stung by. Finally, his hands were dark up to the elbows and he’d dug as much as he could, but, his breath wasn’t coming smoothly, something hurt in his chest. And as he flailed around, his cooked-slug grey memories sloughed away, leaving only a greasy film between his fingers that was like some sick perversion of the memories he’d hoped to unearth, and would take years to clean off. Those memories had been so wonderful, he was sure of it. So, why where they so slimy, so evasive, so decidedly un-wonderful?

He could remember when Mars was conceived though.

The air had smelt of snow as much as it can without showing a single flake. The clouds were heavy. If he reached his fingers out too close to the windows, he could feel the cold leaking through. The fan was rattling and a pot of broth simmered with the heat and intensity of a thousand tiny explosions, propelling water molecules to the air where they were spirited away by the rattling fan and tossed outside in the cold that tried desperately to get back in. Jonathan had chopped a length of carrot into loose chunks. A vermillion, blood-tang leg of lamb was sitting on the chopping board, awaiting further instruction.

‘Daddy, daddy!’ Bella cried, running through the kitchen. Before she could pull herself up onto the bench and prod the meat full of curiosity, Jonathan scooped her up in his arms. His hands were covered in flour and crushed herbs, but neither of them cared.

‘Yes, sweetie?’

‘When’s Caroline getting here? I want to show her Prince Rainbow!’

‘Who’s prince rainbow?’

‘He’s the prince I drew this morning. You said I could use your pencils and things. You promised, daddy.’

Had he? Possibly. It sounded like something that would just leak out of his mouth, sometime between compiling the final draft of his recipe, enduring the iciness of Tiffa as she dressed for work, taking a second phone call from a brother who wanted to know what his plans were for Christmas, because mum’s really trying to get everyone together again and she’d like to know for certain if you’re coming and if you’re not, that’s fine, she understands, but, she may love you a little less, and these are obviously her words not mine, and if you’re coming then I’ve already preordered these wonderful earrings that Gordon said would be beautiful, and what do you think, could you pitch in a hundred or so, and we’d love to see Isabelle again, it’s been so long. If Bella had asked Jonathan at any time that morning – which, given her growing level of discernible shrewdness was highly possible – or even, given the fact that she could only have asked this morning, and hence, her skills at coercion, precocious though they were for her age, could potentially have nothing to do with the time-and-place she’d chosen to beset Jonathan, there was every chance that he would’ve agreed to anything she’d said, in the hopes that it would help him to extricate himself from his over-the-phone conversation with Kevin. Or that it would help him to finish his menu either way because, Bella had – for better or worse – derailed his train of thought and maybe that was a good thing, because, an extra hour of belly-aching over different cuts of livestock wouldn’t improve the tenderness of the meat either way. Or should it be vegetarian? Tiffa had shown a lot of interest in his aubergine roast the other week.

‘Don’t you mean, ‘Princess’ Rainbow?’

Bella looked at him as though he’d just suggested that they both perform handstands and drill their way through the apartment floor.

‘Daddy, he’s a prince!’

When Jonathan had been a boy, the idea of a Prince associating with rainbows would never have occurred to him or any of his childhood friends. But, he supposed that Bella had made the prince and she could do as she pleased.

‘Is he your boyfriend?’ Jonathan teased.

‘You’re yuck!’ Bella stuck her tongue out. She was still years away from boys. And God help him when she reached that point of her life. And the boys, for that matter.

‘Well, it’s a good thing.’

‘Why?’ Her eyes were blank, glassy with curiosity. Huge pools of mud.

‘Because you’ve got a garlic monster for a dad!’ Jonathan had leant forward and exhaled a vicious cloud of garlic breath over Bella. She’d squealed, but the garlic monster held her tight. As she wriggled, trying to get away from the stench, cloves and leaves smeared her Nelly Anteater shirt until Jonathan set her spindly legs back on the tiles. She was panting and giggling.

‘The garlic monster will be destroyed by Prince Rainbow,’ she assured him, wheezing. ‘But, seriously, daddy, when’s Caroline getting here?’

It was a good question. Jonathan had called Caroline last week to make sure that she was free tonight. She said she had to study for her Communications exam, but, if it was alright for Bella to just sit down and watch a movie while she, Caroline, crammed every last clause she could into her head, then she’d be happy to baby sit. Had he offered to take Bella over there? The thought caught his throat like a cold dumpling. Something left on a plate at a restaurant while everyone was talking, and that no one would ever touch again because it was too big to swallow and had too many bad thoughts inside and it was meant to be hot, and now it was cold, so they were politely talking about anything other than the dumpling, just as Jonathan was thinking about anything other than the possibility that he had offered to take Bella over to Caroline’s parents’ house for baby sitting because there was no way he had done that, but, maybe it had leaked out of his mouth in the same way he’d given Bella permission to use his art supplies, and it was now twenty minutes after the time he’d agreed to take Bella to Caroline’s parents’ house and, oh shit.

Plop.

Upstairs, Tiffa was making some touches to the makeup she’d always complained about wearing. The eyeshadow. The blush. The rouge. None of it matters, she’d said. But still, she applied it assiduously. She didn’t need it. That goes without saying. If none of it mattered, then she didn’t need any of it. She was still beautiful to Jonathan. Though, he shouldn’t really use the word ‘still’. That implied, no, stated a case of non-change. And that just wasn’t true. Tiffa had changed. But with each new grey hair; each stretch line she’d accrued; with every pain that spasmed through her back, as she bent to pick up a book of Bella’s or a toy of Mars’; with every increment both measurable and profoundly unpalpable, Jonathan found himself more and more in love with her.

He’d called Caroline one more time, the broth beginning to boil over. Jonathan had considered trying to stir it with his foot. But, he knew he shouldn’t. At least all of the handles were turned to the wall; there was no way an inquisitive Bella, and an inquisitive Bella is as probable as a fleet deer, might wander through the kitchen and pull down a pot of scalding water and salt and juices. After ten rings, the receiver picked up.

‘Mr Sunderland?’

‘Caroline, it’s me.’ Caroline had the kind of voice you wanted talking to your kids. She was a dimply nineteen year old with curls of red hair and a garish wardrobe. Bella adored her.

‘I wandered where you’d gotten to,’ she said in that sparkly voice Bella so loved. ‘I hadn’t noticed the time – I’ve been studying so much for these exams. They’re really getting to me. But, my mum called me for tea and that’s when I realised that you hadn’t brought Bella over.’

‘That’s what I’m calling about,’ Jonathan explained. He wished she’d called him earlier. Somehow, trying to make it her fault that he’d agreed to take Bella over. Somehow trying to make this not his fault, when everyone, including Caroline’s doubtlessly judgemental mother, who was Bethany…Elizabeth…something, could tell that it was Jonathan’s fault. ‘Look, I was wondering, perhaps I misspoke before. I think I said I would drop Bella off at your house, well, it turns out that I can’t do that – I’ve got a pot of vegetables here and a steak that’ll need to roast and I’ll have to supervise both of them for a good hour or so, so, I was wondering if you’d be able to come here and pick Bell up.’

There was a silence as Caroline bubbled away, the anthesis of the pot on Jonathan’s stove, now dangerously close to deluging the stovetop in carrot chunks and parsley.

‘I’m sorry, Mr. Sunderland, but, I just can’t leave. It’ll take me thirty minutes both ways to get to your house now. Is there someone who can watch your dinner, or can you just wait to start cooking?’

Jonathan explained that he’d already begun and apologised to Caroline before hanging up. He wished he could’ve spoken to her a bit longer and tried to come to some agreement: petrol money, for example. But, the pot was practically quaking on the cooker, streams of thick, brown liquid running down its sides, nearly caramelising on the steel. He took the pot off the heat and cut the gas. The seething surface slowly receded to a sluggish pool, with islands of vegetable, the heat burning through the plastic handle of the pot only slightly aroused the myriad of receptors in his fingers. The steam fogged his glasses in an instant and Jonathan stood still for a few seconds, holding onto the pot with both hands and, hence, was unable to wipe his glasses. Slowly, he put the pot down and covered it with a lid to keep the heat in. He had to call someone to look after Bella.

His mother? She was too far away and would get along with Bella too well. There was a reason he’d kept the interactions between his daughter and his mother to a supervised minimum. Like two regularly inert chemical reagents, Theadre and Bella would ignite each other; Bella would join some anarchist movement within the hour, be lobbing Molotov cocktails at the ‘establishment’ by dinner, then be tear-gased by police in riot gear and post apocalyptic masks before midnight. Tiffa’s parents? Steph and Karl Overgrad were a quite couple who would be only too excited to alter their game of 500 with conversations with their granddaughter. However, Jonathan hated making them work more than they had to, especially after Karl had injured his hip the summer prior out in the garden, and he knew what a power-keg his daughter could be. Hayase was probably still at some bar, striking out with the bartenders as he flicked cigarette after cigarette into the ashtrays at each table. He wouldn’t be home until after midnight, if at all. He might, come to think of it, be a worse choice than Jonathan’s mother.

Kevin.

His brother was a man of compartments. Where most people have a family life; a social life; a work life; a pornography consuming life; cooking life; a hobby life; a complete miscommunication with electronics and all they betoken; and where most people allow these different aspects of their lives to blur together, often so that there is no sense of one or the other, until, suddenly, you’ve been wandering through life without paying attention – perhaps playing a Velvet Underground track in your head because you haven’t gone out to buy one of those Walkmans everyone’s talking about – and, quite suddenly, you realise that you haven’t seen any recipes or gourmet courses recently, and instead, they are replaced with naked breasts and balls, and it’s impossible to tell where you made a wrong turn and could somebody perhaps get me out of here because there is a lot of exposed skin. Where most people have this quagmire, Kevin had discrete, stylish compartments. No bleeding. No mess. Nothing was ever cast awry. No one got lost. Once Kevin returned home from work, he and Gordon were never tangled with work.

Or so Jonathan was reminded at least twice every phone call.

Jonathan had swallowed hard. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d dialled his brother’s number. Sure, they’d spoken often. There was their father’s birthday. And the phone call that morning. But, Jonathan had made a subconscious effort not to dial the number. The phone calls came anyway, so what did it matter?

He had to look the number up in a little diagrammed address book Tiffa kept by the phone. There were only a handful of numbers in there, he noticed. When had their closest friends been family? He found Kevin and Gordon’s number and dialled. Each chirrup of the connexion sounded like a gulping that was rutting around in Jonathan’s throat as he waited. It sounded like a python squeezing through. They’d asked to see Bella, hadn’t they? They’d actually asked to see Bella again. Would they say no? How would Kevin manage with his discrete compartmentalisation? What if Bella got her hands all over the walls? She came running through the kitchen again, singing some song from the radio. Jonathan tried to assess the stickiness of her fingers when the line connected.

‘Kevin Sunderland.’

‘Kevin, it’s Jonathan,’ Jonathan answered. ‘Bella, can you play in the lounge room for a second, honey?’

‘Hey, big brother! Two phone calls in one day? What’s news?’

Jonathan chewed his tongue for a moment. He thought of beef. ‘Not much. I, listen, I have a favour to ask.’

Jonathan could hear what sounded like Gordon’s deep voice murmur something and the volume on a television set decrease by degrees.

‘What’s up?’ Kevin was back.

‘Listen, there was a miscommunication with the baby sitter tonight and Tiffa and I are meant to have a big date. It’s an anniversary and everything and I’ve been cooking all night, but, Bella can’t go with the baby sitter because she’s studying for her exam-‘

‘We’ll look after her, Jon.’ Kevin was calm. Nothing bleeding. No leak of emotion.

‘You will?’

There was another Gordon-esque murmur. A scuffling sounded over the piece and Jonathan was left with the bubbling of the water in the drain, and the humming of Bella in the next room. He felt underwater, where every sound was a distortion of what it ought to be and he was straining to hear even the slightest hint of normalcy, something that he could latch onto, but, it kept slipping through his hands like kelp. He leant against the counter. Surely, this is how people sit when they’re talking to their younger brothers. He washed his hands in the sink, wiping away the garlic. It was pointless because he would have to start cooking again, but, he had to do something with his hands; holding the receiver was cramping them. Suddenly, as if surfacing, he could hear Kevin and the muted television again.

‘We’ll take Bella tonight.’ Kevin repeated firmly. Jonathan got the feeling that neither words nor tone were for his own benefit. ‘I can swing by in half an hour and pick her up. We might take her to the movies or something. How does that sound?’

It sounded like relief.

Jonathan thanked his brother and hung up.

Bella would be disappointed that she wasn’t able to see Caroline, a girl whom she sometimes confused and scared by referring to as ‘mummy’. But, seeing uncle Kevin was a rare treat. And the movies? When was the last time Jonathan took her to the movies? He’d have to do that sometime soon. Maybe next weekend. Though something nittered away in the back of his mind – that maybe Bella would see through his emulation of his younger, cooler brother. Or, heaven forbid, what if he should pick the same movie as Kevin?

His daughter had been drawing in the lounge room coffee table. The television wasn’t switched on like in Kevin and Gordon’s house. The grating of her pencils on the table’s grain pushing through the paper was almost soothing for Jonathan. She hadn’t gotten around to turning all the lights on and shadows nestled in her hair as she bent low over the pages, scribbling colourful swirls. She’s going to go blind before twenty if she keeps that up. Without a word, Jonathan switched the main light on so that a stark Bella-shaped shadow manifested itself on the page. From the doorway, he could see arrant flecks of her hair, highlighted by the overhead light. She looked up.

‘Sweetie? I have a surprise for you.’ He hated that he sounded as though he’d been prepared for this the whole night. As if it had been the plan. But, that was how he had to deal with her.

‘Chocolate steak?’

‘No, not chocolate steak. Mummy would kill daddy if he made that.’

‘No she wouldn’t.’

‘Well, she might not. But, she certainly wouldn’t talk to him for a long time.’

‘That’s true,’ she’d said thoughtfully. ‘So, what’s my surprise?’

‘You can see uncle Kevin and Uncle Gordon!’

‘Uncle Kevin and Uncle Gordon?!’ Bella jumped to her feet. ‘I have to show them my toys.’

‘Don’t forget prince rainbow.’

She went running off to pull a few things Tiffa and Jonathan had bought her together. Jonathan could hear her scratching around her bedroom and their bedroom, singing the same song to herself. Then Jonathan could finally sigh with relief. Something deep in his gut slackened. He returned to the kitchen and began to reheat the broth, cut the roast, reapply garlic to each finger. Tiffa would be home within the hour and by then, dinner should be ready to come out of the heat. He unearthed a tinted bottle of red he’d hidden behind a pile of potatoes and set the table with two spindly glasses – something that Kevin and Gordon may have bought them. Gordon would’ve picked it out. He has the best eye for gifts.

Half an hour later, Kevin arrived.

‘Which anniversary?’ He asked, striding through the front door and sort of baulking from the looming knick-knacks that Tiffa decorated the house with. It wasn’t a small apartment, but, there was a certain sense of impending something. Rather than walls, there were tiny photographs, either store-bought or taken by someone in the family, a clock, paper-mâché trinkets painted with shaky hands, diplomas, and a series of end tables, chairs, and couches that all but eliminated the slightest trace of beige wallpaper. Tiffa had hated the colour, but, since the apartment was a rental, there was nothing they could do about it. At least not permanently. So, they’d decided to cover it with enough junk that they wouldn’t ever have to be reminded of their landlord’s awful taste in wallpaper. The effect was, ultimately, a narrow house that constantly moved in whenever you turned your back. Jonathan liked it; everything was close and at hand.

‘A special one. Hey, so, thank you for looking after Bella. Gordon didn’t sound too pleased.’

‘You heard that?’

‘Well, I could infer.’

Kevin shook his head. ‘He just wants some time with me. I told him that I can’t remember the last time I saw Bella and that we should rearrange movie night. It’s no big deal.’

‘Thank you.’

‘So,’ Kevin was staring around the house. Another thing Jonathan liked was the lack of a singular focus point. Everything blended in the apartment’s multitude. ‘have you decided if you’ll come for Christmas? Mum’s excited.’

‘I’m sure she is. I’ll talk to Tiffa when she gets home.’

‘Don’t interrupt your anniversary for that!’ Kevin was disgusted. ‘You two should be thinking about one thing and one thing only: sex. Lots and lots of sex. Don’t you dare let mum get in there and mess it all up. Poor Tiffa. Just talk about it some time this week.’

‘You know I considered asking mum to look after Bella.’

Kevin cocked his head.

‘You must’ve been damn desperate. Bella’d end up in one of those photos for Time magazine. The one with war-torn city walls and riots, you know? Only, they’d be the ones destroying the city.’

Jonathan nodded.

Eventually, Bella came out from her room with all her accoutrements. She greeted Kevin with a squeal and immediately thrust a handful of crumpled drawings she’d been hoarding into his arms. Kevin had an old book for Bella, the spine of which was crumbling and faded. He tried to give it to her, but, she was determined to be doing the giving – this drawing, that plastic toy, these coloured pencils (that looked suspiciously like Jonathan’s).

‘Good luck.’ Jonathan mouthed.

‘I can bring her back in the morning,’ Kevin said. ‘Does she have anything she needs to get to?’

‘No. Thanks a lot. I owe you.’

‘You can come to Christmas and call it even. Someone has to help the riot police during the holidays, and I don’t think the city can stand to have another tree burned in the name of secularism. If we’re all there, maybe mum’ll be so focused on us, she’ll give the rest of the world a pass. She’d like to see Tiffa too.’

‘Tiffa’s the only one who can control her.’

Kevin nodded too. He took Bella by the hand, she reached up so that her skinny arm was held almost above her head at this bent angle, and they both walked out the door. Jonathan didn’t even have time to worry about whether or not she’d packed a toothbrush, or a change of underwear, or whether or not Kevin and Gordon had something to read to her before she went to sleep because Jonathan had read somewhere that reading to children before they go to sleep has a profound impact upon their reading ability as they grow up and it was something that both he and Tiffa agreed on; that their children should read. But the door was already closed on the image of his younger brother and his eldest daughter hand-in-hand, bold against the beige (down to the runners and lintel) of the 5th floor corridor.

By the time Tiffa came home, the lamb was ready and the house was thick with garlic and herbs. It was a good thing that he and Tiffa both loved the smell of garlic or else they wouldn’t kiss nearly as often as they did (and they didn’t kiss that often, of late). Jonathan wondered if it had something to do with the fact that it masked his natural bad-breath, or if it reminded Tiffa of a particularly good meal she’d had as a child and now, could only associate positive feelings with, even if those positive feelings were also to be associated with Jonathan by default.

She walked through the door, tall and tired. She left her coat on a coatrack covered in cats that she’d bought not long after they moved in to the new apartment. Even before they’d made a conscious effort to conceal their landlord’s offensive beige walls. She greeted Jonathan with a kiss and immediately removed her bra from under her shirt, drifting through the apartment, from room to room. Jonathan could hear her sighing in their bedroom, the flicker of the lights on, and the whispering of her clothes as she arranged her boots by the wall and her gloves in their drawers.

‘What smells so good?’ She asked, returning from the bedroom. She was still wearing a collared shirt, and a long skirt. Something she’d bought a few years ago and managed to assimilate into her working life with little resistance. She sat at the table.

Plop.

Jonathan was back in the now, back in the Cheerios-falling-to-the-table world. Tiffa was about to leave for work too. She was wearing something similar to the skirt and shirt she’d worn that night they’d conceived Mars. As she passed by their dining table – far bigger than their old one, which had been barely big enough for the three of them and cluttered with all manner of Tiffa’s knick-knacks, Jonathan’s books, and Bella’s scribblings that had no where else to go, so they had to wrestle with the mess at each meal, redistributing it all throughout the house in fits and bursts, and then eat, and then slowly watch as the mess found its way back piece by piece -as she passed by their long dining table Jonathan neither could nor wanted to stop smiling. She was busy at work, she told him. She had a whole new set of data to enter into the system and she would be working late the entire week. But, she still managed to find the occasional cute photo of some wild animal doing something a person would normally do and sent it to him, just so that the two of them would laugh at something that wasn’t one of their mistakes but something that the two of them were removed from and united in their dislocation from. TV was good for that too. They still stayed up late, after they’d told Mars and Bella that they would need to wake up early in the morning, so that they could watch their own shows together, curled up under blankets, with hot chocolate. Even if there was a pain in Tiffa’s back, or a weariness in Jonathan’s feet, bending themselves into the same shape as each other and uniting in the opposition (not opposition in the sense of war, but, rather, in the sense of comparison) with another object, was comforting to Jonathan. It made him feel like a unit. Something that was indivisible when comparing, and, hence had to be considered as a whole.

Jonathan found that no matter how long he stared at the print on the page, he couldn’t will the text to reorganise itself into a more encouraging message. And no matter how long he stared at his spoon (now completely devoid of Cheerios, seeing as how they had all been shaken off in some cathartic earthquake), he couldn’t bring himself to dip it back down into the bowl of sun-warmed milk and stir up the detritus of his own resolve. Instead, he made a different decision. Something that deviated slightly from what would have been expected of him in any normal circumstances. He rose and drained the milk from his bowl, using the spoon to keep the Cheerios out of the sink where they would be a hazard and a pain to clean. He then threw the soggy, warm, shapeless Cheerios into the bin beside the sink and washed his hands. The sun was still low and the tops of the trees in the park across the road were glimmering as if confused as to whether or not they should be green or gold.

A Series Of Stories – 1

 

There are two of them. That much, I can see.

Across a narrow ravine, concrete-lined; across a narrow street (ten or twenty storeys down, at that point where numbers are only numbers, no longer functions); across street lights and parking signs and empty cars full of black, and that vending machine which never works properly and stole my money one time; across all that, I can see. There are two of them. Two that I can see, at any rate.

By day the apartments are dimmed, licked only by the unmanageable sunlight that glances across glass and steel at certain, very specific times of day, circumventing clouds and smoke and balconies of stained brick to fossick through the living rooms or kitchens, vanishing within minutes of the earth’s rotating. Then, that unmanageable sunlight is no longer in what it believes to be specific enough. By day, I can see the two apartments, side-by-side; the same. My eyes can’t penetrate too deep into the living room or the kitchen, but, I can see the fridges -sleek and silver, the table tops – whipped-cream marble, the wooden floors and the stucco walls. In these ways, they are identical, the two apartments. I can see this. The building was erected not long after I moved in to my own apartment across the street, opposite the thieving vending machine. Each apartment is a replica of the others around it, to save on cost. I saw them come with tall cranes, digging at the soft, brown earth. Now, the apartments stand there, echoes of the others, so close and so similar and so dark that it’s impossible to tell which is the origin.

By night, they are different.

By night, they are alive.

By night, the one on the left has a red and black painting above the leather couch in the lounge room; the one on the right, has black and white photographs. The one on the left has a small Persian rug splayed beneath a wooden coffee table; the one on the right has only a glass table, stain and mug free. Most interesting are the occupants of the apartments: preparing dinner, sleeping, moving to the bathroom to relieve themselves, working on a desk strewn with sheets and pens (the apartment on the right), or watching TV as a gentle blue glow envelopes their still body (the apartment on the left). By night, the lights are on, in the apartments and without, so I don’t need to rely on the unmanageable sunlight – the apartments are their own sun. I can see more detail than before. I can see the dishes piled in the sink, or the list beside the phone. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see either of the occupants’ faces, since the light within their apartments is so bright and strong, it casts deep shadows on their faces. They could really be anyone.

I sit by my window, staring out over the parking signs and city lights. And that vending machine, beeping and flashing innocently.

The one on the left is watching TV again, sitting almost motionless as layers of silent sound wash over. From time-to-time, they rearrange themselves, or fidget with the remote control or their phone. I see them glance at the kitchen beyond the marble tabletops. The room is empty; just a fridge, silver and sleek. The one on the right is in the kitchen, cooking dinner. From my desk, it’s hard to tell what they’re making, but there are multiple stainless steel pots, a chopping board covered with herbs, a besmirched cookbook, and a glow coming from the oven. They turn around and cast their eyes to the living room beyond the marble tabletops. The room is empty; just a couch and glass coffee table.

I see their lights go off and darkness sink into the two apartments. By the light of my lamp, I continue working, ignoring the pain in my neck.

Daylight again, and the rooms are dim. I read a little. Open up the door and smoke on the balcony. My partner would kill me if I were caught smoking inside. The view from here is not as good as from my desk. I’ve stalked all around my apartment, searching for the best view and if it were here, I would’ve set up my desk amid the damp concrete, water-filled pots swimming with shed cigarette butts, and cold wind that brings the scent of a thousand balconies from throughout the city, depositing it here and then mixing my own damp-concrete-and-water-filled-pot-and-cigarette-butt scent before carrying it off and depositing it at some other balcony. I kneel down, listening to the grinding of invisible grains beneath my shoes, and the sound of sighing pipes below. I pick up one of the pots and empty the water slowly, watching as it puddles along the concrete, running towards one of the drains. I stub the end of my cigarette into one of the pots and stare over the edge of the balcony’s railing. That breeze is still here, in my hair, smelling like far off pockets of the city. I look down and try counting the floors below me, but, they’re too close and my eyes start hurting and I give up. Inside, I’m warm.

It’s night. They’re home. I can see them.

They always come home at almost the same time. The one on the left is usually earlier, but, tonight, they arrive simultaneously. They must’ve passed each other in the elevator or the corridor, sharing each other’s breath and weight on the floor. From their compartments, they have no idea, but, from my desk, I can see that each of their actions are almost identical, just as much as their apartments – as if they too have been given a single blueprint to work with, and made small, personal alterations as time goes on. Together, they step out of their shoes and place their keys on a rack beside the door. And switch on the lights. I can almost see their faces, but, that may just be a trick of the light. They both walk from their door to the kitchen and open the fridge. They rummage around at what I can’t see, but, can infer from the contents of my own fridge – left over roast with rosemary, sour cream, old yoghurt that I really should eat, milk, chocolate, butter, cheese, half a carton of eggs. They walk into the bedroom, beyond my sight and return after three minutes in comfortable-looking pyjamas, sit down at their couch, and sigh visibly. I can see it from here. Their whole body – bodies – move.

My partner slips arms around my neck. My pages are blank. What have I done all day? My partner asks the same question and I laugh it off. I resolve to not smoke another cigarette.

Later, when it’s just me at my desk, I look up from the cold remains of something my partner cooked for dinner on an equally cold plate beside my papers. At one point, they were attempting to tempt me into some semblance of hunger, but, their enthusiasm seems to have congealed a long time ago. Instead, I watch the two apartments across the street. Their paths diverged, perhaps while my partner was serving our dinner. Now, the one on the right is working on their computer, back to me, screen blurring, lights glittering, and a strange silence that seems too real to be contained by the thin film of glass. The one on the left is watching TV again, wrapt in a blanket, flicking through conversations with fingertips, and there is an odd sense of noise coming from the apartment, despite the fact that I can’t hear anything, as though the apartment has been feasting off the sound from the other.

Daylight, and their apartments are cold. The dinner on my plate by my papers is cold too. I don’t smoke outside. Though I do stand on the balcony for five minutes and smell the tang of petrol and the cries of car exhausts that’s been deposited. I kick at an old black stain, soggy ash that has long since been laid to rest. The wind is in my hair again, off to some other apartment, smelling of cologne and cereal. I think I can hear the vending machine down on the street, the sound of a can or something heavy falling into its catchment. But, when I hold onto the ledge, lean against the wall, and throw my head out to get a better look, the vending machine is alone and quiet.

Nighttime, and their apartments are warm. The one on the right is making coffee on a fancy espresso machine. The one on the left is reading a book in the living room. The one on the right brings the coffee into the living room and sets it on the table. The one on the left smiles a little. The one on the right sits at the couch, settling uncertainly into the cushions which look as though they’re as soft as floorboards. The one on the left spreads the blanket out a little and continues reading. They both sit there at the couch – couches – in a silence I’ve imposed myself, from across the ravine and street. And if I cross my eyes hard enough, they could almost be talking to each other.

Daylight. My pages aren’t blank. They aren’t full. But they’re at a tipping point, as in, if they were a population of animals, breeding, their population would grow exponentially with each generation, each line doesn’t beget one line, but, instead it begets a series of lines, each of which have the power to do the same. My pages are at a stage where these lines of lines of lines are threatening to overwhelm the entire desk. One extra line doesn’t equate to one extra line. It equates to lines and lines and lines, an unending stream of words that would continuously grow and inundate my pages and all pages to come, it represents characters and back stories and likes and friends and death and music and poetry and hate and chocolate and TV shows and crying and laughing and love and I don’t know if I’m capable of holding it all back, or rather, if I’m capable of being responsible for so many implications. I let my hands fall at my sides. I can see the security alarms flashing a dull warning red with each second. I wonder if each bleep has a chance of begetting bleep after bleep after bleep, enough to overwhelm the entire apartment building.

Nighttime. The one on the left is laughing at something on their phone. I can imagine the sound, its warmth, its ease. The one on the right is pacing the room carefully, speaking aloud. I can’t see any headset and I’m forced to believe that they’re talking to themselves. They carry on their conversation for an hour, divided by a wall, the one on the left nodding and laughing and sighing, the one on the right, gesticulating and bending over and rolling eyes. The one on the left stands up and walks to the kitchen and pours a bottle of wine that looks black in the lighting. The one on the right enters the kitchen too, continuing the monologue while leaning on the marble bench top. The one on the left sips at the wine.

I wonder. I wonder if, if they were to see each other, behaving the way they do in their own apartments – separate from one another – would they continue to behave the same? I wonder if, if they knew I could see them in such detail, would they draw the curtains, or would they act differently? I wonder if the compartments they find themselves in are safe havens, or if they are lies, constructed by the occupants to retreat to when they have no way of coping with the city and its billowing gusts of exhaust, and day old cigarette smoke. I wonder if, if they knew any of this, would it matter to them? Would they just continue watching their TV, or drinking their coffee, completely aware of the ticking of the world, completely helpless to change it, and completely at ease with its passing.

 

Armageddon Saga I

Dupeche raised his firearm. Where had all this sweat come from? Why did the butt shake and slip through his fingers? Was the ground moving? Voices blared over the inter-com, fire raced through the sky. Somewhere, something was crying, maybe a dog or a child, it was too hard to tell. The war had stripped away all detail and all that was left were the inherent meanings; hot, cold, fear, death, fire, kill. That must be why he couldn’t remember where the sweat had come from. War was killing the past, it went straight into Dupeche’s brain and cut it out with fire and steel, and all that was left were the inherent meanings; live, die, shadows, fear. Fear most of all. Dupeche was shaking. Why was he shaking? When had that started?

Someone was shouting into the inter-com. They could be dying or they could be ordering the troops. It wasn’t easy to tell. Dupeche stood beside four other soldiers. He didn’t know their names. He just called them Glados, Silver-Bread, and Boy. And Eliza. They weren’t in his regiment. They may not have even been his countrymen. Countries didn’t matter. They were from the past and war had seen to that. Glados was tall and lean, her hair cut short so that Dupeche could see her pretty eyes. Silver-Bread was shorter, but broader, he smoked and made Glados blush. Boy was small, and blond, and though he lied about it, Dupeche knew he couldn’t shave because instead of a razor, he carried some old, bent game cards with pictures of fire and ice and warring swords. Whenever things grew quiet, and they were ever at risk of forgetting the war, those cards made Dupeche think about it all over again.

Dupeche had to fight hard to work these memories, he had to sift through possibly years of destroyed truths, happenings eroded by the war, and pull them from that shapelessness. As he did, they came back in parts, flesh-sloughed, cowering, malformed. He could piece them together as best he could, but, they were never perfect, never whole. They were Frankenstein’s monsters of memories – putrid and swollen and ungainly.

Eliza was on the ground beside Dupeche. Her hand was soft and dark in his. He couldn’t remember taking it in his, but then, he couldn’t imagine a world in which Eliza’s hand wouldn’t be found in his. As far as he could tell, they’d been that way forever. He didn’t want to let go because he had no idea what would happen if he did.

They sat behind a crumbling wall. At one point, it may have been a barn, or a mill; full of old stonework and great wooden beams, and a rapidly fading scent of hay and dirt. Now, the stonework was crumbling and the wooden beams were rotted and burnt, Dupeche could feel the heat from the fire that had scorched the stones. His leg was at an odd angle. When had that happened? He could see the blood, then feel the pain. He struggled to his feet – his leg could take his weight, but it made him wince. The blood looked old and dried. The ground was warm beneath Dupeche, and smoking in places. A crater. That’s what it was. The Angels didn’t have guns or bullets or intercoms or bombs, but they had Holy Fire. And when it rained from the sky, there wasn’t much Dupeche or anyone could do but hide and hope.

The roar of guns chewed at the sky and the fire.

Eliza was quiet, lying in the dirt. Her hand was still in Dupeche’s.

“Their line’ll break soon,” Silver-Bread was saying.

“What makes you so sure?” Boy was nervous. He was always nervous.

“You saying I don’t know what I’m talking about?” Silver-Bread slammed his fist into the side of the barn. Something on the other side fell with a grinding sound.

“Jay,” Glados warned, watching the sun sink behind burning hills, “easy on the kid.”

“You’re lucky Tess’s here, boy,” Silver-Bread growled, “and that I’m trying to sleep with her. You’re lucky I’m here to keep these Angels from smiting the shit out of you. And you’re probably lucky the weird guy’s here too.”

“Sure, we’re all the luckiest mortals in existence!” Boy screamed. His gun shook.

“Shut up, Zoran.” Glados was still watching the horizon for signs of Holy Fire. The Angels were content to burn a forest if it would end a single human. “He’d never treat you this way if you didn’t give him reason.”

Boy rubbed his nose. Dupeche was leaning against the mill or the barn, taking in deep breaths. They were difficult to drag down his windpipe as if they fought every inch of the way. His chest began to pain, and with each breath that he subjugated to his lungs, the air fought harder, and as it fought harder, he struggled and dragged the oil-flecked, ash-scorched air down into his lungs where it roiled. His throat was tight and his eyes began to hurt. He didn’t let go of Eliza’s hand. It trailed down from his own, to her shoulder, looking like some leash to keep a pet from running away. Because that’s what Dupeche wanted. He didn’t want her running away.

“They’ve fallen back.” Glados announced, lowering her weapons. The jagged edges of the mountains around the farm were black against the red sky.

Silver-Bread snorted and spat at the ground. “What’d I say?” He thumped his chest, glaring at Boy. “They’ve fallen back, they do every time. We’re not the enemies we used to be, back when they were near all-powerful.” Silver-Bread began to shout at the ring of mountains and the Angels fleeing through the scree. “Their swords and shields aren’t any use against us now! And they’ve realised that they’re on the losing side!”

Glados took Silver-Bread’s chin in her hand. “We need to fortify this barn, Jay.”

“I’ll say.” Silver-Bread was grinning. “The two of us are gonna set the night on fire, Tess. D’you know that tune? Set the night on, fiiiiiiiiire!”

Glados smirked. “Nuh-ah. The medics’ll be here before long and they’ll never work in something like this.” She rapped her knuckles on the barn’s unburnt wood. “Not the way that it is. We’ll need to pile up some sand bunkers on the north side.”

“Fuck the poxy-bastards.” Silver-Bread’s mouth was laughing, but, his eyes were tired. “Armageddon my arse. Armageddon a hernia, more like.”

“Why don’t the medics just take her…you know, back to the bunkers?” Boy seemed to feel comfortable enough to stand apart from the barn, in the open.

Other soldiers were slowly making their way over to them as the gloom thickened and the fires retreated. Some were limping, others were staring at the mountains, fearing a rain of fire. Dupeche didn’t know any of them. Did he? None of them were familiar; a tall one with long blond hair, a short one with piercings, a girl with only one arm, but it must’ve been lost a long time ago because Dupeche could see that her shirt sleeve had been sewn shut. No, he didn’t know these people. None of their faces were familiar, just pages from a book unwritten. Or erased.

Glados was kneeling next to Eliza. There was dirt on her boots.

Dupeche was still holding her hand.

“Do you need me to help lift her, Dupeche?” Glados stared up from Eliza’s shoulder.

“We can take her inside the barn,” Boy said, looking down at the ground.

Dupeche wasn’t sure what Glados meant. Did they know each other?

“Oh shit.” Silver-Bread was pale. “I didn’t notice. How close was she to the blast? Fuck, Tess, look at Eliza…”

Dupeche’s hand slipped, but he couldn’t let go, he said he never would, not since war had eaten away at the past that had made him, leaving him as a swaying tower, one without a foundation, or worse, one that had to build its own foundation after the fact, and that foundation had been Eliza, Eliza and her hand and holding it and holding it proved that she was still there and that, by default, so was he, so, he couldn’t let go of her. Silver-Bread had said that the Angels were on the losing side of the war, that their calculating and arrogance separated them so much humans that they had to lose and that their lines would break and they did, Dupeche had seen them flee up the mountains, trailing feathers of silver, watching their haloes of gold tarnish and turn to brass, he had seen them fall, seen them admit their position. But, if they’re on the losing side, and if Dupeche and Silver-Bread, Glados, and Boy were on the other side, then what side was Eliza on? If Dupeche didn’t have Eliza…if she was gone, if her hand were to be wrested from his – because he would never let go, never – then, how could he consider himself to be on anything other than the losing side?