Without – excerpt 2
February 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
Hours later, he opened the door to his tiny apartment.
As he passed through the doorway, he paid no attention to the various symbols… a three-lobed eye on fire within a distorted five pointed star, a series of yellow squiggles almost like question marks around a black dot, an intricate expansion of a basic star sigil studded with Hebrew letters, a pentagonal shield of red and gold with two stylized shapes like fish swimming past each other, a green train lantern, a lightning bolt, ten spheres linked to each other by black lines in a helix, an axe with a head like a wolf and a descending serpent-like tail that wrapped around the half like a caduceus, a fish with legs and horns and the word lucent in black type inside its body… these had been there so long they ceased to have any specific importance to him. All along what would be called the wainscoting of the apartment if it existed in an English novel of a few decades earlier were similar markings, from the letters A and Z imposed over a black tree, four odd triangular symbols, a circle containing red and blue descending circles with a white five pointed star in the center, a green tablet, a lion eating the sun, on and on went the painted images.
He deposited the day’s packages from the PO box rented under the name Inigo Cognito and wondered to himself how much longer he could get away with using a dead man’s credit cards before someone caught on to him. Ah, Amazon, you’re a fickle bitch. The idea of the books coming less frequently bothered him immensely. Leaving them piled on the couch, he walked around the counter and into the kitchenette, which is just a fancy way of saying that the small apartment had managed to cram a small stove and a small fridge into one room.
A cursory dig through the icebox revealed that he had three French rolls, two packages of Oscar Meyer ham and cheese loaf and some mustard. No need to go downstairs, then. Satisfied, he shrugged off his leather jacket and tossed it onto the floor, staring at the ripped sleeve for a moment and then looking down at his arm, which had closed up under his ruined shirt.
The shirt he pulled off and tossed in the trash. The jacket he would mend, but it would be easier to replace a t-shirt than it would be to repair it, no matter how he did it.
Humming atonally, he tore open a roll with his thumbs and smeared mustard on it with a butter knife he fished from the sink. Then he slapped the slices of cheese-festooned meat inside it and closed it, leaning on it with his left hand to squash it flat while taking the last bottle of Bass out of the refrigerator door. Maybe I need to go downstairs after all. The idea of a whole night without beer didn’t appeal especially to him.
Chewing absently on the sandwich and swigging on the beer, he looked over at the couch and catalogued the book run for the day. A.E. Waite’s Three Famous Alchemists, covering Agrippa, Lully and Paracelsus (although Spence really did the Agrippa piece and Swainson wrote about Paracelsus), C.W. Ceram’s book on the Hittites, and a few comic books, or graphic novels as the more pretentious were calling them now. Nothing earthshaking or particularly occult, but they were books and he’d wanted to read them, and that was enough.
The bread was tough between his teeth, forcing him to tear it as he ate the sandwich. The adversarial conditions only made it a better sandwich. He took a long pull on the beer and belched, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand, green hair dangling in his face lanky and needing to be washed. His whole body felt grimy, and even the aegis of George himself hadn’t kept the marks on his face and arm from burning as they’d healed. Fucking embodiments of disease, metaphoric fucking plagues, if I had the time I’d root the whole Goddamn lot of them out and…
A knock on his door sidetracked him effectively. He put down the beer and walked over, forgetting until he was almost there that he was holding a sandwich. He decided to brazen it out and opened the door.
Remnick was waiting for him outside, head barely coming up to the middle of his chest, as always a nervous smile on his face.
“Hi.” The usual formalities, to conceal the real purpose of the visit, which would have annoyed him had he not known how much crap Remnick had lived through in the past few years. Tossing back that tangled mess of greenish hair, he stepped back and let his super into the apartment. “I just thought I’d stop in…”
“Yeah, I have the rent. Hold on a sec.” Walking back into the kitchenette, he bent down and retrieved the envelope from the leather jacket, seeing for a moment the three-lobed burning eye painted on the back near the shoulder. It was fading. Either needed to be replaced or simply recreated, and he wasn’t sure which would do. Worry about it later. Reaching into the envelope, he fished out a handful of bills and walked back over, looking at the sandy hair combed neatly back on top of the sweating, nervous face he’d known for three years. Did he even know the man’s first name anymore?
What the hell, are you feeling sorry about that now? Ask Remnick your name sometime, see what he comes up with. The smirk crept out onto his blocky face at the idea of the slighter man struggling with the realization that he had no idea what his tenant’s name was. He handed over the handful of money.
“This…this has to be a few thousand…the rent’s not…”
“Put the rest forward.” Despite himself, he enjoyed making the man nervous. It was one of many things about himself he didn’t like. “Should cover a few months, right?”
“Yes.” Remnick, having turned slightly red, turned to leave with a great deal of relief, his small, widely set blue eyes flaring with it…and then stopped himself, turning back to look at him. “I almost forgot.”
“Yes?” Despite himself, he was surprised and interested. Remnick usually couldn’t wait to put distance between the two of them. Remembering how they’d met in the first place, he couldn’t say he was surprised. Cocking his head to the side, his eyes flashed in the artificial light coming in from the hallway. Whatever it was, it had to be good to keep Remnick in his apartment this late at night after having collected the rent.
“I, uh…it’s, it would have been, I mean, Courtney’s birthday and my wife wanted…”
“Oh, right.” He straightened up, pushed his hair back out of his face, rubbed absently at his chin. “That’s really okay. You did more than enough for me helping me find a place to live, really.”
“You sure? Alice would…” The look on Remnick’s face was one of genuine discomfort, and he didn’t have to be (and wasn’t) especially sensitive to see it.
“Truly. Please tell her I really appreciate it, but I don’t think I’ll have time to make it by your place anytime soon.” The wan look of relief on the smaller man’s face, the slight relaxing of his ruddy skin, made it slightly easier. “But thank her for me.”
“I will. I’ll do that.” Nodding, sweating slightly, Remnick stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. Left alone, he stood for a few moments and wondered if it would have been worth enduring the man’s discomfort to get a good meal out of his wife. Then he looked down and saw he was still holding his sandwich, and realized he hated the very idea of soaking up Mrs. Remnick’s pain-edged gratitude for another year, and no amount of food was worth that.
Feeling sour in his stomach, he tossed the sandwich back into the fridge and finished his beer off. The pounding in his head told him that he was going to have to get drunk, which he didn’t really have the money for. Then he remembered the envelope laying on top of his jacket, and grinned like a hyena.
Oh, yes. I forgot. Benders are always affordable after we take care of the formalities.
Halfway through his eighth beer, it occurred to him that it was going to be a quiet drunk, and part of him was disappointed. He cocked his head to the side, knowing he was a touch bleary at this point, and finished it anyway.
“Hello, you.” The voice was very deep for a woman, almost like sandpaper, surprising for someone who’d never smoked a day in her life. Gently placing his pint down on the bar, he turned with the exaggerated grace of someone who knows he is becoming drunk but hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
“Thea.” He looked her up and down, at the faux fur coat, black and draping down her body from her wide shoulders to her broad hips, the kind of coat that almost asked to be petted. Her long red hair was tied back in a braid, which emphasized the line of freckles descending down from her forehead along the side of her face to her throat, and the coat itself hung open to reveal a really elaborate leather corset and not a whole lot else. “You look nice.”
“That’s the best you can do? I look nice?” She twirled to emphasize. “I mean, I look like I’m trolling for a fuck. Because that’s what I’m doing, you see.”
“Yes, I had figured that out.” He signaled to the man behind the bar, pointing down at his glass, captivated for a moment by the blue neon reflected in the round glasses on the bartender’s face and his own pint. “But I find myself reluctant to say nice tits as an opening gambit in a conversation.”
“You know, a smart man would take this opportunity to insinuate himself into my plans for the evening.”
“A smart man would realize that alcohol affects his ability to maintain and sustain an erection.” Smirking, he reached back and picked up the recently filled pint and swallowed half of his beer. “A really smart man would point out that the last time you and I danced this particular song, you ended up throwing brass statues of Baphomet at me.”
“I was upset.” Her lips formed a perfect moue, then cut into a wide grin. “Besides, I only hit you twice.”
“Twice too many for me.” He leaned back against the bar to look at her. “Still, you do look amazingly randy. What brings you out this evening, and to dingy old Bristol no less? Don’t tell me you found a new one?”
“More like revisiting an old one. You remember Eoward Eckhardt?”
“The one who taught Latin and History? Yeah, I remember him. Uptight but smarter than your average fuck. You and him together again?”
“Not really. I just get nostalgic sometimes. Which explains why I haven’t cast your ass to the waters and forgotten you utterly, I suppose. Anyway, he’s meeting me here and then we’re going to go get some food. Then I attempt to drain the life out of him. The usual.” He looked over her eyes, the color of polished jade, which was emphasized by the herringbone necklace with a centerpiece of that very stone. It pointed in the direction of her cleavage, and he smirked to himself at the sight. “Seriously, you should come by the house sometime. I worry about you.”
“You haven’t been fine since I’ve known you. Hell, I don’t think you were fine even before…” She bit back what she was going to say, but the words hung between them even more obvious for not having been said. He felt a bit of anger rise up, but didn’t even have to fight very hard to push it down, considering the source and his fairly steady buzz. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
“Sokay. You’re right anyway.” He finished his beer just to get it done and fished money out of his pants. “Maybe I will stop by later. For now, I think I’m going to go for a walk and go home, maybe read some.”
He stood up and stepped away from the bar a touch more unsteadily than he’d wanted, and felt himself flush a little at it, upset with himself. Before he could walk away she put a hand on his arm, and even though he quivered at it he didn’t pull away.
“I am sorry.”
“I know. I’ll be better about it later.” He smiled, forced but still a half-way normal smile, willing himself to cut through the haze and be civil. You don’t have many friends, asshole, don’t fuck this one up. The smoke around them irritated his eyes, and he blinked repeatedly. He was angry, he realized. Jesus, Mithras and Odin, why do you think you have the right to get angry at her? “I’ll give you a call in a few days.”
“Okay.” She let go of his arm. “I’ll let you know how things fall out.”
“Huzzah, more Tales from the Sex Crypt.”
“Hell, if not for my stories, you’d be a damn monk.” She winked at him and made her way over to the bartender, and he allowed himself an unguarded look up and down her body before heading to the door. He idly thought of London for a moment, London and Aline and the time before he’d gotten on the plane to fly home, when he’d thought he knew who he was and what he was going to be.
Before he’d found himself dressed up in borrowed clothes and taking possession of urns from a stick figure of a man in a grey suit. Before he’d made the worst decision of his life, before he’d given up most of what made him who he’d been and cut himself adrift… before all hell had broken loose, and he’d broken loose with it.
He remembered lying on a blanket next to that red-haired woman he’d just walked away from, remembered the curve of her lips as she smiled at him, and wondered if he really was just insane.
He turned and made his way through the crowd, equal parts townies and college kids, neither group one he connected with much. The smell of their sweat and cheap beers and cigarette smoke mixed in the air like the fumes that rose from the back of the diesel engines the quahoggers depended on, that acrid stink that greeted him every morning when the bay first started waking up and the men made their way out on rickety boats to struggle with the water to catch enough shellfish to make it another week. He’d never liked that smell, not when he’d been a boy living near enough to the water to throw a rock into the cove from the top of his house, and not now, either.
He missed the library of his grandfather’s house, and that was all.
Pushing his way outside, he took the sharp cold of the air in with a deep breath and stared up at the stars, remembering old leather books with titles he’d been unable to read that were kept higher than he could reach. That room had been magical in every way you could consider the word, sinister but enticing. For a twelve year old bookwork it had been a second home. Even when his parents moved them to the outskirts of Providence, it had been that library alone that he’d thought of as his place, both of power and of hiding.
It had been that library that witnessed his great fucking crime against everything he’d ever thought he was or wanted to be.
Fuck, I’m a pissy bitch when I drink.
Snorting, he started home.
Above him, the stars flickered as they tend to.
The books were huge.
It was the first thing he noticed. Next to him on a bookshelf that ascended until he couldn’t see the top, a wavering babel of volume after volume of cracked and peeling spines bounded by strangely warped wood, they seemed gigantic. He laid a hand on a nearby one and marveled that his entire palm didn’t take up the whole spine.
In places the hide peeled away or flaked off, like an armadillo with mycobacterium chewing at it. He tried to read the words on the side but couldn’t make them out, they were too big, too many letters.
“Come here, boy.” The voice hissed and yet was controlled, had no animus, was barely inflected at all. He turned to face the large orange chair in the center of the room. Sitting in it was the sunken figure he knew as Papas, his pointed beard stained from years of pipe smoking, his hand resting on the carved silver head of his cane. “I have things to tell you.”
He hated this part. But there was no way out of it. He remembered the time this man had come to visit his parent’s house, and he’d gone to hide in the den. Next to the door were several jugs of wine made from the grapevine out front, and as he curled up under the marble-topped desk his father had taken such pride in acquiring, the first glass jug began to quiver and shake, finally cracking along the side and spilling wine everywhere. His father had come in and asked him what happened, very calmly explaining that the wine couldn’t have just cracked the jar, telling him that if he kept lying he would have to be punished. And so, he’d been punished.
The next week, while his father had been alone in the room, another jar cracked in half. They’d fermented improperly and built up so much pressure that they burst the jars. Or so his father later explained to him as he apologized for the punishment. It hadn’t mattered: you couldn’t unpunish someone once you’d punished him.
He stood at the side of the chair, blinking to himself. Why did I just think that?
“What I’ve seen, you have to know.” The old man, the father of his father, struggled to breathe. “I have lived my life as I chose. I don’t apologize for it.”
“Don’t interrupt me, boy. I did as I pleased. Your grandmother never understood. What I saw I wouldn’t forget…you don’t forget it. I took my pleasures where I found them. Women don’t understand. But you need to understand it, boy.” That hand, hairy in patches and spotted, was still strong. It reached out and gripped his shoulder just hard enough to root him to the spot. “I saw men and women so thin you couldn’t tell the difference even when they were naked. I saw dozens of human skeletons staggering in rotten clothing. I saw lice and disease, and I saw them convulse with agony from attempting to digest food. Even broth was too much. Do you understand?” The fingers on that hand dug in slightly, just enough to suggest pain. “They couldn’t take broth.”
He nodded, not at all sure what the man was talking about. Wanting very much to get out of that room and away from that chair, the room he often spent hours climbing around the shelves in.
“Your grandmother never understood. She talked about Jesus, about God, about vows…what did I do that was so horrible? A few women? A few willing women? What is that? She mouthed the platitudes her mother mouthed to her to me, and I didn’t laugh in her face. That was how much I loved her. I stayed with her even though she sank further and further into that damn book and those mackeral snappers she simpered with every Sunday…fff! I care what the Pope says, whose church took money from those men, I care what any of them think. I lived my life, helped people as I could…these hands and the tools, the blade, the saw, I did more to help people with these hands then her pious club ever did. I saw the bodies. I know. I’m a surgeon.” A sudden wave of coughing forced that hand to cover his mouth as he hacked and retched. It went on and on, gurgling, wet sounds that made him feel like he had to go to the bathroom, a hot pain shooting through him between his legs. He did nothing but watch his Papas cough and groan and cough again, and finally stop, drawing a blue bordered cloth to his face and working his throat and jaw for a few moments.
He watched the adam’s apple bob up and down and realized the old man was spitting into the cloth.
“Wasn’t…it…enough that I let her keep her delusions? Your father didn’t understand. Well, why would he? She was his mother, after all. He never saw her as a woman. Women have been lucky up to now, we’ve spared them the true face of man, we’ve spared them but not much longer. Times are changing. I see it coming. Someone has to remember.” He turned his pale blue eyes, like alpine ice under high sun, on his grandson and fixed him in place even more effectively than his grip had done. “It wasn’t horrible enough just to see it. Oh no. Not horrible enough. I didn’t just see it. I was a doctor, they were beyond help but it was my job to help them. We walked into the camps and did our best, moved from soldiers to makeshift hospital staff, I did my best. But I had to know what had happened. I had to know what had been done to them. I had to know.”
More coughing. It hammered against the wood floor and the wood of the bookshelves while the cane under his left hand wobbled with each wrenching, spastic hacking bark of air.
“I see your eyes. You don’t have your father’s eyes. You carry some of your mother in them, but beyond that, I see how you look. You have the same disease. You think you want to know. I pity you.” He dropped his face, still covering his mouth with the cloth, and looked his grandson in the eyes. “If you were smarter than me, you’d stop wanting to know. Find a dumb wife, raised imbeciles for children, and count yourself lucky you don’t know. Oh, but you won’t. That whore my son married thinks she can understand the world if she reads enough, and you catch that from her…and you catch that from me. Do you understand?”
He shook his head, because he didn’t. From behind the red speckles on the white cloth the falcon-sharp face of the old man stretched back into a teeth-baring grin.
“I suppose not. You will. Just like me, you have to know. Well, I found out. I read their files. They kept meticulous files, notes, records…I read about twins submerged in tanks, one killed and the other kept alive. I read about men frozen to death in increments. I read about animal heads grafted to human bodies, about deliberate injections of typhus, syphilis…about the slow peeling away of skin and sinew while methodically testing how little anesthetic could be applied and the effects. I read a butcher’s bill, and my eyes were opened. I learned. That was my greatest sin, boy. Even as I treated them, I learned from what they’d endured…and from each death, I learned and adjusted my treatments for the next. We eventually halted the death toll, we eventually stopped it. And I’d learned.”
The hand holding the cloth swept in a wide arc, a gesture to who knows what. A glint of red liquid along the pale, thin, tight lips before the cloth was back, covering the mouth again. Even covered by it, the voice was clear, fighting the quiver that had set in.
“How could I be expected to react? Before it, I was a good surgeon, a moderately talented doctor. After, I was a genius. I knew things I could never have learned any other way, knew secrets of binding the flesh together, knew how to repair even the most savage injuries, knew how close to the line I could get. I did good work with these hands…I fixed what others said could not be, I even repaired that cow your father married when she was stupid enough to pick up that firework and blew the skin off of her hand. I fixed it. Do you understand? I learned. I learned their secrets.” That avian head tilted back, and his Papas made a sound equal parts the fighting to swallow and the hot, wet gasps of a strangled sob.
“I lived my life, I don’t apologize for it. I don’t apologize. What was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to just forget? You don’t forget it.”
It took him a few seconds to realize he was now awake, staring up at the ceiling. Papas’ voice…what was his fucking name? Why can’t I even remember his name? The old man’s voice crawled along the back of his neck, the memory of it spiders, insects making their way up and down the ladder. His mouth was dry, he was sprawled across the sofa-bed naked under a plaid sheet that needed to be washed, staring up at the cracks in the plaster laid over what looked to be a fancy old chandelier sconce from when the house was built, back in the days of whaling ships and widow’s walks.
No, you don’t forget.
Swallowing to try and moisten his mouth, he sat up and rubbed a hand across his face. It had been bad enough when the crazy old bastard had been alive and telling an eight year old stories he couldn’t understand. At least then he’d been shielded by his ignorance. Years later and context provides the nightmares with a whole new way to frighten.
He stood up once his eyes adjusted to the dark. He often imagined that living underwater would be similar to insomnia, the perpetual gloomy blue of a dark room light from streetlights and the moon. The bathroom light was harsh and yellow like the old man’s teeth had been, stained by his pipe, and he pissed with his head against the wall letting the cool paint soothe his throbbing temples.
It was times like this that made him want to remember it. He knew he couldn’t. It didn’t seem fair, though, that he couldn’t even remember the name of his Papas, or his mother and father… not that they’d necessarily want to be remembered by him now. He’d known what he was doing. Maybe that could become true if it was repeated enough.
Finally he shook and squeezed muscles inside his penis, shaking out a few extra spurts of urine. Walking past the bathroom mirror, he studiously avoided looking into it.
It occurred to him to shower, but he had no one he wanted to impress and while he felt a touch oily, the one he’d taken before going to the bar the night before seemed good enough. Pulling some clean clothing out of the black satchel he used as a makeshift dressed he clothed himself quickly in the standard uniform of black sleeved grey baseball T, blue jeans (sometimes actually blue, as these were, and sometimes black) and black leather boots. Today, he chose a pair of steel-toed bike boots he’d inherited from his father. He liked the steel cap inside the boot. It was like having a hammer you wore on your feet.
A quick look out the window confirmed that it would be light soon. He had no place he especially had to be, but he knew he wouldn’t get any reading done after the dream, and besides, it never hurt to check up on things. After all, shit was bound to hit the fan sooner or later, and when it did, it made sense to be prepared for it.
Pulling on the jacket, he scowled at the rips in the sleeve. They divided the crude rendition of a man with a dog’s head carrying another man on its shoulders across a river. He’d have to fix that soon. Fishing the hand-axe out of the inside pocket, he left that on the small table next to the sofa-bed alongside a dog-eared copy of Beyond Thirty that needed replacing or rebinding as well.
Everything’s falling apart here.
He picked the book up and slipped it into the jacket pocket, scooped up his wallet and keys, and was gone.
Walking down the stairs and out the front door of the mustard yellow building, shaking his head again at the insanity that had led someone to decide that the house should be the color of a Goulden’s squeeze bottle. The rising sun didn’t help any by making the house glow, and he turned his back to it and walked into his own shadow towards the bay and Hope Street.
He always felt fairly uncomfortable being out in the daylight. He did it, of course… there are places in this world where you can live an entirely nocturnal lifestyle, but Bristol, Rhode Island just isn’t one of them. Either you’ll make a neighbor suspicious or you’ll find that there’s just not a lot to do at 3 in the morning but muse about how Fitzgerald was right. The houses around him, all built back a century and a half before when Bristol had been a bustling port town, all clad in shadows cast by the house next as the sun crawled its bloody way up the sky behind him.
The liquor store on the corner of Hope and Franklin wasn’t open. It kept weird hours, but not quite weird enough, so he decided to walk further down Hope and get a soda from the gas station. Trees and houses blocked the sun completely and would for a few hours yet, which suited him. A woman jogged past with something, a radio or MP3 player, strapped to her forearm. Birds were chittering and whistling at each other. The occasional car would roll past, usually heading toward the Mount Hope Bridge and the college in its shadow. He’d attended that school, although his degree was useless now and there would be no record of him in their files, and all his teachers would become uncomfortable in his presence as most who knew him before did, unable to understand why they couldn’t dredge a simple pair of words out of their brains and past their lips.
Okay, no drinking for at least a week. It’s making you Styron before your time.
Cutting the corner of a small diner’s parking lot, he headed past a phone booth and away from Hope Street, looking quickly over the park and at the water of the bay. The sunlight and the choppy surface of the water combined to throw brazen flashes of light over the park, a natural strobe effect that summoned and banished shadows along the trees and shrubs. Living along the water had its advantages.
Walking into the gas station, he nodded to the man behind the plexiglass box and headed towards the cooler in the back. They had a few cans of soda in racks, and while he preferred the taste of soda in a can to the plastic bottle, economy seemed to dictate that he get a liter bottle for a dollar as opposed to a can for seventy-five cents.
God, I’m so cheap.
He let the cold air brush past his face for a few seconds while considering which would be the better option, and then felt it.
The clammy, rotten sensation that all people feel from time to time and most convince themselves they never felt at all, and some make into a conviction of destiny or what have you. Neither extreme appealed to him, but he knew it was a sign of something being wholly wrong the same way anyone else would know things were off if they walked into their kitchen and there was a rattlesnake in the sink.
Straightening, he took a can of soda out of the case and closed the glass door. There was no one in the confined space of the tacked-on convenience store inside the station except himself and the clerk. Outside, at the small window, a short blond woman whose demeanor still said perky college student but whose face said five years ago was paying for her gas. At the pump, a couple of obvious architecture students were counting change to put gas in their battered old van, both of them wearing the t-shirt and shorts uniform of the artificially casual. Pulling up in the parking lot was a grey Toyota Tercel with a bland looking pair, a man and a woman…
He blinked. Not a man and a woman. For a hard second, he’d seen something… you can’t forget, you don’t unpunish someone once you’ve punished… something just plain wrong with them.
They got out of the car. They moved blocky, almost like they were Harryhausen skeletons, animated by tiny invisible motions as the film stopped and started frame by frame. They wore expensive clothes, the man in a charcoal grey suit that looked tailored, the woman in a black pantsuit. He knew they were looking for him, warned by the hissing in his ears from the cacophony of spirits trapped in the can in his hand, in the generic slurpee machine, the electric demons that swirled around in the fluorescent tubes spitting bluish light all over the room. As the door opened and the pair walked into the store the sheer rejection of man’s works around them almost seemed to crackle in his sight.
They weren’t natural, nor were they created by man. They were so far away from the ordinary works of human hands that they’d gone past nature and into the dark shores where things that had to be driven off every autumn slept, things he remembered despite his best efforts. A memory of a frenzied chant in a high pitched voice, screaming syllables that twisted like snakes in the throat. Zhro. Zhro!
He heard himself snarl at the very sight of them.
The man at the counter didn’t hear through his plexiglass, occupied making change for his customer. The tall, spear-bald man at the door heard, however. He swiveled his head at the sound… even that motion seemed detached, as though a hand had simply turned his head from above… and stared at him with eyes so blue they almost looked devoid of pupil or iris. Beside him, the woman, her hair cut short, black and velvet like the pelt of a rabbit, also turned with that jerking, incorrect formless gait, the very opposite of smoothness.
A long second stretched out into two.
Then the bald man drew a firearm out of his coat, a large automatic pistol that looked vaguely like the Colt that had been Papas’ and then his father’s before being sold alongside most of their other possessions to fuel the enormous money pit that had been ruinous obsession. Before it could clear the inside pocket, green hair tossed forward in a wave as the can of soda was snapped forward in a twisting arc, propelled by a convulsive snap of the whole upper body, arm and shoulder and hip together to throw. The can crashed into the face and knocked the head back as the contents burst forth, spraying frothy liquid along the plexiglass divider.
The gun, still aimed down, fired. The sound was tremendously loud in the tiny space, and the clerk immediately dropped down below the counter while the architecture students goggled at the sight.
From behind the cheese popcorn on the flimsy mesh shelf he considered his next move. The woman was pulling a gun of her own out of a holster concealed nicely inside her smart black jacket, a revolver of some kind. Her motions still seemed spastic, almost convulsive to him.
That’s it. I’m not getting out of bed in the morning anymore. It just doesn’t pay off.
Rolling to the side, he smacked into the door that led into the cooler and kicked it open as bullets smashed into the glass above him. Jumping forward into the cold, he kicked the door shut and stood, sliding the pin into place to buy himself a few seconds. He heard the sound of more bullets smashing into the doors to his left, knowing they would be able to get around the locked door through the display cases.
“Son of Astraeus, son of Dawn, hard lord of the north! Killer of Persians!” He grabbed a bag of ice and threw it to the ground, grabbing hold of two shards of it in his hands and hissing at the cold. “Aquilo, bearer of the Hyperborean air, shield against barbarians!”
The door dented, while the sound of display shelves crashing aside came through the cold cement room, but he no longer cared. His hair rose in a cloud around him while the skin of his hands turned blue, a blue that rode up his arms and along the skin of his chest, his neck… even as the woman smashed the metal door down with inhuman strength, the blue crept up to meet the oceanic green of his hair, and he grinned, frost forming in his beard.
She took half a step forward.
A roar rose up around him as the air rushed around him, and blasted forward, trailing plumes like breath condensing in winter, tearing her from her feet and hurling her backwards through the wire racks of old cupcakes and fruit pies and smashing her hard into the stand of car magazines and half-concealed women airbrushed into perfection. The impact drove the stand and her body into the wall, which caved backwards but did not collapse.
Cracks formed on her face, her hands… cracks, and flakes of pancake makeup sloughing off of her ruined body. He blinked to see it. Not animated dead, then.
The bald male thing, who had been tearing his way through the shelves of milk they’d shot apart, turned to find the room had grown much, much colder…the spilled juice and milk and soda on the floor flash freezing, the expensive shoes on its feet slipping in the icy slush. Still, it moved with that unnerving opposite of grace, managing to find its feet. From inside the freezer, the man ridden by a god was surprised to see no sign at all that he’d flung a can into the thing’s face…no bruise, no welt, nothing.
Then it pointed the gun at him and he remembered that they were trying to kill him.
The roaring became a howling, shaking the walls, knocking over what few display stands were left upright, knocking down a neon clock promising cool menthol flavor, and the bald male slid back as its shoes failed to find purchase in the ice on the floor. Before he could regain his aim, his skin began to grow pale, his teeth locked shut in a grimace, his expensive clothes grew stiff even in the surging wind.
He stopped trying to move forward or to point his arm. He didn’t move any further back, either. The wind continued to pick up, blowing newspapers out the now open door, knocking a cardboard cut-out of a busty woman to its side and away to join the Projo and USA Today as they drifted.
Glistening ice crawled up skin, glazed itself around his clothes, even covered the gun now pointing off to the ceiling. Finally, the wind died down, and a man who did not have skin the color of glacier-ice stepped out of the freezer, fighting back shuddering as warmth returned to his body. His teeth clattered together as he looked up and down the ice-clad form standing in the center of the devastated room.
“What the fuck just happened?” The clerk peered out from behind his counter.
“Sunspots.” The green haired man stepped over to the wall mount that had been the store’s concession to tools and picked up a large wrench. Then he walked back to the icy statue he’d made. “You know how those damn things can just screw up the weather.”
“Sunspots… are you high? What are you… ”
Instead of waiting for the man to continue, he choked up on the wrench with both hands and brought it crashing down on the frozen head, shattering it like a rose he’d once seen dipped in liquid nitrogen in his high school science class. Frozen chunks of dead flesh rained down onto the floor. He then walked to the plexiglass booth, where the clerk squatted goggle-eyed, sweating even in the still-lingering winter frost covering the scattered debris.
“Yeah, I’m thinking sunspots.” He looked over at the thick grey ooze already starting to form where the things had been. Looking around the room, he spotted a box of sandwich bags and grabbed it, pulling it open and inverting one around his hand. He lifted a shard of the frozen, shattered thing and closed the bag around it. “In a few minutes, you’ll have crap that looks like motor oil mixed with horseshit to deal with and that’s all. Trust me, sunspots or rogue weather balloons, or maybe unexplained hailstorms. Something simple.”
He dropped the wrench and some of his hard-earned money on the counter.
“Otherwise you’re going to have to try the truth, and trust me, nobody wants the truth at times like this.”