Thank you very much for letting us see "Life on Mars." We appreciate your taking the time to send it in for our consideration. Although it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time, we wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.
Please excuse this form letter. The volume of work has unfortunately made it impossible for us to respond to each submission individually, much as we’d like to do so.
Sheila Williams, Editor
Asimov’s Science Fiction
[Author's note: Asimov's is arguably the best sci-fi magazine in existence so you'll excuse me if I keep trying all my material with them first. Buy a copy, worth more than your average trade paperback these days.]
Where I collect rejections from publishers and the stories they rejected
In order to succeed, I must be prepared to fail as often as necessary to achieve success. Here, I aim to publish 100 rejections from publishers in the order I receive them together with the stories that were rejected.
To be good at one's vocation, one must simply avoid being bad.
To be great, one must purposely aim for awful.
Get up once more than you fall.
To be good at one's vocation, one must simply avoid being bad.
To be great, one must purposely aim for awful.
Get up once more than you fall.
Put your ideas into action.
This is near to a way.
Saturday, 31 December 2011
Gus sat at the bar and nursed his drink, a cheap local whiskey too cheap to be spelled properly. A ton of ice made it last but did nothing for the taste.
Holt greeted Gus by punching him in the kidney.
Gus grunted then slowly turned around, Holt extended his hand and Gus took it. Holt's palms were still moist from the toilet. Holt took the barstool next to Gus and pretended to examine the bottles on offer. When the bartender looked up he ordered what he always ordered. Aurorae Sinus No.8 Whisky.
Gus kept drinking until he decided he'd had enough of Holt. When Holt took his next bathroom break, Gus paid up with the bartender using small bills and broke for the door.
Outside, the weather was turning mean and Gus clutched his jacket to his chest. It was already too cold for a jacket but it was all he had until he got his coat back from the dry cleaners. Holt had been a better friend back when Gus hadn't noticed that Holt was a drunk. If Gus didn't watch himself, he'd end up like Holt. Gus didn't think in terms of alcoholics, he thought in terms of drunks. Drunks blamed themselves, he reasoned. Alcoholics blamed society. Gus decided this made drunks better than alcoholics.
Home was a bachelor flat at the edge of the right side of the city. At his age, with his means, it was mostly decent. He started feeling sad about leaving Holt once he'd ditched his useless jacket on the floor of his flat and poured himself a shot of 56% Pervatsch Vodka imported from Valles Marineris. His only friend in the world and he'd left him alone. If he was going to drink anyway he might as well drink with Holt. He took out his phone to call him and saw he had a message.
"You arrogant prick! Are you coming back?" wrote Holt.
"How about never, does that work?" said Gus to himself.
After a few more shots of Pervatsch, he felt sad again and decided to go back for Holt. He texted him to say Holt was an asshole and that he was coming back for him.
When he'd got there, Holt had already made a stink of himself. He had splurged on a whole bottle of vodka on ice. Something the bartender let him get away with on the theory it would quiet him down.
When Gus came over, Holt was all smiles.
"Gus! Buddy, you came back."
"Let's have another," said Holt, all misdeeds overwritten.
"Let's finish up at my place," lied Gus, anxious to get Holt out of there before they were thrown out. Despite the dubious kindness of the bartender, Holt was starting to act up. Gus knew Holt was only a quiet drunk for so long. In company, the meanness came up faster every time. The bouncer was eyeing them and Gus waved the bartender over. Gus reached into the coat pocket of an unresisting Holt and took out Holt's billfold. Settled up. Gus was really in it now, if he couldn't get Holt out in the next few minutes, Holt would have to be carried out. Gus wouldn't manage it.
The promise of imported over-proof vodka back at his place became the carrot. Gus and the bouncer under Holt's arms became the stick. Outside, the bouncer let go and Gus couldn't manage on his own. Holt slid very slowly to the pavement and lay there impervious and oblivious. Gus hailed cab after cab and finally one took pity on him and stopped. Making his apologies to the driver, Gus inserted Holt head first into the passenger seat and shoved himself in afterwards. Gave his address to the driver.
It was only when they were in the cab that Gus realised he could have just called for one. Drunk logic working in full reverse.
The taxi got them back to Gus' place. Things seemed manageable for awhile as they were getting out. Gus paid the driver from the billfold he had pocketed from Holt, who was in no state to be carrying cash but then Gus thought the end had come for both of them because, just as they left the taxi, Holt lunged at some pedestrians. A young couple. The girl was frightened but, Gus noticed, so was the boy. The boy backed off and reached for his phone to call, Gus assumed, the cops.
"No, please, he's harmless," lied Gus "he's just had too much to drink, we'll be out of your life momentarily."
When the threat had been neutralised, the boy found his courage.
"Better get that fat fuckwad out of here before I kick his ass."
Gus nodded. Making peaceful waving gestures with his hands up, palms facing forward.
Upstairs, Holt didn't bother with coat and shoes, he just made for the kitchen and took a long swig from the bottle of vodka he saw on the table. Gus didn't stop him, Gus had the habit of hiding his stash. He hoped that lone bottle would be enough and Holt would pass out soon. Drinking with Holt wasn't fun anymore. Holt started singing and Gus couldn't hush him without giving him more vodka so he fished another bottle out from the space between the fridge and the wall and handed it to Holt. Gus didn't want the neighbours to call the police again. It didn't take more than 20 minutes of belting that second bottle for Holt to simmer down. He sat on a chair in the kitchen for about a second then slid to the floor, became fully horizontal and then passed out. Gus didn't bother trying to get him to the couch.
Sometime around 4 in the morning, he heard Holt get up. Gus got off the couch and went to the kitchen. He turned on the lights. Holt was trying to take off his pants.
"Ah shit," said Gus. He helped the sleepwalking Holt to the toilet and left him there. Went back to the couch. Holt could stay on the crapper till morning as far as Gus cared.
Gus felt alright despite the hour, he hadn't had a drink since leaving his flat to go meet Holt. He relaxed into the couch cushions. Let sweet oblivion wrap him in her forgiving arms.
Fuck! Holt screamed. Gus jolted into light and wakefulness, the afternoon sun razoring through Gus' windows told him he'd missed work again and would have to call in sick, he might even now be unemployed, but he doubted it, there were no messages. Holt stumbled into the living room wearing a shirt, jacket, boots and no pants.
"I've been robbed! Chrissake!" Holt continued yelling. Gus looked at the empty billfold Holt was waving in one hand.
"Yeah, and you own me for drinks and the cab last night," said Gus.
"Ah shit man, I'm good for it, you know I am," said Holt, a whining puppy you couldn't kick.
Looking into Holt's shattered face, bloodshot, rheumy, gin blossomed, Gus realised all Holt's friends had left him, except for Gus himself, and Gus was useless.
Gus lent Holt some of Holt's own cash out of Gus's wallet. Saw Holt to his pants and then to the door. From his window he watched Holt get ignored by every taxi on the street. Eventually, Gus called a cab for him, a cheap line. Warned them they'd be picking up a drunk. At least he'd gotten Holt to put his pants back on before packing him off.
When the taxi had carried Holt away, Gus took the remaining bills he'd taken off Holt and hid them under the cutlery tray in the drawer. All hundreds, lined up nice and neat under the knives and the forks. Then he called his boss, explained what had happened, paid careful attention to the details so Holt would take the blame. His boss made him agree to make up the hours next Friday night. Gus agreed and hung up. He got restless, he took a hard look at his seedy kitchen as if for the first time. He took out his remaining bottles from their various hiding places and poured most of all of them down the sink without thinking about it. Leaving one shot in the bottom of each. There was no hope for either of them, thought Gus, they were useless. Gus started to clean up the kitchen but gave up after not even 8 minutes.
Gus took a look at his watch. He'd just been able to buy it back from the pawn shop before the deadline, he didn't know why he'd bothered. It's not as though he need it to tell the time. Tuesday had come round and again Gus was alone after work with nothing but a bottle to greet him when he got home. He hadn't called Holt, who he knew would also be spending Tuesday alone with a bottle. Gus had had enough, something had to change. His kitchen was a mess. He looked for a bottle but didn't try too hard. Maybe he should do something about the rest of the flat before he got raided by the local cops for negligence of homeowners duties, one thing about the city, he couldn't get how someone like him who lived a fairly slothful life was allowed to get away with it while guys like Joe downstairs got raided.
On his way downstairs to find some cigarettes he'd passed Joe's and heard the man talking to someone between crying fits. His jar collection must have been seized. 'No hoarders' was the not-so-secret motto of the city. You had to use it or it didn't stay yours. Gus figured, they might extend that to his flat since he mistreated it so badly, just slept there and made a mess. He figured they might even evict him someday. Gus tried unsuccessful to reassure himself, He kept a job and he kept to himself and had to slantwise hope that's why they left him in peace.
Holt surveyed his space, some new kind of architectural Speed buzzing in his brain. He had to be pleased with himself. He had actually done it. He had cleaned his whole flat. He had stayed away from the bottles and he hadn't called Gus who he had decided deserved to be alone since he hadn't had the intelligence to call Holt. He had taken his free day and spent it well. Maybe he would inform on Joe, that bastard should get evicted if anyone should. Holt turned away from the windows and the grey misty light outside, it never rained on Wednesday, so the song went. It was a song about the city, where rain was a programmed event, not a random act of a cruel and loving god.
He made another sweep with his broom and then tied up all the garbage and carried it down the stairs to the bins. He would not be stepping into Thursday with clutter or mess. He looked at the stained walls and felt ashamed. Maybe he'd get started on painting before the end of the week. He didn't know. He looked hard at himself and realised his flat might be clean but he was still a mess. Gus may be rough but he was the only friend Holt had. There had to be some way of getting him to clean up. Speed wouldn't help, Gus never touched the stuff. Why had they ever become friends in the first place? Holt knew why, it was the drink. The worst excuse for a friendship he'd ever made. He felt like a cliché. He hoped Thursday would be a clean one, but he always said so?
Gus was still asleep when the smell hit his nostrils. He opened his eyes but shut them again. Dust, vomit, something or someone had left a big shit on the rug. His field of vision was narrow but he saw Holt's boot peeking out from the kitchen floor. Toes pointing skyward. Let him deal with the shit, thought Gus. Holt probably did it himself. Gus was sure it wasn't him this time. His eyes slapped shut on grit.
Holt picked himself off the kitchen floor and got the kettle going. He poured it full of brown tap water and while the electric coils of the kettle boiled up the stuff, he scraped around under the dishes piled in the sink until he found a mug clean enough he thought he could wash it. There was no soap in the kitchen but Holt found shampoo and body gel in the bathroom, he used the gel to wash the mug . When he got back to the kitchen the water had boiled and he opened the instant coffee jar on the counter. The stuff was caked and smelled sour. Holt fixed it. He took a knife from the cutlery drawer and chiseled two tablespoon sized chunks into his mug and then added about seven spoons-worth of sugar which was moist but somehow not crusty like the coffee. He was about to take a sip when he stopped, looked inside the cutlery drawer again. There, just peeking out from under the cutlery tray, was a small neat pile of hundreds. Holt put down the mug, his fingers trembled. He took a small plastic sleeve out of his pants pocket in a practiced motion and took a snort of Olympus. Clarity shattered to the floor of his skull. It was hard to hold onto things on the mornings after a bender. He noticed he hadn't taken his eyes off the hundreds, thought about it once more and then reached down with twitching fingers and peeled off the top few bills. He took the undrunk mug into the living room where he found Gus half on, half off, Gus' couch.
"Here, I made you coffee."
"Mnpf, great," said Gus from the vantage of the floor. he rolled all the way onto the floor and then picked himself up into a sitting position with his back against the seat cushions. He took the proffered coffee and let his eyes rest again while he took a sip of the sludge Holt had made.
"this tastes like shit," said Gus.
"Your couch looks like shit," said Holt.
"You shit on the rug," said Gus.
"Don't drink it then," Holt walked back to the kitchen, a marionette on taut strings, making a point to go round the shit. Gus drank. When Holt wasn't looking he added some vodka from the bottle he'd hidden last night behind the cushions. He could hear Holt in the kitchen doing what sounded to Gus like cleaning. Gus didn't really want to get started but if Holt could muster the end-game energy to do the kitchen after last night then Gus could too. First, he'd have to cut 'em off at the pass: he was still drunk enough not to feel the full force of his head splitting psycho fucker migraine. But it was slowly coming, like an axe murderer with a spoon. He went to his medicine cabinet which he kept in his bedroom closet and took one tablet of Aspirin, it would kill his stomach but if he could keep it down, he'd have another in an hour. He chased it with sludge and vodka then he went to the kitchen and helped it along with some flat cola he'd left in the bathroom the night before. It tasted vile. He refilled the can with tap water from the sink and hoped for the best. Gus took a hard look at his bathroom, dirt, grime, dust, stains, scale on the shower tiles that belonged on a lizard's back, Rings of Saturn around the tub, the rusted drain an angry red storm. There were piles of old musty clothes, no way to tell if clean or dying. No, he couldn't start here. Gus listened to Holt cleaning away in the kitchen. This wouldn't do. He stripped off his clothes and got into the ruined tub in his socks. Later he'd dry them on the radiator so he'd have some dry socks that had at least technically been washed recently. The trickle of water from the limed up shower head alternately froze him and boiled him. He turned the tap left and right to help this freezing and boiling along. His old roommate in college had called it a 'Swedish Sauna.' Gus had no idea how Swedish it was but, as a hangover remedy, it was the second leg of his patented method.
Holt reached into his pocket for the phone that wasn't there. Gus had warned him that taking his phone was a bad idea. Holt was used to his friends condescension. His hand touched the bill fold in his pocket with the neatly creased hundreds. He could buy himself a new phone, he thought to himself. First he needed a drink. The Bent Jar was open early but it was all the way downtown. He decided a little taste would be enough. He popped into the nearest off license corner store he saw and ordered a pocket flask of Amazonis Planitia Rum. No back alley for Holt, no sir. He took the little plastic bottle into a Starbucks and ordered a large black coffee 'Americano' with almond syrup. Sitting in the rough corner where all the armchairs pile up by the late afternoon, he took half the coffee and poured it down the liquid disposal. He then filled the now half empty coffee cup with the rum and considered himself an optimist.
Gus worked to make money, it wasn't his passion, he just did it so he could eat. It was a back office job working with documents and keeping an index. To call him an archivist would be to insult archivists. A proper archivist is a decent person who likes order and winds up in archiving largely by accident and magnetic attraction. Whenever this sort of person gets into an office, things start working better, things are no longer lost, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. The first archivist at a firm makes it so that everyone who has felt the order they trail behind them like a comet tail get used to having things that way and when such people leave, one of the higher ups ensures that, while there was never an archivist there previously, there will be one from then on. Gus was the last in that line, in a medical administrators company that handled records for many hospitals. It suited him because as long as his hours added up and so long as the documents were available when they were needed, Gus could show up any time he wanted and so he did. The weekend started tonight. Gus cleaned himself up and shaved and took out his work clothes. However ruined his wardrobe got, he made sure one outfit was always dry and clean. He ironed them up, he polished his office shoes and put them in a bag. His lunch was a meagre thing. Two sandwiches with the fatty greasy salami he bought when it went on sale. It always went on sale. Nothing he knew, except perhaps Holt, could sweat like that salami. At the door of his flat he looked himself over and passed the lint brush over his coat. Turning to look once more at the mess inside, he noted with pride that no one would imagine he lived the way he did if they saw him on the street. He had clean pants, a white collared shirt, a simple tie, lucky for him they didn't see the process, thought Gus. He wore sport boots to work, it was a rainy mess out there. What sort of evil bastard had decided to put a city here? Gus was glad for the coat. He had it back from the dry cleaners only yesterday and it was a welcome return to warmth. That jacket he'd taken to wearing was simply not up to scratch for Octember. He steamed up his working glasses when he entered his office building through the revolving doors. He put down his lunch to wipe them. Sandwiches flew, kicked across the foyer by a jerk in a hurry. Apologies were yelled and then silenced by the closing of elevator doors. Gus crossed the hall and collected his lunch from the far wall himself. Crowds rushed on, Guards looked on. Gus felt his cheeks burn under the Octember frost left over from the cold wet morning. He brushed the muck off the bag with his gloved hands but only succeeded in mucking up his gloves. Sighing, he stuffed the plastic wrapped sandwiches into his coat pockets and tossed the ruined bag into the nearest bin. Upstairs he greeted the receptionist and retreated to his lair, the archive. Behind its fireproof and bombproof doors (the office used to be a consulate) he sat down at his desk, an antique made of solid steel and changed his shoes before getting up to hang his coat. Nobody went back here. Gus sighed, maybe next week would be better.THE END
Thank you very much for letting us see "Tropic of the Rat." We appreciate your taking the time to send it in for our consideration. Although it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time, we wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.
Please excuse this form letter. The volume of work has unfortunately made it impossible for us to respond to each submission individually, much as we’d like to do so.
Sheila Williams, Editor
Asimov’s Science Fiction
Thank you very much for letting us see "Tropic of the Rat." We appreciate your taking the time to send it in for our consideration. Although it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time, we wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.
Please excuse this form letter. The volume of work has unfortunately made it impossible for us to respond to each submission individually, much as we’d like to do so.
Sheila Williams, Editor
Asimov’s Science Fiction
One: Rules to live by
Things weigh differently now and sometimes things change scale, but everywhere there are borders, a city can lie in wait behind this tree stump and I wouldn't know unless I stepped in just the right direction. It’s like we've all gone through the looking glass and then it fell over and shattered.
Plans happened, were abandoned. It’s all in fragments. Like the nutcracker suite in reverse, I still remember crowds, colours, the perfumed scent of what felt like a thousand burning censers.
The music of those times, like city smoke and random fog in the sunrise, all gone now.
In my youth, when there were still schools, we learned in classrooms, ate lunch with our backs to concrete and brick. Cinderblocks coated with a history of institutional paint. Beige, grey-green. Now, with my back to this tree stump, I miss unbroken concrete, I miss unblemished brick, it doesn't matter, I don't want to care.
I miss asphalt, I miss plastic, I even miss polypropylene. Time travel is not only about getting into a machine and going back and forth. Time travel is also when the world we know gets lost somewhen and we can’t find it again, however many times we return to where we lost it. I haven’t much memory for the time before this life, everyone ought to get crazy for awhile.
I broke my last toothbrush yesterday.
Sometimes everything is fine, birds still sing, bees still buzz, it’s just the scale and mass and time of things is random. Cities appear and disappear, it’s like watching a person slip on a polished floor, except it's the world that's slipped. This is not the world we knew. I should say it's not the world I knew. We can't always agree on our histories. The others I’ve met and known here have pasts I recognize more by their difference to mine than by anything else.
I keep notes, I don’t know why, I don’t think I ever wrote anything longer than a letter after I left school. Now I write as much as I can on whatever I find with whatever I have. Everything is random, I can’t find my bearings, I wake up in the morning and check to make sure I have all my fingers and toes and that they're all in the usual places.
When I first came here, I don’t remember when, it could have been years or days. I learned a few things. Some are still true but I feel that if I don’t write them down as often as I can, even these may change. Like a squirrel, I write my rules again and again, hiding them as I wander. In tree trunks like the one against my back, in the cracked windshields of discarded vehicles. In the mailboxes of homes that look as though time has never touched them. This may be the literal truth. I spread my rules as often as I can. I imagine sometimes, ridiculous as it sounds, that writing down the rules helps keep this world from slipping any further into randomness than it already has.
With my back against the trunk, I am about finished writing my rules down for the day, on the back of a plastic placemat from a diner I passed a few hours ago. I could see burgers still sizzling in their own stasis field, but between the dining room and the grill there was a one meter swath of dust. Accelerated time. It cut across the entire diner. Although it did not continue beyond its walls. I didn't stay long, only enough to add it to my map. I'm also a mapmaker. I didn't start it, someone gave me my first map, he could be listening to my thoughts right now, when I left him, he had his radio tuned to both me and my companion but once we were separated I do not remember if the frequency was tuned to my channel or hers. We jokingly used to call it psychic radio at the time and the name stuck, however it couldn't explain anything, it worked. The new people, fresh arrivals, are still hungry for explanations, I haven't any, all I can offer are my rules, such as they are. As for myself, I've gone past explanations. On this world (so much, so little like the one I left behind), things happen and if you're lucky, they happen to other people.
There's no other way to survive. Anyway, if the person who gave me my first map is still listening to my channel, then he knows I've done my best to add to what he gave me. Although it didn't help me to find my companion again. It's some consolation. I need to feel like I have some occupation greater than my own survival, so I can hang on to my humanity. It's thanks to my self-appointed occupation that I have so much of it left. At least I think I do. It's hard to judge, sometimes I think all this has happened before.
I've finished writing out my rules on the placemat, intentionally neutral to forestall panic:
Attention new arrival, these are the rules, they are not the only rules, just the ones I know, they are subject to change at any time and without warning, please try to improve on these rules if you can, and spread them around, you may someday help someone out of trouble:
- Radios can tune into other people like they once tuned into radio stations, even into our thoughts, someone could be picking up your thoughts on their radio while you read this. If you have something to hide you can try imagining some awful pop song lyrics in the hope that eavesdroppers will change the channel but personally I think the cure would be worse than the disease. Sorry new arrival. No such thing as perfect privacy here.
- The time and scale and weight of things changes here but there is always a border to the changes, it can be the width of a cup or the size of a city. Notice the borders or you could step into a patch of accelerated time and age a year in a minute. It's not the worst that can happen to you though. Be aware of your surroundings. Look for breaks of continuity everywhere.
- Everything is mutable and strange, vehicles may work, even without motive power, all radios seem to work without even having working batteries, but strangely they need something in the shape of a battery to work, I use dowels cut from wood. Vehicles are more complicated but sometimes anything that resembles an engine closely enough may get them working. It's safer to stick to basic mechanical contraptions, gears, pulleys, rope. They're more reliable.
- If you find a working computer, I'd like to see one. Haven't found one yet. Best of luck new arrival! Write out this message and spread it around. Remember! You could be helping someone out of trouble.
That's all I know. I spend my time looking for food and water and leaving these notes, teaching what I know.
I still miss my companion, even though her name is forgotten. It happened long ago.
One day on the way to somewhere else we got separated on either side of a border, it looked like the same path but it wasn’t. She was a handbreadth away and then she vanished. I retraced my steps but borders do not follow a 4 dimensional logic. I could as much follow her as I could step into the same river twice. Someday I may find her again, in the meanwhile I teach, whom? People, they keep coming, popping into this world, no rhyme, reason or logic to it. They come. I teach them what I know if they can learn. I keep moving, It doesn’t pay to stay in one place. The longer you do, the stranger things seem to get.
I forget things, this may have happened before, it may have happened to me. It may happen again, who knows? While there's life, there's hope. I'm so scrambled I don't even know who said that first, maybe I said it, I don't know.
I write because I don't know what else to do, somehow, finding my next meal and shelter from the rough hard ground is easier when I give these words to the universe. Who knows? I may be the last human being alive who bothers to put a collection of words in a row containing at least one verb together anymore. I may be dead by the time you read this. Or worse, I may have forgotten.
Two: A New Arrival
Dissipation. That’s its name. A collection of ruins and abandoned factories and huts in the middle of a steaming pot of shit jungle somewhere. In the one serviceable hut sits a young man far too healthy to have been here very long. His jeans and t–shirt are torn and dirty, sure. His canvas topped boots are caked with so much road dust they have no colour. His hands and face however, washed daily, are circles of cleaner skin surrounded by a black dirty halo of greasy black hair and flesh. In his hands is a disposable razor, his last. Into a cup of water goes the razor and he shakes the blade. He shaves without a mirror, only a broken pane of glass blackened with soot. He does this every morning. He has done this every morning for six weeks. For six weeks he has been going into the abandoned factory and collecting water from one of several collection tanks on the roof and bringing it back to his hut. For six weeks he has boiled the water on a small fire of broken furniture lit with his dwindling supply of matches. For six weeks he has raided the nearly empty larders for tinned food and for six weeks he has not seen or spoken to a single living soul. Not even to himself.
He is nearly finished shaving. He squints into the blackened pane. He draws the razor across his chin once, twice more. Then he shakes the razor in the bowl of water one final time before drying it roughly on the cleanest part of his shirt. Then he gets up and checks his bucket of boiled water. It is nearly empty. Soon, he will have to go back up to the roof and get more. It’s dangerous. The factory, though not long abandoned, has succumbed to the jungle. It rots, the floors are dangerous, missing planks in the half-lidded dark are easily missed. Nails protrude. Tetanus, blood poisoning, is his most likely cause of death out here. During the most oppressive heat of midday, which lasts from 10 until 6, he stays in the shelter of the hut, in the shadow of the factory, motionless save to drink his daily ration of water and take a few salt tablets. He is also running out of those.
He picks up the plastic bucket and drains the last of his boiled water, letting the excess run down his shirt and onto his jeans. The water dragging dirt behind itself as it tracks down onto his boots. Where the water falls, the original green colour shows through momentarily, but soon it is dry and colourless again. The young man looks to the factory and, carrying the bucket by its corroding handle, walks to the debris strewn entrance to begin the long walk up five floors to the roof and the water tanks.
At the entrance to the factory, he suppresses a shiver. The interior of the factory is absolute darkness until his eyes adjust to it. The cracked tiles under the wreckage of the door, the ruined walls caking with mold, in the gloom a staircase leads up to the first floor, where machines hulk in silence, save for the chittering of the rats. The rats are one of the reasons he doesn’t stay here, preferring the hut and his barricades, mostly complete door panels he has ripped out of upstairs offices. The other reason, a floorboard creaks, is the general unsafe feeling of the factory. The weakening structure groans under him, in a thousand real and imagined fault lines. At the head of the stairs to the second floor, he listens for the signal, it could be any sound, a crack, a clatter, that announces the total collapse of the factory and his precious water supply. When he hears nothing for a sufficient time, he walks carefully up the right hand side of the stairs, the safest part, he imagines. On the third floor are more machines, he has no idea what they do or what was made here, he walks on. On the fourth floor, different machines from the ones downstairs, lighter, smaller. But they are mounted on very tall tables before monstrously large stools. He doesn’t dwell on that now though, there is work to be done. On the fifth floor are offices and at the end of the corridor, a ladder and hatchway to the roof. This is the most dangerous, he thinks to himself, only it isn’t so much a mental articulation as a visual image of the ladder falling away from it’s rotting anchors. He has long discarded verbalising his danger. He climbs the ladder slowly and carefully, the bucket hooked through one arm bouncing against him slightly as he carefully climbs. At the top he pushes open the hatch and lets the handle of the bucket at his elbow slide down to his hand. Then he swings it over the lip of the hatchway and climbs, feeling his way forward, onto the roof.
On the roof are several large tanks of water. The rain is plentiful here and the tanks are nearly always full. But they are rusted and some kind of algae or fungal growth has attacked the water in the tanks, it has to be boiled. But before it can be boiled it has to be brought down and before he can do that he has to fill his bucket. The young man walks to the tank he has previously inspected as the least fouled by algae and positions the bucket under a tap on its corner. He takes care to always make the same journey from the hatchway to the tank and back every time. If this part of the roof holds him once it will hold him again, until he hears a crack, then he will have to chose a new route. For now he sticks to the path his boots have made in the stink and rot on the roof of the factory. At the side of every tank is a maintenance ladder. He checked this one a week ago so he supposes he should check again. He climbs the maintenance ladder to the top of the tank and leans forward, letting the edge of the tank support his weight. From the top he can see how the water from the catch basin on the far side of the roof feeds these tanks through thin pipes radiating out from the catch basin to each tank like the legs of a monstrous metal spider. The inspection hatch has four clasps that hold it in place, he thumbs these back and carefully looks down. The water, to his relief, is still clear. The algae hasn’t yet penetrated. He replaces the hatch taking care to thumb closed the clasps and descends the maintenance ladder. His bucket is where he left it under the tap. He turns the tap and clear water gurgles out into the bucket. In short order the bucket is full and he is ready to descend through the factory once more.
At the lip of the hatch to the fifth floor, he has left a rope, He loops the rope through the handle of the bucket and lowers the bucket, now heavy with water, down to the fifth floor. Once it reaches the cracked tiles, he lets one end go and quickly pulls up on the other end. Despite his efforts, a few flakes manage to fall onto the water still sloshing gently in the bucket below. Oh well, he’ll have to scrape some scum off the top anyway. He replaces the rope in its little nook by the hatchway and slowly descends into the darkness of the fifth floor. Once again, his eyes have to adjust. He waits until they do, the risk is still greater now that he has a heavy load to return to with.
The bleak darkness lightens enough for him to see his way. Occasionally grimacing with the exertion, he makes his way to the fourth floor where he pauses by the smaller, lighter machines. He risks a look around. Now he can wonder at it, although eventually he gives up in bafflement, if these machines were meant for manual workers, they would have to have been at least 7 feet tall. There is no accounting for the high stools and out of proportion doors and fixtures. The fifth floor offices are of another scale entirely, one more in keeping with his memory of such places. He doesn’t dare to speculate on what it could all mean, that would mean lingering. He doesn’t want to linger. The heat is getting oppressive and he has much to do down by his hut.
He takes breaks on the third and second floors as well. The bucket is heavy now, but he doesn’t wander from it. He pauses the barest safe minimum and then picks up his burden again. At the entrance to the factory he pauses a final time. Looking behind him, wondering what sort of giant worked in a factory like this one, and what on earth such giants made.
Back at his hut, he pours the water from the bucket into a metal drum of about equal size. The metal drum was obviously once an oil drum but he has cleaned it carefully and now it serves to boil his water. He has set the drum on a grill scavenged from the wreckage of the factory and the grill itself is supported by bricks likewise scavenged. The clearance to the ground is low but enough to pile wood and boil the water into drinkability. The heat is mounting and if he wants something cool to drink he had best hurry, he thinks. Boiling the water will take a few hours and cooling it a few more, he can’t estimate better than that. His watch stopped working six weeks ago.
He piles broken wood and rags under the grill and carefully lights one of his last remaining matches underneath the rough pile, The wood from inside the factory is relatively dry and, together with his tinder of fluff from his clothes and waste paper from an office on the fifth floor, lights quickly, but not all. The sticks he has scavenged from the edge of the jungle crowding in around him takes a long time to burn, at first blackening and smoking. He blows into the smoke, encouraging the tiny flames to leap higher, grow larger. He blows into it for quite some time before, satisfied it won’t go out, he withdraws, letting the drum heat and sterilize his water. He withdraws but he never takes his eyes from the drum nor the fire beneath it. He doesn’t know how much longer he can stay here.
The sun beats up into the sky, the young man draws away from the boiling water, the fire beneath it beginning to burn out. He’s stopped feeding its flames and now waits for the fire to burn out entirely, when it does he will bury some cans of meat and beans in the ashes and let them heat up. He thinks that after lunch he will nap while the water cools. Maybe think about a few things. Important questions. What kind of story will he invent for whoever he meets out there beyond the jungle, wherever he ends up. He won’t be able to avoid that now. He’s hidden here as long as he can, he must abandon the factory for somewhere more remote. But how to get there? He couldn’t come the way he had, that way was gone. He pushes his mind from the bright grains of memory. He reminds himself that he is just a man waiting for cool water and warm food.
He cracks his knuckles impatiently, not bothering to stretch each joint independently, he just interlaces his fingers into a double fist and squeezes, the joints pop audibly. He also stretches his neck until the vertebrae pop as well, then he shrugs his shoulders and they too reward him with a distinct popping sound. The fire is dim enough now that he can risk stuffing the ashes with canned meat without risking a rupture. He pushes the cans into the ash with a stick, their labels burning quickly, when they come out the tins will be hot and slicked with a blue cast.
While he waits he scans the jungle with his brown eyes, it won’t be long, the meat should be warm not bubbling hot, he made that mistake already and his fingers still smart in memory. Towards one end of the jungle is the dimmest remains of a road, gravelly and narrow, but that was the way he had come, no welcome back there. On the other side of the clearing is only unbroken jungle. He doesn’t enjoy the prospect of going through it. He imagines how many ways he can die in there. Maybe the road is his only choice after all. Who knows what has happened to the world out there since he came here. The prospect of returning that way frightens him so much he once again, as he has so many times over the past six weeks, resolves to wait it out just a little longer, until his matches run out at least.
The canned meat must be ready by now, he uses the same stick to drag them out of the fire, 3 cans, 2 of mean and beans and one of tomato soup. He uses a piece of torn fabric from his jeans to hold the hot cans and with a small pocket tool he pries up the tab on the lid and putting a small stick through the loop, he pulls carefully. Steam escapes from the can. His mouth waters, he doesn’t have a spoon or other utensil besides the pocket tool so he fumbles out the meat with two sticks of roughly equal size and whittled smooth enough, free of bark at least. Using them like chopsticks he awkwardly manipulates a piece of meat into his mouth. The can is warm, even through the snatch of jean he’s holding it with. When he had picked out all the meat the can has cooled enough for him to put it to his lips. He drinks it all down, he needs every calorie he can get. The remaining two cans are cool enough to hold on their own. He eats greedily. Soon the only meal of the day is done. He has other delicacies. A few packages of powdered coffee. Using the cup he shaved with he collects some of the boiling water from the top of drum. He knows this isn’t a good idea, coffee is a diuretic, but he needs the stimulant for more than just wakefulness, he needs it for moral support, it reminds him of happier times, café boulevards, olive trees, cushions, eating with a knife and fork. In short, his life. The packages are prepared with artificial cream and sweetener, in any other circumstance, it would not be to his taste but here and now, after a meal of canned meat and squatting in the jungle, it tastes like a little slice of home. He stirs the mixture slowly, careful not to spill a drop. Patiently forcing the clumps of powdered coffee under the hot water. When it is as homogeneous as he can make it, he begins to drink. Ah, heavenly. Perhaps the road back is the only way forward after all. It can’t be worse than here. How wrong he is.
Towards the west, the sun is nearing the tops of the trees and the water is cool enough to decant into the bucket. He pours a little first and uses this small amount to wash his hands and face. He’s waited until now to do so. Then he sloshes it around a little before pouring it over the dead fire. No point in taking a chance. Then he pours the contents of the drum into the bucket and carries it with care to the hut. Once there, he puts an iodine drop into it and swishes the water a little with yet another stick leaning just inside the door to the hut. The hut itself isn’t large, like the others it was likely erected by wandering nomads of the jungle. When they had left and when they might return is a mystery he hopes never to get answered. He wants to be gone by then. They may never return of course, Like the occupants of the factory, they may be gone for good.
Darkness falls like a thud in the jungle. The young man lights no evening fire for company, rather, he cowers in his hut behind a makeshift barricade of doors from the factory, the hut itself had not had anything to cover it’s entrance. Likely the nomads who had tarried here used blankets and woven brushes to keep out the jungle, and the rats. He hears them scratching around outside his pathetic defenses. He must trust the barricades however, he must sleep, despite their chittering. He forces himself to keep his eyes shut in the close darkness, lying on a pallet of leaves and brush, his pack a rough pillow. Eventually he succeeds, slipping into a narrow wedge of unconsciousness. Perhaps tomorrow he will make up his mind. The jungle or the road, to stay or to go. Decide, or the decision will be made for him.
Three: A companion
In the morning, he wakes to familiar aching muscles and removes the barriers from the entrance, stacking the panels along the side. Then he returns to the hut and fills his cup with water. He squats by a soot blackened pane of glass and shaves. When he has done that and washed his face and hands, he steps out into the early jungle light. There can be no more dithering, he thinks to himself. He had hidden here long enough. So, collecting his meager possessions in his pack and filling every remaining space with canned food, he picks up his cup and drinks gulp after gulp of water. What he leaves he leaves for the next occupant of the hut. The last thing he does before heading back along the road, for that is what he has chosen, is take a large sack from a tree where he hid his only other possession six weeks ago. He opens the sack to examine his treasure for damage. Everything is fine however. The object inside is an old .22 target rifle. Not good for much, but together with the Eley boxes of tiny bullets, he feels sure that the rifle means the difference between life and starvation very soon. He slings the sack over his back to slap against his pack and cradles the rifle in his elbows. Then, he looks to the factory once more, considering, then shrugs and turns to the road, he has made his decision. He walks down the broken road, hoping he can get out of sight of the strange factory before the heat makes him stop. In other jungles he would be forced to go on until he broke through or exhaustion overcame him, but this jungle was different, it burned to a point of torture but not to the point of death, not that is, if you stopped. As the sun climbs higher and the road widens into usability and smaller track roads begin to cross it, he does, by an incomprehensible road sign in green and white. Or at least a sign that was green and white.
He stays in the shade of the road sign, for that is what it must be, incomprehensible or not, until the sun is well to the west. Then he gets up and continues to walk along the edge of the road, ready now to dart into cover should he see anyone, but he doesn’t. The road is empty. He walks on.
Night has fallen but he continues regardless, the next time he sleeps he wants it to be somewhere sheltered, a barn or maybe even a house, The road is eerily silent, not a bird call nor even the rustle of a passing animal. In the deepest back room of his mind he is beginning to wonder, has it been six weeks? Maybe more? He doesn’t know for sure anymore. What has happened? Where, he wonders, are the people? In the distance is the town, there should be many lights but there are not, only the arches of light from the streetlamps, The town is as silent as, well he might as well come out with it, a morgue. He had better come up with a name and a story before he meets anyone, he better practice talking again too.
“Ah, erm, hello, um, my name is, uh,” what should he call himself? He can’t tell anyone his real name of course, not after what happened. He pushes the past from his mind, the sooner forgotten the better. With mounting frustration he finds he has no plausible explanation for himself, what after all, is a young man doing walking along this empty road in the dark with nothing but a pack and a target rifle for company? What indeed? As he nears the town he knew he slows his steps, it appears completely depopulated, he cannot suppress the shiver that runs down his back, the road beneath his feet is no longer packed gravel but rough asphalt instead. The yellow lights glow helplessly down on empty cars. Perhaps one still has keys inside, perhaps, if he heads for the coast, he might meet someone along the way. Everyone couldn’t have disappeared, it must be he, who is somewhere else, gone, like a kid on a carton of milk, disappeared. No, that makes no sense at all. He shakes his head. He can’t be alone in this town on the edge of the jungle. He isn’t but he doesn’t know that yet. Somewhere in the shadows, he is being watched very carefully, very carefully indeed.
Then he hears her scream, then he sees her, she’s lying just outside a pool of light cast by an overhead streetlamp. He wonders how he didn’t see her before, as he nears, his boots clicking across the asphalt, he has to control his stomach, it’s a wonder she’s alive, he reaches her and gets on his knees, there is a large and bloodstained hole in her abdomen, he imagines he can see bits of slick concrete through the hole. He tears his eyes off the wound and tries to calm her, it’ll be over soon he thinks, no need to try and stop the bleeding, no one lives long when they have a hole in their guts large enough to step through. He had laid his rifle by her head as he examined the wound, he reaches for it now, brings it nearer so that it touches his knees. He needs that extra comfort. Her eyes are blinking open and shut rapidly now, it should be soon, soon he will only have to worry about whoever made that hole in this girl, she’s quieter now, her screams are softer, filled with sobs. She will be gone soon.
Then he looks carefully, is the hole smaller? She isn’t conscious in any usual sense so he can’t ask her what’s happening, it’s fascinating if it’s true. Bits of bone are sticking back to her spine, her muscles are knotting themselves around her ribs, her organs are collecting themselves from somewhere he can’t see. What is causing this? She looks nearly fine, her clothes remain torn and bloody but her abdomen is whole. He tries to imagine the stitch up work that must still be going on inside her, decides that he has to take her someplace more comfortable than this, He shoulders his rifle and walks to the nearest house and, putting her down only long enough to open the unlocked door, not surprising if this really is the town he remembers, carries her into the darkness and upstairs to the first empty bed he finds. She is quiet now but totally unconscious, he makes her comfortable under the covers of a large bed in the main bedroom then goes downstairs and searches for the kitchen. These town houses are all alike and he quickly finds the kitchen and snaps on the lights before shutting them again quickly, he’s not thinking, he goes to the refrigerator and looks hopefully for a beer. No luck. In fact, the fridge is as clean and empty as if it had never been used. Oh well, he thinks, it was worth a try. He walks into the dark living room and lies down on the couch in front of a corky looking television set with faux wood veneer panels. Like something from 1979. He turns it on and hears nothing, the volume is set to zero, the emergency broadcast system is on every channel.
He gets up and leans towards the television. Turning up the volume knob carefully, trying not to wake the girl upstairs.
“This is a test of the emergency broadcast system….,” whispers the television at minimum volume. It goes on to warn that had this been an actual emergency the transmission warning claxon would have been followed by detailed instructions of what to do in an emergency. This doesn’t help. This lunacy, he thinks, can’t get any worse or the best thing I can do is take my target rifle and blow my head off. But instead, he just gets up and locks the front door, then the doors to the living room, just in case she wakes up before the morning, he thinks. He’s never seen a girl, or anyone, regrow body parts before. First what happened, then the factory, now this empty town and that girl sleeping upstairs when she should be dead. He closes his eyes, he has been almost asleep since he walked into town, sleeping out at the factory wasn’t the lap of luxury, nor is the couch he’s on right now. By comparison though, it might as well be a king size waterbed filled with champagne. He’s asleep before he knows it, he doesn’t even wake when she walks downstairs, tries the door and as silently as she came, sneaks back up to her bed. The night passes uneventfully. He sleeps until the sun is high in the sky.
He opens his eyes and looks up at the living room ceiling, trying to get straight what happened last night but there is a lot of competition for his attention. Circumstances he doesn’t want to dwell on, the least of which is the fourth floor of the factory where he had been squatting, but it’s the fourth floor on which his attention remains. What was it for? Why had everything on that floor, and only on that floor, been oversize? Had it really though? Could there be another reason to have stools and tables with legs 10 feet high? Then there’s the girl, whenever he thinks of what has happened, it’s like he’s watching himself on a television screen tuned to a bad channel, there’s no detail, only harsh contrasts and static. He watched her guts looping back inside her…
He gets up, still clutching his rifle and unlocks the doors leading from the living room to the hallway and walks up the stairs, careful to make a lot of noise so as not to startle her. He finds her awake, still in bed, sitting up expectantly.
“I’ve been awake for hours you know,” she says, looking at him expectantly.
He’s at a loss where to begin, do you know you had a hole in your middle the size of Jupiter sounds too harsh, he decides to ignore that angle for now, “Why didn’t you come downstairs and knock?”
“I tried the door last night but it was locked,” she pauses, “Do you know where this is?” she says.
His heart shrinks a little, he had hoped she could tell him. “It looks like,” he searches for the words, “There’s a small town I was passing through about 6 weeks ago and,” he lets his own words sink in his mind, “this looks like an exact replica of that one,” he presses on with his wild theory before she has a chance to respond, “I mean it’s in the right place and it looks exactly the same but there aren’t any people, no sign of an evacuation, there are canned goods in the cupboards of this house but the fridge looks as clean as though it has never been used, like none of it has ever been used,” his shoulders sag against the doorframe, “to be honest, I haven’t got a clue what’s happened, I came out of the jungle the other day and last night I, I,” he breathes deeply, “I found you screaming in the middle of the road with a hole” he stops talking, she’s turned as pale as the bed sheets.
“You,” she changes tack, “I didn’t imagine it then,” she looks out through the window, “I,” then she’s crying softly. He doesn’t know what to do about this but feels he ought to do something, he walks to the bed, leans his rifle against the bedside table and pats her awkwardly on the shoulders, she clutches him, stupid with tears now and sobbing loudly into his shoulder, a weight of terror slams into him and suddenly he can no longer keep back the flood of emotions that have been threatening to drown him for 6 long weeks, he lets go and soon they’re both howling with inconsolable tears and they just seem to go on and on with no end in sight. Eventually they cry themselves dry and are reduced to trembling in each others’ arms and a long time later, that too subsides. Finally he says, “This isn’t doing us any good,” he looks at her, his eyes red and puffed.
“I need to clean up,” she mumbles.
“Yeah, the bathroom is on the left, I’ll be downstairs in the kitchen, come down when you feel like it.”
Still sniffling, he picks up his rifle and walks to the doorway, hesitating for no good reason, then leaves her in the bedroom and goes down to the kitchen sink and washes his face there. He waits, filled with anticipation and dread, whenever she comes down, they’ll both have to fill the other in and he isn’t proud of himself or his story. He sits down at the kitchen table and waits.
He finds some instant coffee and powdered milk in the cupboard. On the counter is an electric kettle which he fills with tap water. It doesn’t turn on when he flips the silver switch under the handle and that’s when he notices it isn’t plugged in, he locates the end of the cord and plugs it into a wall socket mounted just above the counter. The kettle starts to hiss instantly. Moments later, with a generous dollop of sugar, he’s leaning against the back of his chair and drinking his instant coffee as satisfied as if it were fresh ground blue Hawaiian. His posturing is mostly pretense however, he wants her to feel as good as possible when she comes down and if she enters the kitchen to see him nervously hunched over his coffee like a criminal fugitive it won’t help either of them.
It’s over an hour before he hears her walking down the stairs, he refills the kettle and puts it to boil again, he probably shouldn’t have another coffee but he sets up two cups anyway. “Milk and sugar?” he asks.
“Lots of both,” she smiles weakly. He prepares both cups the same way and soon they’re both seated at the kitchen table drinking down their coffees like greedy orphans at a banquet.
“Long time, huh?” he says, eyeing the coffee in her hand.
“A very long time,” she agrees, “I don’t know how long exactly.”
“Well,” and then he doesn’t know how to continue, his mind burning with questions, all of them bad.
“You passed through here 6 weeks ago?” she says.
“Yeah, I come from up north, just felt it was time to, you know, move on?” he doesn’t want to say more than he has too but his neck and ears have turned scarlet.
“Hm, well,” she takes a long drink from her coffee even though it’s still hot enough to scorch his throat, “It’s a Torremolinos thing, isn’t it?” she says.
“I once read this book about a town, I don’t remember if the town was real or not, it was called Torremolinos and people who wanted to disappear went there, it was in Spain or something, you know the sort of place, hot and sleepy by day, hot and sordid by night?” she watches him over the brim of her cup as she gulps down more coffee, “So after that, whenever I dreamt about going far away, from the places and especially the people I knew, I thought of it as a Torremolinos thing, an escape fantasy.”
“I get it, yeah, like living behind a tropical backyard rum bar,” he says, “Um, my name’s Joseph Byatt, but everyone calls me Joe,” he finishes his coffee as he says this.
“Francesca Donal, call me Jess though, it’s my middle name. I don’t use it when I introduce myself because I think it sounds silly, you know? FranCESCA JESiCA,” she exaggerates to make her point.
“Jess,” he begins, “um, there’s no cute way to ask so,” he watches her drain her cup, “Have any idea how you got here?” it’s as far as he’s willing to stretch.
“I,” she puts down her cup, “I think my husband shot me,” she watches Joe trying to keep his eyes from widening, “but I’ve no idea how I got here, what’s this town called anyway?”
“I don’t know, the town I came through was called Fos but like I said, this can’t be the same place, so, you think you were shot?” he tries to sound casual but there isn’t really any way a person can ask such a question casually,” he waits.
She gives him a measured look and finally says “as near as I can make it out, I came home late one night and he shot me, and then I was here,” she frowns and when she speaks again it is almost as if she is talking to herself, “he didn’t have any cause to do it, I didn’t even know he had a gun in the house, maybe it wasn’t him, but who answered the door?”
He thinks she’s being awfully calm about the chance that someone might have broken into her house, killed her husband and then shot her as he left but soon realizes there is no way to predict how a person will act under such traumatic circumstances, it doesn’t take a very observant person to realize they’re both still in a state of shock. Their outburst upstairs earlier did nothing to alleviate the strain, it only confirmed his amateur diagnosis.
“I think we ought to stay here, not long, a week at the outside, maybe as soon as tomorrow we can drive out of town but I keep hoping that whatever has happened, it’s a local disturbance and I don’t want to ruin that illusion immediately by driving into the nearest ghost city.”
“I agree, I need,” she looks around, “oh, time, that’s what, I need time and sleep, god, I want to sleep a thousand years, but what will we do for food if the fridge is empty?”
“Canned goods, that’s all there seems to be, not a fresh vegetable or even a loaf of bread in this kitchen, I don’t imagine the other houses will be different but we can check, you can wait here and I can–”
“No,” fear edges into her voice, “we’ll go together, okay Joe?” she stares right at him.
“Yeah, I mean, yes, of course,” he says.
“Hm?” he’s wandered, she brings his attention back to her.
“Maybe we’re not meant to understand what’s happened here, or maybe it’s us who’re different, it doesn’t change the fact that we appear to be the only two people in the whole world right now, whatever the reason is that we’re here, and maybe there isn’t any, we still have to figure out what we’re going to do next and how we’re going to carry on.”
Surprised at her speech, he simply nods.
“So, I’m going to go back to bed Joe,” she looks at him expectantly but when he doesn’t reply she nods and excuses herself. Waitaminute, he thinks, wondering if she just gave him a proposal, but rejects the idea on grounds of sheer weirdness, it would be great but afterwards, who knew? He felt he needed some time as well, time alone. Taking his rifle, he goes back to the living room and hesitates before leaving the doors to the hallway unlocked, if she was going to hurt him, or kill him, it wouldn’t matter in the long run anyway, he might even thank her for it, because it would mean an end to this madness, he lies back on the couch and cradles his rifle, the coffee seemed to have had little to no effect, he feels bone tired. He closes his eyes. Upstairs, Jess drifts in and out of wakefulness, rusty and dented dreams of a single gunshot, light and pain and surprise and screams and twists of childhood nightmares of falling, she stays in bed until dark, then walks down the stairs to the living room doors, the knob turns, the door opens, she watches him sleeping for a moment then closes the door again and returns to bed.
He watches her go through carefully lidded eyes, awake only by chance, terrified. Shadows of trees cast by streetlamps move over the drawn curtains, the wind picks up a little then drifts back to nothing. Out in the night, a large shadowy form the size of a pickup truck watches the house patiently. It isn’t time yet. It waits.
Five: Psychic Radio
In the morning, Joe finds Jess in the kitchen making more instant coffee and heating up some canned beans in a frying pan. She smiles, he returns the smile but neither of them says anything until they’re both seated, the beans are finished and they’re on their second cups of coffee.
“God, I could use a cigarette but I haven’t found any,” she says.
“We can check the local supermarket, if I’m right, anything perishable will be missing but cigarettes should be there,” he says.
“Yeah, we’ve been here long enough, change of scenery might be good for us,” she says.
“Before we do that, I’d like to ask you, I mean, it’s time we tried to figure out–,”
“–What’s going on? where everybody is? all that stuff?”
“I don’t want to put it off,” he says.
“But you won’t be honest with me about what you were doing out there all by yourself,” she says, meaning the factory.
“There’s nothing to tell, you had Torremolinos fantasies, right? well, I was living mine,” he stares at her then continues “I come from a good family I have a bachelor’s degree and I wanted to see a bit of the world before settling down.”
“Do you often travel armed?”
“This?” he laughs, “it’s a target rifle I bought off a boy half my age my first week in country, it’s nothing, a pea shooter,” Joe waits for her to react, she shrugs.
“Did you hear something?” she says.
Joe gets up wordless and silent, he walks to the front door with his target rifle ready to fire, suddenly to Jess, it doesn’t look like a pea shooter at all. The door isn’t properly closed, to Joe’s surprise, there is a note stuck to it.
Answers? We haven’t got any, but you’re spooked, we can tell, would you believe we are too? Afraid you’ll shoot first so we decided you might want to meet us sometime at the Sunshine motel on the coastal edge of town, we don’t know what today is or what you’ll do but if you want to know what we know, you can come, if not, be on your way soon, this isn’t your town. Sincerely, the rats.
Joe’s hand shakes, the one holding the note, written on loose leaf lined college paper, the kind you can buy anywhere, he closes and locks the door, brings the note in to Jess, who reads it and looks furtively around for a cigarette that isn’t there.
Getting ready to leave takes very little time, they work independently, grabbing cans of food, extra socks and underwear from the drawers upstairs, Jess takes a long kitchen knife from the kitchen. Joe looks around for car keys, there are several cars parked outside on the street, he eventually finds a set of keys in a table in the entrance hall at the foot of the stairs. Once outside, he walks towards the first car, a Honda and presses the car alarm button on the key ring, a blue Ford sedan three cars away beeps and its lights flash. Jess follows him to the car and they get inside quickly and lock the doors. Joe tries the ignition, it turns over but doesn’t start, the fuel gauge reads empty.
“Shit, it was worth a try,” he says as they get out and walk down the street toward the centre of town and beyond that, the coastal edge where the note tells them they’ll find the Sunshine motel.
“Is it really such a good idea to go?” wonders Jess.
“We can ignore the note but we should still leave,” he says, “there’s no telling what kind of threat we’re facing.”
They continue to walk in silence, on edge, they pass stores and shops that look as clean and empty as a movie set.
“Look,” Jess points, “It’s a library, come on.”
“What? okay, but–”
“I have an idea,” Jess stalls his objection before it is half formed.
The library, like the house and presumably everything else in town, is unlocked. They enter cautiously, Joe looking behind them every few steps. She raises an eyebrow.
“I feel like someone’s watching us,” he shrugs, “that note didn’t get on the door by itself.”
“Maybe it did.” she says, “with everything that’s happened, it’s not impossible.”
“No,” he argues, “wherever we are, there are rules here too, different sure, but rules.”
The library is small, with a single reading area with long tables surrounded by shelves of books, one table is littered with open volumes, some of them open, they come closer. Someone was here.
“Hey, they’re all physics textbooks” says Joe.
“Here’s one about string theory.”
“You sound like you expected to find something like this,” he says.
“I had a feeling, it came over me as I read the note, it seemed to suggest that whoever wrote it had gone looking for answers too but come up empty handed, I thought of libraries.”
“Here,” Joe hands over the book he was examining, “what do you make of this?”
Jess starts to read, after a few minutes, she sits down and continues, Joe picks up another volume off the table and starts reading too, looking up now and again, nervously expecting they’ll be discovered and feeling more trapped inside the library with every passing minute.
“Let’s get out of here,” he urges, “we can take a few with us.”
“Hang on,” her fingers scan the page “this may explain what’s going on.”
“Well, according to this book, what’s happened is like a geometric translation, like if you rotate a circle off the page it disappears, only it’s still there, like a guitar string with zero width got plucked sideways or something, you couldn’t see it but the vibration would be felt.”
“I don’t follow you, sorry.”
“This string theory book says that everything is made of vibration with a rest mass of zero, they only have mass when they move, it doesn’t make sense to me either. But if somehow, they vibrated differently, then, then, oh, I don’t know,” she slams the book impatiently.
“So you’re saying we’re in another dimension?”
“Not exactly, I think we’re in the same dimension but it’s distorted or we’re distorted, like a ruler half in the water only looks bent but it isn’t. I feel like if we just, I don’t know, adjusted ourselves a little to the left or the right, we’d snap back into step with the world.”
“I don’t know if tuning into reality is as easy as tuning into your favourite oldies station on the radio,” says Joe skeptically.
“I don’t know that either, but it’s an idea.”
“Come on,” Joe has his rifle at the ready, safety off. Jess takes the book she was reading and stows it in his backpack, goes for another, “leave the rest and come on!”
They move quickly through the library and look out through the glass entrance doors, nobody there.
“What was it?” hisses Jess.
“Sounded like someone tipped over a dumpster.”
“How? by knocking it over with an empty pickup truck?”
“Let’s go, we’ve nothing to gain by staying here and nothing to lose by leaving fast.”
“Maybe that’s what they want,” she says.
“One person alone couldn’t knock over something big enough to make a sound like that,” she insists.
“Maybe not people,” he mumbles, thinking of the fourth floor of the factory.
“What?” frightened, Jess clutches him close to her.
“Nothing, nevermind, let’s go, we’ve got to get to that motel, if someone left that note, he or she could have killed us last night if they’d wanted too, and I gotta get out of this town Jess,” he looks at her, fear and determination crushing his consonants together like summer icebergs. She nods wordlessly, staring at him, they move together out the door and once on the street, begin to jog down to the coastal edge of town looking behind them at every corner.
“Joooe!” she screams. A rotting furred head with large black eyes the size of dinner plates ducks back around the corner as Joe stumbles off a shot with his rifle.
They run. Looking everywhere as they do, now and again catching sight of tails as thick as a man’s thigh, but never another sight of their terrible faces.
“Joe!, look!” Jess points. Three stores down Joe sees it, the revolving yellow sunburst with the words “Sunshine motel” written in red neon. They run towards it as behind them, the giant rats abandon all pretense at secrecy and rush headlong towards them. Joe and Jess reach the door to the reception office together and push.
It’s locked. Joe turns to face the oncoming rats and begins firing, the tiny .22 rounds only make the rats angry. They rush the door. Jess bangs furiously against the metal and glass. The door swings open in a rush and Joe falls over backwards, strong hands grab them both and pull them violently inside. The door slams shut. A withered old hand locks and bolts the door. Joe and Jess turn to see an old man in a clerk uniform walking slowly back to his post behind the counter where he sits down and eyes them slowly with his milky blue eyes. Silence greets them. Jess gets up and looks out the window. Empty.
“Where, what” says Jess.
“What,” echoes Joe.
The old man produces a package of cigarettes from a drawer and lazily lights one, offering the package to them. Joe shakes her head but Jess, still shivering from shock and exertion, gratefully accepts his offer and inhales deeply on the first drag.
“It’s been a long time since I had to get out of this chair,” says the old man.
“How did you know where to–” begins Joe, the old man switches on an old mahogany veneer radio.
How did you know where to–begins Joe, the old man switches on an old–
He switches off the radio, “Should have tried the radio Joe,”
“That radio,” begins Jess, “is talking about us?”
The old man switches the radio on again briefly, so Jess can hear the narrator delivering her words in a neutral baritone then shuts it off. “Took some time to find your station but yeah, I suppose it is.”
“How?” says Joe, in a watery voice.
The old man watches them quietly through drags of blue smoke, he says slowly, “you know Joe? Jess? I haven’t left this chair for about three years, until I heard your show on the radio Joe, it turned up oh, about 7 weeks ago now.”
“So you know,” Joe blanches.
“Nothing to be embarrassed by, Joe.”
“Joe?” Jess is looking at him.
“Oh, it doesn’t really matter now, Joe.”
“I, I, she,”
“She was 12 years old,” says the old man.
“She looked much older,” Joe mutters.
“She didn’t look 18 Joe, 16 maybe 17.”
“Joe, how could you?”
Joe looks green. The old man goes on.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get her pregnant Joe,”
“Her father was going to kill me anyway.” He mutters.
Jess stares at him, her mouth open. The old man continues talking, “It sounded like a good story so I listened along for a time, then it got dull, everyday you just got up and did the same things over and over, it got boring in fact, so I changed the channel and found you, Jess.”
“Your marriage collapsing around you, the shotgun your husband kept threatening you with, when you finally used it on yourself–”
“What?” it’s Joe’s turn to be shocked.
“I lost the station then, just static, I guessed that was the end of it and went looking for something else to listen to, there was an amusing story a few channels away about two boys working on a kind of jet bike for a futuristic neighborhood competition, like a go kart competition or something, anyway, they really wanted to win and were very gifted in electronics. One day, they find some plans their father brought home from work only they didn’t know that the plans their father brought home from work at the jet propulsion laboratory were plans for a faster than light drive intended for spacecraft.”
He takes another drag.
“So anyway, that story had a real twist of an ending, so I went looking for something else around that end of the dial..”
“Then the real surprise, you,” he points at Joe, “turning up on another station, I recognized you right away, the narrator is good with characterization and then you found her,” gesturing at Jess with his cigarette, still as long as when he lit it.
“I realized I had something special here and kept listening.”
“Mr,” Jess has tears in her eyes, “Are we, you know, dead?” Joe is also shaking uncontrollably.
The old man looks at her kindly, “no Jess, although it must seem that way, like some sick afterlife, but it’s not, it’s just physics.”
They don’t seem reassured so he continues, “I used to believe that when a person died they would have to relive, not every moment of their lives, but only the moments of missed opportunities, with glimpses and catches of the lives they might have led had they more courage, more initiative, that thought terrified me, to spend my afterlife reviewing how many times I could have fallen in love, made a difference, made a better life,” he pauses to take another drag off his cigarette which never seems to shorten or go out, “so from my perspective, things have turned out alright for me.”
“So we’re not dead?” Joe needs to hear it again.
“Certainly not, take me as an example, I haven’t left this chair in three years except to deliver that note, and it was no picnic to bring it to you.”
“Why did you?”
“There was something stalking you, the narrator told me so, I was afraid you’d picked a house on the edge of a scale shift.”
“Those giant rats chasing you, they’re not giants, ordinary rats affected by a scale shift, Joe, you were walking through one every day at the factory.”
“The fourth floor?”
“Yup, a miracle you lived, rats aren’t the only dangerous things out there.”
“But we’re safe here?” Jess needs to hear him say so.
“Certainly, it took me some time to find the right spot, on this world, scale changes, time ,moves differently, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes backwards,” he eyes Jess in acknowledgement of her miraculous completeness after the shotgun, “sometimes not at all,” he looks at his cigarette, “while I sit here, I never tire, never hunger, never lose interest in life, never run out of cigarettes and never even have to get up to use the toilet.”
They are aghast.
“Out there, you might find giant rats, pockets of fast time that will age you to death in an instant, frozen moments of individual perfection,” he smiles, “You may even find your tropical backyard barbecue and rum bar.”
He’s heard everything they said. Joe and Jess eye each other. Weary and tired.
“Here,” the old man hands Joe a pocket radio and a tourist map of town with strange borders all over it, some you have to fold the map in odd ways to make complete shapes. “I’m just being neighbourly, a man needs a radio just about everywhere on this world, I know that much.”
“How many others have you seen since you came here?” Jess asks suddenly.
“Oh, you’re the first, but I knew more people would be coming, it’s the nature of things, I think, now this is pure speculation, but after reading those books in the library when I first arrived, I got to thinking, it’s possible that consciousness is the force attracting people to this world,” He looks at their faces then shrugs and takes another drag off his endless cigarette, “Just a thought, no pun intended.”
“What’s your name?” Joe asks, not having felt ready to ask before now.
“Clarence Williams, Sunshine Motel clerk, a retirement job I told myself, , some retirement heh? sorry I didn’t say so sooner.”
“Here,” Clarence hands Jess a motel room key, “If you go out the back and to the left and up the right stairs two floors, across the hall and down one floor there is a really nice room with permanent afternoon sunshine, it’s a bit of a hike but you’ve been lucky with these things so far, trust me.”
They don’t really have a choice.
“Clarence?” asks Joe.
“Why’d you sign your note ‘the rats?’”
“I thought about signing it with my name, but listening to you two on the radio, I felt strongly that you lacked the sense of urgency you would need to survive long enough to make it here, I took a chance and fibbed so you’d hurry your asses.”
“So you meant it when you said we couldn’t stay in town?” Jess waits for his answer.
“Well, it’s like what I said about consciousness attracting, for all our lives, I believe we ought to put lots of distance between ourselves, between me and the pair of you I mean,” they remain silent so Clarence continues on another tack, “I’m an old man who’s been sitting on the same damn stool behind his counter for 3 years with a package of cigarettes that never runs out and a radio that keeps me entertained, do you want to sit here in my place?” he takes a drag, “as I made that map I nearly died several times, I’ve no wish to repeat the experience. Especially because the town you’ve been stumbling through is a lot more stable than the one I knew, the borders appear to be the same but the force of the changes feels weaker, calmer transitions, that fourth floor would’ve made me upchuck but you didn’t feel a thing did you?”
Clarence looks at them, “feel tired?”
“No more than when we came, maybe better.”
“I thought so, I once read that the original housewarming gift was the body of a convict or sacrificial murder victim buried in the foundations of the building, to keep away bad spirits, like a supernatural guardian,” he takes a drag off his truly endless cigarette.
“Doesn’t that ever go out?” asks Jess, hers is long finished.
“Not on this side of the counter. I stub it out now and again and put it back, oh, I’ve thrown them out and once, early on, even the whole package but the next time I opened the drawer, there it was again, a freshly opened package of my favourite brand with 19 cigarettes inside, just like they were on the day I ended up here.”
“I read elsewhere,” Clarence is back on the topic, “primitive peoples thought the gods slept under the hills, holding up the sky or holding down the ground, when they rolled over in there sleep: earthquakes, I stay because I don’t want a reality quake, and because I am in a perfect state here, it’s my, albeit small, heaven on earth.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely?” demands Jess.
“I’m in a peculiar condition, my attitude remains whatever it was the instant I sat down.”
“And we can’t stay,”
“Joe, understand me, wherever we are may be very delicate, if you want our new situation to become safer and more resilient, though I might like company, I feel you must travel as far away from me and as quickly away from me as you can, for all our sakes”
Jess started to see the situation from Clarence’s point of view, the sacrifice the old man was making, living in his heaven–for–one or not, human’s craved society and whether Clarence felt it or not she was sure he understood it intellectually. She and Joe had spent only 3 days trying to solve the mystery of this world. Clarence had spent 3 years. He didn’t have answers, like he’d said, but his speculations had all the persuasiveness to her of facts.
Joe didn’t have any interest in staying in any case, he only wanted to know his options, this motel wasn’t his idea of paradise anyway. Maybe Clarence was right too, maybe he and Jess could find their dreams out there, this thought fired his imagination, he could almost taste the rum.
“Clarence, I think we,” he looks to Jess then continues, “I think we understand, we’ll leave in the morning,”
“Have a complementary coffee here in the morning,” and find me on your radio before you go, I think we must part but we can stay in touch?
When Jess hears this she feels sure she’s right, Clarence will miss them. They follow his directions to their room, through the back, up two flights, across the hall, down one flight and opening the door marked 118. The room has two double beds and smells fresh and light. Sunshine blinks through the curtains, Joe fiddles with the pocket radio Clarence gave them.
His guests in their rooms, Clarence tunes his radio away from their station, not wishing to disturb their privacy now that it isn’t necessary, he regrets not having the chance to voice his theory about radios on this world but then who knows how they work really? They just do.
Joe clicks off the pocket radio, kicks off his boots and lays himself down on top of the bed on the right. After a moment, Jess joins him.
“12 year old?” she says.
He stiffens, “almost 13,” I didn’t know, really.
“You suspected she was underage.”
“Yeah,” he admits, “17, maybe 16, it wasn’t her first time, I figured, why not once?”
“I’m sorry I lied to you about my husband shooting me,” her voice is distant, her mind in so many directions she can’t pin her heart to a single emotion.
“I guess I get it,” he says quietly, “there’s a limit to what a person can take,”
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking Clarence is right, there’s a tropical backyard barbecue and rum bar in Torremolinos out there and I’d like to find it with you,” he smiles.
“Would you like that?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says, kissing her neck softly, his stubble prickles and she smells of sweat but they want each other now, no time to lose.
In the morning, they return to the reception area the same way they came, up the stairs, across the hall and down two flights. They’ve both showered and brushed their teeth and Joe has used the completely new, complementary razor in the bathroom instead of his old one to shave. They’re dressed for a long hike, Jess in jeans, t-shirt and canvas jacket from the house and Joe in a fresh pair of olive drab army slacks he’d been saving with pockets fat with complementary snacks, a fresh t-shirt and a travel parka. Clarence is waiting for them with a lit cigarette and a pot of coffee on the counter.
“Where did that come from?” asks Joe.
“It was under the counter last night, fresh since the day I showed up.”
Jess and Joe drink their coffee from Styrofoam cups greedily.
“Is that the same cigarette?” asks Joe, not thinking.
“Still smoking since I lit it yesterday.”
“You really don’t sleep?” asks Jess.
“Would if I wanted or needed to, hasn’t happened in years.”
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” Jess continues, concerned.
“Don’t you kids worry about me or go offering me your canned stuff, you need it and I literally don’t.” he smiles, always the same smile, “rest well?”
“Never got dark,”
“Oh, it does, but it takes about 6 years I reckon, was lighter 3 years ago.”
“That’s when you came,” Jess accepts the cigarette pack from Clarence and before she can return it he’s produced another one. Both are missing one cigarette. She lights her smoke and inhales deeply.
“Nothing as spectacular as your entries, I assure you, I took this job to supplement my retirement income, one day I came for work, sat down, I don’t know how long I sat there, nobody coming in, no check–outs at 11, no check–ins at 3, I started to wonder. It must have happened then,” he sips at his own coffee and takes a drag, “I suggest you head south, when our radio’s are tuned into each other, we’ll be able to communicate, in a manner of speaking.”
Jess imagines she hears how badly he must want to keep in touch in his voice but maybe it’s just her imagination after all. Clarence is smiling and sipping his coffee as if they were just another pair of motel guests checking out in the morning.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Joe assures him, “studying your map, it seems the best way out of town is north along the highway?”
“Yeah, I reckon, it’s the concrete and steel, nails reality down somehow, I didn’t walk along it far 3 years ago, but I imagine that corridor will keep going all the way to the gulf of Mexico,” he sighs, wistful.
“Sure you want to stay here?” Joe offers.
“I’m sorry Joe, I meant every word of what I said last night, I’ve thought long and hard about this, I decided 2 years ago, if anyone should come along, I’d sit right here and send them on their way. You’re right about this place, it has rules.”
“Well, so long then Clarence, thanks for all your help,” it’s all Joe can think to say.
“We can visit,” offers Jess, missing Clarence already even though she only met him the night before. It seems criminal to abandon a human being to isolation like this but he’s thought it over and over like he says, there’s no arguing with him.
“I’d like that, but don’t. At least wait and see, we’ve got the radio’s, the further you get, if I’m right, the safer we’ll all be.”
“What about Jess and me?” says Joe, shouldn’t we split up too then? says Joe, not seriously, just curious.
“If you’re on the same radio station, I think it’s alright,” speculates Clarence.
“Well Clarence,” Jess leans across the counter to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He blushes, Joe offers his hand and they shake warmly.
“What about the rats?” he wonders.
“There’s another door behind the motel, the alleyway is the right scale, follow the sectors outlined in green on the map up to the highway and you should be fine,” says Clarence.
“Thanks again Clarence,” Jess says.
“Just being neighbourly,” he says, “Go on, you’ve got a lot of walking to do before nightfall.”
Joe shoulders his pack and heads for the door, Jess follows, as they leave the reception area she looks back and sees Joe adjusting the radio, the same even smile on his face.
Outside, the morning air is sharp and clean, they breathe deeply and walk to the end of the alleyway. Following the green sectors on Clarence’s map, they zig zag through the streets of town, sometimes going through back alleys and through buildings. Eventually they reach a wide road and in the distance they can see an on–ramp that leads to a highway that stretches out into the distance before disappearing behind the jungle on the right.
“Follow the yellow brick road?” mutters Joe.
“We’re not in
anymore,” agrees Jess. Kansas
They walk on, heading for Hell or Torremolinos, giant rats or giant mojitos.END