Birdlime

The boy watched the world end. The mud wasn’t done with it yet, so he watched.

He rested his back against the redbrick wall, downtown’s largest bank, and slid down. Trembling knees popping and cheeks tight from sucking air through clenched teeth, he landed on the pavement, his jeans damp against his bottom.

He lifted his tingling hands to the sun and ignored the dome surrounding the town, the mud rising.

The sun beamed through his shaking digits. The sprinkling of mud like ants on a stick, the grime eclipsed the half-moons on his nails. The blue sky was empty except for the sun and the clouds and the dome and the occasional breeze whisking away the occasional bird but empty and then he spoke.

‘Could be checking for survivors.’

There were no more helicopters pulling out rich assholes, or fighter jets leaving behind their contrails. His back warmed against the sun-baked bricks. He rolled a single granule between his fingers and flicked towards the quiet main road of downtown.

‘They’re not looking.’

He searched with his thick tongue inside his mouth. The wet flesh dug into the depressions of his maulers. The boy laughed when he failed to scrape out the grit and hissed when his grimy fingers entered his kisser, scarping over his incisors.

‘Of course, not,’ he shook his head. ‘Can burn this place down for a laugh if you wanted to.’

He dropped his hands to his sides and gasped when his knuckles slammed against the hot pavement. He squeezed his lips together and screamed. Flakes of skin lifted had off the bone. Blood collected under the epidermis. He bit off the peeled skin and spat between his legs on the hot grey paving.

‘Yeah,’ he stomped the main road’s pavement. ‘You really are like garbage.’

He stomped again and slammed his foot as hard as he could. He stomped on the grey stones once more and his sneaker popped off his foot and flew through the air, over the sun, and landed on the road.

His scream echoed down the town’s main road and tears ran like sheep on a steep animal spoor. He left his sneaker to the tarmac, a rodent’s tombstone, a rat’s grave.

‘Screw this,’ he rummaged in his jean’s front pocket and plucked out a 1970s Casio cassette deck.  ‘Won’t die in the next hour. Won’t have it.’

His pupils dilated when he pressed the deck’s side button. The thick grey monster clicked and out seeped the sounds of Roxette through its black spongy headset. The noise jumped like bad acoustics from the walls and over the streets and he slung the sharp metal band over his head, careful to not slice the back of his ears again.

He closed his eyes and listened. The muddy dome around the town disappeared and the silence vanished.

Abandoned at the gas station, the cassette deck played the kind of music he did not grow up with or care for, but the Swedish Duo, dead in their town or city’s muddy domes, calmed him and he wondered if the same domes were all over the world. Probably. He would never know.

‘I am the only tomorrow.’

The boy frowned at how strange his voice sounded under the music. He cleared his throat.

‘Place is a fucking mess.’

The mud in the distance grew taller and taller, now over 40 storeys high, and the boy, too old to be called a boy but too young to take care of himself, watched the mud. He studied the road littered with dead cars, dead homes, dead strollers, and dead bodies of some he knew before the mud.

Washing the litter away with the 1980s pop lyrics, he sighed, tapped his socked foot to the rhythm of pop music, and wiped his caked hands on his jeans, singing, watching the mud.

‘Walking like a man, hitting like a hammer. She’s a juvenile scam, never was a quitter. Tasty like a raindrop, she’s got the look!’

He punched the pavement and, using the back of his hand, wiped the tears off his chin and sang.

‘Heavenly bound, ‘cause heaven’s got a number when she’s spinning me around. Kissing is a color, her loving is a wild dog. She’s got the look!’

What looked like specs of dirt tumbling off the dome’s growing edge were in fact chunks of mud as large as sedans breaking off. After the first week, even the debris crashing and piling with soft plonks against the rim had become too high to climb.

The muddy dome had collected itself up from the earth and surrounded the town’s perimeter, working up towards the peak he estimated to reach about a quarter of a mile up now halfway towards god’s workshop lightbulb, the high noon sun. Sunlight would vanish in less than two hours, the town closed off in maybe four, and the poor souls caught in darkness would have to wait to be crushed by the tumbling clay or for oxygen to run out within the cupola.

‘Need to move,’ the boy nodded. ‘Don’t want my neck broken by stupid mud.’

He fast-forwarded the tape and after six seconds clicked the play button again. He landed right after the first chorus and sang as he smiled, eyes closed.

‘I’m not afraid, a trembling flower. I’ll feed your heart and blow the dust from your eyes,’ he lifted his head away from the wall and scratched the back of his neck. ‘And in the dark things happen faster. I love the way you sway your hips next to mine –’

He fast-forwarded to the chorus. He waited. When the lyric “success” came up he shouted “some sex” over the music and laughed.

‘I’m gonna get dressed for success. Hitting a spot for the big time, baby. Get dressed for success. Shaping it up for your love, yeah!’

He giggled, hand over mouth, and cried not because of sadness but of joy. He liked singing. Others didn’t.

He rewinded the tape, just a second again, and shouted, ‘some sex!’ waited, tapped his foot twice, and screamed, ‘some sex!’ before he cackled and fast-forwarded the tape towards the end.

It didn’t matter how many times you burned the clay or poked, shoveled, spiked, shot, or screamed at it, the muck remained, and if you kicked a hole in the foundation the sludge slurped up the emptiness and the insanity started again.

His cackle had simpered down to a giggle and he waited for the tape to reach the last song.

Some tried to leave, of course. Even after the wall concaved and became too high to climb, some tried and tumbled to their deaths. Others, however, tried to stay and help where they could, be humble, be patient, be supportive, be killed by those who were injured, who had become violent or “gone off the cuckoo’s nest,” his words, not his mother’s, and almost everyone got killed except for the boy. He hoped his life would not be the town’s last tomorrow, but in the end, the sludge oozed upwards to the skies and only a few were left to watch the wall rise and he did not want to look for survivors. He hated the ones he already found but it was a numbers game and the safety of knowing where some of them were had helped him sleep the past two days.

He clicked the play button. The piano and synthesizer intro thumped his eardrums. He did not sing along. The song was too sad for him to sing with, and the Swedish woman knew her stuff, so he left her be and nodded when she sang, ‘Listen to your heart,’ and gooseflesh cratered his legs each time she serenaded, ‘I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t know why. Listen to your heart before you tell him goodbye.’

The boy rubbed his sweaty head. Sweat jumped off his buzz cut, a water sprinkler of skin and skull, and as he rubbed he watched the tiny droplets making tiny rainbows in the sun. The daytime shadows lurked over the parks, reservoirs, apartment buildings, corpses, carcasses, and debris —

From around the corner where the boy sat, a metal can shot out. It banged and rolled off the pavement and it clanged and wobbled when it stopped.

The boy paused the tape and yanked off the headset. He yelped. The metal band cut into the back of his ears. He pushed away from the wall and got up.

The can crawled out the road, climbed over the pavement’s ledge, and dragged back tinged and slipped around the wall again.

‘Huh?’

A low groan rumbled from behind the corner and whatever lurked there spat out the can and dragged it back using a string.

The boy had been careless. He looked around the empty streets, at the cars and shops that were too far to run away from someone with a gun and a trained eye, back at the growing shadow at the wall, the rumble of the dragged can growing and growing. He waited. His knees were stiff and his hands to his sides. He watched the redbrick corner closely.

The can flew out again and crashed and tingled on the tarmac but not dragged back.

He closed his eyes, smiled, and said, ‘fuck.’

An old woman shuffled out.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ the boy chuckled and held his hand over his heart. ‘Jesus Christ.’

Unaware of the boy, the old woman grumbled as she fished back the can into her hand, looking up the road away from him. She clicked her tongue when she threw the can in an easterly direction.

He slammed his back against the warmish wall, hand still to heart, and slid down, wiggling to keep his shirt from rising to his neck, and placed the metal headband gingerly back on his head, sighing, relieved the old woman was just someone who had —

‘Gone off the cuckoo’s nest.’

— and not a danger to him.

He pressed the rewind button and shook his head when the old woman threw the can towards him. From his periphery, he could sense her pulling back the can and calling out to him.

He ignored her. He tapped his foot on the pavement, nodded to the rhythm, and shook his head at the old woman. He did not hear the click of her revolver.

The world exploded.

The boy screamed like a seven-year-old girl when the old woman fired the gun in his direction again. One of the bullets pinged and its ricochet and nearly struck his body. Covered in sweat and stiff like concrete, he held up his hands and yelled at the old woman.

‘What the fuck?’

The headband cut into his ears when he pushed it off his head and on his lap. A puff of grit tinkled about four paces away around the hole she just made. He looked at his legs and patted his chest.

‘Did you just shoot me, you crazy bitch?’

‘You, you look at me when I talk, understand?’ the old woman’s lips trembled. ‘You look at me when I talk to you.’

She wiped her lips and spat behind the wall. The can dropped but she left it and her eyes peeled from her head, watching, scowling like a vulture.

The boy with his swollen brain yelled at the old woman again.

‘Stop waving that thing at me,’ he waved his hands around his head. ‘What’s the matter with you? Put that thing down!’

‘And I’m not some crazy old bat that’s gone in the head, you hairless monkey,’ the old woman waved the revolver in the air. ‘And you get up when I’m talking to you.’

The old woman aimed the revolver at his feet.

‘C’mon,’ she rocked the gun. ‘Get up, I says. Show some respect.’

The boy stood. The headset crashed on the pavement and the old woman’s eyes darted down, still pointing with her gun at his feet, and then eyed him.

‘What is that –? Don’t move.’

The boy backed away.

‘Calm down.’

‘Don’t move, I says.’

With his hands up, the headset trailed in front.

‘Can you point that thing anywhere other than my head –?’

She shot off another round.

‘Jesus Christ!’

The headset jumped when the bullet struck the pavement and he fell flat on his arse.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ the boy jumped, plucked out the cassette deck from his pocket, and threw it away. It did not break or vomit out the tape. ‘What the hell? You almost shot me again! Stop that!’

She waved the revolver at the music player.

‘What is that?’

‘What is what?’ he looked at his feet, at the ground, and back at her vulture eyes. ‘What? What?’

‘That.’ Her hands trembled. ‘What is that?’

The deck’s headset crackled out a weak rendition of the music the boy had listened to. He looked at it, then at her, back at it, and frowned at the old woman.

‘You’re not serious. You mean the –?’

‘I mean what I mean, hobgoblin,’ she clutched the revolver with both hands and aimed at the player. ‘Wha’s that thing, why’s it making that noise?’

He did not ask what a hobgoblin was but felt sure whatever it was he wasn’t it. He pointed at the cassette deck.

‘You gonna shot me if I pick it up –?’

She fired two shots at it and missed with both. The music had stopped.

‘What the fuck?’ he jumped back. ‘What the fuck, cut it out!’

The old woman made a raspy, drawn-out hissing sound, along with a grunting noise that to the boy sounded like a hungry pig or dog barking in the distance. His knees trembled and he rested his back against the wall, hands still above his hips.

‘Scared the boy really good now. Sum’bitch dancin’ like a headless cock.’

The old woman leaned against the wall and laughed out her drawn-out hiss. She slapped the redbrick, making the walls shiver. The gun dangled down her side. She looked at her feet. The can rattled and she looked back at the boy.

‘You see Spider?’

The boy looked at her gun and shook his head.

‘Nope,’ he looked at the fresh bullet holes in the pavement. ‘Just me.’

He cleared his throat. Sweat had formed on his forehead but he kept his hands steady, cocked, waiting.

‘You lost your spider?’

She dragged the can back to her hands and held it out for the boy to see.

‘Only comes out runnin’ if he hears it. No good sum’bitch without this can, you know,’ she ran the revolver’s barrel over the aluminium ridges. ‘You seen my Spider?’

She held her hand palm down to about her knee.

‘About this high.’

The boy’s throat clicked when he swallowed.

‘Big fucking spider,’ he chuckled but did not move. ‘You wear glasses when you don’t go out shooting strangers in the street?’

The old woman’s vulture eyebrows twisted. The gears in her head moved but the boy could see they needed oil. Not too smart but if you had a gun in your hand you were the smartest “sum’bitch” in any room.

The scowl dropped and she grunted like a hungry pig. She dropped the can and slapped the walls. The same shiver rippled off her hand into the stones.

‘Oh, no, you dummy,’ she cocked an eye at him, shook her head, and her voice crooned. ‘Not a spider. A pig,’ she pulled the can back into her hand and shook her head again. ‘Spiders can’t be as big as pigs. Only a dummy could think so.’

The boy lowered his hands.

‘Kind of a silly name for a pig.’

‘Kinda silly to think pigs would care what you call ‘em.’

She held her eyes at him a moment longer than the boy would’ve liked. She was courting, and her lips gave a yapping sound when she spoke.

‘You seen my pig, boy?’

The sun peered over the brown edge of their new world, the white-orange fingers pretending to be dusk.

He crouched down, rested his back against the wall, and pointed at his cassette deck.

‘Been listening to my music,’ he thumbed in the cassette deck’s direction and shrugged. ‘Didn’t see or hear anythin’ that I didn’t want to see or hear.’

The old woman’s eyes sparkled. She looked up to the dome and the sun and when she studied the player between her and the boy she squinted.

‘Why’s it dead now? Did I kill it?’

‘Can’t kill music, “dummy,”’ the boy kept his eyes to the distance. ‘The tape’s finished. Have to rewind it to make it play again.’

‘What do you mean play? It’s not alive that thing, is it?’

‘It’s as alive as it makes you feel,’ he looked at the old woman but looked away when her vulture eyes pierced into the back of his brain. ‘Music is like reading. Don’t mean anything if there are no people to enjoy it.’

The old woman lifted her hands up to her head, closed her eyes, and patted, muttered, and patted.

‘S’mumbo jumbo, s’what that was,’ she snapped her eyes at the boy, aimed the gun at him, and shouted. ‘I told you to get up when I talk to you. Get up!’

The boy closed his eyes and shook his head.

‘Can’t hear you,’ he pointed at his ear. ‘Can only see or hear what I want to hear.’

The old woman clicked the revolver’s hammer back. The boy opened his eyes but did not look at her.

‘You stand when I say you stand.’

The boy held out his palm to her, fingers stretched.

‘Five.’

‘What? Wha’s that for? I says you look at me when I talk.’

‘One two three for five,’ he looked at her and back to the dark horizon. ‘Five shots. Only one left with that thing and your shot is terrible so I’ll take my chances.’

She shook her pants pocket. A chime of metal tingled in the mouth of the tattered fabric.

‘Got plenty more to turn you into Swiss cheese, hobgoblin,’ her grunting became a low grumble like boulders scraping in a cave. ‘Get up or the last thing you’ll see is the front part of your head coming out your eyes.’

He placed his hand on his eyes and pointed in the direction of the cassette deck.

‘Not if I can’t get my medicine, I ain’t moving.’

He could hear her feet shuffle next to the can.

‘What medicine? What d’you talking about medicine?’

The boy never understood how actors could cry on demand but he thought about his dog getting killing, his mother getting raped, or —

The last song he had listened to came back like a broken dam. The music and the lyrics washed over his dry skin and the tears came. He pushed away his smile and pointed at the player again.

‘It,’ the boy frowned and rose his voice to a whine. ‘It makes the nightmares and voices go away. It makes me see things I cannot see when,’ he looked away, bit his lower lip, wiped his eyes, and bounced his shoulders. ‘It sometimes gets cloudy in my head, you know? Hard to think. Makes these funny pictures and voices in my head.’

The old woman stared at him. Yes, the old woman knew. The boy wanted to quiver his lips but thought might be a bit much. She lowered her gun, looked at the player, and with a defeated hand waved the gun in its direction.

‘Take it.’

The boy wiped his eyes and smiled.

‘You sure?’ he frowned at her, pouting his lips. ‘You not going to shoot again, are you?’

The old woman shook her head. The boy reached over, not getting up, and scraped the player closer. He checked it for dings and scrapes. The headset had a scuff mark but was not broken. He pressed the rewind button and waited.

The old woman watched and clicked the revolver’s hammer forward.

‘You said it can make you see what you want to see. What’choo mean by that?’

The boy nodded, not smiling.

‘Can it help,’ she shook the empty can over her head, looking up the deserted road. ‘Can it help to find my Spider?

He shrugged. ‘Dunno. Can make me see lots of things. Made me see places I’ve never been to. Made me see people I’ve never met.’

The old woman squinted.

‘But not see what’s happening around here this place?’

The cassette deck clicked. Back to the beginning. He pointed at the mud.

‘Did you see it coming?’

‘Couldn’t do anything when it happened, dummy.’

‘Exactly. No one did. Same for me.’

He held the steel headband with its spongy black earphones for her to see.

‘But maybe if two people do it, I dunno, we can see better than just one?’

‘He’s talking too fast,’ she shook her head. ‘I can’t see anything –’

‘Maybe we can find your Spider,’ he patted the pavement. ‘Sit. Come and listen. Just take a breath.’

The old woman hissed her drowned-out laughed and slapped the wall.

‘It’s a trick, ain’t it?’ she nodded and held the gun above her head. ‘You’re going to take my Charles away from me. Hobgoblin. That’s what you are. You’re a,’ she spat away from the boy. ‘Hobgoblin, ‘s’what you are.’

He placed the headphones over his head and pressed the play button.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,’ he moved the spongy material just above his earhole and on his temple. ‘I’m going away now,’ he waved. ‘I can’t hear you. Buh-bye.’

The guitar intro and synthesizer drums pounded over the world.

‘Wait. Can’t do that.’

He placed his hands over his eyes, smiling, and tapped his socked foot to the beat. He could feel her vulture eyes scanning his joy

‘Look at me,’ the revolver’s hammer clicked back again but the boy did not look. ‘I said you look at me when I’m talking to you — stop that noise!’

She shot a round above his head. Redbrick grit sprinkled on his head. His heart pounded. The old woman’s revolver trembled in her fists.

Exhaling, he laughed at the old woman. Six rounds she shot. Now he had time on his side.

He got up and clicked the forward button. The last song was slow, gentle, beautiful, a melody that could make a seven-year-old cry. He held the player in front of him and took a step forward.

The old woman shook her head. ‘Get back.’

‘Do you want to give it a try?’

‘I says go back a step now. Go on back.’

He took another step. In punching distance, the barrel nearly touched his chest.

She yelled and he closed his eyes. She pulled the trigger, pull-pull-pulled, but no bang came out only the clicks. He took another step and pressed his sternum against the warm cylinder. First time having a gun’s barrel against his chest, made his feel Van Gogh-like. He took a step when she took one back. They were dancing.

‘I’m not going to take your gun.’

He pressed the cassette deck’s stop button.

‘I want you to listen to something.’

The old woman shook her head.

‘No, I never ain’t have tuh. Get back I says’

He was at the right song, his gut reassured him, and with his grimy hands, he gently placed the headband on her head, careful not to cut the back of her filthy ears with the metal.

She batted at the headband, her eyes darting up and down, but he touched her hand and lifted the revolver up to his head and pressed the barrel against his temple.

‘What’re you doin’?’ she tried to squirm her hand out but he was too strong. ‘Stop that!’

The bullets in her pockets jingled. Her nostrils flared as she breathed but beaming into this strange man’s eyes she held the revolver in place and waited, watching him.

He adjusted the headset over her ears and, lowering the volume, pressed Play.

‘Close your eyes.’

Her gaze jumped left to right.  ‘Wha’s that noise?’ she studied him. ‘I don’t, don’t like this –’

‘Wait,’ he smiled and pressed the spongey earphones into her ears. ‘It gets better. There’s a woman that’s going to sing,’ he stretched his eyelids wide open and closed it with emphasis. ‘Close your eyes and listen.’

The barrel, strange against his temple, moved to the rhythm of her heartbeat. She looked over his right shoulder.

In the cassette deck, the caged bird sang through the petrified tape.

The old woman closed her eyes.

‘She speaks too fast,’ she frowned.’ I can’t hear –’

‘Just listen to the noise behind her words,’ he took his hand off hers and studied her lips and cheeks, her eyes and nose. ‘Forget about the words. Just close your eyes and listen.’

The old woman relaxed her grip on the revolver. She lowered her gun and looked at the boy. Her eyes were wet not from age but with the experience of beauty.

‘Is she dead?’ the old woman asked the boy. ‘Is this woman dead?’

‘No.’

‘Who is she signing to –?’

She gasped when the chorus came. The revolver fell from her hand and clattered on the pavement. He did not look down and neither did she. She placed her hands on her chest.

‘She says you,’ the old woman looked at the cassette player, smiled, and batted her eyes, tapping at his chest. ‘She’s not dead?’

He nodded. She closed her eyes again.

He lowered himself towards the revolver. He continued to push himself down, slowly, softy, holding the cassette deck at her hip area, careful not to tug the earphones off, with his eyes still locked onto hers closed, searching the ground with his blinded hand, snapping his gaze down for just a second, plucked the gun, and dragged it slowly into his palm. He got up with tendons creaking like hinges on an antique lantern and his knees popped when he straightened.

He nodded. She had her eyes closed. The brushed metal made his hand feel solid, the wood handle prickled his palm, and with the butt of the gun, he tapped her on her shoulder.

She snapped open her eyes and looked at the gun.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘You dropped this.’

The old woman looked at her hands, empty without the can and gun, and grimaced with her vulture’s scowl at the boy. She bared her teeth. Before she could snatch the gun away from him, he pushed the revolver sideways into her mushy chest, pressed for her to take it, and waited until the gun was back into her palm.

‘Dropped it,’ he said and looked at the ground. ‘Could’ve killed you if I wanted to but didn’t.’

She dangled the gun against her side. Her sparse lashes were stiff not moving along with her eyes.

He took her hand again and placed the barrel against his temple.

‘It’ll get you a long way if you learn to trust someone without a gun in your hand.’

He pressed the stop button. Her eyes sparkled but were not happy. She sulked and touched the strange man’s hand with the cassette deck.

‘Why’d it stop? Where is she?’

‘Do you want her back?’

The old woman nodded like an idiot. ‘Can she sing for me again?’

He pressed the rewind button, held it down for exactly six seconds, and pressed play again.

‘There you go,’ he held the player up to her. ‘Do you want to hold it?’

She looked at her revolver hand and then at what he assumed was her “can hand.” She glared at him. ‘You won’t trick me? This isn’t a trick, you dirty hobgoblin.’

He tapped her pocket with the bullets. ‘Can’t hurt you if I don’t have these, can I?’

The old woman looked at the gun pressed against the strange man’s head.

‘Let’s trade,’ he held the player between their faces. ‘Give me the gun then I can give you this.’

The tape played the boy’s favourite part of the song. The tape was near its end again. She dropped the gun to her side but shook her head.

‘I can’t do it,’ she looked at the strange man. ‘I’ll be alone.’

He pressed the stop button. Her eyes grew wide.

‘Here,’ he pointed at the cassette deck’s white triangle. ‘If you want the music–if you want her to sing again just press this.’

She fumbled for the button but he jerked it away.

‘Give me the gun.’

‘Make her sing.’

‘Give me the fucking gun then I will.’

‘Fine!’

The old woman threw the revolver over his head and held her empty hands out.

‘There,’ she pointed over his shoulder. ‘There, there, there! Now make her sing, make her sing for me!’

He cursed under his breath, shook his head, and pressed the button before pushing the cassette deck into her hands and jogging away.

The revolver had landed near the pavement’s drainage hole. He picked up the piece, bounced it in his hand, and went back to the old woman with the gun in his pocket.

She stood, watching. He watched her. She pointed at the cassette deck.

‘Make her sing again,’ she shook the player, looked underneath it, and tapped the plastic covering. ‘She keeps stopping.’

He walked over and showed her the “beginning” button, the stop one (‘don’t need that one,’ she said. ‘Just make her sing,’), and the “finish” arrows (‘don’t need tha’ one neither — just make her sing all the time).

He let her press the buttons herself. She smiled at the sun. Eyes closed, the old woman thanked the boy, reeled in her can and, turning her back to him, threw the aluminium container, calling out to her pig.

But after four or five paces the old woman stopped and leered over her shoulder at this strange man behind her.

‘Can Spider hear me with all this racket?’

‘We can’t hear what you hear.’

She cocked an eyebrow.

‘You sure you’re not just being a dummy? Only mean can hear it.’

‘Only you can hear. I promise,’ he pointed in a westerly point of the muddy concave. ‘Say. Pigs like dog food, don’t they?’

‘Some do,’ the old woman nodded. ‘Spider sometimes likes cat food too, but makes him fart up a storm if he even gets a little bit of it in so I don’t let him anymore.’

‘Think there’s a dog food depot down this road.’

She nodded.

‘Know there’s one mah-self.’

‘He might be there. There’s a pet shop close, too. He might be there.’

‘Smell is pretty strong in the mornings,’ the old woman smiled and threw the can.  ‘Might be.’

He followed and held his hand up to where the sun would be hiding behind the concave.

The ant-like grit on his fingers became harder to see. He spat, took a deep breath, wondered how many breaths they had left, and followed the old woman and her rattling can.

Outside, it was afternoon but within the sun would never rise again, and when the sun had reached its natural horizon, the dome closed with a squelch and two gunshots echoed inside the muddy vault.

©2018 Theo Volschenk. All rights reserved.

Canary

 

‘So I told her, I told her you couldn’t be doing that. That it could be done, yes Madeira, you can do that, Madeira, but the man said you needed to rest, to rest, it’s important to rest. The man said! You’re too old, Mads. You’re too damn old. Damn bird thought it could do what it wants without my consent, my help. She was too old! Serves her right, though. It isn’t my fault. It serves ‘er right for being so damn stubborn. And now look what happened!’

In the shimmering March heat wave (the best the little town of Bethesda could offer), Valter Manyer stood nodding his head, listening to this oval-shaped, middle-aged female while he filled his water bottles. A wisp of damp peroxided hair waved in the sticky Sunday morning grocery store as she see-sawed on two sizes 4 feet, resting one palm on the ice cream freezer sliding glass, the other on the aisle of grocery brand toilet paper.

In her cart, she had one empty water bottle to fill, along with a frosted packet of pet mince–frozen processed meat used as a cheap alternative to feeding cats and dogs–and a roll of tinfoil. He supposed the mince might be her lunch since her bare feet didn’t show any signs of high living. And the only pet she kept talking about was her canary, which might’ve been her only pet or responsibility.

She had the smell that created an aftertaste in your nose and mouth of cheap hardened shampoo and the sweet tangle of unwashed panties.

Valter filled his first 5-litre water bottle while the owner of the dead canary carried on. The clean light glinted in the man’s blue sloshing plastic, the 300-litre tank bubbling in its reverse osmosis. His reflection wobbled in the reflective back as the massive tank spat out the liquid. He looked to his right across the wilted flower stand and through the sweets and magazine aisle right into the bored cashiers running the products through the sounds of the barcode laser scanners. The machines beeped slowly away on the hot March morning. The dull rhythms hypnotised him.

‘It really is a shame.’

‘I’m sorry, what?’ Valter whipped his eyes back to the exacerbated woman. He tried to bring his focus back to this woman, this stranger, this fellow patron, but the chugging bottle clanged against the empty plastic like a waterfall, a pleasant waterfall, in his parched mind. The canary story faded into the barcode beepers.

‘It’s a damn shame, that bird, a damn shame. I’m telling you mister — I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?’

As she watched the water and listened to the cashiers, Valter heard her voice rise, an inflexion. It was a question. He missed it.

He scolded himself before The Routine began. The Routine, his name for an automatic social response, was simple and always the same: a tingle in the spine–the oh, shit! response–a rubbing of the forehead, the automatic country mouse agreeing —

‘I hear ya –’

— a nodding of the head, and then finally waiting for the yammering to continue.

When the first bottle gurgled to the top, Valter twisted the container shut, placed the filled bottle in his trolley, crackled out the next plastic bottle (Valter’s called them “the blue geese”), and pivoted the second empty bottle for the forced feeding of water under the glossy black tap. He pushed the lever down and when the bubbles continued sans the yammering. He knew made a faux pas. He gave the wrong response. The system needed tweaking since different inflexions in the voice required different answers. His cheeks flushed hot when she tilted her head.

‘What do you mean you hear me? I said what’s your name, mister? Hell, you got snot in your ears or what!’ The canary woman slapped the freezer with a pink hand and bellowed a silent laugh. She threw her head back at the man’s apparent embarrassment as she wailed out a rabbit-caught-in-a-bear-trap squeal. An employee, dressed in black, green, and red–the colours of the store–gave them a cordial and brisk smile as she jogged past them into the STAFF ONLY local dispatch.

‘I’m sorry,’ Valter rubbed his neck. ‘It’s… Yes, it’s Valter. Valter Manyer.’ The second bottle gobbled the water up. He had four more geese to go. ‘My mind’s a bit occupied, that’s all.’

A Billie Holiday song–Strange Fruit or The Mood that I’m In–oozed into the rippling ambience of the supermarket’s fridge section as the woman, now Canary in his mind, continued her story along the backdrop of scuttling kids on Sunday’s best, the lost dad looking for the marked down crunchy peanut butter the wife insisted would be better for their pockets, bellies, and loyalty program, and the local preacher pushing his cart, ignoring his bodily calls for wines and other indulgences in the colder part of the store.

‘That’s okay, I understand. A lot of sin to repent, am I right?’

‘Right.’

‘Well, like I said, it’s hot as hell in Bethesda. You know, the place that we’re in it,’ Canary slapped her knee, lurching over in laughter. ‘You know, mister Corn Ears. You know what I’m talking about. Hell, I nearly told you all that happened that would land me in a shitpile. And to a goddamn stranger in a store! Christ, I must be going mad! But these fuckers,’ she jabbed a sausage thumb behind her, ‘won’t even notice, or care, that my ol’ bird died. Or care how she died. Am I right?’

Beep-beep-beep, Valter mimicked the scanners.

‘So anyway,’ Canary continued, ‘I said don’t do it, Madeira, don’t drink no water and swallow those damn pills. The pills were making you sicker, the pills were drying you up, made you sweat and shit all over the place. Fucking nightmare to clean after you, clean where you sleep every damn day. Can’t be suicide, mister, don’t think that,’ she wagged a finger, ‘it wasn’t that. Miriam wouldn’t do that. Damn bird’s too senile to know how to kill herself in any way,’ she pushed out an asthmatic laugh, closed her eyes, and shook her head. She coughed, cleared her throat, and continued. ‘Then I have to clean your shit up again, and I won’t do it, Miriam. Goddamnit, I won’t do it again. Remember what the doctor said –’

Probably means vet, Valter filled the gap for himself. Idiot’s probably gone insane from this heat we’re having. Has to be the vet.

The human brain, along with inflexion in speech, can detect words that are out of the ordinary. The heart jumps when a person in unexpected circumstances, like a supermarket, uses words like rape, gun, murder, and the like. The brain spikes, or the oh, fuck! response kicks in. Different from the oh, shit! response. The same happened with swear words as well, but Valter had been conditioned in a household where an alcoholic Daddy showed his love with a white-knuckle punch to Mommy Dearest’s cheeks. After the second cheekbone broke on the little boy’s 7th birthday from Daddy’s love, cusses became as effervescent as the air you breathe.

Valter still kept an ear out for the oh, fuck! ripples as well.

Glug-glug-glug.

‘– she wouldn’t listen. Now she’s gone and died on my ass. Kept taking those yellow pills. For pain relief, the doctor said, but the only pain was in her fucking head,’ she pushed her finger white against her pink scalp. ‘Stupid piece of shit bird. Serves her right. Serves her damn right. I tried to thumb the pills up out her gullet. Tried to save her life, teach her lesson, tried to show I mean business, you know what I mean? But her whistle as soft as ice goin’ pipes and crushed on me. It fucking crushed on me! Can you believe that? Felt the same as crushing the skull of an eight-week kitten, though,’

Canary chuckled in the slowly increasing and cheerful supermarket. ‘Well, I couldn’t save her. Choked to death. Suff-oh-cay-ted,’ she said the word, stressing each syllable, making sure she was saying the medical jargon correctly, adding a mocking tone with rolling eyes. ‘Anyway, it’s too bad. Not my fault, mister. Not my fault. Well, I hope with this heat, I hope the devil made a quick stop at our place to pick up her soul. If not, the corpse –’

Cadaver, you moron, the oh, fuck! response replied. People turn into corpses, animals into cadavers.

‘– stank to high heaven. Now ain’t that a contrast! The devil prancing to find the bloated body reaching the heavens. Ain’t that just pretty?’

The rhetorical question had its own kind of inflexion, Valter noticed, but since he paid partial attention, he gave another go-to assertion (‘Yip, it sure is. Strange world we live in’) and made eye contact. He smiled as she galloped her fingers on the cold glass of the freezer, timed the stopping of the water flow, closing of the bottle, crackled the heavy plastic between the other filled blue geese, and tipped the third empty one in. His mind jumped back to the force-fed geese his father used to bring as food to their table when he was just a boy, a geese farmer’s son.

As the Canary continued confessing to what seemed to Valter a minor crime (was it even illegal to kill a pet bird? he wondered), his ears prickled when Billie Holiday ended with a:

 

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

 

Definitely “strange fruit,” Valter concluded. Holiday sure would’ve been right about this place as well.

‘Mister Valter, you sure have a way of talking to yourself, now don’t you?’

‘What? Did I say something?’

‘Yeah, something about “she sure would’ve been right” or something. Did you jump out of a psyche ward or what?’

No laughter this time, but the canary did stretch a smile under her large pink lips.

Valter saw the four front teeth were the only ones left in her mouth. The wisp of bleached hair kept bouncing on the pink scalp from the air-con duct. He wondered if this canary woman quite literally came from an avian line where, as the joke goes, the concerned little boy asked his mother if birds are made of metal because dad said he wants to screw the one next door.

‘No,’ Valter feigned a chuckle, using the punch line to fuel some humour into his own face. ‘No, but if you asked my Momma, she might tell you something different I’m sure.’

This made the canary woman howl, throwing her head back from ecstasy. ‘You sure funny, mister Valter. You sure are damn funny.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Valter rubbed his neck as he looked down at his third half-filled bottle. ‘Yeah. Hey, listen. I know you said I could go before you, but if I’m done with this one,’ he stabbed a finger into the crackling plastic.

His thoughts hopscotched to a crushed larynx, to the force-fed geese, to the Canary’s strange ramblings.

‘You can go ahead,’ Valter tried to give his best impression of a courtly bow, but it only made his lanky frame tremble timidly in the joyous grocer. ‘The pleasure would be mine, m’lady.’

Her eyes widened. She slapped the glass top and flapped a hand to the bowing gentleman. ‘What’re ye, some kind of pansy? Don’t do that. I said it’s fine, I have all the time in the world. No need to worry. Yes, sir. All the time in the world now.’

A curt man, slender and so upright it would make your backache, walked past them in broad steps without a smile.

Must be the manager, Valter thought.

The woman rolled her hands over the plastic cart’s handle. Valter didn’t see any bird feed or newspapers in her basket. But then, he reminded himself, since the canary, the one she killed this morning, had died this person wouldn’t need any of those things now, would she?

The barcode scanners, increasing in speed, now kept pace with the chugging water. A sudden rush of sound came into the store. Churchgoers were now worming in for their luncheons, roasts, and any other foodstuffs that made a week ever so more rewarding after a good sermon.

‘That’s mighty kind of you,’ Valter clasped his hand on the softly crackling goose. ‘That’s kind. I won’t be long, I promise.’

‘With the manners and all. Don’t worry, you fool,’ she rested her hands on the humming freezer again. ‘So like I said, a real shame about today. Luckily, she died on a –’

‘What kind of bird was it?’

The interruption from Valter shocked the woman, making him think that this kind of interaction had been a first in her life. The blood rushed to his head, pulsing with the water. Something felt wrong about the conversation, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The third bottle almost frothed to the top. The scanners outpaced the chugging this time.

With eyes bulging and white, she cleared her jelly-like jowls as Etta James belted out Finders Keepers, Loser Weepers. ‘Oh, uhm? Hmm. Yes,’ she clicked her thick finger. ‘She… she was the kind of bird that–fucking kids!’

Valter shook the bottle in his hand from fright. It dropped onto the floor as he fumbled to catch it midair, but only manage to shake out the filled third bottle’s contents with a loud splatter and crackle. The linoleum floors glistened as he shook his wet hands and fiddled to close the open tap.

‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Valter burst out in sudden anger fuelled by his terror.

The Canary kept her eyes to her left, hands wrapped around her cart, water still dripping from the tank’s marbled stand, when a couple of kids stopped running, stopped next to the grocery branded toilet paper. The kids, the oldest a 7-year old pale girl with a pink butterfly dress and glittered sandals and a streak of red lipstick on her cheek, the boy with a Superman t-shirt underneath a pastel blue collar shirt, gripped each other’s hands. The giggles stopped while the enormous bird-like woman pierced their gazes with their own.

‘The store says no running, you hoodlums! No running!’ the finger trembled in her pink hands. ‘Where’s your mother or father, hmm? I need to show them, with these hands, what a couple of disciplined kids look like. Need to give you two fuckers a good smack that’s what –’

‘That’s enough of that.’

The Canary moved her eyes, white all around the icy iris, to the trembling Valter.

‘The store said no running, mister Valter. These kids –’

‘I know what you said,’ his voice quivered as he spoke. ‘But they’re just kids. They won’t do it again, won’t you?’

He wasn’t sure why he said they wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t his responsibility and quite frankly didn’t care, but the adrenaline from the outburst, embarrassment from the crashing bottle, the potential confrontation from this burly female, this cocktail of emotions had no way to release itself in a civilised way. He was afraid that this woman might beat him up on this hot Sunday morning over a bunch of kids running in a store, her eyes twitching and vile.

She did kill her bird this morning, he reminded himself, and was concerned that her quiet rage might spread to the public, his shaking frame the first causality from her apparent madness.

The laser beepers sped up with Etta James crooning over the filling store.

The little girl spoke up first. ‘We’re sorry mister. Ma’am,’ the girl bit her forefinger nail as she nudged the younger boy. ‘Aren’t we, Markus?’

The boy’s eyes glistened, sucking the green lollipop, and nodded with his eyes to his sister. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said in a muffled, sweet-in-cheek sound. ‘I’m really sorry, Denise.’ Spit dripped from his sticky mouth onto the print of his shirt. He was close to crying.

‘Don’t tell me,’ Denise nudged her brother again and tilted her head to the bird monster. ‘Tell it to her. And don’t talk with your mouth full. You know what Mommy says.’

The boy’s eyes brimmed with tears. He plucked out the wet sweet from his mouth, cleared his throat, and repeated, ‘I’m really, really, sorry.’

‘Thank you,’ Valter accepted the apology from the still distraught female. He wanted the kids to go away. ‘She also says thank you. Now run along.’

The girl and boy didn’t move. The boy pinched his eyes from the crouching female and watched his sister. Valter flapped a hand to try and calm the crazy woman.

He tried again. ‘I mean go away,’ it sounded harsh, but he needed them to leave. ‘Please. Go find your mother, will ya?’

The girl pulled her brother and gave a muffled ‘Thank you’ as they gave a brisk walk. The boy stuck the lollipop back in his mouth. Valter watched them slink around the toiletries isles, suspected the candy tasted bitter in the child’s mouth and cheeks full of saline and snot.

‘Damn kids,’ Canary wiped her upper lip. ‘Damn kids. They know –’

Valter picked up his slick bottle and pushed the opening into the dripping tap. The water clanged against the bottom, the laser beeps humming against the now noticed background music of The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

 

Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer

Came down upon her head

Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer

Made sure that she was dead

 

‘– there’s a sign. Damn parents need to chain their kids up. Animals can’t be contained, that’s what they are. Animals. Needs to be locked up in a cage where they belong.’

‘You never told me what kind of bird.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Canary whipped her eyes back to the thin man. ‘Oh, right. I said… What did I say? She was the kind of bird that… Well,’ she screwed her finger against her sleep. ‘Well, she was the kind of person –’

Over attached.

‘– that kind of was just there–’

Like all birds.

‘– and raised me –’

What?

‘– for close to thirty years –’

Are you only thirty? Christ!

Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep! goes the laser scanners and Valter’s heart.

‘What kind of bird was it? Was it a finch, a budgie? Swallow? Canary? You haven’t told me what kind of bird it was.’ Valter repeated his question through pursed lips. ‘What kind of bird was it?’

The Canary’s eyes closed. She giggled, making Valter’s skin crawl. ‘Weren’t you listening? Damn, I was right,’ the Canary thrust a thumb behind her, swirled her hand back to front, and kept a finger to Valter as she chuckled, ‘No one listens. No one listens a damn. Madeira was right. Damn. She was right about one thing.’

The Canary shook her head in disgust and looked back at the silent Valter, eyes white around the iris again. ‘Do you think she was right? That people don’t listen. They never listen?’

The third bottle drowned and vomited water over the brim. The blue goose was dead. Valter flicked the tap shut and watched the Canary.

Valter wondered in amazement how he missed the whole conversation. How could he think that the victim was an actual bird and not an old lady, decomposing as they spoke? Was it a person’s throat the Canary crushed? Was it the name Maderia that threw him? How —

‘You know what,’ she pointed the finger at the filled bottle, shaking him from his head again. ‘I can see your mind is all over this fucking place,’ she chuckled and turned her cart around. ‘I’ll come back for that water. You finish up. Thanks for the chat, but I think I must go. Might have a hell of a day ahead of me and I must be going back.’

Valter watched the woman walk towards the cashiers at the back. His hands shook. The siblings stalked past again, relieved that the crazy lady was gone. Their dad, the one looking for the crunchy peanut butter, strolled past with his nose deep into the grocery list. The dad looked up at his waving daughter and nodded a greeting. Valter couldn’t raise his hands. The Beatles hammered their tune to the cheerful store. The preacher, making the second round around the locked isle of wine, smiled at Valter and pushed toward the sweets aisle.

A scrawny female, wired from the day’s responsibilities perhaps, held her finger to the tank. ‘Hey, mister. Are you done there?’

Valter screwed the bottle top back and nodded. The scrawny lady shook her head as Valter pushed the filled third bottle back between the crackling blue geese. He mouthed ‘Sorry’ while pushing his cart towards the ever-increasing beeps. His ears hissed and he couldn’t make out the next song. It didn’t matter to him now.

Valter pushed, with his wet and sweating hands, his cart of blue geese, looking to see if he could spot the Canary. It was still a hot Sunday morning, he knew that much, but since giving the name Canary to that woman, he wondered when the police would come searching for him if they ever found the dead canary in her house.

©2018 Theo Volschenk. All rights reserved.

The Most Powerful Man…

‘I can’t do this.’

‘What do you mean? Sure you can.’

‘No, I can’t.’

‘Well, why the hell not? You’ve been working just as hard as that guy. Sure, he used some savvy–‘

‘A hell of a lot of savvy.’

‘A hell of a lot of savvy. His wits, charisma, and, apparently, kindness brought him all these riches.’

‘What riches? That’s what I’m talking about. Not a single piece of priceless memorabilia, oil painting, gold-rimmed drink ware, furniture older and more expensive than The Ark. Nothing!’

‘Well, doesn’t that show you then! You can, if you work hard enough–and have fat bitch Lady Luck on your side–you’ll be able to–’

‘No, I won’t.’

‘Yes, you will.’

‘No. I won’t’

‘So you tell me then why you can’t. You’re so gung ho to prove me wrong. This office can be found in ever sky scraper in the world. Why can’t you get one like this?’

‘It’s quite simple, James. If you, say, walk into, for example, King Midas’s hall, gold washed like you’re drowning in the sun, would you say that you’d be able to see it.’

‘Of course. The fact that I can walk in it dictates that I can see it.’

‘Smell it?’

‘If there was enough of the stuff, and it had a distinct smell, sure.’

‘Touch it?’

‘If the guards would let me–Look, I don’t get where you’re going with this–’

‘Okay, so we’ve established if you walk in King Midas’s hall, gold dripping like water in the Amazon, you’d be able to see it, smell it, touch it, measure it, and use all the other senses you’d use to make sure. You’d know that you’re in the king’s presence, right?’

‘Well, that’s obvious.’

‘So, that’s my point. If the king’s power is external, its halls awash in gold, his whole palace a giant brick of glinting mineral, then we know one thing.’

‘Yeah, and what might that be? What do we know except that the guy has a lot of gold.’

‘At least the whole world isn’t covered in gold.’

James stood in silence.

‘We know that, as powerful as King Midas is, that his domain, that which is covered in gold, is all that he has. That’s it. Nothing more. He doesn’t own the world. For example, you can imagine him, or yourself, own more. More than the man that stands in front of you. You can measure it. “Well, he doesn’t have two palaces covered in gold. I could do that. I can achieve that. I can do better. I can do better than the king. I can be better than King Midas.”’

The two looked into the shabby office, empty, without a trace of the world’s most powerful man. The Man with the Empty Office.

‘I can’t beat this. I can’t be better than this. There’s nothing here. Nothing! If he had an oil painting of Picasso stuck on his wall I could say, “That’s a goal. I’ll have two Picassos on my office wall someday. Two. I’ll have the Flying Dutchman’s captain’s table for a desk, not Shakespeare’s. I can be better.’”

James, again, was silent and staring into the office. A beam of light rested on the floor, motes drifting up to the ceiling.

‘If a man doesn’t show his wealth, his power, you don’t know how much he has. It’s immeasurable. Whatever I do, whatever I show, add, do… It will be measurable. It’ll be–’

He looked to his side, hoping to see his friend’s face. But he only stared at the space where James once stood.

He was now alone.

He looked back at the office and sat down on the ground. His hands were clasped between his legs, his mind crawling with past failures, as he waited to see the most powerful man in the world.

© 2018 Theo Volschenk. All rights reserved.

The Test

 

‘I’m not sure how else to say this, Mr…?’

‘Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, two, three, double seven.’

‘That’s right. Double eight for short?’

‘No, sir. Just Eight, eight, five, nine–’

‘That’s okay,’ the instructor waved a hand. ‘I got it the first time.’ The man smiled with the pencil between his teeth and looked down at the clipboard. The man felt the student’s eyes crawl over his bald patch, the boy’s ashen face shivering as his life flashed before his eyes.

The man could sense the thoughts: I can’t believe it would end in this grey block of a room with that fluorescent light flickering on this bald man’s head.

‘As I was saying, Mr Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, three–’

‘Oh, two, three–’

‘Right, oh, two, three, double seven,’ the man tapped the rubber-end against his lower lip. ‘Quite an interesting name.’

‘Thank you,’ the student wormed in the plastic seat. ‘Named after my Father.’

The man could hear the capital F, and it made his chest twist.

He’s so young and innocent. And he can’t help he failed the test, could he? Could he? But, this is how we do things, isn’t it? Been doing it for decades so the answers would be common knowledge by now. Won’t it?

‘Yes, well, back to the scores, my good sir,’ the man scribbled onto the test results and waved over the student’s head.

The room had a fourth wall made out of glass, which functioned as a two-way mirror for the assessors. Those who would fail caught on early and were terrified about what was on the other side.

This student just gazed over the man’s shoulder.

‘I’m sure that you’re aware of what happens when a student fails the standardised test.’

The student kept his green eyes on the air con as it hissed behind the man. The assessor sighed.

‘Son, are you listening to me?’

The student looked into the man’s eyes. A pang of pain fisted, twisted, and gutted what little empathy the case hardened teacher had. The green eye’s cold-chill danced with the conditioned air, and goose pimples pricked his freckled skin. He never had sympathy for these fails.

But was this sympathy or empathy? He cussed himself for letting the feeling slither in like a snake in your bed.

‘Good,’ the man cleared his throat. He held a hand up towards the mirror and scribbled on the results. The pencils dragged and echoed into the silence and shook his head when he counted it up. He sighed again.

‘I mean, son, we briefed you about this. We briefed all of you about this. You had your whole life to dodge this bullet, and still, you landed up here. It’s a simple test. This is the most important test you’ll take. I mean did take. And we make sure, always very, very sure that we don’t allow imbeciles or mentally degenerate folks into the chambers where you are now. We can’t function as a society if we allow–’

The man wanted to say retards and pinched his lips. He knew political correctness has gone to hell inside these iron walls; no one would even flinch at the word. It was just him, the boy in front of him, and what was behind the glass wall. That’s it. This kid didn’t have anyone else. Well, his folks were waiting outside, hoping that he’d graduate into adulthood. They’ve probably bitten their nails right down into the white half-moons. That never bothered him before. Hell, he wasn’t just doing his job. That’s Eichmann’s defence, and he never needed one. Society depended on him executing his duties, so why was he sensitive? It didn’t make any sense.

He walked down those roads almost every day. Living in Jongno-gu, Seoul, he’d tread down Tongil-ro 8-gil, past the Presbyterian church, around the corner and right into Songwol-gil, through the larges building’s courtyard with the harmonica facade, the building where The Test happened every week. It was an easy walk, and he enjoyed the sun on his face before he entered the sterile building most citizens were terrified of.

He could imagine them now, outside in the sun, dancing on the balls of their feet, wringing their hands, waiting to see who came out, where the parents sobbed, cried, harangued, and dreaded the result, him just strutting and whistling past them like he was on a picnic trip.

But why this kid, why now?

‘I know you’re not stupid,’ the man gave an uneasy smile, ‘and I know you have folks out there waiting for you to join them. Maybe getting you a pizza or milkshake or something while they ruffle your hair in an “attaboy!’’’

No response. Only the grove stared back, the eyes watering from the one-way Q and A.

‘I mean don’t you care? Everyone else back there,’ he pointed to the door the boy came in, ‘knew what waited for them. They knew. You knew. You wouldn’t have written the test if you didn’t know or understand–’

The glass wall tapped, and the man jerked his head. His brow knitted and he waved a hand back, mouthing “wait.”

‘I know what’s going to happen, mister. I know what’s going to happen.’

It was a midsummer’s morning during fall, and it was the best time to get the kids to ease into the unknown. Finches were singing, toddlers were rolling their red balls onto fresh-cut lawns, and sedans hooted their greetings outside the government building where The Test was done, giving encouragement for those still in the dark.

It was also the best time to scramble a child’s brain with a black captive bolt pistol, the man reminded himself. With an air velocity of 340m/s, the Chinese Sprinter (as the folks around here cooed over it) had a grace of presence which gave the man a shiver. He liked to think of it as the exit strategy for the current agency, the argument being it would decrease deviant behaviour, child mothers, general delinquency, and all the other unsociable behaviours, which is what The Test tested. But looking into those emerald eyes, he never asked himself if The Test was correct, up to date, even just on the right path. He looked down at the results and wondered himself who made the numbers next to the answers, the numbers that gave the final total to determine the child’s future delinquency behaviour. Could they predict the future?

‘So, if you know what’s going to happen–as a boy at your level should–why did you fail?’

The man knew it was a stupid question to ask, but he was numbed as to how the boy could land here at age 17.

The boy shrugged his shoulders.

‘You’ve been doing The Test every year since you were 6 years old. You managed to make it all this way, jump every hurdle, and now’s the day you didn’t make it? Why? Why, Mr Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, two, three, double seven?’ The words seethed through his teeth, and the enamel went cold with the sound.

The boy shrugged his shoulders again.

‘You understand why we do The Test, don’t you? Of course, you do. You’ve been doing this for, what, ten, eleven years? You’ve made it nine out of ten times, and today, for some reason unbeknownst to me, you decided to just write the worst possible results I’ve ever seen. And some of these kids are so jumped and scared that a sloshed crab has a better time of writing something eligible.’

The air con hissed as a finger tapped on the glass again. The man, face flushed and exhausted, waved the sound away. He mouthed “I said wait!” but a sliver of his voice escaped the parched throat. The man coughed, cleared his throat again, and took a sip from the lukewarm water. He swallowed it down and wiped the droplets from his chin. It must be five o’ clock, the man grumbled to himself.

‘Do you know what the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis is, son?’

The boy shook his head. It was the most mechanical ‘negative’ the man’s ever seen. Once to the left, then the right, left again, stopping in the middle.

‘Basically, if The Test removed those with a “crime-friendly” disposition, then we’d be doing the future generations a service. Most kids that turned into deviants came from unwanted pregnancies. Some would say son-of-a-bitches and whores-for-a-mother, but I’m not going to do that.’

The man got up and walked over to the stainless steel trolley. ‘Would you like some water, son?’

The boy just shook his head again. Left, right, left, and then dead centre. It gave the man the creeps.

‘As you wish,’ the man poured himself from the cracked jug and the glass clanged against the iron surface. The man wiped the bottom and sat back down. The bright grove eyes leered back and through the man’s own charcoal gaze.

‘Like they did in 2017 when the government legalised pregnancy terminations, you know? You know. When abortions go up, crime and local irregularities go down with it. That simple. That’s the DL theory, anyway. That’s what we tell you kids every single year. Instead of wasting millions on rehabilitation, crime prevention, and all that hoo-ha, the administration thought: Why not pluck the root? Unwanted pregnancies. There’s no use plucking the flower from the weeds if the roots are dark, damp, and untouched. Let’s kill the mothers that make these bad decisions in the first place. Let’s break the chain and choke that bitch out.’

The last part scared him a bit. Why was he justifying himself?

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–’

‘I know what’s going to happen.’

The glass tapped for the third time. The assessor could see his bald head wobble in the mirror.

‘Christ, all right! I said wait, didn’t I! I’m not done!’ The man slammed the table on each sentence. It was an outburst, and he’d never done that before. It was unprofessional. The boy, expected to shake in his boots, never kept his eyes off the freckled bald man.

‘I think it’s time for a glass of water, kiddo,’ the man heaved and got up, waiting for some kind of response.

Left, right, left again, dead centre.

The man slammed the table and flinched from the pain in his own hand. It was pink from the outburst.

God damn this boy, the man thought. He must’ve gotten his head scrambled before he even walked into the examination room. Couldn’t they pick up the kid wasn’t… right? He had to have something wrong with him. How else could he land up here this way? He hated all these fucking questions.

‘Well, you’ll get one in any case. Do with it what you want.’

The man walked over to the glistening trolley and shivered from the ice draft upper head. He closed his eyes and focused on the machine’s breath.

A red mist blew around the man’s neck and dampened the steel tray. The glass jug, now pink from the mist’s film, slipped like condensation under the man’s hand. His brow folded and he wiped with the back of his hand the spray away. The boy’s head slammed against the table, and the man flinched. He sighed and breathed out as loud as he could.

A bow of snot arced over the boy’s nose and mouth. The man crouched down to open the bottom drawer. The steel scraped and yelled from the jerk as the man rummaged to find the washed brown towel. His face itched, and the bristles stood straight like a dog’s back. The cheap perfume of washing powder burnt his face. He breathed in the burn since he didn’t want to look at the mess.

It’s a boy, damn it, not a mess. It was a boy, and you knew he shouldn’t have been here. Someone fucked up royally, and I’ll get to the bottom of this. But not now. If I seem spooked, then my shit is cooked.

‘I know we can’t let them know when the shit hits the fan, but do we need that stun gun? Christ, I feel baptised every time you use it.’

‘Why did you take so long, Triple seven, one, two, four, nine, three, oh?’

‘Jesus, Forty-Five, I know you like to keep things professional and all, but that’s a bit stiff, ain’t it? Let’s keep it to Seven-Thirty, alright?’

‘Why so long, Seven-Thirty?’

The man, known as 730 to his colleagues and family, rubbed the slick film of blood from his head and arms. The dog bristles made his skin pink, and it looked strange with the blood red, ginger freckles, and pink skin. He never noticed the schema before and always tried to get the mist off him.

45 looked at him with his granite eyes, and 730 was struck by the boy’s emerald eyes in his memory. He never noticed their eyes, like you, wouldn’t see individual cockroaches and their traits when you’d bring your boot down.

‘I asked you to wait. Why couldn’t you give me time? I had to make a thorough assessment.’

‘You had plenty of time, Seven-Thirty,’ the man’s voice was like two concrete slab scraping. ‘You never take this long with a failure. It’s dangerous to get attached.’

‘I wasn’t getting attached,’ 730 threw the cloth over his seat. ‘Don’t tell me what happened, Forty-five. You had no right–’

‘It’s my job. I did what I had to do. The kid failed The Test, you need to check if he’s healthy enough to have taken The Test; I come in and tick the last box. Done. You were dragging your feet.’

45 lowered the canister down and dropped the nozzle on the floor. It clanged, and 730 yelped from the smack.

‘Don’t do that! It scares the shit out of me every time you do that.’ 730 wiped his hands on his chest. ‘And I didn’t drag my feet!’

730 walked back to the trolley to see if the jug’s contents were also tainted or just the outside. He was parched from all the talking. He jumped when the corpse slumped over and slapped the floor. It head cracked on the surface, and 730’s eyes were wide-spread.

‘What the hell did you do that for?’ He swallowed down a yelp. He sounded scared, and it would raise red flags if 45 heard it.

‘The kid’s big. They’re heavy when they’re dead, Seven-thirty. It makes it easier to drag them out if they’re on the ground.’

‘He’s not that big,’ 730 pointed as the scarlet speech bubble growing next to the boy’s head. ‘Barely one-sixty. I’ve seen you carry twins over each shoulder without breaking a sweat!’

45’s eyes contracted. 730 forgot that they were only 6-years old at the time and scraped at 52-pounds each.

‘They were chubby,’ 730 grumbled. He felt his cheeks burn. ‘Never mind that now. Warn me next time, alright? No use getting me all jumpy and I can’t do my job,’ he tried smiling, but it looked like rotten fruit sloshed under his tongue. He swallowed the attempt and waved the corpse away.

‘Please take Mr Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, three, double seven with you and send in Double-nine. She needs to get rid of this mess before we send in the last one for the day. I need to get home and… It doesn’t matter.’

730 cut himself short as 45 ignored him. He dragged the body and the assessor flinched when the boy’s head banged against the door’s frame.

At that same moment, 99, with her red eyes and ashen face, stalked inside with a bucket in each hand. She dragged her left side, and 730 surmised it must be the water. He nodded in greeting, but the black-haired girl walked passed him and darted to the spot first. The two buckets, one empty and one filled, clanged as she lowered it. Moving to the trolley, she squatted and rummaged through the drawers, pulling out the supplies needed to clean up the blood. Double-nine always cried when she hears the nozzle going off, 730 thought. It must be exhausting to grieve for those who fail.

99 gripped the bleach and headed to the spill. She crouched down and pooled the crimson into the cloth. With the steel buckets next to her, she wrung out the towel in the one, syrup that oozed into the steel, and drenched the other in the water. The liquid turned pink, and she mopped the remaining pool with the wet towel. He forgot that he wanted to check if he could salvage some water, but left it. If he drank another glass now, we would have to go to the toilet which seemed like too much effort now. He’d rather wait until the last one was done for the day.

The wooden scrub’s yellow bristles scraped against the concrete floor, and the sound made him nervous. He looked at the tight white dress covering the young buttocks, and he felt shame creeping like a snake. He tried to focus on her motion, but the bleach-water-blood solution made little sprays. Just like the pink mist every time 45 fired the captive bolt.

45 stepped in and nodded to 99. She nodded back, and 730’s stomach turned.

‘Came to fetch Chinese Sprinter.’ The man chuckled under his breath, and 730 resisted the urge to smack the boulder of a man.

‘Don’t laugh. Just take the thing, will ya? No need to scare the kids and make it impossible to talk to them.’

‘Right,’ 45 winked, ‘No need to spoil the surprise.’ He chuckled again and nodded to 99 as he left the room. The door, hidden in the glass wall, shut and the mirror wobbled. 730 looked like the world’s fattest infant as his bald head grew and shrunk on the surface. He tried looking away, but the malleable image fascinated him.

99 worked fast, and the soap layer was white again. The bleach stripped signs of any life taken between the iron walls. When she was done wiping the spot dry, she gripped her supplies and returned them. The steel drawers open their mouths with pleasure, gulped the mechanical gulps, and stood at attention for the next customer.

The woman exited tapped on the glass wall and 45 opened from the outside. The mirror shook the man’s image still inside as the door closed behind her, and the assessor sat down when a knock came from outside the test chamber.

‘Just a minute!’

730 walked over to his seat and dragged the towel from his seat’s backrest. He shoved the towel in the bottom drawer, careful to be as quiet as possible, and gripped the clipboard on the steel trolley. The pages screamed in the room as the assessor flipped it over to the last page. He shook his head at the results and sighed as he sat down on the plastic folding chair.

He saw the emerald iris was surrounded by red and made a mental note. It was a pair of stunning eyes and now his folks, broken for the rest of their lives in about 30 minutes would have no pizza or milkshake or something to cheer about while they ruffled their son’s hair in an “attaboy!”

He would find out who did the sifting today. The boy should not have been here. Someone made a mistake, and an innocent life was taken.

730 sighed and tapped the pencil’s rubber-end against his lower lip. He was thirsty and wanted to get this one done. He had work to do. Work outside this building. He would start with the screeners and work his way, perhaps, back to himself. He hoped it would be an answer where he didn’t make a mistake. He never made mistakes, but the first of every bad thing was usually the worst.

He sighed again. All that would have to wait.

The assessor plastered a smile on his face and leered at the door, yelling ‘Come on in! Don’t be scared!’

© 2018 Theo Volschenk. All rights reserved.