Characters: Alpha!Rose, Alpha!Dave
Tags Present: Slight gore, incest
Tags Not Used: No other Cat.1 tags apply
Tags Present: drugs (smoking cigars)
Tags Not Used: No other Cat.2 tags apply
Writing by lionpyh; art (in order) by cloudymew, lionpyh, and madseason (naive_wanderer).
They walk over the George Washington Bridge at low tide, when only an inch of water washes back and forth across it. Brittle barnacles crackle like eggshells under Rose’s heels. Above them seabirds coast and circle and wait with candor for them to be edible. “That’s a frigate,” says Rose, surprised. “Or a man o’ war, if you prefer.” He glances up and touches a hand to his sword: among the gulls and shearwaters there’s a thing like a raven with a human heart protruding from its chest, its wings sharp as scythes and nearly nine feet from tip to tip. He is unsurprised she can identify it, as it appears to have been character-designed by Edgar Allan Poe.
“Does it mean anything?” he says.
In a tidepool originally a Volkswagen the murky water lashes once, and they give it a careful margin.
“Nothing we don’t already know,” she says. “This is further north than I’d thought to see one, that’s all, even now.” They have come to the break and the downslope now, the water deepening, and she gathers her skirt up over her arm. He gives, for the hell of it, a wolf whistle, and for a fine-cut second she smiles as from far away. For a long moment she stands strategizing with one foot drawn up like a heron, peering at the edge where the oily eelgrass moves, and on impulse he puts his arms around her and lifts. She seizes the heel that begins to slip off and nearly overbalances them both. His arms have immediately begun to ache, but “What are you doing?” she says, and that’s better, she’s nearer, a mere mile away. “Shut up,” he says, and begins to feel his way forward with a submerged sneaker. She has dropped her shoe into her lap and put her arms around his neck, as he wanted.
It is quarter to eleven on a November morning, early enough that the air near the water retains a coolness, and the surface calm. There is no one else making the crossing this morning. Windshields and mirrors, fragmented and dulled with algae, still glitter and spark all along the bridge behind them. Her long skirt, white as a new petal, has slipped down after all and trails, now pressed against him, now drawn away, on the swell of the water. His fingers fit along the hot hollows of her ribs as though meant to. The complex shadow of the rusting arch moves over them slowly and they pass into the city.
It is a futile gesture in several ways, but until the moment that he sets her down, not a drop has touched her.
The light of Manhattan, seven years post-evacuation, has not gone out yet. From fire escape to fire escape there lead braced ladders, live wires, perilous nets made of chain-link fences. The filthy water, moving in abrupt unpredictable currents, clinks and groans with scrap and refuse; it reminds him of the garbage compactor on the Death Star. Seven floors above ground and three above water a halal deli glows in testament to the human spirit and SANDWICHES CIGARETTES CIGARS CANDY NEWSPAPERS COFFEE ATM. This is irresistibly ridiculous. He pulls the string for a bell, climbs the fire ladder that unfurls and buys a cigar with the standard handful of hundred-dollar bills.
Rose, waiting below on the long pier made of strips of former billboard, squints up at him as he descends with his purchase, still wrapped, in his mouth. “We do have somewhere to be, Mr. Galante,” she says. He jumps down with a few rungs to go, which makes the pier tilt and a thin wash of water spill over its edge. “Party don’t start ’til we walk in,” he says, putting the cigar behind his ear.
They find for their ferryman a sun-dried old hippie in a skiff, who sculls them expertly downtown and won’t accept any form of fare, explaining that it’s good karma with the serenity of someone who does not exactly know what karma is. There is nowhere to disembark, at the address requested, save onto the damaged face of the building itself. They clamber up and cling to a rusted spar of rebar a few feet above the tideline. “Blessed be, man,” he calls guilelessly to the departing boat. “Pay it forward!” the hippie cries in farewell, and Rose snorts against his shoulder.
He takes his skateboard, the size of a postage stamp, from his back pocket and expands it: at 36 rDpi you can take a car and roll it down to fit inside a fountain pen. It will be a staticky, prickly, bleared and fuzzed and hideously comose car, but by God it will guzzle gas and go when you turn the key, and it will weigh about four ounces. Rose steps with a straight-backed clack down onto the skateboard, and he hops on after her as it begins to rise. They are ten floors above sea-level when it starts to flicker and spit, and they exchange a look like catching an arrow barehanded. At twenty it begins to rise in crooked jerks, uncontrollable. They nearly hit a pigeon; if they had flinched, they’d have fallen. At thirty-four, both their jaws set, it begins to shudder in earnest, and at thirty-six, the open roof fast approaching, it begins suddenly to slow, and he says tautly “Jump,” though the railing still comes to their waists. He barely makes it over, stumbling and grazing his knee and palm when he lands; Rose waits a tensed second more and leaps in the instant that it begins to fall. They both, kneeling on sun-warmed patio tiles, listen for the splash: but the city is full of splashes, and one more, if it comes, can’t be made out.
“Well!” he says, his heart an unbalanced load.
“Well,” she says, briskly as though getting up from a table.
There being nothing else to do, they smoke the cigar.
Neither of them has any frame of reference for comparison, but they think it’s a nice cigar; not too sweet, notes of aromatic wood. She refrains from Freudian cracks, as fruit hung too low. They sit, backs braced and knees up, weapons in one hand, against the retaining wall of the railing and pass it back and forth like delinquents. She tips her head back and exhales a richness of smoke. Her bruised, absent, elegant eyes, silver-scarred hands, gaunt boyish throat. The streaks of white in her fine fair hair, which he always wanted to see grown long, and never did. It would be a betrayal to wish her spared, to wish her ignorant. He looks away abruptly, before he is caught.
She flips the end of the cigar backwards over the wall without turning and gets to her feet, and he joins her. From here he can see the remains of one of his last installations, a decade past: the twelve jpeg duplicates of the Statue of Liberty, weighted with pontoons, which once bobbed in an apotheosis of clutter about the bay. Rose has produced, from God knows where, a straight pin, and a velvet ribbon which he recognizes. “Your lady’s favor,” she says archly, securing it to his T-shirt. He kisses, past all irony, her hand.
They stand, sharp shoulderblade to sharp shoulderblade, at the center of the roof. He would like a glass of water, but it’s a little late for that. There is a midmorning moon small and faint in the east. The wind at this altitude is almost cold. Against his back he can feel her breathing, deep and measured, and he matches his own to it, counting down.
Opening weekend of SBaHJ: Behidn the Scenes. Ten minutes into the first screening the Internet was already decoding it, as piranhas decode a capybara. An hour after the credits reached the key grip there came the first flash mob. Twenty-nine teenage girls had all linked hands on a subway platform and begun murmuring the opening lines one after another, a beat delayed, as though singing in a round. They had kept it up nearly four minutes. Someone had sent him a badly oscillating clip: red sweatshirts in the dimness, a felt-tip maze drawn on a plump arm, the blue sudden brightening of a screen through a pocket. The overlaid harmony in their recitation, unintelligible, implacable, a conduit carrying the world’s long current of voices of girls who warn rightly, and aren’t believed. At the margins he had seen passers-by shut up and stop. A chill had passed over his own shoulders, as they all drew out the last note. Attagirls. He had shut off his phone and went to bed not displeased. He’s learned to wait a few days before starting to sift through the reactions online.
He has not even peeked when, two days later, he comes across an item on the RSS feed of a popular blog called Not How That Went Down, to which people submit police bulletins, sheriff’s reports, court rulings and the like with the accompaniment of an explanation referred to as a NHTWD. Most of the entries have their origins in consensual but unwise deployment of genitals – often hilarious but in no sense a source of intelligence – but every so often it supplies him with the caught glance, the edit in the photograph, the necessary small, unwitting thing.
This NHTWD has no mention of his movies, either in the newspaper article or the commentary, both of which are very brief. The article states that police responded to several late-night noise and security complaints to find a group of about two hundred people gathered around the capitol building in Santa Fe; that they tried to disperse the crowd; that they were fired upon; that they had cleared the area. Even to a layman the lacuna is obvious. The event is referred to as “the disturbance”. The NHTWD box says, in full:
do these look like 200 people to you.
you can scratch the itch taylor but we’re under your skin
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William Stephenson Taylor, not yet a year into his first term as governor, elected with unfortunately perfect legality on a platform of hearty nostalgic hatred. Largest campaign donor: Betty Crocker. Protests at the Roundhouse are not unusual. The photo is blurred to a degree that suggests it was taken as the photographer was booking it the fuck out of there. Flash and streetlight. Police in riot gear, like beetles. A handful of what look like children in pajamas, primary-colored. There had been a brief allusion to a bribe Taylor cannot be proved to have accepted, in Behidn the Scenes. He sends the user a note and, from an email address that bounces when he replies, is sent a video clip.
At first he thinks it’s a loop without sound, like a .gif: then he hears a the faint rise and fall of a passing car, a rustle from the cameraman, and he realizes that it’s only that they’re going through the motions silently, and over and over. There are maybe nine of them, and in front of the capitol building, which looks provincial and innocuous as a school, they are re-enacting the moment of allusion with a solemnity so intense it verges on camp. It is like a religious rite after the end of the world, like the girls’ disjointed choir.
The plot thickens: you could snap a wooden spoon trying to stir this plot. The policemen who fired on the children swear, publicly, privately, under polygraph, that they really had found a crowd metastasizing to a mob, shouting in deep voices, guns in waistbands. Several have been placed under medical leave, or under suicide watch. He doesn’t think that they think that they are lying.
Presbyterian Hospital, Albuquerque. He walks in with a bouquet of osmosis-blue roses. A nick to the axillary artery, shattered shoulderblade. The mother, in the hallway, tells him she’s been trying to take it to the press. She has that incredulousness about her that the deeply good and the deeply sheltered present upon contact with corruption. “Just take the settlement,” he tells her, “and don’t leave him here alone.”
In the bed the boy is asleep, his arm in a sling, an IV taped to the back of his hand. He is small and sharp-featured and blond. Of course he had thought you stayed and explained to police. White boys: less sense than God gives goslings.
“I should preface this by saying that it will be several hundred years in the future,” Rose had told him, the week before, “but we’re going to be parents.” They will both turn thirty-seven that December and his first thought had been unworthy of her. His thought now is not disbelief.
He knocks at the open door. “’Sup,” he says, raising the roses like a glass in a toast.
The boy is wide-eyed but collected, was the organizer, does not mention that the paralysis of the arm is probably permanent. He is fifteen. A boy and a girl, she said.
“So that was about Taylor and the immigration thing,” are the boy’s first words, sounding pleased.
This kid is not old enough to drive. This kid is not old enough to shave. Fuck this world and everything it is becoming. Dave Strider, world-renowned rattletrap, is briefly unable to speak. There are no words for how badly he does not want to be a father. He would prefer, in fact, to have been the last person ever born, so as to preclude the possibility of there being anyone more exposed than himself, unless it was their own fault. She had said she was not sure yet how much she could tell him.
He is at the door, fifteen minutes later, when he hears “Mr. Strider –”
“Yeah,” he says, turning, expecting a request for information that he can’t or won’t give.
The boy says, in a tone he knows, “Can I – can you – ”
Oh, good God, he thinks, exasperated into a kind of despair, and with two fingers removes his shades and pitches them mildly inaccurately into the hospital-sheet lap. “All yours, buckaroo, I don’t have a pen.” He escapes before the surprise, like anesthesia, wears off. He has a closetful of the stupid things. They come twenty-four to a case, $2.49 apiece; he buys them in bulk online.
Early evening and no lights are lit in the house at Rainbow Falls. He lets himself in, then out. The hood of his car is warm, and he’s not dressed for the weather; he lies back on it, cat-relaxed, barefaced, watching the stars come clear. At the sound of her car he arranges himself as a pinup: legs crossed on the windshield, toes pointed, one hand laid demurely on his chest, the other tousling his hanging hair. Her door slams. Upside-down, the first view presented to him is of her bloody hands at her sides, and he rights himself in a convulsive instant. Her face is amused, if drawn. “Miss October, I presume,” she says.
A blade of pale hair has fallen before her left eye, and he can see her lashes flicker against it: he tucks it behind her ear and, as though accidentally, strokes her cheek. “I thought you were just going to meet with the publishers,” he says.
She is walking without waiting down to the river. “I did!” she says. “They’re under new management. Next book will be out of another house. How was your day at work.” The rare terse Rose is a Rose not to be pressed for specifics. She has knelt and begun to scrub at her hands in the snowmelt water. She flings a palmful against her eyes, then takes off her shoes and goes over her feet as well, though they’re untouched: it has become a ritual, which, after a kill, she can’t cross her own threshold without.
Last she washes her thorns: a foot and a half of narwhal horn apiece, tips that draw blood if touched. In the twilight they have a faint luminescence, like the hands of a watch. To close out this sequence she springs up into her fighting stance, thorns crossed, and clacks them together to shake off the water.
He is not ten feet away, and she is alone as the last person on the planet. He wonders, not for the first time, but with a new sharpness, what she was like as a child. She is standing shin-deep in shallows one degree above freezing, in her thin dress, holding the stance with private, furious discipline as the world darkens shade by shade around her. This is not a night to ask her anything at all.
She is not deceived, but she comes. The night is crisp and clean with pines. On the walk up the drive the stars seem very low, very bright and near, as though they could fall around them and cover them up, like pieces of ice, like prisms, and then shiver and glimmer, and be gone.
There is a ring of red around its neck like a collar or an instruction. But seen among the other crows it is certainly a crow, or a good enough imitation that crows honor its effort. Six or seven of them flew in earlier when he had opened the windows for the thunderstorm, and now, the sky dim and drizzling but quiet, they are not eager to leave. “Last call,” he says, walking around the room, genially shooing. “Hey, junior, knock it back and go.”
They flap out, in no hurry, but this one remains. He shoos a little more vigorously. It is so still that he bends down to inspect it. It bobs its head a few times, apparently retches, and opens its beak as wide as a beak can part. Out of its craw comes a woman’s voice, light, husky, not unappealing. “Hello,” it says. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” Then his inexcusable habit of wearing sunglasses indoors saves his left eye, which the crow abruptly goes for. He understands that this has happened only after reflexively striking away from his face something that had cawed and scratched his hand, by which point the more important understanding is that it is struggling up from the floor and coming at him again. He scrabbles for and seizes a sword from the wall behind him and with the grace of panic beheads it neatly along its line.
It bleeds less than he expects, scarcely at all; still shaky with horror-movie adrenaline, he expected buckets, like he’d pulled a cork. The dry little body nearly shames him. Self-defense is a thin excuse against an eleven-ounce adversary. He could not have made that scene up, he hopes.
He lays the sheet of glass over his desk, gets out the medium-sized steel tray, snaps on the gloves and the fluorescent. He doesn’t want to keep it even in a jar, but he needs to see what was inside: a microphone, the fucking Legend of Zelda fairy? It is reassuring that his hand is bleeding. He puts a new blade in the scalpel, parts the feathers and opens it up. Nothing looks out of place. It probably ate a garbage-can bottle of prescription pills and woke up with some new gene switched on. Weirder shit happens. The Colorado is a slurry of fish dying of having three hearts or ten dicks or whatever the triclosan is doing to them now. The mice in his pantry traps are not the shapes that God made mice. It was probably harmless. It was harmless.
He douses the remains with kerosene and burns them in a trash can on the roof.
Several nights later, the scratches closed over, he’s a guest at a Celebrating Censored Works Gala in NYC. He is kind of appalled to be attending anything called a gala but it’s an excuse to break in the crimson-and-white suit. (“Who is this douchebag?” he murmurs fondly to his reflection in the hotel mirror on the way out, straightening his lapels.) He does appreciate the publicity: more people have heard of SBaHJ: Thje Collected Strips for the banning than through the release. He sank a lot of money into the printing, the thick glossy paper, the archival inks – “it’s like a floor-sweepings sandwich on brioche,” one review remarked; he sent flowers to the critic – and although the Internet response was encouraging, not enough copies sold to break even. Still, he’s just applied for a grant he’s pretty hopeful about (“Heta-Uma and Attraction/Repulsion in the Digital Age”), and if he gets it he can start work on some animations, a thing he’s wanted to do for a while.
Most of the Celebrated Creators either wrote two-mommy books duller than the wrong sides of butter knives or are raddled old assholes who make bloodbath flicks, who take him for the larval stage of one of their own. He is a little hesitant to admit that his work was banned from several school districts for Comic Sans rather than for violence and confines himself to enigmatic nodding and scanning the crowd for a) celebrities b) girls c) the heady Venn diagram overlap of both.
But the girl he is staring at is not his type, or perhaps too much his type. She has an odd angular face, good cheekbones, narrow eyes, a long chin; it’s only when he tries to put into words what disqualifies it from prettiness that he realizes it’s more or less his own. She is wearing some kind of black dress like the pelts of six or seven little black dresses stitched together and probably shoes or something, his eyes do not get that far. His eyes are fixed on her neck, and the wide heavy red velvet ribbon she is wearing around it, tied in a sort of limp-wristed bow at one side. It looks less stupid than he would have expected but all he can think of is the girl in the story who somebody picks up hitchhiking and is shortly revealed to be decapitated, or how witches are always found out when the wound to their hand is the same as the paw the hunter shot, something along those lines. But he burned the crow.
Later he will learn that it was supposed to be like an allusion to something from the French Revolution that was probably bullshit and that she’s never heard the hitchhiker story, though she likes it when he tells it to her: obvious but economical, she pronounces it, as though it’s a wine. At the time all he knows is that it gives him the concatenated creeps and also a frankly stupid frisson of protectiveness, as though she’s any of his business. If it isn’t a fate she’s already met, it’s one he’d like to save her from. He has had a few beers on an emptier stomach than he intended and is in the beatific condition of having only first thoughts, so he crosses the room and, over her shoulder, her back to him, catches one end of the bow and gently pulls.
The knot is loose and as she turns he’s already got it off her. He inspects her throat for a seam, a man on a mission: he doesn’t even glance down her dress yet. It is a lovely lean throat with a little cup between fine tendons at the base and a single black mole halfway up, where he can see, reassuringly, a pulse. If there’s a crack in the creamy finish he can’t find it. His gaze finally comes all the way up to the face, lips parted, eyebrows raised, cheeks a little flushed. She holds her champagne flute very precisely, like a carpenter’s level. The ribbon is much warmer than his hand.