The story continues with these next two chapters; to be concluded tomorrow.
"Abandonment of the Flint" by Lauren Almeida
there is neither current nor tide
Whenever it was I’d picked you up from the voodoo shop where you worked, I had to suck my breath in deep and hold it a while as you nimbly slid into the passenger seat of my car. Your elfin features, deep hazel eyes, your smell of sandalwood and grape. Your thin wrists and hands manipulating the window into sinking. How fearless you looked as you pulled a piece of purple chewing gum from your pocket, and stuck it in your mouth. Blowing bubbles and stretching out in the seat, without apprehension of my face or the reasons you figured I had to be fetching you.
And I had to fight from looking at you as I pulled away from the curb, catching from the corner of my eye the way you slouched and played with your short-cut hair. You have a certain beautiful way about you, a way all your own with that caramel skin and the litheness of a wood nymph. It would be a damn shame to have to set you on fire somewhere and keep people from knowing you’d even died at all, or for what.
We parked on the Huey P. Long bridge. Often left unattended, this whole stretch of road, like it’s an endangered animal no one wants much of anything to do with for fear of its fragility. With the guilt of the executioner, I smoked the ever-loving guts out of one cigarette too many. And I had to know. It’d been a while since I’d had such a hard time differentiating between insanity and courage.
“Why is it you agreed to come out here with me? You know who I am, don’t you?”
“I do. But, well. I’ve been losing my mind lately. Way this world is turning out, it gets hard to tell what threats are real and which are imagined, yeah?”
A grimness to your face that I could tell was a bit untried to the musculature. Usually you had some ironic smile about things, a way of making it all too transparent to take seriously.
But serious you were, your arms crossed, hands clutching your elbows as if you were trying to keep something contained within.
“Does the fog always have a tendency to follow you around?” you asked, maybe the first to take notice.
“It is inclined to do just that, yes.”
“Why’d you take me out here?” Staid, but not scared. A fascinating creature.
I glanced at you with an expression I dusted off from its place beside all my other battle time memorabilia, its versatile usage in occasions of hostility and reckoning. I said, as the dying cigarette nodded, “It’s not that deep a lake, I don’t suspect.”
“It is if you can’t swim. A bathtub is if you can’t swim.” You said it without smiling. The idling engine filling up the breaks between words.
I found it easier to talk to you without looking you in the eye, for reasons I still can’t understand. “I’ve heard from a few reliable sources that not much goes on in the underbelly of this city without you hearing about it. And that’s precisely the realm where I suppose he got himself tangled.”
“What exactly is it you’re after, boy-o?”
A choked quality to my voice. A struggle. “I need to know where he is so I can bury him. Who did it and why, who brought this down upon him. I need to know. I’m sure you’d do the same if it was someone you cared about, you’d break all man’s laws to right what’s been done. Wouldn’t you?”
“Are you getting figurative on me?” you asked, with your low smoky voice and its particular hint of someplace else.
“Regardless of a man’s sins in his life. No one deserves to be a never-found, no one ought to be left to rot in a ditch, a real friend would never abide that sort of ending.” All that time, I’d waited to see his ghost among my horde. “Do you know what it’s like, going all this time without knowing?”
“Of course I do. He ended up the same way Harper did. Only she got found, not that it answered all that many questions. You planning on throwing me off this bridge tonight, boy-o?”
Outside the car, dead men crowded the windows and peered in at us, the words they murmured traveling through the fog and bouncing against the glass.
“I am, if it comes to it.”
Seemed to take that in real deep, mulling it over while you pulled a deck of cards from your bag, started shuffling them and making guesses over whichever one landed on top. Except you weren’t making guesses, were you. Seemed like you called it every time, that little nod of your head in affirmation.
“We could always do like normal people and discuss things over a drink or two,” you said.
“How normal do you wager I am?” I asked through the squint of smoke-stung eyes.
“Worth pretending for a time.”
“So as you can be seen with me, and people will know who to go to if you end up missing. Is that right?” I imagined, then, throwing you into the Pontchartrain. Watching you sink, as the air bubbles rose and broke at the lip of the water.
“I’ve got no reason to keep my mouth shut on this, boy-o. Except maybe I think you’d be better off not ending up like those two have.”
I was thinking of him then, smelling the refuse and algae of the Pontchartrain sifting up from below us. My hand gripped the steering wheel. I glanced out of the rearview mirror, to the lifeless fish-white faces of those I’m answerable for. To the empty blackness of space around us, the stubborn peach light of street lamps safeguarding their little circles of province.
Thinking on how he and I stumbled off the airplane and saw the godless desert a second time, the last time. How he squinted the sun out of his eyes, an awed smile, relearning its mythological insidiousness. How ready we were to be its parishioners, again. The only place we ever belonged.
But this now is a world deficient of Luke Caden, deficient of the lucidity of deserts. Glancing at the road back to the city and the bruised sky. I was willing to wait out there forever, wait on you to tell me everything, every moment I couldn’t get back. Waiting to finally digest all of that sand.
“Alright then. I’ll have you drown someway else. You got a bar in mind?”
for the fire to absolve
The disappearance of Marquis from the gender-bender social scene didn’t seem to cause any ripples or raise any eyebrows. In that underworld, it seems to come with the territory of existing at all. Who’s there to miss those already shunned.
A few days passed and I still had the singe of smoke stuck inside my nose, and by that time I’d already put word out through the proper channels of rumor mills that Caden had come out of the time he’d been holed up (while waiting for the heat to die down) and was headed back to his apartment in order to grab some things and be on his way again.
I knew Rommel, here all this time like a pacing junkyard dog, would never be able to resist. In the same situation, I wouldn’t be able to, myself.
I hadn’t stepped foot in the place since it swallowed Shutters up and left unwarranted amounts of blood on the bathroom tile. I marveled at how things get left in their place without us, an apartment that still looked inhabited by its very specific renter. Newspaper scattering the kitchen table, dated from months back, still left half-read. Place might bear the sour of spoiled food had Caden been the type to keep anything aside from canned goods and freezer-burned microwaveables.
At first I thought it odd that the power and water still ran. But then, he paid for the necessities through automatic checking account deduction. He had saved up money enough to keep this place livable for at least six months longer.
I removed all the light bulbs in the apartment, save for the one in the bathroom. In that room where Shutters met some terrible end, the light had been left on before I ever got there, and sporadically it flickered from halogen white to darkest oblivion. Found a stale pack of Caden’s cigarettes and helped myself to a couple, they aren’t exactly cheap these days. Found a place to wait.
I didn’t need wait long. Soon enough, the apartment door creaked open. Heavy, obliterating footsteps. Made every glass in the house tremor with the music of gamelan.
I watched Rommel step into the ghost-filled bathroom. Their crestfallen faces staring at me and awaiting acknowledgment of what wrongs I’d done them. As if I hadn’t already filled myself to bursting with all their sadness. He paid them no mind. Likely he had no such ghosts of his own. Paul Rommel was one of the few decent men left to suffer God’s earth.
Slowly, I stood from my crouched position behind the armoire in the corner, its chest opened up to reveal a glossy TV heart. His back was to me, head canted slightly toward the shower curtain, though he kept looking back to all the blood which still lined the grout and could not be done away with. He hadn’t yet drawn his weapon, probably he was quick enough to not need to do so until gunfire was necessary. A Glock, I could tell. Those were easier than any to come by in Chiefland.
Still a few steps from him, I pointed the H&K at the back of his neck, which was tattooed all up with dragons and family crests. He felt me there, felt the warmth of checkmate. Had he but looked up, he might’ve caught me in the mirror before it had come to this.
In that mirror, he might could see the garnering of a dense fog outside the window.
“You know I never had any quarrel with you, Franco.”
“Nor I with you.”
“Just thought maybe you ought to pick better friends, that’s all. That’s as venomous as I ever did get about you,” he said.
“Probably you were right. And I know it: you and me, we’re in the same predicament. Loyalty as a motive. Loyalty as a self-detrimental error.”
“It never has got me far.” In the mirror, I could see such a loneliness plaguing his face, an altruistic devotion to do anything for her, the way noblemen and knights once did for women like her. Seems he had found himself in the wrong era, in a stretch of time where one man’s disingenuous words can somehow charm far beyond another’s sincerest actions. Around his neck, he wore the same charm I’d seen on her. A silver harp. “Trying my whole life to do the honorable thing. It got me here. And that is not far by any means.”
“You should’ve just gone home,” I said.
“Yeah, should have. Nothing to be done over it, now.” Those tattoos a testament of dragons and demons and all the things he would have slain to have her just once look at him the way she looked at her sweet Mephistopheles.
“You can turn around, if you like. Just do it slow, and don’t get to creeping toward that Glock there in the back of your pants.”
He did just as I asked, circumspectly turning to face me with the expression of having been bested by someone who never had cared to bluff.
“Did you kill Luke Caden?” I asked, controlling my voice the very best I could, even with all those judgmental dead eyeballs burning into me like scalding hot forks.
“No. I wish I had. It’s certain that he’s dead?”
“Nothing’s certain. He got all mixed up trying to fix what wrong he’s done with Harper. And something came along and put an end to them both. Did she contact you?”
“She called once. Explained little. Enough for me to drive over here for a headhunt,” he said.
“And you don’t know anything beyond that. Haven’t heard any rumors come to pass about what happened?”
“All I know is she’s gone. And what the fuck is left, now?”
He reached up to hold for the briefest of moments that harp charm they’d each had around their necks, some expression of a bond he’d only wished was more. Because her heart had been stolen, by then, the most beautiful parts of her whole heart. And she didn’t have much to spare for anyone else.
“Why didn’t you just stay in Chiefland, Rommel? Nothing could’ve been done here.”
“Yeah, well. You try and stop loving someone. You try and stop wanting to protect the one girl to let a man like me into her life. You try and say fuck it and abandon the only person to see past all of this,” he said, gesturing toward ink-sleeved arms and hands, and referencing of course the bear-like size and stance of him. “Guarantee you, you can’t. Hard as you may try. Hard as I did.”
All the ghosts crowding the tiles, I wondered if someone loved any of them with the purity and intensity that Harper was loved by Paul Rommel. Or if that’s the dejection in them, after all. To never have been given the opportunity before being snuffed away from the world and all its awful capacity for love.
In the throng of ghosts, I caught a glimpse of him. The boy whose eyes would not close, the boy who was the first chain to drag behind. He’s walked along side me for a very long time, his steps lengthening as if growing into them, as if growing into a man, and yet every time I glance back to see his angry unforgiving stare, he is the same. A naked-faced Iraqi kid, with slender hands and unkempt hair.
“How do you want it, Rommel?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter, man. Just not the head, alright? I’d like to at least know what dying feels like.”
He turned slowly and leaned against the sink counter with his hands rested against the edge. His eyes lowered, remembering every detail of her face and her voice and how she touched his arm while they talked. The ghosts on all sides of him shuffled around, made a space for a newcomer in their midst. Before I ever figured him in my sights, I regretted having to do so with the blurred regret of the obligation itself.
“I’m sorry, Rommel. You’re a good man. It’s just that I’m not, is all.”
The bullet carried an echo that bounced against the tiles. Made its way to do its bidding. Tore his throat open, spun him some, all that mass shoved around by such a small and inconsequential chunk of metal. Rommel stumbled to the bathtub gripping the wound and the bright red spurt of wrecked artery which washed over all the ink of dragons on his neck. Clenching his teeth and looking me square in the eye, pissed off and irritated at the whole onset of how things came to pass. Him without his vengeance. Him without his Harper.
Once he’d leaked himself dry and his body relaxed, his eyes closed. His hand was looped around that chain on his neck. I imagine her name was on the edge of his last breath.
I doused him with the lighter fluid, setting my hand on his shoulder for a moment before checking his pulse and making sure all his earthly pain was thenceforth done with.
He became a part of that gathering of dead men before the ever-faithful flint caught and sent sparks like tiny stars to collect along his chest. Like a circle of pall bearers, those ghosts, hands clasped in front of them as they watched the body disappear under the gasp of billowing smoke and the amber shine of the hell that awaits me.
The silver harp around his neck glowed brilliant.
I was sorry to watch him burn. Thumbing the gritty wheel of the lighter, flicking it just to try and hear the flint catching through the rumbling of the fire.
The heat got close enough to absolve me, were I a better man, with fewer ghosts to entertain. They closed their ranks and shoved me out, turning their backs to me. Those haunts stuck around to watch the flames lick at the ceiling, let me be on my own as I left the apartment and walked out into the fog before the fire alarm woke up with its accusatory wailing.
An old woman dressed in a black robe stood on the corner as if she’d known all along what was soon to happen there. Pointing at the fire and yelling with her small Eastern European voice about God’s will, God’s fury with our capacious pitch of wrongdoings, all her bleating Gods. Her prayers so loud as she clasped her hands together and begged our forgiveness to the unresponsive clouds.
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