Fire crept skin without sensation. A suicider sank in the water as I watched the waves above. The spaceman from my dreams was afloat on stars, calling from the event horizon of a rising black sun. A crash of light brought life back from the bitter grasp of the dead as the man refused to lay down. A light defined by the shadow of death, there lurking a rapist and me. And heaven poured out its angels.
Eyes screwed shut. Inky shapes in thought, all of them stretching out under gravity into stranger perspectives. An impression buried beneath reality, like memory. My free hand burned then as I clenched it.
Blackened oil roiled in my mind, the sight of it washing pink flesh, permeating and staining it sallow in the dark contractions of my lungs.
I opened my eyes.
My breath appeared on a plume of smoke. Heat and moist air came against the cold breeze and distant light in a drifting fog. I took another toke, the rain pattering lightly around me. The plastic umbrella over my head was propped against my shoulder, my leg pulled up against my chest to brace it as I sat.
The midday gloom was hanging low, flowing overhead between the concrete heights of the school. The thirty-foot tall red sign for spicy noodles blazed across the street. The playground was only just around the corner from where the buses were loading. From the top of the slide, I had an eye on them.
Only a moment more to breathe.
I had one more drag before dropping it, strangling a cough as I did. That last exhale sputtered out. I picked up my legs and slid, the wet slide soaking me on the short ride to a quick stop.
“You look stupid.”
I smiled wider as I stood up. He knew I would. “Wally,” I said. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I’m spooky like spiders.” Standing aside the slide, he looked over his shoulder at me, dark lenses focusing where eyes should have been, expression vacant. “I’m always around.”
“Yeah,” I chuckled.
“Yes.” The line was growing short enough.
We fell into step towards the bus. The expanse of the playground surface was wet and icy as the air. Walking, I folded my umbrella in anticipation of boarding.
“Hey- shit,” called Skrimp from the line. His feet lost traction as he turned to greet us.
“Your soles are bare,” I told him. “Get new shoes.”
He laughed. Head shaved and eyes wry, he knew I knew that wasn’t going to happen. His disheveled look was genuine and I wouldn’t get too close. He spent his money on other things. Beside him, a guy with unamused eyes and a sparse beard was raising an eyebrow at me.
“Dag.” I bared my teeth in the fakest smile.
Right. That’s me.
The gang’s all here.
I grimaced. My hand was still cold, jammed in my pocket. A phantom chill.
I glanced back at the school as my turn came to board the next bus. They were queued, each rolling up as the next filled, each student checking with the supervisor as they stepped in.
My I.D. card scanned and face checked to match, I stepped into the black windowed bus on my cue. Eyes roving over the interior, a sight I’d seen before.
I came face to face with the policeman leaning over the driver, the gaunt woman she was. My eyes locked hers, bloodshot bagged anxiety not intending to make contact with another soul for the inevitable exchange of understanding.
We’re both such heroes.
The exchange seemed longer than it was.
A moment’s glance and what seemed like a dilation of time. When I thought of myself again, I was seated by the window, having crossed through the mess of students.
Sliding through things, still waking up after hours of school. Inertia marks movement and off we go. I ran fingers through my hair, then rubbing my eyes, trying not to yawn.
Someone had sat down beside me.
“Getting enough sleep?” Dag asked.
“Maybe,” I said. I wouldn’t say sorry. “Maybe that’s my business.” I was an asshole like that.
“I think it’s everyone’s business. You’re a dangerous noodle without sleep.”
Condensation was heavy on the bus window.
Dag was amused with himself. He had a square face and scar on his lip which contorted with the slightest expression. It made it easy to read him.
“You, harassing me for being paranoid when some vagabond calls me by name.”
“You know me.”
“Yes, well, I know that now, don’t I? Hence… hence no scald attack.”
“Yeah, hence…” He drew his phone and checked a text. “Hence, here we are. On our way back to the big damn mess. Just want to know you’re awake enough to get my back.” His eyes lingered on the phone before tucking the clear plastic sheet away again.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s play at this friends thing.”
He ignored me. “So you good?”
“Yeah? There something keeping you up?” he asked.
The bus came down onto the super-freeway, swallowed by the tunnel as roads merged together deep beneath the mountains of metal above. “Nothing at all,” I said. “…Not a thing at all.”
Traffic buzzed outside on the ten-lane road, the shallow ceiling whizzing by in a blur of red lights, the road bellow like rushing water.
I hadn’t known he was Dag when I’d doused him, obviously. I hadn’t known anything really.
I was tired and hungry.
But I had caught some sleep in the booth at the curry place. So it was fine now. That was the narrative.
As the tunnel lapsed away the open air came clearer into view, dusk grey. I wiped at the window, sinking down into my seat to see if I could spot it, framed by scrapers on all sides. A black sphere. Up above the world, like a ghost in the sky looming low. Always casting a shadow, but never seen. Our little dead god.
I sometimes liked to think about it up there.
A defining shape over the city.
That big damn mess? It was everything down here it watched over.
The highway’s stretch lead on into the next tunnel, taillights marking its maw. Dag was on his phone. I would’ve pretended to look at mine if I could’ve peeled my eyes away from searching. I felt something deep inside.
A shallow tragedy.
Or I should’ve packed a snack.
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