The Gutters – Chapter 1: NoodleShop

From the book-end of an unknown alley, a stranger appeared through a dense curtain of fog. A splintered pipe gurgled wetly off to one side, oozing a luminescent sludge that worked its way lazily between the black, grimy jigsaw of the cobblestones, framing them in a mesmerising spectrum of hues. The stranger walked forth. his boots sinking in slightly with every step, to rise again with a slight shlitch of resistance. Indistinct creatures, barely distinguishable from the dense fog, shifted and scurried upon his passage. Obscure restless ghosts, they manifest and fade in the dim endless night.

Above him, a mess of tangled wires hung scattered through the fog like sutures for a broken sky. They dripped-dripped ceaselessly into pools of their own creation where grey lizards silently sipped and scattered, sipped and scattered. The alley snaked on endlessly in a play of filth and tarps, of shadows and shapes and humans. A dog-eared world to the corner of the stranger’s weary eyes. By force of habit alone, they prowled. Perhaps only to remind him which was reality, and which was not. How had he fallen so low? To be a stranger in his own reality? A stranger in both?

A few sickly refugees sat huddled together in the damp night by the cold glow of a fenced LCD screen. Not quite the warmth of the barrel fires of old. Not quite a fire to ward off the evil of the night. But a human gesture, in essence. And so, good. Necessary. For, what else was there left to salvage of humanity?

Between the rusted bars of its cage, the LCD cast its harsh light like a judgment upon the post-world. Promising something it might never again know. Not in this reality. In reality. Across its screen drifted peaceful cottony white clouds, against an empty almost liquid azure sky. A cruel promise but for those with the means to escape. And even then…

Like rodents in garbage, the restless refugees stirred and settled amidst the filth and the muck. The corner of his eye caught every motion. The synthetic leather of his gloves creaked as he fought back a sudden urge to still, to quieten, to offer a… dignified end, since the end of the world was not enough.

But how would he know where to stop? And would it even be mercy? The post-world was as inhospitable a place as mankind had ever known. Who was he to judge how people coped, how people survived? Or whether they should?

Greasy clouds of smoke puffed upwards from the refugees’ mumbling lips, carbon copies of the wispy cotton clouds on the screen. The corner of his eye followed their rise. Followed as the clouds of smoke drifted past the bright LCD; as they dissipated into the soot of the night. A stained glaseptic nebulizer passed from wet wool glove to blackened trembling fingers; from burned lips to burned lips, like a broken jewel of inestimable, foregone worth. Heirlooms of a lost humanity, they each took careful, calculated puffs, exhaling no smoke at all. Bliss.

A moment’s worth.

The stranger walked past it all, never halting, never increasing pace. Through the dense fog, his eye caught an indistinct figure weaving towards him, like a pike in murky water.

‘Look what it has reduced them to…’ whispered the figure in a high-pitch tone, before weaving out of sight again.

The stranger walked on, unconcerned.

‘Laced… with amyl nitrate and god knows what other poison,’ came the voice again, silky, persuasive in his ear. ‘I can get you the real stuff.’ The creeping figure inhaled deeply. ‘Aaaiiir…’ its voice rasped airily. The word cast a great cloud of smoke shrouding the stranger’s head. He squinted, his hood shifting briefly to reveal a steel mask covering his nose and mouth. A faint smokeless hiss escaped through a circular valve on its side. And the high-pitched whisper was not heard again.

The sombre alley brightened up again as the stranger walked past the invasive glow of yet another advertisement of cloud and azure sky. A commotion ahead suddenly broke the stillness of the air. The squat figure of a man stumbled blindly out of the shadows, thrashing wildly; desperate to outrun the beacon behind his eyes. Rats scurried and a cruel twist on a children’s game began taking shape. No one else could see the fiery glow, although none were strangers to the dreaded fate.

The red pox.

‘Shit shit shit,’ came the barking raucous. ‘Hide meee! Hiiide me,’ pleading now. ‘Someone!’ He swept right and left, blindly hurtling into the debris and garbage lining the alley. ‘Someone?’

By then, every soul in the alley had long since withdrawn into shadow. Writhing back into their respective holes slimy translucent squids.

‘COW-ards! CowARDS!’ he growled, disappearing momentarily into the thick smoke of his own erratic breathing. Coughing, his hands viciously grasping the air for something to hold onto as he drowned, something to drag under so as to stay afloat.

Shlitch shlitch, the stranger walked on unconcerned.

The alley quietened.

‘Hello?’ asked the pox-marked man, in a measly voice.

Shlitch shlitch, was his only answer. In one last desperate effort, the blind forsaken man lunged for the source of the noise. Missing his mark, but only narrowly, to land with a sickly thud onto the cobbles. The stranger’s cape sailed with the sudden rush of displaced air as he carried on.

A ring of blue light materialised in the smoggy opaqueness above, lowering, hasteless, to land with a soft hiss beside the fallen man. Two peace officers stepped off, a white cloud badge stitched on their left shoulders. The man lying in the streets was reduced to a faint quiver. Not a word of protest crossed his lips as he was removed from the streets.

‘Ref19035, contraband. Air.’

A cold breeze travelled the alley as the verdict was passed. The man’s only defence, a wet sniffed. Then, the pod flew off in a ring of blue light, unhurriedly into the unseen above.

The alley lingered a while in the silent aftermath, only a few heads surfacing here and there, avoiding eye contact, avoiding speech. For what words indeed could break the bonds of their nameless shame? Of their shared cowardice?

The stranger turned a corner into a busy street. Out of the shadows and into a world ablaze. Multi-levelled and bustling. Stepped back into the shadow again and leaned against a grimy pipe. He watched on a minute, blinking, as his eyes adjusted to the overwhelming stimulus. Taking in the industriousness of it all. How life festered, unceasing.

A figure dressed in all-yellow was climbing up invisible stairs, sandals leaving a neon afterglow where the step momentarily was, then wasn’t. The figure slipped and disappeared into a small group awaiting the transit above. Another figure followed after him holding firm a young girl’s hand. Veins of sort pulsed dully through her black coat in fading bursts of red chasing yellow chasing red, and downwards to where they slowly dripped from her sleeves and onto the street. From the shelter of the alley, the stranger traced back her colourful trail. The road stretched on as straight as a dime’s edge. He squinted. A billboard in the distance advertised Oxygen Massage, Oxygen Sleep, Feel the Warmth of Health. His eyes returned from their outward journey to find a hunched cloaked figure pushing a wincing cart before him. A few curtains of discoloured edibles hung on display, through which, patrons could steal glances at pale dumplings dancing sadly in a shallow pool of murky oil. The elderly vagrant grunted and motioned at the dumplings with his chin. The stranger shifted his gaze away. The wincing picked up and, with a grunt, the cart moved on.

Above, the little girl was now blankly staring in his direction. The colourful dripping of her coat was pooling at her feet onto the invisible platform. Her guardian followed her gaze to the the obscure alley. His or her face was indistinguishable behind a curtain of greying matte hair. A neon ray caught the silver rim of round spectacles, here uncovered, here concealed behind strands of hair. A micro-vessel surfaced from the underground and glided towards them, its tail-end swerving slightly, leaving an eel of electric afterglow weaving in its tow. The group on the platform shuffled and the stranger left the alley unnoticed.

As he progressed down the main artery, a damp wind carried distant wailing to his ear. Commotion was afoot. People on foot, on bicycles, motorcycles, makeshift hover-gear. A few bots patrolling overhead. Business was being gone about as usual, and a trickle of rain began filtering through the crowded street. The air changed with it, the smells, the sounds. The wetted filth of the street reflecting the distorted neon wizardry above. Air. Sold in all its variants. Pure, Sourced, Spiced, Laced, Concentrated, Filtered, Hexo-filtered, Enhanced… A few umbrellas flew open like startled ravens.

At the corner a preacher stood crooked, high on a soapbox, prophesying a doom that had already come to pass. His darkly silhouette starkly counterpointed against the sky-and-cloud LCD monitor behind him. A shrewdness of drunks were gathered in a semi-circle around him, leaning heavily against one another, swaying to his every word.

‘Meanwhile, the Citizens of the Sky,’ said he, the preacher, with grave bravado, pointing at the sky.

‘Up Theirs!’ yelled the crowd in chorus, as per custom. Like a bless-you to a sneeze. A great deal of smoke rose from their filthy mouths.

‘They! They have done this to us!’ The Priest took a deep breath and exhaled a voluminous puff of smoke into the sky. All watched after it dumbly, pensively, as it rose into the smog above. ‘A side-effect They call it! A side-effect of the chemical They use to make the post-world air breathable!’ The preacher paused briefly for effect. ‘The audacity!’

The crowd echoed these last words, though mostly echolalically.

‘While the truth, the TRUTH! The truth,’ he whispered as the crowd huddled in, ‘is that They have used this toxic chemical to keep..us..submissive!’

The crowd erupted, he could hear their cheers and drunken banter, in the distance now, slowly fading to the sound of rain and the swish of passing tires.

The food district loomed dimly at the end of the street. A feeble lighthouse for the hungry. The muffled chatter, the sizzling of the oils, the crackling of the charcoal, the emptying of buckets, guts landing on the floor, the reticent flow of open sewers, the dissection of meat. The stench of swine, of sauces, of spices, of fats, of fish, of burning flesh, of vinegar, of overripe fruit, of rotten vegetables, of urine, of human sweat, of burning garbage. The food district was a smouldering undersea volcano, harbouring an unlikely mix of life in the cold darkly depths of the post-world. The stranger carried on.

At the very end of the district he found a lone, softly-lit stall. A solitary few were consuming a quiet meal under its dripping awning. The stiff leather of his coat creaked as he settled onto the weather-worn stool. Next to him sat a young tidy woman smoking a discreet air-filter. A nostalgic red ember came alive at its tip with her every draw. She let the clean air flow out through her nose, invisible. A purely aesthetic act.

The cook was hunched over her work in her cramped improvised kitchen, humming soundlessly to herself. Once her work was complete, she turned to the silent pair holding two bowls of noodle soup in her weathered hands. She offered the one in her left hand to the tidy woman who accepted it with both her hands and gracefully waited to be offered the chopsticks. These, she received with her right thumb. She deposited the bowl lightly onto the table with a discreet respectful bow. The cook observed the familiar ritual with satisfaction. As for the bowl in her right hand, it hovered in wait.

‘You going to eat with that thing on?’

The man’s gaze rose, heavy with slow defiance. His eyes travelled from his pending meal to the cook’s stolid eyes. Her eyebrows lifted then, with stern insistence. An unseen smile crossed his lips beneath his mask. He savoured the tension an instant, then relented. Discreetly, he bowed before her display of motherly resilience. Extending his bow in acquiescence of her unquestionable reign within the confines of her tiny noodle shop. And a moment more, in respect of her proud, trembling hand. Still longer, he bowed, only this time to conceal the sweeping sorrow he harboured for the thin whisks of smoke that emanated from the cook’s thin lips. A lone drop of sweat travelled her ghostly cheek. Her love, unyielding and harsh, was the truest love a man could know.

The bowl landed with a muffled clamour onto the mouldy straw mat before him, sending a wave through its cloudy contents. A drop washed over the brim to land with a soft splash onto the scuffed metal of the counter. The man ended his bow.

The young tidy woman at his side stared unflinchingly forward, watching the interaction with both marked indifference and curiosity.

She yawned.

The cook dragged a damp cloth from her shoulder and fell to work on the drying rack, casting unashamed knowing eyes at the much subtler interaction unfolding before her. At the slowest dance of all.

A short hiss of air travelled the quiet night as the man removed his steel mask. Pearls of sweat glimmered upon his shaved upper-lip. 

‘There,’ the cook said, satisfied, ‘much better.’ She offered him a set of splintered chopsticks. His eyes closed for a moment as he breathed in deeply the thick midnight air. He exhaled a smoke-filled sigh into the smog above. Quietly, he accepted his chopsticks and began fixing his noodle soup with the precision of a mechanic, or that of a junky. Eggs, seeds, sauces, spices, pastes, herbs, greens, his hands expertly finding and dosing the fixings to the exact chaos of his liking.

The cook reached far under the counter upsetting many glass jars and surfaced holding two dark, wooden pepper mills. The rain receded a little. Then, altogether. The shop came alive again with its soft orchestra of slurps, mastication and the dull sound of wood against ceramic.

‘My boy works hard getting these you know?’ she remarked to him over the sound of grinding of exoskeletons, limbs and antlers. From the other end of the street came an outcry of riled approval. The man lifted his eyes from his steaming bowl and nodded expressionlessly in the direction of the preacher and his goons.

‘All day he stands there,’ said the cook, answering the wordless inquiry. “If you ask me, his words do far more to keep people dumb and submissive than the air we breathe.” The man slurped on, unimpressed. The cook leaned in, her eyes patrolling wearily upwards, towards the City in the Sky. She lowered her voice. “I say he works for… works for, you know… them. Don’t seem like a refugee to me.” She leaned back with a sly smile, obviously proud of her gossip of defiance.

A dry crack of glass came from the edge of the stall accompanied by a sharp inhale. A second crack followed immediately behind it as her drying cloth snapped but a few inches away from the junkie’s face. The greasy man tumbled off his stool in surprise. A coughing bout took him, and, for a moment, the air sporadically exiting his mouth was invisible.

‘There’ll be none of that here.’ came the dry menacing tone of the cook.

The junky began to scamper away as his breath turned to smoke again. Beside the tidy woman, the man set down his chopsticks and began to rise with a great creaking complaint from his stool.

‘Don’t waste your breath,’ came the cook’s voice, relaxed now, and final. He paused for a second, considering his next action, then sat back down. “Probably wasn’t going to pay anyway,” she added with a dispassionate sigh. She leaned back and eyed the darkness pensively. “It’s not the air, you know, or whatever it is they lace it with that bothers me. What bothers me is the idea.. the idea of escape. That’s the real of poison.” She paused, considered who she was speaking to, then picked another bowl from the disorderly pile and polished it dry, in silence.

The rain picked up again. An alley cat found shelter at their feet. Its breath rose to them in scattered bubbles of white smoke, as though vapour from the cold. A few vagrant patrons stepped under the dripping awning, and the stall became busy again. The cook fell to work. Her two guests were thus left to their subtle wordless dance. The young woman slurped her plain noodles, simply elegant in her motions. The man ate with vigour and appetite. Their silence drawing them into a world of their own. The fading warmth of the broth noting the passage of time. The young woman’s toes were cold. She rested her chopsticks on the corner of the bowl. He tipped his bowl to the corner of his mouth, letting the dregs slide lukewarm down his throat. The cook laid four vapour buns before them, two at each end of a warped cutting board. He reached out and swept the ones on his end into his empty bowl with his hand. She reached for one with her chopsticks and deftly brought the soft-fleshed pastry back to her empty bowl. The spongy white skin parted easily, exposing its colourful steaming insides. Sweet red bean paste for her. Savoury minced pork for him.

They ate on in silence. The stall quieted down again. The cat licked at a few fallen crumbs. She slid her second bun towards his end of the cutting board, picked up her air filter and drew a few slow drafts of clean air. The cook’s lips parted in a warm half-concealed smile for the unfaltering observance of ritual. He swept the bun into his plate, wordlessly. A kettle burbled and tea was served for three.

The rain lingered, then faded. The little steaming island that was the noodle shop suddenly reappeared into the night. A last patron dropped a few silver coins onto the counter with a clang, and slipped away into the dark. The cook reached over and absently gathered them into her apron. Then, bending stiffly at the waist, she pried open the sewer grate, hidden amongst the pots and jars at her feet, and disappeared into the unlit gloom below. The cat soon followed suit, as though sentient to the innocuous ploys of an old heart.

The air was still in the wake of the cook’s presence, and for a moment, there was no one else in the world but the two of them. Tea steamed as not a word was spoken. Nor was a word thought. The woman sipped a discrete sip and the ardent tea suffused its luscious warmth into her chilled limbs. A few vague rummaging sounds escaped the underground. The cook took a seat on the wooden stairs, concealed, yet in full view of her guests’ legs. She unwrapped a thin jelly sandwich and observed the space between them.

‘Come on girl,’ she worded without a sound. The cat joined her side. The old woman took a bite and wondered. “Step out of yourself girl.” The cat settled in the cook’s lap. She saw the woman’s immaculate black stockings, her dancing feet; his loose laces, shredded pant hem. She saw children. “And you, boy, give her something to step on. Catch her fall.” She ripped a corner of sandwich, handed it to the cat who lazily declined the offer.

The world above was motionless. The woman pulled the warm teacup closer to her heart. The moment was about to pass. The man reached deep inside his coat and, just like that, broke the eternal moment with the landing of an opaque black orb onto the counter. Startled by the sound, the cook climbed up the stairs, and the sudden effort sent her into a bout of laborious coughing. The tiny kitchen was soon enshrouded in thick white smoke. The woman was the first to react, re-purposing her air filter to rid the air of smoke. The air gradually cleared and the man leaned forward to offer his mask to the reappearing wheezing cook. The cook reached for it, then pushed it away.

‘Get… get that goddamn thing away… away from me!’ she gasped, her voice raw, unforgiving.

Both her guests stood leaning over the counter disquieted, unsure. The cook grabbed her forgotten cup of tea, gulped its lukewarm medicine and gathered herself.

‘I’m alright,’ she said to them. ‘I’m alright,’ she repeated to herself.

The woman laid her air filter down next to her cup. She closed her eyes, then, softly, she lifted her hands. And, for a moment, they stayed poised, mid-air, with every ounce the grace of an orchestra conductor. Commanding, majestic. A gentle wave travelled the length of her fingers setting in motion a delicate dance of style and minutiae. Her company instantly quietened, their breathing soothed. Her thumbs imperceptibly reached each finger, igniting their tips. And when they began dancing, their invisible choreography suddenly came to life, leaving poly-chromatic trails in their wake. The intricate design of her movements cut luminous through the damp chill of the air; blazing, wondrous. The vibrant tracings, pouring endlessly from her fingertips, were reflected six-fold in the dark globes of their entranced eyes. The cook’s tattered breathing gradually eased. The man sat back hypnotised. The rhythmic swish of her sleeves against her swaying wrists lulled, as her fingers whisked and whisked and whisked. At its peak the brightness became over-powering, eclipsing the world with its shine. The space between them was pure ocular stimuli. Just then, the hand motions altered. The woman, ever gradually, began to gather and spool the unspun luminous yarn into a ball. The ravelling sped for the last few yards, until, at last, she cast it to soar and fade into the nebulous reaches above.

The cook awakened first. She looked about for a rag with which to resume her role in this world, but instead found her empty teacup. In one motion, she gathered all three and gifted their dregs to the gutters. She then tipped the spout of the steaming kettle into each, redistributed them, and leaned back to sip silently.

The woman awakened second. She extracted a forest green linen kit from the inner pocket of her burgundy dress coat and unfurled it onto the counter before her. With a set of tiny steel pincers, she extracted the ember from the tip of her air filter, examined its bright amber glow, and dropped it into a muddy puddle at her feet. The water steamed and burbled. And then, the ember withered, dimmed and vanished.

The man woke last and, for a moment, was stirred, confused. As he regained his bearings, a shadow crossed his face. Unaccustomed to the loosening of his grip upon reality.

‘Reality,’ the old cook worded thoughtfully into the air, her eyes following the resulting smoke as it rose from her lips and dissipated. She opened her hands and studied their worn wisdom. Her guests both studied her intently. The cook half-smiled to herself. There was a flash of vulnerability, honest and valiant in the pale glow of her eyes. Then it was gone. She emptied her glass and submersed it into a basin of dark soapy water. The air was sharp in her battered lungs. ‘We all escape. In the end, we all escape.’

With these words, the fabric of their meeting came undone. The man rose and cast the first stone with the clang of change against the metal counter. He swept his mask back into his coat pocket, turned and slipped wordless, back into the humid starless night.

The cook washed on. The woman waited, letting her cup steam untouched upon the counter. She breathed in. The remnants of his metal and leather musk still lingered. She gazed into the distance that had swallowed him whole, her face pale, mournful.

‘Give him time,’ the cook’s voice flowed warmly through the air, but by the time she turned around, the woman was gone.

The gutter received the murky dishwater impassively, guiding it towards the steamy bottomless depths of another sewer down the street. Shivering, the cook slipped into her overcoat and stepped outside the noodle shop. She wrung her drying cloth and dragged it across the counter. With one hand, she opened her coat and swept the coins into her apron. Then, she stopped. Peeking over her shoulder, she swiftly enshrouded the obsidian orb with her rag and dissimulated it into her coat pocket. While she flipped her hood on, her foot absently found a lever at the base of the stall and four heavy metal curtains landed with a crash to seal the noodle shop. She walked away, one hand still inside her pocket, firmly around the orb.

The cook hobbled down the damp darkly maze of alleys and streets, lost in a dreamlike state. A stream of smoke drifting from her mouth, marked her ephemeral passage in the night. Wholly absorbed by the contents of her pocket, she navigated through the gloom with heedless precision.

When she reached the old cathedral, she took the cracked marble steps one at a time. With slow huffing determination, she made her way into the decrepit hall. A tiny speck in a world of giants, her steps echoed long against the far walls. A few crows escaped through the shattered domed roof, amidst a drizzle that had begun to fall. She crossed the vacant hall, counting the six gargantuan crumbling pillars under her breath and, circumnavigating a pile of broken glass and debris, she came to a halt before an empty wall.

‘Oh,’ the old cook whispered, only just awaking to her surroundings. She rummaged her many pockets. When her numb fingers finally enclosed upon the rusty skeleton key, she whistled. The broken acoustics of the cathedral having once housed who knew what evil requiems, made little of the sound.

The old woman slid the key just below a small notch in the marble façade. A door creaked ajar, glitching into view only for a split second, before swallowing her whole.

The old woman settled in a corner on a mattress made of cardboard boxes and worn clothes. She removed her damp jacket and covered herself with it. A mouse in a shoebox, she reached inside her pocket for the precious orb. It was heavy, and warm still from her hand. She closed her eyes and waited the breadth of a few shallow breaths. Then, trembling with anticipation, she whispered a secret word into it. A faint whirring followed several clicking sounds within the artefact. A hazy, breathless moment later, the orb flattened into the palm of her hand. A grainy hologram began to form. Her hand reached blindly for her spectacles upon the threadbare tire she used for a makeshift night-stand. The indistinct visual chatter gradually reorganised itself and crystallised into the shape of a little girl, shy in her purple dress, a daisy garland in her hair.

‘Ooh.’ The sound escaped the old woman’s throat involuntarily. Her trembling hand adjusted the scratched spectacles on the bridge of her nose, then came to a rest hovering above her mouth. The little glowing figure counted herself to three and performed a pirouette.

‘My,’ the old woman voiced, sorrowful in her delight. Her vision began to blur as the little figure performed a second pirouette. On the third, the girl misstepped and crumbled into the many folds of her skirt. She was surprised for a second, only a second, then she broke into burbling giggles. The sound faded and the hologram began to dissipate, leaving the old woman in the lonesome darkness of her abode. The flattened orb regained the shape of a sphere inside her hand. She pulled it to her heart with a shallow reverberating sigh. A few tears, cut loose from her eyes.

‘A.. Abi,’ she whispered to the obscure artefact. The orb flattened again.

∞∞

‘The sun always shines above the clouds.’

Shliitch shliitch. The street rushed past, busier still. A pair of cloud-shaped loudspeakers hovered above the crowd, spewing propaganda in warm comforting voices. A two-storied hologram of a playful family materialised in the middle of the street. Three young holographic children ran around, passing through people, laughing, playful, while their parents watched on, smiling peacefully. Although most of the traffic flowed, unfazed by the spectacle, a few people unconditionally avoided the holo-people, crossing themselves as they hurried past, aghast lest they be traversed by these apparitions from another world. The stranger walked on. None of it escaped his eye. None of it quite in focus.

Obscure markets lined the streets where girls sat looking colourful like tired birds. One such girl, a teenager, and much livelier than her peers, pulled a breast out and stuck her tongue out at him. She then abruptly laughed herself into a coughing fit, to the mild annoyance of the girls beside her, who rolled their eyes, but mostly stayed immobile, looking vaguely flirty.

‘So young and already so breathless,’ a passer-by muttered, spitting into the muck. As though breathlessness was the sum of it.

As the stranger approached the micro station where the little girl had stood with her father, he noticed a leak at the base of a towering billboard. A luminescent chemical slid thickly down into a side-alley where a few street-urchins parted its flow into a series of gutters and pools to keep it from escaping down into the sewer system. As he passed by, a young boy looked high, very high, up at him, awed into taking a break from painting his skeletal legs with the colourful fluid. The stranger’s boots picked up the slime and for a while, his footsteps lit the sombre and empty alleyway down which he gradually disappeared.

He negotiated his way through worming passages and down narrow flights of stairs. The maze was never twice the same. With every step, the filth, the disarray, the sheer chaos of the world, furthered. Rusted metal, mechanical parts, buckets of oil, of chemical waste, human refuse, wreckage; his downwards journey was obstructed, unclear. And that was merely what he could see and smell. Smoke progressively filtered through the air, giving it a distinct yellow tinge. The heavy odours of soot and sulfur marked a milestone in his pilgrimage. Sweat percolated onto his face in the suffocating heat. Just as it became impossible to breathe the heady admixture, he secured the mask back over his nose and mouth. Was it out of respect to the old cook that had he waited so long? That he always waited this long?

Around him the landscape was changing. The way was known to him now. He engaged through claustrophobic tunnels, into steep ladderwells, down an inverted skyscraper of floors where throbbing engine rooms, buzzing transformers, monstrous machines, steaming valves, turned each their cog in the obscure machinations of the underworld.

Nearing a symmetrical bifurcation he extracted a metal marble from a pocket just below his knee, and loosed it on the floor before him. The marble instantly rolled forward, increasing in speed as it neared the left door. He opened the right one and stepped through it, into an empty corridor. The door shut with a neat click behind him. The well-oiled mechanism never not a herald for him, of a world left behind. A reality. Reality.

From the black porous walls, a sea of atomisers dispersed a dense asepticizing mist. The air suddenly cooled. Here, for the first time since he left the noodle shop behind, he stopped. He had fled to the end of the world and now he had returned home. If a person could be called home.

A shelf slid out of an opening in the wall on his right. He removed his mask, his heavy coat, his boots and socks, his pants and shirt and undergarments, and placed them all upon its polished surface. The shelf disappeared with its content and a sleek shower-head appeared from the ceiling. A network of lasers travelled his body, as he bathed. The shower-head retracted and a warm wind blew from all directions. A low shelf slid out, on the left this time, with a towel and a blue translucent ring. He slipped the ring onto his index and the walls around him suddenly bloomed into life.

A comforting oak door appeared. He motioned for it to open, and was presented with his wardrobe. He removed the warm towel and sat on the heated shelf. As he selected his clothes, pointing his ring finger at the various items of his choosing, a clock appeared announcing the next passing train. He dragged the towel through his damp hair. The wall before him slid smoothly sideways revealing the neatly hung and folded assortment of his clothes.

The orbit train arrived, punctual and without a noise. He stepped in, taking a seat on one of the lateral benches. Twin siblings were jostling on the very rear bench of the train, their eyes clouded over by the alternate reality they were experiencing. The febrile excitement at what they were beholding through the rear window was loud in moments. Their caretaker, a middle-aged woman, smiled uneasily at him and apologised sympathetically. In the same motion, she glanced back at the kids and yelled quietly for them to settle down or else… or else they’d be forced to sit through the entire train ride unenhanced. The threat, though severe, barely permeated into their world. And soon, if not immediately, the racket resumed. The caretaker repeated her meek apology. Her eyes subsequently clouded over and a pleasing expression soothed her feature.

‘The sun always shines above the clouds.’

The slogan announced his arrival. He stepped out onto the platform.

The lighting was soft, the climate pleasantly fresh. Simulacrum of night. He wondered down a few padded stairs onto the street. The world was grey, bled of life and colour. Sounds of the night surrounded him. A soft ambient blanket sowed with crickets, night birds, dried flowers, long grass swishing in the breeze. A bouquet of sensory comforts. He walked on through the grey lifeless interface. As he reached a first intersection he turned left through a field of synthetic turf. There was a faint aroma of summer nights, of flowers, overturned earth and fresh cut grass. As he made his way through the grey plastic pillars of the neighbourhood forest he heard the familiar call of a distant eastern screech owl. A delicate melodic wave that announced the proximity of home. He could hear the leaves playing in the breeze, the trunks wincing. A pathway led him to a series of box-shaped houses.

As he reached the third house, he turned to face it and stopped. Before him there was mere nothing. Just a few outlines, mostly walls and steps. He sighed. If he closed his eyes he could smell his neighbour’s apple tree blossoms, the bougainvillea climbing up the side of the house. They were almost real, and he could almost see them. Sighing again, he reached into his waistcoat and extracted a tiny metal case containing his reality lenses. He put them on. His vision turned milky for a second. A pair of white clouds appeared.

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The white clouds dissipated and the world came to life before his eyes. His lawn, the garden, the bougainvillea, the crooked apple tree. He walked on towards his charming wooden house indifferent to the cinematics of it all. He reached the front door and opened it softly. He found an elderly woman sitting on a high stool at the kitchen’s centre island, writing in tidy cursive upon the air before her. He walked to the wall, conjured a refrigerator with a wave of his ring and selected a glass of water. The glass arrived seconds later and he settled on a chair in the corner. The elderly woman worked on, paying him no mind. He quenched his thirst in silence, a wave of utter exhaustion washing over him. His pilgrimage was over. Though his soul would always remain scattered between worlds.

With a few last strokes of her pen, the words and pen disappeared, and at last, the elderly woman focused all of her attention on him. Her eyes travelled the length of him where he sat, slouched in his chair. For a moment, she considered lecturing him but then, catching sight of his lifeless eyes, she took pity on him and reconsidered. Only as he escorted her to the door, did she break her silence.

‘Why do you insist on going there?’

The man weighed the question and, after significant reflection, answered in a low defeated voice:

‘It keeps me human.’

The elderly woman nodded wisely, though her eyes conveyed no trace of understanding. and bid him goodnight. He looked long after her as she made her way down the path onto the vacant street. A sense of protective angst, residual of the post-world, no doubt, momentarily waxing within him. Then, at last, he closed the door. He breathed air into the deepest recesses of his lungs, to gather and evacuate any lurking residue of an interminable day, allowing it to finally come to an end. On the way down the corridor, he stopped by his daughter’s room. He found her sound asleep, a strand of silver moonlight shining upon the garland of daisies, still gracing her hair.

 © 2022 Etienne Robert.  All rights reserved.

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