Rush Hour

They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. Five years is not a long time, but it is long enough. It is long enough for weddings and funerals for those who cannot wait, for that walk down the beach, where he first holidayed with his family at St. Bees. It is long enough for work, long enough that the world still turns, for now at least. So he finds himself on a train platform each morning, stepping onto a carriage, staring through dirt-smeared windows as the world passes him by.

Sometimes he thinks he could sit there forever, watching the countryside slip past. Trees blur into fields, which seem to stretch, longer than any field should, until there are no boundaries, no roads, no thicket hedgerows, only a palette of greens and browns beneath blue shining skies. The carriage rocks beneath him, lulling him slowly in his seat, while far above cerulean clouds blossom with wind and rain. He has only eyes for their phosphorescence, their purple twilight tinge, and for the twenty minutes it takes him to reach the next station he is lost in their depths, rolling with them through the sky; a fish caught in their awesome ocean pull.

Then the train shudders, stops, expels its load, and he is back inside his business suit. His mouth sighs. His shoulders sag. The Underground drinks deeply of his soul.

People swarm up escalators, spilling out of the station into the road. Traffic screams after them; a chorus of sirens and sudden brakes. Women wobble past him on heels too high while men with faces shaven clean march briskly in their wake, and in between their legs dogs gambol, vagrants dance another day with life. He wonders when it began; when things first showed signs of ending up this way, then remembers he need not wonder about anything anymore, ever again, for more than the minute it takes to type as much online.

His offices are tall, grey things overlooking a grey Thames. His room is on the fifth floor, next to administration. At eight-fifty he takes the lift, in the foyer beside the stairwell. His shirt is hot and wet beneath his arms. Inside his office, he closes the door, sits at his chair, which sinks beneath his weight, and stares at the face reflected in the blank computer screen. Drawing a deep breath, he begins to type.

He does not know why administration is called administration, why it is singled out when they are all administrators; every man in his pin-stripe business skin, every woman with her pay-check pulse, record-keeping, number crunching, so that the world will keep on turning. He thinks about love, and what it might feel like. He thinks about death, and when it was that they all died. Sometimes he turns in his chair and stares at the plant in the corner with its plastic fronds, its sterile soil, its bright, synthetic stem, until it is all he can do not to close his eyes, ball his fists and scream at the top of his voice.

He does not remember weeks in terms of days. He does not remember working weeks at all. There is only one day repeated, in which he wakes up, travels by train, pushes through crowds, through streets made black with rainwater to stinking, sweaty offices built of old brick the colour of dried blood, peopled by corporate puppets in black suits with empty eyes and long thin fingers twitching by their sides.

They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. He wonders if it has not come already. Not by fire and smoke but a commuter contagion; this, the human condition, made better for a few minutes each morning by the birds in the sky, the distant glimpse of a dream in the clouds.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

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Great Nyctaeus

The Number Forty-Nine lurches as it pulls away from the curb. Hydraulics hiss, and through the settling fog Max makes out brake lights, blinking indifferently in the drizzle. Teeth clenched, he gives chase, struggling against the stream of evening commuters.

Men and women obscure his way, laden with laptop cases and rucksacks, lost in their cell phones, oblivious to all but the hot jargon blowing from their mouths. He breaks from the crowd in time to see another flash of faltering brake lights in the fog. Then the bus slides into the haze and is gone.

Frustration flares inside him, to be swallowed by a void of overwhelming helplessness. Running a hand through his wet hair, he wishes again that he had left the office earlier. There had been a team brief. That file he could not leave unfinished, the conversation with Frederick in the meeting room, it all seems meaningless now in the absence of his lift home. The rain picks up, driving him to take cover beneath the bus shelter. A mad whinny, perhaps the screech of car tyres, fills the street.

In the wake of the six-ten, the shelter is abandoned. Max takes a seat on one of the benches, then stands and wanders over to the timetable. Graffiti obscures the arrival times beneath green stars and ugly swear-words. The next bus might be ten minutes or forty. His shoulder finds the metal post, cold but supportive, and for a moment he is tempted to wait. With a little luck he could be home within the hour.

The thought no sooner enters his mind when he turns up his collars, steps out beneath the sky, and makes for the nearest Underground station. Luck has not been on his side today.

The rain is merciless, and in moments he is drenched. His navy jacket darkens, his white shirt clinging to him like a second transparent skin. The commuter current drags him along.

The street blurs around him. Men and women become base silhouettes; shadows of people glimpsed in his periphery. Shapes sag, stooped against the weather, darkening like his jacket, and it is easy to imagine the rain is responsible; soaking the street, weighing it down, waterlogging the pavement and the people forced to use it. The fog lingers around the road, a blank canvas into which the silhouettes vanish, or reappear suddenly, chased into sight again by headlights and the breathy snort of car engines.

The entrance to the Underground yawns ahead. The current pulls him closer, and even though it is raining, and the station is his destination, he cannot help the wave of panic that crashes over him. Bodies press closer as the stream narrows; flesh and blood and corporate bones digging into his ribs, knocking his shoulders, finding the small of his back. As he approaches the turnstiles, he fumbles in his wallet for the monthly pass that will activate them. Then he is through them, and stepping onto an escalator.

He hates the Underground. If the city’s streets are its thumbprints then these subterranean channels are surely the bare soles of its feet; cankerous, black with grime and ripe with trapped human smells. He detects sweat, and smoke, and the imagined flavour of despair in this place where people crowd and the wind cannot reach –

Despair, but not darkness. Fluorescent strip bulbs line the ceilings, built into the brick or guarded behind strips of wire-mesh, their harsh light as merciless as the deluge outside, every cracked tile, every broken bottle, every billboard plastered with adverts illuminated in the unforgiving brightness. More graffiti covers one of the tunnel walls, language and art reduced to expletives in this place where there is no air and it is never dark –

A train roars through the station without stopping, and he realises he’s standing on the platform. He doesn’t remember stepping from the escalator or escaping the current, but he is here. Carriages shudder past, axles rocking, and he finds rhythm in their terrible speed. He thinks of carousels, and their bobbing steeds, and the motion of real steeds thundering across open fields with nothing but the breeze in their manes and the vast empty sky overhead for company. He used to ride, when he was little and he would visit his grandparents in Sussex.

He knows what it feels like, to take off with an animal and say goodbye to everyone and everything left behind. He didn’t appreciate it then, of course, but increasingly he has been remembering it now. He clings to the memory, covering himself with it, drawing it into him, soothing against his tired skin.

The times on the electronic board inform him that his train is due. He hears it first, its arrival announced by something halfway between a sigh and a mechanical scream. Then the carriages slide into view and he finds himself stepping on-board and finding a seat.

The inside of the carriage is no less bright than the rest of the station. Each seat is mostly plastic, with a covering of something intended to be softer. Stains and daily wear have made the fabric almost unidentifiable. He finds a seat at the far end, slightly away from the other passengers, as the train sets off again.

Alone, he stares at his reflection in the glass window opposite him. In the blackness of the tunnel, the window is a mirror. The harsh light is as unforgiving to his face as it was to the rest of the station. The bags under his eyes are heavy and dark, his skin pale, lips tight. Any traces of humour have been banished by the missed bus. Any traces of youth have been drained by the long day. He thinks again of his grandparents’ house in Sussex, and the horses in their stables, and the young boy who rode them. Eagerly, perhaps desperately, he searches his reflection, looking for some sign that his younger self lives yet, somewhere inside.

“Where are you?” he asks, watching the slight movement of his lips. “Where are you now?”

Lights flash behind the speeding carriage windows, and for a moment he thinks he sees something else through the glass; a horse’s head, thrown back, lips speckled with froth and blood. The glass clouds with hot breath as another giddy scream fills his ears. Then the train is slowing again, and he realises it is braking. Standing, he moves towards the door.

The rest of the carriage is empty. He does not know how long he has been sitting here, or which station they are pulling into. The name of their destination appears on a small screen above the connecting doors but the letters swim in and out of focus. Rubbing his eyes, he fumbles for the button that opens the carriage doors and disembarks.

The platform is similarly empty. He moves slowly towards the stairwell, possessed by the insane notion that he is on an abandoned film set after hours. His life up to this point feels like an act, a supporting part in someone else’s show, or less than that; a walk-on role for which he is not even acknowledged afterwards. He repeats his name to himself, to prove that it is real and it is his. The word echoes around him.

“Max-Max-Max-Max-Max…”

He is at the bottom of the stairs when he hears another sound in the station. Turning, he cranes his head. He is still alone, but the sound is clearer now, growing louder from the darkness either side of the empty train: the casual clatter of hooves against metal.

A part of him is drawn to the darkness of the tunnel. It seems an impossible thing here, where the harsh lights are unfaltering. In darkness there is comfort; respite enough from the rest of the world to draw real breath and find relief. It would be an easy thing, to wander to the edge of the platform and climb down. Then he hears the clip-clop of hooves again, and heavy breaths. When two white eyes appear, floating in the gloom, he turns and flees.

The steps are slippery, or perhaps it is his haste that makes him trip and fall. With delayed dream-momentum he stumbles away, up the stairs and the escalator long since switched off for the night. He races past the turnstiles, all set to open, and into the night-time street.

He does not stop running. He cannot remember ever having run so fast or with such wild abandon. Nor is he quite sure what he’s running from. He cannot see his pursuer but he hears its snorts, feels the warmth of its breath on his face and in his mouth. He tastes blood and sugar-cubes. Puddles shatter underfoot.

It has stopped raining, at least. The fog has lifted, too, the city glistening as though iced. He races faster through the streets, sometimes stumbling, other times reaching new found speeds, but the alleyways are never-ending. He wonders if he could run forever and still not escape, if there will always be another road, another side-walk, another set of street-lights illuminating his face, casting shadows beneath his eyes.

Headlights turn into the road ahead, and through a different kind of fog he remembers something; lateness, another run, the bus he should have caught to take him home. Lowering his head, he gives chase. The wind tousles his hair. The sound of his shoes marries with that of hoof-beats in the night.

It might be the same bus and it might not; the detail does not seem remotely relevant anymore. Exhilaration presses at his ribs, his belly, running like electricity through his limbs.

He remembers other missed buses, and board meetings in which his colleagues may as well have been speaking different languages. He remembers missing files and the inane chatter that spills from Frederick’s mouth whenever his colleague corners him in his office. He remembers the helplessness that consumed him, when he realised that he had missed his lift home. But he is not helpless now. In the cold night, with the wind in his hair and his eyes, he feels free.

The bus is slow, and in moments he has caught up with it. As he pulls parallel to the vehicle, he catches sight of his reflection again in the row of windows and finds himself changed. Slabs of muscle in his legs ripple with each stride, a vast belly swinging beneath him, hooves striking fiercely against the ground: Great Nyctaeus, reborn of this modern Hades!

Moonlight picks out his monstrous shape in majesty; slender but powerful as he thunders onwards. His eyes gleam like two pearls in his head. He glances once more at the windows, tossing back his broad neck. Pink foam from his muzzle flecks the glass.

A dream flits through his head: the sight of an open field beneath empty skies. Then it is gone again. Charging ahead, nostrils flaring, he chases the night through dark satanic streets.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

All These Voices

The sound of the tape slides soothingly into Nicholas’ ears. Not the music itself, although that is certainly pleasant, but the mechanical whir of the reels as the tape’s innards wind through the machine. He doubts if he could write so well without the quiet whirring. He doubts if he could write at all with the noise of the world at his window and under the soles of his feet.

The pub beneath his bedsit is busy tonight. Voices slice through the floorboards as though the wooden planks do not exist. He might be sitting at the bar himself, submerged in the chorus of cries and thoughtless laughter: the White Ship on stormy, booze-wracked seas. Pouring a glass of wine he sits back in his chair and drinks.

Sometimes he can make out word-for-word the different conversations at the bar. Drunkenness seems only to increase people’s volume, as though for a few hours the fugue imparts a sixth-sense: a glimpse of more than just the pub, the street, the city, the entire world as it really is. So the patrons below shout and scream, laughing madly into their drinks, looking anywhere but the frightened whites of their friends’ eyes, the hollow blackness of their mouths; the window panes, dewy with the cold empty night.

The unmistakable pop of breaking glass shatters his reverie, followed by a collective cheer. A bottle or a pint glass, perhaps, caught by an elbow or dropped from careless fingers. Putting his feet up on the desk, he breathes in deeply through his nose. Air inflates his lungs, his chest, the narrow curves of his ribs, forcing everything else out of him and away, except for the pinkish blur behind his lowered eyelids and the gentle flutter of the cassette in the player. Exhaling, he concentrates on the sound.

It was a week after he’d moved in before he discovered the tapes, in a locked drawer under the desk. There was no key that he could find but the wood gave easily enough when forced. The drawer has not been the same since.

He found other things in the drawer, besides the tapes: yellowing sheet music scratched with skeletal notes, a ragged doll with faded red hair, a desert of seashells still coated with grit. When he had finished inspecting these things, he let the drawer keep them. As much as he loves music, he cannot read it. If he was in the doll’s place, he would not like to be brought from out of the shadows looking so sad. The shells are sharp, and he finds them repellent in the way all things decayed seem to repulse. Mostly, the drawer tells a story, and he respects that. A hundred possibilities might have led to these cast-offs finding their way into the locked confines of the desk. Who is he to disturb their tale, their private narrative?

Finishing his glass, he pours a second. The wine is cheap but not altogether unpleasant. Downstairs, the party continues to bloom.

When the noise reached new heights one evening last year, he left his room to complain to the owner. Screams echoed up the stairs and down the hallway. Shrieks ricocheted from the walls, laughter bouncing into his ears, over and over. As he moved down the corridor, he heard chanting and a count-down; a human rite reaching completion, a spell to keep another day at bay, or to guide it in, like a pale boat coming to moor. The owner – his landlord – had laughed in his face. He can still remember the bite of the sound in his chest, the cold spittle as it sprayed his cheeks. The argument had been short and one-sided. As ever, Nicholas had not won.

“Why take a room above a pub if you don’t like noise, or a drink now and then?”

“I like a drink,” he had replied. “I drink often. But there’s no excusing the disturbance tonight.”

“It’s a pub,” repeated the landlord, “and it’s New Year’s Eve, for Christ’s sake. This is where people come to make noise. If you don’t like it, you can bloody well leave.”

It is true that he likes a drink while he writes. Sometimes he celebrates a moment’s peace with a finger or two of single malt. On the nights when he cannot hope to hear himself think, let alone lift pen to paper, he knocks back whole bottles of wine; crisp, heady reds that stain his lips and dazzle his tongue before soaring to his stomach and his head. Sometimes, when he is two bottles down, he returns to the broken drawer. He imagines that he can read the music sheets, and that they are the same dulcet sounds drifting from the cassette player. If he is especially drunk, he imagines their script tells of a different sound; the last, sonorous cry of a world beset, heard by some lonely composer, a man not unlike himself, and recorded here in ink where those who chance across it might read of its agony; its submarine moans.

He did not leave, that night on New Year’s Eve, because there was nowhere else for him to go. There is nowhere else when he hears every ragged wheeze, wherever he is; the shuddering breaths of a world on the brink of expiration. As best he can remember he has always heard these sounds. He did not always know what they were, or what it meant to hear the death-rattle of the stones and the trees and the earth, but he felt them all the same, and stood slightly apart from everyone else because of this, while the others ran laughing after one another, or played hopscotch, or made daisy-chains in the grass, oblivious.

A rare few people are not quite so blind. He read about them in newspapers and on the internet, when he still wasted his time with such trivial things. These men and women scrabble through the soil, digging the earth, scattering seeds, which they hope might germinate, take root, become trees and so heal the world that other men and women have made sick. Give a dying man a cushion, feed him painkillers, sit at his bedside and pray for his soul – he will die all the same, trembling alone as the last of his sorry life departs from his veins.

Sometime after midnight the pub falls quiet enough that he can hear his tapes and write. There will always be noise, but at times like this he is not really aware of it; lost in the depths of his literature. Some men and women write to create. Others write from personal angst, or to entertain a crowd, or perhaps to remember who they are, or were at another time. Nicholas does not know much about these things except that he writes to feel.

On paper, darkness shines. Words convey savagery with the finesse of bright bouquets. Language illuminates the broken back of the world, its atrophied limbs, its eyeless face: a rotten leviathan floating in space, quivering with parasites while it sings its last whale-song through an ocean of distant stars, almost inscrutable except by those who dare to pause in their furious lives and, for a moment, listen.

The tapes whir, his pencil scratches, and something not quite happiness but more like contentment simmers in his chest, until he can write no more and, with a slight smile on his wine-stained lips, he climbs into bed, and dreams of sweet oblivion.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

Do Not Recycle

From where she sprawls in the overgrown grass the dog snarls wetly, while underneath her bulk, a litter suckles on her teats. She watches Johan as he passes the chicken-wire outside the garden, and he sees madness in her black eyes. The pups feed noisily. Clouds slide beneath the sun, turning her young into a shapeless mass of eager fur.

The house behind is grey and still. Half-light shines in the broken window panes and on the children’s toys in the garden; gaudy plastic tractors and oven sets still speckled with rainfall. There is a potting shed that does not look as though it has seen use in twenty years, flower beds filled with a mixture of daffodils and weeds, and at the front door a thin woman in a dressing gown. She sucks on a cigarette while the door frame supports her weight, and it is not difficult to associate the sounds of the feeding pups with her own lips as they pucker and twitch, milking the cancer stick for every ounce.

He is almost past the house when she catches his gaze. For a few seconds, eyes not unlike those of the bitch on the front lawn, burn into his and he sees the rest of the street reflected in their dejected depths. He does not belong here; a well-fed, clean-shaven man in his work suit, treading the pavement in shoes black not with dirt but strong polish. There is a reason he does not come here often, a reason that he has not visited his sister’s family for over a year. It shines in the woman’s yellow eyes, the yellow fingers by her mouth, the faded yellow lines beside the road; symbols hiding just beneath the surface of the street, in this place where the illusion is shattered and one does not have to strain to see life as it is.

His feet lead him down three more roads no different than the first before he comes to a signpost marked Pasture Street. The house could be any of the terraced red-bricks ahead, and he is thankful its number is committed to his head. He fancies that the street smells cleaner here, the houses newer, the sky brighter at the edges. It is not saying much.

As he walks up the garden path towards the crumbling white-plaster front of the house, his stomach squirms. It is several months since he has spoken to his sister, and they did not part on good terms. That was when she stopped taking his phone calls. He wrote; sometimes defensively, sometimes in anger, even apologetically towards the end, but his correspondence went unanswered.

It did not seem out of place to ask her to move away from here. Theirs was an idyllic childhood, on the farm in rural Sussex. He still remembers days spent running through the paddocks, their fishing lessons with Father, the seasonal festivals heralding summer and winter with wicker offerings; straw men and fruity women paying homage to the spirits of hearth and home.

This hard street is no place for a new family. They deserve better, especially little Chloe.

His finger finds the bell. A shrill sound fills the house, echoed somewhere above by the distant screech of a gull. The seconds tighten his ribs around his heart. He presses the bell again, then knocks against the door.

The windows either side of the house are obscured by curtains of the same floral design they grew up with. Dust clings to the glass. The rooms behind are black, unlit, and it is impossible to see or hear anything within. Hope mingles with concern inside his chest, and he wonders if they have moved house after all, if that is why Liz has not been writing back. Certainly, the battered Vauxhall that he had hated so much is nowhere in sight.

He knocks again, then crouches to the letterbox. His suit trousers ride up the backs of his legs. Lifting the metal sheet, he peers inside. Two wide eyes stare back at him through the slat.

“Chloe?”

His breath catches in his throat as the young girl vanishes from view. His niece would be six now, he guesses, or maybe seven. They haven’t moved, then. He realises he is shaking; nipped at by the teeth of the street, the stress, poisoned by anxiety and more than anything else a deep, underlying worry for his sister and her family. They are his only family now. Everybody needs blood-ties.

Straightening himself up, he stretches, flexes his arms and throws his weight against the door. When it does not immediately give he goes again, hurling himself into the wood. Each crash fills the street but none of the neighbours notice, or if they do, they do not seem to care. On the fifth try the lock splinters and he falls into the house.

Dust swirls on the unsettled air. It fills his eyes, his nose, the back of his mouth. He tastes ash, and the sweet tang of decay. Slowly his eyes adjust to the still dimness of the hallway. A chest-of-drawers emerges, an empty coat-stand, one small pair of child’s shoes, all covered in a grey coating of hoar-dust.

“Chloe?”

For a second he sees her in the kitchen at the end of the hallway; a small, thin shape standing beside the dinner table. Then he steps towards her and she flees from sight behind the door.

“Liz? Chloe?”

The girl is fast. She leads him on a chase throughout the house. Twice he almost catches her, in the sitting room and the kitchen, but each time she slips away. Clouds of dust fill the air, mingling with the rotten aroma of the refuse in the kitchen. Rubbish spills out over the lino. Cupboards leak. The fruit bowl swims darkly by the sink. In the sitting room, dust rises from armchairs like ghosts from beige two-piece tombs. He notices the curtains again; lasting impressions from a different life. A small wicker doll, a remnant from his sister’s childhood, watches him from the mantelpiece. The house shifts with silent whorls in his wake.

“Liz,” he shouts as he returns to the hallway. Ankles like bone flash past the bannisters and he realises Chloe has gone upstairs.

Another smell catches in his throat as he ascends through the house. It is deeper, more sickly, cutting through the squalor from the kitchen, reminding him with numbing dread of his father’s study. He found the man four weeks ago, sitting quite cold at his desk next to the photograph of Mother. When Liz had not attended the funeral or so much as picked up his calls, he had been compelled to come back here, where he had sworn he would never come again.

The second-floor seems brighter, where light falls on the landing. Beside it, shadows pool like moisture in the recesses of the walls. He follows the scuff marks around the landing to the room at the far end. The door is already open. Inside, the curtains are drawn, and after the glimpse of sunlight, it takes his eyes a moment to readjust.

It was Liz and Mark’s bedroom, once. Gradually the furnishings emerge from the gloom: the wardrobe, the dressing table, a television mounted on one wall, the king-sized bed, and mounted atop it, propped up against the headrest, two figures, fully-dressed.

Unease sinks into horror as he glimpses limp arms, tattered clothes, heads lolling where they rest on their shoulders. Almost immediately he turns away.

The bedroom feels colder than the rest of the house. The wall in front of him is cream, speckled with damp near the skirting boards, and something else, steaming on the carpet. He realises it is vomit, and that it has come from his mouth. He wonders if it is the damp that he could smell coming upstairs. He knows it is not.

Forcing himself to turn, he looks up; not at the figures on the bed, but their murky reflection in the dressing table mirror. When he grows familiar with their vague silhouettes, he reaches for a wet-wipe from the dressing table. It has long since stopped being wet, but it proves effective all the same when he lifts it to the mirror.

Dust smears from the glass. Wipe by wipe, the couple on the bed become more visible. Realising that a lump has settled in his throat, he swallows it down. His hands are trembling, but he forces himself to address the sight on the bed.

Something is wrong. Even through his tears, through the dirt-spotted glass, he can see that. The trembles have spread to his arms and legs but he manages to turn from the mirror to the bed.

Mark’s legs are flat. Shoes filled with sticks and stones and clumps of soil sit slightly separate from his hollow trousers. The shirt above might have been white, once. Now it is mustard yellow with stains; rot and the brown juice of the fruits used to stuff it. He can see pips, and things that look like pips but wriggle with small lives of their own.

Liz’s tights are not much better; misshapen cloth-limbs stuffed with more clothes. Liquids seep from her torso and the dark gap between her legs. Something that could pass as a pillowcase fills out her form while arms made of bundled branches drape by her side.

Their faces are white polythene bags, filled with what he cannot begin to guess. Children’s paints and marker pen account for the rest; grinning expressions imbued in black ink that they might last forever. Liz’s mouth is drawn in a wide, vacant smile. Stepping closer, Johan notices more branches, moss, shredded paper, teabags and strips of plastic. Where the figures’ hands meet, black twig fingers intertwine and he realises the white-faced macabre effigies are those of motherhood and fatherhood; thin, skinless things filled with silent love of the undying sort that can only be manufactured from crude oil and recyclable waste.

Wicker-Liz shudders, pitching forward, and Johan falls back from the bed with a shout. Mark moves next, head rolling from one shoulder to regard him with wide, empty eyes. Johan flounders across the floor as a third figure climbs spider-like from behind the debris-dolls.

Chloe does not look to have eaten properly for many weeks. Breaths wheeze through small, near-translucent teeth. Her dress might have been pretty, once, but those days are long behind it. She rests on her haunches between mother and father, and even in the dimness he can see the thin bones in her legs. Long arms grope for Scrap-Mark, her skeletal face finding his squishy fruit-chest. She begins to sing.

He doesn’t know where his sister is, or why Chloe is alone. When he tries to approach her, she clings to her makeshift mother and shrieks until he backs away. Sinking cross-legged to the carpet, he stares up at his niece and smiling Wicker-Liz. Caught in her scribbled eyes, time slips away from him, until Liz as he remembers her stares back; beaming as she runs just ahead of him through warm crops of corn, laughing when she turns back to him, goading him faster through the fields, beneath blue cloudless skies. At some point he joins in Chloe’s song, and for a brief moment, in a dark room, in a house filled with dust and decay of all kinds, a broken family finds ragged peace.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved