Sunday, 26 February 2017

Chapter 27 - This Mournful Day

After the shock there was pain, but then it soothed itself away, like cramp in a muscle.  You'd think there'd be a thing or ten to worry about, what with the whole dying and all, but like jobs on a list when the sun comes out, sometimes you just gotta put everything behind you.

And move on.

I'd never really wondered what death would be like.  I was a young man, and even in this poor world, it still came to many without a flash and a bang.  Much more common to come in the length of days in a place where the sun has risen and set a hundred thousand times and never once given thought to the desires of man.

A white cotton sheet; a cold wooden altar.  I stared down, expecting that some of my blood might have leaked through onto it, but evidently I'd all bled out before then.  The tops of my feet were poking out the far end.  My skin looked paper-thin and blue.

I wasn't able to move my limbs so I stuck to using my eyes.  Looking around, I was in a building I recognized but couldn't quite place.  The roof was high up and ridged, and desert light was shining through a single high window.  I couldn't tip my head to see behind me, but the white walls were a giveaway.

 'Jayci destroyed this place,' I said to myself out loud.

'Nothing of godly preserve can ever be truly destroyed.'  I was momentarily silent until the face of Padre Reyes came into view.  The elderly priest flicked holy water over me, splashing it onto my face.  I waited for him to finish giving the rites in Latin.

'Plenty of godly things have been destroyed,' I said.  I half-expected him to chastise me for speaking ill in front of the dead.  I guess maybe you got a free pass when you actually were the deceased.

'These are things that live on within us,' the Padre said.

I watched him walk across the room and open a cupboard.  He tugged out a pile of vestments and began to slowly fold them.

'Am I living on within you right now?' I asked.

'This was a bad time for you to fall.  Hole Town needs its virtuous sons more than ever,' Padre Reyes said sadly.  'Right now, Nate Di Vio's men are pulling down the Fallen Cross.'

'What...what?'  I was genuinely shocked by that.

'They're planning to repurpose it, use the metal to build some horrific effigy that will be the star of their little circus.  They said no-one will mind as it was falling anyway.  It's an affront to the town, a blasphemy.  But who's going to stop them?  I'm an old man.  It's not in my power.  All I can do is pray for all our souls.'

I lay there, feeling like I'd let the father down.  The old man just carried on folding his clothes, trembling with every movement.  Somewhere out in the cosmos, If Gregor had been right, the sun was looping closer to Earth with every turn, set to soon scorch everything on the surface.  Some part of me felt maybe it was best to be out of that.  Get to heaven now, avoid the inevitable rush.

'Padre,' I said, 'I've been a believer all my life.  I worked hard and gave glory to God.  Is my reward going to be eternal life?'

He waited for a long time before he replied.  'How are your Bible verses, Phineas?'

'Good.  I mean, I think so.  It's been a long while.'

The old man busied himself with more menial tasks.  'Luke 24:5.'

'Um...wait, I know it.  In their fright, the women bowed down with their faces to the ground and the men said to them, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?"'

The old man's face remained inscrutable.  He gave me no hint as to whether my answer was correct.

'I am the resurrection and the life,' he said.  'The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.'

I took a deep breath and then stopped, amazed that I'd breathed.  When I tried again, nothing happened.  My chest was still and empty beneath the shroud.

'Concentrate, Phineas.'

'Phoenix, Padre.  How many times?  My name is Phoenix.'  When the father glanced at me disapprovingly, I added, 'It has to be Phoenix.  I don't even know why.  I only know that it's important.'

'I am the resurrection and the life.'

'John 11:25,' I said.

Padre Reyes finished his busywork and paused, as though listening to something in the distance.  A small smile appeared on his lips.  'We might make a Bible scholar of you yet,' he said, before disappearing out of sight behind my head.

I felt tired then, and rested a while.  Nothing seemed to matter anymore.  And then, just when it seemed that there might be never be anything else that mattered again, I felt warmth on my cheek.  I opened my eyes and found myself lying in a shallow plot of warm sand.  A few feet away, Piano Man was sitting in his usual seat, fingers blurring soundlessly across the ivories.

'Is this the Sands?' I said.

He replied without looking round.  'This is everywhere and nowhere.'

'Stands to reason that I'd be seeing you along with the priests.'

'A hundred priests don't have the power to do what I can do.'

'What can you do?'

Piano Man's wild eyes danced and he began to play a crazy, disjointed tune.  'Phoenix, I can bring you back!'

I was up then in one movement, a blue-skinned fist knotted around the collar of his impeccable concert shirt and jacket.  'Bring me back?  I shouldn't even be here.  I paid my money and I followed your instructions to the letter.  I had the choice of left and right and I went straight ahead.  Ergo, I should not be dead.'

He shrugged, apparently unconcerned.  'Did you have somewhere else you needed to be?  Maybe you were going to compose a letter to the Dalai Lama, or maybe you have a luncheon appointment with the King of England?'

I pulled him fully upright, completely out of his seat.  'If I'm dead, I don't have any reason to fear you.  So you might want to give me one reason why I shouldn't beat several shades of shit out of you right here and now.'

Piano Man leaned away and pointed downwards just as the sudden unfamiliarity of my own movements shocked me.

'Because I've made you rise up!'

I let go of him to stare at my own fist.  No longer was it shriveled and blue, like something dead.  It was tan, weathered, looking every bit like the hands I knew.  Piano Man began to laugh, and in the silence all around us it was a sick, sick noise.  It sounded like a dying man struggling for breath.

'You didn't do that,' I said.  'You didn't do anything.'

'Before I was here, you couldn't move a muscle!  One minute in my company, you're on your feet and threatening people with frankly indiscriminate and unnecessary violence.'  He paused to wipe away an imaginary tear.  'I'm not sure I've ever been more proud!'

I flexed my fist a couple more times, savoring the movement.  'I ain't giving you a chit.  Just so we know that from the off.'

'Hey, this is all happening in your own head!  I can hardly charge you rent there, right?'

My stomach began to ache like I'd been stabbed.  I doubled over, reached my hands down under my shirt, felt the bandages that had been applied to a wound there.  They were yellow and oozing.  That couldn't be good.  My skin was tender to the touch, so I forced myself to stand upright and pull my shirt down once again.

Piano Man played Yankee-Doodle Dandy one last time.

'Them Southern boys know only life and that's what makes them brave, there's a fire there that burns so bright, it saves them from the grave!'

I closed my eyes, concentrated on overcoming the pain.  As I did so, the music faded away.  'I don't want to die,' I said.

When I opened them again, Piano Man was gone.  True enough, I could walk now even after he'd left, but the pain remained and my muscles felt heavy, like I was carrying them rather than the other way round.

There was nothing where he'd been sitting to suggest that he'd ever been there.  Not a movement in the air, or an imprint in the sand.  He'd said that this was all happening in my own head.  I wondered if this was it - if a Hunter's version of heaven or hell is the place they stalked in their lifetime.  The yellow sky above me was clear, familiar, but the sand was ceaseless.  If I was haunting here forever, forever was gonna be a long, long time.

With nowhere else to go, I crested the closest dune to find a bumpy desert road beneath me, all compressed dirt and yellowing camber.  I looked at it for a moment or two, wracking my memory, trying to remember if this was a significant place somehow, but nothing came to me.  It was only when I stepped onto the side of the road itself that I heard a humming begin in the distance.  A small cloud of dust preceded a motorbike as it approached.

I stood and watched, passive, as the bike pulled alongside, slowed, stopped.  The person who got off was the same size and build as me.  She even had the same eyes. She was older than I remembered - heck, isn't everyone? - but she had a beautiful face, beautiful to me, one that no amount of time was going to change.  She also had a drawn-out rhythmic voice, something else I'd forgotten that I only remembered right now. 

She said, 'Phoenix?  Is that you?'

'Hi Mom,' I said.  It was about all I could manage.

I think I cried.  I say I think because I know I don't know for certain, because nothing that's there could surely be happening for real.  And yet it felt so much like it that if she'd asked in that moment, I would have stayed forever.

'Phoenix.  My boy,' she said, pressing her calloused palm to my cheek.  Her touch reminded me of something, though not something that seemed important at that moment.

I struggled for words.  What am I saying, I was struggling for everything.  'I been looking for you,' I said, after a while.

She hugged me then, pulled me so close that I could smell the leather of her coat.  'Ssshhh.  It's okay.  I know you have.  And yet, I've been right here all along.'

'Where is here exactly?'

'Oh, come on, now.  I think you know.'

I sniffed, wiped a dirty hand under my wet eyes and nose.  'I think I just made this all up because I need something.  Like, if I don't do it, I might just float away.  And yet, it still don't seem like it means anything.  I came from where I came from, and ended where I ended.  Everything inbetween just seems like...a dream.'  The last word came out kinda lame, because this felt like a dream too.  I couldn't explain it, but I was tying myself in knots.

My mom's face was so kind.  You'd never have believed that she could knock out a six-foot man with one punch.  'There was nothing wrong with where you started out,' she said.

'So it's just since you left that it all went wrong?  'Cos it feels that way.  And it's not just me that's been looking.  I have a sister too.  She's a few years younger, been living out in the Sands, where they saw you last.  You never once said.'

Now it was her turn to cry.  'I'm so sorry.  I wanted to tell you.  I wanted us all to be together.  But there wasn't anywhere we could just be, and I felt so messed up that I just couldn't think straight.'

Tears dry quick under sun that hot.  We sat in silence for a minute or two after we were done, and then we both looked down at her empty holster at the same moment.  It felt like a sign.

'You still have your gun?' she said.

'It's your gun,' I said.  'I was going to give it back when I found you.'

She smiled.  'You keep it.  I'm sure you're making me proud.  Did Padre Reyes treat you well?'

'Uh, yeah.  He was kind.  He even gave me the last rites a little while ago.'

'See, you can't complain.  I never got those.'

It felt like the silliest conversation, especially here and now, but it cleared a few things up for me.

'So are you definitely dead then?' I asked.  It was looking like something else we had in common.

'Phoenix,' my mother sighed, leaning into her motorbike.  'I know you want answers.  But you gotta ask yourself what good they'd be to you now.  You already had your last words from the Padre.  There aren't any answers for you here.'

'Figures.  It don't seem like I found anything worth having in my whole damn life,' I said, despondent.

My mom pursed her lips.  'Earlier, back when you were climbing on that warehouse roof, you looked at your friends and you called them family.  Think of that, and then you tell me you ain't found anything worth having.'

I had a rare moment of joy right then, just thinking of Rat's tiny, earnest face.  Cass's skillful athleticism.  Gregor's permanent anxiety.  Mar's grim determination.  Jayci's kooky grin, smoky eyes and permanent semi-anger.  No, I wanted that.  I wanted all of it.  But I wanted acknowledgement too.

'Mom, I don't want to argue.  I don't know how long we'll get to talk here.  But you can't really go lecturing me on leaving people behind.  I was supposed to know what happened to you, but now I guess I never will.'

My mom didn't say a word, just sat there silently, content to listen.  And as I talked, she was listening, really listening, like I'm not sure anyone had ever listened to me before.  Before all of this, I'd wanted to scream at her, to shout, but now she was here, I had what I'd wanted, and I wasn't angry any more.
'Padre Reyes tried to get me to change my name,' I said.

'What?'  She sounded annoyed for the first time.  'But I chose that name special.'

'You named me after a place that sank into the Sands.'

My mom gave me a stern look.  'You know that Phoenix isn't just a place, right?  It's a mythical bird.  When it died, it was consumed by the flames and born again - over and over and over.  As many times as it took to fulfill its purpose.'

'All I wanted was to find you, find out what happened to you.  I guess if you're here, now, I fulfilled my purpose.  There's nothing to go back for.'

She set her jaw and flicked her hair back.  'That sounds like defeatist talk to me.  You've still got a family to fight for, and every minute you stay here is another minute you're away from them.'

I shrugged my shoulders.  'It don't seem like it matters.'

My mom took my hands in hers.  'I'm not sure I believe what I'm hearing.  You had to die to see me, and now all of a sudden you're saying family don't matter?'

Put like that, it did sound pretty dumb.

'They're gonna need your help again, very, very soon,' she said, and all at once I was aching, nearly sick, from the desire to see them, to be back among them again.

I stared into my mother's huge eyes, and it was like staring into deep water.  'I don't know how to get back,' I said.

The pressure from her hands grew tight, then warm, and then hot.  'I gave birth to you once,' she said.  'For most people, that'd be enough.  But such is my love for you - my boy, my Phoenix - that I'll help you be reborn if that's what it takes to get you back to them.'

Fire licked out from her hands and spread over my skin.  It should have been terrifying, but with each passing second I was growing stronger.  The flames grew.  My flesh went black, hardened, peeled away under the golden light of the inferno.  Soon there was nothing but the flame and three voices, forever in my head.

'This virtuous son.  This southern boy.  This burning man.'


A bright streak of desert light cut across my chest.  I was lying in some sort of tent, underneath a loose woollen blanket.  The air was warm and in the distance, I could hear the noises of people talking and see trees moving in the breeze.

I shifted and realized Jayci was cuddled up beneath my arm.  From the top-down, her narrow head looked like a jackrabbit's, with her braids tucked in and hanging loose like ears.

With my movement, she woke up too.  When she saw my eyes were open, she stared at me for a few seconds like it was the last thing she'd ever expected to see again.  Maybe it was.

'Are you in there?' she breathed.  'Can you see me?  Understand me?'

I nodded.  It was all I had strength for.

Jayci turned to someone outside the tent and said excitedly, 'Go fetch Rat from the outskirts.  Tell her to come quick.  Tell her her brother's awake!'

GO TO CHAPTER 28 > > >

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Chapter 26 - Taking the Straight Road

Across the dusty back alley that rolled left and right into the arms of Jensen's grunts, the warehouse backed directly onto the barber shop, all solid brick except for a single rolling steel door which looked near as damn sealed.  Unlike at the Brown Boys' farmstead, this time there was no doubt at all in my mind about what we had to do.  If we deviated from the path that Piano Man had set, people were gonna die, I was sure.

'Course, people were still gonna die.  They just weren't gonna be my people.

'They're getting closer,' Cassie whispered.  'Surrounding us.  If we're going to move, now's the time.'

'Then we move.'  I tapped Cassie on her arm and pointed at the grapple in her belt.  'I'm gonna need your help with something.  I need you to grapple up onto the warehouse roof.'

Cassie lifted the night-vision goggles off her eyes and looked to Mar.  The girl said, 'No.  We don't split up.'

'We do,' I replied, 'but only for as long as it takes to get that door open.'  They followed my eyeline to the rolling door opposite.

Mar paused only a second.  She wasn't taking orders and we all knew it, but she also didn't have a better plan.  'Okay.  Do it.'

 I spun round to face Jayci, who was staring back at me, wide-eyed in the dusk.  'You still have your gear from the church, right?'

'The church?'

'Remember the church?  Cute little white place in the Sands?  You left it as matchwood.'

'I don't remember that.'

To her credit, her face was straight as a die.  'Jayci, I need your grenades.'

Jayci wrinkled her nose in disgust and reached into her bag, pulling out a pair of steel balls with ridged surfaces, topped by pins.  She pressed them into my hands.

'Flick those pins out and let go real quick.'

'Gotcha.  Look out for the explosions.  When they go, that's your sign to move.'

Cassie was over the fence in a single movement; I wasn't so graceful but I was light on my feet and that was all it took.  Two of us, sneaking, would be fine.  If the entire troop had gone with the trikes, Jensen's men would have cut us to pieces before we got close.

I threw myself against the wall and a sound pinged out to my left as Cassie fired her grapple.  Those long, strong legs of hers kicked in and she was up the wall in a single bound.  The cord dropped across my face and I wrapped it around my wrist.  Just once, before I pulled myself up after her, I glanced back at the silhouettes of my family behind.  Well, whatever else they were, that's what they were to me, and I was going to get them to safety.

I followed Cassie's lead.  She was holding onto the sleeve of my jacket and pulling me along.  Without those night vision goggles - her own old world tech - we'd have had no chance.  What little light I could use was on the fringes of my vision.  The curfew torches illuminated streets in the middle distance, always from below, as though the very flames of Hell itself were leaking through and consuming the world.

Cassie dropped down to her knees and pulled me along with her.

'Get your gun out.'  She pulled my hands into place.  'Fire here.'

'Look away,' I said, and did so myself as I squeezed the trigger.

The scene was bathed for a second in green as a lock holding a hatch in place disintegrated.  The hatch itself clattered away and we stepped through the hole and down a narrow staircase to complete darkness below.

 'Okay.  Now we just have to get down to the bottom-'

Cassie gripped my shoulder for a second, tight between thumb and forefinger, and then she was wrenched away from me with a shriek.

I called her name quietly, and then figuring it didn't matter if we were already under attack, loudly.  I could hear choking only a few feet away, so I threw all my weight in that direction and clattered into someone, or several someones, knocking everyone over.  I heard a gasping, like someone struggling for breath.  I was sure it was Cassie.

I was ready for a fight if I could see what I was hitting, but sliding round an abandoned space in the pitch black didn't appeal.  I popped a Candy Jack regardless.  And then, because I couldn't think of any other source of light and I was all out of ideas, I fired my laser into the space above my head.

For just a second, I got a scene in malachite green.  Two figures, one with long limbs, holding her throat and writhing on the floor, surely Cassie.  The other, standing over her, a man with wide muscly shoulders and wearing a military vest, carrying a long rifle with the butt raised like a club.  He was wearing the same kind of goggles as Cassie was, but you could still catch the thin, white lines of the scars that I recognized from when I'd seen them before...

Before I could react, a large chunk of masonry from the ceiling dropped down between us, and a rumbling from around my feet told me that it had gone straight through the floor as well.  I reached out for something to hold myself upright, but grabbed only air.

'Keep firing that thing, boy, and you'll bring the whole damn building down.'  Jensen's voice echoed in the space but remained measured, like he was commenting on my pitching arm from the bottom of a well.

'If it takes you down with it, I'll consider that a price worth paying,' I said.

'C'mon now,' he replied, 'that ain't no way to speak to a man who's already let you live twice.'

'Now why on earth would you do that?'  Keep him talking, because if you can keep him talking, you know where he is...

'Well, seeing as you asked, I kinda liked you.  I could tell you were a resourceful kid, and I genuinely thought you'd leave.  Do the smart thing and head north.  But now it's clear you're gonna be a jackass, you're not giving me much choice but to deal with you.'

'And you're dealing by sneaking up on us through a warehouse?'

'Like I said, you're not giving me much choice.  I can see the way your mind works, in straight lines and right angles.  You're not gonna climb a mountain if you can knock one down.'

The strange echo in the space was just enough to make me doubt where Jensen was standing.  I hadn't taken a shot at him for fear of hitting Cassie, but sooner or later I was going to be left with no choice.  Outside, his goons would be sneaking down the alleys.  If I delayed too long, it would cost us everything.

I was in the moment again, just like I'd been in the corridor at the back of the Brown farmstead.  Hesitation is a live one.  I couldn't afford to miss.  I wasn't going to get a second shot.

'You might want to stay still, instead of circling around and away,' Jensen called, and I knew his own device was allowing him to track my movements in the darkness.  'Floor's a little bit on the weak side.  Keeps giving way.  I figured the best thing to do was to stay still here and wait for you.'

My muscles tingled with the hit from the Candy Jack.  I carried on moving, still slower than before.  He could be bluffing, but he could also be not bluffing, and anyway, he could have shot me if he'd wanted.  I couldn't just fire into the darkness, because who knows who I'd hit?  Damn, Cassie, where are you?

'Gonna get this over with quickly,' Jensen said, 'cause I'm supposing that I'm wasting my time, but I thought I'd try, on my honor as a soldier.  If you surrender now, I give you my word that I'll take you back into town alive.  No-one has to die tonight.  But if you insist on making a nuisance of yourselves, I'll see you all in body bags before dawn.'

'Fuck you,' came a disembodied, gasping response to my side.  Oh, Cass, thank you.

There was a crackle of radio static, the thunder of voices, and then Jensen replied, 'Okay, move in now.'

I fired my laser again, missing everyone by yards but earning enough light to see my way across the floor.  Jensen's rifle went off; I stumbled but didn't see where the bullet went.  Cassie was already there ahead of me, and the last thing I saw as the light died was her bringing her foot up like a pickaxe handle into Jensen's crotch.  He folded into me as my muscles swelled.  I pushed him up against the wall and ripped the night-vision goggles off his face, hoping as I did so that I was adding to his collection of battle scars.

'Cass,' I said, 'get downstairs and get the door.'

'Too late,' Jensen said.  I banged his head on the wall for good measure.

Girl wasn't wasting any time, vaulting away through the hole that I'd smashed in the floor earlier.  I pulled the goggles over my eyes, squinting at the new world before me.  Then, I was back to the stairs we'd come down by and rushing over to the corner of the roof as Jensen's forces advanced on the rear side of the barber shop.

My arms felt strangely heavy as I lifted them upwards. One of Jessie's grenades nestled in each hand. For a second, I could have sworn I had wings.

I flicked those pins out and let go real quick.

Sometimes a straight road ain't so straight after all.  I know that there was someone watching over the scene as that rolling door clattered open two stories down and the alleyway on either side erupted in flames.  I know that there was holy and unholy eyes on me as I slid down that grapple line in a hail of gunfire, just in time to land on the back of Rat's trike as it skimmed through the open doorway, crested the debris on the sodden floor within and disappeared through the crumbling walls on the other side, leaving a trail of burning bodies and useless T-shaped pistols in its wake.

I could hear the humming of the trike engines as they moved from dirt tracks to sand and opened throttle.  People were shouting, but this was Hole Town, and that was the sort of thing that happened.  Someone lifted the goggles gently off my face.  I stared up at the sky, keen to see the stars again.  I couldn't really hear the voices.  Rat took a hard right out of nowhere, shifting with the desert.  The trike felt slick beneath me.

'We were the last ones to leave,' I said.  I was feeling so tired all of a sudden.  This Candy Jack had worn off quick. 

'Phoenix, don't talk.'  Jayci, suddenly above me, leaning on my stomach.  That girl, always telling me off.

'That's how it should be,' I said.  'Get out last, be the hero.'

Rat was normally so focused but she kept glancing back at me, and then I saw her face was smeared with tears.

'Is he gonna be okay?' she asked.

'I'm fine,' I said, and then when I tried to sit upright, pain lanced from my stomach to my everywhere.  I gasped and reached down with my hands to steady myself just as my arms gave way, pitching me back onto the bloody floor of the trike.

Jayci again, her face my world, her hands pressing down on firmly on my stomach.  Talking through her own tears.

'Phoe-phoe, you have a rifle round in your gut.  Stay still for me, darlin', you hear?  Stay still, and stay with me.  We're gonna get you help.'

Sometimes a straight road ain't straight at all.

GO TO CHAPTER 27 > > >