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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Wednesday, 04 May 2011 18:32


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His leather smelled of sweat and motor oil, all of him dusted in the chalk of the city, like the dirt from which he had been crafted. Fairytales and godstories tickling the edge of his awareness.

The motor oil came from the room where he slept, a place once a garage, now his home, where they used to strip the rough, homemade combat vehicles stolen from the enemy, parted them to make their own or armor the houses. The metal ghosts still clung to the corners, under the bed and behind the desk.

The sweat was tantamount to breath in this desert, worse because of the running. Running from one end of the city to the middle. Running four miles, maybe five.

He had run through the dense late morning heat, from the home once a garage to this place, the intersection at the center of the city. Pink dust and white gravel, white like rough diamonds shoveled by the bucketful over the dust, glittering in the sun. Pink like crushed roses. Or blood. Electric horns hanging on wooden poles, alarms and prayers, the first often interrupting the second, calling the men to the weapons bunkers, the way of the city.

The gravel was shifting beneath his heavy boots and he fell to his knees, breathed in the air that had weaned him and poisoned him. He sat on his heels, reached out a steady hand and took a fistful of the gravel and dust, held it to his nose and inhaled, eyes closed. He let the maddening sounds become a symphony of hatred and of anger, at once comforting and deeply unsettling. The women yelling at their men, the men screaming at their boys and the children echoing the lessons to the dogs and the street people. The weapons tested on the hills to the north, the vehicles stripped in the warehouses to the east. The scream of the horns, tested, used, quieted, tested again. The exhausting state of constant preparedness.

He could close his eyes and his mind could build a wall and make silence. The sun made the inside of his eyelids ignite with blues and greens and purples, the sensation of the hot wind on his skin became so much more lasting. Somehow, though, the web of movement and sounds and preparation and eternal violence upon the air and the gravel, it was palpable, salty and bitter on his lips.

A man yelled his name, a young man, only barely older than him. If he opened his eyes, he would recognize this man. Present at his birthday celebration three weeks ago when they had given him the leathers he wore and the metal necklace stamped with his number. He could open his eyes and look at him, or he could stay on his knees with the dirt to his lips and his eyes closed and the taste of the hell compressing against his very bones. He could stay here like this for hours, days.

Slowly he opened his eyes. The darkness to light turning the world from yellow to blue. Caprio was a few yards away and yelled his name again, reaching out to him, like he wanted him to take his hand and come back to shore. In this desert. Fool.

From where he knelt, he could see the weapon under Caprio's leather cloak. A cloak older and more worn than his own. Stained with more blood, touched by hotter flames.

He had left his weapon on the milk crate beside his bed. Left it there with the safety off and a single round chambered. Just as it had been yesterday when he pressed it with shaking hands against his own temple, laying in his bed with the leathers in a pile on the floor and his skin still coated in sweat and white dirt. His hands had been shaking when he took the gun away from his head, rested it on his chest, just south of the metal with his number on it.

He let the dust trickle from his fingers. The dirt and the gravel that nurtured and built men like him, like Caprio. Men born into this chaos and the strain of imminent death, the way they were expected to embrace it. He reached up with the same hand and pushed the thick wool hood from his head. Hand-woven by the women who gave them up to the camps. A ceremony wherein the white of childhood was replaced by the black wool hoods. Another ceremony stamping numbers onto the metal and hanging it on a peg until three weeks ago when another ceremony layered the leather over the wool, hung the metal around the sunburned and muscled neck of a man, not a boy. By right, they said, not just decree.

He knelt, his head toward the earth, his eyes upon Caprio. Knelt and let his breath rasp around his chest like hot air in a metal box. The sun burning his bare neck, the leather heaviest where the sweat stuck it to his skin. Knelt like there was a weight on his shoulders, physical and without equal, but something he had, in the night, found the strength to bear.

More of the people came, drew up to the borders of the intersection around him and Caprio. A handful, then dozens. Then more. A hundred people who had known him since birth, who each claimed a piece of his growth. Names he knew by heart, faces he found himself forgetting. But his gaze never left Caprio, who stayed locked on him. Caprio with his militant stance, trained to the bone for the physical toll of their lives.

The sounds of the people converging upon him like mud into a sinkhole pressed against his calm and he lifted his arms, like a crucifixion, as if to silence them. Dropped his chin to his chest and felt the way the shock wave of silence reverberated through them. When he looked back, Caprio was looking at both his outstretched arms, eyes fire over coal with a hint of panic, his weapon drawn with hands that trembled in a way that only he could see.

“Seven eight eleven nine nine,” he said to Caprio who did not move, didn't blink. He dropped his arms and reached over, ripped the metal from his neck and threw it to Caprio's feet. “My name,” he said to him. “Seven eight eleven nine nine.”

“What is this?” Caprio said, a cry and not a question, brows and forehead gathering around squinting blue eyes, jaw twitching. The question meant more to him now, here. Or maybe it didn't. “Did you betray us?”

He shook his head, watched his shadow mimic him and dug one hand flat into the dust and gravel, watched it stick to the sweat and cake, like flour on the women's arms in the kitchens.

“You are more than this,” Caprio said, waving off other men pulling out their weapons. “This city deserves your full love and devotion, yes, but not this.”

“This city deserves me, as I am today.”

He watched as Caprio's hands with the weapon lowered to his sides. He saw him, older and with a face shaped into a rough line, he saw that face bend and whither, become a transparent veil over decades of fight and formation.

“This city doesn't deserve you,” Caprio said, a lamentation. “You are better than the rest of us. You always were.”

“Never was,” he whispered, smiling. “Just the same, no different.”

“You can change.”

“I can. Maybe. Not this.” He reached back to the dust at his knees, picked up a handful and threw it into the air, let the pure pink and white of it filter through the thickness.

“Nothing changes,” Caprio said, “without men like us.”

He let the smile soften, disappear and looked at his shadow on the ground, both arms on his knees, sweat in drips on his nose and chin. He reached up and wiped it from his eyebrows with the back of one hand, tasted the salt on the corner of his thin beard.

“Because of men like us, nothing ever changes.”

Slowly, like the climax of a dance, the noise in the background the symphony of this monstrous desert existence they all perpetuated, slowly Seven eight eleven nine nine stood and held out his arms, turned a slow circle, his teeth aimed at the great blue sky in a fierce smile of domination. He stopped, facing Caprio.

In the night with his hands shaking and the weapon growing cold on the milk crate, he had found the bag with all the supplies Caprio had given him for the morning, for today. A bus ticket into the enemies' city with their men in their leather, their boys in their hoods, their women weaving wool in their stone houses. The bullets that would stop anyone who tried to stop him. The dozen or so grenades that would paint their intersections red and then burn them black. Grenades that could set the air on fire.

Last night, as he took out the bullets and the grenades and laid them in rows on his table, he began to see the ceremony in his head and suddenly his hands were still, steady. He held them to his face and then he picked up one of the grenades. And he sat, last night, outside the door of his room, the bag between his feet, the gravel filling each fist.

The dust, he realized, the white diamond gravel, eternal and neutral, earth grown hardened by the war pounding on over its surface for decades. The gravel, the dust, it could only give them what they deserved, they could demand no more from it.

He turned his face to Caprio and he squinted into the sun, the way it glared against the white stone buildings. He could feel his own heart in his emptied chest, he could hear his blood slowing in his veins. He could taste the way the turmoil around him was grinding to a pained pause in the confusion of the quieted mob. He could see the future, hundreds of years from now when all of this would grow into a beast that two armies of leather-cloaked men could no longer even pretend to control.

He lifted his forefinger from the lever of the grenade in his fist. The consummation of the ceremony. And in the second before it ignited the air and the dust and the gravel, he could feel the calm of  absolute silence that would blanket this patch of desert in its wake. If only for a little while.

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Last modified on Friday, 16 March 2012 15:54
H. R. Tardiff

H.R. Tardiff lives in Oz, east of the Emerald City. Her time is divided between working on her novel and not working on her novel. She writes so that in the dystopian future someone can save her books from being burned.

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