They bomb wild and reckless. Blast terrain away from itself, into itself. And as the sky clears and as the dust settles, they marvel at the blotch of land they’ve mapped out. Light inches through the blanket of haze, but even as it struggles for ground, another blast blots out the sun, momentarily blacks the sky in the roots of a dismembered earth. Billows of dark clouds obscure them, erase them, replacing them with the wispy shadows of smoke, the fine uncatchable ash of sand. In the end, they stand elbow to elbow watching as the last of trees fall crashing to the ground. The backdrop of a setting sun canvases the sky, repaints the scene, waits.
They hold their boots above their heads as they wade across letting water lick and kiss the tender skin on the sides of their neck. They crunch gravel between their toes, stare at reflections echoing withered faces back at them. They talk in shouts and screams between the bleating of hammers on stone, the grating of shovels against trunks, the raking of tools obliterating, carving, molding. The noise spreads through the tendrils and branches of what’s left abandoned and the wind blows discreet sending the remains of powered dust below to collect at bare moist ankles.
The bridge manifests quick and quiet. The sun set and when it returned it was there, jutting silent and solid across the clear stream. Its single pillar stoic in the center of the riverbed, endures the chopping of water against it. Again and again, eternally.
Muffled sounds disappear into the woodland outskirted to the rear of the cul-de-sac’d plane. The bones of buildings etch high over the rain tree lone and weeping in the center, leaves folding into itself, and before the breeze can stifle, the structures loom, the people rush to fill it, the city erects, rapid as a word. But before the comforts become home, they swell and spread as infinite as particles of dust and it’s outgrown, and the river’s run eternally dry.
They leave without the courtesy of a look back and time passes and passes again, but the buildings remain and the wind remains and the lone tree weeping remains, all waiting, all watching.
The first, David, came in on the eye of a storm. There was no one on the street, but he ran for his life as if someone chased him. He told himself to keep moving, to never stop. His soaked clothes whipped away from him, pushed him back but he ran ahead, saw the dark outlines of buildings in front of him and ran forward. He didn’t remember crossing a bridge and he didn’t remember the unlit shell of a building. He didn’t remember running at all. David merely remembered his clothes being whipped away from him as he moved, the sting of rain as it pelted against his skin, his own voice in his mind telling him to move until he collapsed and then the feeling of no wind and no rain and no movement. Falling through the glass door, he clutched at the pain in his chest as he hit the floor, looked back to see if he was followed. After catching his breath, he thought to voice a greeting but decided against it and knew there would be no answer, so he stood bent over in the entry and listened to the prickly sound of the water from his clothes land on the broken tiled floor. His eyes squinted to adjust in the near pitch dark, and he placed his hand on the wall, ran his fingers along the letters of a name, slid his tips along its dusty surface for balance, for texture. He waned between wishing someone to be there and wanting to be absolutely alone. Above him, glass ceiling arched in a peak and lightning made quick flighty pliés from one point to another in the sky, and for the first time since forever he felt secure in the darkness, with himself. Winding up the staircase he held on to the wooden banister to further sturdy himself, but it shook at his weight, came loose from the plastered wall, fell clumsy at his feet. He clinched at the reverberation, waited for the stir of footsteps to come investigate, but none came. Only his breaths, the heavy exhales of it, could be heard disturbing the stale air and he eased the tension out his muscles in the dropping of his shoulders.
David waited out the storm there. Knees pulled to chest, head down, he hunched in the only dry corner of a large office and waited for damage to pass. He waited a day and night and lifted his head only when he felt the sun on his hands, heard the soft resistance of trees being pushed by the wind. He stepped to a wall-sized window, looked out and down over a cityscape broken, the tall buildings mirrored on both sides, the bridge he didn’t remember crossing. A bustling world on the other side of it. Woodland marked the edge of the forgotten, and he pressed his body against the glass, tested the strength of it as his eyes roamed over the structures. He saw his own image in the narrow building across from him. He waved a lazy wave, and saw the muted outline of a man return it.
It was the tree that made him venture out. From overhead it appeared gnarled, low-hanging and barren with only the few surviving leaves at the bottom left to fend for themselves, but once he approached it, he could see the clustered green beginnings of fruit weigh the branches low, the wrist thick arms of it twisted into and behind the trunk, the leaves large and open wide as his face. Standing before it, he parted the network of branches to position himself under or inside it. With hesitant hand he reached up, twisted, pulled at the firm pod hoping he committed no offence to the tree’s significance to the place. He used more force than he wanted to and closed his eyes when the sound of the release appeared in the white liquid forming at the tree, at the fruit now alone in his hand. Palming it he gazed around, saw the shadow from the buildings on the street, the shadow from the tree as it devoured parts of his, shadows eating shadows. He raked the back of his hand against the bark knowing he would stay there.
He tried to envision the people who would come. They had no faces, but he would know them because they would be extensions of himself. He populated the spaces above, below and next to him. He sketched them into the grass, on the benches, standing by the bridge, walking the paths cut in the brush. David littered his space. He littered the alleys and buildings with images of people like him.
They start working as soon as they step off the bus.
“You call me Alexander or Al and nothing else,” he says. “You understand?”
He grabs the boy firm at the shoulders, staring hard into his face. The boy shakes his head, looks away from Alexander.
“What about you? You’ll need a name.”
But the boy doesn’t respond just stares back at Alexander unblinking, breathing slow and unaffected. Alexander tries to ignore the lost expression and tightens his face in concern. He smooths the boys head, pulls forehead to forehead, tells the boy it will be fine.
“What about Evan? You’ve never been an Evan. Evan could be fun.”
They follow a man in a business suit holding a briefcase until he stops. Evan runs ahead of Alexander, arms focused and tense in his stride. He stops in the middle of the intersection with the same lost expression. Alexander shouts. The businessman drops his suitcase, scoops Evan into his arms just as a car passes. Alexander catches up, hands him the now empty suitcase, removes a wallet when he gives him the grateful embrace. Alexander pretends to reprimand Evan as he drags him up the sidewalk. They do this twice more before nightfall.
Out the corners of his eyes Alexander watches their waitress push scraps from plates into a bag. She tries to be cautious and Alexander mimics the hunch in the waitress’ back as she gathers once-bitten bread, leftover meat. Alexander pats Evan’s head, wipes food from the side of his face whenever the waitress passes. She returns just as Evan finishes and pushes his plate away. She asks him if he enjoyed it, and he nods, nothing else. Alexander eyes the empty plate and then the waitress; her chafe mouth open, her eyes dilated, her blown veins coursing purple and deep. He smiles as the waitress looks up, but doesn’t receive one in return.
Outside, Alexander seats himself next to Evan. He asks him if he’s cold or if he wants more to eat, but his only response is a slow turn to look at him. Face in hand, Alexander strokes Evan’s eyebrows, his cheeks, the light hairs on the sides of his face.
Evan blinks, but says nothing and Alexander squeezes Evan’s cheeks together in a light controlled frustration before letting go. Evan looks away and Alexander coughs instead of cries, pulls hard at the soft skin around his wrist to quell the want to scream.
“I’m getting tired of this okay. You have to talk, you can’t not talk. So, you’re either going to start talking right now, or I’m going to have to just go on without you,”
Evan turns from Alexander, pulls his legs in, wraps his arms around them says nothing, so Alexander stands behind him, shifts his weight then walks away. He passes a streetlamp and then another. He pictures him turning to see a sad-faced and tear-streaked boy but he knows he won’t so he leans forward, quickens his steps. Sidewalk ends and Alexander crosses the street but the road is short and soon turns to gravel and dust. The surface in front of him disappears, drops off into more gravel and dust, dust then cracked riverbed. On the other side he sees black night reflecting off the windows of buildings. There’s a cabled pull in Alexander’s feet, an easy push from the wind behind him, a child’s hand brushing against his hand. Evan’s gaze is past him toward the bridge, but Alexander keeps his own down the dry embankment wondering whether a rage of water will rush to stop them if they cross. Evan starts before him running across the flat terrain. He’s out of sight, but Alexander can hear his dirt-stifled steps for some time and then hears nothing. Out the darkness, a slight shadow emerges crawling up the side before disappearing behind a mound. Alexander motions forward, but backtracks and takes the bridge.
David sits in the windowsill. He sees a small figurine crawl up the side out the embankment. It sits facing forward, but looks behind as if waiting for another. And then a man crosses, and the figurine walks to meet it.
David turns away, carves two lines in the wall next to the one he carved for himself. If he knew how to smile then, he probably would have.
Shannon R. Blake’s story “Open the Hollow” will appear in the upcoming issue of Apocrypha and Abstractions and her nonfiction piece, “Energy Facility East” appears in the current issue of Pamplemousse.