Imitation snow on the window, light blazed, bath filled with thick bubbled. Almost time. Later, water clouded and slick with scented oils, the cold invades once more. Time passed, the time is past. The steam misting the cold window now water again, soaking into the snow-foam.
Cold tiles. Feet bare, tread high and find the bath cold, water stale and still. She steps in, lies back. The water moves slows, closes clammily over her skin. Imitation snow on the window spreads milky patches across the sill. The lights are dim, the blue night grey in the white bathroom.
It is a ritual, performed for no one and no purpose. The oil on the surface is flammable and its blue flame dances will o’the wisp in the room. Corpse-lights. Here, Dracula’s coachman sets a rock to dig in the morning. She extends a leg, and allows all to slip greasily back into the water. She speaks, addressing the room. She incants.
The light will soon be on the other side of the window. True snow is promised in the mellow bulge of the clouds, banking over the distant hills. She takes the water in a small bottle, caps it. Curses, blessings, simple comforts for superstitious minds. She trusts its power. Walks, feet flat to the frigid floor, back out the way she came. Time over.
This hole is in your head. You have not imagined it, it is in your head. The line of gold bleeds light into your clear, clouded, pearlescent, missing, hidden, shaded, augmented eyes. Your head is the path. This is not in your mind, it is in your head. Look behind you and see how you ripple through our spaces.
Every time you breathe, you choose also not to and the ripples swim and darken, become deeper and more profound. More of you is gone, till the last of you winks out behind a broken wave. The golden thread dims. Please breathe. Your hesitation causes uncertainty. The wrong choice. You are not prepared for this, even as you have been shaped by the walk to reach this point.
The path you walk to each lighted spot is garlanded; honeysuckle and elderflower, juniper and pine, scents the you of now can follow to the next you. May Queen in July, Spring in November. Your path is scented with change and opportunity, follow to the previous you, along the golden line, through the darkening ripples, through the hole in your head.
The end is always the same. Inevitable. Everything broken. How do we begin to explain how it happens, every time? Sweetness cracked like eggshells, hope dimming on her face. Light palled by drawn curtains, summer alive and prowling at the edges of our experience. Birdsong filters through an open window and the realisation that it is late afternoon comes with it.
Light pressed in; the absence of darkness. Heat. A swollen menagerie of floating grotesques bloomed in his eyes as each arc and flare traced its lines on his retina.
He watched through the barrier. It would hold, it would do its job as he did his. He felt at that moment as if he was out there in person, defending the outpost like a knight. His shield held aloft, the bursts of arcing phosphor spears and arrows of a brutish army. He could smell the farmyard rank of the cavalry horses, the sharp fear-stink of the infantry trapped in their metal suits as surely as he was. At the end of the battle they would be prised out as heroes or as meat.
He was in an air-conditioned bunker, far below the surface. The monitors ahead of him blazed with the light of the attack but he felt nothing. No heat. Not even his heart beating faster. A trackball moved under his cool palm, recalibrating the aerial defence system. Eventually even this would be unnecessary. He was Atlas, supporting the sky, becoming stone. Raindrops could, given time, reduce him to dust. He just had to wait.
This is the centre of the school. Wide stairs, lost to the outside, the broad, darkly-lacquered wood last seeing daylight as an expansive oak. These knot-holed bolt-holes are peppered with ghosts of conversations had at right-angles, echoes bumped and rolled through click-clack heel-halls.
Stand here, on the landing, wait for it. Wait for the bell that moves the school, that animates these pass-throughs. So much smaller than adults, children make up for this by filling their immediate environment with sound, with their boiling-hot personalities. Their humanity, still plastic, fizzing, seeps into every woodworm pock in these old beams.
Stand here and let the waves of them crash around you.
Then nothing, and they are somebody else’s puzzle to solve. The staircase eases itself into shape, cracking and shivering. The whispering gallery of interconnected corridors returns. Gossip drifts on dead breezes, the only voices now the low murmur of the teachers. A laugh cracks through the stairwell, gunshot sharp. It chases out a joke that will never be funny again, wrong time wrong place wrong person, it hit there it hit then. Here, in the heart.
Knocked back, flat by the boom of it, wat￼er running over his eyes in blinding trails. His vision throbbed like a toothache, the streak white across the middle, scarring the land as he tried to focus on the horizon. The rain may as well have been a shower, he could be back in his hotel, naked in the glass cubicle, cold water pounding on him as his clothes offered no protection.
They call it storm chasing, but the storm was chasing him now, a wild thing thrashing at his being. The wind didn’t so much howl as scream, a constant bellowing roar at all pitches simultaneously. He could not hear himself, but he knew he was screaming too, a sound torn out of him by the base animal he had found himself reduced to.
He abandoned his post, his equipment was scattered and useless anyway. He’d felt rather than seen his camera smash, the lens that had suffered so much in the past without a scratch or smear reduced to a pulp of iridescent glass rubble.
He ran towards the safety of his car, a low-slung, heavy brute of an off-roader. In a city it would be absurd. Here, it looked like a palace. It rocked on its axles, threatening to tumble away before he could grab the door. In a last burst of determination, he made it into the sanctuary of the driver’s seat, where he sat, shivering and defeated, and waited for the storm to chase new lands.
The scents of Christmas – cinnamon, pine, the muted sharpness of oranges – were starting to feel oppressive. He’d lost his taste for mulled wine this year, and the warmed-over dregs of a cheap rioja, with shards of broken star anise floating like driftwood on the surface, disgusted him. The snow settling outside depressed him, made him feel trapped and lonely.
Numb to the barbed wire now, pushing on, everything is the same shade of dead around him. The field was churned like the battlefields of the Great War but this is peace time. As much as any time is peace time. No time is peace time. There’s always war somewhere. Soon there would be war here, in these fields sectioned off with high fences and rusted wire. The sky was dark, it was the deep levels of the ocean, stars drifting in his failing vision like the organic motes drifting in the twilight of the sea. Soon he’d sleep, maybe he’d wake up and this would be fine. The cold would no longer bite. The spines of the barbed wire would not be swimming in his blood. He plucked a barb from his skin, a bee’s sting of splintered metal. It hurt more to remove than leave it in, but he could hardly drag a roll of this stuff with him. His own blood, dirty red, fell from the holes he had just opened. More churn to the soil. Was this a dream? If he sat up now with enough effort of will, would he see the daylight of his bedroom? What war was this, that was coming over the hill to greet him with fire, and songs of power? What ends were coming? He shut his eyes. It would all make sense if he could open them in sun.
“Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee!!” I yell, a ghoulishly cheery shriek. My colleague recoils, spittle flecking their glasses. I grab the pot of freshly-brewed coffee I keep on my desk by its slender glass throat. My bare hand on the red hot glass starts to blister. Shaking, I bring the pot to the cup. My colleague is wide-eyed, staring at my hand. It trembles violently, but I do. Not. Spill. A. Drop.
The liquid that pours out is slow, and tarry, treacle-thick. I see it cascade in slow-motion into my cup (my cup also says DON’T TALK TO ME BEFORE I’VE HAD MY COFFEE!! Because my cup understands me better than my colleague). I cough, a barking act of violence, directly at my now quivering colleague, who hides behind the slim bundle of notes they had brought for my attention. I stare into the space their eyes would be, if they dared to look at me.
The pain in my hand is nothing now, it is ice at the heart of a star. I drop the pot, it lands with a nervous clunk on my desk but does not shatter, it would not dare. I take the cup, and finally I may taste what I have waited for, for so long. It coats me, from the inside out, in warmth and comfort, in an electric sense of myself. My mouth opens again, this time to speak. Words pour from my soul.
The restless drag and catch of a fountain pen over coarse, unbleached paper was unbearably loud in the loft room after curfew. Jamie Lam bit his lip and said nothing, staring out of the scratched, fogged windows over a quiescent Hong Kong. The streets below, heaving and pulsing with life during the day, were empty except for the occasional Patrol; lumbering one-person suits just over ten feet tall that swept a constant AFR beam ahead of them.