Greetings From The Idea Fairy

By Dan Klefstad

Happy New Year, Creative Person!

Be not alarmed by the strange notebook sitting on your breakfast table. After twelve months of watching you struggle to produce anything meaningful, I’ve decided to give you some ideas. How do I know it’s been that long? You have a brand-new calendar, and once again it’s filling up with things that have nothing to do with your art.

I wonder if you realize how poisonous this document of chores, appointments, and deadlines truly is. All those obligations to other people — interlopers who decimate your attention and reorder it to fit their needs. How could you create anything after surrendering precious hours to them? If only you could see time through my eyes, as something I own, a “dream river” that flows to the horizon, delivering the oar to my outstretched hands, changing course with me, revealing its shallows and depths, murmuring words of encouragement whether I steer clear of the rapids or plow right toward them. This languorous space between now and now is where creativity lives. Not the noisy tyranny of someone else’s present.

You like that? Go ahead, borrow it. You’ll find many other gems in these pages. You don’t have to credit me, thank me, or acknowledge me in interviews. Just take what you want and leave the rest for the next person. And do have enough faith in my magic, and yours, to finish what you started. There’s nothing worse than accepting a gift only to waste it. What’s that?

Silly question. I’m able to help, so if a person wants it, I should help.

Ah, better question. Since you bothered to ask the real why, what motivates me to visit people like you, I will bare myself a little more. I am so, so tired of bad art. By bad, of course, I mean unfinished. Not living up to its full potential. And I’m right there, offering support, but fewer and fewer creators bother to listen. It’s as if some famous critic announced Byron’s “Farewell to the Muse” should be taken literally. The results speak for themselves: aborted art, miscarried metaphors, stillborn symphonies – the detritus of those who dared and then defeated themselves. A onetime genius on his knees, dirty and drunk, is ripe for exploitation. This is usually when an “entrepreneur” introduces himself, sees the half-baked projects, and announces there’s a market for them. I’m sure you know plenty of examples, and the names attached to that “art” are anathema to you. I swear, if one more businessman promises riches at the expense of reputation, I will strangle him with his necktie. The only thing holding me back is, I’m not entirely sure who’s the villain in these cases.

Ach, more questions. What do I get from this? I don’t know — can’t an ethereal spirit indulge in a bit of hero-play? I’m giving you something. Learn to accept. All I ask is that you finish the work. And burn your calendar.

I should be clear this is a one-time opportunity. If you ignore my help, or fail to complete your masterpiece, I will never return. And don’t bother stumbling through some meadow or forest, crying after me. I am relentless in my flight from those too stupid to accept my help. Just ask Miley Cyrus.

Have fun creating. When you’re done, just close my notebook and I’ll retrieve it when, at last, you fall into bed for that much-deserved rest. And if you dream of further help from yours truly, I might accept your invitation. But only if you really want it. And only after I return from another sojourn down my own river of inspiration.

Cheerio,

—Muse

 

 

The Silence & The Howl: Book Two, Chapter Four

Previous chapter

CHAPTER FOUR

After the bout with Lynder, Ariadne showed Harmon to the guest quarters which lay to the immediate right of the study and fencing chamber. The room was spacious, consisting of a bedroom, a bathroom and a walk-in closet, all dimly lit by faintly flickering green wall lights. An antique gramophone stood upon a ornate wooden-and-bronze table beside the bed, beneath which lay a trove of recordings in a thick leather case. He bent to a knee and rifled through the collection, finding a ’35 recording of Anything Goes, which he slotted into the machine. As the dulcet tunes washed over him, he undressed, showered, and found, upon exiting, a fresh set of cloths and a cream-colored letter laying upon the bed. He unfurled the paper and read the note:

The clothes are for you. When you’ve freshed up, meet me in the study.

– Lynder

He refolded the note and placed it beside the clothes, dressed and stared at himself in the mirror which stood before the bed. It was the first time he’d assessed his visage since he gazed upon the old mirror in his former abode. He tried to recall the amount of time which had elapsed since then. Months like weeks. He could not remember how many. He turned off the gramophone and opened the door to find Ariadne waiting outside.

“Ah, finally finished. The clothes fit well?

“Yeah. Fit fine.”

“Good. Follow me.”

He nodded and together they tread the brass-crowned halls in heavy silence, broken only by their rhythmic footfalls reverberating off marble and the gramophonic whirring of waltz music coming from the omnipresent speaker system.

After several paces, Harmon broke the hush.

“So, how do I look?”

“Like a crab that desperately needs to molt.”

“I’m not used to suits.”

She was silent a moment and then cast him an amused look.

“That was quite a performance.”

“A somewhat botched one. Still, I’m glad I could prove you some amusement.”

“Why’d you accept?”

“I like to try new things.”

For a moment he said nothing, watching the delicate lines of the woman’s gelid face, red-lit by the wall-bound lanterns.

“I’m not without hubris.”

“Hubris is the midwife of folly.”

“You come up with that yourself?”

“Its something Mr. Partridge once said.”

“So whats your story?”

“Long and largely boring.”

“Alright. Don’t mean to pry.”

“Course you meant to pry, that’s why you asked. I don’t mind. I’m not being dismissive. I just find autobiographies dreadfully boring. Even my own.”

“Bore me.”

“If you insist. As you likely already surmised, I’m a photographer. Started taking pictures in my teens. In my youthful arrogance, I fancied myself a new Bourke-White. So I decided a glorious career lay before me and went to art school, which was largely a waste of time, and, like almost everyone else, graduated without fanfare and found menial work in the city, shooting weddings, birthdays and political meetings; all whilst living in a glorified shoebox I could barely afford.”

“How’d you end up here?”

“When I got my first exhibit, Lynder was there, showing off his latest pieces, a series of monochrome illustrations. We ended up quarreling over whose work was better. I told him he was overrated. In retort, he called me a ‘documentarian.'”

“Doesn’t sound like a very happy first encounter.”

“Oh, no, not at all. Back then I hated him.”

“Why?”

“He never lied to me.”

The Silence & The Howl: Book Two, Chapter Three

Previous chapter

CHAPTER THREE

Harmon faced Lynder Partridge upon the piste. The crisp white fencing jacket crinkling strangely against his skin, the wire mesh mask obscuring his vision, the sabre’s handle clutched with such nervous force that sweat gathered in his right palm. He felt trapped and desperate and simultaneously compelled to challenge the stygian swordsman.

Ariadne and Anders watched from the sideline, the latter turning to Harmon with a raised brow.

“Let me know when you’re ready, gentlemen.”

Lynder nodded, and extended his chalcedonic swept-hilt rapier. Harmon adjusted his collar guard and nodded in kind.

“Then,” Anders gestured dramatically into the air, “Allez!”

Lynder bowed theatrically and assumed a loose stance, his body turned to the side, his guard low. Harmon, remembering his time boxing, began shifting from foot to foot, bobbing and weaving on and offline, slashing the air once before extending his blade on-point.

“What on earth is he doing?” Anders muttered aloud.

Lynder tilted his head, holding his ground, “Are you familiar with Spilomyia longicornis, Mr. Kessel?”

“What’s that?”

“A insect closely resembling a vespid wasp.”

“Sounds scary.” He bounded forward and directed a cut at Lynder’s arm, but was stymied by a swift girata that nearly connected. Harmon wildly parried the counter and pressed his assault as Lynder continued speaking with an air of supreme insouciance.

“Indeed they are. But scary and dangerous are two very different things.”

Harmon lunged suddenly, attempting to take advantage of Lynder’s momentary insectal absorption, but his foe simply bent out of range as the blade swept air.

“You see, while it might bear the black and yellow of a common wasp, Spilomyia longicornis is a fly, and so conducts a most elaborate performance to convince its would-be predators it is otherwise; moving its forelegs about its head and bending antenna and abdomen with vespidic fervor, and, if all else fails, it will even buzz at a different frequency. And yet…”

Harmon took a step forward, feinted right and lunged again, this time aiming for Lynder’s chest. Lynder stepped into the thrust and circle-parried Harmon’s blade out of line, and, with the momentum of the swing, brought the tip of his own brand to rest gingerly, yet firmly, against Harmon’s throat.

“No matter how hard the flower fly tries, it will never be a wasp.”

Next chapter

The Silence & The Howl: Book Two, Chapter Two

Previous chapter

CHAPTER TWO

Harmon arrived in the city with little more than the clothes on his back and the female secretary’s words echoing in his head. The gleaming towers of the corporate district shading his passage to the docks, where steam-strewn air and humming neon illuminated the salt-smattered dusk, and from there to the ferry that led to a small, artificial isle to the north-east.

After disembarking, he traversed a smooth drive that let out before a elegant manse of considerable size and no familiar style.

He rapt upon the ornate and well-polished door and waited.

No sound save the roiling of the wind and the gulls turning pirouettes above the spray.

Shortly, a eye-level latch slid open, unveiling amber eyes surrounded by olive skin.

“Name?”

“Harmon Kessel. I’m expected.”

“Obviously. Otherwise you’d not be here. One moment, please.”

The latch slid shut. Half a minute later there came the sound of a keyhole’s turning.

The door swung open.

The monolith’s gloam beckoned.

*

The dapper, olive-skinned doorman beckoned Harmon into a spacious, well-lit foyer, sparsely furnished with dynamic metal sculptures of men and machines and two divans to the immediate left and right of the doorway. Harmon was taken with the aluminous idols, which looked, when taken together, like the relevatory tableau of some future religion, and strode to the middle of the checker-floored vestibule, appraising the singular creations.

“Who made these?”

“Mr. Partridge.”

“I’d no idea he was a sculptor.”

“That and many things besides. Ah, how rude of me, I’ve not introduced myself,” the man extended his hand to the new arrival, “Luka Celik.”

Harmon straightened and firmly shook Celik’s thick and calloused hand, “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Celik.”

“This way, sir.”

The doorman lead Harmon down the foyer, up the left side of a U-shaped double stairway that let out to a red-carpeted landing where three hallways diverged left, right and straight ahead and polished wall-speakers of jagged brass effused the chamber with a chimerical waltz. The duo moved through the main corridor, lined to the left with various works of art; paintings, photographs and sketches; to the right, portraits of various individuals, young and old, male and female.

“Who’re they?” Harmon asked above the low whir of the speaker-spawned gramophone recording, nodding towards the portraiture.

“Alumni of Mr. Partridge’s galleries. Its a memorial wall, to commemorate their endeavours.”

The area at the end of the hall upon the right-hand wall was bare, save a empty silver frame which hung at eye level.

“Expecting a new inductee?” Harmon queried, gesturing to the picture frame.

“You’ll have to speak with Mr. Partridge about that.”

From the hallway they turned right and strode into a spacious study that seemed like an archived compression of a hundred disparate centuries. The walls were replete with ornate mahogany bookshelves and ancient seaxs, rapiers, foils, sabres, epees and messers and mail in glass cases and elaborate city maps and architectural plans in a hundred different styles, from a hundred different decades. All manner of artifice arrayed the adjacent space; plaster busts of men and women of varying ages, a meticulously detailed globe, a gilded bronze astrolabe, and a nude woman lounging upon a garish white divan, who sat so still that Harmon, for the briefest of moments, thought her a part of the surrounding statuary. Harmon averted his eyes from the woman and turned his head left, sighting another woman standing but twelve feet before him, lounging in the corner, a Leica M4-P raised in her pale and delicate hands. The photographer smiled, snapped a shot and lowered the camera.

“You must be Harmon Kessel.”

“Must I be?”

“I’m afraid so.”

He smiled faintly and gestured to the woman’s face, “I remember your voice. We spoke on the phone. Ariadne Campbell, right?”

“That’s me. And that’s Monica, one of our in-house models,” she replied, motioning with her camera to the woman on the divan in the middle of the room. Monica languidly waved and then slid into a thin, scarlet-silk robe and rose, tying back glossy hair with a similarly sanguine strand.

“Where is Mr. Partridge?” Harmon wondered aloud.

Campbell gestured to the doorway at the far side of the room, opposite the memorial hall.

“Practicing with Anders.”

“Practicing?”

“Come, I’ll show you. Thank you, Mr. Celik, Monica, that will be all.”

Celik bowed to the woman and left off abruptly; Monica following shortly thereafter.

Campbell and Kessel made for the opposite doorway and passed through it into a large room, curiously unfurnished save for a series of antique French and German fencing illustrations which adorned the walls. In the middle of the expanse, two men clashed, one of middling height, garbed in a form-fitting obsidian gambeson, the other taller and broader, garbed in white. The white duelist, after a short absence of blade, lunged powerfully, but was swiftly feinted into blocking air by the black swordsman who closed the match with a sudden and decisive thrust to his opponent’s chest. The white fencer paused and looked down at what would have been a mortal wound, save for his gambeson and the flexile dullness of his foe’s blade, and laughed, stepping back and bowing in defeat.

“You win again, sir.”

The obsidian swordsman curtly bowed in respect, straightened and removed his wire-mesh helm to reveal a sharp, keen, alabaster visage.

Lynder Partridge.

The triumphant fencer turned to his guest and smiled broadly.

“Ah! Mr. Kessel. So pleased to see you could make it.”

“Evening, Mr. Partridge. I appreciate the invitation.”

“Think nothing of it. Tell me, do you fence?”

“No.”

“Would you like to?”

“Sure.”

“Its settled then. Anders, bring our guest a blade.”

Alarm registered on the white fencer’s face. Campbell smirked. Harmon looked from the woman to the tall blond and then back to his host with perplexity.

“You mean now?”

“I do.”

When Harmon did not respond, Lynder spoke up pointedly, a subtle mockery ringing in his dulcet tones.

“To the uninitiated, the sport can be quite intimidating. No shame in backing out.”

Harmon was quiet for several seconds and then turned to the man in the white gambeson.

“Anders, was it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring me a sabre.”

 

Next chapter

 

The Silence & The Howl: Book Two, Chapter One

BOOK II (Continued from BOOK I)

CHAPTER ONE

Luna found Harmon on the first floor of the old coal breaker where the man had recently taken up residence, smoking the last of his cheap cigarettes, watching Saperion-shaped clouds listlessly drift beyond the town. He wore battered jeans, the knees half-worn through, a paint-stained white t-shirt, trim black steel-toed work-boots and a faded form-fitting shawl-neck cobalt sweater. Beside him, upon an anthracite sorting table, lay a small black backpack and a high-collared gunmetal-gray puffer jacket.

The entrant gently knocked upon the door-frame, whereupon the man languidly turned, pale face somber and expectant.

“Thought you might like the paper.”

She waved a ink covered sheaf and extended it to him.

He took it from her hands with a cordial nod and read the headline aloud, “Local man, 52, dies in street altercation,” a photo of his late friend, Harold La’Far, occupied a small portion of the right side of the sheet. He found it disgraceful the editor had chosen to refer to Harold only as ‘local man.’

“What is it? Did you know him?”

Harmon read the headline once more, silently, and set the paper down upon the sorting table next to his pack and coat and spoke without looking at his guest.

“Yeah. I knew him. He was a friend.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. Wasn’t you that killed him.”

His eyes wandered to the mugshots of the perpetrators, tattooed faces malformed with malice; faces familiar in construction.

When the man said nothing, Luna turned to leave, walking awkwardly to the door.

“Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks. For the paper.”

The woman forced a smile and left Harmon to the monochrome faces of Harold’s murderers.

*

Harmon left the coal breaker at dawn and passed the homeless encampment which lay in the wasted ground between the site and what had once been a trainyard, waving to Luna as he went, and trekked up into town, stopping at the closest payphone. He removed a small bone-white business card from his jacket pocket, punched in the number inscribed on it and waited amid the tumbledown block as hostile eyes probed him from shuttered panes.

At length, a unfamiliar female voice sounded in his ear, “Partridge Publishing. How may I help you?”

“This is Harmon Kessel. I’m calling in regard to a prospective submission. Mr. Partridge previously expressed interest in my work.”

“He’s been expecting you, Mr. Kessel.”

*

Next chapter

Cale Canis

When Frederick Francis Cale was a babe, he observed his father’s dog barking at a cat which had stepped across the street and swiftly dropped to his hands and knees and keened at the top of his lungs, to the surprise and amusement of his parents and the grand terror of the tabby, which, wide-eyed, sped off to the distant alley from whence it had come.

From that moment on, whenever young Frederick would chance upon a cat, he would fall to all fours and bark until exhaustion overtook him.

At first, his parents were greatly amused, but after several months the boy’s behavior remained unchanged. Mr. Cale feared some dark aberration had taken root in the lad’s mind, but could find no example, in the excavation of his memories, of any queer turning in the child’s development; his upbringing had, until recently, been completely normal, which made the boy’s strange behavior appear, in retrospect, all the stranger.

“Surely we should speak to him.”

“Oh, darling,” Mrs. Cale cooed, “Its just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

The next month, the Cale’s neighbors, The Cumberlands, bought a young feline from the local shelter and gave it to their daughter Esmeralda, as a present for her birthday, who decided to take her new ward for a turn around the culdesac. When Esmeralda passed the Cale House, young Frederick, upon spying the cat, rushed to the window, howling and yelping and slobbering upon the glass, giving the girl a terrible fright and causing her cat to tug against its leash, tail flickering, hair standing on end. Mr. Cale shut the window, shot his son a withering glare, shook his head and bounded quickly from the house to greet the woman upon the green and grey.

“I’m sorry. We’ve no idea why he does that.”

To his great surprise the woman only smiled and laughed.

“Its alright. I’m sure its just a phase. Worse to be too strict than too lenient, right?”

A year passed and Frederick’s peculiar behavior remained unchanged—indeed, had compounded. The matter came to a head when, in the month of January of that year, Frederick, in one of his canine fits, tried to bite Esmeralda’s cat. Despite his wife’s protestations and the fact that the Cumberlands were nonplussed about the affair, Mr. Cale sent the child off to the local shrink.

One day, scarcely a month into Frederick’s new regime, the Cale’s phone rang. Mr. Cale answered and was greeted by a frantic female voice.

“This is the Cale Residence?”

“Yes ma’am. This is Arthur Cale. I assume this is about my boy?”

“It is. Please, come as soon as you’re able.”

“What happened? Is he all right?”

“There’s no time to explain. You must see for yourself.”

“Very well, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He hung up the phone and, with a thrumming heart, dashed to his car, and spun out of the short, white gravel drive.

When Arthur arrived at the shrink’s office, he found the psychologist snarling at a tree.

A cat upon its gnarled branches.

The Silence & The Howl: Book I (A Novella)

The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the whole world dies
With the setting sun.

The mind has a thousand eyes
And the heart but one;
But the light of the whole life dies
When love is done.

—Francis William Bourdillon, “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”

——————————————————————————————-

BOOK I

CHAPTER 1

*

“I don’t have no problem.”

“Sure seem like you do.”

He shook his head, a fractional gesture, noticeable only due the couple’s proximity.

“Was you what started yappin.”

She folded her arms below her breasts, turning slightly away, staring at nothing, muttering, “Fine.”

“Yeah. It is. Why you being this way, Lyla? Was never like this between us before. Now, all a sudden, you’re constantly screwing up your face, hmph-ing all over the place, snapping at me for no good reason, constantly trying to start something…”

“Ain’t try’n ta start nothing.”

“Good, cuz there ain’t nothing to start.”

She made an expression that was midway between the spitting-upon-of-disgust and the self-indulgent-sigh-of-petty-transgression. Harmon Kessel finished his frozen yogurt, threw it in the parking-lot trashcan and turned to the young woman with a expression she could not place and then fished out a cigarette and stuck it between his blood-red lips and stood smoking and watching the gulls turn circles in the thermals above the pavement.

One big cliché. One vapid and boring, Harmon thought to himself with mild irritation. This venomous exchange, and the countless ones that had gone before it. He was not a intemperate man, but his reserve – like as every others – had its limits; in Lyla’s constant scrapping he was finding his. He blew a circle of smoke up over the parking lot before the ramshackle plaza, proud he’d remembered how.

“We’ve had this conversation before, Bluebird, and before we had it, we heard it.”

She turned to look at him from the corners of her eyes. He didn’t like that. The way she side-eyed him as if he weren’t worth the fullness of her attention, as if he were merely a speck of colorful paint, floating at the terminus of all perception.

“What are you on about?”

“It’s the same argument I always hear from couples – that everyone hears – whether its from memories of my parents or friends or strangers, or some book or movie. I’ve heard it and so have you. I reckon people have been hearing it since they were able to do so. People arguing about nothing. Eating up time.”

He paused and took a drag and then looked up towards the sky as he spoke.

“We’re time eaters. Time eaters that pay no mind to whats on their plate. That’s our problem, as a species.”

She cracked an awkward smile, frailer and less broad than it used to be. He dearly missed the way she used to smile, a little slice of white bone with the twin suns of her dark coffee eyes shining above it like obsidian moons.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re strange?”

Harmon took a drag, considering, nodded and spoke flatly.

“Bout once a week nowadays.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised.”

She was flipping through her phone now, less than half-listening. Harmon took another drag, his expression falling into a drab blankness. He’d meant the statement as a joke. She used to laugh at that sort of thing, at his dry, off-kilter attempts at humor, at his flat overstatements of the commonplace. Just two years ago she’d have been cackling like a hyena, her arm twined about his own. She likely would have kissed him. Now she couldn’t seem to tell when he was being serious or not. Harmon thought in him some fault for that lay. Perhaps he had grown too serious, too tense on the thread of life, like as his grandfather had said. For him, a smile was rare as a frown.

One of the gulls swooped down to the parking lot and pecked a greasy hamburger wrapper that some litterbug had left behind. Prodding with its bladeish beak til it found a fry. As Harmon watched it abscond with its gold and greasy prize and flutter up into the shine he wondered why he couldn’t feel sadness. Given the situation, it seemed appropriate; like as it would be the normal response. For all Lyla’s accusations of peculiarity, Harmon had always considered himself extraordinarily average in almost every regard. It was only when it came to his mind that any peculiarities began to manifest themselves, odd turns of phrase and archaic words which pleased his ear and confounded every other and so oft poured from his lips in brisk and liquid flow; ruminations on the state of things that seemed beyond all ken save his own. His grandfather had once remarked that Harmon spoke like a man that were unweaving a loom whose filaments only he could see. The bar girls thought it was “sophisticated,” their boyfriends “pretentious,” Harmon’s amiable acquaintances just said he “talked funny.” He took a long drag of the fervid Fortuna and thought on the phrase “amiable acquaintances.” Most of what he had that were social were such. He didn’t have many friends. Not anymore. None save Sprawls and Lyla. Only Lyla was different. Friend and lover. Sweetheart since high-school. A bond worked for nearly twelve years. For nearly half his entire life.

He looked away from the gull. Back to the young woman. She was still on her phone, drifting towards the passenger-side door, oblivious to the world beyond the screen.

“I’ve gotta meet, Serena.”

“Right, right. Art show.”

Harmon finished off his cigarette, dropped it to the blacktop and crushed it beneath his heel with a faded serpentine hissing and got in after the girl and drove out of the frozen yogurt shop where they’d shared their second kiss, the gravel sputtering beneath the ceaseless, half-deflated wheels of the battered 1990 Ford Escort Hatchback.

He looked over at her and forced a smile.

“Was nice seeing you. Been too long, Bluebird.”

“Yeah.” She replied without emotion, gaze still fixed to her phone. Nails tapping plastic. He guessed she was still talking to Serena or one of her other art school friends he’d never met. His smile faded and he drove the rest of the journey in silence, smoking and tapping the ash out the crack of the window and watching it sputter in butterfly whorls into the oblivion-warp beyond the ambit of the roiling machine.

*

CHAPTER 2

Harmon awoke with the rising of the light. He ran his hands through his hair, wild as weeds and dark as raven-down. He stretched and cracked his neck and leaned out on the tips of his toes til he fell to the floor, catching himself before his face collided with the spotless concrete of his tea and smoke-scented basement. He did a push-up and then one hundred and then twenty more. At one hundred and twenty he started to waver, dropped to his shoulder and rolled over on his back, breathing heavy.

A cat howled from somewhere outside. Shortly thereafter, something else howled. Coon from the sound of it. He checked the time. 7:00 AM sharp. He’d an hour to make it to work. He rose and looked to his mobile phone, outdated by the standards of the day. Tense. Anxious. Expectant. It’d been two weeks since Harmon had dropped Lyla off with Serena. Only phone calls he’d gotten were from his boss and his bank to let him know that his account had gone inactive and would be closed if it remained so.

He fancied he were being impatient, she’d call, he told himself, she always did. They used to speak for hours every other day. Hang on the regular. Increasingly, that was becoming a rarity. Now they’d speak but once every other week, if that. They’d meet up once a month or every other. Harmon shook himself from reverie, stretched and leapt up to the exposed crossbeam of the basement ceiling and started doing pull ups. A sudden implacable fury permeating his soma. He hit fifty and dropped, muscles afire. A pleasurable pain. He looked in the old mirror that had been left in the basement by the previous owner; his pale-yet-tanning form, all sharp, angular lines and surging veins, was alien to him. It occurred to him he’d not looked at his own reflection for nearly a month. There were no other mirrors in the house. He tensed his half-naked body before the mirror with his arms at his sides; opaque green eyes shining like liquid emeralds encased in amber.

He showered, dressed and walked up the stairs to the living room where Sprawls was sitting, drinking his bottom-shelf beer and smoking a joint that smelled of charcoal and mildew. The odious scent of the rough-rolled sheet permeated the room and Harmon braced himself against any outward show of displeasure as Sprawls took a sip before speaking.

“Morning. You look burnt out.”

“Stayed up writing.”

“Ah.”

Sprawls offered his roommate the joint. Harmon waved the offer and poured himself a cup of coffee, waiting for the reedy black man to continue. After a shrug and a lengthy toke he did so.

“Got this nice blues line, man. Need you to cook up some lyrics for it.”

“We’ve been writing songs for a year now. When we gonna start playing places?”

“What kinda places?”

“Dunno. Bars. Somewhere with an audience.”

“I been busy, man.”

“You work at a failing print shop with one reliable client.”

“Yeah, well, its a very demanding client. Why you always so impatient?”

“Not impatient. Just think we’ve come up with some good work. Must be that stuff you’re smoking.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning it makes you lazy as shit.”

“What’s your fucking problem, man?”

“Didn’t have one til you started snappin.”

Sprawls shook his shiny, bald head, rolled his bloodshot eyes and took another drag, knocking back his beer. He disinterestedly flipped on the television.

As Harmon went to take a sip of his coffee Sprawl spoke up suddenly, “Rent is due soon.”

“Yup.”

“You have it?”

“I will.”

“So you don’t have it?”

“I will once Swain pays me.”

“You want to stay in my house you’d better have it on time.”

“What do you mean ‘your’ house?”

“My name on the deed.”

Harmon didn’t respond and took another sip of the coffee, inhaling the soothing Colombian scent. Then he spoke up with a ill-concealed vexation.

“I thought we were friends, Richard.”

Sprawls perked up, no one except Harmon ever called him ‘Richard.’ He’d taken on the moniker ‘Sprawls’ after getting released from prison.

“And?”

“You just threatened to throw me out of our house.”

Sprawls took a toke. Body limp. Eyes shifting from the TV screen to the man behind the kitchen counter.

“My name on the deed.”

“I’ll have the money.”

“Five days.”

“Five days.”

“I’m serious.”

Harmon furrowed his brows. Sprawls was barely there.

“So am I. I’ll have it.”

“Cool. See ya.”

He may as well have said, “Whatever.”

Harmon finished his coffee and let out the house, got in his beaten and sun-scrubbed car, lit up a cigarette, cracked the window, hit the gas and drove down the cratered roads of the suburban neighborhood to the end of the northern-most street whereupon he spied a gang of toughs hanging about between two peeling and dilapidated houses that looked like over-sized shoe-boxes. The toughs were black and mostly middle-aged with cheap shirts and expensive sneakers. Harmon had seen them hanging around before and knew they weren’t locals. They looked expectant. Worried. Moving back and forth in wordless perambulations, tight little circles of uncertainty. Some smoked and others listened to their MP3 players. Harmon figured they were on business. Waiting for a drop-off. The area had changed after the cartel moved across the border, peddling flesh and pills. He looked out the window again as he pulled to a stop at the red light; could have ran it, but he liked the ritual of the thing, the stop and smoke and stare at the gray, seething clouds, like great ethereal snakes, at the birds swarming against the thermals, at the disheveled outsiders with their baggy pants and amatuer tattoos and vacant expressions, at the drop off from the rise and the vast mechanical expanse of the abandoned plant below; coal breakers, they used to call them, sorting and processing sites for anthracite, bitumen and lignite. A place where man and child alike once labored under the auspices of strong-willed industrialists. A smoldering knife that had cut up the land. From his metallic perch he could see strange forms moving where none should be, glassy-eyed and furtive amongst the shattered and rain-worn rocks of the coal breaker’s ruin.

Junkies.

The zombie apocalypse had already happened and it hadn’t even made the front page. Pharmacology, the vector for a self-inflicted scourge. The pharmacist-as-pusher. The citizen as client.

Harmon took a long, soothing drag and watched the addict-vagabonds moving in strange undulations against the dessicated corpse of the iron giant. He wondered if the once-mighty site of unparalleled industry could be rehabilitated, reanimated, summoned forth from its fetid slumber by some creative recourse to technological necromancy. The thought filled his whirring clockwork mind with a sense of unrealized majesty.

The landscape before him transformed into a field of great ranging towers, like the fangs of some titanic canine, arcing towards the sky as if in hunger of the moon. The junkies and lean-tos vanished beneath the furious blaring of steam-engines carrying the fruits of the coal breaker by rail-lines to every corner of the world and all those beyond it. Their rumbling stacks searing the acrid wind with staccato puffs, pitch and gray and fading out into particulates imperceptible to the eyes of Man. He saw high-rises crop up around the coal breaker and many more behind it. A metropolis. A megalopolis. A ecumenopolis. A city so great it were as a geological force unto itself, that shook the very foundations of the earth, reverberating the magmous core with the song of its creators; echoing out unto the very stars, the builders’ own to claim.

Harmon’s reverie was broken when the light turned green. He paused a moment and looked out the driver-side window, away from the coal breaker, to the right, to the shoe-box houses and the would-be gangbangers stoop-shouldered and sag-pants’d as a troop of hispanics walked up to them, plain-clothed and colorful.

“The fuck you lookin’ at, white boy?”

Harmon said nothing and flicked his half-smoked cigarette out the window, where it landed with a hissing sputter at the caitiff’s feet. He refocused his attention to the road as a muted curse echoed briefly behind the rambling metal wagon.

*

Harmon arrived at work five minutes late. His daydream’s heady alcahest, the generative nexus of his tardiness. Eric Swain folded his thick and hirsute arms before his chest and shook his head, short-cropped hair copper with the ascendent sun.

“You’re late.”

“I know it. Got distracted.”

“Hows that?”

“Daydreaming.”

Swain smiled slightly, wryly, and shook his head fractionally and spoke slowly.

“Coulda lied. Coulda said you got in a traffic jam, or something.”

“I suppose. Ain’t many cars on the road though.”

“How would I have known?”

“You wouldn’t, but I would.”

Swain shook his head again, like a horse chasing off flies and then looked skyward, squinting sunglassed eyes against the relentless rays of the effulgent sphere and then turned to the younger man and from him to the unfinished house before them.

“Well. Come on.”

“I’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. Much as I’m able.”

“What? Being late? Hell… you’re the only reliable hand I’ve got, other than Daryl.”

“I don’t think Daryl likes me.”

“Daryl doesn’t like anybody. You said ensure.”

“Yeah.”

“My wife bought me some Ensure,” the duo moved over the front lawn to the unfinished house’s driveway where stood a stack of roofing tiles, Swain reached up and removed a bottle,” Its like a protein-shake type of thing,” he shook the bottle, “Said it’ll help me keep it off the middle,” he patted his rounded gut and smiled again, “Guess I could do with that.”

“Guess so.” Harmon scanned the neat and brightly colored packaging of the protein shake. It was delightfully designed. Beautiful in its simplicity. Bright blue swooshing up in a thick line at the top and the bottom bracketed in the middle by off-white with the brand name strikingly colored in stylized typeface just below the thick, upper blue swoosh. He thought of all the work that had gone into the bottle’s design; he thought of the graphic design team that had spent weeks or months choosing an appropriate typeface, modifying it, colorizing it, sketching out drafts in some aromatic coffee house, of the plastic manufacturers which had crafted the bottle to be as ergonomic as possible and of the corporate culinary alchemists, shuttered away in their corporate laboratories, judiciously mixing and remixing various tinctures so as to strike the right balance in taste, texture and aroma. Harmon fancied it likely that more cognitive energy had been distilled in the creation of that single drink and package than would be expended by most of those that drank it in a month. The apprehension of such industrious creativity flooded his mind with mirth. He looked up to the roof he would shortly help to build and for the first time in a very long time, he felt joy.

*

Harmon was fifteen minutes on the bare roof of the house before Andy Flint, the last of the crew, arrived. He conversed with Swain briskly. Agitation the whole of their forms. Then Flint scaled the ladder to the roof and grabbed a sponge walking pad to ensure tractable footing before venturing out upon the perilous peak. Harmon recalled the time when they had worked a roof in the middle of winter in the downtown area. The ice made the sponges near-useless and Swain, running a small operation and lacking the funds for harnesses, bid his crew work across the frozen tile with only their roughened boots to brace them. Harmon had overexerted himself and fallen flat upon his back some near twenty feet off the roof. He’d landed in some shrubs and lay their for a long while, stunned and unable to breathe. When Swain asked him if he was alright he had grunted and raised his left arm skyward, thumb extended upwards. He’d been instructed to get promptly back to work.

“Mornin’ Andy.”

“Harmon.” Andy replied, nodding dully as he scuttled up to the middle of the roof on his sponge-pad, wrinkled jeans scrapping against the sun-faded plywood like sandpaper on snakeskin. He was jittery and tense. His eyes bloodshot and ringed with owlish circles.

“Can you hand me that bag of tiles?”

“Asshole.”

“Who?”

“Fuckin’ all of them, man. All of them sonsofbitches. Every last one.”

Harmon paused. Flint cursed under his breath and returned to his work.

Andy’s dour mood was ruining the atmosphere of creation. He wanted to dash lizard-like across the roof as he built it up from nothing under the hot and ceaseless sun with nothing but the creaking of the renovated house and the sonorous opera of the wind. After a moment of scrapping, Andy resumed his complaint.

“Told me I’d be fired if I was late again. Just like that. Hell, I been working here just as long as you and they still treat me like I’m some… I don’t know… like I’m wet-behind the ears. Like I’m some kinda drone. Like I’m a mule.”

“You shouldn’t pay so much heed to what people say when they’re angry. People aren’t usually angry at what you think they are.”

“Hows that?”

“Sometimes its just catharsis.”

“There you go with them ten dollar words again.”

Harmon arched a brow and turned to his compatriot.

Andy was twitchy and kept scratching himself, flexing his fingers and rubbing his arms in between nailing down the tiles, as if they were assailed by an army of invisible ants. Rocking and bobbing strangely. Amped and tense. Drugs. Harmon wasn’t sure what particular kind, but he could tell the man was on something. He had a history of substance abuse, didn’t like to talk about it. Harmon didn’t want to ask. He was focused on the roof. Shortly, Daryl’s crass voice boomed out from the far-side of the roof.

“What you two faggots jawing about?”

“Just shooting the shit,” Andy responded, vexation ill-concealed.

Daryl stood up high, as if to flaunt his dominance over the peaked surface and all upon it, “Well, you sure are filled with shit. I’m sure you got a whole lot of it to shot.”

Andy turned to the bigger man, scowling.

“Why you always gotta say things like that?”

Daryl loosed a cackle and shook his head.

“Why you always gotta be so sensitive?”

“You keep talking.”

“I intend to.”

“Piss off.”

“Rather wait til you’re walking underneath.”

Andy shook his head.

“Hows that girlfriend a yours? The flat-chested one.”

“Doing just swell.”

“Might have mosquitoes bites but she sure is pretty. Almost as pretty as that sweet thing our man Harmon’s saddled with. Nice curves on that one. Hows she doing?”

“Fine,” Harmon responded flatly as he pounded in a tile without turning.

“Oh, look at ole Andy. He’s hopping mad. Look, what I said about your girl – its not an insult. If my mug was as ugly as yours, I’d take whatever lay I could get.”

“Just shut up Daryl.”

“You gonna shut me up if I don’t?”

Tremors of rage shook the hammer in Andy’s hand. His knuckles going white about the red-taped handle.

“Giving it some thought.”

Daryl pointed to the hammer, his tone sobering.

“You so much as swing that in my direction-”

Harmon turned swiftly to face the men, his visage impassive. He rose to his knees and placed his hand upon Andy’s arm which clutched the hammer, his eyes fixed on Daryl.

“Client expects us to finish today.”

After a moment of tense silence Andy and Daryl moved off to opposite ends of the roof as the neophytes clambered up the ladder, bags of tile upon their slick and straining backs.

*

After work, Andy sided up to Harmon where he lay upon his back counting his pay on a patch of cool-shaded grass neath a willow in the backyard of the client’s house. To either side of the tree rose up thick hedges, ill-kept. Somewhere in the distance a cat meowed. Andy explained his cousin was unable to pick him up and asked if Harmon could give him a ride. Harmon looked around. Only Swain and Daryl remained, the neophytes all having departed the moment the boss had allowed it. Swain was talking to his wife, planning a dinner-outing. There was no point in Andy asking Daryl. Harmon nodded, saying nothing and asked for but a moments patience. He liked the feel of the grass upon his skin. The moss of the willow upon his neck. He closed his eyes and inhaled and opened them and watched a dragonfly land upon one of the upper branches of the willow and thought of the construction of the creature and then a facsimile all of copper, brass and steam, of coal and fire. A great clockwork dragonfly, and he upon it, skipping over the clouds with reckless enthusiasm and a conqueror’s cry. Then he shook himself from oneirism, removed his keys, and rose.

*

The cherry of Harmon’s cigarette flickered like furnace coal upon the windshield.

Andy sat in the passenger’s seat, hands in his lap, eyes to his shoes. Sullen. Ashamed.

“Hey Harmon.”

“Yeah?”

“Just wanted to thank you.”

“What for?”

“The ride.”

“No trouble at all.”

Andy nodded appreciatively and then looked out the red-tinged passenger’s window; some youths were ambling about a basketball court; to the left, a old woman sat upon her porch drinking from a mason jar as a cat the size of a small dog twined about her blue-veined legs. Harmon’s eyes were fixed to the road. He did not need to look out the window. He had memorized every house. Every sign. Every road-turning. Only the inhabitants thereof remained a mystery to him. There was no map, mental or otherwise which could lay them bare. A thin black man passed a young white woman upon the sidewalk before the house of the woman with the mason jar. Neither looked into the eyes of the other and they passed by as if neither existed for the other. A collision of four shadows. Harmon found it strange and unsettling how so many people could live in such close proximity for so long and yet almost never look or speak to one another. They came and went like ghosts.

“If you died in a crash, but some of your organs could be saved and transplanted, would you want them to be?”

Andy, arched a brow, confused and startled by the sudden, arcane query.

“Uh. Dunno. Why?”

“Just something I get to thinking about whenever I drive.”

Andy rubbed his stubbly, well-scarred chin, thinking hard.

“I don’t think I’d want my insides inside someone else.”

Harmon tilted his head up and took a drag of his cigarette and mulled his own question around in his mind and answered evenly.

“I used to think it was strange. Found it unsettling.”

“And now?”

“Now I don’t. If I were to get pancaked – say, right up the road, before I pull into your drive – bam; flattened; but one of my organs, say, a lung, remained intact and could be transplanted to some patient that needed it, I think whoever can should scoop it out and put it on ice. I wouldn’t need it, being a pancake and all. I’m not a pharaoh.”

Andy considered the driver’s words and then puckered up his mouth and nodded as if sense had been made of the thing.

“Guess that would be the rational thing to do. Less’n you’re religious in some kinda way.”

“Everyone is religious in some kinda way.”

“Thought you were an atheist?”

“So are Daoists, but no one calls them that.”

“Caint say as I know much bout no Dao.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

They rode in silence back to Andy’s house where it stood like a fat skeleton against the pale, bony light of the ascendant moon. Andy thanked the driver again and got out and strode up past the confederate flag which hung over the low-hanging porch, covered over in blankets and beer cans and rickety rocking chairs and flower pots and picked up one of the cans and cursed and vanished within.

*

CHAPTER 3

The art gallery buzzed like an agitated hornet’s nest. Harmon, dressed in his finest dirty T and sun-eaten jeans and moving from the entrance to stand before the gala proper, found the insectal chatter irksome and the low, odd-filtered light disorienting. He preferred the quiet and the dark. Despite his proclivities he had agreed to attend Bluebird’s gala opening. Her first. She moved up beside him, breathless and beautiful, supple curves ill-contained by a tight, black sweater and revealing leggings over which she wore a similarly tight, black mini-shirt neath which shined newly polished leather boots with small, silver buckles. Harmon frowned momentarily. He found the whole get-up too lasciviously form-fitting but said nothing and mock-saluted as she approached.

“Hey.”

“Thanks for coming, Harmon.”

“I’m surprised you thought to invite me.”

An expression of irritation palled her well-plied face.

“Why?”

“Been almost a month since we last met in person. Four weeks since we last talked.”

“That’s not true. I called you last week.”

He paused and furrowed his brows before responding, “You didn’t.”

“Didn’t I? I swear I did… I’ve been so busy…”

“S’all right. I’m not complaining. Say. Which one is yours?” Harmon inquired placidly as he cast his sharp, green eyes out over the art school’s gleaming marble floor; so clean and shimmering he could make out the stark reflections of all who stood upon it. Bluebird pointed to a series of paintings upon a silvery panel installation in the very center of the wide, rectangular onyx-colored hall.

As he followed her gesturing hand he caught the reflection of a curious figure from out the corner of his eye, to his immediate left. Thin and trim and garbed in an albescent coat, tipped at the collar with similarly milky fur. When he followed the reflection to its source he noticed that the ivory man was watching him. The man raised a glass of red wine, smirking slight. Harmon hollowly reciprocated the gesture. He felt suddenly strange. As if liquid had settled in his veins.

Bluebird sighed melodramatically and folded her arms.

“You aren’t even paying attention.”

“Sorry. Got distracted. Who is that?”

“Who?”

“That fella with the white coat.”

“Oh god. He’s looking at us. He’s coming over. He’s coming over.”

“Friend of yours?”

“That’s Lynder Partridge.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He flew in from the city just to attend this gala. He’s scouting for permanent additions to his gallery.”

“Maybe he’ll pick one of your pieces.”

“You’ve really never heard of him?”

“Nope.”

Lynder Partridge strode up to the odd couple, his pose cordial and restrained, his sharp, bloodless face opaque, luminous oceanic eyes masked by circular green-tinted sunglasses which palled the irises in topaz glow.

“Salutations. What a fascinating exhibition. Some much talent in so small a space. I trust you’re enjoying the festivities.”

Bluebird was so star-struck that it took her two seconds entire before she responded, and then, only shakily.

“I am. I’m L-lyla Summers. I’m… I’m such a big fan, Mr. Partridge. What you’ve done with those library renovations in the city and here, in our little town, its just wonderful.”

“Why, thank you, Lyla. And your friend?”

Harmon step forward, extending his work-roughed and scar-calloused hand. He didn’t expect Lynder to take it, yet the elegant ivory man did, extending one of his black, leather-gloved hands and grasping Harmon’s own, firmly and without hesitation.

“Harmon Kessel.”

“So pleased to meet you, Mr. Kessel. I’m happy to see a roofer involved in the arts – architects have a long-standing history of interdisciplinary interest, as their own trade demands it, yet those who bring their creations into being, those who maintain them, are, as a general matter, considerably less intrigued by the graphic arts.”

“Why do you think I’m a roofer?”

“Your skin is tan. Burnt at the neck. Your jeans are roughly worn at the knees; shirt, faded about the shoulders and back. That suggests you spend a lot of time in the sun, and a lot of time on your hands and knees. The only trade that would demand such action, regularly, in this town, is roofing.”

“That’s clever.”

Lynder remained wholly impassive save for the slightest trace of a smile, which vanished as quickly as it appeared. Momentarily, Serena walked up to the trio and greeted Lyla and then looked to Lynder and Harmon.

“Who are your friends, Ly?”

“This is Harmon Kessel and this is Mr. Partridge.”

“Please, call me Lynder.”

“THE Lynder Partridge?”

“Indeed.” He responded flatly as he turned to the woman, whose eyes went momentarily wide with surprise.

Lynder cast his gaze out to the installation directly beside Lyla’s, “Is that your work?”

“Y-yes.”

“Its your first gala, correct?”

“Yeah… I hope they like it.”

“I shall have to take a closer look. At a distance, it appears most tantalizing.”

Shortly, Serena and Lyla moved off a pace. It appeared to Harmon as if Serena had some important information to convey. He was mildly irritated that Serena had not greeted him.

“Looks as if the shrews are conferring. Shall we peruse the works together?”

“Sure.”

The duo moved to stand before the center panel installation which harbored Lyla’s works. Paintings. Her centerpiece was a massive, colorful oil painting of a large swan in mid-flight, gliding over the top of a pristine, azure pond, surrounded by reeds and cherry blossoms; petals dancing in the wind.

Lynder studied the piece a moment and shook his head before finishing off his wine and handing it to one of the school volunteers who took the crystal goblet with a smile and moved on to the next group.

“What do you think?”

Harmon studied the picture, “I think its pretty.”

“Indeed it is. That’s the problem. Its pretty, yet… only pretty. Nothing but pretty.”

“I don’t think its that bad. Besides, art is subjective.”

Lynder spoke without turning, eyes to the swan, hands clasped gingerly behind his back.

“Subjectivity is objective.”

“Not sure I follow.”

“I mean that those conditions which undergird subjectivity are themselves objective, even if one does not understand them. To say otherwise is to say that the foundations of subjectivity are themselves subjectively determined. That is hardly plausible.”

“Well, put like that, I guess not. Haven’t thought about it much. But, why don’t you like the painting?”

“To answer I would pose a question in return.”

“Alright.”

“Of what use is the art which does not seek to force life to imitate it?”

“I don’t think she’s not trying to force life to imitate anything. She’s trying to imitate life.”

“Precisely. She imitates life and in so doing, presents to the audience an idyll of splendor, born of her idealization of it. On all fronts, she fails. She fails to create a compelling idyll to the extent she seeks to reflect the real, and fails also in capturing the real in attempting to idealize it. It is, however, a preferable failure, for if she’d succeeded she’d have succeeded only in tricking the undiscerning audience into believing that reality were as banal as her escapist idealization of it.”

“What’s wrong with escapism?”

“Escapism is aesthetic, and thus moral, cowardice.”

Harmon straightened. He hadn’t expected such a forceful response. He wanted to respond. To defend Bluebird’s work, but words failed him. He had never met anyone so filled with quiet passion, and, lacking the same, knew not how to meet it.

“You think my criticism is unduly harsh.”

“That’d be one way of putting it. Yes.”

“Given your relationship to the author, that is understandable.”

“Seems snobbish to me.”

“There is a marked distinction between snobbery and elitism.”

“Lyla likes to say, ‘Art isn’t about being good.'”

“That would explain why her own is so bad. Think of the trouble that ethos would cause if applied to other professions.”

“Whole lot, I imagine.”

“When one is in need of an electrician, what kind does one seek?”

“The best one can afford.”

“When one selects a friend, does one undiscriminatingly accept all, or does one critically discern the trustworthy?”

“Obviously the latter.”

“Exactly. If one holds such a standard for electricians and friends, why not for artists?”

“Well, guess that’s a pretty good question.”

Lynder briefly looked over his shoulder at the bright-eyed and youthful denizens of the school, mingling with their gray-haired teachers and the buzzing journalists that entered in a small clique and disseminated throughout the gala, rushing to the well-known artists and more swiftly still to their better known patrons.

Harmon recognized none of them.

“Gird yourself,” Lynder intoned sourly, “The vultures have arrived.”

“Don’t see no birds.” Harmon replied with some amusement, casting the net of his eye over his shoulder and back again.

“I was referring to the journalists.”

“Not a fan of the press?”

“Creatures such as them have no appreciation for art. Their kind doesn’t belong here.”

“You’re awfully opinionated on art. I’m guessing you do some yourself.”

“Yes. I’ve crafted many pieces over the years. What about you, Mr. Kessel?”

“Well, sorta. I like to write. Fancy I’m decent enough. Never gotten anything properly published though. More of a hobbyist than an artist.”

Lynder removed a small business card from his pocket and handed it to Harmon.

“If you ever wish to send my publishing house one of your manuscripts, give me a call and I’ll personally white-list it.”

“Thanks. Very kind of you. But you haven’t read anything I’ve written.”

“It is refreshing to converse with someone so unceasingly forthright.”

“I figure there’s enough lying in this town. No need to add to it.”

“Quite.”

Lynder turned and moved to Serena’s installation.

“Your friend’s girlfriend’s work is much more interesting.”

“She’s not Lyla’s girlfriend.”

“Oh? Could have fooled me, and I’m not easily fooled. Did you not notice? Once they walked off, how intimately they moved together.”

“Beginning to think that’s the wine talking.”

“I’ve only had half a glass. If you don’t believe my words, try believing Serena’s pictures.”

Harmon followed Lynder’s gesture to Serena’s gala display, where hung a considerable number of figure drawings, all of the same woman. Lyla. In every one of the illustrations, Lyla was nude, poised seductively, reclining on a divan.

“Probably was an exercise from one of their life drawing classes.”

“Lyla isn’t a model.”

“How would you know?”

“I have invested considerable resources in talent-scouting across the state, which means keeping abreast of students, faculty and alumni, here as well as elsewhere; besides, school policy prohibits students from posing,” He paused and pointed to one of the more lascivious drawings, “Don’t you think there is something a touch recherche about the pose?”

“A little,” Harmon tried to steady his voice. He was irked that Lyla would allow herself to be portrayed in such lewd fashion, especially in a public setting. The only reprieve was that Serena’s exhibit seemed to elicit little response from the gala-goers, who seemed more interested in cameras, gossip and champagne than the pictures upon the walls.

“A work of art is a exhibition of desire. To know an artist’s work is to know their wants.”

Harmon felt a sudden unease overtake him, and, shortly thereafter, anger. He slowly turned and scanned the crowd. He couldn’t see Lyla, or Serena through the increasingly drunken sea of humming electric meat. He ground his teeth.

It was ridiculous. Fantastical. Unthinkable.

He refocused his attention on where Lynder had stood, intent to answer the ivory man’s query.

He was gone.

*

CHAPTER FOUR

After the showing ended and the gala closed Lyla, Serena and Harmon walked out of the school and drove down to one of the small, purportedly chic cafe-bars which had recently cropped up to celebrate. They set themselves down in the aromatic cedar interior on spotless red booths where, shortly thereafter, a gussied-up woman of middling age, wearing a tight T-shirt and cowboy boots, ambled over and asked what they wanted to drink. The girls ordered microbrewed IPAs. Harmon ordered Milwaukee’s Best. The trio sat in silence, drinking and looking around at the rambunctious patrons, smiling dumbly before Harmon, a quarter of the way through his beer, broke the silence.

“So, how’d you two meet? School, I’d guess.”

Serena nodded, “Yeah, I first met her the first day of class. We had life drawing together. She was really good and we just… got to talking.”

“I saw your drawings.” Harmon replied flatly.

“What did you think?”

“I thought they were very pretty. Kind of… erotic, though.”

“‘Though’?”

Lyla cut in, sneering, “He’s a prude.”

“I’m not prudish,” he arched his brow, “As you well know. It isn’t that I’ve some proscription against sex or its suggestion – that’s the reason we’re all here – its not the subject, but the treatment, which I take issue with. This flippant exhibitionism. As if intercourse and the consumption of hamburgers were fundamentally indistinguishable, simply because they’re both born of instinct. There is, in that, a kind of comfort with coarseness that detracts from the sacrality of the act; that cheapens it.”

Serena stifled a chuckle and took a big swig of her beer. She found serious use of the world “sacrality” greatly amusing.

“If this is what he says when he sees a couple of drawings, I can only imagine what he says when you two are getting it on.”

“Serena!”

Serena puffed up her chest and issued a exaggerated impression of Harmon’s gravely voice and stolid pose.

“Wondering if you could undress faster, ma’am, like to get this here fluid exchange over with soon as possible.”

“I usually don’t need to ask.”

Lyla, embarrassed and tipsy, punched Harmon in the arm whereupon he cracked a grin and threw his arm about her shoulder and pulled her close and kissed her crown. Lyla smiled and kissed him back, upon his lips, firm and briskly and he flushed a little, his heart skipping a beat.

“Well, aren’t you two just precious.”

“Don’t know about me. But she sure is. Most precious thing in my life.”

Harmon looked to Lyla. For a brief moment, her smile faltered and his along with it.

*

CHAPTER 5

When Harmon returned to his house he found Sprawls’ car in the small, circular concrete drive before the rickety porch of the two-story ramshackle and another unfamiliar vehicle next to it. Company. He parked behind Sprawl’s car, got out and ambled to the intrusive machine and looked in the window. A purse lay in the center console between the driver and passenger seats. The window was rolled down half-an-inch. He scented perfume.

A woman.

He looked up at the moon, like the eye of a meteoric coelacanth, and fished a cigarette out of his roughened leather jacket’s inner pocket and withdrew his cheap plastic lighter and stood looking at it, thinking of its origins. It had once been nothing more than blacked goo in the ground; through sapient ingenuity, it had been transmuted into a portable combustion device. He thanked the creators, whoever they were, and stood smoking as clouds obscured the moon, as if the celestial body waxed shameful of its nakedness. Once he’d finished his cigarette he turned from the moon and let himself into the house. As soon as he passed the threshold he heard a clamour coming from above.

An argument, carried by two voices. Sprawls and his female companion. He couldn’t discern precisely what they were saying, as their words were muffled by the thickness of the walls. He didn’t really care and set himself down at his computer in the living room and searched ‘Serena Ellen McCallister’ on the web. He scrolled through her social media accounts and swiftly found her public photo collection. There were numerous pictures of her and Lyla, dancing at parties, drinking their strange IPAs, others at school, others still of Serena alone or with various other friends. He looked to the dates. She took pictures frequently. She didn’t seem to have a boyfriend. Harmon shut the computer and rubbed his face. Despite the public availability of Serena’s personal information, he felt slightly guilty for looking her up, feeling as if he were engaged in something seedy and untoward. Minutes later, a woman stomped down the stairs; thin and sallow and fake blonde, flat-chested and round-stomached.

Pregnant.

Crying.

Harmon turned in the wooden armchair and rose.

“Hi.”

He slipped a clean and neatly folded beige napkin out of his jean pocket and handed it to her. She thanked him, took it and dabbed her eyes as Sprawls came down the stairs. Scowling.

“You alright?” Harmon inquired with concern as he slid his hands into his pockets.

The woman nodded, saying nothing and then turned to Sprawls mournfully and left off out the door. Sprawls swore under his breath and shook his head.

“Fucking bitches, man.”

“Relationship troubles?”

“Something like that.”

“She’s pregnant. Is it-”

“Fuck no. Ain’t mine. Bitches get around. You know how it is.”

Harmon mulled his roommate’s words over in his head and didn’t respond as Sprawls threw himself down into the battered leather couch beside the stairs, the only piece of furniture in the living room, other than Harmon’s table and chair. The black man looked up at the ceiling, shook his head again, muttered something to himself and rubbed his hands over his face as if splashing insivible water.

Harmon got the man a beer and then sat down with his back to his friend, typing on his laptop’s small onyx keyboard; working through the second chapter of his novel. It was his fourth major work of fiction, but the first of which he felt proud, despite its nascence. When it was finished he was sure it would get picked up quickly; it was unlikely to be a best-seller upon its release, but it would, he thought, be well regarded and remembered. The thought of legacy turned his mind back to the woman and to Sprawls who ate a candy bar on the couch, watching something on his tablet.

“So… what happened?”

“Ah, nothing, man. By the way, you got the money?”

“For rent? Yeah. I have it right here, actually.”

Harmon reached into his inner jacket-pocket and withdrew a small, white envelop and tossed it to Sprawls.

“Cool. Cool. Hey man, let me have one of those cigarettes.”

Harmon fished the last of his rolled sticks of tobacco out of his front jacket-pocket and tossed it to his roommate who caught it wordlessly. He never said “thank you” and Harmon never chided him for it.

*

CHAPTER 6

Harmon stood still. Paralyzing terror the whole of his form. The room was dark. A light visible in the distance. White and beckoning. The walls dripped as if composed of oil or some like viscous substance. A figure, human-like and yet clearly inhuman, stood silhouetted by the albescent radiance surrounding. The man reached out to touch the effulgent entity, whereupon, from the figure’s stomach, the form of a great centipedeal creature issued forth, as if it had assumed the place of the sapient’s intestines and yet caused no outward signs of vexation to its host. A multitudinous choir lit up that seemed to come from everywhere at once, at first, a garbled din, the voices swiftly coalesced, increasing in volume, until at last rendering themselves undecipherable as the creature stirred to life.

*

Harmon woke and lay motionless. He felt anxious. The afterimage of the dream lingered yet in his mind, vivid in its gestalt impression, but fading in detail. It were a commonality of his life as far back as he could remember that his dreams had always been foreboding and filled with unfathomable malice. Something was always chasing him, or watching him just beyond the plane of all perception. Some people said that dreams were omens, others would say they were the unconscious mind processing repressed or unrecognized memories and desires. Harmon didn’t really care either way. If an omen, it was unclear; if an unconscious wending, it communicated nothing.

Useless.

He rose up on the bed and ran a hand through his dark, wild hair, rolled off the mat and dropped to the floor, stopping his face with his powerful, outstretched arms just before it collided with concrete. Muscles bulged and tensed and burned as the man reached the fifty-sixth push-up. Fifty more and he unfolded himself from the stony ground, showered, shaved and dressed in a black T-shirt, blue jeans, gray socks and well-worn steel-toed leather working boots.

The phone rang. It was Swain. No work due the rain. Harmon said “alright” and hung up. He cracked a beer and sipped it slowly, savoring the heady flavor of aluminium and hops as he ascended the stairs from his room in the basement to the living room where his table stood. In short order, a sketchbook had been placed upon the table and the scratching of a pencil thereupon filled up the house until the sun rose full above the jagged, bleeding line of the horizon, whereupon Harmon leaned back in the creaking wooden chair and observed his work and nodded with approval.

His Bluebird looked beautiful.

*

CHAPTER 7

When Sprawls came in from work he found Harmon hunched over a lineless dollar-store sketchpad, furrow-browed, scribbling with great energy and concentration.

“Sup.”

“Welcome back,” Harmon turned in his seat and proffered the sketchbook to his friend; upon the leftern page was a elaborate portrait, a illustration of a young, round-faced woman with pronounced cheekbones, a wide mouth and glasses too big for her face. Her hair was long and dark as her eyes, lustrous and poorly tamed.

“That Lyla?”

“Yeah. What do you think?”

“Its good, man, real good. How long that take you?”

“Bout three hours.”

“Damn. You should start selling that shit.”

“Why?”

“Cash.”

“I don’t need money from people who would do nothing with my work. The general public wouldn’t appreciate it.”

“You on some bullshit if you think you’re too good for anyone that doesn’t use your ten dollar words.”

“That ain’t it. I didn’t draw it for the public.”

“Who’d you draw it for then?”

“Bluebird.”

*

CHAPTER 8

Harmon rang up Bluebird at noon.

No answer.

He tried again.

Still no answer.

He tried a third time and, finally, she answered through text, writing only, “Can’t talk rn. Busy.”

Harmon cursed under his breath and slammed the small, black-plastic flip-phone shut and slid it into the pocket of his jeans, straightened and looked off toward the old coal breaker, palled by shimmering sheets of rain. They had planned to go out today, given that the forecast had ruled out the possibility of work. He wondered what had occasioned such a reversal.

“Am I so unimportant that she can’t even spare a single minute to speak to me? To explain precisely why we can’t meet? She could just explain it vaguely, half-heartedly, and that’d suffice,” Harmon thought as he set himself down upon the peeling white-steel chair that sat lonesome as he, in the backyard of his house, its legs overtaken by ground ivy.

Shortly, he rose, paced and went back inside the house and looked to the illustration on the faux-leather notebook open on the plain living-room table. He studied the drawing of the woman. Her smile struck him as sardonic. Mocking. Wordlessly, he threw on a worn, gray sweater, work shoes and sunglasses and headed out the front door.

*

The sun hovered over the ruins of the aged industrial facility like a great bloated vampire, leeching the dark as the creature from his dream. He didn’t know where he was headed, only that he wanted to walk. Needed to. He felt caged and fearful of what he might do should he remain locked within the house; of who he might call and what he might say if they answered. A group of young hispanics sitting upon the porch of a ruined tenement jeered, whereupon he slowed, paused and held their gaze until they fell silent and withered underneath the weight of his gaze. After the onlookers were dissuaded from their leering he continued on his way, fists balled at his sides and his breath coming in sharp, rapid inhalations.

After two hours of walking to the right from his house, he found himself standing before the coal breaker that lay like a dead colossus at the northeastern edge of town. Sun was strangled in the sky by a shroud of roiling clouds like hateful khefts and crows dived and perched from the wracked exterior of the abandoned processing plant like living daggers hungering for blood.

Harmon hated the place. To his mind, it was unconscionable to let such a majestic construct be overtaken by swarming cthonic multitudes. Every twisting, rangy vine, every rain-washed and mosquito-thick rut, every unpainted wall, door, and broken window filled with bird feathers and pollen-dust, was a vile heresy.

Crunch of gravel.

Footsteps.

He turned away from the frontal facade of the old coal breaker, to the left, where, just beyond the mangled, gravel drive, stood a woman with wild hair and light skin; she wore a multi-colored sweater, torn at the right shoulder and mud-stained tennis shoes held together by ducktape.

“Tell me yall ain’t police.”

“No, ma’am, I’m not. Why’d you think I was?”

“They keep on harassing us.”

“‘Us’?”

She thumbed the air with exasperation that belied her age, pointing with her digit over her shoulder towards a ratty lean-to surrounded by old tires and rusted cars.

“Us. Its illegal to be homeless.”

“You ain’t homeless though. Got a tent.”

“Wish someone could convince the cops of that. Tents ain’t homes, far as they’re concerned.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Mind if I ask what you’re doing out here?”

“Just walking.”

The woman stood uncertainly, swaying on her heels, eyes vacant, body lax. When she did not respond and slowly sat down on the ground, playing with a fraying thread upon the knee of her jeans, he spoke up without moving.

“What’s your name?”

“Luna.”

“I’m Harmon. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Yeah. Yall seen The Bone Man?”

“The what?”

“The Bone Man. He comes round every so often.”

“Caint say as I have.”

“He’s got a little bag of skulls. Bird bones. That’s why they call um The Bone Man. Don’t know what he does with um or where he gets um from, but he always carries um.”

“Sounds like an odd fellow.”

“He is. Scares me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Cuz I think that one day… one day I might end up in that bag of his.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Don’t know. Instinct, maybe,” she cast the net of her gaze across the wasted sprawl, “Just get a bad feeling around here.”

Harmon said nothing, following her gaze into the distance.

He wondered if there were truth to the woman’s story or if it were just the product of a drug-addled and aberrant mind. Momentarily, a pudgy, balding man with a trucker’s cap approached, scratching an ample beard.

“Heard ya talking. This a friend of yours?”

Luna shook her head.

“Nah. Just met him.”

“Right.”

Harmon tilted up his head and nodded in the man’s direction. The man nodded back and then returned his attention to the woman on the ground.

“I need your help with something.”

The man with the trucker cap looked suspiciously to Harmon and then knelt and whispered something in the woman’s ear whereupon she nodded and slowly unfurled herself from the gravel. The pair then left off, returning to the lean-to and from there they headed off for a small camper in the far-flung distance. She was a mule, Harmon was certain of it. Probably a tester as well. For a moment he considered following them, but hesitated. Hands working at his sides, heels digging into the grit with a muted, flinty hiss.

He took a step forward. Then three more. At the fourth a new voice intruded upon him, it smooth and jovial and foreign.

“Ain’t wise to follow people that are more dangerous than you.”

Harmon spun and discovered a tall, thin man watching him from atop a beaten and rust-bitten pickup. The man wore a low-slung ball-cap and old, metal-rimmed sunglasses, battered jeans and a dull, flannel shirt, rolled up at the sleeves.

“How long you been there?”

“Long enough.”

“That ain’t no answer.”

“It is. Just not the one you wanted.”

“You said those people were dangerous.”

“All people are dangerous.”

“Getting to thinking you’re being purposely opaque.”

“I’m clear as crystal.”

“Crystal ain’t always clear.”

“I didn’t say it was, said I was clear as.”

Harmon paused. He found the strange interloper both unsettling and bizarrely amusing.

“I’m-”

“Harmon. I heard. I’m Ryter. Jonathan Ryter.”

“Is that girl ok?”

“Compared to?”

“You just can’t give a straight answer can you?”

“Like as not the answer is no.”

“You don’t seem much perturbed.”

“Lot of not ok people in the world.”

“Yeah. You live here?”

“Presently.”

“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

“Not. You were going to go after them.”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Certainly seemed like you were.”

“Well, they ain’t exactly normal.”

“Neither are you.”

“I think I’m pretty normal.”

“Normal man woulda walked away. Called the police.”

“Should I?”

“You think they’re cooking something?”

“I dunno. Are they?”

“What would you do if they were?”

“Nothing, I guess.”

The man muttered something to himself and then swung himself over the side of the back of the truck and eased down onto the gravel and left off towards the front of the coal breaker and looked off towards the south where an ominous stormwall was building in the sky.

“Going to rain.”

Harmon followed his gazed.

“Looks like it. I’d best be heading back then.”

“If you’re planning on walking you’ll get caught out in it.”

Harmon shrugged.

“Guess so.”

Ryter gestured to the coal breaker.

“You’re welcome to come inside til the storm passes.”

“Mighty kind of you.”

The man nodded, more to himself than to Harmon and walked into the overgrown breaker. Drawn to the man’s easy cadence and confident gait, Harmon found himself following. Down the slight decline of the gravel drive and past the old power plant to the duo’s immediate left that overshadowed the tents of the junkies scattered all about the drive and outer yard where stirred dozens of glassy-eyed cast-offs who sat upon overturned buckets and cinder blocks, ringing round tiny fires, jabbering of misfortunes and bug-bored dreams. Some of the itinerants looked to the duo moving towards the old facility and spoke one to the other in hushed tones of grave concern; fear moved them back to silence when the sunglassed man looked impassively in their direction.

When they passed within the decayed structure a flock of crows fluttered off from the ground and flapped around the rafters as thunder echoed in the distance. They walked between rows of old seats where breaker boys had sorted coal by hand, beyond which was a heavy tarp upon which lay a circle of bones, meticulously arranged; lizards and possums, cats and dogs, birds and other things which escaped Harmon’s ken. It was then that Harmon recognized the man for who he was; ‘the bone man’ of whom the female addict had spoken. He felt uneasy, increasingly so as the man stepped into the circle of ivory remnants and removed therefrom a old and battered tome without title, save a strange sigil, wholly foreign to Harmon.

“What are they for? The bones? You an archaeologist?”

The sunglassed man did not immediately reply nor look to the bones and seemed not at all perturbed by them and instead flipped open the book and scribbled a couple lines down with a curious pen that looked to have been cast of bone itself. Without forewarning, a woman’s voice sounded from somewhere nearby as rain began to pelt the boarded and broken windows.

“I didn’t know we were having company.”

“Neither did I,” Ryter replied with a broad smile. Harmon turned and beheld a young woman hunched upon one of the old sorting tables; he had missed her upon entering. Her hair was short and cropped at the sides and the leftern region of her face was covered over with hideous scars that ran the length of her neck and vanished beneath a pale, green parka.

“Don’t be rude. Introduce yourself.”

The woman sighed like a petulant child, rose and stepped forth from the darkened corner of the room and moved to stand before Harmon.

“Freya Lauren.”

She held out a bandaged hand. Harmon noticed more scars that fled up her arm like the after-tracks of some massive species of worm. He took her hand and shook it, “Harmon Kessel. Nice to meet you folks. I had seen, while ago, that some people had set up tents around the breaker, but I had never given any thought to people living in the breaker itself; heard it was dangerous.”

“Upper floors are. Wouldn’t recommend you going up there.” The woman stated blithely.

Harmon got the distinct impression she didn’t care for company.

“I’ll keep that in mind. So, what brought you two here?”

“Just needed in from the rain. Going to have some tea. Want some?”

“Sure.”

The woman turned round and moved to a small, portable electric heater which had been set up on the right-middle-most anthracite sorting table. The table was iron, impervious to the heat, and on top of the heater sat a small, metal thermos and beside it lay two tin cups and into the cups she poured a steaming, aromatic brew.

“Must be nice.”

“What?”

Harmon gestured out to the criss-crossing iron bars of the rafters, “Living here. No taxes. Quiet.”

“The police used to come round to chase out those who’d set up tents in the yard when there was some interest in the property; deals kept falling through, corporate interest waned, police stopped coming round for inspections. Still, we don’t keep much on this floor, someone walking by the windows might see us and then its up on trespassing charges. Course, that’s unlikely to happen, police round here are sparse and don’t make much of an effort. Usually keep to the town. Its a long drive from the station all the way down here and a long walk from the power station to the breaker to the conveyor and dumphouse.”

Far behind them Ryter had finished writing in his book and set it upon one of the processing tables and then returned to the circle of bones and began rolling them up into the tarp on which they sat and then deposited them into a old, wooden chest in the left corner of the room. Then the man ambled back with a tin cup which Freya dutifully poured for him. The trio drank in placid silence and shortly thereafter the rain subsided and Harmon thanked the itinerant duo for their hospitality and said he must be getting back before dark and left off for home as the duo watched him from the broken windows of the aged breaker.

*

CHAPTER 9

When Harmon finally made way back to his house, the car belonging to the woman was there again, as well as Lyla’s car. Sprawls car was gone. Harmon dashed inside the house and discovered Lyla sitting on his chair in the living room, bent over his desk, his sketchbook open upon it. She looked at the drawing of her visage with pursed lips and wide eyes.

“That was supposed to be a surprise.”

She gasped and dropped the notebook. To Harmon, her face bore a sign of shame. A faint flame of suspicion there lighted in the corridors of his tired and tumbling mind.

“I’m sorry. I had tried calling. You didn’t answer.”

“Had went for a walk. Forgot to bring my phone,” he replied, gesturing to the device where it lay at the corner of the table nearest the wall, not far from the sketchbook.

“So what brings you here?”

Lyla rose slowly, hesitating, as if the words had been snatched from her throat. She quickly regained her composure and shrugged, “Just wanted to see you.”

“I’m surprised.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

“I’ve been busy.” She stressed the last word with shrill and juvenescent inflection as might a willful and mischevious child when sternly reprimanded. Harmon was familiar with the vocal flexure. She did it often and thought it cute; he found it vexing and grotesque.

“I understand college is demanding, but we never meet up anymore. We rarely even talk.”

“I know. I’m sorry. Really. I am.”

“I don’t want you to be sorry. I just want to spend some time with you.”

“I’m with you now.”

Harmon moved to stand before the woman. He was two inches taller than her, three with his boots on, and looked down into her large, coffee-colored eyes and raised his hand to her face and leaned down towards her, gently caressing her lips with his own. Smooth and warm. She kissed him back, hard and slow, and wrapped her slender arms about his neck as their hearts quickened. Harmon slid his hand beneath her shirt. She shivered at the touch and smiled.

“You’re cold.”

“I’m sure you can figure out a way to warm me up.”

*

CHAPTER 10

Harmon stood within the melting hall once more. The light in the distance so bright he couldn’t bring himself to look at it. The man from which the centipede had emerged stood once more, bathed in albescent resplendence. Fear quickened Harmon’s pulse as he shaded his eyes and pressed down the narrow pass. When he stood within ten feet of the man, he realized that it was not a man at all, but a statue of an androgynous, humanoid being, cast of obsidian or some like substance, and it seven feet tall and smooth-hewn to fearful symmetry by impossible skill. The statue’s left arm was elevated, palm facing up, its right arm declined, palm facing down; as if it were pushing in equal measure against the welkin and the earth. Where the obsidian creature’s stomach would have been were it a anatomically accurate was a gaping hole and from it issued a ominous skittering that began as a whisper and increased to a howl as Harmon drew towards it. When he stood directly before the statue, within distance of embrace, the sound blared like a war-siren and he fell to his knees with the force of it, screaming as a million voices swarmed upon him, speaking forth in dreadful unison, their words indiscernible.

Loathsome legs, insectal and countless, poured from the statuary hole as ears gushed from Harmon’s eyes.

*

“Harmon. Harmon? Harmon!”

Harmon’s eyes flew open, devoid of ears, as Lyla shook him to the waking world. He rolled over in the bed to face the naked woman where she lay, supple curves blue neath the light of the moon.

Hills of azure flesh.

“You were making noises in your sleep.”

“I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Bad dream?”

He nodded.

“I keep having the same one. Only this time it ended differently.”

Lyla leaned against Harmon and gently caressed his still-heaving chest, teasing about his nipples and the wide dale of taunt skin between them. He pressed her to his bosom and kissed her crown whereupon she looked up at him and kissed him upon the lips and slid her hand slowly down his chest and stomach to his now-swelling cock. Harmon groaned faintly and gripped her right breast in his rough and calloused hand, prompting a faint gasp from Lyla’s thick, red lips and her eyes to roll and her body to sway against his own. Swept up in passionate embrace, the woman’s body shuddered beneath Harmon’s as he kissed her nose and pulled slightly away.

“I love you, Bluebird.”

She looked away and drew him closer. Forcing him deeper. Moaning. Moaning. Moaning. Digging her nails into his back until he bled.

*

CHAPTER 11

Harmon woke to the hot rays of the sun licking his loose and stimulated body. He inhaled the aroma of his basement slowly; savoring every scent of stale beer, drywall, wood, plaster, steel and warm dust, as might a perfumist a bag of potpourri. He stretched and looked to his left. Lyla was gone. Only a slight indentation in the gray mattress and the scent of womanly body spray remained.

His momentary elation swiftly subsided. He sat upon the old and worn-out mattress, unevenly sprung, staring at the spot where his love had been. He reached over and caressed the area where her nape had leaned against the pillow, as if to grasp her essence before it faded completely.

The spot was still warm.

He rose, naked, stretched and threw on his underwear and pants, where they had been hastily discarded upon the cold, concrete floor the night before, jogged up the stairs and ambled expectantly into the living room; empty save his laptop, table and chair and Sprawls’ ratty couch. His notebook lay open on the table where she had left it, the portrait smiling up at him. He moved to the table and slowly closed it.

He sat down and raised the screen of his laptop and, as if compelled by some ethereal force, opened a new tab on his browser and typed in ‘Lyla Regina Summers.’ The top results were from her personal website featuring her artwork, her page on the local university’s site, one news article on regional artists she had been briefly featured in, referred to by name only twice. He paused and stared at the screen. She had never mentioned that the local news had covered her work, however briefly. He furrowed his brow. Farther down the search list he chanced across a podcast titled ‘Women Out Of Shade’ and saw that Lyla was featured in their metadata. He plugged in his headphones, lest someone should enter the house, and clicked on the requisite links and listened intently.

“Hello lady writers, this is your host Monica Chambers, you are listening to Women Out Of Shade, a podcast dedicated to bringing female artists out of the shadows and into the light. Today we’ll be talking to Lyla Summers, a local soon-to-be-graduate from Haverral University. Ms. Summers is a illustrator, photographer, social activist and painter. So, welcome to the program, Ms. Summers.”

“Social activist?” Harmon muttered to himself with perplexity. Harmon and Lyla never spoke of politics.

“Thanks so much for having me.”

“So, I saw your recent showing, your gala – I thought your work was really quite wonderful.”

“Oh, why thank you. I was nervous, of course, but it went really, really well. So much better than I expected. I’m still a little overwhelmed by the reception.”

“That’s wonderful to hear. So, I wanted to know, first, how you came to be interested in art, in painting in particular, and what your principal influences were and are?”

“Well, I’ve been interested in art since I was pretty young. I always liked to draw. I got into painting when I was in high school and it all just sort of clicked. You know? Anyways, I decided, on my very last day of high school, what I wanted to do and sent in my portfolio to Haverral and the rest is history. As for my influences, well, I have to give a lot of credit to Sam – Samantha Farrow, my advisor – she’s also a painter-”

“Yes, I’ve heard of her.”

“Isn’t her work wonderful?”

“Its really unique.”

“She was such a good mentor. It was only because of her that I got placed in the gala. But anyways, to answer your question, her method really helped me grow, as an artist. So, I’d say she was my chief influence.”

“So what are your plans from here?”

“Well, I plan to move. I hope I don’t offend any local listeners, but I really want to get out of this area.”

Harmon straightened in his chair, his eyes flying wide.

“My girlfriend is planning on moving to the city, so I’m planning on moving down there soon.”

“Girlfriend like girl who’s your friend or-?”

Lyla gave a nervous, grating laugh.

“More like the love of my life. She’s been so supportive of me. I really should have mentioned her when you asked me about my biggest influences. I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve accomplished without her.”

Harmon paused the recording and rewound it and listened through once more to ensure that his ears weren’t playing tricks upon him.

“My girlfriend is planning on moving to the city-”

“My girlfriend is planning on moving-”

“My girlfriend-”

“-like the love of my life-”

“-love of my life-”

“-love of my-”

“-love-”

Harmon listened through the rest of the recording, waiting for a name. Lyla never gave it. He checked the date. It had been published yesterday. Slowly, he shut the lid of his laptop and rose from his chair, hands flexing like speared and desperate crustaceans.

How could she? Why would she? Why wouldn’t she tell me? She was just here. Last night. In my bed. She was just here…

Abruptly, he recalled how she’d refused to meet his gaze. How she’d looked away.

The sound of footsteps upon the pavement outside left no room for further reverie as Sprawls burst in through the front door, a large, white plastic bag under his left arm.

“Good news, had a sale at Captain Andy’s.”

Captain Andy’s was the locale liquor store and one of Sprawls favorite mercantile haunts.

Harmon slowly turned to greet him.

“Mind if I have one?”

Harmon wasn’t sure what his roommate had purchased, nor did he care. Anything to numb the frantic rage he felt would suffice. Anything to blunt the urge to put his fist through the wall, to flip his table and snap his laptop in half and cast his chair to pieces and drive down to Lyla’s house and beat her until she gave up a name. Until she apologized. Until she fell to her knees and begged for forgiveness.

Sprawls withdrew a tallboy and cast the can to his roommate who caught it deftly and snapped it open and downed a quarter of the bottle at once.

“You okay, man? You look… pale. I mean, paler than usual.”

“No, but I will be.”

“Something happen?”

“Something is always happening. No use complaining about it.”

“Yeah.”

Sprawls flopped down into his couch and cracked open one of the bottom-shelf tallboys and took a sip as he set his bag of beer down upon the floor.

Harmon remained standing, guzzling his beer. In short order he polished it off and asked for another, which Sprawls readily provided. After a few moments, Sprawls spoke up dejectedly.

“Bitch fucking lied to me.”

“Who?”

“Sarah. Girl that was here. You seen her.”

“Didn’t know her name. You never introduced us.”

“Yeah.”

“What’d she lie about?”

“Being pregnant. Said she’d just been putting on extra weight. Yeah, right. Got me thinking. Thinking bout lying. How often people do it. How often do you lie?”

Harmon turned towards his friend with frigid seriousness.

“I never lie.”

“Bullshit. Everyone lies.”

“I have not told a lie since I was a child.”

“Bullshit. Hey, lemme get one of this cigs from you.”

“You just called me a liar. Get your own.”

“Just lemme have one.”

Harmon stuck one of the cigarettes between his lips and lit up the end and spoke without turning.

“I’m not repeating myself.”

“Fuck you, man.”

Harmon did not respond and smoked, starring at a peeling spot on the wall as if it were the very center of the universe. He wondered if it were mold.

“That’s some weird ass shit.”

Sprawls paused, and shook his head.

“Some wierd ass shit. This ain’t gonna work out.”

Sprawls waited for Harmon to say something; when he didn’t, Sprawls got up from the couch and made for the stairs.

“You have your stuff outta here tomorrow.”

With that, Sprawls left off before Harmon could respond. He stood there, staring at the spot where Sprawls had been, turned, grabbed his coat and the tallboy and headed for the road. He drove. Comforted by the roaring hum of the old hatchback’s engine, crunching asphalt beneath its newly worn yet powerful tires. The earth shearing against itself like two techtonic plates. He determined suddenly, as the weight of the day’s events fully pressed themselves against his mind to drive to Lyla’s house. She lived twenty eight minutes away in her mother’s messy canary-yellow house. He drove straight north. The gang of toughs that he’d spied before were nowhere to be seen, there was only a young man walking down the street, bobbing his head to the hidden hymns of his headphone. Harmon envied that man. Cocooned from the world. Happy, with a big, dumb smile. A surge of rage that bellowed dragon-like from the roiling, fractal depths of his mind overtook him. Bliss-through-ignorance is the harborage of cowards, he thought, redirecting his attention from the walker back to the road before him. He floored the gas and ran the lights as a vehicle he paid no mind screeched to a halt, its driver howling a indiscernible curse out the window.

He drove out of town to the north, the great crumbling ruin of the coal breaker visible in blurred side-glances to the northeast. Swiftly, it fell from view.

No, he thought, suddenly slowing, I’m being primitive. Letting my emotions stampede like frenzied horses shorn of their reigns.

He pulled to a stop before the highway off-ramp and checked the mirror, then U-turned and sped back towards town.

He would not go to her.

He would wait for Lyla to come to him.

*

CHAPTER 12

When Harmon waved to Sprawls as he made breakfast the man only shook his shaved head and snorted in vexation.

“What?”

“You still here.”

“Where were you expecting me to be?”

“Anywhere but here. I told you last night. Ain’t gonna work out.”

“What isn’t?”

“You livin’ here.”

“Are you being serious?”

“I ain’t gonna throw you out. I know you don’t have anywhere to go right now. You find one. Then you leave.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Richard?”

Sprawls didn’t answer and kept buttering his toast over a paper plate beside the kitchen sink. Even as he did so, his bloodshot and buggy eyes swept to the side cautiously, suspiciously.

“You’re gonna throw me out because… I didn’t give you a cigarette? Have I got that right?”

Sprawls shook his head, scoffing in muted tones. He didn’t answer.

“Stop buttering the god-damned toast. I’m talking to you.”

“I gotta go. You just remember what I said.”

With that Sprawls turned to leave but Harmon braced him with his left hand, turning him half about. Sprawls grunted and smacked his roommate’s arm away.

“Don’t put your fucking hands on me.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. This is my house too, Richard. I’ve been splitting the rent with you since you got it. You wouldn’t even have this place without me. We’ve been playing music together for four years – four – you want to end all of that over… what, exactly? The fact that I didn’t take kindly to you callin’ me a liar?”

“I’m not repeating myself. Ain’t that what you said last night?”

“What’s wrong with you?”

Sprawls just starred at him dumbly. Harmon knew he was high. He could smell it on his clothes. He wondered if Sprawls was on something else. He was always on something.

“Ain’t me that got the problem.”

“You disappoint me, Richard.”

“Yeah.”

Sprawls turned and left the house as Harmon stood clenching his fists and fighting back a compunction to run outside and bash his friend’s head against the pavement until it splattered like an overripe and fumbled melon. Instead, he took a seat at his desk, gathered up his laptop and went downstairs to begin filing all his belongings into cardboard boxes to take out to his car.

*

CHAPTER 13

Harmon looked down at the crisp, off-white business card as he switched off the engine of his hatchback in the abandoned grocery store parking lot. He read the name delicately laser etched upon it: Lynder B. Partridge. He wondered what the ‘B.’ stood for. Below the name was a phone number, address and the word ‘Curator.’ He removed his phone from his pocket and started crunching the keys with his thumb and then stopped. He had only met Partridge once and felt it would be impudent to ask him for help. He was near certain Partridge was no longer in town. Why would he stick around a crime-riddled and crumbling backwater? There was nothing for him here. The man doubtless had family and business matters to attend.

A mellow unease gripped Harmon.

He was alone.

He had nothing but his car and what little of his effects he’d managed to quickly stuff into duck-taped boxes in the trunk.

A sudden thought rippled across the torrential ambit of his mind.

There was one other person he could call.

*

Andy leaned forward in his late mother’s wicker rocking chair and waved cordially from his uneven and rotting front porch. Harmon looked up and waved back. Neither smiled. Sun was low and the suburban landscape hissed with the eastern gale like a thousand invisible snakes. Harmon moved up to the creaking porch, his laptop case loosely slung over his left shoulder and a ballcap low-slung over his sleepless, bloodshot eyes.

“Evening, Andy.”

“Evening. Need help carrying anything?”

“Nah. I got it. Thanks for this.”

“No trouble at all. Caint believe he’d up and kick ya like that. Beats all,” the man shook his head, “Just aint right.”

Harmon nodded as Andy rose and opened the creaking door of his tumble-down two-story and held it for his guest as sirens sounded in the din.

*

Harmon sat staring at the glowing screen of his laptop, fixed upon the flickering caret and the empty text document that proceeded it. His fists as flint upon the warm plastic of the machine, its subtle rhythmic hum a soothing balm against the ravages of recent memory. He envied the device. Machines knew nothing of betrayal. They were loyal by design. Unquestioning obedience the deepest measure of their essence. He felt as if he had passed into one of his ghastly dreams. He cursed neath his breath, rose and paced. The tumultuous sea of emotion which roiled within him presented no solutions and consequently was ignored for ten minutes of pacing and thirty more of strenuous exercise which was abruptly interrupted by the ringing of his small black cellphone which lay to the immediate left of the computer upon the foldable poker-table Andy had furnished him with when he’d let Harmon his spare bedroom. He sprang to the device, flipped it up and held it to his ear.

“This is Harmon.”

Silence a moment. Then a soft and familiar feminine voice.

“Hello Harmon.”

“Hello Bluebird.”

*

CHAPTER 14
“I thought that… maybe I could come over.”

“You can’t come to the house.”

“Why not?”

“Because Richard kicked me out.”

“What? Why?”

“It doesn’t matter, he’s made up his mind. Its good to hear from you, Bluebird,” he replied evenly.

“Wait, what happened? Are you okay?”

“Something is always happening. I’m the same as always.”

“Where are you?”

“Andy’s place. For now.”

“Andy? That guy from work, the bald one?”

“Yeah.”

“You told me he’s a junkie.”

“Used to be. He’s a good man. No cause for concern.”

“Aren’t you worried?”

“No.”

“What happened, Harmon, why would he do this?”

“I wouldn’t give him a cigarette because he wanted me to admit that everyone was a liar. But I’m not, so I wouldn’t. He didn’t believe me. Became prickly about it. So did I. That’s all.”

“What? But you were going to start a band… all that practice together…”

“Nothing I can do about it. I tried talking to him. No use. Some people, no matter what’s done for them, will never reciprocate, will never take the full measure of their relationships until long after they’ve abandoned them. They’re the kind of people who always end up alone.”

He was talking about her as much as Sprawls but restrained himself from making the fact explicit. He reasoned she might not come over then.

After a beat the woman responded, her voice shaking a little.

“I think you’re right about that.”

“You know where Andy lives?”

“No.”

He gave her the directions and they set a time and then she said she had to go but would call later, when she was on her way. He hung up and wondered what he would say to her. What could he say, knowing of her perfidy? He determined not to broach the issue yet.

He wanted a uncoerced confession.

*

CHAPTER 15

Harmon drew teeth against the grain.

The sound of the chainsaw split the tranquility of the placid Sunday afternoon and sent the sparrows spinning from their thorny thrones.

The smell of wood, the glint of metal, the machine’s furious hum engulfing the grotesque chittering of the wide outer bright.

He stood over a small, felled tree before Andy’s old creaking house, the species’ name escaping his ken, and rolled it with his heel and worked the grinding steel of the mechanical saw against the spindly branches that shivered like insectal limbs with the impact. He paused to behold a group of men walking along the street. Familiar faces all. They were those he had seen so many days before, waiting at the corner just beyond Sprawls’ house. The congregation wore brightly colored and expensive clothing and moved with a languid, batrachian swagger, as if they believed the entirety of the sidewalk upon which they tread belonged to them.

A young, scantily-clad woman moved down the side walk, heading straight for Andy’s lot, ass pushed up and out in jeans one size too tight, hair cropped on both sides, long on top and combed wildly to one side, below which a thin, ribbed and sleeveless exercise top girded wobbling breasts, paler than her spray-tanned skin.

A tangerine whore.

Harmon thought he’d seen her before, yet could not remember where. She paused and turned and yelled something at him, her round, lacquered face contorting in vexation like a dessicated orange. He stopped the chainsaw.

“What?”

“I said why the fuck you gotta make so much fucking racket.”

The gangbangers laughed and chattered amongst themselves.

Harmon furrowed his brow and methodically set the machine down beside the brush pile and dusted off his jeans and turned to the woman with a placid expression.

“Just clearing some brush.”

“Well, clear it somewhere else.”

“Ain’t no other brush to clear. Even if there was, think that would probably be trespassing.”

Her expression softened and she crossed and uncrossed her arms anxiously.

“Andy around?”

Harmon nodded fractionally and jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing towards the house.

“He’s inside. Bout to leave though. Might want to hurry.”

She did so and made way to the door and passed therein as Harmon bent to his lent chainsaw and returned to work as the toughs, having lost their source of amusement, ambled down the street to find more stimulating forms of entertainment.

A hour passed. The woman hadn’t come out of the house. Bluebird hadn’t called. His anger had ebbed some but he refused to allow placidity to overtake him and muttered to himself solemnly.

“Lessons must be learned, so first, they must be taught.”

He surveyed the flat, dying grass of Andy’s diminutive lot, inhaled the sweet, smoke-scented air, restarted the chainsaw and imagined that the tree trunk before him was Serena’s throat.

*

CHAPTER 16

The moon ghosted above the ancient coal breaker. Odd figures walked the streets, surreptitiously passing small, plastic bags to each other just beyond the illumination of the streetlamps and the curtain-muted lights of Andy’s house.

Bluebird did not call before she arrived. She parked her car in front of the drive and clattered down the way to the door in dark purple yoga pants, faux-designer boots, a short-sleeved t-shirt and a windbreaker. She knocked lightly, hesitantly, on the door and waited trepidatiously as a mexican eyed her up from the leftern lot. Momentarily, Andy opened the door, expectant and cordial.

“Heya. You’re Lyla, right?”

“That’s me. And you’re Andy. We’ve met once before.”

“I remember. You stopped by work to give Harmon a sandwich or something.”

“Yeah. Speaking of – is he still here?”

“Yep. Come on in. Let me take your coat.”

“Thanks.”

She slipped out of her puffy, oversized windbreaker and held it under her right arm as she stepped inside to behold a cramped living room covered with stained leaf-colored shag and unadorned walls of pale beige. To the immediate left of the door, a old television sat against the wall, blaring a sitcom, before it, a ratty couch upon which lounged a middle aged woman, dressed as might someone fifteen years her junior.

“This is Marla. Marla, this is Lyla.”

“Howdy.” Marla intoned without much interest as she fished out a gummie bear from a crinkling plastic bag upon her lap, eyes fixed on the flashing box before her.

Andy turned away from the couch-bound woman and pointed to the stairs which let up to the right.

“He’s upstairs. Door to the right.”

“Thanks.”

When she reached the upper floor landing she paused and listened for him. She knew his footfalls well. He was pacing restlessly. She entered and found him languidly smoking by the half-cracked window, gazing out towards the coal breaker.

She hesitated, mouth moving in nervous undulations.

He turned slowly. The light of welcome absent from his keen, green eyes.

“Hello, Bluebird.”

“Hey.”

She moved forth and slowly draped her arms against his immobile form. He reciprocated the gesture and then offered her a cigarette which she swiftly accepted. They stood smoking filtered menthols, looking out the window at the gang members hocking opioids on the corner.

“So… whats new?”

“Not much. You know how it is around here.”

“I do indeed.”

“So what happened? With Richard?”

“Already told you. He called me a liar. I told him I wasn’t. He threw me out.”

“Is that really all you two are fighting about?”

“I’m not fighting. Ain’t worth fighting with people that don’t care about you.”

“That directed at me?”

“Why’d you assume it was?”

“I know I haven’t been around much,” she took a long drag and shook her head as she exhaled away from the window pane, “But I’ve been busy.”

“What with?”

“Prepping for the gala. The next one, that is.”

“Next one?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?”

“No.”

“Oh, sorry. Yeah. The last one was really successful.”

“I know. I was there.”

“I hadn’t forgotten. Are you mad?”

“Not with you.” It was true. He felt no anger towards her, only disgust and disappointment. His rage was reserved for Serena and Sprawls.

“Richard?”

“I kept thinking. Bout hurting him. Over and over again. Stomping down on his shiny little skull til it cracked.”

“I don’t think that would be the best way to handle it.”

“No, but it’d be a way.”

*

CHAPTER 17

They descended the stairs as thunder ranged beyond the ambit of the creaking tumbledown. Lyla wanted to watch a movie. Inquiries concerning the cinematic acumen of all present were made, with Andy judged most-knowledgeable, they settled into the massive, tattered and musty couch as their host plopped in a old VHS titled ‘Fractured Mirror.’ The story revolved around a down-on-his luck writer, well past his prime, whose wife had cheated on him with his seemingly loyal and amiable publicist. The film charted his slow, painful mental deterioration and eventual commitment to murder.

As the fictive writer bludgeoned his former lover to death with his typewriter, Bluebird recoiled and buried her head in Harmon’s chest.

“Too much for you?”

“Its my head. You know how sensitive I get with this kind of stuff.”

Lyla was prone to headaches and enjoyed playing up the fact. Everytime the couple watched a movie and a character was struck in the head, she would either complain that Harmon “hadn’t warned her” of the scene, or snuggle up to him, and buried her face in his chest. Harmon had long-induced she thought it cute and quirky. It proved merely affected and annoying.

He said nothing as she cuddled up against him, using his musculature as a makeshift pillow.

“Damn.” Muttered Marla, here eyes wide, fixed to the screen.

Andy chortled and downed some of his beer. After the murder scene, the protagonist looked directly into the camera as an eerie cue played. Eyes full with joyful madness. Cut to black. Credits.

“Well, whadidja think?” Andy inquired, lighting up a cigarette.

“Poor lady.” Marla intoned flatly between mouthfuls of popcorn.

Andy smiled and turned to his others guests expectantly.

“Well, whats the verdict?”

“I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t think it was going to be so violent.”

Andy rolled his eyes then looked to Harmon whose faraway eyes were fixed upon a small insect on the ceiling.

“She got what she deserved.”

“But they were in love.” Lyla protested hotly.

“‘Were’ is the operative word.”

She looked up into his face and was greeted only with impassivity. She slowly shifted off of him and asked Andy if he would mind sparing one of his tall boys. He happily obliged and shortly thereafter the two trekked off to acquire some beers from his humming magenta fridge, leaving Marla and Harmon to their own devices.

Marla played with her softly jangling bracelets a moment and then leaned towards Harmon inquisitively.

“How long you two been together?”

“Since high school.”

“Oh, wow. That’s wonderful. I didn’t take relationships seriously back then.”

“Few do.”

“Yeah. Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. Was having a bad day.”

“Was no trouble at all.”

She smiled, “Were you serious?”

“About?”

“About the movie. You think really she deserved that?”

He responded without hesitation.

“Yes.”

“Sheesh,” she laughed somewhat awkwardly, unsure if he was joking or not, “I don’t disagree on principal though. I used to date this guy named Tanner. Good-looking, wealthy – comparatively speaking – nice car. Seemed perfect.”

“But there was a snag.”

“Yeah.”

“Infidelity.”

“However did you guess. Yes. He said he was sorry. That he was drunk when it happened, that he didn’t know what he was doing. Blah, blah, blah. He was a terrible liar. But even still, I forgave him. Not two months later he’d left his phone lying on the counter of our kitchen – it rings and I check the messages. Some bitch asking what she should wear for him that night.”

She shook her head and took a swig of beer and tapped out her half-smoked menthol in the peach can Andy used as a makeshift ashtray.

“What’d you do?”

“I told him to explain. I was ready to forgive him again. If he was honest.”

“Given you’re here, with Andy, I’m assuming he wasn’t.”

“Nope. Told me she was a ‘business associate’ and that’s why she was asking him what to wear. I told him business associates don’t tend to refer to each other as ‘babe’ and ‘darling’ – he didn’t have anything to say to that so I told him to leave. And he did. I think it was him just up and leaving because I said so that bothered me most of all. He wouldn’t have left so easily if he’d really cared.”

“But then you met Andy.”

“But then I met Andy.”

She smiled widely and leaned back in her chair and took a puff of her cigarette, watching Harmon intently from the corner of her eyes. Shortly thereafter, Andy and Lyla returned from the kitchen bearing a six pack and a bag of off-brand nachos. They watched another film about a evil AI in a far-flung future where everyone used floppy disks and decided to hit the sack. Andy implored Lyla to stay the night and then headed upstairs with Marla. When they were completely out of earshot, Lyla turned to Harmon dourly.

“Did you mean what you said?”

“About?”

“About her getting what she deserves.”

“Yeah.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because I believe it.”

Lyla shook her head and looked out the window. The didn’t exchange another word for the rest of the night.

*

CHAPTER 18

Lyla had come over to return a sewing machine she’d borrowed for a school project.

Harmon had only to meet her gaze to know she felt nothing for him. Just as last time, they exchanged no words, only glances.

He had been waiting for something to change. For her to admit what she had done and apologize. To ask for forgiveness and swear never to betray him. To acknowledge the truth of the past and set correctives for the future.

She did nothing of the kind; pretending as if nothing had happened between them, as if everything were still the same.

Do you take me for a fool, Bluebird?

His gaze hardened under the weight of the silent question. He wished one of them had perished before they’d drifted apart; in such a eventuality their love would have been immortalized; forever untainted by duplicity or betrayal. Perfectly suspended in time, like a fly in amber.

I never lied to you.

Never betrayed you.

Never cast you aside like refuse, without justification, or explanation, or concern.

And yet you have done as much to me and worse, pretend that you haven’t. Why should I hold myself apart from your selfsame standard when doing so only puts me at a disadvantage? Why should I act like I am above my impulses? I am no more above sordid abasement than you. Than anyone – save those great-souled few.

You were mine.

Now you give your heart away as if on a whim.

The actions of a vulgar whore.

Unacceptable.

You are mine and mine alone.

And mine alone you shall remain.

*

CHAPTER 19

Harmon rang up Sprawls at the break of dawn, knowing the receiver would be up for work.

“Yeah?”

“I’m stopping by to pick up my things.”

“Oh, its you. What things?”

“My things. That I left.”

“Oh, yeah. That.”

“Yeah. That.”

“Ain’t here.”

“What?”

“Ain’t here.”

“I heard you the first time. What ain’t where?”

“I sold that shit, man.”

“You… sold my stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“All of it?”

“Most of it. Rest we threw ou-”

Harmon snapped the flip-phone shut. The undulations of his breath rising in rapidity. Rage subsumed the edges of the world as his fists tightened like fleshy stones, incisors grinding, eyes widening, muscles straining.

“Something up?”

Marla inquired from the corner, where she lounged upon the coach, slurping bottom shelf cereal, bed-headed and pajamaed, TV blaring rapid-fire political commentary.

“No.”

“Problem?”

“Richard.”

“Andy told me bout him. Sounds like an asshole.”

Harmon didn’t respond.

She was silent a moment and then cast her eyes to the milky bowl between her nicotine stained fingertips as if expectant of a reply from its viscous, albescent depths.

“I had wanted Andy to take me out tonight, but he said he’d already made plans with one of his friends. Would you want to see a movie?”

Harmon starred out the window as he mulled over the question. A crow flapped down from a telephone pole to the left of the tumbledown and began pecking at some roadkill. The creature’s beak scraped entrails across asphalt in a whirl of feathers the color of pitch as a dog looked on in perplexity.

“Harmon?”

“Sounds like fun.”

“If you don’t want to, its fine.”

I said it sounds fun. What movie had you wanted to see?”

“I can’t remember the name. Its this political thriller dystopian type thing. Bout this young group of survivors in a post apocalyptic wasteland…”

Her words faded into indeterminate babble as Harmon’s mind drift from the room into the world of his dreams. To the effigy and its chastisement. When she’d finished Harmon turned from the window.

“We can see that if you want.”

“You sure you’ll like it?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t seen it yet. I’ve gotta go.”

“Where?”

“Out.”

As she opened her mouth and removed her eyes from the cereal bowl, Harmon left the house before a word could escape her lips and trekked across the yard, paused to watch the crow peel out the dead and bloated racoon’s heart and then seated himself within his car and sped off down the sunbaked band of black, cracked like the scales of an ancient snake.

*

CHAPTER 20

“Yo. Someone asking bout you at the front.”

Damion turned from the fat man with whom he was sharing a beer to the lanky, bejeweled man before him.

“And he is?”

“Don’t know. Never seen him before. Some white boy.”

“What’s he asking about, specifically?”

“If you’ll see him. Wants to speak to you.”

“Everyone wants a piece of the pie.”

“Not everyone,” Harmon declared, striding impassively beside the lanky man who reached swiftly for his gun. Before he could fully unholster the piece, Damion raised his hands in entreaty.

“Take it easy. Think our boy here is just lost. Ain’t that right?”

“No, Mr. Strake, not lost at all. Came to talk. If you’ve got a moment.”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Afraid? You don’t look afraid.”

Damion looked to his bodyguard with a raised brow. The lanky man shook his head and turned to Harmon derisively.

“Who the fuck you think you are? This is a private meeting.”

Harmon ignored the flustered guard, his eyes fixed on Strake.

“I’d like to speak to Mr. Strake in private.”

“Yeah, well, I’d like to be a millionaire.”

“With an attitude like that, I find your prospects doubtful.”

The lanky guard opened his mouth to repost the jab, but before he could retort, Damion interrupted, gesturing towards the door.

“Kelly, wait outside.”

“Whatever.”

As Kelly and the fatman made their way out the door and sealed the pulsating electronica behind them, Harmon took a seat, upright, eyes level with his host, hands folded upon his lap.

“Thanks for calling off your dog.”

“You’re lucky I did. He bites.”

“I suggest a muzzle,” Harmon replied as he studied Damion’s face and then straightened once more, “You don’t remember me.”

“You don’t look familiar. What is it you want?”

“Does the name Sprawls ring any bells?”

“That ratfuck… yeah. He a friend of yours?”

“Used to be.”

“My sympathies. Wait. I have seen you before.”

“Yes. We met two years ago, at a music festival not far from here. You sold Sprawls something. Were secretive about it.”

“Just some gas. You know how it is.”

“I don’t. That’s why I’m here.”

Damion rolled his eyes and leaned over the table, pushing a unopened can of beer toward his guest.

“Gas. Pot. Marijuana.”

“He buy other things from you?”

“Maybe. Why you asking? You buying?”

“Maybe. What other things does he buy?”

“Ya know, that’s the kinda question that only really dumb niggers ask. You ain’t no dumb nigger are you?”

Damion assumed an aggressive posture, his bleary eyes narrowed and he leaned out even further over the table, his mouth crinkling into a grimace.

Harmon cracked the beer and raised it to take a sip, responding before he did so.

“Do I look like a dumb nigger to you?”

Damion smiled humorlessly and shook his head.

“I don’t know what you look like. You on some bullshit.”

“Still haven’t answered my question.”

Damion gave the man a wary look before continuing.

“China Town.”

“He buy a lot?”

“Would if he could afford to. Last I heard, that broke ass nigger was scrubbing toilets.”

“He come lately?”

“No. Why the fuck you so interested?”

“Said I might be buying. Will you be selling?”

“Depends on if you’re paying. Real money. No barter bull-shit.”

“Course. You accept checks?”

Damion paused, furrowing his brow before he spied Harmon’s mocking expression.

“You fucking lucky Karst ain’t here.”

“Don’t know him.”

“You should. This building, everything in it, its his and he ain’t nearly as accommodating as me. Month ago, some dude named Rawel, Luke Rawel I think, comes up in here, talking shit, bout how much TNT he got and whole buncha bullshit. He’s making a racket. We tell him he needs to leave. He decides not to; says, if we didn’t do business he might just have a word with the cops. Karst, well, he calmly told him there was no need for that and that they should talk about it in his office, in the basement. Don’t know what happened, but… ain’t no one seen Rawel after that.”

“That a threat?”

“Fuck no. I’m just telling you like it is. Telling you not to run your fucking mouth.”

Harmon removed a thick clip of hundred dollar bills from his belt and waved it before the pill merchant enticingly.

“Selling or not? Last time I’m asking.”

“China?”

“Carfentanil.”

“Ain’t cheap.”

“Of course not. I’ll pay double.”

*

CHAPTER 21

Harmon adjusted his driving gloves and removed the small pouch containing Damion’s drugs and deposited them into a dumpster behind Karst’s club. He checked his wrist watch and raised his collar against the early morning chill and walked two blocks, knowing that the eastern sidewalk would bring him past his former abode. When he arrived Sprawls was arguing with Sarah upon the porch, door hanging wide open. Sarah was shaking her head, stomping her feet, tears streaking down her pockmarked face as Sprawls’ voice rose to a growl.

Harmon paused on the street opposite Sprawls’ house and listened.

“Its your child. Richard! Listen to me!”

Sprawls flippantly muttered something aggressive and indiscernible and headed back into the house.

“Don’t turn your back on me – don’t you dare!”

Sprawls slammed the door in the woman’s face whereupon she wept and beat the portal with her tiny fists util she drooped against it, dazed, exhausted and bereft of hope.

Harmon moved to the decrepit but still serviced phone booth that lay directly across the street from Sprawl’s house as the woman at the door lapsed to howling hysteria and resumed her assault. Flesh smashing vainly against the frame. Glistening tears rolling to the pavement like wayward drops of rain. Careful to pull his hat low so as to hide his face should Richard reemerge or Sarah turn around, Harmon lifted the phone from the receiver, scanning the sidewalk, left and right. Empty in both directions. In such a tumbledown neighborhood there were no street cameras, only the eyes of crows turning pirouettes above the thorny branches of the sparse, twisted trees and the rusted coal breaker beyond.

A voice swiftly responded on the other end of the line.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“I’d like to report a domestic disturbance.”
*

CHAPTER 22

Harmon pulled into the parking lot of the northeastern shopping center, its glassy, odd-angling facade shimmering with the solis like molten crystal. He squinted against the glare, put on his sunglasses, adjusted his wellworn ballcap, checked his wristwatch, exited the vehicle and headed for the pet food store. It loomed a story above every other building, its name, Erma’s Pet Emporium, stood out against the whitewashed and rain-stained walls, glowering from behind illuminated red plastic like the palled embers of an otherworldly fire.

Lyla was finishing her shift when Harmon strode up to her.

“How’ve you been, Bluebird?”

“H-Harmon…”

“Haven’t heard from you in a while. Thought I’d come see if you still keep the same hours.”

“Harmon… I’ve gotta close up… can we talk later?”

“Can’t multitask?”

“Look… Harmon…”

“You’re making a very serious face.”

“I just need some time… alone.”

“By ‘alone’ do you actually mean ‘alone,’ or just ‘away from me?'”

“Harmon, its not like that. Its hard to explain.”

She closed up the register and waved to her manager who waved back and then made for the exit, purse over her shoulder. Harmon followed beside her along the blacktop.

“You could at least try.”

“I just need some time…”

“For what?”

Lyla paused in the middle of the parking lot and looked down at her shoes, unable to muster a cogent answer. Only one lone car moved against the stillness of that barren field. The wind twined her hair about supple features like liquid night as her eyes narrowed with sadness and vexation and her hands went tight about her purse string.

“I can’t be with you anymore, Harmon.”

“Can’t? You mean ‘won’t.'”

“You don’t understand.”

“You’re right about that. I do, however, understand fidelity.”

“I don’t want to have these awful talks anymore.”

“When you didn’t return my calls I assumed as much. Though I never thought of our conversations as ‘awful.'”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it. I meant… conversations about being together.”

“Do you love me?”

Her wide eyes betrayed considerable surprise. Shortly, they disclosed tears.

“I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.”

Harmon nodded to himself, a confirmation of a long held suspicion. He turned and looked towards the setting sun and spoke flatly.

“I remember when you first told me you loved me. More clearly do I remember when you told me you always would. You know what that makes you?”

“What?”

“A liar.”

Lyla straightened, a new resolve hardening her round and delicate face.

“I’ve got to go.”

“Of course you do.”

“Goodbye Harmon.”

“You really don’t care, do you?”

“How can you say that? Of course I care.”

“Just not about loyalty. Or truth.”

Harmon turned to face her directly, hands in his pockets, eyes dire and wide and incandescent with the stellar sphere’s light. He could see that it was the last straw for her. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, opened the door of her rental and backed out of the lot. Harmon watched Lyla’s car meld with the midday rush and then turned and walked back to his own as he spoke to the direction in which Lyla had fled.

“Still, you won’t confess.”

*

CHAPTER 23

Muscles burned and sweat dribbled to the floor as Harmon reached sixty pull-ups. The sound of footsteps echoing off the cool concrete failed to deter. Only when Marla spoke his name did he drop from the exposed steel ceiling beam and turn to face the interloper. Marla’s eyes roamed to the man’s pale, naked torso, shrinking and swelling from his labored breath, muscles starkly defined from his ardent regime. Marla swiftly returned her gaze to the man’s shadowed face and spoke with agitation poorly concealed.

“That friend of yours, the one you used to room with, he’s in the news. Been arrested. I… thought you should know.”

She held up her phone, proffering it to the half naked man, who slowly ambled forth and took the device and beheld a news article titled, ‘Local man arrested for drug possession after domestic dispute.’ Adjacent the title was a large photograph of Sprawls, presumably taken after his arrest. His eyes were watery and his face was marred by creases of tension. He looked terrified.

Harmon nearly laughed aloud. Nearly. Exerting considerable willpower, he stayed his excitement, returned the phone to Marla and spoke flatly.

“Thanks for letting me know.”

She studied what little of his face was visible through the basement’s murky gloom.

“You two were close, right?”

“Used to be.”

The woman stood a while, observing the half-shaded face, backlit by the faint filtered light of the single slated basement window, then turned and left the man to his exertions.

*

CHAPTER 24

After Marla returned upstairs, and his exercises were finished, Harmon showered, dressed in a plain black T and blue jeans and went for a walk. He headed for the convenience store to the north of Andy’s small, overpacked abode, where he hoped he might obtain cigarettes, coffee, jerky and a newspaper. He felt light, relaxed and more than a little confused at the utter absence of guilt and nervousness upon a thorough re-consideration of his recent actions.

If you’d shown some modicum of loyalty to me – to Sarah – you wouldn’t be sitting in a cell.

He stretched his arms against the flooding warmth of the bright morning sun, smiling slightly as a mild gale swirled his short, straight black locks. He fished out the pack containing his few remaining cigarettes, lit one and took a drag as he studied the building stormwall in the distance. As the man approached the shoebox-like houses set just before the intersection that girded his destination, a unfamiliar voice rang out from the sidewalk to his immediate left.

“Well… well. Look who it is.”

Harmon shifted his head to behold the same gang of toughs he’d spied days earlier approaching him from the stoop of one of the battered, decaying tenements. They hung in a loose throng behind a stocky mulatto with large ears, heavy brows, a shaved head and a small stubbly chin. Numerous tattoos ran down the left side of his dark, porous skin, from brow to neck. Numbers. Initials. Sigils.

The tattooed man stopped directly before Harmon who likewise paused to avoid a collision.

“Seen you before. Driving. Flicked a cigarette. Out your car.”

“Forgot an ashtray.”

“Uh huh. Well, we don’t take kindly to littering. Ain’t that right?”

The three men behind the tattooed man looked one to the other and smiled wickedly, some chuckling.

“That’s right,” one of them ejaculated with a strange and sudden fervor, bloodshot eyes bulging dry and brittle in thin, cloud-palled light.

Harmon exhaled to his left so as to keep the smoke from the interloper’s face and then sought a rightward path round him, but again, his passage was blocked. He paused and grimaced.

“You got some kinda problem?”

“No,” the tattooed man replied, “But you do.”

“You mind moving?”

“What if I do?”

“Move or mind?”

“Cracka thinks he’s a comedian.”

The men behind the bald man yammered like hyenas. Harmon remained impassive. His fierce topaz-emerald eyes narrowing slightly, fixed upon the fleshy, impudent bulwark. He’d a mind to say several inflammatory things to his waylayers and would have had he not been suddenly interrupted by a security guard who wandered out from the shade of a dissolute tenement to Harmon’s immediate right. The guard was a old, weathered man, with stooped posture, hawkish features and a short beard, thick, graying and neatly trimmed.

“Whats going on here?”

The half-blood turned to the guard, annoyance clear writ upon his crinkled brow.

“Nothing.”

“Then get the hell out the street.”

“It look like there’s a car coming?”

“Don’t care if there’s a car coming.”

The mulatto frowned. The guard’s feet remained firmly planted.

“I ain’t keen on repeating myself, young man.”

The mulatto shook his head and turned hesitantly, casting one last look at Harmon, who returned the gaze. Both visages charged with animosity, yet neither said a word and shortly, the toughs left out and vanished within their concrete sepulchre.

“Shambling ghouls,” Harmon muttered reflexively as he made for the right side of the street, opposite the way the mulatto had departed. There the old security guard greeted him and pointed to the black portal where once a door had been in the tough’s two-story flat.

“Those punks bothering ya?”

“Not anymore – thanks to you.”

The man smiled warmly and extended a veiny, muscular left hand.

“Names Harold La’Far.”

“Harmon Kessel.”

The man’s brows shot up.

“Harmon K… say, you ain’t a novelist are ya?”

“Why, yes, I am.”

“I recently read this story online, called ‘The Factory At The Edge Of The World.’ Written by a one ‘Harmon Kessel.’ Now you wouldn’t happen to be that Harmon Kessel would you?”

“Yes. That’s one of my stories.”

“Don’t that just beat all.”

“Coincidental indeed. Did you like it?”

“Like it? No. I loved it. Say, I was headed up to the corner store for lunch – you’re welcome to join me.”

“Be happy to. Was heading that way anyhow.”

The old man smiled broadly, flesh crinkling around light blue eyes. Harmon knew that in such a neighborhood a literary man would be hard-pressed for likeminded company. The degenerate hoards who slipped and slithered between the dark and crumbling facades of the barton were inimical to artistry, in behavior as in appearance, more akin to premodern savages then an amiable citizenry.

As Harmon strode beside the old man, to his right, in between the passing, trash-stuffed alleys of the dingy, pockmarked projects, he wondered when a new civilization would arise from the fracturing infrastructure of the present, convinced that such a eventuality was not now nor ever a question of ‘if’ but only of ‘when’ and ‘how.’ His reverie subsided when they reached the graffittied corner store, which sat to the right of the thoroughfare, surrounded by beaten cars and youths with carved soda cans asking for money. The duo passed within without commentary and ordered two cups of coffee to which Harmon added a new pack of cigarettes, chocolate biscotti, beef jerky and a paperback novel entitled ‘Silent Shriek’ whose narrative remained opaque despite a lengthy back-jacket synopsis. The title intrigued him.

The two men sat in the back of the stucco and linoleum box and drank their coffee in silence as a plain-faced woman mopped the floor beside them. She looked familiar. Harmon couldn’t see her face. He wasn’t sure if this feeling of familiarity was due to her similarity to someone he had previously known, or to the general aesthetic uniformity of the denizens of the town.

La’Far cast his gaze over the paperback which peeked out from the confines of the plastic bag.

“Whatcha pick up?”

“Not sure. Synopsis was pretty vague. Had just been a while since I’d read anything new. Especially fiction.”

“Sometimes its good to just spin the wheel and see where it lands.”

Harmon nodded and sipped the aromatic and surprisingly flavorful brew as the cleaning lady moved past them with a forced smile and set down the sandwich that La’Far had ordered. He thanked her and fished out the pickle.

“I hope its a naturalist work.”

“Why is that?”

“All the journalists have become novelists, so its only stands to reason that the novelists should become journalists.”

The old guard chuckled and sipped his coffee.

“Reckon so. Too many people yap-n-yarning. What my father always used to say ‘yap-n-yarning.'”

“I think that’s a consequence of aesthetic diffidence. Or rather, a diffidence towards a shared cultural aesthetic.”

“Like the national anthem, the flag and all that?”

“That, but more than. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Not in the present climate. To take art seriously, outside of the academy, is to incite a scowl of disdain. Artistic ventures today are not thought of as endeavours which should be considered a matter of great importance beyond one’s individual enjoyment of it. Mere diversion. And if one is constantly seeking diversion then one is unhappy with the rhythm of their life as it is. And so, its said: Everyone should be a hobbyist, a dilletante, and, if one is not, then one is likely to be chided for being ‘too self serious,’ or, ‘pretentious,’ or some other highhanded dismissal. Its rather like chiding a engineer for being too self serious about his trade.”

Harold considered his companion’s words a moment and nodded.

“You’ve got a peculiar way of putting things.”

Harmon looked to the older man and stubbed his spent cigarette in a small beige ashtray upon the table.

“Art has become disconnected from its subject, which is always, in someway, the society in which it is done. Art only for the individual is not art at all; there is then no audience and failing one, no message to communicate and, eventually, no message at all, but only vague intuitions and suggestions of emotion. Abstractions of abstractions. Often narcissistic abstractions. You can see this in the modern novels and especially the short stories, the great bulk of which consist largely of squamous impressions described by way of squidlike sentences, that seem, all too often, to inkjet away from clear expression, as if there were something beknighted in clarity and precision and totality. The focus is upon the disconnected, as opposed to the distanced, the dispersive rather than the syncretic, often they’re works solely from the mold of other books which, often, have been written based on nothing but other, older, works. And so the modern author produces a copy of a copy, sometimes without even realizing it. The public, likewise unaware of what has come before and bedazzled by the occassional transgressive insertion, is want to treat the facsimile as something profoundly original and meaningful, yet, more often than not, would never think of reading those older works upon which they are based because they don’t speak of the spirit of the times; yet no one askes whether or not the spirit of the times should be spoken of at all.”

“The way you lay things out, I’d assume you’d been writing most your life.”

“I’ve been writing since I was a child, but it is only in the past couple of years that I began to treat my work seriously.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“Roofing.”

Harmon withdrew one of his freshly purchased cigarettes, placed it in his mouth and lit it as a gaggle of middle-aged wastrels spilled into the store, clucking like hens.

“How long?”

“Five years now.”

“That’s a rough trade. You like it?”

He nodded again, “Its rough, but rewarding. I don’t mind the sore back or the stiffness or the long hours, its good exercise. What I do mind is the thanklessness.”

Harmon held up his cigarette pack and turned it in the pale, bluish shop-light.

“Someone made this design and most will never know who it was.”

*

CHAPTER 25

Harmon begin typing as soon as he returned from his encounter with the literate watchman. A new story occurred to him, and, inspired by the day’s events and the memory of the thriller Andy had played when Lyla had come over, he set himself to the task of its completion. A dull, irregular clacking emanated from his keyboard until the light crept over the edges of the world and eschewed the darkness for a magnificent plume of solar irridescence.

After seven hours without a break, Harmon paused, shifted in his chair, lit up a cigarette, smoked a moment and then withdrew to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of ice water and another cup of coffee as Marla came ambling clumsily down the thick-carpeted stairs. Her hair was wild and rabbit slippers obscured her slender, shuffling feet.

“Mornin.”

“G’morning,” she groaned, rubbing sleep from her puffy eyes, “You been up all night?”

“Yeah.”

“Writing?”

“Yeah.”

“Sheesh, don’t you ever sleep?”

“Couldn’t.”

“You aren’t a vampire, are you?”

“Not last time I checked.”

She giggled and leaned against the kitchen counter.

“Andy told me you were a writer. Fiction, right?”

He nodded and handed the foggy woman a cup of coffee, which she readily accepted with a broad smile and a mumble of thanks. For a long moment they stood staring at each other before the sound of Andy’s footsteps reverberated on the linoleum above. They both turned to greet him, confused by his furrowed brow and the cloudy expression in his eyes and mouth.

“Sonsofbitches.” He muttered leaning against the wall.

“What is it?”

Andy worked his jaw and looked darkly towards his guest.

“We’re outta work.”

“What’d Swain say?” Harmon inquired without emotion, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter, like as Marla.

“Just said we were fired – or, excuse me – ‘let go.’ I hate that bullshit. Fucking weasel words. ‘Let go,’ ‘passed on.’ Bullshit. Fucking bullshit.”

“Sorry baby,” Marla replied, with a theatrical pout. She massaged Andy’s shoulder as the man shook his head and glared at the scuffed linoleum of the floor.

Harmon reached up to the cabinet and withdrew a coffee cup and slid it across the counter to Andy who caught it and nodded back in thanks.

“No point complaining about what we can’t change. Other jobs to do.”

“Hell. Like what?”

“Well, what are you good at?”

“Ain’t good at nothing. Never was.”

“That’s not true,” Marla chided, playfully smacking Andy’s shoulder.

Harmon inhaled deeply and then moved off the counter and looked out the window. Not a single soul stirred upon the barren street, now covered in a thin skin of dead leaves that skittered with the wind like hollow bugs beneath the swaying skeletal boughs.

“Its a lovely day. We should go out. We can go to the cafe I was telling you about and stop by the river.”

Marla smiled and nodded, “That sounds nice.”

“Yeah. Sounds good, I guess.” Andy intoned sullenly.

Harmon turned back to the window. Sipping his coffee as he watched a flock of crows tear a red-stained eagle from the sky.

*

CHAPTER 26

The four conversants sat in the far right corner of the cafe, the mechanical whirring of the fan and the clinking of cups, paper and plastic, and the skidding of heeled-polymer upon the linoleum floor, the only sounds, save the occassional puff of a cigarette or cigar.

With a broad smile, La’Far broke the silence, gesturing towards Andy.

“Harmon tells me you’re a roofer.”

Andy’s face fell.

“Used to be. Just got fired this mornin. Along with Harmon.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

Andy wearily waved the man’s apology away.

“Ain’t your fault. Just… one thing after another. Ya know?”

“Sometimes it seems as if the universe is arrayed against you.”

Harmon nodded, taking a sip of his coffee before speaking, “Often seems that way to people. But that’s just narcissism. At this moment there are countless insects tearing each other to pieces. There are spider-wasp larvae gorging themselves on the innards of paralyzed tarantulas. There are chimpanzees cracking open the skulls of monkeys and sucking out their brains. Our own problems, I’d contend, rather pale in comparison.

Marla looked on, fascinated and horrified, Andy raised a brow, whilst La’Far gave a laugh and knocked the ash from his cigar in the large glass tray that lay in the middle of the circular and well-polished wooden table.

Harmon watched the ash. Burning. Burning. Burning.

*

CHAPTER 27

She found Harmon in his room, staring at a series of drawings affixed to the wall. In the center hung a meticulously detailed graphite illustration of a young dark-haired woman with handsome, faintly mediterranean features. Harmon’s eyes shimmered with strange intensity from where he sat in statuesque silence in the middle of the spartan room, on a stiff wooden chair, spine arched, hands upon a sketchbook and it on his knees.

He said nothing as the woman entered the room, the sound of charcoal upon paper filling up the aural void.

“Heya.”

Harmon waved briskly in the woman’s direction without looking at her, his eyes fixed on the drawing, his hands moving across the surface of the cheap faux-leather-bound sketchbook, tightly clutched in his pale, scar-worn arms.

“I’m not bothering you am I?”

“No. Just distracting me. But I could use a little distraction. Couldn’t sleep?”

“Nah. Drank too much coffee at the cafe probably. Stronger than what I’m used to here.”

“Its pretty potent. Andy back?”

“No. Still out with the boys I guess. Probably got blitzed and spent the night at Jake’s house. Something of a habit for him.”

“I see.”

“I wanted to thank you.”

“What for?”

“For suggesting the cafe, introducing us to your friend, taking us all out to eat and paying for the food. It was nice. Andy needed that.”

Harmon nodded, saying nothing.

She moved forwards, hands in the pockets of her cotton pajama bottoms.

“Whatcha drawing?”

Before she could position herself behind him to view the illustration, Harmon softly shut the sketchbook and turned in his chair.

“I never show my work before its finished.”

She rolled her eyes and then offered him a beer.

“Wanna watch a movie?”

“Sure.”

He took one last look at the portrait upon the center of the wall and rose methodically, placing his drawing upon the small and only table in his temporary domicile.

They moved to the living room, Harmon taking up the same spot in which he had sat when last he and Lyla were still talking, however infrequently. Marla sat down beside him, just where Lyla had when they’d watched Andy’s strange horror film. Harmon couldn’t remember how much time had elapsed since the four of them had watched the movie. All sense of temporal continuity had left his mind. Marla snatched up the remote from the battered wooden coffee table and snapped the ON switch. The news played. A young, smartly dressed woman with asiatic features stood upon a dock, close to the camera. Behind her stood a massive oil rig, rising from the industrial architecture surrounding like a massive alien starship, bright with flame.

“-were able to contain the fire. While initial reports speculated the blast might have been caused by a methane bubble in the drill column, Anton Schmidt, a spokesman for Synnefo Consortium Heavy Industries, dispelled the theory and told me, in a interview just a few minutes ago that the source of the explosion has been determined to have originated from a device planted near the drill column.”

A spray-tanned and whiskey-bloated man in a navy blue suit with a red silk tie appeared upon a secondary feed to the right of the female reporter.

“Are you saying this was a bomb – that his was an act of terrorism?”

“That what it looks like, Joe.”

“Astounding. Absolutely astounding. Alright. Thanks Ling.”

“Thanks J-”

The woman turned sharply from the camera as a crowd of men moved swiftly past her, towards the blazing oil rig.

The feed cut out.

“I’m Joe J. Turner. Up next-”

Marla changed the channel as Harmon ran his hands from thighs to knees, spine curving as he bent forth in reverie.

“I can’t stand the news.”

Harmon turned towards her with a quizzical expression, “Why’s that?”

“Its so fucking depressing.”

“Good news is no news. All the people whose cancer went into complete remission. All the car accidents averted by keen eyes. All the children and old folks rescued from burning buildings by vigilant firemen. All the industrialists bringing heat and light and communication to formerly impoverished areas. All the artists who inspired those kids with overactive imaginations to follow in their footsteps; all go unnoticed because they’re not a threat and immediate perceptions are always shaped predominately by threats. Its unlikely we’d have survived this long if that weren’t the case.”

“Rather not have any news in that case, everything is depressing enough as it is,” she took a swig of beer and flicked the channel again. A film in early color played. A hideous amphibian monster attacked a woman in a pink bikini on a mist-covered beach as a melodramatic score, slightly too jubilant for the content, roared from the speakers.

“What’s got you down?”

She sighed and went lax, he head lolling against the couch cushion, her eyes wandering about the ceiling.

“I dunno. Its not one thing. Andy’s depressed. Doesn’t know what he’s going to do. For money. For a career. He can’t even decide on a hobby,” she laughed wryly, “And neither can I. And the whole area is filthy. Trash everywhere. Drug peddlers. Addicts. Stumbling over themselves like zombies. Pissing in the streets. Dying there too. I thought it would be nice to get away from the city, but its all the same. And, oh, I don’t know… I just thought I’d be doing something interesting at this point in my life. Something better.”

She took a swig of beer and looked to Harmon expectantly.

“There’s no use worrying about that.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re never worried about anything. Didn’t seem to care at all you got fired. And by telephone. Didn’t even have the good grace to tell you to your face.”

“I minded the rudeness more than the payloss, but there’s always another job that needs doing.”

She shook her head.

“How is it you always manage to stay so calm?”

Harmon thought a moment upon the question before answering.

“I focus.”

“On what?”

“On my art. I had long considered drawing and writing a hobby. A pleasant diversion. I figured I’d be working construction for many years. Maybe I still will, but I’ve had time to reflect. To reconsider. I now understand the importance of crystallizing my thoughts; of channeling my attention; of pairing away my delusions and examining my mistakes; of elaborating upon my fantasies, that they may become realities.”

“What have you been ‘fantasizing’ about lately?”

Harmon turned and fixed her with his gaze, his expression opaque.

“About what I’ll do once I leave.”

She reached out and touched his arm.

“I hope you don’t feel pressured to leave. We don’t mind having you around.”

“I appreciate that, Marla. But you two are building a life together, and with all the problems Andy’s been having… I don’t want to get in between that.”

She smiled and ran her hand down his arm, rolling her head over the couch cushion towards him.

“You’re so sweet. Oh hey, I meant to ask – that drawing. In your room. Is that Lyla?”

At the mention of the name Harmon straightened and answered flatly.

“Yes.”

He took a sip of beer and focused his attention to the screen and the cop-drama unfolding before him.

“I thought so. Its really nice.”

“Thanks.”

“Wish someone would draw me.”

“Would you like me to?”

She smiled broadly and leaned against him.

“No,” she craned her neck up towards his face, her hands drawing about the back of his neck, “Right now, I want you to kiss me.”

Before Marla could taste his lips, Harmon shoved her hands free, withdrew and rose. He stood a moment, starring at the wall and then glanced at the woman over his shoulder.

“Shouldn’t have done that.”

“I just thought that-”

“I’m not disloyal.”

“I thought you and Lyla had broken up. I mean she never comes around and…”

“And what about Andy?”

“I wasn’t thinking. Harmon, wait, where are you going? Harmon, wait. What? Am I not good enough for you? Huh? Harmon!”

The front door slammed shut and all was silence.

*

CHAPTER 28

When Harmon returned to the house in the morning he found Andy’s car in the drive and a pile of boxes sitting on the front porch. Boxes filled with his personal effects. Andy watched from the living room window, his expression dour and wrathful. Harmon turned from the boxes to the window. Andy was gone.

The door burst open.

“Andy, why are my-”

Before he could complete his sentence, Andy shoved him hard in the chest, nearly knocking him off the porch.

“What’s your problem?”

“You.”

“What’s going on?”

“Think she wouldn’t tell me?”

“What did she tell you?”

“Take your things and leave, before I do something I’ll regret.”

“Be happy to, but not before I understand why you’re so put out.”

“Don’t test my patience, Harmon.”

“What did she tell you, exactly?”

“Oh you already know what she told me. I offer you my house – MY HOUSE – and you pull this shit?”

“I didn’t ‘pull’ anything.”

The air grew still and for a moment neither man spoke as storm clouds built in the distance. Rumbling like the war drums of an irate god.

“I told you—take your things. Leave.”

“No.”

Andy’s face twitched momentarily before he reeled back his arm and caught Harmon full in the face with a stiff right hook. Harmon went tumbling from the porch, down the stairs and landed on the flat of his back in the gravel drive. He groaned and rubbed his jaw as blood trickled from his nose in tandem with the rain.

“I told you not to test me.”

Harmon rose to a knee and wiped blood.

“And I told you I’m not leaving til you lay things out. Can’t do that if you’re trying to put your fist through my brain.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m not sure what Marla told you. But whatever it was, its a lie.”

“Said you tried to force yourself on her. You denying it?”

“Like I said—a lie. Should know me better than that by now.”

Andy descended the creaking wooden porch stairs, body shaking with rage.

“You callin Marla a liar?”

“Every bit as accurate as callin you a fool. Fitting descriptions for the both of you.”

Andy’s face went red as he drew back his right arm and lunged. Harmon blocked the haymaker and took a swift, wide step back, hands up in defense much as entreaty.

“I aint gonna fight you.”

“Then you’re gonna bleed.”

“Ain’t gonna do that neither.”

Andy lunged once more but this time Harmon caught his arm and bent it forcefully and awkwardly behind the assailant’s back and brought him to a knee, then down, facefirst to the ground.

“Get offa me!”

“When you relax.”

“I’m relaxed. Alright. I’m fucking relaxed.”

“You don’t seem relaxed.”

“I am. I am.”

Slowly, cautiously, Harmon released the man’s arm and drew away. Andy rose, breath heavy, fingers furled, face smeared with mud, nursing his injured arm along with his wounded pride as the tatterdemalion sidewalkers stopped and starred.

An ill-kempt and middle aged man in a blue hoodie withdrew a phone and began recording, clucking to his disheveled companions who jeered and began to howler.

The bested man looked to the spectators, then to the source of his ire. Wordlessly, he barreled into Harmon with all the ferine strength his thin frame could muster, knocking the slightly bigger man off his feet. Harmon swiftly brought his arms up tight about his face, curling his body towards his attacker, nullifying the hammering, erratic blows of Andy’s knobby fists. Harmon then twisted hard, shucking tormentor from torso and rolling to a knee and springing onto Andy, hooking his left arm about the thrown man’s throat. Andy grabbed up on Harmon’s limbs in a futile attempt to free himself, gasping, choking, gnashing teeth.

Wriggling like a worm on a hook.

As Andy lapsed into unconsciousness and the electric symphony of the welkin reached its fervent crescendo, Marla, emerged from the house, terror-struck and bath-robed, and screamed.

*

CHAPTER 29

“Mr. La’Far, I wanted to thank you. For putting me up like this. Especially on such short notice. Means a lot to me.”

“Was the least I could do.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“I was trying to be modest. Besides, extenuating circumstances… its a shame, what happened.”

Harmon said nothing and looked out the window of La’Far’s small, kitsch-covered apartment. Harold stood a moment, backlit by chinsy memorabilia, unsure if he should disrupt the younger man’s reverie. After several seconds the security guard blithely encouraged his guest to make himself at home and left for work. Harmon watched the battered pickup clatter down the gray gravel drive, past a group of young lovers, waltzing arm in arm, cackling with the sun shining off the ivory of their teeth, and vanished into the effulgence of the horizon, as if swallowed up in some other world.

His phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number.

He flipped open the machine and gingerly pressed it to his ear.

“Yes?”

“Heya Harmon. Its Daryl. From work.”

“Need something?”

“Just a moment to talk if you have it.”

“What is it?”

“The reason we were fired. You know it?”

“No. I didn’t know you were fired too.”

“Swain axed everyone. One of his pals, name of ‘Coats’ – though I doubt that’s his real name – is bringing in folk across the border for obvious reasons.”

“Work for scraps.”

“Scraps Swain can throw under the table. That’s why he fired us. Figured you’d wanna know and that’d I’d better tell ya seeing as Swain sure as hell aint.”

“Thanks for letting me know.”

“You sounded more surprised by me calling than by finding out why you were fired.”

“I didn’t think you liked me. Surprised you’d call.”

“I don’t like most people. But I ain’t never had no problem with you. Its that shithead friend a yours that I can’t stand.”

“Andy?”

“Yeah.”

“Why’d you think I had something against you?”

“Other than the fact you ‘don’t like most people’ you mean?”

He chuckled. “Yeah.”

“Swain. Told me as much.”

“Fuck him, man. That’s his MO.”

“What do you mean?”

“He likes pitting people gainst each other so when they need to talk, they go to him. Control-freak mind-games bullshit.”

“I see.”

“Anyways, I gotta git. Sorry you got canned. Sucks.”

“Yeah. Take care, Daryl.”

“You too, man. And say hello to that pretty gal a yours for me.”

The line went dead.

“‘Pretty’…” Harmon muttered aloud as he pocketed his phone.

“You’re mistaken Daryl. She’s the ugliest person I’ve ever known.”

*

CHAPTER 30

Harmon pocketed a tangerine and ambled out of Harold’s cramped apartment. The early morning chill prompted the man to sheath his hands in his jacket pockets whereupon he felt paper and paused beside a group of vagrants along the road to the old breaker. With furrowed brow and pursed lips, he withdrew a small, immaculate piece of paper – expensive and exceptionally durable – a business card he’d forgotten. Methodically, the man turned the rectangle, reading the name there inscribed in the ascending, amber light.

Lynder B. Partridge.

He slid the card back into his pocket and moved towards the vagrants, who all starred intently at the wayfarer. He greeted them warmly.

“Hows it going?”

The eldest amongst them, a man some fifty years of age, bearded, gaunt and filthy, screwed up his face into a scowl of disgust.

“Going just like it looks.”

Harmon remembered the tangerine he had brought along and removed it from his pocket, extending it towards the man.

“You folk look hungry.”

The anger and disgust in the old man’s face melted into a visage of confusion.

“What is it?”

“Its a tangerine.”

Hesitantly, the bearded itinerant took the fruit and nodded graciously.

“That’s very kind of ya.”

One of the younger nomads smiled and gestured towards the small ocherous sphere held in Harmon’s left hand.

“Wouldn’t happen to have more than one a those wouldya?”

“Fraid not.”

Harmon continued along the road to the coal breaker, as a flock of crows spun off the branches of a nearby tree like a living cloak of itinerant night. A woman stood upon the edge of the precipice which let down into the gulf – from town to processing plant – adorned in a thin-worn longsleeved sweater, hair-tie and mud-stained fishing boots. A large ant’s nest lay beside her, some five feet off, covered in the onyx-sheen of busy carapaces.

“Isn’t it beautiful,” she inquired, gesturing towards the decrepit facility beyond the ridge, which hung between the effulgent sun and the colorless shade of earth, as if suspended within the bleeding outer horizon of some other-world.

A ruined castle from a fantastical realm.

“I don’t find anything beautiful in decay.”

“Plants ain’t decaying.”

“Plants replace themselves. Breaker can’t.”

“I’m more concerned about the plants than that old ugly hunk of iron. You know there used to be a forest here? Say its only right that they had some payback.”

Harmon gestured to the ant hill beside them.

“Would you say the same for the colony?”

*

CHAPTER 31

Upon returning from his stroll by the coal breaker, Harmon found the house empty and a manuscript laying upon the table. A hastily scrawled note on yellow paper lay beside it, written in Harold’s chicken-scratch hand.

“Found my old unfinished novel when I was cleaning out the attic. You’d said you wanted to read it whenever I fished it out. So here it is. See you later. – Harold. P.S. help yourself to the beers in the fridge.”

Harold’s telephone rang.

Pressing the device to his ear, he cleared his throat and answered.

“Hello?”

“This is Maria, from St. Lucian’s Hospital. Is this the La’Far residence?”

“Yes. Did something happen?”

“He – that is, Mr. La’Far – told us someone was staying with him. A one Harmon Kessel.”

“That’s me. He’s been letting his spare room. What happened?”

“Are you a family member?”

“I’m a friend.”

“Harold has… passed. I’m sorry.”

“What? What happened?”

She paused, falling completely silent, laying bare the busy buzzing of coworkers conversing in the short distance.

“He was… attacked… in the street. I don’t know the details. I’m sorry. That’s all I know.”

“I appreciate your forthrightness.”

Harmon shut the phone, slowly lowered it from his ear and starred at the manuscript on the table as a gentle breeze rapt the shutters.

Then and there, bereft of bonds, Harmon decided to leave town.

###

The Dauntless Rook (§.16)

Continued from §.15

 

When Sprill realized his tenants were either sleeping, hiding, or vacant, he gave a soft grunt of irritation, produced a keyring and turned the lock. Adair followed the landlord and moved through the small, sparse room to the window and peered out into the cluttered lane below, spying only a grim, gray-clad man, conversing with two mailed sentries of the paramount, who stood before a swelling crowd, barely visible in the great thoroughfare beyond the alley. Though Adair could not make out the conversation, it was clear from their body-language that an argument was underway, in which the ashen man was rebuffed. He subsequently turned and left off from the ramshackle lane, shaking his head and muttering and vanished back from whence he’d come.

Adair turned from the window to behold Hoston starring at his pocket-watch.

“Apologies, my comitem. I’ve no idea where they’ve gotten off to.”

“No trouble at all. Perhaps I’ll stop by another time. Wherefore all the commotion?”

“Outside?”

“Aye.”

“Thou art surprisingly unprimed of thy classes own affairs.”

“Sir?”

“The Lord Paramount has organized a parade in honor of Baron Avarr’s triumphal return.”

“The Torian noble?”

“Aye. I mean no offense, my comitem, but should thee not know of this? Surely thou wert invited?”

“If I was, I remember not, but thou speaketh rightly – unfortunately, I’ve been swamped of late. I am to be married and-”

“Why, that is wonderful! I had not heard.”

“Of that I am pleased. I should not wish for my life to become a staple of the gossip columns.”

“Nor I!”

“The business has been most taxing. I’ve had little time for anything else.”

“I suspect that blackguard what came after ye, has somewhat disturbed the tranquil waters of thy recreation.”

“Thou hath heard of my adventure?”

“Heard of it! I should be a queerly isolated soul were I to have not. Why near the whole of town is jawin’ of it. It were said that thee dodged the brigand’s pitch. Is it true?”

“A man may accomplish the extraordinary when by it, he is beset.”

Shortly after the words had left his mouth, he froze, eyes fixating upon a small, black thing at the periphery of his vision. He turned to the left and beheld a feather, laying upon the ground beneath a chair. He bent to a knee and plucked it from the ground, turning it in the ambered light.

It was a crow quill, familiar in constitution.

“I’d no idea they’d a bird,” declared Hoston, briefly observing the feather, “Hmph! How dare they sneak such a creature in here! I’ll have them on the street for this!”

“Its not from a living bird. Note the glue upon the shaft.”

Hoston bent to the feather and peered at the quill.

“Ay. Must have come from a costume… Well, I must be off, my comitem. I take it the path out lays fresh in thy mind?”

“It does. I thank thee for thy time.”

Sprill bowed and left whereupon Adair unfurled himself from the hardwood floor, placed the plume in his inner-jacket pocket and gave Dren’s curiously unfurnished room one last cursory glance before shutting the door and hailing a hansom.

He twirled the feather between his fingertips as the vehicle clattered down the cobblestone streets, wondering why the absent renter had stolen his coat.

Old Man Centipede

Old Man Centipede was a quiet sort, given to reverie within the multi-chambered dampness of The Hollow Mount, a path up from which afforded him clear observation of the hatchlings, hunting spiders in The Wasteland beyond the great burrow of the old log which had served as his home for six years. He’d heard rumblings of late that the Formican Horde had conquered all the eastern lands of the Outer Wild and now sought dominion over the Inner Reach. He was concerned, but confident the horde would never make ingress to the mount when so many proud centipedes yet lingered.

One day, as he strode atop the rotting log, as was his custom, Old Man Centipede chanced across a centipede of but a single season, known as Spider-Carver, picking feverishly at his mandibles with his forelegs, as if to pry them from his face.

“What are you doing?”

“Blasted forcipules! Mirages! Fakes! I know it. I know it! We did not have them… in the sea… in the long before when electric-eyed and many-gilled, we sucked the bloodied muck of the great, wet dark…”

The Old Man was sure the youth had gone quite mad and attempted to dissuade him from the venture. Yet, time and time again, Old Man Centipede was rebuffed. He might as well, he decided, teach the art of burrowing to a moth, or spider-hunting to a fly, and so left the youngling to its freakish exercise and headed off to tell his kin what he had witnessed.

The next day, as he made his languid rounds upon the top of The Hollow Mount, he noticed Spider-Carver once more, surrounded by a gaggle of young centipedes and the Old Matriarch. Much to Old Man Centipede’s horror, Spider-Carver had hewn his forcipules clear of his face, leaving only coagulated stumps, which he had painfully stuffed with two short, pronged twigs. He scuttled to and fro, wriggling his prosthetic claws as if in a trance.

“To be one with the essential form – the ur-ancestor – one must return to the sea!”

“What madness is this?”

“He does not believe he is a centipede,” replied the matriarch, “But that we have erred in our development, have forgotten from whence we’ve come, and, succumbed to an unnatural turning.”

“One’s mandibles are a sorry price to pay for the comfort of such a delusion.”

“There was nothing any of us could have done, for he had removed them before we arrived. I will ensure that he is seen to. Besides, he seems happy.”

“I can think of several things more important than the heady delirium of transient happiness.”

As the time-worn duo conversed, a throng of chilopods steadily built up around the mad arthropod, who seemed to simultaneously fascinate and repel them.

In the days that followed the incident, Spider-Carver’s crowd grew considerably in size and, by the end of the week had even attracted the attention of some symphylans, who gazed on from their chthonic burrows, perplexed, by the twig-faced and twirling creature. During this time, Old Man Centipede sensed ants in the close distance, betrayed by their pheromones, just beyond the Inner Reach. In time he knew they would come for the nest and so swiftly returned to his fellows to spread the news. When he arrived at the burrow he was horrified to see that the centipedes had all removed their mandibles and replaced them with sticks. Some had died in the process and lay, coiled about themselves upon the sodden floor. Insides slick-spilling from rent faces. Spider-Carver presided over the gathering, giving a strange speech about the sea, and moving side to side, across the mulchy walls.

When Old Man Centipede protested and sought to warn them, the matriarch intervened. She too had removed her jaws.

“You must not get so heated, old one.”

“But they have ruined themselves, just as you have, and at the moment in which the ants advance upon us!”

“Your concern is a relic.”

At that moment a large red ant entered the cool dwelling, bearing in its mouth, a twig.

“See there! The formicans have arrived! We must prepare!”

“No,” replied the ant, “I am no formican, but sea-like as thee.”

“This is not so. I am no sea-thing. I am a centipede.”

“Who are you to say, old one?”

The matriarch waved her feelers and turned her aged eyes to the ant, dimly observing the tiny branch in its maw.

“He is no ant, old one. He is like us.”

“He is a spy and you are insane. We must not let him escape to tell the hive the lay of the log.”

With that, Old Man Centipede made for the ant and would have easily overtaken it, were it not for the intervention of the matriarch, who stabbed her twigs into his side.

“The centipedes attack us!” She screamed, “Help!”

Swiftly Carver’s acolytes came, jawless and wrathful, and crashed upon the great old chilopod until his chitin cracked and his legs were torn and his feelers rent.

As Old Man Centipede lay at his last, the ant dropped its twig and sped off into the darkness to rouse the hive.