John King

Writings

Revelation

Yorishiro Tadamasa didn’t fly in restricted airspace often, the last time he did it, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force sent two fighters up to escort him to an airstrip outside of Tokyo where he met some brass who talked a lot about rules and respect, and while he listened to the three generals who met him there, he watched a mountain hawk-eagle dance in the strong currents, the wind reaching peak winter conditions, ripping in off the ocean blasting the warmer air from the inland mountains, creating an oncoming storm as the sky turned a stony grey against a black horizon, streaks of lightning in the far distance over the coast causing an echo of thunder through the sky.

This time there were no scrambling fighter jets to escort him, his AgustaWestland AW609, a tilt rotor aircraft more airplane than helicopter, creating a shadow along the empty, decaying streets of Futaba, just north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station. He swung east and flew over a deserted park before careening toward the monster, as he came to know it, the thing that destroyed his life, damaging his empire and poisoning his daughter, who lay dying of thyroid cancer in a Tokyo hospital coughing up blood in the mornings, and at night when the painkillers worked on her she mumbled throughout the night, perspiring until her bedsheets were wet, the nurse changing the linens because by morning she shivered from the cold.

Yorishiro told her no when his daughter said she was entering university as a nuclear physics student, and over the course of six years he guided her to the more benign side of the practice, into academia, where he thought no harm would ever come to her, but as a PhD candidate she undertook research into faulty nuclear reactor design and began investigating reactors at Fukushima with the permission of the government, which cost Yorishiro a couple million in bribes, but he wanted to see his daughter succeed in life, and he wanted to see a safer Japan, and if his daughter could do that, then he was going to let her. The day it happened she was there and when the evacuation order was given she ignored it and observed the meltdown for as long as military soldiers let her until growing frightened at the prospect of letting her get murdered by the monster, grabbed her by both arms and hauled her out of its mouth, but the monster’s jaw snapped shut on her and murdered her all the same, her body a rotten piece of meat, burned inside out by the radiation, the only tangible signs left was the cancer. He visited her every day, flying his black AW609 from his home in Iwaki to Tokyo, but this time after watching his daughter cough up dark black clots of blood all morning, he swept in close to the monster, eyeing the thing as workers scrambled on the ground in their pale white suits amid a heap of water tanks that could tumble into the ocean at any time should another earthquake hit the island or its coast.

A bad day turned even worse when he heard the news Adrian was dead. They didn’t know each other, he never met him but Yorishiro watched him like his daughter observing Fukushima, a monster in his own right. Adrian first caught Yorishiro’s attention when he started to develop what he refers to as, “the weapon.” He pushed a billion through offshore trusts to build a secret research facility in Mongolia, a country good at keeping secrets, safe from prying eyes, and whose officials took bribes without asking questions, and when he filmed himself beheading the wife of a politician who didn’t like to take bribes, and who had mentioned it to a U.S. diplomat, the others shut their mouths and said they forced Yorishiro out of Mongolia. A lie, of course, and deep in the mountains somewhere in that hell along a high plateau he worked on Adrian’s invention, bringing it to life while keeping the monster safe from harm: the costs were mounting though, and now Adrian was dead, again. He didn’t like cloning who he thought of as his friend, his clones were usually enemies, and he reserved a special place for them in his underground fortress below his sprawling home in Iwaki where he hid a secret chamber filled with blood of enemies Yorishiro oxygenated to keep fresh, flowing through tubes in an endless cycle getting richer with each enemy dead. He kept three pets in the chamber, made of white marble with a suspended elevator that lifted down from the ceiling as a platform, where he threw his enemies. The elevator descends into the chamber of blood, and from two-way mirrors along the room’s walls, Yorishiro watched his pets devour his enemies in the pit of blood, and his pets loved him, and they knew he watched because after they preyed on his enemies, toying with them as a house cat might with a mouse, they walked to the mirror and sniffed at it, smelling Yorishiro on the other side.

When Yorishiro was a child, his mother sent him to live with the poor because she thought her son lacked empathy after he started scamming the other kids with fake merchandise such as Nike knock-offs at school after he befriended Yakuza who controlled the area and gave him the stuff to sell, so she paid a family to take him in for a year, bribing them to make her son’s life miserable, forcing him to clean their clothes, house, cook their food, take care of their three children even though he was only 11 years old himself. One day cleaning the kitchen floor, a feral cat Yorishiro named Mae West joined him when he was alone, a mouse squirming in its mouth, and sitting down in in front of the small boy, Mae West dropped the mouse in front of him and they both watched it as it scurried away toward a broken down, rusted fridge. Just as the mouse reached the fridge, to slip underneath it into safety, the feral tabby launched itself into the air and pounced onto the mouse with both paws, its claws digging into the mouse just enough to slice it open so Yorishiro could see tiny specks of blood form along its fur. The cat played with the mouse then, using its paws to bash it this way and that like the Canadian hockey players Yorishiro watched on television, and after he fell in love with the sport, he forced his parents to buy him hockey equipment and put him into the only league in Tokyo, which pissed off his conservative parents who built weapons since before the Second World War. They wanted him to study inner peace, find solace in Shinto, and build strength learning Jujutsu, but Yorishiro loved the hockey stick and it was this his father used to teach him about Kenjutsu, first using a hockey stick in place of a katana, as Yorishiro wanted nothing more than to play in the NHL and become the first Japanese star like his hero Wayne Gretzky. Later in his early twenties, Yorishiro stopped playing hockey when he was hit along the boards where he suffered a concussion that wiped out his memory for a year, during which time his father spent countless hours teaching him the art of the sword, and even in his younger years he showed great promise, but it wasn’t until much later, when building his empire he required the skills with a blade his father taught him.

After playing with the mouse for several minutes Mae West picked it back up in its mouth and brought the rodent back to Yorishiro who dropped it again in front of the little boy looking at him then at its prey than back to Yorishiro, seeming to ask the boy whether he wanted to play with her, as the cat was a middle-aged female who had formed a relationship with Yorishiro after he started to feed her leftover tuna from breakfast. He obliged her and batted the mouse as the tabby watched him sitting still in the middle of the kitchen her head twisting around as Yorishiro pretended he was Wayne Gretzky and the dying mouse a puck, and getting into it, he swatted the mouse with his hand and it hit the old fridge with a thud and fell down the front of it, blood smearing as it dropped to the floor without strength left to move. Yorishiro bent down on all fours and took the half dead rodent in his mouth and brought it to Mae West and dropped it in front of her. They both looked at the dying thing for a while and when Yorishiro felt shame he cleaned the fridge of the blood and shooed the cat outside, picking up the dead mouse by the tale and throwing it after the cat as it ran out the back door. In this way, Yorishiro liked to watch his pets play with their pray, his enemies, usually a competitor, some hot shot CEO, or politician, or lawyer posing as obstacle to his plans, sometimes a disloyal employee or partner. Yorishiro kept many partners, both women and men, and when they slept with others he sometimes put them in his chamber for his pets to play with, to feed on. To kill. After they killed their latest victims, all three of them would walk over to the two-way mirrors and caress the mirror as if they were caressing him, sniffing at the mirror, their sense of smell so good, they knew Yorishiro was on the other side watching them mutilate, in some cases rape, their victims before they finally killed them. His pets were born in a lab deep within his fortress on a research floor, where his cloning program was housed, mutated humans whose genes were spliced with the Komodo dragon, who each required plenty of meat to keep alive. After he fed his enemies to his pets, Yorishiro cloned them into more friendly, cooperative people who liked him and his business of building weapons – people who no longer posed a problem to his plans.

Adrian was different, he was fond of him and thought of him as a best friend, watching the great man, as Yorishiro referred to him, go about his daily activities, he even dedicated a large team of specialists, numbering about 100 personnel, which cost him about $10 million a year to ensure Yorishiro always knew what his best friend was doing. To Yorishiro the great man was special, more important to him than his own daughter, and he would do anything to keep him alive even when his team failed to protect him as it did recently in Australia, where much to his chagrin, Adrian chased a ghost, running after the bait, tripping his way right into his enemies’ trap. Yorishiro built a castle around Adrian, brick by brick, from its foundation to its ramparts, taking decades, and now his castle, Adrian’s castle, was besieged on all sides by enemies, and these enemies grew in number, in strength, surrounding his castle, attacking its walls and battering down its gate with a ram, and with each knock, Yorishiro lost a night’s sleep.

The AW609 swept along the outer edge of the downed nuclear reactors, and looking at the mayhem below him, Yorishiro watched the workers running around like little ants, some pointing up at the helicopter, probably thinking he was with TEPCO, the quasi-governmental organization responsible for the ruin that was his daughter’s body as she lay there, a piece of rotting meat with the flies buzzing around her in the destroyed places of his heart, Fukushima’s own carcass, like hers, a scatter of decaying tin, iron, metal – rust as a jet stream slammed in and pushed his helicopter toward the monster in the grips of death. Pulling against the cyclic, Yorishiro twisted sideways in the wind current, slipping over the monster, its walls peeling off in the same way he dug his fingernails into the orange he skinned earlier that morning during breakfast in the hospital room watching the nurse rub a wet sponge over his daughter’s skin, reddened as if she was outside on a winter’s day in the snow. He lifted up and turned away south to his home in Iwaki where his friend Adrian awaited him deep in the confines of his fortress deep below the earth surrounded by water, a castle moat as Yorishiro thought of it, to protect the inverted skyscraper from earthquakes. His team was in the process of awakening Yorishiro’s latest prize, and this time he would even get to meet Adrian, a chill creeping over him, gripping his spine in the way his hands tightened around the cyclic, his knuckles red and his hands sweating as the AW609 crossed over the land toward his fortress, his thoughts drifting to dinner, Chutoro he would prepare himself, another kind of prize. After spending a month searching for the best Maguro in Japan, where in a deserted shop at 4 a.m. in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market he found what he was looking for when he nodded to Fumito, a fisherman who keep his gaze on Yorishiro even when bowing without smiling, something Yorishiro liked in a man, that is, when he looked back without blinking, and he was even more impressed when Fumito led him to the back of the shop and presented a thick slab of Chutoro, a $100,000 piece of tuna caught off the northern waters of Hokkaido in winter, Fumito explained, from a small boat his uncle commanded of three fishermen including himself. Off the coast they spotted a school of Thunnini of at least 100 Bluefin tuna amid rough seas that reminded Fumito of the painting his father painted of a storm when he was himself a young man that hung in his parent’s small home. They readied their poles strung with dead herring they killed an hour earlier and cast their lines into the seas Fumito referred to as ‘pissed off,’ and waited for something to hook, and that’s when it happened, the fisherman said slamming his hand against the table, sending several knives crashing to the concrete floor of the market, he pulled up a big one, a 600 pound fish, a monster, larger than life and he yelled at his companions to help with the pole and together they pulled the Bluefin onto their small boat where they hit it with bats their forefathers made from Sugi until it stopped wriggling around and with the fish on their boat there wasn’t even enough room for the four men to move around so they sat on the giant Bluefin until they reached port in the village of Wakkanai. Yorishiro was so impressed with Fumito’s story he offered him $75,000 yen. Fumito shook his head and said nothing, waiting for Yorishiro to make another offer, and standing in the silent fish market, the morning sounds of boats docking and people sweeping the floors, Yorishiro gave him another offer for which the fisherman accepted. Fumito wrapped the Chutoro in Kraft Paper Roll and handed the prize over to Yorishiro, this time smiling, and leaving Tsukiji, Yorishiro thought about the way Fumito’s smile curled into a grin, his wrinkles deep underneath his checks, his eyes dark brown and bright under the faint, flickering fluorescent lighting. Yorishiro hated it, fluorescent lighting, but his engineers said it was the best alternative for his underground fortress, one of the many small decisions he made when building his castle beneath the Iwaki, and later he stood watching Adrian begin to breathe as the doctors massaged his heart with electrical pulses to start his life again.

It started with him standing facing the ocean on a beach, the sand an ivory rather than tan or dust like some beaches, his feet sinking as the waves rolled in, some as high as six feet against an endless horizon stretching all the way to nothing, as far as India, on the other side of this ocean, somewhere lurking a distance port no one here knows about except for the occasional tourist or native of the place who landed in Australia for some reason or another. He recognized the place, he lived here with his wife, Rachel, for two years when he worked for the government planning offshore windfarms, designing security systems for workers ferrying in and out of the theoretical floating complex of windmills the Australian government proposed until the idea was quashed by locals worried about their beaches.

When Adrian lifted his right foot, he looked down to see his imprint where he sank an inch or so into the soft sand still wet from the high tide earlier that morning, and as he sidestepped, he observed his two prints in the sand standing apart, edges ragged and crumbling as the sand caved in and smothered the signs of his passage as he walked away where the tide ran along the sand, making it darker, wet, and hard as the waves rolled in and the sun above rose to noon as he looked over his shoulder where the sound of music erupted from a restaurant he knew called Clancy’s Fish Bar. Near the restaurant, where an elevated path drifted along the perimeter of the beach, carefree children ran jumping from the cement sidewalk onto the warm foot-soaked sand, a brunette girl’s long dark hair winding in the ocean breeze as she spilled onto the sand, chased by her friend. Adrian listened to the way the waves crashed against each other along the short break of the beach as he walked to a pier where a man fished, dropping his hand into a bucket full of bait, then turned away and walked back to the restaurant where he went inside and waited at a line as women in front and behind him pushed against Adrian as people passed by. Four mothers with their children hanging off their arms, or dangling from one of the three couches to right of the line glanced at Adrian as he stood waiting in his dark grey suit without a tie and a his white shirt, when he looked down, was stained with a speck of blood along the breast pocket. Noticing this he took hold of the linen handkerchief in his trouser pocket and dabbed at the blood, smearing it across his white shirt, fresh blood crimson and drying in the heat of the restaurant as a cool wind blew in from the front door as one of the women caught his eye, dressed in a floral dress of red Plumeria roses against a yellow, almost tan tablecloth looking cotton with slight strings wrapping around her milky shoulders where her brown curly hair dripped along her shoulders. She cupped her newborn as he watched her breast feed the child, exposing her nipple, a pink, almost red soft blur, as she lifted the baby and repositioned the child, and when she was comfortable, the baby went back to its mother’s nipple, and looking up, she noticed Adrian watching her and she smiled.

“For how many people?” asked a girl, maybe just out of high school, this her first job since leaving the confines of long hallways adorned with lockers of different colours and doors spaced every so often designating classrooms with some doors opened while others were closed. She took Adrian’s attention away from the group of women and back to the restaurant proper where a bartender lined up three tall glasses, pouring dark rum into each of them before picking up a bottle of ginger beer to slap together a Dark and Stormy.

“Just one, I think, um, two, I guess, and outside if there’s a seat, please,” Adrian replied.

“This way,” she said, wearing a white dress shirt, black pants with a white apron tied twice around her slim waist, Adrian watching the way she moved underneath her clothes as they moved through a torrent of tables and chairs in the main floor space of the bar to the outside patio overlooking the beach. She pulled out a seat at a table for two and smiled as Adrian seated himself at the table along the wooden railing of the deck just a little higher than himself when sitting down and handed him a baby blue menu with a simple logo, an outline of an upright guitar with a fish bone inside.

“How about a Talisman Riesling? Do you have that?” Adrian asked.

“We do. A glass, then?”

“Yes. And what about a dessert?” he asked. She leaned over and opened the menu as it lay on the table in front of him, and glancing down he listened to the way her fingers slid along the paper of the menu as the giggle of young children rang out in the air near him.

“Here, this page, these are our desserts, Adrian,” she said.

“How do you know my name?” he asked her.

“There is something new on the dessert menu, I had it last night after closing for dinner, I do that sometimes, have dessert for dinner, like you Adrian, it’s an apple crumble with rhubarb, some cotton candy one top with ice cream. Why don’t you try that?”

“Sure. I’ll try that. Thank you,” Adrian replied, hearing the laughter of children again, and glancing over the rail, he caught a whisper of his daughter’s voice in his ear as a girl ran down the beach past a woman walking into the ocean, wearing a pink bikini top with pastel blue bottoms, the sporty kind that stretch along a woman’s thighs, the waves splashing against her legs before she dived into the ocean, disappearing for several moments before she popped up and drifted along with the current as a small wave dragged her toward the shore, then swimming back out she slid her body into the next wave and swam, body surfing along the top of the wave as it crested blue in the midday sun, then waist deep again, she walked out of the ocean back to her beach towel, strewn along the sand halfway between the bar and the ocean where she laid down on her back and suntanned.

When the wine arrived, Adrian thanked the server who brought his Riesling without looking up, taking it in his hand, the cold, wet glass in his hands sending beads of water down his arm when he lifted it to his mouth, and as he sipped the wine his eyes stayed on the distant woman sunbathing, then halfway through his glass, he looked away to the empty seat across from him on the other end of the table, listening to the voices surrounding him as people talked and ate their lunch, tables packed with families, couples, friends, and as he focused on the empty chair in front of him, finishing his drink, a faint smell of something reminded him of Rachel, flowering in his mind like the roses on the woman who was breastfeeding her child, then something, like the way their cabin on his grandparents’ property smelled in spring when the trees grew leaves and the river grew flush with snowmelt, everything fresh and clean. Then it was gone as a server placed his dessert in front of him, and when he dipped his spoon deep into the apple and rhubarb crumble, getting a bit of cotton candy and ice cream on the spoon as well, he let it all slide into his mouth as he stared at the empty seat in front of him, and swallowing, he began to choke, coughing up the dessert, then blood, pushing his way off his seat and falling to the wood patio. People gathered around him and when he looked up, they laughed at him and pointed their fingers as they stuffed their mouths with food and drink, crumbs falling to the floor, a litter of voices sounding out together as their faces turned into the faces of animals: pigs, lizards, and hyenas before they morphed again in the faces of monsters, the kind he remembered dreaming about when he was a child, waking in the night screaming, his grandmother turning on the bedside light with a cup of cold water, pulling his sheets off to reveal the stain of urine all over his pajamas, then helping him out of his cold, wet things, and into a new change of clothes all the while sharing with him the story of Dorothy, a young girl who was trapped in the land of Oz.

Then Adrian woke up again.

It took about two hours for Adrian to dress in the slim fitting black suit Yorishiro picked up for him at his tailor in Osaka, the one he always went to for his own clothes, the one who greeted him with a small glass of rice wine as he listened to Yorishiro vent about the latest disaster he faced as the magnate of the largest Japanese arms manufacturer in post-WWII. It took the help of Yorishiro’s personal assistant, Kazue, a small refined woman maybe 23 who just completed her MBA after a degree in economics, landing a job working with Yorishiro after he picked her out in a night club they were both drinking at where she drank until she fell into his arms, unable to walk, and so he took her home and nursed her back to health, putting her up in the softest bed she ever slept in, filled with duck feathers Yorishiro said when she asked, and later, he cooked her a western breakfast because she told him when she was drunk she liked that, fried eggs and bacon, toast and jam, even hash browns and three fluffy pancakes with blueberries.

“I bet the breakfast was wonderful,” Adrian replied.

“It was,” she said in perfect English. “I never forget it.”

“Who is this man, this Yorishiro, Kazue?”

“He is my employer.”

“What else are you able to say about him?”

“I cannot say, Mister Faulk. It is not my place. Besides, Yorishiro watches. He watches everything. There are cameras everywhere, hidden from view, but they are there, so there is no point in saying something that will upset him, nor will I upset him. I will say this, however, Mister Faulk, he is a good man no matter what they say about him. He is good. Remember that,” she said.

“I will,” Adrian replied as she tied a knot in a black silk tie and slipped it around his neck, tightening it and smiling as she looked him in the eyes, and when Adrian looked back he wanted to reach down and kiss her but didn’t, instead looking into her soft brown eyes as she adjusted his tie over a crisp starched cotton dress shirt.”

“There, you are ready?”

“I am sorry. I am so weak, I can barely-“

“It’s okay, Mister Faulk. I understand. You are weak. You don’t know why. Yorishiro will answer your questions, please this way, I will show you to dinner, Yorishiro has prepared a special meal for you. Please, this way,” she said, standing and walking to the door, showing Adrian out, and lifting himself off the bed, every bone in his body burning and exploding he gasped walking forward.

“You are strong, Mister Faulk. You will make it. Please this way.”

When Adrian met Yorishiro, he was surprised by how tall he was, standing at six foot three, wearing a black montsuki haori and hakama beneath a montsuki kimono made of stripped black silk, and when Yorishiro walked forward to introduce himself to Adrian he bowed his head in a slight way never taking his eyes off Adrian.

“Please, this way, Adrian,” Yorishiro motioned Adrian to take a seat at a Japanese Cypress sunken table, which Adrian accepted, sitting with his legs crossed on a low seat also made of cypress, and after thanking his host, Yorishiro began to serve dinner himself from one wooden bamboo cutting board sitting in the middle of the table beside two stone cups of rice wine, one of which Yorishiro handed to Adrian who placed it beside a small matching stone plate with a tiny saucer of soy sauce placed just off its center to the right where two ivory chopsticks lay atop a tan linen table napkin. Yorishiro placed three pieces of Chutoro tuna crowned over a cocoon of white sticky rice in a neat row.

“Please,” Yorishiro said.

“Thank you,” Adrian said as he waited for his host to serve the remaining three Chutoro pieces for himself and slip into his seat, then picking up his chopsticks, taking the napkin and placing it on his lap, Adrian took hold of the tuna, dipped the top into the soy, and relished its perfect texture, a blend of fat and muscle, holding together even as the saliva worked on the tuna, and without disintegrating, Adrian chewed the perfect sushi slow as his host did the same; in silence they relished the mixture of rice with the sushi as the salt of the soy hit their tongues, and when Adrian finished his, he placed his chopsticks down and took a sip of rice wine to wash it down.

“Yorishiro, thank you,” Adrian said, placing his rice wine back onto the cypress wood table and taking up his chopsticks again, he took another piece of the sushi into his mouth knowing it was an expensive cut, maybe even more expensive than most luxury cars, and as he devoured his second piece, all the questions he wanted to ask began to pour into his mind.

“May I ask some questions, Yorishiro?” Adrian asked.

“In time, Adrian. In time. Right now let me share with you who I am. My father, a descendent of Torii Tadamasa, a daimyo favoured by the Shogun, attacked Iwaki in the early seventeenth century, and destroyed the clan that gave the city its name. Today, I operate my keiretsu from Iwaki, the place where my descendants killed the Iwaki clan. In Shinto, Yorishiro is a thing possessed by a kami, a spirit. For instance, Adrian, my katana on the wall there, it is possessed by a spirit,” Yorishiro explained, pointing to a slender blade constructed of tamahagane to Adrian’s left hanging from two simple hooks.

“This spirit is a spirit of death. Since the war, I have built Japan weapons. I have grown rich, powerful, but I have made many enemies and have killed many people to secure my place, my family’s place, my children’s, and their children’s. I am sad to say, one of my children is dying, but I have another, a boy who lives in secret away from Japan, away from this dangerous place. Some people say I am a murderer. I say I am a warrior. I have followed you many years since I discovered your invention. There is something now, something I must share with you, Adrian. This is not easy for me, nor will it be easy for you to listen but you must, the time has come. My competitors, not just here in Japan, but across the globe, they have killed you Adrian, murdered you in cold blood for your knowledge: to possess what you have uncovered. I have cloned you, Adrian, twelve times, and this is the thirteenth time I have done so at great financial cost, great emotional cost, and professional cost. I have kept you alive hoping one day you and I meet, of course under better circumstances than this, but alas, here we are, together, and I have finally met a great man. All my life, I have searched for a great man, and you my friend, are a great man, and you do me much honour,” Yorishiro said, standing and pulling out a drawer from the wall, taking out another small stone ceramic bowl of rice wine, and taking it over to Adrian, he extended it to Adrian who accepted the wine and sipped the drink slow.

“You know about it then?” Adrian asked.

“Of course. It was me who worked the puppet strings, Adrian, helping you unlock your dream. I am your angel, Adrian, as you North Americans say, through back channels, it was one of my trusts that provided you your first couple million to develop the patent, and when you finished the patent, it was me who bought the patent to make you rich. Adrian, let me ask you, how has being a rich man been for you?”

“Not so good, Yorishiro,” Adrian replied.

“Not so good. No. Not so good, indeed. You are surrounded by enemies, Adrian.”

“What happened in Australia?”

“You were killed.”

“By who?”

“We are not entirely sure. There is a American military contract group, a collection of companies working on their own patent, based on yours, your brain mapping technology will change the world, Adrian, and they know I am involved, and instead of purchasing the technology from me to employ in their own weapons systems, they seek to steal it, Adrian. Steal it from me and kill you, erasing all memory of you,” Yorishiro replied.

“I was chased. Chased in the desert, somewhere in the north, after, after I found-”

“Her. Yes, your daughter, Dorothy.”

“She was just a clone.”

“Yes. Just a clone. So are you Adrian.”

“I am looking for the real her.”

“And Adrian, what if she no longer exists, this real Dorothy? What then?”

“What then?”

“Yes, what then?”

“I don’t know. I, I, I will kill those responsible. Kill all of them.”

“Yes. That is good. I will help you. My team and I, we do not know whether your girl remains alive, we are looking. I assure you, Adrian, I am doing everything I can for you.”

“Why? Why Yorishiro? Why are you helping me?”

“You are a great man, Adrian. That is why. You are greater than me. You built the future, a system to stabilize the Japanese economy through the use of brain mapping, this technology was already deployed by our air defense forces in a trial run just last month. And it worked, Adrian. It worked.”

“It works.”

“It does. And really well, I might add.”

“This is why you help me, because my invention works when so many others fail?”

“Yes.”

“Yorishiro?”

“Yes.”

“I have a recurring dream. It started about a year ago, my dream,” Adrian said.

“This dream of yours, share it with me?”

“In my dream, I, I am at home. My home is an apartment where I never lived before yet it was familiar to me in some way, you know, in the way dreams are familiar, but not. And I am sitting on a couch, watching television, and I fall asleep, and then, then there is a knock on the door and this overwhelming sense of dread falls over me. I stand up and walk to the door and look through the peephole,” Adrian said.

“Yes,” Yorishiro replied. “Then what? What did you see?”

“I see monsters, Yorishiro. I see them standing outside my door. They bang on my door looking at me through the peephole.”

“And what do you do, Adrian? What do you do when you see these monsters at your door?”

“I do nothing. I watch them with a growing sense of horror as they walk back and forth.”

“What do these monsters look like?”

“It is a nightmare Yorishiro. A nightmare. I don’t really remember what they look like, but a sense of dread falls over me like when you make a mistake you can’t correct, like the way someone must feel when they fall rock climbing without a rope. I stood and watched them as they banged on my door in horror, like I made a mistake I couldn’t take back, like I had missed a hand hold on a rock face and fell.”

“What did they look like, Adrian?”

“I don’t know. I, I remember something. Maybe. Maybe something. They had wounds like they were in a knife fight. They were painted, bloodied, like they were performing some kind of ritual. They carried weapons with them. There was blood, and maybe screams. I don’t know. It was a nightmare.”

“I have watched you, Adrian. I have watched over you for many years. I have never seen you so surrounded by danger. Your enemies, Adrian, your enemies draw near. I have protected you, Adrian, as I might protect a son. But there are too many. These monsters, these monsters who bang on your door, they want in, do you know what they seek? What they are looking for? What they want, Adrian?”

“Everything. They want everything. Me. My wealth. My invention. My wife, daughter, family, life. Everything.”

“Yes. They do. Why not just let them in, Adrian? Let in the monsters. Open the door, welcome them into your apartment, these monsters, these monsters who want your life. Who want everything.”

“Let them in? No. I will not give them what they want.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re fucking monsters.”

“Who will devour your soul?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know this?’

“I know. I sense it. They will destroy everything I am.”

“Yes. They will.”

“What am I supposed to do, Yorishiro?”

“Fight, Adrian. You fight. No matter what. You fight until the end, win or lose. You fight. Do you hear me, Adrian. I love you, I love you like a son. So you must fight because of this. Because of this love I have given to you. Do not dishonor me. Fight to the bitter end when all else is gone, even when you are near death, everything and everyone you ever knew is gone, and there is nothing left to fight for, you fight. That is what you do, Adrian.”

“Fight?”

“Yes. Fight.”

“Will you stand with me?”

“Always, my friend. Always. To the end. When nothing is left, and there is only death and loss. Of course, I will stand with you. I will stand for beauty. For life. For survival. Your invention, it represents a way into the future for us, for everyone to live, there is no choice. I will fight.”

“Thank you, Yorishiro. You are a friend,” Adrian said, finishing his rice wine, and taking the last Chutoro on his grey stone plate, he slipped it into his mouth as Yorishiro watched him finish off his dinner. When he was finished, Yorishiro stood and walked to a sliding door to the right, opened it and looked back to Adrian, motioning him to follow, and getting up Adrian liked the way the sunken table looked, elegant and simple, a light hue of cypress against the tan paper walls of the delicate room, and stepping outside, he was shocked when confronted with a cold concrete wall.

“You are in my dungeon, Adrian, deep underground in Japan. I know you have been dying to ask that question. You are in Iwaki, but I assume you figured that out by now, you just didn’t know where exactly, and where is deep underground. Ever since I was a boy, the devastation of Hiroshima haunted me, because the scars of that place lay scattered throughout my family’s history. It’s a sad story and someday I may live to tell you about it, but not today. Our country was fueled by nuclear energy, but even as I speak, the government is decommissioning our reactors, leaving our people with a way out of this nightmare in the long run, but in the short term, it is devastating our economy, reducing us to ashes, as companies like mine are drained of power. But at our height, after the Americans rebuilt our economy and urged us to construct these nuclear reactions, I knew we were in danger so I built a castle underground to protect myself, my family, and company, from any possible danger. Please, I have something to show you,” Yorishiro said, leading Adrian down the long, cold cement corridor reinforced with steel rods poking through forming an intricate industrial design along the wall of the corridor that looked like snakes eating each other, and after walking a few moments Yorishiro came to a heavy steel door.

“Good evening Yorishiro,” said a voice from an audio speaker somewhere.

“Good evening, Ama,” Yorishiro said to the voice, then turning to Adrian, “Ama is my answer to Apple’s Siri, an autonomous artificial intelligence that runs my castle, she brain maps everyone inside, identifies them, and is able to understand their emotional state. Ama, tell me, what is Adrian’s emotional state?”

“Good evening, Adrian,” Ama said.

“Good evening, Ama,” Adrian replied.

“Adrian is exhibiting signs of resentment and anger, Yorishiro,” Ama answered.

“At who, Ama?”

“He does not know.”

“Tell me, Ama, what does Adrian think of me, Yorishiro?”

“Adrian likes you. Did you cook him dinner, Yorishiro?”

“Yes I did, Ama. Why do you ask?”

“He is contented and happy in the way humans are after eating a good meal.”

“She doesn’t brain map every room, my private chambers, such as the dining room where we ate today, is free of her presence,” Yorishiro said. “Ama let myself and Adrian into the cloning program wing, please.”

“Yes Yiroshiro, please allow for a moment as I determine your identity,” Ama said, pausing before opening the heavy steel door. “Please, Yiroshiro, move ahead. You are both showing zero signs of dangerous intent toward each other, or others, however, as I already mentioned, Adrian is angry but not violent. I am disarming my weapons system. You are free to move on. Thank you,” Ama said.

“Oh, I should remind you, here in this castle, it pays to keep a calm mind. Ama detects when a human is violent, or has violent intent toward myself or others, and she will taser the person. She is also armed with various other weapons I won’t bother mentioning,” Yorishiro said to Adrian as they stepped into a small chamber with blue suits hung up on the walls. “We must put these on, please.”

“Yorishiro, Ama talks so casually. How did you manage to get her to speak like that?”

“I hired a genius to code her language program. Took years, maybe a couple hundred million alone, but it was worth it. I wanted an AI system that talked to me like a real person, nothing you see in the stupid Hollywood movies. Something that moved me, or someone I could have a conversation with,” he answered.

“You talk with her?”

“Yes. Sometimes. She also plays a mean game of scrabble,” Yorishiro said, zipping up his suit, pulling over the hood and applying the mask before helping Adrian with his. Then the pair entered the cloning chamber where a steel catwalk ran over the massive operation as more than a hundred men and women dashed about below working on various experiments, processes, and clones.

“This is much more advanced than I thought possible, Yorishiro,” Adrian said as he looked out over the catwalk railing.

“Yes, it is, and it’s all done in complete secrecy for clients across the globe, but my competitors have infiltrated the lab, and now, I have Russian and Chinese competitors. All of this comes from research shared between the Japanese military, or as the Americans renamed it our self-defense forces, and researchers in Great Britain, namely Ireland, where cloning first began. Since then, I have amassed a small fortune I have to launder offshore, and this is where you come in Adrian, it is this money, this cloning money, that fuels you, your invention, and this is where you were born. Please, follow me,” Yorishiro said, walking down the steel catwalk high above the cloning lab, dressed in solid white marble walls, shining all around Adrian as he walked, glancing down at the workers in their baggy suits, hoods, and masks whispering, some even looking up to see the pair make their way to the other side of the catwalk where Yorishiro opened the door to an elevator and stepped in, turning around, beckoning Adrian to follow.

“Tell me, Adrian, about the day you left Canada and went back home to England. The day your grandparents were killed,” Yorishiro asked when the elevator door slammed shut.

“I was 13, Yiroshiro,” Adrian replied. “There was a fire at the house. When I woke up, my room was filled with smoke, a thick black smoke because when I turned on the bedside lamp, I couldn’t see anything but a swirling darkness in front of me. I hit the floor and crawled out of the room into the hall towards my grandparents’ bedroom where I saw fire.”

“You saw fire.”

“Yes. Fire. I tried to crawl towards their room but it was too hot and my lungs, they were burning and I was choking. I remember coughing and not being able to breath.”

“So you left them, your grandparents?”

“Yes. I left them.”

“And once you were outside?” Yorishiro asked as the elevator doors opened and Adrian stepped out into a space where two lab technicians worked, each standing over a capsule, examining whatever was inside.

“I ran. I ran to the nearest neighbour, where my girlfriend at the time lived.”

“Rachel?”

“Yes. Rachel. I phoned the fire department. Later, after the fire was out, I went down to the house. We searched, Yiroshiro. We looked for them but they weren’t there.

“Your grandparents went missing.”

“I don’t know. We never found the bodies.”

“Then you went back home.”

“Yes. My mother was Canadian, and after my parents both died, I moved there.”

“An orphan child with nowhere else to go?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“And your parents died in a fire as well?”

“They did. Their car caught flame when a gas line leaked and exploded.”

“Unlucky. Unlucky, Adrian. Fire is your nemesis, then?”

“You could say that.”

“And after your grandparents’ death, that is when you joined the British Army.”

“Yes.”

“And later MI5.”

“Yes.”

“I have something to show you, Adrian,” Yorishiro walked to the capsule waving the lab technicians away, as they scurried away, Adrian walked forward and looked down to see himself.

“What do you see, Adrian.”

“Me, Yorishiro. I see me.”

“Yes. This is you. This is you as you were, Adrian, not as you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been working on ways to genetically enhance humans during the cloning process, Adrian. You are my guinea pig, so to speak, the first of your kind.”

“What are you saying, Yorishiro?”

“In time, you will begin to understand as your perception grows sharper, like my katana, for now, you are dull, not fully awake, still half in slumber as your mind blinks into focus.”

“What have you done to me, Yorishiro?”

“Improved you. You are smarter, Adrian, with an IQ of more than 230. You are stronger, your bones will not break as easy as mine do, you are faster, stronger, and you know things you didn’t before, things like how to fight with a Samurai sword. You are special. And now you have a choice.”

“A choice?”

“Yes. What you see before you, who you see before you, is you, as you were before you died on that desert road in Australia at the hands of your monsters, as you say. Who you see is exactly the same person in every way. The choice is whether you want to be who you were, or whether you want to be what you are?”

“Who am I?”

“A monster, Adrian. You are a monster. And I am the mad scientist, you the Frankenstein. Are you able to live with that, because in order to defeat monsters you must become a monster yourself? And make no mistake my friend, what we are up against, are monsters. Real. Living. Breathing. Monsters.”

Adrian placed his hand on the window of the capsule and watched himself, as if he were sleeping, breathing gentle as condensation gathered along the inside of the glass, caught in some dream, or nightmare, eyes twitching and lips moving in a downward angle.

“Is he alive?”

“Not really.”

“Killing him is murder.”

“Not really.”

“What kind of choice is this?”

“An important one. What is your choice?”

“I chose who I am, Yorishiro. Who I am now. Not who I was.”

“Good,” Yorishiro said, lifting a latch and pressing a button.

Before Adrian could say anything more, his past was incinerated in a fire that shot through the capsule, heating up the window, causing Adrian to pull away as he watched himself burn, his flesh melting away and bones disintegrating in the inferno.

Tiramisu

Adrian hot-wired the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo in a shopping mall outside Sydney after he slipped from one sugarcane field to the next, his grey suit dampening against his aching skin as what felt like needles poked into him as the mid-afternoon heat robbed him of energy, his dragging feet drawing lines in the rich, dark soil below him. When Adrian twisted the wires, the Cherokee, a hot number painted black with steel chrome hub cabs, screeched alive like the hawk he saw earlier along the road perched atop a dead kangaroo, the hawk tearing the kangaroo’s guts out when its head darted up, looking at Adrian with one unblinking deep black eye, unwavering, with a long bit of intestine dangling from her mouth. The hawk lifted the entrails up into the air and swung the piece of guts into her mouth, screeching as she flew away, leaving the rotting kangaroo corpse bleeding in the hot sun as a tan pick-up truck ran it over for a second time. From the Cherokee’s rear view mirror hung a set of fuzzy dice, the kind you buy at souvenir shops, and Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison erupted over the radio, which Adrian didn’t mind, and he kept the radio on for as long as the song played, turning out of the shopping mall parking lot to zigzag his way out of the city.

An hour ago he turned onto a dirt road marked Gold Dust, and ran a deep river almost getting caught in its current when he reached the middle of the fast moving water, which was strange to him considering it was winter, and the high pressure systems off the coast brought warm dry weather compared to summer months, drenching most of the country with rains except for the south, which stayed wet most of the year. This river was deep, reminding him of back home, where as a kid he swam in the muddy waters of Dorothy’s Stream, which his grandfather named after Adrian’s mother, on his grandparents’ property. The stream ran up against a steep canyon with deep black walls cut sharp at right angles he later drew in his notebook at class when he was bored, one day earning him an hour in detention for not paying attention. He talked to Rachel for the first time that day in detention, and while he saw her around lots, she only lived two farms away, which sounds close, but in Canada that could mean three hours walk, and on a cold winter day, it could mean your life. Adrian never worked up the courage to speak with her before then, even when she tried once at a school dance when she asked him if he studied for the history exam set for the next day. He never answered, blushing, and excused himself when his best friend, Jacob, stepped in, and answered for him. Later that evening, Rachel danced with Jacob, and Adrian watched them together, looking at the way his friend held her as Rachel’s dress hid her long, slender body, reminding him of the women his grandfather hired in summers to work in the fields, usually university students, their mature bodies tanning in the sun as they bent over the fields as he lingered when passing them, watching the way they moved in the Prairie heat.

Adrian remembered the day he walked to see Rachel after he began talking with her, finally visiting her every second day or so, bringing her warm baked goods, that day a rhubarb pie he made with his grandmother. A woman froze to death after her car broke down, it was a sunny day on the Canadian Prairies, but in February the sun meant freezing temperatures plummeting below the point, if your skin is exposed, it freezes in minutes. She was found black and blue, mouth open and face down in the deep snow. Adrian found her about 10 minutes from his driveway, not really close as his grandparents’ driveway was another 30 minutes from the road, and on this day, he wore long johns, jeans, and snow pants along with his usual winter stuff, like a toque, scarf, and mittens. He was only 12 at the time, and he spotted her body from the road, walking along the far side where the grader cleared off the snow, dumping it in a heap on the side in a deep frozen pile taller than he was himself. He noticed her body because he saw a burrowing owl drop from a telephone line to the snow, snatching a mouse that happened to crawl to the surface from one of its tunnels along the ground. His eyes noticed the dark spots of her boots as the rest of her body was covered with a thin dusting of snow from the wind drifting over the flat south Alberta landscape where his grandparents called home after striking it rich in the oilfields, modern-day barons who lived a humble life of tractors, horses, and a flock of geese who dominated the property, territorial creatures who hissed at anything moving, and if Adrian so much as looked in their direction, they chased him straight to the farmhouse, which stood atop a gentle slope overlooking the grain fields his grandfather kept himself busy with in his later years despite his oil money, along with the area’s only general store, which he bought from the previous owners, a couple his grandfather knew all his life, a favour so they could retire to Florida.

Spotting the frozen woman, Adrian climbed the small grader snow pile and fell waist deep into the soft, cushion like snow, the dry kind only found in the Canadian Prairies, resembling feathers in pillows, and waded through as if he were walking in water to the dead body. Reaching her, he remembered how he listened to the sound the wind makes when moving across the top of snow, her black leather boots sticking out, and when he wiped the snow off, he saw she wore a matching black dress and coat. Her body was hard when he touched her, and when he flipped her over she stared at him and he jumped back into the snow, sinking deep, the blue light of the sky darkening as the snow folded inward drowning him as water might before he pulled himself up using her frigid body, her arm stiffened by the cold. He wondered why she was all the way in the ditch, so far from the road, and when he told the RCMP officer, a tall woman with long blonde hair, who treated him like he was adult, he had his first erection watching her as she wrote down notes using a long black pen, every so often looking back at him straight in the eye, causing him to blush despite a dead body resting in the back ambulance nearby as he sat in the police cruiser along the windy stretch of road near his home.

“It’s okay, you did nothing wrong, Adrian. You can tell me the truth,” the officer said, taking hold of his hand one moment during the interview, causing Adrian to almost jump, spooking him like his favourite horse, Oz, when the wolves roved too close to the fence line in winters when food was scarce. They wondered in from the patches of forest looking for easy prey when the snow was too deep, and Adrian remembered the days and nights his father laboured in the fields to clear off the snow to keep it shallow enough for the horses, a herd of 50 mares and a handful of studs, so they may run from the wolves.

“Well, I remember pulling her over, as I said, after I fell in the snow, and I saw her face. Her mouth was half open, like she was screaming, she was black and blue, I guess from the cold. I don’t know,” he told her.

One day in March, his grandfather asked him to get his things on and join him outside, and when Adrian met his grandfather outside, the older man sat on a quad waiting, pointing behind him. “Get on, we’re going hunting.” Adrian walked to the quad, noticing the rifle slung over his grandfather’s shoulder, and hopped on, wrapping his arms around his waist, wrapping his arms around him tight as the quad dug into the snow and gravel of the driveway, speeding toward the fields.

“Hang on kid,” Adrian’s grandfather said as they tore up the field in the knee-deep snow toward the fence line they could see in the far distance faint and shrouded in a white mist shimmering the way ice and snow does in cold temperatures.

“Then what happened, Adrian?” the officer asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I fainted because when I woke up I had snow all over me and I was really cold. I was lying beside her. I don’t know. I guess I fainted. Then I ran home and told my grandmother. She was putting away some dishes and dropped a glass when I told her about, you know, her, and then she phoned you,” Adrian said to the officer, picturing his grandmother’s frozen stare and the descending drinking glass, a tall cylinder crashing to the floor into a hundred little pieces on the floor. She had bent down to pick them up and cut her finger, and later when Adrian used the phone to call his best friend, Jacob, he noticed a smear of his grandmother’s blood across the phone handle.

“Are you able to tell me more about her face, Adrian? It’s okay. There’s nothing to be scared of,” the officer said.

“I don’t know. Her face, it was black and blue from the cold, I guess. I don’t know. She was from the reserve. My grandfather says I have Indian blood. I am like her, I guess. She looked like me, except her face was black and blue. Just from the cold, I guess. I don’t know,” he told the officer, who drove Adrian home after taking him back out to the crime scene to re-identify the body. When she arrived to the farmhouse to take him to the crime scene, she opened the door from the driver’s side, stretching herself across the passenger seat, opening the door for him, smiling.

“Hop in,” she told him.

Reaching the fence line, Adrian’s grandfather told him to hop off and wait for him. After the wheeze of the quad blended in with the faint noise of the light snowfall hitting the ground, Adrian began to shiver as the temperature dropped and the sun plummeted to fall below the horizon. When he heard the first growl, Adrian whipped around to face the fence line and the dark forest beyond, looking for where the growl came from, searching the blackness of the pine and birch trees with willows wiggling in-between, hugging the larger trees, reaching toward the sky searching for sun, but now there was none, no light, only a deep saddening blackness and silence except for faint thudding of snowflakes and the growl that came again with a deep savage bark that caused Adrian to step back. A rifle shot rang out, echoing against the silence, then a second, a third, and then a fourth, and after that Adrian began to run.

When Adrian talked with Rachel for the first time at detention he thought about the day he heard his grandfather’s rifle shot ring out in the blackness, and the deep growls that followed the firing as he sat beside her, looking at her soft cheek bones, the way they ached their way into his dreams later that night as he woke up wet from his dream with her. The first time it happened it happened with her and he remembered it the rest of his life. The dream was like detention, where he met her for the first time, wearing her pink suede coat over top a white knee high cotton dress stretching up her legs when she sat down, and black slip-on shoes with her hair done up in a ponytail. There was no teacher, only her when he walked into the classroom, and when he sat down next to her, she smiled at him, and then the rest he couldn’t remember, only the faint smell of skin and the echo of a growl from the night the shots rang out.

“Shit,” Adrian said when he made a hard right turn, hitting a sharp rock jutting out of the dirt, tipping the Coca-Cola out of a cup holder. He found the stuff, though he never drank it until today, when he opened the Styrofoam cooler in the backseat of the Cherokee, thinking about the coldness of the melted ice as he placed the can in the cup holder before turning onto the dirt road. The can now fizzed across the passenger’s side foot rest where the soda dripped out, creating a dark stain along the floorboard.

Another turn took him by surprise when he glanced back to the road from the mess on the floor, and he turned the Cherokee hard again, going too fast, drifting the back end across the gravel road littered with sharp rocks, sending the vehicle into a circular motion, like the teenagers do, calling them donuts, before the Cherokee came to a standstill, engine revving because he slipped the gear into neutral by accident while weighing down the accelerator with his heavy right foot. He breathed hard a moment then pushed the stick back into drive and turned the thing around to face an iron fence, the fourth one he came across that night after taking the dirt road across the outback. Getting out to open the gate, he sensed the ones following him, he couldn’t hear them, see them, but they were there, somewhere in the blackness behind him, panting the way hounds do when chasing their quarry, preying on him since Sydney, getting closer, inching closer, hour by hour, minute by minute, and second by second. The place was dotted with gates, it was cattle country as old trees filled with dust and bats swarmed the night skies. He hurried back and started again, not bothering to close the gate behind him, letting his quarry know of his passage, jumping on the gas again, a heavy foot from his racing days, first, go-cart racing, and later, stock car racing the amateur circuit in southern Alberta on dusty tracks behind barns and in wheat fields after harvest. The Cherokee, its soft leather steering wheel, tough American engine like the stock cars he use to drive, reminded him of his days as a 20-year-old kid with long sandy brown hair turning a creamy soft tan colour in summer, like the walls of his grandparent’s country house, which were painted every spring by his grandmother in her blue and white checkered shirt and capris – barefoot with matching tie-died bandanna. Back then he spent his days racing, swimming in Dorothy’s Stream, and nights with Rachel, who was blossoming into a real photographer who sold prints at the local market on Sundays after church was out, it was busy then, and the people who bought pictures for their walls were in town and in a good mood.

Adrian built a small cabin near the stream on the far end of his grandparent’s property, about a day’s walk along an old trapping line his grandfather used when he was younger, trapping to make pelts as gifts for family at Christmas: scarfs, hats, and things like that, until he fell, breaking his femur in two places, ending his days on the trap line. Adrian used bits and pieces of lumber from the sawmill near town to build the cabin, and later, he won a big Texas Hold’em poker game against the mill’s owner, covering his all in, winning with a pair of sevens after his opponent missed his flush and straight, drawing with King, Queen suited, a risky night for Adrian who arrived to the game with everything he had, all $700 of his summer’s earnings racing cars, and later he bargained for better timber with his winnings, and hauled it out with his quad and wagon, staying out there for a week building his cabin overlooking the river named after his mother. When he finished pounding the last nail into the side along a smooth stretch of birch timber he found and used as sign post for the entrance along the top of the front door, Rachel appeared from around the final bend in the slim path through the popular and cedars flagging the stream holding a plate with a two slices of tiramisu, which she baked herself, and later when she shared her slice with him after he finished his, she glanced at him, searching his eyes, leaning forward in her chair, sitting across from him on a make-shift table of pine wood, stretching her arm out to place the spoon full of dessert into his mouth. He fell in love with her at that moment and made love to her later, near dawn, just before the sun lifted above the trees, when steam rose off the stream, and as she came he heard the wolf growl along the fence line and shots ring out across the frozen landscape as his mind took him back to winter as a child, and him running down the fields as more shots echoed across the cloudy sky. Then the police cruiser, the face of the dead woman with her mouth wide open, black and blue, the door swinging open and the face of the young female RCMP officer, smiling in a timid way.

“Hop in.”

His attention was drawn back to the road and another cattle gate swaying in the cool Australian breeze, and when he opened the door of the Cherokee, he heard another vehicle behind him, so he ran to the gate, threw it open and bolted back to the SUV, tearing off again down the empty, dark outback road that twisted and turned around thin trees and down empty river gullies that filled with water when it rained. He pushed down on the peddle, blasting the engine with fuel, racing through the winding path until he reached a ghost town, an old mining village deep in the outback, passing tall wooden street signs as the land overgrew the place, and a maze of turns, this way and that, led him to a dead end. When he turned the Cherokee around, a Toyota Land Cruiser stopped him in his tracks, blocking his path, not bothering to get around, he placed the Cherokee in park, switching off its lights, watching as the four doors of the Land Cruiser opened and four people as silhouettes stepped out of the vehicle and walked toward him carrying things in their hands, and it wasn’t until they reached halfway toward him, Adrian winced seeing they carried hammers and saws. He swung the Cherokee door open, reached for his service pistol, a Browning Hi Power 9mm, drawing the weapon from where he tucked it into his pants along the small of his back, his leather belt hugging the cold metal against his skin, and fired off four shots in quick succession at close range walking towards his stalkers, the lapel of his suit jacket rippling as the wind picked up, the silence broken by the gun shots and left only with a breeze along the tree tops. After he shot them, Adrian walked toward the Land Cruiser to move it out of the way, then noticed the face of one of his assailants, a slender woman, maybe 18 or younger, then glancing at the others, they all had the same face and build, wearing similar black jeans and leather jackets, and stepping over the first, bending down to get a better look at her, she opened her eyes and grabbed Adrian by the throat to choke him to death. The other three stood up and pushed him over when he stared at them for a split second too long, mouth hanging, staring wide as his eyes met the blood dripping from their wounds, where the bullets tore through their leather jackets as Adrian hit them each in the same place, above their left breast, placing his aim on their hearts. When he fell on the dusty ground, they hit him with their hammers, crushing in his elbows and knee caps before he could scream, then the first, the one who choked him, rose her hammer and smashed through his skull, and before his world faded away, he watched them sawing him apart, piece by piece.

“There you go, tiramisu, special tonight, and the chef sends his regards, he would meet you for a drink, as you requested, but as you can see, we are fully booked,” the waiter said, winking his left eye at Adrian, his clean white apron pressed that morning, looking brighter than the tablecloth, tied in a neat way behind his back over his dark attire, addressing Adrian in a English accent, as he arrived to New Zealand only a week earlier, he told him earlier in the meal, from home to work and study on the small island prone with fits and coughs of the earthquake variety.

“We are old friends, go way back. Served in the British army together, actually. Long time ago now. Send him my regards then,” Adrian said. The waiter nodded and left him to dip his spoon into the brown, soft creamy desert, and when he brought it to his mouth, Adrian smelled the tiramisu, its coffee and Mascarpone scent mixing together as the clangs of silverware and screech of forks and knives on plates ricocheted through the small dining room of the lodge where he was staying the night, filled with adventurers, the mahogany wood walls littered with tidy photographs of island landscapes filled with jungle and pine trees. Placing the spoon of tiramisu into his mouth, he sat across from Rachel again, looking into her eyes as she glanced at him, penetrating his soul, his secrets, his life, crushing him in one moment before looking down, the pine table bending and creaking as their elbows weighed it down, a soft piece of music playing from the old radio he brought with him, it sounded like Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, but he wasn’t sure because he wasn’t listening as his heart pounded in his chest watching Rachel’s face, her eyelids closed, mouth turned up in a small, quiet smile, reminding him of the Mona Lisa the day he walked to The Louvre, a thin stream of light evaporating the room where the painting hung, and alone, as it was at the end of the day, he studied the painting for a half an hour before buying a French red on his way back to his home, a small flat atop a coffee shop he owned that, in his opinion, served the best pastry in town.

“Sir, sir, please, the dining room is closing in five minutes,” Adrian’s server said, bending down, touching his shoulder in a soft, reassuring way. Adrian blinked, took a look at his Richard Mille Tourbillon Skull wrist watch, seeing the time was five minutes to midnight.

“Looks like I lost track of time, my friend.” Adrian said.

“Sir, the chef will see you now, he is just tidying up in the kitchen. Please,” the server said motioning Adrian to the back wall where a door, leading into the kitchen, swayed on hinges as bussers moved back and forth cleaning up for the night. Adrian smiled and stood, fishing out his billfold, handing the server an Australian hundred dollar bill. “It’s all I have, do you mind?”

“Of course not, sir, thank you. Most kind of you. Please, this way,” the waiter said, motioning Adrian toward the kitchen. As Adrian moved through the dining room, he drifted his index finger along the white linens draped over the tables, and entered the kitchen, a pristine room, more rectangle than square with spotless stainless steel counters and fixtures as the chef, Maxwell Cromwell, always the last to leave the restaurant every night, held a white cloth in his hands, a bucket of soapy water in front of him mixed with bleach. A large man, the kind of person who tastes all his latest creations, dipping his finger into his sauces every time, he looked up and smiled as he plunged the cloth into the bucket.

“Adrian, my good friend, you stayed until closing to see me?” Maxwell asked.

“Of course. Of course I did. I wouldn’t miss saying hi to an old friend, not ever,” Adrian answered.

Maxwell lifted the dish cloth from the water diluted with bleach, wrung it out, the water raining into the bucket, making the sound a small creek might, then began to wipe the stainless steel counter again, smiling at Adrian.

“I was wondering if you might stay until closing. So busy tonight. You know how it is?”

“Of course. I know how it is.”

“How many years has it been? At least a decade since the last time we saw each other?”

“About that. Yes, a decade, at least.’

“So what brings you here, Adrian?”

“The tiramisu tonight, perfect. I can only remember one other time it was as good. Only once, a long time ago, it was better.”

Maxwell looked up, stopped cleaning a moment, and smiled, his cherry red face lighting up, his dimples deep when he brightened.  “Really? Thanks, Adrian. I appreciate that.” Maxwell went back to wiping the counter, and it seemed to Adrian he was happier this time around as he plunged the cloth back into the bucket, wrung it out, and continued mopping up the night’s service, a magnificent one where Adrian ordered the most simple thing on the menu, a streak, rare, with blood dripping from the meat, as he put it to the waiter, with nothing else but a glass of shiraz, something the waiter recommended, and not remembering the name, Adrian downed the glass and carved up his steak, then ordered another glass, and another and another until the dining room turned and heaved the way boats do in heavy seas, then he waited for dinner service to end.

“So what really brings you here, Adrian?” Maxwell asked, looking down, scrubbing the stainless steel counter over and over again.

“I don’t know, Maxwell, I just keep hearing the sounds of the mortars in Fallujah. You remember that, Maxwell? You remember, Fallujah, right Maxwell?”

Maxwell stopped scrubbing the stainless steel counter, his cherry red face disappearing, looking Adrian in the eye. “Why are you here Adrian?”

“Did I ever tell you about the mortar that dropped into our position? It was a bit of wall, destroyed some time earlier, and this mortar, you see, it sailed through the sky and landed not five feet from me, a dud, and I sat there, with a few other soldiers, and we stared at it, waiting for the thing to kill us, but it didn’t.”

Maxwell slammed his dish cloth into his bucket, looking back up at Adrian one final time, no smile adorning his face this time. “I try not to remember it, Adrian. Fallujah. You know, Adrian, it’s time to close up for the evening, I have to put this baby to bed, you know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean, Max. I know. Really, I know. But this mortar, you see, my friend, it didn’t kill us. It didn’t kill me. And now, now, I feel there’s a reason I am here. Here. You know, still alive, not dead.”

“Why do you think you’re here, then, Adrian? Why are any of us here?”

“Ah, yes, why? Why? Why are any of us here? The grandest question of all. Why are we here? Why am I here? Sometimes, my friend, I feel as if I am the reaper to collect souls.”

“Souls?”

“Yes, souls. Collect souls.”

“I best shut this thing down for the night, Adrian. I love seeing old friends. You look good. Really. Thanks for coming in. Thanks. Really.

“Of course. I never forget an old friend, not ever. Maxwell.”

“Good. Good, Adrian. Good night then. I think you are able to manage your own way out.”

“Of course.”

“Hey, wait. I have something for you, you know, for old time’s sake,” Maxwell said, walking over to one of the fridges, opening the door and pulling out a plate of tiramisu. “For you, old friend,” Maxwell said, handing the plate to Adrian, who took the dessert.

“Thank you, Maxwell.”

With a bit of a smile, Adrian took the tiramisu, placed it on the stainless steel counter, lifted a bottle of olive oil from the rack above the stove, unscrewed the top and splashed Maxwell with one hand while reaching for a lighter in his breast pocket the other, then lit a flame, torching Maxwell as he stood in his kitchen. Adrian continued to pour olive oil on the chef as the flames burned, even as Maxwell screamed and Adrian’s server ran with the bussers for their lives. When it was finished, and Maxwell lay dead on the kitchen floor, Adrian picked up his plate of tiramisu and left.

Holly

When she walked into the sugarcane, Holly held the hand of her sweetheart, 12-year-old Dorothy, a clone she dreamed of having when she was a child, the night her mother slipped into her bed after opening the door, which creaked a strange way like how the pines creaked in the backyard, to touch her between the legs making her cheeks flush red. She had tried to turn away and leave her mother who held her down as she pressed against her, smelling of perfume and the way her father smelled when he came down in the morning for breakfast, hugging her and rubbing her checks against his body.

“Shh,” her mother told her holding her as Holly began to cry.

Holly created Dorothy in a laboratory where a doctor in a long white lab coat with round glasses greeted her with a smile and presented her a physiological chart of her creation, a beautiful little girl almost just like her when she was twelve.

“We made her perfect,” the doctor said in his thick Russian accent, pushing his glasses up toward his eyes in the way nerdy people do, and something tingled along her spine when she noticed him look at her ass when she glanced at the charts. Listening to him breath she sensed a snarl turn into a wheeze as she flipped through the pages.

“Perfect. What do you mean perfect?” Holly asked.

“Perfect. Just as you wanted. Your perfect little girl,” he replied.

“Perfect. Share with me doctor, share with me, what is this perfect? This perfect you speak of, what is it?”

“Ah, perfect as you wanted. I give you perfection in a little girl. She is your perfect. You made her, after all.”

“Yes. I did. I made her. Like a mother giving birth to a child. Perfect in that way, doctor?”

“Yes, Miss White. Perfect in that way. As you wanted.”

She dropped the chart to the floor and watched him bend to the floor to pick it up. In a fast movement, she lifted her left leg, the tight red dress slinking across her aging body as she reached down to take off her right high heel shoe to drive the heel itself into his back, through his white lab coat, through his grey suit, and into his flesh. He fell to the floor and she jumped onto his back and used two hands to screw drive the high heel into his back further as he yelled and his co-workers rushed to his aid, stopping as she lifted her gaze up at them. They backed away as she used her shoulders and upper body weight to push the high heel into his back before reaching back to lift it out, unscrewing the high heel as it pulled through the man’s sinews. As she lay astride the doctor, she turned him around and watched the darkness in his eyes blend with the light above, lifting like a theatre curtain to reveal to her his fear and pain twinkling in and out as he blinked and looked away from her searching the room and his colleagues for help trying to scream as she buried the high heel into his eyes, thrashing the high heel over and over into each eye, blinding him as he screamed aloud, his blood flowing onto the clean white tile around them. When he was done screaming in a high pitch whine, which reminded her of the birds around her winter home in the woods outside Perth where they hung to the top branches and screamed at her when she walked the paths away from her home, she stood up and straightened out her dress.

“Perfection you fuck. There’s your perfection,” she had said, kicking her heel into him again as she walked away, his blood inching along the white tile.

Holly picked through the path the Camaro took when Adrian lost control and plunged into the sugarcane field earlier that day as she held Dorothy’s hand tight in hers, making the little girl’s hands white in her mommy’s, a slim tear inching down Dorothy’s cheek as she looked back toward the paved road behind them, and when it disappeared from view she looked up to her mommy and then to the blue sky above as she reached out and touched the sugarcane stalks they passed.

They reached Adrian’s smouldering Camaro and Holly let go of Dorothy’s hand, stopping her in her tracks as she watched her mommy circle the burnt vehicle as she stepped back from the wreckage.

“Mommy. I’m scared,” she said.

“It’s okay honey. Don’t worry, there’s nothing here but a burnt car, see honey, nothing at all. It’s just a burned out car, sweetheart,” Holly replied as she peered into the front passenger’s seat to inspect the tiny body of another Dorothy, whose body had melted into the seat, her skin and organs half burned and rotting in the midday heat of an Australian winter, the coldest she remembered in years as the sun held the crown in the sky shimmering a deep harvest yellow against a sky reminding her the ocean off her parent’s summer beach house in Margaret River, a rattling blue cascade of water barreling in wave after wave some days when her father held her hand as they walked along the grey pale dampened sand below the rolling green brush hills.

Holly liked this one, this Dorothy, whose mother had arrived in Sydney looking for work as an assistant director in one of her films, a small independent she was financing in between her larger gigs for Hollywood. She loved Hollywood so much that when her agent asked her for a stage name as he sat on a couch upholstered in thick black leather eating an olive from a martini glass filled with some rare vodka she never heard of, she replied Holly after the Hollywood. Later, in a cigar-smoked filled office of some producer who stretched out Holly’s naked legs on his mahogany wood desk as her panties rolled around on her ankles and her wet pussy dripped her cum along his papers, she thought about the disappearing nature of her dreams and the way the wind whipped about her hair back home at her parent’s beach house overlooking the waves, and what Hollywood meant, and how she felt when she spoke the dialogue she spent all night remembering before she was filmed for the first time at a back lot on a Warner Brothers studio somewhere near Los Angeles.

She remembered Rachel standing amid the men, yelling orders in a high-pitched, slight shrill voice of someone who’s drank too much coffee, wearing faded blue jeans and a purple sweater, her hair tied up in a knot at the back as she held a file of crinkled papers. Holly approached her then, spilling her coffee on Rachel, something she does on purpose when she likes someone, and before anyone said anything, she was patting Rachel with some napkins she grabbed from her pocket, soothing her as she apologized for the coffee she spilt on Rachel’s knitted cotton purple sweater. She rushed Rachel off set and into her trailer to help her out of her cold sweater, rubbing her skin to warm her and when Rachel’s breaths grew quick, she closed the trailer’s curtain blinds, and rubbed her more after offering her a new sweater, one of her own, a thick black cashmere. When Rachel took the sweater to put it on, Holly stopped her and kissed her lips with hers. Rachel dropped the sweater and forgot about the men outside waiting for orders, Holly was after all the producer, and so while everyone sipped their coffees, Holly fucked Rachel, her assistant director. It wasn’t until a month later when Holly met Dorothy for the first time, who was watching Wizard of Oz, sitting on the floor crossed-legged the way Holly did as a child. Rachel asked to her to babysit the child on the thirteenth day of filming, just before a camera crane fell on the screenwriter who was arguing with the director about how she changed the male characters, a basic rip of Dorothy’s travels in Oz into female characters. The camera crane squashed the screenwriter’s head, sending bits of white brain chunks across the floor of the film set, causing the crane operator to vomit all over the camera controls, his expensive lunch with the cinematographer: pieces of crayfish and vegetables across the viewing screen a janitor cleaned up later in the day as she gossiped about the brains belonging to the dead writer. Holly thought about the dead screenwriter, about that second when she watched his head flatten out under the camera crane, and the faint yelp like the whimper of a golden retriever her father had when it was run over by the school bus she was waiting for on a cold, clear fall day – the kind of fall day when the leaves turn gold and red right before your eyes and the sky is a bright blue amid the yellow light of the sun, deep and golden in the late fall.

Dorothy sat on the soft white leather couch facing the flat screen Samsung television she bought from an Asian man she sat down to talk with sometimes at a corner store where he sold various electronic items for cheap. She liked the way the neon light of the store looked at night and always phoned ahead asking if it was all right for her to drop by the store. He always said yes to her, and smiled when she arrived, offering her green tea in a white ceramic cup with blue prints of scenes from ancient China, like houses and stuff like that. She enjoyed his company and once in a while she sat down with him to play Mahjong, and often he told her about what it was like to live along the Jinsha Jiang where his father was a gold prospector for many years before he moved their family to Shanghai when he fell overboard and was dragged along the river after his foot was caught in a rope on deck.

The Asian man smiled in the darkening chamber near the back of the store, after flipping the sign to closed from open when she arrived during a visit smelling of her perfume, a small rub on her long slender suntanned neck of Baccarat’s Les Larmes Sacrees de Thebes, it reminded him of something his wife wore years earlier after he returned to the Jinsha Jiang, which translates as Gold Dust River, where he made a small fortune prospecting gold, hitting the motherlode as they say. But all that was gone now, and so was his Chinese wife who was killed with the bullets made to expand when entering human flesh. She was a student and she woke him up with a soft nudge on his shoulder as he slept dreaming about the golden eagles screaming as they sat perched deep within the thin branches of the dove trees, and he remembered her brown eyes staring down on him as she asked him to go with her to Tiananmen Square. He remembered her brown eyes when she lay in his arms as protesters ran all around them, a maelstrom of bullets, bodies and screams like the eagles in the dove trees. He liked this Holly, and he gave her deals on electronics he gave no one else, and sometimes he sold her opium, the good kind from Afghanistan.

Dorothy reminded Holly of opium as the little girl lay on her stomach, one leg crossed over the other, dressed in a pink dress that slipped up her pale white legs when she lay down. Dorothy looked back and sneered at her, crinkling her nose and snorting in a way Holly found distracting.

“You’re not watching,” Dorothy said.

“Of course I am, sweetheart. I love Wizard of Oz. It’s my favourite,” Holly replied.

“It’s my favourite. I watched it, like, a million times. How many times have you watched it?”

“Like a million.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Dorothy turned her head back to the television when Holly’s lover returned from grocery shopping at the organic place down the street where she had sent her when talking on the phone, letting her lover know they had a guest for the evening. The keys to the front door echoed in the house when Holly’s lover opened the door, her high heels clicking along the black marble of the hallways to the room where Holly put the television. They fought about what room to put the television when Holly brought it home, but Holly usually won the fights, and she wanted the television in a room near the back of the house where there were glass French Doors looking out onto her garden of orchids, and she preferred to watch their dark petals flutter in the breezes of the seasons when her and her lover sat in their television room.

The door to the television room opened and Holly looked up, smiling, as Dorothy turned around to see an identical twin of Holly’s, who wore a black top with matching skin tight jeans with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Dorothy, this is Holly, Holly Black,” Holly White said.

Dorothy turned around, reached for the remote and muted Wizard of Oz as she watched Holly Black walk around the backside of the couch, running her index finger along the top side of the couch, scratching the surface with a long nail painted black, to sit beside Holly White, who wiggled as her lover’s ass touched hers, causing Holly White’s left leg to flip toward Holly Black’s like a rabbit leg does when scratched. Holly Black waited a moment, then crossed her legs toward Holly White’s, and they sat like that, with their legs crossed toward each other, contemplating the child in front of them.

“Who are you?” Dorothy asked.

“This is Holly Black, sweetheart,” Holly White answered.

“You already said that. Who is she? She looks like you, Holly,” Dorothy said.

“Yes, she does.”

“Why does she look like you, Holly?”

“Because, Dorothy, she is me.”

“I don’t get it.”

“What is there not to get, Dorothy?” Holly Black asked.

“I don’t get you.”

“I don’t get you, either, stupid girl.”

“Hey,” Holly White said, nudging her lover’s arm with her elbow as she leaned her ass harder into Holly Black’s. “Stop that. We have a guest, Holly. This is Dorothy. Isn’t she a sweet heart?”

“Not really,” Holly Black replied.

“Oh, stop it,” Holly White said.

“I don’t like you, Holly Black. You’re weird,” Dorothy said.

“I don’t like you either, little girl. You’re fucking weird,” Holly Black replied.

Holly Black reminded Dorothy of the Wicked Witch of the West, only without the green makeup, and that’s when Dorothy piped up and made a big mistake.

“All you need is stupid green makeup for your stupid ugly face Holly Black,” Dorothy said.

“Really,” Holly Black said, standing up and walking out of the room. Both Holly White and Dorothy gave each other blanks stares as they listened to Holly Black rummage around in the kitchen.

“Um, Holly, I’ll make dinner since you went to the grocery store,” Holly White said.

“Oh, don’t worry about it, sweetheart. I’ll make dinner tonight for your special guest,” Holly Black said.

When Holly Black returned to the television room, she sliced off Holly White’s head with a meat cleaver, sending her head rolling toward Dorothy, then lit her on fire with a bit of brandy she kept in the back closet after lighting a match as she watched Holly White’s blood spray around the television room and body burn as little Dorothy screamed.

Sugarcane

When Dorothy was eight her father hit her mother as they fought in the kitchen, a swinging lamp with yellow light dampening the green linoleum floor where her mother stood, when she was building a fort from the cushions of the couch stained brown by coffee that morning when her father, who she never saw again until she was 12, spilled his early morning cup all over himself as the babysitter gave him a blow job after a booze-filled night out before she left the house.

Dorothy turned to watch the assault as the cushion fell in a heap in front of her, bouncing into her, and sending her crashing to the floor of the house they had just purchased. Her parents bought the place from a hippie couple, and the man wore a pink shirt unbuttoned down to his belly button and woman’s nipples poked out from the thin fabric of the peach dress with fainted magnolias the day her mother and father brought her to see the place. The hippie couple liked shag rug, this one a thick purple kind that looked like moss on the trees outside her school where the other kids went when they fooled around with each other.

When she turned her head to watch the way her mother’s face bent as her father slammed his hand into her cheek, she rubbed the thick shag against her face, her mouth opening like it does when she watches her favourite movie, The Wizard of Oz, that was playing on the television, muted though, because her mother told her to turn it down so she could talk with her father. Dorothy liked the way the soft thick bristles of the thing felt against her own cheek, and rubbing her face against it, she asked herself what it felt like when a person hit another person in the face. She was even more interested in knowing what it was like for her mother when her father hit her, and she thought about this when her mother fell to the floor and lay there sobbing as her father began to pick her up. Dorothy turned away then to watch as Dorothy, the lead character who shares her name and who she often looked up to like a mother when hers wasn’t around, inspect the magic ruby red slippers poking out from under her family’s Kansas home, the dreary leftover from her previous life on earth where everything was black and white.

She wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Up in Oz there were colours and Munchkins dancing, and later Dorothy would meet a Tin Man, a Scarecrow, and a Cowardly Lion who all searched for something like she did. Sometimes she imagined searching, like when she went up to the top balcony of the house and looked out her father’s telescope searching amongst the stars for the falling ones streaking across the sky. Or sometimes like when she took her little red wheel barrow, the little red ones they used to make but don’t no more, out to the road where there are rocks. She mined for gold as the cars and trucks passed her on the highway kind of like the highway she fantasied was in Kansas where the real Dorothy was from. The real Dorothy in the movie.

Her mother pushed her father away when he reached for her and he knocked his head against the kitchen light hanging from the ceiling and it swayed even more than before through the air, causing shadows to move across the green linoleum. Her mother collected Dorothy and they left. It wasn’t until she was twelve when she saw her father again. In fact it was on her birthday when he arrived in Australia, the real Land of Oz where her mother moved after she left her father.

Adrian Faulk glanced at her daughter as she sat in the passenger seat of the rental car he picked up at the airport when he flew into town the day before. They were in the country now, a flat sort of place in the sugarcane fields. She wore a red dress and crossed her legs toward the car door as she scooped out ice cream from a white plastic spoon that bent so bad it almost broke in two because the grape ice cream was so cold and hard even in the heat of the Australian summer north of Sydney somewhere. The red dress she wore was the kind little girls wear with white stockings and black-polished shoes. To Adrian, she looked as if she were dressed for church, like a child standing in the front row singing hymns with her rosy cheeks and quick glances out the window, wanting to escape the confines of the wood pews and stuffy Sunday church women who sold brownies afterward. He watched her slip quick glances at the sugarcane as a wind moved the stalks like her hand moved the grain when she passed her hand over the grain in the fields back home.

“It’s sugarcane, honey,” Adrian said.

“I know that daddy,” she replied, licking her spoon of grape ice cream.

“Grape. I didn’t know they even made that flavour.”

“They have every flavour, come one daddy. Every flavour.”

“Oh I’m sure they don’t have some flavours, honey.”

Dorothy jammed her spoon into her ice cream, rolled down the window, and threw it out, then turned to her father crossing her arms as the grape ice cream smeared across the white paint of the Camaro he picked up at the Budget counter at 6 a.m. after a red eye where the brunette who sat beside him leaned on him sometime in the night after too many glasses of chardonnay and asked he meet her in the washroom. Pressed up against her, his dark blue suit creasing against her black knee high business cut dress, his hands finding their way in between the buttons of her white blouse, he could taste the wine in her mouth before he forgot about the way things taste. Later, when she fell asleep she placed her head on his shoulder, and when they landed and she walked off the plane ignoring him, he tightened his light blue tie around his neck and took a swig from a solid silver flask he kept in his breast pocket.

“That wasn’t very nice, honey,” he said.

“Mom doesn’t like it you’re here. You should’ve phoned,” Dorothy said.

“Right. Sorry about that sweetheart. Last minute business trip. I thought, you know, I thought it would be a good time to see you. It’s been what, three, four years. Long time. I missed you. You miss me?”

“Not really.”

“Not really? Come on, you can’t really mean that.”

“Yes I do. I mean it.”

Australia was good to Dorothy. On her first day in Oz she woke up in the middle of the night hot as the heat of the place crossed her body like a finger slipping along her skin. Her sheets were wet and at first she thought she was just sweating. Then feeling around the sheets in the darkness she thought she peed herself so she stood up and rushed over to switch on the light. Looking down, cupping her night gown, she realized she was bleeding between her legs, light almost transparent blood dripping from her body as sweat poured down her face and tears welled in her eyes. She looked over to her bed, the sheets covered in blood from her fumbling around in the dark, where she spread her blood everywhere across the linens. She glanced at the floor, long wood cedar planks, blood smearing across where she had walked, dragging her feet the way she does, to where she stood at the light switch. She turned the light back off and went back to bed soaked in her own blood. The next day she meet her first boyfriend after waking up that morning almost a full hour earlier to clean up the bloody mess in her bedroom.

It happened in the morning before second period when she had gym class. The teachers made the girls change out of their clothes in the change rooms and if you didn’t you weren’t allowed to participate and if you weren’t allowed to participate you weren’t allowed to pass. It was there Dorothy looked at the other girls as they undressed, their bodies bunched up together in the small locker room as they swam out of their dresses and jeans into their shorts and shirts. Walking to the gym she bumped into him and he smiled at her and said sorry. She fell in love and she thought about him as she undressed. She thought about him when the other girls pressed in around her when they played volleyball, running plays as they held each other, their arms stretched over each other’s shoulders, and again when they squirmed their dresses and jeans back on in the locker room, and yet again at her desk in English class as they passed notes to one another when the teacher’s back was turned away from them, writing on the chalkboard as the minutes on the clock above the door wore on and on.

She saw him the first time when he invited her to his place when his parents were gone after he walked up to her while she stood at her locker. He made her wet when he groped her in his parents’ basement, and she almost took off her clothes when he asked but she left because she was scared. She shivered when she walked home.

“I missed you. Four years. That’s a long time. You’re all grown up. I don’t even recognize you anymore,” Adrian said, taking a corner too fast as he looked on his daughter, crashing into the sugarcane, tearing a hole in the clean beauty, unspoiled until he drove the Camaro into the 12 metre tall plants, trying to gain control of the car as it careened deeper into the field. Dorothy screamed when her head hit the window, falling silent as the Camaro slid to a stop somewhere deep in the sugarcane. Adrian looked on her again as a thin streak of blood slipped down her forehead onto her cheek and then down her neck to where her red dress covered her breasts.

He didn’t want the blood to touch her dress. Touch her little red dress, but it did, it stained her: deepening the colour from light red to crimson along the top edge as she tried to awaken from the bad dream she was having in the middle of the sugarcane field her father had plowed into when he wasn’t looking. She stooped down beside the dead witch beside the house from Kansas, beside the legs that stuck out from under that house, and took the ruby red slippers from the Wicked Witch of the East. She took off her own black polished shoes and slipped the ruby red slippers onto her own feet, claiming title of witch.

“Dorothy? Dorothy. Please honey. Wake up. Please wake up” Adrian said, reaching toward his daughter’s face as the blood smeared down her cheek from the deep gash along her hairline where the pale grey white bone of her skull appeared through the flesh as a flap of skin dipped down along her forehead. He touched her cheek where the blood flowed down onto the edge of her dress, and wiped it across her cheek before pulling away when she moaned.

“Dorothy? Dorothy? Honey. Wake up,” he said.

Dorothy stood up after placing the ruby red slippers on her feet and smiled as she looked up at a Munchkin staring at her, wearing a little green suit with red cuffs. In his hand he held a black gun, a Glock 26 Gen4 as walked to toward her.

“Witch,” he said, pulling the trigger.

Adrian reached again toward her face, brushed his index and middle fingers against her lips, a bit moist from the cherry lip balm she put on before seeing her daddy, then he pushed her lower jaw down and reached in close to her, his seat belt pressing against his suit, creating a crease against his jacket that stayed there until he would undress and leave the suit in a motel on the coast. He leaned in and looked at her lower teeth, slipping his fingers along her incisors, canines, before reaching his fingers deeper to feel her molars as he pushed her lower jaw down further, taking his free hand to tip her upper jaw to inspect her top side, then he used both hands to open her jaw as far as he could. He sat back in his seat and watched his daughter’s mouth shut slow, listened to her teeth click shut, and checked for a pulse, her heart still beating slow and irregular – a staccato that reminded him of the way she knocked on his hotel room in Sydney, two knocks then one tap followed by three swats.

Adrian had taken her to the doctor’s office when she was just five, and the man opened the door to the examination room, wearing a black suit under his lab coat with a black tie, they heard the voices of the nurses in the hallway, and he was scared for her when looking at the physician’s file of chest X-rays of his daughter’s heart. The doctor sat down on the chair as he and Dorothy remained sitting on the physician’s bench, and they looked down on him as he fished for his reading glasses. Adrian admired the way the doctor parted his hair, it reminded him of a young Dick Clark, and his smile was like his father’s, a slight upward tick on the left side of the mouth with a thin wrinkle just above the edge of his upper lip below a smooth clean-shaven face. Putting on his reading glasses, the doctor opened the file and looked through the X-rays, every so often holding one or another up to the light to ponder his daughter’s heart, humming and hawing until he put all the X-rays back into the folder, shut it, and smiled that left-leaning tick of his.

Adrian rolled down the Camaro’s driver side window, watching the sugarcane rustle as the wind moving through the tall stalks sounded like the rush of spectators at the ballpark after a home run. He pulled out his pack of cigarettes and lit a smoke, the dry smoke making him cough from the stale cigarettes he carried with him since he left for Oz, the Chinese clerk at the Canadian duty free shop smelling of lavender frowning as he slid the pack of Camels across the plastic top.

“You go now,” she told him. He had stretched out his arm to take a look at the time from his Richard Mille Tourbillon Skull wrist watch, a gift from a secret admire who sent the watch in a box chiseled from elephant ivory. The watch laughs back at its wearer with a skull whose mouth remains open in an eternal gesture of damnation, and that day in the Canadian airport, the watch glinted in the light as the Chinese clerk picked up his cigarette pack to take a look at the somewhat gaunt-looking camel standing in between two pyramids against a stained yellow palette.

“Soon. Real soon,” Adrian replied.

“You go now,” the Chinese clerk repeated ringing the cash register. “$12.50,” she said. “You pay now.”

“$12.50. Sure,” he said, reaching into his pocket for some bills and change. He handed the money and watched the Chinese clerk collect it from him, his eyes never leaving hers as they exchanged the money.

“Red eye, eh?” she said.

“Looks like it.”

“Better not sleep. Stay awake. Red eye.”

“Sure. Sure thing. I will stay awake. Thanks.”

“You go now.”

He left the Chinese clerk and walked down the long hallway to the departure gate and left Canada holding the Camel pack in his left hand, tightening his grip around his smokes as he walked down the jet bridge to the airplane, Qantas flight ZC-34T56 headed for Sydney. At the door two blonde female airline attendants greeted him and told him where to sit down. He walked along the right side aisle to the first class seat he booked earlier that day by fluke after searching for a seat all morning and found one after someone cancelled. He sat down and stared out the window as a baggage handler drove a train of suitcases to the side of the plane.

Adrian finished his cigarette as he opened the door. Outside, he bent down and with a little trouble lit several stalks of sugarcane on fire with the butt end of the cigarette, walked around to the passenger’s side of the Camaro, opened the door, reached down to his daughter, took her neck in his hands and snapped it, listening to her spine break with a pop. He walked away as the sugarcane burned around the Camaro, their water-saturated stalks dampening the flames as the Camaro’s gasoline caught flame.

Dorothy exploded behind him. He had hugged her in the examination room after the doctor left, her little body rigid with fear, heart pounding irregular and fluttering against his own as he bent down to hold her.

Akuna

Akuna’s curly black hair drifted along the top of her head with the wind, a warm winter North Australian southerly with smacks of cold and heat from the south eastern Asian islands swimming above the land they call Oz. She walked in a slow way as she placed her wide-brimmed straw hat back on after straightening it out, having bent and kneaded the thatch the way she liked it with an easy long curve across the front.

She walked up to the river to see him by the river her people swam in for centuries where the rock is black and smooth. Her long white dress with flower petals painted red and pink rippled in the breeze when she stopped to take him in, the stranger from another place, his white skin burned red as he sat beside the river, a waterfall above them – its spray similar to the way ocean waves scatter across the air when a boat slips along the currents. But this is no ocean. She is not happy the stranger is here.

“Why you here?” Akuna asked the stranger.

The stranger looked up at her, smiling, two gold teeth glinting in the sun as the rush of river water drowned out the bird songs in the forest surrounding them. The stranger pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, a habit from his university days when he chatted with friends on the outside steps of his dormitory where they talked about Plato and his cave. He smiled again his is lit his smoke looking up at Akuna.

“My name is Adrian Faulk,” the stranger said stretching out his right hand in the way westerners do to extend courtesy to a new person. Akuna ignored the man as he took a drag from the cigarette.

“I didn’t ask your name,” she replied.

Adrian stood, smiling, and rummaged around his campsite for a fold-up chair, which he found by the tent. He unfolded the chair for Akuna, who glared at him with a dangerous glint in her eyes. She sat down as he took a seat on the rock again, crossing his legs as he stared out across the glassy surface of the river moving the way it had done forever.

Akuna crossed her legs and followed the direction of his gaze before taking a deep breath. When the little Bindi girl from down the street came running to her she was picking weeds in her garden where she grew chilies, limes, and green peas. Little Bindi’s feet pattered along the dirt creating little Bindi steps in the dust. Little Bindi steps she followed out the garden when she walked to the white people’s camp by her people’s river. The little Bindi girl said to her this land is ours, and Akuna said it was all of their’s including the white people’s, who made campsites on their land for strangers.

“A white man is here,” little Bindi said, her giant eyes staring down at Akuna as she knelt in her garden picking weeds. Little Bindi’s eyes were so big and gorgeous, little brown irises surrounded by milky white saucers the same startling white as the girl’s teeth when she smiled down at Akuna as she picked a pea pod from a vine. “He asks for you Akuna,” little Bindi added running her finger across the top of the pod to reveal the peas beneath. Holding the pod in her left hand, Little Bindi scooped the peas out from the pod in one fell swoop of her finger into her hand before dropping the pod to the garden floor and plopping the peas into her mouth. With a mouth full, little Bindi told Akuna about the stranger hitching a ride with Darana who drove the stranger up to the river, past the houses hiding among pineapple groves as the farmers wrapped the fresh fruit in brown sacks.

“So fella, what you up to here?” Darana had asked the stranger.

“Oh, doing a little travelling, you know, see the land,” he had said.

“Ah, I see. Going up to see the waterfall then?”

“Yes, that’s right. I hear it’s beautiful.”

Darana’s truck, a 1946 black Fargo Truck with red hub cabs veered around a corner sending a dust cloud out across a corn field as the sun sunk below a hilly tree line where a thick waft of black smoke rose up

“What’s going on up there?” the stranger asked.

Darana took his eyes of the windy dirt road to glance up at the plume of black smoke, the column rising up and spreading out across the deep blue sky. “Bit of a brush fire up there. Here it’s under control now. Just mopping up,” Darana replied.

When Akuna lifted herself off the garden floor, the soil staining her dress where her knees were planted in the dirt, she felt her age like she did when she woke up in her bed in the small bedroom she painted a week ago the colour blue. The smell of the fresh paint mingled with the small herd of Banksia outside Akuna’s bedroom window as she stared at the blue ceiling and thought about the sky and sun and her garden. She made her coffee black that morning without milk or sugar, her mood rotten from the talk with her daughter the night before who slept with a man who she didn’t like. Her daughter had told her she was with child, and Akuna was angry about this as she sipped her morning coffee on her back porch as the morning grew into day. The man worked in the fields some days, picking pineapple. Other days he drank by the river, throwing his empty bottles in the water, watching them float away.

Akuna let the man called Adrian Fault smoke his cigarette and stare at the river. She waited for him to speak but he couldn’t, not this moment because it was too silent, it was too quiet along the river, the river turning to just a hush as it passed them on its way to the ocean. Sitting there reminded Adrian of the river near his home where he swam at a bend with steep clay banks lifting up from the mud. The locals spent all day there in the summers swimming in the water muddied by the clay and silt of the land where he grew up. This place was different, the water clean and smooth as its gentle fingers moulded the rock over time, and so he admired Akuna for living in such a place of beauty without her people destroying it, this beauty.

“Why you here stranger?” Akuna asked him.

“I was told you are a healer,” Adrian replied, looking up at the ancient woman who sat in his fold-up chair, legs crossed, the dirt stains from her work in the garden making a fishbone pattern over the prints of flowers on her dress. The wind picked up and Akuna lifted her hand up to hold her straw hat as she regarded the stranger who sat on the rock, grinning like a dingo as his gold teeth continued to glint in the midday glare. “This place, it is clean. The rock is good, I feel better here, like I am whole again,” the stranger said.

“Where are you from fella?”

“Nowhere really. Here, there. Wherever.”

“Adrian Faulk is an English name, is it not?”

“It is.”

“So you’re English then.”

“Nah. I’m not English.”

“Well, stranger, you’re out of luck. I’m not healer.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“I can’t help you Englishman.”

Adrian fished out his pack of cigarettes again, smashing the butt of his last one across the rock, leaving a black charcoal line across the grey, black rock. He lit another smoke, tossing the pack on the stone, and went back to watching the river.

“You smoke a lot,” Akuna said.

“I know.”

“You want to heal, then quit smoking.”

Akuna thought the man was a fool, chain smoking like that, it reminded her of her cousin who died of lung cancer at the large hospital in the city down south. Akuna remembered the white walls of the hospital, the smell of bleach in the hallways, and her dying cousin with her red face and wheezing cough as the pain doctor injected her with that drug they call morphine. When her people started poking needles in themselves to get high, they asked poor Akuna for help. The elders knocked on her door, and when she answered them, they came in and she made them tea and served homemade cookies. She asked them to sit down in her living room where she had two couches and a love seat with green upholstery. A large window let in the evening light as the moon above was bright and full. They stayed up all night talking about these needles, and how it went so bad for their people. When the elders left, Akuna prayed to the rainbow snake to help her people become fertile again. They had stopped having babies, and were poking themselves with needles. Their arms were full of holes, but no blood came out of these holes, they were infected and no good for the land. She prayed that night, and later, maybe a couple of weeks later, the police came and took away the bad men who sold the needles to her people. Rain snake answered her prayers.

When her cousin died, taking her last breath, Akuna prayed with her, then left the hospital with white walls. She never went back to the city again, and swore to rain snake to never make her go again. When it was her time to die, she told her family to let her die in her home in her bedroom with blue walls.

Adrian took one last pull from the cigarette, dragged it along the rock a second time, and placed the butt beside the first one, then looked back to Akuna, smiling that same gold-toothed grin, like the one before and the one before that. She started to like the stranger then, and smiled back, her face turning young and fresh like the days when she was a young woman swimming in the pools further below the river where the giant round rocks rose up. She remembered those days for a second before the smell of smoke scared her. She looked around and noticed thick black plumes drift into the campsite and out across the river.

“Darana told me the fire was almost out,” Adrian said.

“More black smoke today. It started about a week ago, this fire. They try but in the summer, things are so hot and dry, they have a tough time putting out the fires.”

“You get a lot of fires up here?”

“Not really. We are lucky most years. Not this year. This the fourth fire this summer. The summer of fires,” Akuna replied. A chill swept up Akuna’s spine, and she shook as the wind grew strong over the tops of the trees, and the rush of thousands of trees was heard across the river. “I don’t like this fire.”

“I don’t suppose you do. I don’t suppose you do at all.”

When Akuna was a little girl, just five years old, there was a fire that burned down her village. The black smoke choked her as it slithered its way into her lungs. Her mom and dad rushed her and her brothers out of their house in the middle of the night as the fire stole into the home and took everything they had. They fled to an elementary school in a nearby town and the people there offered her water from a plastic bottle. She didn’t like how the plastic made the water taste and she gave the bottle back to the people and she walked to the bathroom and drank from the tap instead. Her and her family slept in the gymnasium that night with the other people from the village and the snoring men kept her awake all night as her mom held her close, her mom’s heart beat breathing life into her as she placed her ear against her mother’s chest. In the morning they woke to a screaming woman who found an elder who had died in the washroom sometime during the night. They left that place after this and went back home to the burnt grass and houses to rebuild their home again. Her dad was happy again when the lumber arrived from the government man.

Akuna watched the stranger as he stood up, stretching his legs, as a line of worry stretched across his face. She was just as worried looking up at the trees as they swayed this way and that, then hearing a branch crack and break, she stood and folded the stranger’s chair.

“I best be getting home now. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

“That’s quite all right. I thought I would ask. No fault in trying.”

Adrian smiled and held out his hand to Akuna who took it this time. He smiled at her again, those two gold teeth shining as the wind swept in, sending his cooking things across the rock. The sound of it made Akuna jump. On the way home she thought about the stranger, the way he sat crouched on the rock smoking his cigarettes watching the river. That night she couldn’t sleep as the wind kept rattling open the shutters of her bedroom window after she tried closing them.

In the morning she opened the window and looked down at her Banksias. They smelled fresh and good to her, better than thick black smoke. She turned her attention to the hill where the fire was and watched the thick serpent of blackness lift up to cover the sky, creating darkness everywhere. Later that day she heard the fire had consumed much of the forest leading up to the river and that a white man was missing, caught in the wind and fire as it ate the hillside.

After she heard the news she went back to her garden to pick weeds.

Dry blood on the range

by John King

The dark feathers of the crow stained crimson against the headlights of the smashed car. The bird watched the boy stoop over her – the young man’s hands cupping her where her body twisted apart. It happened when the car rolled down the sloped hill, stringing her fragile body along the summer grass. He tried holding her together as the headlights shone on them, her head slipping back and forth. The crow stood within the stream of light and watched them, its one eye unblinking.

***

“Charles, you done eating yet?” his wife Mary asked. “I wanna get to town before lunch.” She walked into the kitchen and sat down beside her husband who didn’t bother to answer. She put her hand on his and he looked at her. “You gonna take care of Christopher?”

“Yes,” Charles answered.

“You done yet?”

“Guess so.”

He pushed his bowl of oatmeal away. Mary collected the dish and walked to the sink. He liked the way she sounded in the kitchen. The way she moved her ceramic dishes around; the way she stood against the morning light that eased through the window above the sink.

He left her and walked upstairs to his son’s bedroom.

“How’s Chris today?” he asked leaning against his son’s bedroom door frame. There was no answer. Charles walked to his son’s bed. He sat down and poked at the silent ball covered by blankets.

“She was here last night you know,” Chris said.

“Who was here?”

“She was.”

Charles remembered her then. It was a spring day when she wore a light-blue dress that hung around her ankles. She walked up the driveway and Charles had watched her from the kitchen window. She had never known it, but she reminded him of his wife on the days he walked with Mary to the lake on the hill. He used to go there with Mary in spring when it rained.

“Why don’t you take that blanket off so I can see you? It’s time to get up. You missed your breakfast by the way,” Charles said, pulling at the blanket to look over the unshaven face of his son.  “It’s time to get up, huh, kid. You could go for a walk, you know, or take the car and go for a drive.”

“You know mom doesn’t let me drive anymore,” Chris said.

“Well, she’s going to town. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her now, can it?”

“Guess not.”

“Get dressed kid. I’ll leave the key to the old truck on the kitchen table.”

“Where you going?”

“Oh, I have a few things to take care of today.”

“Real important?”

“Yeah, real important. You take your pills this morning?”

“No.”

“Don’t forget. You need some light in here,” Charles said. He walked over to his son’s bedroom window and opened the blinds. Chris threw the blankets back over his head and groaned. “Make sure you take your pills,” Charles added.

Reaching for the door, Charles stopped a moment to look back at his son who had sat up – the blanket thrown on the floor. “You okay son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Chris answered.

“Good. Get out of bed.”

“Hey dad.”

“Yeah.”

“What if I told you I saw the future?”

“I’d tell you to take your pills.”

Chris laughed. “Of course you would.”

Charles closed the door and walked back downstairs. Mary had left, the butt of her cigarette smouldered in the ashtray. Charles put on his jean jacket and left the key to the old truck on the kitchen table.

Outside he breathed in the late-autumn air. He looked at the trees and watched as their limbs tugged in the wind. In his truck, Charles turned on the radio as he passed his new tractor that cost him his retirement money. Charles listened to the news. Another yard had been broken into – this time the owner was on the radio.

“These damned thieves. I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it, two tractor-trailers just gone. No witnesses, no broken fence or gate, makes no sense if you ask me. No goddamn sense. They were just gone,” the stunned man said over the radio.

Charles turned off the radio and hung a right into a driveway lined with baby pine trees. He pulled up to the small, white house at the end of the driveway and parked. The house sat within a copse of birch trees; the markings on their peeling-white bark made Charles feel like a bunch of eyes stared at him. Opening the screen door of the house, he knocked and waited.

Josephine opened the door and smiled. “Charlie. It’s been so long.”

“It has, how are you Josephine?” Charles asked.

“Well fine I guess, same old same old – you know. Wanna come in?”

“I would like that. I would. But I’m here to see Jim.”

“Jim? He went up into the fields this morning, early you know. Up at the crack of dawn every morning that Jim of mine – checking on things. You know how Jim is.”

“Some things never change huh?”

“No, guess not Charlie.”

“Well, I’ll just walk on up there then.”

“Okay Charlie.”

“We’ll be seeing you.”

“Bye Charlie.”

He turned, the stones underneath of feet crushing.

“Oh Charlie?” Josephine asked.

Charles turned around and watched her open the screen door a little wider as she stepped out.

“How’s Chris doing?”

“He’s good Josephine. He’s doing just all right.”

“That’s good to hear, Charlie.”

“You take care now, Josephine.”

He listened as she retreated back into her house. He fetched his cigarettes and lit a smoke as he walked up the hill.

Up an old road where willows had taken over and the wind moved clouds to cover the sun – the tops of long grass swayed. Hidden in an old black poplar tree was a falling-down fort made of barn wood. When looking at the old fort, Charles almost ran into Jim.

“Still taking your eye off the road I see,” Jim said taking Charles into a bear hug. “That’s right Jim.”

“Well, I was just coming in off the fields, but since you’re here we might as well go on back. I have something to show you, Charlie, something I’m sure you’d like to see.”

The pair walked up the slope to where Jim wanted to take Charles.

“You believe in angels, my friend?” Jim asked.

“Well, I’m still god-fearing if that’s what you mean.”

Jim laughed and slapped his old friend on the back. “Sure Charlie, that’s what I mean.”

Charles could see something white in the distance as they left the trees and walked across a wheat field, clipped of its crop days before, towards Jim’s grazing land.

“You see that?” Jim asked.

“What is it?”

“It’s a dead buffalo.”

“A dead what?”

“A dead buffalo.”

“It looks white from here.”

“Well, that’s because it is Charlie.”

“I didn’t know you kept buffalo.”

“Yep, since a couple of years ago, I’ve had this one longer, don’t know where it come from – just wandered in off the range I guess.”

Charles peered down at the carcass once the pair reached the dead buffalo. The cow’s throat had been slit and blood drained from its body.

“Well, whatcha make of it?” Jim asked.

“I don’t know Jim.”

“Throat cut wide open.”

“Looks that way.”

“Had her a long time, kept her a secret, told no one.”

Charles stepped back and lit another smoke. The wind whipped about as the small herd of buffalo collected around the pair with their big wide eyes staring at the two men – curious of the visitor. A giant bull stepped forward.

“Here’s Mr. Beans. He’s a soldier Charlie. Had some problems with them wolves last year, you know, and Mr. Beans here speared one right through its gut, had to pull it off his horns. I came up to check on things, and here was Mr. Beans walking around with a speared wolf hanging from his horns. Quite a sight it was, quite a sight.”

The bull dipped its head and nudged the fallen member of its herd. The pair of men watched until Jim looked away. “Why are you here Charlie?” he asked.

Charles didn’t answer right away. Instead he looked down at the white buffalo’s dry blood on the range. “I need a favour,” he said.

“Favour? Been a long time for favours don’t you think old friend?”

“What does this white buffalo have to do with angels Jim?”

Jim bent down and touched the animal’s head and peered into its lifeless eyes. “I don’t really know, but it must be a miracle this buffalo, huh Charlie, a miracle. I hear of them you know, of white buffaloes. This one just wondered in off the range. The way I figure it, I was supposed to have her and now she’s dead. I wanna find the bastard who cut her wide open and bled her. If I do, maybe I’ll cut’em wide open like they did her. Must be a miracle though, this buffalo.”

“There’ve been a lot of miracles happening around here wouldn’t you say Jim?”

“What’er you getting at Charlie?”

“I wanna know who’s been stealing equipment from yards.”

Jim stood up and took a quick look around even though the land was empty. “Well, Charlie, I couldn’t tell you that.”

“You always knew what went on in town.”

“Now why you wanna know a thing like this anyway Charlie? It’s been a long time since you come out last to visit me and Josephine.”

“Long time.”

“Your boy gone crazy now I hear?”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Damn shame. I was there you know, at her funeral.”

“I know Jim.”

“She was damn pretty you know.”

“I know.”

“Damn pretty. I hear about it, about what happened at the courts. I hear nothing’s going to come of it. Charlie, I did everything I could.”

“I know Jim. I know you did everything you could.”

“Well, it’s a real son-of-a-bitch. I want to help you old friend. But you stand here with me, here with my secret and you ask for favours. So I’m gonna ask you again, why you wanna know this thing you ask me?”

***

It was an ugly case and Derrick Sommers, the town’s Crown prosecutor, knew so the minute it was slapped down onto his desk by one of the law clerks who was close to the family and wanted justice done.

He had poured through the files that night drinking beer and eating pretzels until dawn broke through the curtain of his apartment downtown and he could no longer see straight. He took a cold shower that morning and drank a whole pot of coffee to himself before leaving – walking down the stairs to his car. The car wouldn’t start, and instead of phoning for a taxi, Derrick walked to work. He had forgotten what it felt like to walk to work.

The justice-seeking clerk was the first to greet him in the morning.

“There’s just simply not enough evidence,” he told her.

Her reproachful glances from that day onward made him the least popular person in the office for as long as he was to stay in town.

“That’s not good enough,” she told him, following Derrick into his office. “There must be something, something to put him away.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“You’re shameful.”

“I’m sure that’s it.”

She slammed the door behind her when she left his office, and he slid down into his chair before his boss William called. Derrick picked up the phone.

“So what’s going on with the hit-and-run case?” William asked.

“With what case sir?”

“Hit and run. You know the one where the Indian girl was-”

“You can spare me the details sir, I know the case you’re talking about.”

“You sure this is the right work for you Sommers? You know, the diner down the street is looking for a cook, maybe that’s better suited for you? Oh, wait a second – you have a weak stomach as it is – so I guess cooking is out. Especially since you’re a what – a vegan? You couldn’t bear to stare down at them frying eggs could you?”

“I don’t see what fried eggs have to do-”

“You getting fresh with me Sommers? Tell me what you’ve got because I’ve got all sorts of heat on me and I’m telling them I got my best man on it. Do I Sommers?”

“Do you what sir?”

“Have my best man on it?”

“Well, sir, I don’t think you do.”

“What in the hell do you mean Sommers?”

“I mean, sir, I can’t win this case.”

“Can’t win the case?”

“No sir, can’t win.”

“You tell that to him then, he’s waiting to talk to you.”

“I have the statement he gave police right here in front of me. I don’t think I need anything else, sir.”

“Don’t you ‘sir’ me Sommers. He’s in the lobby and you’re going to give him the answers he’s looking for.”

William hung up the phone just as Derrick’s secretary buzzed him.

“Ah, Christopher Graydon is here to see you,” she said over Derrick’s speaker phone as the Crown prosecutor cringed in his leather seat.

“Oh let him in then will ya.”

“Yes sir.”

***

“Well, you’re the seventh to be hit Mr. Graydon. I don’t understand it myself. It’s got everybody scratching their heads you know, even them city slickers down South who’ve come up here to do our work for us,” RCMP sergeant Kyle Norman said. The law man stared over at Charlie who leaned against a fence post looking at the small piece of land where he had parked his brand new tractor the night before.

“There’s no use in getting spun up about it is there?” Charlie asked.

“No, like I said, you’re not the only one. Good thing your insurance is in order. Old Jackie Boy down on the river wasn’t so lucky you know.”

“I heard about that.”

“You and everybody else.”

Mary pulled into the yard. The sergeant excused himself. When the RCMP cruiser left, a trail of dust lifted into the air. Mary saddled her car up to her husband.

“You gonna get in?” she asked him.

“Nah.”

“You gonna stand there looking like a scarecrow then?”

“Guess so.”

“Suit yourself.”

“You get’em canned peaches at the farmers market?” Charlie asked her.

“Yeah, I got them canned peaches.”

“Oh, maybe I’ll hitch a ride with ya afterall.”

“Well, get in then will ya. The milk is going bad in all this heat, been a long time since it rained last.

“Yep, real long time.”

Charlie sat down into the passenger’s seat and closed the car door before taking a close look at his wife who didn’t pay him any attention. Mary pulled back onto the driveway and headed toward the house.

An accidental activist

By John King

Minister George Feenstra and his small United Church congregation in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood near Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, fed porridge in the mornings and soup in the evenings to sex trade workers after police pushed them off downtown eastside streets in preparation of the 2010 Olympics.

“We had guests and you treat your guests well,” Feenstra says. He shifts in his chair at the small Interfaith Chaplaincy office carved out of the wall off a hallway in Old Main on Thompson Rivers University campus on a recent Tuesday.

The influx of street people from depressed areas of east Hastings and Main Street neighbourhoods in the late 2000s didn’t sit well with a local community watch group, who Feenstra says called police and the United Church to complain. “The United Church gave the police permission to drive the street people away from the church. It was a gross act of social injustice.”

The sixty-two-year-old TRU Champlain dropped out of high school and lived a transient lifestyle until he decided to enter the United Church as minister. After obtaining a Bachelor degree, he attended the University of British Columbia’s affiliated School of Theology and earned a Master of Divinity. Reflecting on his life journey, Feenstra ponders the importance of knowing who you are. “It takes courage to be who you are,” he says, adding he finds comfort in the teachings of Buddha and Socrates. “I admire them because they were unique.”

Uniqueness is a longstanding issue for Feenstra who suffered exile when he was asked to take a leave of absence from the United Church ministry. This was a result of the Mount Pleasant debacle which was followed by his arrest at a daycare during a peaceful protest in Vancouver.

“The people were unhappy Gordon Campbell was playing up the sponsors of a daycare that was privatized,” Feenstra explains. The community members gathered at the daycare where Campbell was set to give a photo-op. Feenstra decided to try and go into the daycare, and when he was denied entry the first time, he was arrested the second time and charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and inciting a riot. “When the crowd shouted for the police to let me go, they charged me with unlawful assembly and uttering profanities.” Feenstra denies he swore, and says the gathering was peaceful.

These days, Feenstra’s life is peaceful. And sitting in the Chaplaincy office at TRU, the weathered minister looks kind of like a sage far removed from his days as a rebellious church outcast. He’s more an intellectual thinker now, who ponders the role of the church in social organization through the first half of the Twentieth Century. He also thinks about the life of Jesus Christ, who he says fought against the power structures of the day to better the lives of common people.

“If the Christian faith has anything to offer, it’s the critical nature of Jesus who fought against the religious institutions and political structures,” Feenstra says. “As a minister, I am just another capitalist wage earner. The church itself has become the benefactors of a system it should be criticizing.”

Cracktown

By John King

Indiana could feel a tooth swim around in the blood foaming out of her mouth as the woman, one of two RCMP officers, held her wrists from behind.

“Quit fighting. You’re only going to make it worse,” she told Indiana before sticking her right leg between the  prisoner’s. The officer took a hold of the girl’s dark hair and scraped her face against the cement to emphasize the point. “I think I’ve had just about enough of you.”

“Fuck you,” Indiana replied. There was the concrete wall she was pushed up against and the way it made her face cold when the rest of her burned. She needed out and they kept telling her she wasn’t going anywhere. That made her burn.

She was sick of being pushed around and could hear ringing in her ears as anger gave her strength enough to push back against the woman. Slamming her elbow into the officer, Indiana whipped around, tearing herself free. Before either of the dumbfounded officers could react, Indiana wound up a right and clocked her square in the nose. Had there been more strength behind the 18 year old’s blow, it might have broken the officer’s nose.

“Fucking little bitch. Better add assaulting an officer to the list now honey. Come on Andy, get the hell in here and help,” she roared to her partner, who looked as some men do when watching two women locked in a cat fight. “We have to strip her. Take her jeans off,” she said as she fought Indiana to the ground.

A wave of dizziness hit Indiana and she began to choke, coughing up blood.

“What’s wrong with her?” Andy asked.

“Doped pretty good I would say,” she replied directing her attention to Indiana. “You take any drugs?”

Indiana glared at the two hunkered over her. Before she went black, she thought about what was inside her as her heart pumped cocaine through her body so fast and strong it almost broke her.

▪▪▪

“Ah, my old friend,” he said to Carpenter.

Old Blue sat in the soft light of the pool table lamps. He sat where he always sat – in the corner booth of the pool hall, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee. The old man waved Carpenter to sit down across from him. “Good to see you, thought you might’ve skipped town.”

“Now why would I go and do a thing like that, Blue?” Carpenter asked.

“Ah, I know you wouldn’t kid, I know,” Old Blue said as he waved over a waitress. “What’ll it be, gin on the rocks?”

“Yeah, that’ll be good Blue.”

“Never understood why you drink the stuff, not til I remembered your mother used to drink it. She was a real beauty, a real class act, your mother. I remember she would have her suitors wait outside her house. Rain or shine, she would make them wait, taking her sweet time as she spied on them. That’s what I remember about your mother. Those damned suitors standing in the rain, it’s my last memory of her,” Old Blue said, shaking his head.

“It was our last Christmas together. She took me on a vacation to Hawaii. We went to this beach. She said the lifeguard told her a giant sea turtle was in the bay. So I went out, and I found it. I found that turtle. That’s my last memory of her, Blue,” Carpenter said.

Old Blue folded his newspaper. “So, kid, where’s your better half these days? Never see her around no more.”

“Oh, you know Blue, keeping her hidden away from view.”

“All to yourself?”

“Yep, all to myself.”

“It’ll never work, kid. You should just leave it alone, but you won’t will ya?”

“What’ll never work, Blue?”

“You and her.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re smart kid, I always liked you. I told your mother I’d keep an eye out for you. This thing you have, this girl, it’s no good. Leave it alone,” he said before taking a sip of his coffee.

Old Blue had never liked Indiana. The first time Carpenter brought her in, Old Blue said she was a black cat, bad luck, and chased her out. Now as Old Blue stared him down with those Frank Sinatra look-alike’s, Carpenter wasn’t too sure what to do. He had a plan coming in but now Old Blue had turned the whole thing into a poker game.

He supposed Old Blue already knew and was playing dumb. If that was the case, Carpenter’s chances of staying alive weren’t good considering the drug debt he owed.

“Kid, it never ends.”

“What never ends, Blue?” Carpenter asked downing the last of his drink.

“I think you know. You better have another one,” the old man said waving over the waitress.

“No, I gotta go Blue, sorry, things to do, you know,” Carpenter said getting up.

“Yeah, I know. Why don’t ya just sit down and have another. One more on me, old friend,” Old Blue said.

▪▪▪

The cigarette hung from the tips of Richard’s fingers when he fell asleep. It dropped to the carpet floor and smouldered there until his wife came home. She picked up the cigarette, put it into the ashtray and slapped her husband as he slept.

“Fuck you doing?” he asked her.

“Bastard,” she said walking into the kitchen.

He shook his head and stood. The living room was silent. The television was turned on with the sound muted. Some boxing program was airing the Rumble in the Jungle. Richard thought about the day on an American army base when he watched the fight live on television drinking beers under the mesh of a mess tent with a dozen or so other officers.

Half the men rooted for George Foreman, who was younger, and packed a giant wallop. The rest chose to stick with the Champ, the veteran boxer who never joined the Vietnam War like they did. They all respected him for that.

Richard shook his head. His mind ricocheted back to the living room where the sounds of pots and pans rumbled out of the kitchen. He followed his wife into the kitchen and leaned against the door frame.

“What you cooking?” he asked.

“The fuck you care,” she replied reaching for some pancake mix.

“You gonna make me some?”

“Fat chance.”

“So when’s this going to end?”

“Quit asking so many questions.”

Richard walked to the kitchen table and sat down just as there was a knock on the back door of the house that led into the kitchen.

“Jesus,” his wife said as she froze.

“I’ll be right back,” Richard said.

He opened the door and stepped out.

“So?” he asked closing the door behind him.

“She’s out, bail hearing this afternoon, faster than we thought. She told her whole story to me,” the man standing in the shadows said.

Richard nodded and went back inside his house. He sat down and watched his wife’s dress dance along her thighs as she made her pancakes.

“You know, I really could use some of those. It’s gonna be a cold night,” he said.

“Make your own.”

“I don’t wanna make my own.”

“Fuck off.”

“You fuck off.”

She swung around with the flipper in hand and pointed it at him. Mouth half open, eyes dangerous, she stared at her husband. “Don’t you tell me to fuck off.”

“Fuck off.”

She turned back around and flipped a pancake with a loud flop.

▪▪▪

Indiana kept making those hissing sounds, the kind she always made when she was impatient about something.

“You take forever, come on already,” she said.

Carpenter brought the tip of a lighter to the blackened bottom of the spoon he held and lit a spark to cook the cocaine mixed with water and baking soda on top. The baking soda and water bubbling, the drug began to condense into a smaller more powerful hit than before.

“There, it’s ready,” Indiana said.

“Not quite,” Carpenter answered, glancing over at her.

“Don’t spill it.”

“I got it,” he said as he relit the lighter. “Give me a shiny penny.”

“I don’t have one.”

“Look for one.”

She lifted her hips as Carpenter glanced sideways at her. Aside from a missing front tooth, a scrape along her cheek and some bruises on her neck, she was no worse for wear. In fact, if you didn’t know it, you’d never suspect just hours before her stomach was pumped after overdosing on a fortune in crack. Seven balloons and one pops in the middle of being arrested. Carpenter was both mad and happy with her, mad because they were now forced to hit the road and happy because she was back in his line of sight.

Indiana checked her pockets for change. Using her shoulder blades to prop herself up, she slipped a hand into her pocket and found a penny. She hooked it with her finger, fished it out and held it against the vehicle’s interior light.

“Weird,” she said. “I didn’t know I had that.”

“Better keep it,” Carpenter said.

“Just a penny.”

“It’s your good luck penny.”

“I never believed in lucky pennies.”

“Never?”

“Come on, quit screwing around.”

Taking the penny, Carpenter started to dab at the cloud of sticky cocaine in the centre of the spoon before lifting it out and putting it on his pack of cigarettes.

“Pipe?” he asked her.

“Let me go first.”

“Gimme the pipe.”

“Let me go first,” she said again before breaking off a piece of the hardening rock. She eased it into one end of a pipe full of steel wool, which had been hidden in her other hand, before snatching Carpenter’s lighter from him. “Finders keepers.”

She tilted her head back and lifted the pipe over her mouth. She lit the end, melting the cocaine before bringing her head back down – eyes level with Carpenter. The pair stared at each other, his green eyes meeting her wide brown eyes as she worked the lighter and pipe – inhaling a deep breath. Exhaling, she closed her eyes and was still a moment before she shook when Carpenter touched her hand. She opened her eyes.

“Don’t look at me. You always look at me when I have a blast,” she said.

He turned away and glanced out the window. From behind the driver’s wheel Carpenter watched snow collect along the car window as the blizzard outside drowned out the dark skyline in front of them.

“Snow’s getting worse, should probably get a move on before we get stuck out here,” Carpenter said.

“I wish we could stay stuck out here in the snow forever,” she said, her words drifting far apart from one another in a lazy sort of way.

Carpenter realized he forgotten about the penny and handed it over to Indiana. “It’s your lucky penny even if you don’t believe in lucky pennies.”

She looked at him and took the penny. “So, where we going anyways?” she asked.

“Well that depends on what you told them.”

“I told them everything. Why else would I be out?”

“Okay then, I guess we gotta go as far as we can.”

“Mexico?”

“Yeah, like a couple of outlaws.”

“You’re dreaming.”

“Yeah well, it’s a nice dream. We might as well keep on dreaming since neither of us will get into the U.S. in the first place.”

“I know a place we can sneak across. My dad showed me when he took me to North Dakota.”

“North Dakota?”

“Yeah, he took me there once to see a healer – some sort of shaman or something I guess.”

“Why he do that?”

“I was dying.”

“Dying of what?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What do you mean you don’t remember? You never told me about this before.”

“I’ve never told anyone before.”

“Well, did he heal you?”

“I’m here aren’t I?”

“Mexico it is then,” Carpenter said, ignoring her and turning the car back on.

“Carpenter, I was pregnant.”

She turned to him, the corner of her mouth lifting in that way he loved so much before breaking as a tear slipped from her eye. He took her hand and didn’t say anything for a long time.

“When did you find out?” he asked.

“In the hospital but I always kinda knew.”

He reached over and kissed her cheek. She leaned into him. For a moment they were close. And she cried.

“Oh Carpenter I lost it. I lost the baby.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“Carpenter, why do people like us always choose Mexico?” she asked.

“Because it’s so darn cold here.”

Indiana smiled and wiped her tear away.

“I love it when you smile Indy.”

“Yeah you do, do yah. Well get a move on then boy. We got a lot of driving to do. How much you got left?”

“Um, about fifteen after posting bail.”

“That makes two thousand between us. Think it’s enough?”

“No,” Carpenter said as he put the car into gear and started backing out. The car strained a second before plopping back down where it had been parked. “See, we’re stuck.”

The door of the car opened and a masked man knocked Carpenter unconscious. The man reached over and grabbed Indiana by the hair. He dragged Indiana out of the car. She kicked and screamed as he tied her hands and feet with cloth. He opened the back door. He threw her in and tied her to a door handle. The man tied Carpenter’s hands and feet as well. Before slamming the doors to the car shut, the man poured gasoline over Indiana and pulled out a book of matches. Then he lit her on fire.

▪▪▪

As the flames ate them, Carpenter walked down a set of creaky wooden stairs to the beach he visited when he was a child. He looked for Indiana on the steps. He could not find her.

At the bottom of the stairs, his mother waited for him. The wind whipped the white beach dress she wore into the warm air as she pointed out across the bay. She told him of the giant sea turtle seen swimming there. Carpenter walked to the water and the cold of it struck his ankles. He looked back to his mother who smiled and waved him on.

Turning to the bay, Carpenter waded deeper into the water as the sun hit the waves further out. Waist deep, he dived in and began to swim before taking a deep breath. Sinking below the water, Carpenter drifted into the shelves of a coral reef. Getting deeper and farther, the shelves became steep and tall as a rainbow of fish followed him, surrounding him.

Carpenter caught a glimpse of the giant sea turtle as it weaved through the reef. Carpenter swam chasing, reaching out. The sea turtle led him deeper into the reef – deeper and farther into the waters.

The monastery

by John King

Teacher is late.

One time he juggled five china teacups for his niece, Mia, in the kitchen when he was to lead prayers. We sat in the temple and waited for him. From the kitchen we heard the sound of five teacups crashing, a giggle from Mia, and Teacher cursing Buddha. I am oldest in our class, so I instructed the little ones to put their hands over their ears so as not to hear our beloved cursing Teacher. They obeyed me because they fear me. They obey Teacher because they love him. Teacher says I must smile more. I tell him no. I tell him I don’t like smiling. He smiles at me when we have this conversation. He says, “Jinh Kong, my little crane, you have much to learn.”

Teacher isn’t juggling teacups this time. There are rumours circulating the monastery – rumours of war. It isn’t unusual to hear such things from outsiders. But last night a stranger arrived. I heard the stranger clang on the monastery gate. Curious, I travelled the shadows up to the second level, and paced along the narrow walkway the guards use to see out across the valley the monastery overlooks. When I reached the top of the gate, I peered down at the stranger. I couldn’t see much though. The sun hadn’t risen, and it was still dark.

The guards started to question him as I sat down on my hunches and listened to the interrogation. The stranger’s voice sounded like the ropes when we fish water out of the well for breakfast. The stranger demanded to speak with Teacher. He said it was urgent. The stranger bickered with the guards and finally got his way when he offered soft candies. I skipped away back to my bed and wondered what the stranger wanted.

It isn’t normal for the monastery to receive strangers. It’s even stranger to have a stranger arrive in the middle of the night demanding an audience with Teacher. And one who carries soft candies no less.

My mind focuses on the silence in the temple as we sit crossed-legged on the wood made from the Cypress tree. When mother took me from the orphanage in Seoul, Korea, she taught me about the King Cypress tree of Tibet. On our long journey to the remote province of Qinghai, Mother drew the ancient tree on my arm with a needle and ink. It hurt, and my arm bled for days. The King Cypress is the oldest tree in Tibet. Mother said I was old like King Cypress.

It took several weeks travelling by night to reach the monastery hidden deep within the mountains of Tibet. When she brought me before Teacher, she knelt and prayed to Buddha. Mother was horrified when I didn’t kneel before Teacher. She tried to stop me when I spoke. “We are hungry,” I said. Mother thought Teacher would have us flogged for such petulance. Instead, he just smiled and showed us the way to the kitchen.

Teacher bursts through the door looking like an angry tree raising its fist in defiance against a storm. There are always storms. They rise up like bandits in the passes, brandishing their swords of wind and rain, snow and sleet.

But never storms like this one. We are at war. The stranger was travelling to all the outlying communities. The Dalai Lama was asking for women and children to leave for protected areas, and for the men to join the Tibetan military. Teacher relates all this to us in a quiet voice as he stares down at the floor. I clap my hands and bark orders to the little ones. “You must go to your families and tell them,” I say. Once the temple clears out, I approach Teacher. “Come with me,” he says.

In the kitchen, Teacher pours a cup of green tea for each of us. “Jinh, you are a good student,” he says. “But you must not stay here. You must go to Lhasa. There you are safe.” I can’t believe what I am hearing. I throw my tea down. “No. I won’t go,” I say. There is silence, and then the sound of thuds before a guard bursts through the door. “It is the Chinese,” the guard says. Teacher and I stand at the same time. “We must protect the monastery. Quick, to the gates,” Teacher says.

Looking over the valley, Chinese soldiers move like snakes through the high grass. A rush of cold air from the mountains sloshes down over the monastery. My teeth chatter and Teacher taps the back of my head to shush me. We can see the lanterns of the Chinese soldiers as they get closer. There are many of them. “What are we going to do?” I ask.

Earlier, Teacher had ushered the women and children out of the monastery and onto a secret mountain path that would take them to Lhasa. Teacher said they would be safe.

Teacher doesn’t answer. The Chinese soldiers are closer now and we hear them call amongst themselves. “Teacher, we can leave. Life is most precious,” I say. I touch Teacher’s arm. He looks down at me before getting the attention of the guards. “We are going,” he says. Our feet fall as whispers through the quiet monastery as we make our way to a small door at the back. Before leaving, I glance at the monastery one last time.

Before she died, Mother whispered a great task would be given to me. She always spoke like that to me. We were walking deep in the mountains on a trek to Lhasa. We were lost in a snowstorm but found a river. Mother said we must follow the river to safety. She walked ahead of me and fell through the ice. I pulled her back onto land but there was no place to start a fire. The winds were like the wild cats I saw in Korea, and tore at us with sharp claws. Shivering, Mother said I would save many lives one day, and that was why she went on a quest to find me. When she died, I kissed her forehead and held her for a long time. I left her and followed the river. It took several days before I found a road to Lhasa.

Ghosts under the ice

by John King

Paul remembered the Dene man who traps from a log cabin in the forest. They called him Tobaccojuice. He invited Paul and Brigitte into his cabin late one evening when they had knocked on his door.

Tobaccojuice gave them coffee and asked they sit with him beside the stove. He presented them some chairs, and the couple sat down. Then Tobaccojuice told them a story.

When the Dene traded with the Hudson Bay Company a hundred years ago, there was a group from his tribe who trapped more beaver than anyone else. Tobaccojuice said people from other tribes, jealous of their catch, started talking about a woman among them who sold her soul to an evil spirit that hunted humans. When they began their trek to trade their furs at a nearby frontier post, a competing tribe slaughtered them at the banks of a lake known for good fish.

He said there were ghosts under the ice from when they were slaughtered for the animal skins they carried to the fur post. He said when you pass over the ice you can hear their screams. But sometimes it’s just the wind, he said.

When Paul and Brigitte left, they shook Tobaccojuice’s hand and thanked him for the company. They asked him about where the lake was, and he told them.

Paul remembered listening to Tobaccojuice tell his story as he walked with Brigitte in single file through the forest. They were four months into their time living across the sandy forest looking for oil in the dirt. It was late November, and the sand lay frozen under a deep blanket of snow that had covered the region two days ago. It had been the first big snowfall of the season. Paul and Brigitte weathered the storm in their company trailer sipping brandy while they listened to the radio and talked about their findings. They worked for an American oil company. They were gathering information about the region before the brass moved in to start digging for the oil found in the sand.

Now that it was winter, the place was different than it was in summer. It was a strange country to Paul. Of course Brigitte loved it and wanted to stay on longer. She wanted to record the stories the aboriginals told to her. But he missed their life in Seattle. He told her not to bother and she grew angry and silent. They hadn’t spoken much since morning when they fought. He woke her up after a video conference with the bosses back in Texas. They weren’t happy. Shares were down and investors cranky about spending a few billion on a project that wasn’t for certain. Of course they knew it was for real.

The temperature was dropping fast. The engineers called a day ago and warned them about a storm to hit tonight. He knew they shouldn’t be out. Maybe they should even be back in town – that tiny village at the end of the road.

While lost in thought Paul didn’t notice Brigitte had stopped ahead of him and he bumped into her.

“See that?” she asked.

They had been walking through a thin forest of pine trees somewhere at the outskirts of their camp. Paul watched the air escape from her mouth before following her gaze. He liked to watch her breathe, his eyes almost always drawing to her full thick lips that turned deep pink in the cold.

“There’s something ahead of us,” she said.

“You sure? We’re pretty far out. Be no hunters here this time of year, you think?”

“Don’t know. They’ll be out anytime.”

She shivered and bent down to take off her backpack.

She unzipped the top and pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Be getting dark soon,” she said.

“Yeah. Better we get back to camp sooner than later,” he answered.

Brigitte had been a photographer when he met her at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It had been the last leg of her journey across the globe. They met when a Navajo girl proposed Brigitte take a picture of her. He had found them while taking a hike along the Colorado. The Navajo girl smiled at them and after Brigitte took her photograph the girl disappeared among the tall rocks. They looked for her, but didn’t find her, and spent the night together.

Two years later on her twenty-fifth birthday, Brigitte climbed Mount Everest and hugged a Sherpa at the top of the world. He was jealous of her when she told him about it, and drank that night knowing he could never be better than the world she so loved.

“Could be a moose or deer,” Paul offered.

“Have we been here before?” she asked.

Paul dug out the map and traced back the land they had covered the past week. “Don’t think so. Why?”

“Seems familiar.”

“How’s that?”

“Don’t know.”

“You see anything?”

She had lifted the binoculars to her eyes and was scanning through the trees. “Oh shit,” she said, dropping the binoculars.

“What?”

“There is something out there.”

“What is it?”

“Don’t know.”

“Is it that damned old Indian?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Come on, lets go.”

“Wait.”

She was silent for a time before putting the binoculars back into her backpack. “How far we out?”

“About an hour hard walk. Be getting dark in two hours.”

“There’s something up there.”

“Let me take a look.”

“Nah. It’s good. I’m going to check it out.”

“Like hell you are.”

She lifted herself up and started forward. Paul grabbed her arm and held her back. “Brigitte, the gun’s back in camp at your orders. We don’t have the time or protection to go hunting right now.”

“I don’t know Paul, but it’s not an animal. It looks human. We gotta go and check it out. Come on.”

He followed her. The forest was silent as it always is in the dead of winter. In the weeks before, the land froze as storms rushed in from the emptiness of the north and drowned the forests. They both knew one of these storms was heading in, and the temperature was dropping by the minute.

They entered a patch of birch trees. The thing about birch is they have these markings on them – these notches – that look like eyes. It always bothered Paul to be surrounded by trees watching.

“It was here I swear to God,” she said stopping.

“Brigitte? There’s nothing here.”

“I can see that Paul.”

They stood and waited for something to happen but nothing did. She carried on.

“Come on Brigitte, let’s go back. There’s coffee on and that fresh bread those elder women made us. Aren’t you getting hungry?”

“Go if you want.”

“What has gotten into you?”

“I don’t know. I feel strange.”

“Strange? Well, all the more reason to get back to camp. You know our warm trailer with heat, hot water, music, coffee, maybe a glass of brandy. All those good things. Come on honey, let’s go back.”

“We will Paul. We will. Let’s go just a little further. We still have time, right?”

Paul glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s three thirty-three. We got about an hour and a half before we need flashlights. After that, we got about an hour’s worth of light before they go out. If we’re not back in camp, the company will call at seven. If we don’t answer, they’ll track our GPS.”

“Oh come on Paul. You’re always thinking the worst. Nothing’s going to happen to us.”

She reached out her hand to him. There was a giant space between them but he reached out for her. She pulled him close to her and kissed him. They stood alone in the forest and the silent things around them closed in and watched. “Come on,” she said smiling. “Just a little further.”

“Always the adventurer.”

“Always.”

They moved under the gathering darkness. The clouds swirled over the trees and silence.

They broke through the forest and stood before a frozen pool of water. It was one of those lakes the aboriginals say are sacred.

The untouched snow lay out before them, as the trees leaned in sipping on the cleanness of the place.

“Isn’t it beautiful Paul?”

He looked at his watch again. “Ah, real beautiful. But we better get a move on.”

“Oh come on don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When’s the next time we’ll be here? Never. Look at this place. Come on, really look.”

She turned to Paul, reached up to his chin, and made him look.

“See. Look. You’re smiling. Told you. We’ll remember this place for the rest of our lives. Paul?”

There was something strange in her voice and he turned back to her. She was staring up at him. “Paul, will you marry me?”

She took his hands in hers. “When we’re done here and back home, will you marry me?” She squeezed his hands tight and he reached down to kiss her.

“Of course I will,” he answered.

“Good.”

She bounced back and scanned the lake again.

“Shit,” she said.

“What?”

Paul blinked as she pointed to the other side of the lake where a black spot against the snow moved along the edge of the lake – along the shore toward them.

“See it?”

“Yes.”

“What is that?” she said getting out her binoculars.

He took a look around. The tops of the trees moved and the eyes of the birch trees swayed back and forth around them. “All birch trees,” Paul muttered.

“What’s that dear?” Brigitte asked as she lifted the binoculars to her eyes.

“There aren’t any other trees here but birch trees. I hate their eyes.”

She was silent as she focused her lenses on the thing coming toward them. Paul watched as the wind whirled and created a thin wisp of a tornado along the snow and ice. It moved in circles near the centre of the lake.

“Well, what is it?” he asked.

“It’s stalking us.”

A shiver ran up Paul’s spine.

“Stalking us? What’s stalking us Brigitte?”

She put down the binoculars and walked out onto the lake ice. Paul stared after her not understanding what she was doing. “Brigitte? Come on now, that ice might be too thin. Where are you going?”

He picked up her binoculars and backpack she had left and took a quick glance at whatever had been moving toward them but it was gone.

“Come on honey don’t be crazy. Where the hell are you going?” he said, turning to her.

But she was gone.

“Brigitte?” He screamed.

Paul followed her tracks out on to the ice. At twenty feet they stopped and she was nowhere to be seen. Paul spun around as the wind kicked up.

The Dene call it the blow. Sometimes people freeze to death just feet from their homes because they can’t see where they’re going.

The storm fell from the sky then, and when Paul heard the screams, he started to run. He fell down and tried to hide his face from the wind and snow. “Brigitte,” he screamed again.

A shadow moved toward him.

“Brigitte. Thank God. I thought I lost you,” he said.

The screams grew louder when the shadow stood before him. He started to cry, his tears freezing to his face as he stood and ran away from the shadow. There were ghosts under the ice, Paul knew that now. They screamed as they watched from below.

By sunrise the storm had moved south onto the Prairies. The ravens gathered on the ice because now there was a frozen body to pick at. They needed food this time of year because there was nothing to eat in the middle of birch trees.

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