Auden was tired. He was tired of feeling this way, tired of going on. His eyes ached from crying; and, anyway, he hadn’t anymore tears to shed if he’d wanted. He felt dry, and it wasn’t just from the empty grief that flooded his inner self until he felt weak with it: his whole entire soul felt empty. This wasn’t life. This was something else.
He was standing on the edge of Highway 12, his heel on the edge of the asphalt, his toes hanging precariously over the abyss to the gravel shoulder – all three of his toes, because he had only one foot and that foot was a few shy. He’d been leaning on his crutch but he put it aside now, left it against the cement barricade. At his back the late-night traffic was passing in a blinding Dopplerish whir of lights and wind that moved his hair and jacket obtrusively; before him the ditch was full of dry, late-summer grass and water. And soon it would have other things in it, too. He hoped. He pleaded. If there was a God, if there was anything at all bigger than himself.
He leaned back, slowly at first, clenching his jaw and squeezing his eyelids together until they ached. At any moment he might feel the graze of a passing car. On Highway 12 they stopped for no one. Last year a boy had been hit by a truck in broad daylight at 2:43 in the afternoon when hardly anyone was on the highway. It shouldn’t be too hard to be hit during heavy traffic, and in the dark, from behind the barricade where no one could see him.
He didn’t feel the car that hit him, either. He was just standing there on the edge of the asphalt one moment and the next he was lying on something wet and coarse with the shriek of rending metal and shattering glass and rubber tires on the flattop pounding in his head. And all he could think was, Damnit, not again.
When the RCMP arrived at the scene they weren’t expecting to find anyone alive. And indeed they weren’t at first disappointed: the roadway was littered with the motorists who’d collided, turning the surface of Highway 12 into a warzone. No need for EMTs, this job could go right to the scrapers. But then Constable Alexander, having just decided it wouldn’t hurt to expand their search radius, just to be safe, stumbled upon the mutilated body of a man lying in the muddy ditch. So grisly was the scene that the constable thought at first the man was undoubtedly dead: both right arm and leg had been severed at the hip and shoulder, and the man’s face was like something from a horror movie: scalp bare all up the right side, ear gone, nose twisted, cheek a hollow cavity, lip askew in the middle where it’d been severed and the right side shorn away. Constable Alexander was just turning away. He felt sick to his stomach. But the corpse moved. It was just that one eye, but it did move.
Alive? thought Constable Alexander. He couldn’t be. But even as the officer returned again to the helpless body in the ditch it occurred to him that there was not enough blood, save on the right side of the head where it was seeping through the sparse clumps of the guy’s hair. Whatever force had mutilated this guy it had done it some time ago. How he’d survived the collision Alexander couldn’t have guessed.
“You’re one lucky bastard,” he said to the corpse; then: “I got a live one over here!”
When they’d sent him home they’d told him he was a hero. That’s how it was then: you went away to war, you got shot to pieces or blown up; if you lived you were a hero, and if you died you were forgotten. Lucky hero then. But he didn’t feel like one. He felt like a corpse. Looked like a corpse too when he looked in the mirror. He was horrified by the face that looked back at him. It was grotesque, twisted. The right side of his face had never really grown back. The hair on the top of his head was patchy at best. And the scar tissue left behind was white and broken.
He’d never thought of killing himself before – before he came back from the war, that is. It wasn’t until he’d found himself alone in his hotel room in Manhattan that he’d first had the thought. His service pistol was lying on the counter; he never let it out of his reach since the massacre on the east Bank. Only now he had the very clear, distinct urge to put the muzzle under his chin and pull the trigger. He was just being foolish though, of course, because he could never really do that.
But he did. It took him two weeks to come to terms with the horror of it, but he did find the strength. Behind Saint Mary’s Cathedral, with his knees in the tulips, he pressed the gun to his chin and let the pin slip. The thunder of the revolver and the whump it made in his ears took his breath away and made his heart stop. And for a moment he thought that this was what dying was like: you just got to watch the world drift away.
Only the world didn’t drift away. Ten minutes later he was still there. A cold trickle of blood was running down his chin and his head was throbbing, but he was very-much still there.
The parish elderman found him lying amidst the flowers in the garden when the sun was only just coming up. Auden hadn’t moved; indeed, if he’d lain there for eternity watching the flowers grow and die it would’ve been a fair-enough life. At least he couldn’t see himself, at least he couldn’t know the monster he’d become.
Twenty minutes later the EMTs arrived to hoist him onto a stretcher and load him into the back of an ambulance. Another trek to another hospital. Another week in bed. Another you-are-one-lucky-son-of-a-bitch speech from his doctor who would ultimately enlist the record to show that Mister Auden Lambert had somehow survived a near-fatal gunshot wound to the head and then let him go. It seemed the bullet had ricocheted off his jaw, or something. When Auden’s finger touched the scar in the top of his head he wasn’t so sure.
And what then?
After that Auden stayed for a week in the Payton Motel on Sterny Drive. He ate nothing, but his daily walk to the drug store, swinging by the liquor store in a wide arc on his return journey, kept him in shape enough. And well it better have. On one of these journeys he held witness to an old women disembarking from the bus terminal; she had only one leg, like him, but both her arms were whole and intact, and the ease with which she moved on her crutches was remarkable. Oh, how Auden envied her such luck. He realized now more than ever how difficult his life had become; and the necessity of his daily stop at the liquor shop became imperative, even though the alcohol did nothing for him: he’d found he could no longer get drunk.
By the end of the week his severance was reduced to nothing. Good thing he didn’t need to buy food, he thought. Finding a place to stay with nothing to his name would be hard enough.
That night he had nowhere to stay and only twenty-six bucks in his wallet. So he ambled up Sterny to the bridge over Potel, and there he slept in the girders that held up the decking. He was now homeless, he thought. All he needed was a bottle of wine to complete the picture.
The next morning he hired a cab into Winslow and sold his service sidearm for two hundred and twelve dollars at a pawn shop called Golden Dagger. “Nice! Army issue!” said the techie kid behind the counter.
Auden took his money and left.
It would get him to Ash Road, he thought. He had a sister-in-law there. She’d never been kind to him before the war, and who knew what she’d think of him now Rick was gone and he himself was left a cripple. But she was the closest thing to family he had. He stopped at the bus depot and bought a ticket, but the bus wasn’t due out of town until the next morning. He’d have to spend another night being a wino without any wine. That night he slept on a bench in the elementary school playground. Sometime before dawn a stray ambling by mistook his leg for a fire hydrant, and by morning his knee was stiff and cold. He’d ambled halfway across town before he could feel his foot again.
The bus was due for departure in twenty-five minutes, he realized. He was standing in line at Coffee Cup, trying to ignore the smell of urine and hoping those around him weren’t saying anything about it out of respect for a man down on his luck and not because they, like he, were buying a cup with the last three bucks in their pockets. And as it happened, a large, over-priced coffee turned out to be three thirty-nine, to which he was forced to respectfully decline, saying as politely as he could that a large was just much too big for an old codger like he; the kind girl behind the counter left and came back with a medium which worked out to two seventy-nine, instead.
Out of the Coffee Cup, he was in a rush because he now had only fifteen minutes to make the bus when three of what went for street thugs in Winslow rounded the corner of Arden’s and accosted him.
“Hey graanda’, you ol’ cripple!” one called, his accent playing out the drawl in granddad. “Nice coffee on a cold morning goes a lowng way for a young fella like me.”
“Leave him along, Jay,” said one of the others, “he’s a vet.” He was watching the tags sliding back and forth across Auden’s chest every time he shifted his weight to his crutch.
“And a crip,” answered Jay. “So what? I want coffee.”
Auden kept walking. The bus terminal was only across the street.
“Did you hear me, old man?” crowed Jay. “I says I wants your coffee.”
They were nearly upon him then – right behind him, in fact, and when he took his next step his crutch was knocked from under him and he lost his balance. Oh, in that moment he wished he hadn’t sold his sidearm: he’d always been good with his left hand, and he imagined the smug smile disappearing from Jay’s face. He hit the ground with such a force the air escaped from his lungs and for a moment he couldn’t breathe, then only in ragged gasps.
“Wutchu got, old man?” asked the street-jay, poking him in the side.
“Leave him alone, Jay,” groaned one of the others. “What if a cop comes by?”
But the kid pushed Auden’s hand aside and opened his jacket. His eyes fell on the bus ticket. “Where you heading?” he asked as he opened the booklet. “Ash Road? Where in the bleeding hell is that?”
“Tickets resell high enough,” said one of the other boys. “Common, let’s go!”
“Not this one: the bus is leaving now,” said the street-jay. “I ain’t going to Ash Road, and if I’m not going then neither are you.” He shoved the ticket into his pocket. “See you round, Pappi,” he cackled as he turned away. “Uncle Sam thanks you for your service.”
When they were gone Auden picked himself up. His lip (what was left of it) was bleeding: he’d bitten himself on the way down. Of course his three dollar coffee was now soaking into the sidewalk and he was down the price of a service sidearm. If he were back in basic now his CO would’ve beaten him for losing it. But it didn’t much matter, anyhow, he supposed. Ash Road was just another altar to burn his life on. Anywhere was as good as the next when it came right down to it.
He lay in the street for awhile, wondering what he might do next.
“Hey man, are you alright?” Someone touched his arm and a young man stepped around his left shoulder. A kind face, smiling and bright-eyed: he was well-groomed, a business man. But Auden thought the concern he showed was genuine.
Auden said nothing; what did he have to say?
“Did they take anything from you?” asked the young man with the kind eyes.
“My bus ticket,” Auden replied despondently. The stranger could’ve just run him over, that would’ve been more merciful.
“Oh, where are you headed?”
“Then I’ll take you there.” He smiled a beaming smile, as if the thought of the two of them driving west together was the best thing in the world. “My car is just there.” He pointed at a rusted Buick, and Auden noticed his arms were full of wrapped packages. The stranger’s eyes were quick, and he said, “For my kids;” and then, “More likely than not they won’t like any of it: their mother has taught them to be discontent.”
The car was parked at the curb, and as the guy unlocked the door he said, “Watch your head, good chance you’ll bump it.”
Auden watched but he still hit it and grimaced at the pain. Like he wasn’t already crippled enough without adding another concussion to the mix. It was like a bad joke and he was the punch-line. As he slid into the passenger’s seat he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror: some punch-line.
“Alright,” said the stranger. He was offloading his armful of packages into the backseat. Empty-handed, he leaned on the back of the driver’s seat and smiled. “Where is Nowhere then, Mister?”
Auden said nothing.
“Where was your bus heading?” This guy was not very tactful but he had some meagre skill in the craft.
“Ash Road,” answered Auden. Verbatim. The ticket didn’t lie. What he needed was something a little more abstract, throw his kind man off the scent before he brought misery into someone else’s life. A Picasso, he thought. But he caught his own face again in the mirror: hell, what a joke.
The guy was already shaking his head. “Can’t take you to Ash Road,” he said. “Military’s got that way closed into Manasset. But my Grandma lives up north in Detroit. That’s as on the way as anything. She’ll take good care of you until you figure out where you’re heading. How does that sound?”
Auden didn’t know what to say. He supposed he was beyond asking for handouts by now – beyond feeling ashamed to take them, too. He’d eaten at soup kitchens before; he’d slept beside the road. He didn’t really have a right to be picky.
He returned the stranger’s kind smile with some weak manifestation of his own.
“Very good,” answered his new ride. “I’m Charlie. This is my car. Make yourself at home. And don’t worry, I’m a good driver.” He slid into the driver’s seat.
On the way out of town they hit all the green lights, detouring once around the intersection of Midtown and Decker because Charlie said the light was just turning and they could save thirty seconds by missing it in the rush of traffic. And sure enough, when they were back on Midtown again Auden happened to glance back and saw that the light was still red. Who knew.
“Now, with fair driving and good . . . no, gonna be a storm, and a helluva storm at that,” said Charlie when they were on the interstate. “We’ll stay in Hemmish tonight. I know a priest there.”
Auden looked up at the Liberty sky. Passing fair enough, he thought – certainly didn’t look like a storm. “How can you know it will storm?” he asked, his voice quiet. He felt timid, estranged. He hated himself for that. Before the raid on the Bank that had cost his half his body he’d always been the one who spoke up first. Now he was everything he hated about humanity: he hated being the joke.
But Charlie just smiled. “I’m a probability analyst,” said he. “I parse data in my head. The numbers just occur to me, like two plus two equals four. I don’t have to think about it, it’s just there. It’s how I know that there’s an eighty-four percent chance of thunderstorms tonight, resulting in a sixty-four percent chance that we will be killed in an accident if we drive through the night; and a point-zero-three percent chance that we’ll be killed if we stop at the Saint Louis Cathedral in Hemmish. It’s also how I knew when I saw you there was a ninety-three percent chance you’d refuse if I offered you a ride. I took a chance on the other seven. It really sucks sometimes, being able to dissect the universe into numbers. But you know, I’ve learned to survive.”
And Auden realized in that moment that he hadn’t. He wasn’t surviving; he was only waiting for his next train, and he had no idea where it would take him.
It arrived three days later as he stood at the corner of Third and Hunter in a little town called Junbridge: it barrelled through the center of his life. He hadn’t intended to try again, he’d only done it in the back of his mind. But he’d been watching for another chance all this time. And now, as the dump truck came down the turnpike he knew his time had finally come. Just step out into the street. Let the thing run you down. It wouldn’t even be hard. He’d been on the road with Charlie now for three days, dodging military blockades, working their way toward Detroit; and it wasn’t any fault of his new friend: Charlie was the kindest person he’d ever met. It was the dreams more than anything, the bodies burning on the Bank, the faces he knew; and they came back to him even when he was awake. They didn’t leave: no amount of kindness could make them.
And so he stepped into in front of the truck. He heard the scream of a woman across the street who saw it happen. He heard the bark of an excited dog as he lay bleeding on the asphalt. He heard the voice of the dump truck driver saying, “Oh my god! Oh my god! I’ve killed him!” He heard the sirens getting closer. And he still wasn’t dead.
At the hospital they put him back together. The doctor on call gaped at him, at his record, then back at him. “H—how!” he stammered. But in the end he ordered them to staple his face back together, bandage up the cuts, and let him go. What else could they do?
Charlie was waiting for him outside, his rusted Buick sitting at the curb.
“Did you do it on purpose?” he asked when they were out on the road again.
Auden was quiet for a moment. Should he lie? Or tell the truth? “Yea,” he said at last.
“Why?” asked Charlie.
This time he said nothing. He had nothing to say. You couldn’t understand what it was like unless you saw it yourself.
A week later he was back in the hospital again, this time in Wantanabe. His leg was broken, his skull fractured. The doctor who saw him said he was done for sure this time, said his luck had run out at last. There was severe internal bleeding and hemorrhaging on his brain. But in three days that same doctor, too, was gaping and signing the release.
He supposed this was a life of sorts as he stood on the steps of the Wantanabe General. Some sort of life. But when he looked up at the star-speckled sky, and as he watched the thousands of cars that went by in the night without another look back or a care for whom they were passing by on the side of the road, he realized this was no life at all. It was bleak; it was empty.
It was there on the steps of Wantanabe General that he first saw a silent, shadowless figure by the street lamp watching him. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps it was the spectral enrising of that which truly rules a man who no longer wants to live. For a time they watched one another, he from the steps and the other man from beneath the puddle of light; but when Auden tipped his hand to his head the other man didn’t respond, and Auden never could’ve said he ever saw his face or knew what it looked like.
After that he didn’t try again for awhile. Charlie kept driving north, and he kept riding along. Until they found themselves in Detroit at the home of Charlie’s grandmother. She lived in a third-floor flat; the landlords lived downstairs, a silent, elderly couple; their son lived in the next apartment over, and in the middle of the night Auden could hear all manner of unsightly sounds coming from that apartment.
Charlie’s grandmother was elderly herself, and quite senile. She would sit for hours in her rocker, knitting amiably and telling stories to quell the heart. Her tongue was loose and her spirits high: Auden liked this about her. She’d been a front-line doctor during the war in Brazil, and the things she’d seen and told gave him courage. But it was her family she talked about most often – and Charlie more than any other. But from time to time she’d mention her son, Charlie’s father, Erik Tandem, an accomplished doctor of physics and biochemistry, and his second son, Rolf, whom, it seemed, had recently fallen out of favour in her eyes: “The boy is relentless,” she would say, “absolutely relentless!” Though what crime he’d committed she’d never say.
For two weeks they stayed in Detroit. During the days Charlie would go out. He went to see his kids, he spent time at the park, he frequented the home of a lady-friend. And though he often invited Auden to go with him Auden stayed in. Old Lady Tandem was a delight in his eyes, and for the first time in weeks he found he no longer wanted to end his life. While she told him stories she would often ask him to do menial chores, for which she generously paid him. In cash.
But the day eventually came when Charlie said, “I’m leaving for Brookborough in the morning.”
“Okay,” answered Auden, who’d been saving for another bus ticket and thought he had enough.
“You’re welcome to come,” said Charlie, though maybe a little too hopefully.
Auden didn’t want to go with Charlie but he knew he had to leave soon: it was beginning to feel like he’d overstayed his welcome. But when he’d told Charlie as much, Charlie said, “Where would you go?”
His sister’s was no good, Auden now realized: she’d never take him in. So he just shrugged – and then wished he hadn’t because even as he did so he knew Charlie would convince him to go with him. And so in the morning Charlie packed his Buick and off they went.
Brookborough got him farther west and farther from anything he’d ever known. But it really didn’t occur to him now to go anywhere else. What did he have to run to? He began to feel like the punch-line of his joke was leaving a bad aftertaste.
“What’s in Brookborough,” Auden asked. It was still hours away down the road but the lights of the little village had just appeared on the horizon.
“My father: he teaches at the college,” answered Charlie.
“You can drop me off at the terminal,” said Auden. “I’ll make my own way from here.”
Charlie gave him a lingering look that might’ve meant nothing or everything, but he said nothing, and when they parted at the terminal is only question was, “Are you going to do it again?”
“I don’t know,” Auden said. It was an honest answer.
“If you feel you might and you just want someone to talk to then call me,” said Charlie, and he handed him a fold of lined paper with a ten-digit number scribbled across it.
Auden thanked him kindly and watched as the rusty Buick pulled away from the curb. It was only then he realized how alone and estranged he was in that place – and how very not alone he’d felt with Charlie.
That night he stayed at the Thunderstar Motor Inn. The beds were comfortable enough, but whoever was in the room next to him kept banging on the wall and he found little sleep. In the morning he arose with only three bucks in his wallet. At least the bastards could’ve had the decency to take all of it, he thought.
He went down to the coffee shop and ordered a medium. He sat by the window as he drank it. The seventeen cents in his pocket wouldn’t get him much farther, and he hadn’t any idea what to do.
It was then he decided he would try again.
Just outside Brookborough ran the Kelterine river in its thunderous roar toward the lake. Where the highway west met it, a bridge had been built across the canyon, edge to edge, and the rail offered an affordable perch. During his stay at the Thunderstar Auden had learned over pints in the lounge that the Kelterine bridge was a favourite place for suicidal: in the last five years alone more than twenty people had taken the jump. It was nearly a hundred metres to the water, someone had said: at that height the impact alone would kill you outright. It would be as good a place as any, he thought.
It was four kilometres from town, and his leg ached by the time he stood on the edge of the canyon. One leg to do all the work, it wasn’t fair.
The wind was in his hair when he made it to the middle of the bridge, and as he stood looking over the railing, his heart quelled. Don’t be a fool, Auden, he told himself. He’d been through worse. He had no right to be scared now. Sooner or later it had to work. A guy could only survive death so many times.
A car was coming. Best to get it done quickly, before someone talked him out of it. Getting up on the railing wasn’t easy: they hadn’t made it handicapped-accessible. And that was a good joke: only the whole people were allowed to kill themselves. But he did make it, and as he sat on the steel rail looking down at the churning water below him he knew that this time he would not walk away – could not.
The lights of the car appeared in the light morning mist as it rounded the last corner before the bridge. So he let go.
The water filled his lungs. It was ice-cold, and the slap of it burned his entire body. Then his head struck something hard and he had the unmistakable feeling of drowning – unable to breathe, unable to gasp, no clean, clear air in his lungs. A moment later his head broke the surface of the water and he had the very remote sight of the car stopped in the middle of the bridge overhead. And then he was swept around the bend of the river and the canyon opened up below him. Somehow he found an eddy that led to a swirly, and down he went again, his mouth filling with the freezing, murky waters of the Kelterine. His world went dark, and for a moment he could feel only the numbing cold around him and the current sweeping him by; then not even that.
When he awoke again it was because something warm had entered his dreams – an angel, he thought, and it was melting the ice that seemed to have encased him. He opened his eyes and found he was staring into the shining eyes of some animal which surely had just lathered his face with its tongue. A stern voice was calling, “Hoy, get back here Piper, you great lout!” With that the creature turned and was gone – but only a moment, for it let out a single, shrill bark and then the voice was saying, “What have you found, boy?”
He carried no light, and the night was quite dark, but Auden could see the stranger that hunkered over him and he could hear quite well when he said, “Golly, it’s a deadguy!”
Again the dog let out a shrill bark, and the voice said, “Hey, no, he’s alive!” Then, “Shit, buddy, what’s happened to you?”
Auden was only very dimly aware that he was lifted and carried. At some point the ice thawed, leaving behind a thousand needles that drove themselves into his flesh. The empty silence that had been ransacking his mind was replaced instead by the popping crackle of a fire, and when he opened his eyes again he was looking at a kitchen table, backed by a china cabinet hung on a log wall; and all this was dripping with the dancing of firelight. He couldn’t move his right arm, he found, and all up the right side of his face was itching up a storm. And it was only when he stopped to think about it he remembered he didn’t have a right arm, nor a right side to his face – he was grotesque.
He drew himself up on his left arm and felt the horrid grinding of the bones in his wrist where he surely had re-shattered the numerous fractures that once had healed – yet there was no pain, not even slightly. He lay on a stuffed mattress before the fire, a light but warming blanket swaddled around his body. His clothes were gone, but that matters little to a guy who has long-since given up caring for the wreck of a body that is left to him. The dog lay near with its toes tucked under its chin, its eyes intent upon him. It was the one thing which didn’t think any less of him, he realized.
A whisper nearby drew his attention, and at last the pain set itself in upon himself. His neck and shoulders throbbed with it, and when he tried to turn his head he felt stiff and solidified.
It was the voice that had whispered, he was sure, the voice of a woman – or a girl.
“Andy, for the love of god, get in here, he’s awake!”
She came into the light before the fire. She was young and her face was kind, undrawn and carefree before the shadows of her auburn hair. But the wisdom behind her mask was enough to frighten him. “Don’t be afraid,” she said as she knelt at his bedside. “Lie flat on your back and hold still. I can’t imagine the pain you must be in. I will do what I can to ease it.”
And with that she made him to lie down, and with gentle hands she drew upon his skin something which smelled both dreadful and wonderful at once – faintly of thyme and hazel and some highland evergreen. And her promises were not undervalued, for at once he felt such an easement, and the pain let go of him.
“You’re a mess, buddy,” said another someone, undoubtedly the same guy who’d drawn him from the river. “I knew it was bad when I pulled you from the bank, but . . . damn. It doesn’t get any better!”
“Oh Andy, shut up, will you?” said the girl sternly. “Don’t be so insensitive.”
“It’s alright,” said Auden weakly. “I know what I am.”
“What you are is not in a good way,” said the guy, Andy. “And here in the Cote we’re a long way from help – longer still given the deficit of proper facilities not under military control. Thank god you came up on our bank. Kinsy is pretty brilliant with this aromatherapy crap.”
“I just do what I can with what God gave me,” said the girl. “It ain’t near enough, but it’s much better than the chemicals they’d pump into you at a hospital.”
“I’m grateful for your help,” Auden muttered through the throes of the blanket.
“What were you doing in the lake?” Andy wondered.
But Kinsy cut in again: “Shut up, Andy. Let him be. Get some rest, mister. Whatever has brought you here it’s tolled a heavy price.”
The days that followed were spent in listening, sleeping, and waiting. Kinsy was kind and gentle, and she came often to ease the pain that wracked his body. Andy, too, was helpful and told Auden much to amuse him when he was awake. But when these two were about their own business they did so with such quiet, skittering and whisperings that you’d have thought they were spies behind enemy lines.
It was a week at least before Auden could arise from his bed without any assistance and without his head ringing with the chimes that had become his most constant companion. It felt good to be able to take himself to the toilet, or to the patio to gaze upon the lake not far from the house.
One day – it’d been two weeks since he’d washed up on the bank, he thought – he stood on the patio looking out over the water, when he was aware, as a man who’s lost something often is, of someone near at hand: Andy had come up silently.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to—” Andy was saying, when he noticed the pallor and void in Auden’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“I was—” began Auden, but he thought better and cut off. “How far did I come?” he asked instead. “I came from Brookborough.”
Andy gaped. “That’s two hundred kilometers east!” he cried. “You’ve come down the canyon then, through log jams and over rocks, and across the breadth of the lake to reach us.” He was looking at Auden with a new-found wonder. “It’s a ridiculous miracle than anyone could survive that – you least of all!”
Auden didn’t know what to say; Andy continued to gape, and he didn’t seem to have any other words, either. So finally Auden said,
“You’ve been too good to me.” It wasn’t near the truth but it was a suitable-enough altercation from it that Andy didn’t seem to notice.
“We’ve only done what any honest person would,” he said modestly. He hung for a moment, as if there was something unsaid.
“Have it out,” said Auden. When he’d made officer the boys had dickered around him in the same way, and he’d had enough of it.
“Kinsy told me I mustn’t ask,” said Andy clumsily. “But I gotta know, man, why were you in the river? Did someone try to kill you?”
“Yea,” Auden answered, returning his gaze to the water. That was true enough. “I did.”
Andy seemed unsurprised this time. Maybe he’d already guessed it when Auden had said he’d come from Brookborough. “You going to try again?” he asked. The same thing Charlie had wanted to know.
“Maybe,” Auden said honestly. Because in all truth he knew he must.
All too soon the time came when he realized he didn’t need Kinsy and Andy or their kindness anymore.
“You shouldn’t go, not yet,” Andy told him when Auden first announced he would be leaving.
“I’m very pleased with all your kindness, I’m sure,” replied Auden, “but I must.”
“What you must do is to stay and rest another day or two,” Andy insisted. “It will do you good.”
But Auden had rested long enough and the same feeling he’d had in that hotel room in Manhattan had slowly crept upon him, like a monkey on his back. It was time to be moving on.
Andy gave him a ride into Whiteridge, an elegant-enough little village on what they called The End of the Kelt.
“Where do you want me to leave you?” he asked. “The bus terminal?”
Auden hadn’t considered the terminal, he’d only found any appeal in the little bar at the corner of Malburrow and Denver, remarkably just across the street from the bus. So the bus would do well enough.
Before Andy left he pressed a stack of tens into Auden’s hand with the words, “Call me if you need anything.” And sure enough, there was a piece of card with a ten-digit number printed on it on top of the bills.
Auden tried to return the money but Andy refused. “Nah, I don’t need it,” he said. “Keep it. It will get you across the border at least.”
Auden watched the Ford Eternity until it was out of sight, and then he crossed the street to the pub. He couldn’t bring himself to spend Andy’s money on liquor, but to his luck there was a drunk passed out in the alley and his pockets turned up a few drinks worth of change. Inside the bar, he drew up a stool and asked for hard whiskey.
“Getting drunk quick,” said the kid, and set out a glass.
“How much for the bottle?” Auden asked: by the glass wouldn’t do.
The kid raised his eyebrows at that, but he threw the cap and passed the bottle over, saying, “Take it easy, fella, I don’t want to have to throw you out.”
“No need,” answered Auden and, taking the bottle and tossing up the money, he returned to the street.
It was beginning to rain, the drops falling scarce and softly; and as Auden stood there at the curb someone pushed by him, a woman whose life was little better than his, he guessed. Three kids and a boyfriend who beat her when he wasn’t drunk. He nearly fell as she brushed by him, but when she herself sprawled onto the pavement he was grateful in some small way for what fortune he had; even moreso when, in the next moment, a car plowed through her and left her lying bloodied and broken against the light pole a few paces away. That could have been him, he realized. So close. Only he would’ve kept on breathing: she didn’t, and that made him angry.
As he watched the paramedics picking her up and the police officers taking statements from the horrified drivers and anyone else who stood still long enough, it occurred to him that the Bentley parked against the opposite curb was exactly the sort of car that the top secret government types drove around in: black paint, tinted windows open just a crack to let out the tobacco smoke, and rims so shiny they couldn’t hardly belong to the same world that was currently soaking up the blood of a young woman who was just simply too far down on her luck. Auden knew the type, had met one or two of them himself during his time in the corps. And oh yes, he’d seen those cars before, too.
So why was the government watching him?
He didn’t know and he thought he didn’t care to know, either. If they wanted to ask him questions let them. If they wanted to cut him up in a Petri dish let them. So he sat there on the bench as if he hadn’t seen them, because in all actuality he mayaswell not have.
It was long-since coming down to the first hour of darkness when Auden drained the last few drops of whiskey from the bottle and set it standing against the wrought-iron leg of the bench. The Bentley was still sitting opposite him against the curb, having made neither movement nor sound in the entire time he’d been there. But now, as he arose to leave, the passenger door let open and out stepped a person the likes of which he certainly had never seen before. Government clowns wore suits and all had the same bad haircut; but this person had neither – or perhaps they did but he couldn’t tell beneath the shadow of their wide-brimmed hat and coat. But neither sight nor sound of them made any impression upon him when compared to the dread he now felt as he saw them turning their head, their rather normal-looking head which couldn’t possibly have anything less than a very normal-looking face, only he was surer every moment he didn’t at any cost want to see that face.
Auden had never in his life felt more frightened, and the irony was not wasted on him. He turned away in a panic, searching for the quickest way out.
“Auden!” cried a cold voice, undoubtedly the source of whatever autonomic clandestine thing had taken hold of him.
“Auden Dustin Lambert.”
His back was to the stranger, and now he wouldn’t have turned his face if he could’ve seen any other option. Only the terrific terror held him and reeled him in, like the humming of a mass electromagnet, a fish on a line.
“Are you not Auden Lambert?” asked the stranger.
Auden turned, not of his own will but that which held him, and for a moment he thought he was looking at something he’d once seen in a movie. On the screen the mannequin museum display dummies of old world soldiers were brought to life. Their faces had been plain white masks drawn taught over the features of the actors who played them. The effect, when on screen, had been amusing, but in real life it was terrifying. He found himself wondering now what really was behind that mask – or was there nothing at all? The person sounded real-enough, spoke true-enough; but Auden couldn’t escape the unmistakable feeling that the face before him – indeed the entire body – was not the figure of any true person but that of something else altogether.
“May we talk?” asked the mask, and it ushered Auden back to the bench. “We’ve been watching you, Mister Lambert. We’ve been watching you for a very long time.”
Auden couldn’t look at the white face, couldn’t watch the shapeless lips move. He could only look at . . . well, in truth he was looking at nothing at all.
“You may not know,” continued the face of the mannequin soldier, “but we’ve a certain interest invested in you. I represent Symbico International. Of course you’ve never heard of us, but as it happens we’ve heard of you. My bosses are the reason you’re here now, the reason you survived that firestorm in Jordan. They said the nanites wouldn’t remain for more than a month. That, I suppose, is why I’m really here. We’ve no other way of making sure our investment is safe.” The mask let out a surprised chuckle. “Oh, I’m talking nonsense, of course. After your stint in Jordan Symbico realized the potential you possess. When you were caught in the bombing on the Bank it was Symbico who put you back together, courtesy of about thirty million dollars worth of nanotechnology. But now that the nanites have passed through your system—” The mask quit moving; the stranger looked across the street at the parked car, suddenly aware of some ticking clock, it seemed. “The thing is we’re here to collect, Mister Lambert.”
“We’re here to claim our investment.”
The man – or whatever it was beneath the mask – stood but made no more move to leave.
He handed Auden a card with the words MALCORD INSTITUTE, 3351 Bornerow printed across it. “Be there this time tomorrow. I don’t think I need to tell you, Mister Lambert, you really have nowhere else to go.”
When the mannequin was gone Auden found he was at a loss. When the Jords bombed the hell out of the Bank so much of the city had burned that the army didn’t even bother trying to take a body count. The inferno had raged for three days, three days and all he could do was lie there in the street, his flesh turning to charcoal around him. Those three days were vivid; everything after that Auden couldn’t remember. It was painful, he knew that much. About a month after the fire – or a year? – he’d woken up on the bench of some two-bit doctor in Amstergo with the voice of Sergeant-Major Hammerstall raging through his head: “You feculent maggots better pick it up else I’ll stick my boot so far up all your asses you’ll need a caesarean to get it back out!” Two days later it wasn’t Sergeant-Major Hammerstall who was picking him up but Lieutenant-Commander Marie Allende. “You’re a goddamn hero back home,” she told him. And as it turned out this was a good thing, because the Jords believed very strongly in salvage laws, and apparently a crisp-charred soldier was as good to an Amstergo doctor as a stereo or a television is to the rural thief; the ransom on an American soldier had been no small price to pay.
It was for the press, he decided later. And he must have been right, because a print and a re-print and a one-thousand-twelve-dollar severance cheque was all he really turned out to be worth. Now he would be remembered only as the Survivor of the Bank. A mascot, really. An excuse to keep shooting Jords after the war was over. But nowhere in all of it could Auden ever remember anyone mentioning the name Symbico. Or nanites. If there was a charade it was well-played. Whatever it was that Symbico had done to him it had to be un-done. He couldn’t go on.
He rented a motel room for the night with the money Andy had given him; and after some debate with himself he returned again to the liquor store and bought another bottle of whiskey to wash down the stale pizza from the shop across the street. The girl behind the counter of the pizzaria gave him a curious look when she saw the tags hanging from his neck, and when she handed him the change and he took it with his left hand, she said something he didn’t understand in a very strong Mexican accent. He found out later it meant something in the effect of, If you want company I’m available. In the morning he’d drop by the shop and get her number.
He awoke to sirens. The police had rolled in during the night and raided the Costillo Pizzaria. Before dawn there were three bodies and shotgun shells littering the parking lot. What he’d heard was the ambulance, and by then he figured her luck had already run out.
As the scrapers were taking out the bodies he got a look at the bags. One of them was just the right shape and size for a small Mexican-American girl. In that moment he envied her so, oh how he envied her.
He went downtown, passing the pizzeria at a wide berth. Downtown Whiteridge wasn’t much to speak of, but for a small town it had its own respectable homeless community in the community park. “Dollars for poor,” said a pandler in rags outside the drugstore as Auden ambled by. Auden paid him no attention. He might be joining them soon, he thought.
He spent a little on a bottle of Tylenol, but when he threw back a pill his entire body convulsed and he hurled it back up.
The day went slowly, as days do when you’re waiting for something. He couldn’t decide if this was something he was excited about or not. He supposed it was a little of both.
He bought a sandwich from a corner store, and as the sun was sinking he hailed a cab and asked for the Malcord Institute. The cabbie shot him the what-the-hell look that cabbies are so good at. “3351 Bornerow,” Auden amended, and this time the cabbie just shrugged and pulled away from the curb. “Look buddy, you better have the dough,” he said.
“I’ve got enough,” Auden insisted.
As it turned out, not by much. 3351 Bornerow wasn’t in Whiteridge but rather it was in Lungtington, thirty-four klicks southwest.
“It’s no big deal,” said the cabbie. “I come this way all the time.”
Auden didn’t ask what kind of fares a cabbie could get that would pay two hundred twelve dollars for a fifteen-minute cab ride. As it happened the army had only recently moved on Lungtinton, and so to make the trip worth the risk the cab companies were boosting rates into the town.
It was easy to see why no one seemed to know about the Malcord Institute. It’s easy to get confused when something that’s supposed to be one thing is branded with another thing’s name. The Malcord Institute had Brighton Hotworks on the front of the building in large, geometric letters, and it wasn’t until Auden stood before the double-glass doors that he actually saw the word Malcord scribed in small print on the lobby announcement board.
The Malcord Institute greeted him with a hearty-earthen smell, like deep spruce forests hanging over a bed of rotting leaves and needles. Where the smell came from he didn’t know; but it was the scent of jasmine that hung around the receptionist. She sat behind an oak desk, her spectacles sitting high on the bridge of her nose, and when she saw him she said with the friendliest smile he’d ever seen on a woman, “Welcome to Brighton Hotworks, East Stokers number one supplier of carborite—” There was a momentary flare in her eyes but she quickly arighted herself, and in a very different sardonic tone she said, “Welcome to the Malcord Institute of biomechanics, cybermechanics, and telemechanics. You’re arrival is expected. The board is waiting for you in conference room four-C. Right this way.”
She showed him to the elevator and hit the button for the fourth floor.
“Do not mind the teeth,” she said vaguely as the doors closed. Auden couldn’t have honestly said he was comfortable with what he saw behind the mask of her face – or rather what he didn’t see.
When the doors opened on the fourth floor Auden found himself face to face with his own, dark memories. For a moment he was back on that bench talking to the faceless man and cold chills were running up his spine; then he was back in the elevator looking out into a corridor at someone who likewise didn’t have a face – or rather had a featureless one. And if he’d experienced any chilling discomfort at their last meeting it’d been nothing compared to the convulsion of horror that came over him now like a wave filling his lungs. It seemed for but the briefest moment that the mask of that face crawled as if behind it was a mass of writhing maggots; but then the face spoke. It was like awakening from a nightmare that passed before his eyes in a second. Now it was nothing more than a white mask stretched over a rather human-like face again. “This way, deadman,” it said, and tipped the wide brim of its hat, though Auden was sure the gesture was contempt rather than respect.
Into the conference room the faceless man led him, though in fact it was not really a conference room but an assemblage hall with ornately carved oak thrones descending upon either hand from a dais at the head of the room. Most of these seats were vacant and had been for some time by the dust that layered the wood like freshly fallen snow, but three on the right-hand were filled by old gentlemen in long coats and stern faces. At first Auden thought these three silent kings on their thrones were the sole inhabitants of the hall, but in fact there were many others hovering in the shadows, all faceless, all silent and statuesque, watching him with beady eyes and malicious waxen smiles. But the faceless were silent and it was the three old crones on their thrones that address him.
One of them spoke at once. He was a curious fellow, with pinpoint eyes and a long, split goatee. When he spoke (and it was the same when the other two spoke as well) it was in an agonizingly monotone voice, robotic; sometimes it was more like a whisper and Auden wasn’t entirely certain if they were actually speaking or if he only heard their voices in his head.
“How are you feeling?” asked the first. But it was the sort of thing a commanding officer says to put you off your game so that when he tells you that your rural weekend privileges have been suspended it comes much lower below the belt than it otherwise might have. So Auden said nothing.
“Are you quite well? Does it hurt?”
Auden wasn’t certain what he was talking about, so he looked from one to the other but all three had blank faces and empty eyes.
“Stop dickering and get it done,” said the second man whose silver hair fell over his shoulders. He looked at the first, but the other man cocked his head to one side like a curious owl.
“Take him to the cellar then,” said the first, almost dreamily. “We’ll see him there. No sense letting him bleed all over the floor.”
The whole exchange had taken no time but it seemed to Auden that the old men on the dais were speaking slowly and with their voices went the flow of time, in no great hurry to go anywhere. But now they all three in unison slowly turned their heads to capture him with their eyes – those great, grey eyes that drilled into his soul – and he knew then talking had never been what he’d been brought there for. The faceless men who had come up behind him took hold of his shoulders. One snatched away his crutch, the other took hold of his jacket and dragged him. Back to the elevator they went, then down. The floor marker flicked three, two, lobby, and kept going. Three more floors. And there it stopped. The doors opened onto a bunker-style basement suite, cold and empty but for the broken wood chairs piled against one wall and the incandescent light bulbs swinging gaily from the ceiling.
“Mister Lambert—” said one of the faceless men; but Auden never knew what it was he’d said next for they hit him in the back of the head and he lost consciousness.
The next thing he heard was the monotonous voices of the three Symbico men beneath the gentle creak of the rusted chain from which swung one of the lights:
“He’s not worth anything anymore,” said one.
“And we can’t let an asset walk,” said another.
“The council has forbidden sentiment,” said the last.
“He is awakening, sir,” said one of the faceless men. “Shall I hit him again?”
“No, don’t touch him,” said one of the Symbico men. “He’s still a man; he wants to know.”
Auden felt groggy and he struggled to open his eyes. His throat was dry and he coughed to clear it but regretted that at once because of the pounding in his head. He touched his hand to the back of his scalp where they’d hit him and wasn’t surprised when his fingers came away feeling sticky. “What do I want to know?” he asked sarcastically and with a note of morosity, feeling he might pass back to unconsciousness at any moment.
“What you are,” replied the Symbico man – the first, the one with the goatee, who was now looming over him and peering into his face.
“The council still hold their faith and humanity,” said another, turning his expressionless eyes from his friends.
“Much easier to let go of both,” said the last. “But alas, not today. Tell the man what had become. Tell him what he is, Mister Parker.”
The agonizing sound of iron scrapping over the concrete floor filled the room, and Auden knew at once what it was: another man had come into his view, and this one had a face, a young and average-looking face. “I’m Daniel Parker,” he said, righting the chair he’d been dragging and sitting himself on it. “Attorney at law, I represent Symbico international and their subsidiaries.”
“Tell him, Mister Parker.”
Tell him Parker.
The voices of the Symbico men faded away in the quiet of the room and the quiet of his head and left the two of them there beneath the swinging light bulb, Auden with a gnawing headache and the other man absently picking at the threads on the cuff of his jacket. “I don’t think you know any of this yet,” said the lawyer. “I suppose that’s why I’m here. These guys—” He motioned over his shoulder at the now silent Symbico men who were nothing more than faces in the dark. “—they aren’t real good at talking. But I guess they follow some ancient code or something that gives you the right to know what’s happening to you before they – uhh – before you reach retirement.”
Auden didn’t have to be a mind reader to know what he meant.
The lawyer went on: “So I guess a few years ago a scientist was doing brain scans on war veterans who came back in comas. I mean, some of these guys were pretty messed up, like had their skulls blown open and stuff. He was curious to know what the unconscious mind was capable of, and I think he was looking for ways to bring someone back from the brink of death. His research was funded by Symbico International, and it cost the company something like three hundred billion dollars because they basically had to buy the bodies of dead soldiers. Anyway, this guy started saving the lives of men who’d already been pronounced dead. It was pretty big news back then.”
“I don’t get it,” said Auden: the story was dragging on too long already.
The lawyer ignored him. “Symbico isn’t in the business of saving lives exactly,” he said. “They’re more into, well, the kind of stuff governments and militaries won’t pay for. It got out that they were buying bodies and the whole operation was shut down. But the scientist, see, he was on the edge of something big. The men he brought back were sort of unique. Symbico needed more bodies, so they started the war in Jordan.”
“They started a war?”
“You know OIS, can’t back down from a fight. So they load up all the boys and ship them out, and here we are, just coming out of one of the bloodiest conflicts anyone currently alive can remember. And bodies, man, loads of bodies now. Symbico didn’t even have to buy them anymore. They just paid Jordanian hatchet doctors to collect them from the charred cities and inject the nano-mites that do all the work.”
“Is that what happened to me?” Auden asked.
“Sort of,” answered the lawyer. “That’s what was supposed to happen. You were supposed to be the next generation of super-soldier, indestructible, able to kill in a moment without thought. Those bugs in your blood are worth three quarters of a billion dollars alone. But unfortunately it didn’t work. You healed up, OIS picked you up, and you came home. Ever since then you’ve been trying to kill yourself and failing miserably. In fact all you are is a series of rather expensive mistakes, and because Symbico can’t afford another the company has decided to take back its assets.”
It made little sense to Auden. Then kill me, he thought; Just goddamnwell kill me.
“The nanomolecules in your blood are what’s keeping you alive,” said the lawyer. “We’re going to remove them, and then unfortunately we’re going to have to kill you.” He smiled, almost as if the thought of what they were going to do to him was pleasurable; then he added, as if to justify his own sadism: “Though I guess that’s what you’ve been trying to do yourself, so you might say we’re doing you a favour.”
One of the faceless men took Auden by the neck. He could feel the cold prick where the needle pierced his skin, but it didn’t hurt. But this was followed by the unsensational feeling of cords reaching into his body, like tendrils working their way through his blood, even extending to his fingers and toes; and at once they were withdrawn, barbwire pulled mercilessly through his flesh. The pain was unbearable; sweat filled his eyes. Tears came unbidden, and Auden thought for the briefest moment he might pass out – and perhaps die of it, too. But he didn’t do either.
The faceless man’s grip at his throat tightened, and its voice said, “He’s resisting.”
“Break his fingers then,” replied the monotone voice of the Symbico men.
Auden resisted, but it did little effect. They had him, they were stronger than he, and there was little now he could do about it.
They’d trained him for this sort of scenario in the army, taught him to withstand torture, to numb the pain before it happened. They’d run simulations in SpecOps that bordered on real torture, and he knew what it felt like to have ones fingers screwed or back peeled. But now he discovered the training was all for nothing. There wasn’t anything they could’ve told him to prepare him for the actuality of the moment and the pain that came over him now in waves. Surprisingly he didn’t feel it in his fingers, he felt it in his head, burning like an inferno across the breadth of his scalp. And though he’d sworn to himself he wouldn’t justify their actions with an outcry, now he found himself yelling at the top of his lungs until he was hoarse and could scream no longer.
Whatever it was they were trying to draw from him, it seemed to have worked, for in the next moment the faceless men released him and he collapsed, the fire now having worked its way down to his hand.
“What of him now?” asked one of the Symbico men.
“He’s dead,” said another. “Without the nites he cannot survive.”
“But the corpse—”
“Will look like all the rest when the deadmen are done with him, another body on the wharf.”
They left him then and took most of the faceless with them: only two remained. Now these stood before him. One brought him to his knees and made him remain upright while the other unbranded a length of steel piping. With it they beat him until he could no longer see and even the sounds of the world – the soft, wet thwump of the pipe impacting his skull – were faint and distant. He could no longer cry out, no longer cry at all; he could hardly even feel, save for the gentle throb in his hand and face. He felt hot and sticky, and all he could think was, Goddamnit, why am I still alive? Surely fate was not that cruel.
He knew little of what followed or where they took him but he could always after remember very distinctly the sound of the lid of the dumpster where they left him closing and the van driving away.
The sun came up and it struck on his face through a keyhole-sized crack in the sidewall of the steel box, bringing the foul stench of rotting garbage to his lungs. He couldn’t have said with any certainty that he was alive; he surely felt less alive now than he ever had before. But neither was he dead, and that was something – though whether a good something or a bad something might be anyone’s guess. He somehow managed to lift himself from the trash, just the same. He was weak, so weak that even the plastic lid of the dumpster felt like the weight of a car as he pushed against it. It moved a little, and once his arm was over the edge of the box, gravity did the rest and he fell with a soft, sickening smuck on the asphalt of the alleyway.
“Good god, guy!” cried someone whose presence he’d neither seen nor felt. “What the hell were you doing in there? If I didn’t know better I’d say you were dead!”
Auden could honestly say now that he was tired of the hospital routine, tired of the doctors who examined him curiously; because in the end they were each just as puzzled as the last, though they had no fewer questions because of it. The defining difference this time was that there was no release after all the examinations. No record could be found of any man named Auden Lambert still living. The doctor who’d examined his injuries looked at him, puzzled. “Are you certain of your memories?” he asked. “Sometimes severe brain trauma can cause serious confusion.”
“I’m Auden Lambert,” he replied certainly.
There was one Auden Lambert on the record. A veteran, he’d been killed in action in Jordan. A brave hero they said he was. A man of high regard in the corps. His body had never been recovered after the firestorm on the Bank. Auden found that somewhat humorous, but when he laughed it wrung up a horrible stitch in his side. “Call the OIS office in Liberty,” he told the nurse whose duty it was to tell him that he had ceased to exist. “Ask for Lieutenant Commander Allende.”
The nurse did. And when she returned it was to say, “The matter has been settled. The Lieutenant herself is on her way to see you. Said there has been some mix-up in the department.”
“Can I go?” he asked.
“When the doctor has cleared you,” the nurse replied.
Auden wasn’t sure what had rearranged the Office’s priorities. More often than not an old vet couldn’t have gotten the attention of an officer to save his life, even were he dying on the table. But in this instance it was only two days since the nurse had brought him the good news when the she was back again to tell him he had a visitor. Following her was the Lieutenant. And all the memories of the corps, the war, and the fires he’d tried so hard to forget. She wasn’t in uniform but her hair was drawn up and her manner was the razor-sharp demeanor the corps batters into its recruits. It felt like a lifetime ago and only yesterday.
“Lambert,” she said crisply. “Been having a lot of accidents lately.” It wasn’t a joke, was somewhere between accusation and rhetorics.
“What’s going on, Lieutenant?” he asked. “Why am I dead?”
“Your file has been tampered with,” replied the Lieutenant matter-of-factly. “Of course the we’ve corrected the error and internal affairs are looking into it. But it looks to me like you’re lucky to be alive. What happened this time?”
“Got jumped,” said Auden.
She was just affording herself the seat beside his bed, but she arrested the effort mid-motion and fixed him unerringly. “Pandlers?” she asked; he knew she didn’t believe it anymore than he did.
He nodded. “People pick on the weak and crippled. Even vets. A dollar’s a dollar in this world.”
She shrugged. “True enough,” she said. Then: “You’re records will be refurbished, of course. But Doctor Rosenberg has recommended a subscription of pandestimine, and the OIS has agreed to supply it. You’ll be taken care of this time, Captain.”
“I don’t need drugs,” Auden grumbled.
“Regardless,” she said absently, “You’re being put on psychiatric watch, too.” She paused for a moment, as if in mid thought, and then leaned close until he could see the green quite brilliantly in her eyes. “Lambert, what’s going on with you?”
“Why do you care?” he retaliated, for when had the corps ever showed the slightest interest in him? When had they looked after their own? The bodies of the men he’d served with had littered the bank, scored and charred; and OIS could’ve prevented it, if they’d wanted to.
She took his hand. “I’m asking,” she said. “Not the Office.” Indeed, her whole manner had changed. She was no longer Lieutenant Commander Marie Allende.
When he gave no response but estranged astonishment, she said, “I’ll get you out of here, soldier.” She let go of his hand, but not before she’d kissed it. And in that moment Auden’s entire world began to rearrange itself.
She did live up to her promise. A week later the doctor signed the release and Auden walked out of yet another hospital with yet another life to breathe. And this time he wondered more than ever for what purpose he’d been chosen to persist in life.
The Lieutenant picked him up at the doors. “Get in,” she said, her corps manner once more plastered on her face. And he did, sliding into the back seat of the car.
She drove him to a hotel where she’d already paid for a room, and there she walked him through the doors as he had not yet a crutch to replace the one Symbico’s faceless men had taken from him. She rode the elevator with him, too. In the silence of the cubicle, with only the droning whir of the machinery to settle in his ears, he asked her the one prying question he could: “Lieutenant, why are you doing this for me?”
“I feel sorry for you, Lambert,” she answered. “I always have, ever since I brought you back from Jordan.”
“It’s Auden,” he amended, for he hated the sound of his name.
“Then it’s Marie,” she returned in equal haste and with palpable sincerity in her stern eyes.
Before the war he’d usually known when a girl was fond of him. Of course he was years out of practice now. He certainly could say he felt no positive affirmation. Yet he took a chance on it, anyhow. Afterward he wondered what must go through her mind to look with such favour on a man as ugly as he. And yet, as he kissed her in the elevator, it didn’t matter that he was only half a man. When the elevator stopped and she helped him to his room, what difference did it make that his face was ugly and scarred? When she took off his shirt and ran her fingers over the white lines on his back and the sharp ridges where three of his ribs had been replaced with steel counterparts, it was something other than the usual mixture of fear and loathing in her eyes. And when he lifted her up with his one good arm and the expression on her face became something else altogether, he knew that whatever dastardly, decisive force it was that had made hell of his life, it could find no place between him and this woman who’d always been strong enough to bear what he no longer could. And he was glad.
The next few weeks were a bleary daze for him. He was happy, he thought, happier than he could ever remembered being. Marie drove him back to Liberty, which was ironic since this was where it had all began. She had a highrise apartment in Manhattan where he stayed. When his papers cleared and she told him he was no longer dead, he actually laughed. But what did him the most good was to hear the giggle in her voice as he caught her against the wall and kissed her neck. She was so pretty, he realized. He supposed he’d always known it, even when she was yelling at him in Contemporary, when the fine lines of her face were masked by the stern, commanding authority of the OIS. He wondered how he had managed to serve under her without doing something about it before.
Those days were perhaps the best of his life; and yet they, too, came to their own timely end, all too soon.
It happened one day in late summer when the trees all down Ganton Street were turning brown. Marie was still at the Office, working late as she often did. A knock came at the apartment door, and Auden answered it briskly. Later he wished he’d not.
The face that met him was the same hollow, empty thing that still haunted his dreams. Only in his dreams the mask was removed, though he never could recall what it was that it hid.
“Mister Lambert,” it said now, “please come with me.”
He wasn’t sure what context the faceless man used the word come in, but it was no context he’d ever heard before for in the moment that followed he saw only the whir of a world passing by in a fountain of violet sunset and he had the distinct feeling of passing through a doorway. The lights and familiar smells of the apartment vanished from mind and were replaced instead by dull, damp, moldy smells, like those of a cellar where he’d once been beaten nearly to death with an iron rod. The light was poor, but it didn’t hide the three familiar faces peering at him from out of the shadows.
“Still alive?” said the voice of one of the Symbico men. He put his head to one side and blinked like an owl.
“Impossible,” said another.
“How could it be so?” asked the third.
The third Symbico man’s question seemed to be answered, not by any sense of reason but by the clear, resolutely deafening gunshots which set Auden’s ears to ringing. The faceless man who’d brought him through the violet door seemed as though to sprout into a mess of blood one moment; the next he was gone altogether, superseded only by a momentary fleeting aura of vibrant indigo that always seemed to accompany their coming and going. The shooter was the first of the Symbicos. Failure, failure, failure, he whispered; then he turned the handgun on Auden. Though his aim was that of an established murderer, the look in the Symbico man’s eyes and the hang in his head was rather more that of a curious child. The flash, the bang, the roar: it consumed Auden; but it was the trickle of blood running through his hair that told him what had happened. His fingers touched the entry point, his other hand found the exit. His head rang with the thunder and tears soaked his eyes. “You can’t kill me,” he said absolutely. “Believe me, I’ve been trying.” Though not lately, of course.
“Removing the nites should’ve taken it—” said one, interrupted by the other, who said, “But of course whatever thing he holds will be taken—”, and then the last cut in, saying, “When she gets here.”
Who, Auden wondered? But he didn’t have to wonder long: the shadows of the room were lit by a brilliant plume, rather like the indigo aura that encompassed the disappearance of the faceless man; but this one, instead of taking away, added not one but three more of the masked soldiers to that damp, stale cellar. Between these three was Marie knelt on the asphalt, her face bruised and bloodied, running even down her arms and chest. They’d beaten her badly, enough to break most people, but her face was written with the stolid defiance of a soldier.
“Auden, what have they done to you?” she cried.
“This is the woman?” asked one of the Symbicos.
“Indeed,” said another.
“She’s broken,” said the last. Removing his hat, he knelt and looked her in the face. “We will not hurt you any longer,” he said.
She spat on him and struggled to rise. “You people are cowards!” she shouted. “Get out of my face!”
The Symbico was unperturbed and wiped the drizzle from his cheek.
“Eh, shoot her,” he said unremorsefully.
Auden’s last breath halted in one cold moment, his mind reeled, and for the startling beat of his heart he was undeniably aware of how immortal he was and how immortal she was not.
“No!” he shouted. “Take me!”
“Hold,” said one of the Symbicos undramatically.
“Speak then, Mister Lambert, and tell us who gave you nites,” said the other.
“Or she’ll die,” added the third.
“No one!” Auden shouted. Never had he ever seen death so clearly and known that every moment that followed would make or break it. “Something else is keeping me alive, I swear it!”
“Then shoot her,” said the Symbicos dismissively. “Human curses mean nothing to us.”
“Wait!” cried Auden. “You people think you failed with me but you’re wrong, you didn’t fail. I can’t die. I’ve tried to kill myself because I can’t stand to go on but something in me is keeping me alive, and it isn’t your goddamn experiments anymore!”
The Symbico men paused and looked at each other. “Ex astri,” one said. “Por dextri,” said another. And the last just looked at the first two and nodded.
Again the world seemed to just slip away, like an eye winking out. But this time the reawakening was not a gentle happening. Auden felt a sharp pang in his chest. Something hard hit his face and then he was falling into a soft carpeted floor.
Nearby the Symbico men were cursing. Their voices were drowned beneath the roar of a gunshot, and for one terrifying moment Auden was sure that they’d shot Marie, and he gave up all hope. But he found he was kneeling beneath a strong fluorescent light, crimson carpet beneath his knees. The Symbico men were all around him now, and one of them held Marie by the hair. She seemed to have passed from consciousness, and not at the hands of a forty calibre bullet.
They were back in the Symbico assembly room once more. All the seats now were empty, save one, and in this one was sat doubled a figure bound all in shadow save for its very ashen hands which were upon its bony knees. Now the Symbicos called softly, Heil Lord, tell us what to do.
The hand upon the knee was stirred, and the dour man on the throne lifted slowly his hatted head until Auden could see a face far uglier even than his, a face rotted and calloused by more sin than even he could dream of. The man’s eyes seemed as though to glow with some strange iridescence, and when he parted his lips it was only to display broken and crooked brown teeth, for he said nothing at all. Yet Auden heard him, just the same. He heard, as if of his own thoughts: ven strange . . . e . . . mannie, counting slow yen dais . . . hark n heil, and be judged, for ye’re lyin strange.
It was impulsive, really: Auden knew he must not let this thing hear into his thoughts, and so he called upon every strength he had to turn away his mind, to let nothing be easy taken from him. That the ancient and decrepit thing sitting before him on the throne was reading his mind seemed obvious, and he was determined to fight it. But it was hopeless and he helpless: it was so strong and its thoughts like a vice.
Then the Symbico men spoke:
“Heil, Lord, you say so?” said one.
“How can this be?” asked the other.
“He has blinded us all!” cried the third.
Let he be estranged! said the thought of the thing, clear as any spoken word; and somehow Auden knew what that meant, to be estranged: he knew he was going to die.
He screamed, he yelled, he cried. He raised his fists and lashed out at the faceless men who held him, and in his mind he pictured that bent and doubled thing on the throne being pushed down, he dashing its head on the hard oak arm of the chair until the light in its eyes went out. And when he looked he’d done just that: the old man lay on the floor, shrieking silent pain, and all around him the Symbico men were reeling and looking dazed.
“Heil, he is!” cried one.
“Osta, e Arbitrator!” said the other, and in the next moment all four had winked out and were gone, leaving only Auden and Marie with the faceless men, who caught hold of them both, and then too were enveloped in the violet glow and the door opened and the faceless men dragged them through.
They came out beneath the Manhattan dike wall on the wharf. The faceless soldiers took Auden’s wrists and knelt him against the concrete barricade, execution style. Marie they set before him, the gun in her hand. And now he understood in some small way what these people were. Marie’s hand shook, and though the resolve in her eyes fought with the militia ferocity of a dog, it was only a dog in a cage; and as her finger drew the trigger to and the hammer fell, Auden saw everything still that mattered to him wink away before his eyes.
When he awoke cold and alone on the asphalt of the dike wall, Marie lay before him. Her body was naked and cold. The blood that had once gushed from her head was now long-since congealed and would flow no more. Her eyes were wide and stared at him mercilessly. He didn’t close them; he didn’t turn away. His tears ran fresh with her blood; but she would bleed no more.
There were no hospitals this time. No doctors. He lay on the cold wall of the wharf in the dark of the night, watching the occasional star drift through the layers of smog. And when the stars vanished into the dark of early morning he found he could move – and whatsmore, he wanted to. Put the horrors away, deep into the back of his mind. Find some semblance of peace.
He went north into Canada, hitching when he could, walking when he couldn’t. But he rarely had to walk far: even strangers find goodness in their hearts when they pass a man on the road whose luck has fallen so low that fate has taken half of that which God gave and no man should ever be without. He stole to eat, and on he went, not sleeping, just walking. Once in Canada, he went west.
It took two weeks for the gaping holes in his head beneath his toque to close and the headaches to subside to dull, bearable pains. But in the end there was nothing more than a white scar beneath what little hair he had left. And for those two weeks and the months which followed he never once tried to kill himself. Perhaps he knew somewhere deep within now that there was no way out for him, no easy fix. He was stuck with what he’d been given, forced to walk the lonely road alone. Forced to be a monster.
And he was a monster. He understood that now. Knew it far better when he first killed a man in cold blood for the money in his wallet. He felt remorse, but only a little: he was no longer a man. What did it matter, life or death? For him or some other guy? For one moment he’d thought the world still held some hope; for one moment he’d been so undeniably wrong.
Something was different, he knew now. Something had clicked in him that night on the wharf. He was different. One night he’d been walking on the blacktop somewhere west of Detroit. The world had turned itself upside down, cars parting the road as if they’d never been made to travel on it at all. The gravel beneath his feet vibrated for one momentous second and then lifted into the dark of the night in an inverted rain of disconcert. For a moment he was alarmed and terrified; but in the end he realized that it was not the world that had been inverted at all but rather it was he.
And so, more than a three months from that night on the wharf, he found himself standing on the edge of Highway 12 with the traffic whirring by at his back, and he knew what he had to do, knew what it was that would take him from this world at last. He knew how to be whole again. He turned off that click in his head. He waited until it was silent, until there was nothing there at all, and in the empty void of his own thoughts he let himself fall into the traffic and be carried away to whatever it was that came next. But again he was wrong.
As they wheeled him into emergency on the crashcart, blood gushing from the reopening in his head, his only remaining limbs now gone beyond his control, it wasn’t the usual torment of failure and a life of pain yet to live that Auden was thinking of. He remembered only with startling clarity a single moment in his life so long ago: a man named Charlie handing him a folded slip of paper with a number scribed across it. That moment became Auden’s entire existence; and as he lay in the hospital bed waiting for the feeling and motor control to return to his limbs Charlie was all he could think of. Was the paper still in his wallet? Would the number still go where once it would’ve? Was Charlie even still alive?
It was four agonizing days before he could feel his fingers, and then they burned with a rampant fire that ran up his arm and seared in his flesh. But he ignored it and begged the orderly to bring his affects, which she did. He turned out his wallet on the sheet, and it spilled a handful of stolen cash, a coupon for a pizza place in Manhattan, a single slip of tobacco rolling paper, and the tab of an aluminum can. For a moment he was afraid he’d lost the number, but he found it lodged still between the folds of leather, some the worse for wear and the ink having run with the waters of the Kelterine; but it was still quite readable. He begged the orderly for a phone. She brought it. He dialed the number. It rang. And rang again. And he knew that it would never quit ringing. But then someone picked up on the other end, and a voice that now seemed a lifetime away said, “Yea? It’s Charlie.”