Another short piece as I finish up the final epic story about labyrinths. This one is short and meant to be an interview scrounged up from the archives of a distant intelligence apparatus of a distant Empire
Read below and enjoy!
Read below and enjoy!
There was once a reason for fighting. I no longer have that reason. Why? You may ask. Well, I’ll tell you. And I assure all my friends that it’s not a matter of cowardice...
[Breathes for a few seconds, staring at his trembling hands]
And no, it’s not my bones, my old joints that act like demons when I wake up, or sit or stand in any position for too long. No, it’s none of that. But it doesn’t surprise me that some young buck such as yourself would think that about his elders. In my day we definitely didn’t talk down to our elders, no matter how useless they were. And I assure you that I’m not useless.
[Booms in the background]
You hear that? Artillery. Used to be that they'd hold back on such things near civilians, but that was only for appearances anyways.
[He sniffles, wipes his face and nose with his sleeve]
Man. One really gets misty-eyed just remembering the past... Used to watch my grandma stare at the tree in front of our house in the city, like a statue. I always wondered how that was. But you get old, young one. You get old and suddenly memories are as strong as the real thing. And the real thing is your body falling apart, your eyesight useless, your hearing nothing but a whine. You stop experiencing, and you need memories to keep you sane. And you look back with fondness. You try and form memories, and suddenly you’ve done just that. Of course, I ain’t going to boast, but I’m sure I’ve done more than most. Hell, I did more than most by the age of 10. You see, we have family in The city, most of them left Northern Ireland. But my mom and I, and my older sister, were left to fight it out in Belfast. Well, my mother wasn’t leaving. And she warned both me and my sister that we were to do good in school and not make trouble. You know the type. I love my mother, but she was working class assured that moving up to middle class was the only way to make happiness in life. Basically she’d bought in on all that tripe and propaganda made by types who wish to see no violence on their manicured lawns. Not that I blame her. It wasn’t all just her believing tripe on the TV and on shows. No, it was also the loss of our pa. Died when we were 5. I would always see ma staring at his crumpled picture. Only evidence, besides us, that he ever lived.
[Sniffles, bites lip and taps metallic hand on his chin]
Our pa, Christ I haven’t the faintest memory of him any more, he was shot up by some SAS types. Murdered, I’d say, but I’m not sure about the circumstances behind his death so I won’t speculate. Though given what those Empire bastards were capable of, it’s fair to side on murder. SAS especially. Always doing something outside the realm of human. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Well, memories of my dad are limited. Especially now. Hell, I’m not even sure that there’s much in here.
[He taps his temple]
But there are shadows of a gruff man talking to my ma, of a man yelling at my ma, and her giving it back. But that could all have been made up. It could also have been that she was talking to his friends. Left overs from the cell that got blasted. Or maybe all my memories of him were merely tales whispered to me about him from my ma. This was only when she was drinking. When she was sober, she hardly spoke of him. As if mentioning him would lead us, me, down the same path… All I have of him is this.
[He leans over, the popping of his joints loud and apparent—he raises his eyebrows when others flinch to this noise—and pulls from his pocket a photograph. It’s a color photograph of a young man and woman. The man seems grim, and the woman shining in smiles]
This is it. Funny looking at your pa and seeing him as always younger than you. That’s how he stays. Makes me wonder about the only the good die young saying. Don’t it?
[Looks up, his eyes misting over, then looks down at the photograph]
I mean, I used to think that it was a matter of only the good people being taken down by the evil and more treacherous people of this world. Or, to give you a wartime situation: when one faces the guns of an enemy only the ones with kind hearts will sacrifice themselves for their friends. The cowards will survive and live on in the world. But nowadays I wonder about this, and I think that maybe this isn’t what the saying means. Perhaps it means that those who die young are filtered through the prism of time by those who survive and that with that prism of nostalgia the image of those who died young will be more and more glorified. Or maybe it’s just that the young don’t have time to sell out their ideals and they are indeed deserving of their accolades when they die young.
[Coughs, shifts in seat, holds his side and grimaces in pain]
I’m rambling now. You tend to do that when you get old. Not much time left, so I suppose one tends to spew all the thoughts in the mind, trying to beat death. But back to my pa. My ma, when sober, never told us a word about him. So who’s to say her drunk words were any more truthful. You could tell she loved him. Pained her to realize that whatever future she had imagined with him was gone forever. That he had left her in this world alone. And you could see that anger thrown at us at times. Especially when either of us acted in the slightest like him.
[Shakes his head]
Not that I blame her. With kids in the neighborhood getting caught up with the fight against the Empire, there wasn’t much else to do for her but try and purge that. I know she didn’t want to lose us too. But even then… why tell us nothing about our father? Like that’s going to push away fate? For me, all it made me do is want to be more like him, and the less I knew, the harder I wanted to be something I didn’t know.
But she tried. God bless her soul. In those times, though, every single boy becoming a teen ended up helping out the rebels. When those old friends of my father came about there was always a tension. And as soon as any of them talked to me or my sister, my ma would be yelling in full volume and beating their chests and pushing them out the door. She had a temper on her, my ma.
[Leans his head back and smiles with his eyes closed]
Can’t help swallowing a little shit when you’re swimming in it, though. When I was eight, I remember waking up in our little basement apartment. It was spring, and raining outside, and that building of ours was moldy and dripping. You could hear the bangs of the pipes as people tried their luck with the running water. I stood up in my bed. My sister slept in the same room, though my mother had finally found me a separate army cot to sleep in. My sis had been crying about having to sleep with her brother even though she was a woman. I crept out of bed. I remember it like it was yesterday. That metal cot threatening to creak, and me trying my hardest to not make a sound. Breathing only when it was necessary.
I could hear the distant throttling of trucks. Then the sound of tracks grinding up the road into gravel. We always had soldiers patrolling in our neighborhood, but we’d been spared most of the fighting and the sound of raids. No, our apartment was mainly women and children, and that spared us.
Then I heard boots sprinkling themselves across the road. I had to see. I was out of our room. In the hallway I pressed my ear against my ma’s door. Nothing. I made my way to the living room window. It was one of those half windows with a slit to see the feet of the world passing by. I could see the trucks and soldiers across the street. There were search lights too, and barrels of guns, and they were all pointed at our building. I was little, and youth like that means no fear of knowledge. I ran into the hallway. I could see some shadows outside the door.
I froze. Part of me wanted to stay there and watch. Another part of me—the one that had heard about how the Empires, cause this is who was about to attack our apartment building, loved killing kids then planting guns on them, or telling the world that the terrorists did it—said to hide. Thank God the latter won out. There was a crawlspace with an entrance underneath the stairs. I may have been the only one to know about its existence. And I kept it well hidden with a handful of boxes in front of it. I ran under the stairs, shifted the boxes and crawled in. I almost screamed with a furry creature ran over my foot—I was barefoot, mind you—but that was nothing.
The bang was absolute. I have no idea why they would go and blow up our front door, it was the only thing that kept our building relatively safe from the thieves of the neighborhood, and we would have gladly opened it for them. But no. They blew it up.
[Shakes head and nods at a glass of water on a table across. Once he has it, he sips it and sighs]
Shook me to my core. Always heard explosions before. Even the big car bombs that shook the earth. But it’s quite another thing to be near one. My ears popped and instinctively, I started to climb up that space. Couldn’t see anything. But I could feel those cold, dripping pipes. And up I went. I could hear boots from through the wall. But it wasn’t much.
Then, below me, a light shone around blindly. Thank good I moved. I heard some mumbles, then the light went out. They must have figured it was too small to hide anyone. But I was scared now. I knew something bad was happening. Funny how you can tell. I climbed higher. My heart was bouncing around, and by now my arms were hurting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to hold my ma, but fear only kept me crying.
At this point, I was hearing the sound of doors being kicked in. Some far, some near. And the gruff yells of men. I was sure that was the Empires, at this point, just being the bullies we’ve always known them to be.
[Shakes his head]
I should say that even at that point, knowing my pa had been killed by Empires and all, didn’t necessarily mean that I hated them through and through. My ma wanted me to work hard at school and head out to Big City to get a job. So her reply to any of my questions on the Empires was to be measured about them. Like I said, middle class ethics. She was hoping to mimic the middle class and by some sense of fairness on the part of occupiers she hoped that I would be as Empire as I could be. As long as it gave me some level of comfort in life. You get it? So I knew the stories, but I also knew that they might have had a tough time of being there. That they had nothing but bad and worse choices. I was a smart lad, I was able to see that. So remember that.
I finally came to a wall that had a wide crack in it. I peered in. It was an unlit room. I strained my eyes to see any figures, but there was nothing. Yet those little hairs on my skin told me to watch.
[Shifts again in his seat. Stares blankly at a space in front of him. His jaw pops as he grinds his teeth]
Horrid thing for a little boy to see. For as much as I wanted to be a man then, and I was a strong little bastard, smart too, smarter than all my teachers, male or otherwise, seeing that kind of thing always turns you a little off. And then I just took it. Thought that was how a man took it. But man was I wrong. This wasn’t for a kid like me. A kid. That’s what I was.
[Breathes in heavily. Closes his eyes]
I remember the grip on my bladder and balls. I was staring at a black room, with maybe the occasional scurries of rats across the floor, and in the distance, echoing up the crawlspace were the shouts and yells, screams of women. Gruff replies of men. It was like a nightmare. Though to be fair, the screams didn’t last. If that means anything. Any kid with sense would have gone back home. But how little sense I had. Then there was a loud explosion right in front of me. That flash almost blinded me. The dark room had an open door, and a hallway beyond that. I could only see the flashlights occasionally hit the wall of the hallway. Shadows grew. I thought I saw a shape move in the room.
But that didn’t matter. There was a loud shriek. A woman screaming. You could tell she was being pushed around. Where is he? Asked a man. He didn’t sound like he wanted to hear screaming. She continued to scream, then a slap silenced her. There were some gruff voices, then furniture, pots and pans being thrown about. Then the screams started back up. Suddenly the boots grew louder. I pulled back from the crack as the lights flashed into the room.
I leaned back in; the screams were right in front of me. Man, did I want to pee. I was leaning against a pipe and the wall, pretty comfortable, but I felt my legs shaking, my wrists too. Like there was no more energy in my mind, and thus no more in my muscles. And I wanted to drink as much water as possible, my throat too dry to even swallow. And as little as I knew then, I knew that leaning forward wouldn’t be something I would ever recover from… That I would no longer see anything in the world in the same way… So I leaned forward.
[Shrugs, acts sheepish]
What else can you expect from a kid? Christ. The stupidity that a child must be. I never understood that. You know? I mean how did our species survive this long by allowing our men to be such sons of bitches? Stupid… Ah, there I go again.
I leaned forward. I saw the room’s light on, now. The woman was being held with one long arm by a soldier. These weren’t the normal soldiers, they were dressed in black, and they had rolled up their sleeves. I could see tattoos on all of them. Skulls. They were evil, I knew it. The hand holding down the woman, occasionally shaking her, was full of these skulls. All the soldiers wore face masks. Shaped like skeletons, they were.
[Shifts when there seems to be an unbelieving cough]
Christ, you kids. You don’t believe me, do you?
[Laughs. Sucks in saliva in a loud and rude manner]
That’s life for you. You live too much of a real life and most people will never believe you. It was true. They wore these masks, most of them. And the woman in a corner, the other soldiers, about ten of them, were around a man. He wore a white shirt and black undershorts. He had green eyes, this man, and they gleamed with pure hatred for the men. His hair, that half reddish-brown clomp on his head was being held by one. His arms tied behind him, he was at their mercy. They had him on his knees, and every time he shifted they punched him.
They were asking him questions, but he, a mouthful of blood by this point, he only spit and cursed at them. I was watching, and I felt an immense sadness for the man. He was caught, wild eyed. And in that I could see a something about honor in him. Something about an undying spirit, but I also was certain that it was hopeless. That the soldiers, with their laughs and taunts, were only questioning him to see him fight back. And they too knew that his fight was hopeless.
What does a child do with that sort of scene in front of him? Does he accept it for what it is? How can he? How could I? Think about it for a second. And christ, why did I watch?
The woman was reduced to whimpering, her night dress torn now, and she used one hand to keep her breasts out of sight of the soldiers. There was something of a pack of wolves about them, and though I was a kid, I knew that if she let the night gown down, let her breasts be seen, that they would have devoured her. In a worse way than the man.
And they taunted him, punched him. Over and over. Kicks. Barrels to his chest. One barrel thrust broke his teeth. I remember the blood on the floor. Red, mixed with that dusty concrete that made up the apartment building. Small cracks that spit up powder and ants. But here it was filled with red. A veritable river. Sad, really. I stared at the river whenever that man’s spits grew too panful to watch. I have seen such things. Not so bad. Without the sense that there wouldn’t be an ending. Kids in school would do this, surround a kid and taunt him until he cried. But that never lasted more than a few minutes. The tears weren’t meant to be his last.
And the man broke. I don’t know how long I had been in that position, my muscles cramping up, my joints full of pain, but he broke. The shouts of determination quieted. And the woman said something. The soldiers laughed. Punched the woman, and the man. And the man broke. Hard thing to watch a man break. Never one to like it. Even now. Even in my most prolific days I never cared too much for such things. And as a kid it was a horrendous mixture of things. I mean, at the end of the day, the worst things we’ve been through, isn’t about the things themselves, but what they do to us, how they crawl or blast through our skin and bones and mind and leave you nothing but an animal, reacting to a subconscious that’s screaming that you’ve gone too far, that this isn’t the best thing to watch.
I stared, and the man almost whimpered. The soldiers laughed. Though I’m certain I saw at least one who shifted like he didn’t like it either, but what does it matter? He was one of them. The man started to shake after this. Uncontrollable tremors. I wanted to scream through the wall. I wished I had a gun. I wanted to kill them all.
The soldiers were really digging this. They laughed and brought the man to his feet. They taunted his woman with barrels threatening to tear off her nightgown. And my heart, bleeding in my mouth by this point, froze. The man was next to his woman and she held him. Then he pushed her away.
I looked away. I had to. Shots. More shots. Then the men said something mean. I heard whimpering, though I’m not sure, because the drips of the pipes seemed ever louder. And the boots of the soldiers herded out of the room. Then silence. Beautiful silence. Only the taste of blood in my mouth. My heart beating so loud that I was sure it was echoing through the crawlspace. There was the light of the crack. I moved my head. There was only a red floor and an outstretch arm. My head was too tight to comprehend what was going on. And it were as if my skull was tightening around it.
I made my way down. The sound of tracks and trucks in the distance didn’t concern me. Being found didn’t concern me either. I wanted to be shot. It would have been a relief. I crawled back into my apartment. And lay back to bed.
“Where did you go?” my sister asked.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t, couldn’t tell her. And that’s how it starts to weigh on you, isn’t it? One secret from someone you love, and the world starts to shear in places you never thought possible.
Even that morning, I woke up, having slept, but that troublesome sleep, and that was the first time I experienced that. But I heard whispers, my ma and my sister were conferring. They rarely did that. I tried to hear. All I heard was my sister telling her that I had gone missing for a long time. When I walked into the kitchen, I could feel their eyes. Pity. I’d been expecting anger of some sort, but all I got was pity. That hurt more than anything else. And it only strengthened my resolve to hold my secret. So my mother asked, and I lied. Said I never left the apartment. Mind you, up until that point lying turned me red, made me squirm. But then and there I was full of verve. I was trying not to think about the previous night, and in fact I had managed to hide the images from myself. Christ. What a kid. To think one can forget. If only. Well, now it’s easier. But not for a kid. That’s how it goes. And I thought then I had it beat. But I didn’t think that being able to lie without all the other actions that normally came with it was an issue. My mother stared at me, then let it be.
[He opens his eyes. They seem wet but dry as well. He points at a bottle. A young boy, out of the shadows hands it to him. He drinks from it. The smell of alcohol drifts around. He closes his eyes, then holds his back. Then grimaces]
The neighborhood was alight with rumors. No one really knew what was going on. It was almost funny. And that was another thing that died. Until that point I’d believed every word that came out of any adult’s mouth. But then and there I knew how little they knew. First some people didn’t even know that someone had died. They speculated that it was just to scare them. Some of them argued that the police, like the newspapers said, had found a cache of weapons. There were pictures of artillery shells. Most people were horrified with this. After all, now our idyllic neighborhood would be targeted, and there would be a reason. Wouldn’t there? That was the worst of it. And that made me rethink my entire view of these people I once held in esteem. And there I was, near the bus stop, and I asked them what if it was to kill someone. And they laughed and called me a kid. Pity again. And I felt like I’d crossed into another realm.
Even at school there was hardly a peep of truth. Some kids raised their hands and asked our teacher what it was all for. And he just hemmed and hawed like there wasn’t anything worse to talk about. In the end he mumbled something about the police and military needing to go in and do something to clean up the neighborhood. The city. The country. I bit my tongue hard enough to draw blood. Some of the kids were all for the military. The others said that they were more than happy that the military was there, while others said that they were merely angry that they had been disturbed. Something about working people needing sleep. And the teacher hummed and nodded his head and stroked his chin, and I knew then that there was nothing that I could learn from him. Not in this realm (and at that point was there another realm that mattered. Not to that little boy I was, and not to even me when I grew older). I bit my tongue even harder. And I also noticed then that the kids who parroted the adults—those who knew so little—tried to sound the most knowledgeable and they were the ones the teacher tried to listen to the most.
I let this sit at the bottom of my heart as I watched the neighborhood slowly forget that anything happened. And soon they were talking about something else, and the kids at school were soon on to the next story, in this case a kid in third grade was eating dirt.
I went back up to that room. After everyone had forgotten. It was the top floor, and the door had been recently fixed. Unlocked. I walked inside. Not a thing. I made my way to the room. Empty. Clean. I saw the crack where I’d spied on the pitiful couple. And as clean as the place was, there was still the ghosts of what had happened. I could smell it, and I could feel it pry into my mind and my muscles. I knew that this was something evil. That ground on which blood spills is ground fertile for spirits. Yeah, laugh at me now. And maybe I should be laughed at. But you need to see such places. Especially in silence. The things that are whispered in your ear. Of course there’re ghosts.
[Shivers and slowly rubs his arms. Boy brings him a blanket. He grips it with his teeth and pulls it over his body]
This will also happen to you when you’re old.
I left that apartment. There were two other people on that floor. I knocked on both doors. One was an old couple. Old as me now, I suppose. And they said they hadn’t heard anything. I believed them. They could barely see me. And the next door. Well, they had seen something. But they shrugged, then watched me as if I was some sort of abhorrent creature who had nothing but trouble to make. Guess they were right, in the end. But what’s so wrong about trying to remember those who had passed?
And then I realized. Yes even at that age. I realized that was what power, empire, what have you, can do. It can make you disappear and make it hard for anyone to talk about you, and soon you will be forgotten. That was what happened. Over and over. And it was that simple. That realization knocked the air out of my lungs. Almost fell down the stairs. But I managed, and I survived. Nothing worse than for a kid to realize everything is a crystalized lie, and that if he lets anyone know he knows, then he’s done for.
So I pushed my head into books. Books from school, of course, but also books that weren’t allowed. I had to learn everything about the world that there was to learn. There was no stopping me. My ma didn’t seem too concerned, as she was proud of my academic achievements. And what child wouldn’t be? But I needed to learn. So after school, I would sneak off. I knew where the people who didn’t talk nicely about the Empire lived. They were in the alleys, and in the basements of bars. They were the men I’d seen evicted from my apartment. They were the link to my father.
The first time I wandered into an alley, there were several men huddled behind a garbage can. A knife was pulled on me. Easy, it’s just a kid. Looks old enough, why’s he spying? Kid, why you spying. I ain’t. Bold bastard, ain’t ya? I ain’t scared of ya. It’s Roger’s boy. They all fell silent. What you want son? Asked an older man with flecks of gold teeth. He seemed worn, but potentially violent, and his voice crackled like a truck idling. What are you doing? It’s rude to ask son. He smiled. More gold teeth. I looked over my shoulder. You knew my pa? That seemed to settle everyone. They looked down at their feet. The old man too. We knew him. How did he die? Silence. Road noise. A plane flew far above. I could feel my heart bouncing around and making its way to my mouth. Why did I want to know? I was scared just thinking about it. I felt my knees go weak.
Some of the men grumbled. We can’t let him know, his ma’ll kill us. Well, he has to know. Christ, what if the same happens to him. Will you live with it?
The old man raised his hand for silence and stepped forward. I remember thinking that I was truly on my way to becoming a man and becoming something more than what I had ever been, and I felt proud. And I knew that I was scared, but that was part of it. Surely I knew so little and thought so much.
The old man, I remember he smelled like cigarettes. No alcohol, though, so I got to thinking that he was the brains of the operation. It was like everyone was holding their breath.
Your old man. He was shot. A battle. He was helping drag a friend to safety. Sniper got him. He died right away.
I nodded. These men, this old man, may have been relegated to the alley of our town, but they knew so much more than everyone else. The shopkeepers, the teachers. Everyone.
You know what happened in my building a few months ago? I asked, and was surprised that my voice didn’t tremble.
The old man studied my eyes. Not sure.
The police came in and shot a man. I think his woman too. I watched.
They make you watch?
I was hiding. They shot him after he begged. And my head felt lighter, like I had just released a heavy pack, and I felt happy too, that there was someone I could talk to about all this.
The old man placed his hand on my shoulder. He seemed sad, and I wanted to tell him it was okay.
Sorry you had to see that son.
I held my breath.
You shouldn’t be here. You ma would be mad.
I didn’t want to bad mouth my ma, even though I wanted to.
This isn’t what your pa would want. He seemed intent of getting me out of sight.
No one else knows. Now my voice did tremble.
The old man nodded his head and stood up.
Why did they shoot him like that?
It’s how they work.
And do we work like that?
Do you? I didn’t realize that my voice was yelling.
I didn’t know what that meant. But it calmed me down.