He had been driving for hours through that unstable, somnambulist night when he fell asleep at the wheel. He awoke with a start and nearly catapulted the car into a somersault by lunging for the brakes. Luckily he was able to snatch a vestige of consciousness from the tundra of his sleeping mind, and the car slid to a soft, long halt in the middle of the road. He lifted his raw hands from the wheel. His head throbbed and his eyes ached. He was dizzy with hunger. The first lavender smudges of dawn had begun to stain the sky. He eyed the whole affair of dawn with a neurotic suspiciousness. Faint morning light started to film the jagged edges of the horizon. He looked over to where Suzie lay sleeping. Her lips were slightly parted, her fingers loose. A rosy bruise had developed at the side of her mouth where he had struck the gun from her face. He rubbed his eyes and rolled down the window. The pre-dawn wind had subsided into a cool offshore breeze. But still, the faint ocean aroma carried with it something inherently artificial, as if the smell of the sea had been added to an already moving wind. But despite all these ominous qualities, the wind felt pleasant and revitalising against his unwashed skin. He opened the door and stepped out onto the highway. In the distance, just beyond the closest rise he could discern the shapes and configurations of the city. He could also see the sea.
The Boy stood stiff and comfortable in his rumpled all-night clothes and watched as a bilious sun rose over the freshly packaged day. Its unwholesome light burnished what he took to be the sea in a shimmering glaze of shifting glitter. Light filtered slowly over the carefully crafted hills and a faint lick of the sun's warmth breathed over his clammy skin. The Boy felt sick and suicidal in that light. He climbed back into the car and began to drive towards the urban skyline. Suzie awoke speechlessly as highways melded beneath the large flyovers, which marked the entrance to the city. Billboards advanced and declined like enormous blank televisions as the urban structures began to finally tower into focus. It was all so much worse than he'd anticipated it to be. Some of the plaster buildings had collapsed under their own weight, creating enormous crash sites of crushed wooden frameworks and wide fields of bone white rubble. Naturalistic, soft-bodied mannequins had been mounted everywhere. They could be seen walking soft nylon dogs or sitting behind the soft, plastic windows of ice-cream parlours like storefront dummies. There were millions of them, extending motionlessly into the matrix of frozen streets. Enormous hollow buildings tottered in the rickety wind. They weaved between all the dead cars, stuck like beetles along the freeze-frame roads. Hundreds of stalled cars crawled past the windows. The Boy became so distracted that he accidentally drove down a line of child dummies at an inner city zebra crossing. They bulged sickeningly under the wheels as he ground to an abrupt standstill. He found that his hands were shaking uncontrollably. The scalding lenses of tears lubricated his vision into blurs. He blinked the drops away to see Suzie staring hollow-eyed at him, a perplexed frown playing over her face. She looked as though she were watching a rabbit dying, with something like abject pity. She took his hand clumsily but then let it go again . He turned off the idling car and the silence hit them like a freight train. He started the car again without thinking and attempted to reverse. Tears spilled from his eyes as he accidentally backed into a jutting Toyota. He jerked the gears and heaved forward between the dummies and strewn cars. Metal scraped against metal as he misjudged distance. A yellow taxi rocked against them. Suzie was gripping the dashboard, staring numbly at him. Cars clogged the road ahead like fallen bricks. Reversing was now an impossibility. The Boy put his throbbing head against the wheel, feeling the grind of the engine as it reverberated deep into his skull and spine. He began to cry. Suzie leaned over and cut the engine. The sound of his sobbing became as stark as blood against the awful world of quiet. And so he wound down like a clockwork toy in the face of all that emptiness, staring uselessly at the speedometer through the spokes of the wheel. The shuddering within him slowly subsided.
"We'd better start walking," Suzie eventually said.
The Boy leaned back heavily, pawing at his face like an animal. He felt her door open. Then he heard the rasping burr of a match and smelled cigarette smoke. He opened his door and stumbled out into the road. His eyes cleared, and he saw the freeze-frame city extending away from him in all directions. The even wind dried the tears on his face, carrying with it the same false scent of the sea. It was jarring to smell nothing but this on the wind. This and the cars, and the human stink of a sleepless night. The city itself smelled of fresh plaster and warm wool. It smelled like a grandmother's attic. He turned to see Suzie pushing over a policeman dummy with a cigarette spindling in her mouth.
"Fucking pig,"she chuckled as the dummy bounced comically against a light post.
The Boy felt suddenly and frantically alone, standing there, uncertain on the simulacrum of a street. She looked up and saw him watching her. A frown divided her brow.
"What?" she leered.
He swallowed dryly and walked to the trunk.
"Nothing," he muttered hoarsely.
He proceeded to unpack their meagre supplies into a laundry bag while Suzie set the policeman dummy's head on fire. He watched grimly as the plaster of the sidewalk charred around the flaming woollen cheeks and moustache. Pavement coloured paint blistered sickeningly.
Plastic pigeons stared at them from streetlamps with badly painted eyes. The Boy remembered the streets well. His parents used to bring him down into town on holidays. But he really couldn't afford to entertain thoughts like that now. All the clocks had had their hands removed. They passed beneath enormous signposts and the false concrete supports of bridges. Occasionally there would come a distant crash as some structure collapsed out in the city. Pale clouds of plaster dust would mushroom lazily from between the buildings and then rift out into the streets. The dust caught in their hair and across their clothes. The Boy was so exhausted and hungry that he could barely walk. All the colours of this painted world seemed somehow brighter and at the same time so much more drab than which they sought to replicate. The words on signs and billboards made no sense. There were no advertisements or pictures of any kind. He stopped at a news vendor near City Hall and rifled through magazines of glossy blank paper while a dummy watched with bloodshot button eyes. Papier mache cakes and hotdogs crumbled in their fingers. Thin plastic sheets billowed in place of glass. Sometimes these would dislodge from the taller skyscrapers and flicker through the high air, catching against the sun like insect wings. Tiny ribbons of plastic ants coded in the gutters. There was no dirt.
The Boy was staring at a tableau of waiters and dining couples when he thought he heard a sound. They pair of them both froze in their tracks. They were downtown, in a fashionable square renown for its theatres and small restaurants. Long, theatrical billboards juxtaposed meaninglessly down the crowded alleyways. Three dummy nuns were set like chess pieces at the far end of the square. A plaster fountain gushed sprays of glass water. Hundreds of plastic pigeons lay about the cobblestones in mid-flight positions. The Boy glanced at Suzie's frantic, tensed face and both began to scan the area warily. The sound had been something of a low, resonant groan. Yet it had seemed to emanate from somewhere above their heads. A crack as loud as a pistol shot made them both suddenly jump with fright. The Boy turned to witness the dizzying spectacle of a ten storey complex cracking like a glass in an oven. A long schism travelled like slow, black electricity along the centre of the structure. It shrieked out a sound like glass on glass as it cleaved. Suzie shuffled backwards, slipping and falling onto the plaster cobblestones as the top floor shattered suddenly. An enormous fragment encompassing several rooms suddenly dislodged in a sort of heavy slow motion and fell toward the square. The Boy had grabbed Suzie's arm and half-dragged her toward the steps of a nearby subway entrance. They had hardly begun to flee when the enormous section detonated against the cobblestones with a horrifying intensity. Chunks of debris swarmed across the square. The fountain was shattered instantly. A piece of heavy shrapnel struck the Boy sharply across his right shoulder blade and flung him bodily into the dark mouth of the stairwell. There was a blur of grey and railings. The wind was knocked out of him on the first landing. His ears chimed as sound blew out and then faded back over the numb haze inside his head. He lifted his eyes to see the building break like a decayed tooth above the short flight of stairs. Suzie was screaming, pulling him down the remaining stairs like one of the mannequins. They stumbled into long tunnels, passing turnstiles as violent impacts began to shake the world above like bombs. Gleaming white boulders of plaster careened down the staircases like glacial ice, discharging their balsa cargo against the subway walls. Their unforgiving battery left craters of identical minty white in their wake. A vicious spray of granules rained down on them as they staggered deeper into the unlit tunnels. He would later recall a sickening moment when Suzie clutched at her eye. They huddled like children, behind a dim corner until the deluge has passed. They were both shaking feverishly, clammy to the touch and clutching at each other. They had dropped everything they had been carrying. Blood ran in tiny rivulets from a graze along her pale hairline. His shoulder blade ached ferociously and he was bleeding from grazes along his side. They hid until they were certain that the wreckage had settled. Featureless billboards gleamed unnaturally out of the blackness. He felt her arms untangle neurotically from his and watched as she stalked back into the corridors, her shoes slipping and scraping against loose fragments. He followed her through the rubble strewn passages and together they scrabbled over the chalky shapes clogging the subway entrance. At first he assumed that a sudden, inexplicable fog had descended. The sunlight at the top of the stairs was smokey grey and enormously diffused. They emerged into a thick rift of plaster dust which caught unforgivingly in their throats and dusted them as white as wedding cakes. They picked their way through this foggy miasma in which loomed bright white boulders and plastic pigeons. Sections of rooms lay scattered and up-ended, broken apart like bones. They fled down one of the alleyways, haunted by the facades of empty theatres and coughing atrociously while the dust roved and settled. The Boy wiped at his incessantly watering eyes to gaze at Suzie. She was slumped against a wall; a corpse pulled from a lime pit. The crashes of disintegrating structures plagued them all the way to the city's edge.
Somehow she'd managed to salvage her cigarettes. They commandeered another car when the roads had thinned sufficiently.
archive - issue 12