Benjamin Nelson

 


Universal Undone

The fishermen of the Maritime were having trouble finding catch that season.

Spring of the year before had brought with it, seemingly, good fortune. Jefferson Delany, who owned a fishing operation on the southeast border of Centreville, had begun to show up at mass on Sunday mornings. A big grin had been on his face, and a proportional shine in his faith, that spoke as much for his success as it had for his piety. Others gave word that their hens were laying more eggs than could be handled at one time, and had begun asking for paid help from the local kids. This was an unusual sight, considering the normally stoic nature of the town, working autonomously with their own stubborn hands and fuelled by the strain of pride which ran deep in the east. Delany was the sort of man who enjoyed calling himself an "agricultural capitalist" with a straight face - normally. All the other farmers seemed to fare just as well in that rare time.

But that was the year before, and now the festive blood had run quite thin.

He stood now in the brow of the boat, watching the waves as they watched him. He was only a mile away from shore, so you could see Barthford Peak from his position, if you'd really tried. The only shadows a person could discern from the shore were the ones that made up the burnt church at the town's end, but Delany did not think about that. He looked to the horizon and waited. The sun was masked by a field of grey cotton.

The previous year had brought with it a boom in cod and shrimp, before the mysterious dust storms had been unleashed on the mainland from Hurricane Connie. Word traveled slow. What information they did catch was as scarce as the fish were, in those days of autumn 1963.

A spot in North Quebec was being considered for New Montreal, all territory from Saskatchewan to Connecticut was quarantined, the soil sick down to the roots. In the east, without anyone to populate the roads, there just weren't any storytellers to warn the smaller cities of the grave union's state. The boom in fish, said some in St John's, had been a temporary result of schools fleeing the shore along the southern currents. Delany mulled these things over as he cast his fishing iron into the crashing blue abyss.

By this year, no sane fisherman wasted their time on netting the sea. The risks were running high and it was generally agreed that what they would indelibly catch was more harmful than helpful to the digestive system. They had to resort to land-based agriculture for a time. Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.

Delany had seen his boom turn to bust within the cycle of a single year. His brother, Rene, still had work - was reasonably well-off, as a matter of fact. Though common sense would intuit that the whole damn monetary system would have fallen apart by now, it had not, much to the dismay of this particular Agricultural Capitalist. Some had burned their money when the rumors of glowing dust clouds from Ontario had circulated. They would only regret it later.

Delany knew something was coming, and felt it in his gut, where something told him that there was something very wrong with the world of those days. He remembered, growing up in the war era, that though it had been a time of no excuses, there had also been some tentative stability. That was missing today. It bothered him...

But Delany was not stupid. He would be rational, he decided, he would stay calm, even without any way of avoiding the encroaching starvation.

He reeled in the nets, and, straightening his gloves, threw away the sick-looking fish, and other human refuse... the beer cans (5), a shoe, a can opener, all eroded. The church was giving away a good 30 of every hundred potatoes they taxed off the local farms, and that would have to suffice for now.

He nodded. Yes, that would be just fine.

The boat rocked as he stood up, made him trip and curse. His hand caught onto the motorblade, and he cursed louder. Looking up, he saw only shadow for a culprit, and chastised himself for being off guard. The cut was deep, he noted, and brought it to his mouth, sucking it dryly. His other hand pulled the cord for the motor as he looked at the greasy, bloody, gasoline-soaked finger, and the idea of chewing it off occurred to him...

He threw off the goosebumps that followed this thought and drove a loop, back towards the government docks.

***

The third war was in full swing by then, so the roads were bereft of cars... Everything was scarce... Each commodity went straight to the armed forces.

Neither the girl nor the boy who sat on the edge of Clark's Harbour was preoccupied with these matters. Their thoughts were a bit muddled, in those last few years of adolescence, though in different directions to be sure. Celia had begun to consider applying for a political science degree at the university, since she'd just gotten year 4 out of the way last fall. Frederick followed in his mind the logic trail of breadcrumbs that recent events had sprinkled, thinking of the low salary (but high resources) of the Forces.

The sound of the waves was a dull roar. Celia looked over the ocean, and her imagination was set free. She imagined what it would be like to leave the problems of the West behind, explore new uncivilized continents beyond the blue horizontal curtain. She imagined what it would have been like for Thomas Pedigree to be the first white man to lay eyes on the beaches of a new world over 200 years ago. She thought that maybe it would've felt like the ocean itself were a portal that bent space and time, an infinite avenue to a new world, a doorway to a new beginning, on the edge of every horizon. She thought of her father's boat, Nina Fae II, and considered what it would be like to borrow it for a while, to sail to England or Tearmagne or one of the Atlantic Islands, with Frederick by her side and the North Star to guide them to a new land and a new hope.
The boy - seventeen, light brown hair, eyes set close to one other in a handsome, vainless way - looked at Celia. He ventured first to glance at her eyes, but avoided a prolonged connection. Celia noted with no small disappointment that he preferred to stare at her crossed leg without making any signal that he wanted more contact.

"What are ya thinkin?" he asked.

She started, then covered it with a shiver.

That a good question, that, the blue-eyed girl thought. To be honest, I hadn't been thinking anything at all. Was daydreaming, in the land of no-think.

Not wanting to look stupid - or worse, caught off guard, yes, that was far worse - she said: "I was just thinking that some people are born 'tuned' into something that others aren't."

He furrowed his brow, an expression that made one intuit he was having difficulty concentrating. Celia suspected otherwise of him - his thoughts were slow, but thorough, she decided - and rested her head on his shoulder. He flinched, definitely the same nervous boy she'd always known, and in response she accidentally dropped the rose he'd given her. Neither seemed to mind as the red flower ducked beneath the protective rail and down, down off the cliff. It was a dull symbol, anyway, cheap and replaceable.

She thought she could hear him smile. She smiled too.

On the cliff of that afternoon, when Celia and Frederick looked over the edge, both saw different images, though they were witness to essentially the same thing: the roaring waves and falling petals. The pair felt the warm ocean breeze fly out against their bodies and infiltrate the crags of their loose clothing.

The spring of that year was unseasonably comfortable, especially for Newfoundland. Celia had made the first move towards Frederick, began by rubbing the cleft of his thigh, and he seemed tentative. They could see the rose plainly, as there wasn't any fog that day, as it fluttered in the wind. The petals flew off the stem in rough clumps.

Trish saw, when they danced in the breath of the Atlantic, that they formed a pattern that looked much like a face. Frederick saw them drop and thought he saw falling bombs.

"I got to drive the big forklift today..." Frederick said. His accent was more pronounced than hers, so it sounded like he was always asking a question.

"That's nice," she replied. Her face was partially obscured by dancing blond locks. She sniffed.
"Yeah... Rene let me drive the big forklift... would ya b'leive that? He said that if anyone b'sides me steps anywhere near it, they'll be fired... Cool, uh...?"

"Yeah," she agreed, noncommital.

He was about to fill the silence with an anecdote about his brother, Jean-Paul, but was interrupted before he could release a syllable. She had such a nice voice.

"We weren't good enough for the provincials this year. I'm not going to Maine."

Frederick didn't know what to say. He wasn't really supposed to console her, not with their friends-only relationship, and didn't see much purpose to debating anyway. He said as much, and she agreed.

"It seems like we're expected to quibble about definitions for 30 minutes, and then try to convince everyone that we knew the consensus all along. Not that anyone ever tries to arrive at one. A consensus, I mean. It's just stupid."

Frederick yawned.

"Well, that's the real world for you. All definitions. Hey, you could be like Burnt Church. I mean, someone has to make sure people make sense or else they start speaking in tongues and all that nifty stuff..."

"I don't understand why they still do that. It brought down Babylon, didn't it? Atlantis too, maybe."

"I'm all right, Jack... we're all right, Kerouac..." His voice trailed off. He heard a music of some sort, and strained his eyes to the horizon in the hopes of making out where it came from. She shook her head lightly, rose to a full sitting position.

"Do you hear that...?" His eyes were distant, dream-like.

She stretched out her arms and arched her back, grimacing at the always-unhealthy-sounding calcium displacement in her bones. "Hhrmuh?"

"Let's get home... Ferget it... It's almost dark." He would have added, "You know my old man," but he didn't need to. Because more than anything else, he knew that she knew.

***

Far below, about a kilometer down the shore, a chorus of voices chanted. Nobody could hear them over the crash of the tides, but as the monotone grew in strength, so did the wave's calm. A small red object, by now almost invisible against the stark gray backdrop of the beach, landed unceremoniously by the side of a large boulder. It was within throwing distance of the origin of the chorus, an antique church with a crumbling foundation.

The structure was L-shaped, and seemed to lean inwards at the intersection. The shingles were scraped away in ribbons, as if some monster had ripped them from the roof. There was a chimney-sized belltower at the top, but little was left of it beyond the framework. Black, charcoal resin textured the roof, probably the product of lightning, though why lightning would strike at a building so far below the cliffs, none could say. Nobody from the town ventured down here.

And there was the chanting. The smell of ash. The drift of the sand, drawing to a close on the church like a noose around a neck.

Even to those incoherencies that floated out from the inside, somebody, somewhere was always listening. The chanting rose higher in pitch, quicker in tempo, in some babbling tongue that held no meaning beyond the desperation it implied.

A gust of wind blew out from the ocean as the sun in the west tipped below the horizon. The remains of the rose danced up, past the church and the chanting, and landed by another uncertain object beyond the view of the parishioners. The thing looked like a cast-off skin, a lobstrous shed of exoskeleton, about the size of a human hand. The wind stirred again, but neither object moved, seemingly comfortable for the timebeing. So we move on, down the beach, to a flat building of no small importance, and then down the road... past the town, past the bridge, along the crest of hills and closer and closer to the mainland, until finally we are caught on the windshield of a 1950s model Ford.

***

The car surfaced from the fog like a whale from the ocean. You could hear it coming for kilometers - the muffler was either broken, gone, or somewhere in between - but nobody on the road leading up to the ocean could have seen the thing until it had passed them by.

The black Ford was going an ungodly speed, about 60KMPH, in bad weather. The irony of the moment was that the would-be hitchhikers were all blind, anyway, and so couldn't write signs on cardboard that would mark their intended final destination. And if they could, it would never be seen through the white veil that turned the land into a flat wash of paper-white. Most of the hitchhikers it passed were aiming themselves north, and some had almost edged themselves from the lowly ditch up to the cement (thank god for the raised road, there'd be no telling what from what otherwise), but those with good ears and good instincts knew that this car wouldn't be of any help even before it really came near.

Something told them to stay away from it.

The Black Ford would not be stopping, not even for a cluster of casualties.

If we trace it's path ahead of it, we would find that after it cleared the zones carpeted by yellow tape, orange cones, and signs written in bilingual (WARNING: RADIOACTIVE AREA, DO NOT ENTER!! / DANGER: TERRITOIRE RADIOACTIF, N'ENTREZ PAS!!), we'd find that after a few hundred miles, through a landscape covered by a merciful fog that spared the sight of a material darkness that would be around for another few millenia, this road led right up to the oblique L-shaped burnt church at the seat of the terre haute that was by now vacant.

***

The next morning, a miserly Saturday, Frederick found himself standing groggily before the construction project he'd been working on for the last six months. The grand opening of the new cathedral was organized in a rush by Ayn Drefuss, the mayor's wife. She was a plump, homely woman, with straight, blond hair; he, Leonard Drefuss, was a tall man, stern-faced, with a set of teeth so crooked that the town dentist had declared them unserviceable. The cathedral at their backs was modern to the standards of the 1950s, utilizing the simple low-story architecture and unmajestic colonial roofing that was wholly practical and very ugly.

Frederick stood with Rene at the bottom of the platform. Big Band music was playing in the improvised pit, but the day was overcast and spitting. The mayor had authorized the street lights turned on for the special occasion, so the fluctuating blue-green posts were alive, dousing the corner in supposed merriment.
Besides Rene, the mayor, his wife, the high school orchestra, and Frederick, nobody had shown up. 200 lawn chairs remained empty before the stage.

"This is the sorriest thing I ever saw," said Rene pleasantly to the scruffy-looking young man at his side.

Drefuss looks like he's going to have a coronary." He sighed. "Well, at least the cathedral looks good."

"HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CUT THE RIBBON IF NOBODY'S HERE TO SEE IT?" Mayor Drefuss screamed at the empty street, almost in confirmation to his suspicions. He had just been hurtling spittle at no-one in particular and was stalking back and forth onstage. "WHERE THE BLOODY DUCK IS EVERYBODY??"

The maestro, who on weekdays doubled as teacher at Cape Sable Elementary, looked at Rene as a round of O Canada came to a close. Rene twirled his finger, and the black-cloaked maestro shook his head, put his baton away. The school orchestra began to pack their things.

Mrs. Drefuss was wailing above the megaphone, tears held back by no force of her own will. The mayor kicked the podium and screamed pseudo-obscenities at the departing musicians. His wife resigned herself, cut the ribbon to the New Rationalist Cathedral, and then wailed anew.

"Cakemakers! Clownfighters! Dip-tillers!"

Rene stalked away, Frederick trailed behind. "Is 11 AM too early to get drunk, Freddie?" he called back to his apprentice.

"I wouldn't know, sir," the lankly youth replied. "Well, I suppose we'll find out."

***

The population of the town was indoors. Most were going about their chores as if nothing was wrong. Others listened to their radios, getting the occasional signal from relays in the north through the static. But there were a few who were not idle. They sat in a bar down by the beachstrip, half trying to escape their problems, half trying to confront them, all of them using whiskey as their weapon of choice.

"Not wanting to move is what got us in this mess," a man in the brown shirt said. "We have to go north. There's just no other answer. I'm sure about this Doug -- va, vahemint. My foot is down. We've got to escape the western dust. That's that and that's all there is to it!"

"It might pass over..."

"Bull."

"So what? So what now?"

"I don't think..."

"-- Over mainland. We have to go west before we can head north, eh? Unless you want to build a ship that's big enough to house a damn city? And what then?"

"It's still a few days coming now. We might make it."

"What about south? Maine?"

"Not a chance."

The bartender looked up from his book. "You've heard how the tide is turning, Albert. Don't feed yourself the same thing they're telling the kids. Geez--"

"What is he doing here?"

Heads turned at this impromptu town meeting towards the entrance. A man in lime-green overalls stood, appraising the room, but nobody was looking his way. Mostly everyone stared at the boy at his side.

"You know the rules, Rene. No kids allowed or I get my license revoked."

"I thought you'd make an exception just this one time," Rene grinned. He brought out a Canadian two dollar bill and tossed it on the counter. The bartender scowled, but took the cash with a glance at its giver. "Put on a cheery disposition. You'll soil all the milk in the place with a face like that."

Some people chuckled, but not many. The fire was going out, and the bartender directed someone to tend it, which was done. After a few minutes, nobody noticed that there was a kid in the pub; after ten, people were offering Frederick drinks.

"Hey, it's the end of the world anyway," said one leprous-looking old man, a relic from the First World War. "He might as well take it like a man."

***

Sheila, the pestilence of Cape Sable Elementary, was known by the whole town as a chubby-chaser. She showed her affection for the fat boys by teasing them relentlessly, and occasionally, by beating them up. To Jean-Paul, she was the most evil sight he had ever laid eyes on, with her stout frame, wide nose, and waggling auburn pigtails. Every morning before school started, he would tiptoe around the wall nearest the park entrance, just in case she was hanging around there that day. There was no thought that scared Jean-Paul worse than the idea of being pummeled by a girl. Of course, he couldn't have known at the time that fate would soon show him a face far more evil, far more frightening, than that of Sheila Hopkins; but at the time, she ranked high on the list of his greatest fears.

"You're not a real man, are you?" she yelled from across the playground. "C'mere!"

"...NOOOOOOOOOOoAUGH!"

It was humiliating beyond belief to be chased around by a girl, especially when he had asthma and was too ill to put up a good resistance to her not-so-subtle advances. But at the same time, it was flattering to be chased around the way he so often was. It was so flattering that when she grew bored of going after him, and picked another target (Martin, the kid from a whole grade above theirs), part of him was jealous.
When Frederick's brother arrived home, after one run-in with Shiela, he received another mixed punishment.
An old bald man, approaching his mid-fifties, screamed.

The old man's wife, a pallid woman of wiry frame, and sallow, downcast eyes, was chopping celery nearby. As Jean-Paul had observed, she was chopping them exceedingly fine this evening. Part of him knew that it was because, when the yelling started, the best way to cope was to ignore the hollering, to zone out. The Zone, like Frederick sometimes called it; though he usually meant in the context of a hockey game.

ean-Paul had the idea that his dad was often in The Zone when he got like this, after his fourth or fifth or fifteenth Labatt (there was no shortage of brew, apparently). And it always started the same way: "What's wrong with you. You little asshole!"

And just like every other day, it wouldn't end there.

"You know how much I've paid you this week for your allowance? ..huh? ... that's right... two dollars... now every time you come home beaten like that this week, I'll take away a quarter... That means you've got to FIGHT, son...! Look at you, you're a bleeding shame...!"

The old man's face wasn't red, but deliberate; the pale ghostliness made his fading goatee seem like an outline, a contour only.

Behind his shoulder, distantly, as if she were a part of the background instead of an active character, the old man's wife scrubbed down the perfectly clean countertop. Her sallow eyes were now focused on some invisible, imagined shame, a welcome distraction from the trail of bruises along her back and around the tuck of her armpit. She wondered inwardly for how long this time she'd need to wear long-sleeved shirts. Only a few days, oh sure, and until then, nothing that a little makeup couldn't fix...

...and so on, until she became as much an appliance as the toaster that refracted this scene.

"Get out of my sight, fer chrissakes... you're getting snot all over the floor…

"...Oh, oh, are you going to cry now? Like a little baby? You want a motherfucking tit to suck? DISSAPEAR. I'm so disappointed in you, I should beat you myself! VANISH! Don't you dare give me that dopey look."

The door opened.

Enter Frederick, piss drunk.

"What's going on?" Frederick asked his mother. He didn't know why he asked her first. She was almost invisible now, fading in the late afternoon light. It was at first obvious she wouldn't answer, and it almost seemed that way when she began to mumble something roughly about needing more Mr Clean, that the house was a mess.

"And you." the old man said to the new arrival. "You're supposed to protect your little brother. Look at him! You're supposed to look out for him, and LOOK, he's all messed because of a GIRL. A motherfucking GIRL. I don't raise sissy faggots in this family, I won't permit it."

He kicked the counter next to his wife. She screamed. He yelled, SHUT-UP. He felt righteous. He was on a roll, yeah.

Frederick was tired. Frederick shook his head. "I'm going to bed, pops." Sleep would wash away the dull undercurrent of anxiety, it always did. This house seemed too surreal, the fighting a little too far out of sync with reality. Frederick was in his own Zone.

"Not so fast," the old man said. With the swift but drunken deliberation that was his style, Ron Forsythe leapt across the kitchen. He had seen a bit of fear in his oldest son's eyes, and just a little bit was enough. It was obvious that the other two were stone terrified, but the old man somehow expected a bit more from the eldest. More than that, Ron became enraged at this fear he saw. It stunk up the room as if it were onions.

Frederick backed off as the old man took another step, and the case seemed closed. He wanted to be nose-to-nose with the big-little-fuck. A step backwards meant stepping down, a stupid fear that just made him more angry. Oh, that's righteousness for you. Fear's the gasoline on an already burning fire. "Can't stand up for yusself? You bet yer socks I'm gona beat yer daylights out til you do." The old man's head swam, through thick verses of arguments from the last century, patterns like artifacts swallowed by the present-tense…

Not so.

Frederick was winding up for a punch that, through a combination of overconfidence and alcohol, Ron never saw coming. When he advanced for the second time, bridging the meter-length gap between them, he merely made the impact of a deliberate closed fist upon his nose a little more painful, the impact a little more damaging.

Blood trailed down into a little Hitler moustache. The world flared brightly in his vision.

Frederick barely believed he had done it, and now, the threat of consequences seemed... inconsequential. Whatever happened, happened. He grinned.

"I'm going to bed, pops..."

Ron would have none of it. He was like a deflated doll now, posturing stiffly through his shock. "Get out ob my hous you ungradeful liddle basterd. Don't eber gum back. You uncibblized liddle fug."

Frederick, not wanting to be strangled in his sleep (or worse - swallow his own tongue) crossed the kitchen without so much as a glance or word.

***

It was as he was leaving his house for the last time, headed towards Rene's little apartment in the center of town, that the Ford arrived.

Rene, yes. Rene would know what to do, his drunken mind repeated. Rene always knew what to do. Rene...

Then he heard a peculiar sound, a car rattling, and was overcome with a flash of sobriety. He smelt ash in the air. He looked behind him and was quick to make way for the beast that lumbered behind him, a smoke-belching wide-aisle nightmare on four wheels.

This was an event to remember: the jet-black, smooth, ultra-modern car, windshield wipers flipping, coughed up smoke from every crag along its surface. As it rolled through the city, citizens followed it, like vultures around a wounded beast. Nobody used the roads anymore, especially not when you had nowhere to go. Frederick followed the impromptu parade until the car stopped in town square and unceremoniously died.

People hushed, and there was whispering. Maybe this person knows what's going on outside. Maybe he has information. Information, they said, and to Frederick, they might as well have been saying "food" or "oxygen". But he was anxious, too. The anticipation subsided when an old black man came out of the vehicle, flashed a grin, and was promptly arrested for parking illegally.

In the disillusioned crowd, Frederick saw Jefferson Delany. He looked different, somehow, almost monstrous: Jefferson's eyes sagged, blankly, his face looked a tint of yellow, and he clutched his arm tenderly, which was wrapped in what looked like toilet paper. Frederick made a note inwardly to ask Rene about it, and then considered the possibility of having Rene kick his old man in the teeth.

His own hand started shaking.

"The water," the black man said in a comically overdrawn southern accent. "Don't let the chillun near the water, you folks heah? Lissen, you got no time to spare, you canna think an godda act, you godda move, amen, move south, while the tide's still high! The water's gonna get you folk, lissen!"

"Flood? Shit, he's talking about a flood!" someone yelled in the crowd.

"He's crazy," Albert said. "Probly drunk."

"You stop talking bout my kids now, you hear nigger?" drawled an anonymous brown-coated man, not without fright.

"We just built a new cathedral, we can't just leave it, eh!" Ayn screamed, not at the black man, but the roaring crowd.

Frederick heard each voice chime in with discordant opinion... and then, suddenly, he was pushed forward. He went down, his head met the concrete. The last words he heard before losing consciousness were from Jefferson, who stood still next to him. From underneath the frock covering his arm, Frederick thought he saw something move. Crabs, he saw, his vision dulled yet exploding with an unforgettably bright fire. Jefferson's got himself crabs for his arms.

"That's right, dere officer?" Jefferson said to the policeman who'd knocked over Frederick. "Take him where he caint hurt nobody. Yeh." And Delany seemed to look down at Frederick - just a brief glance, nothing more - and Frederick saw the unforgettable fire blaze from those eyes…

***

Frederick woke up.

Celia stood over him, along with Celia's mom, who was rinsing a washcloth in a pot. Celia had looked sad, sympathetic for a moment, but when he opened his eyes completely her face was masked by a scowl. Celia's father stood in the hallway, a background silhouette, and Frederick focused on him, the only other man in the room. Half-conscious, he waved.

Celia's father did not move his arms from their station across his chest.

Frederick passed out again.

***

Ayn sat in the new Rationalist's Cathedral. She was finishing her sermon with a quote from some old philosopher. "This is the island of truth," she had begun, "surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner on his voyage of discovery to be a new country. And while constantly deluding him with vain hopes, engages him in dangerous adventures, from which he can never desist. But before venturing upon this sea, in order to explore it in its whole extent, it will not be without advantage to cast our eyes upon the chart of the land that we are about to leave, and to ask ourselves, firstly, whether we cannot rest perfectly contented with it, and secondly, by what title we possess this land itself, and how we hold secure against all hostile claims."
The outside of the church, as we have seen, is squat and ugly, but the inside proves to be astonishingly beautiful, intoxicatingly symmetrical, lacking in neo-gothic flair but not without its own mysticism. She took a step away from the pulpit and bowed. In a pew, Albert sat, divvying up cards on the flowered green fold-up table in the aisle. She stood above him for a moment, hands on her hips, quivering with some strange emotion, and finally sat across from him.

He didn't speak. She had to speak first.

"Gratitude makes for poor business, Al. I don't believe in apologies, thank-yous, or sentiments -- I'm sorry, but it's just that this place is so beautiful, I'm proud... thank you for coming."

"No problem," Al said. He ran a finger across his mustache.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," she said. "People are so stupid, they're incompetent, they can't see that. What happened to all the great men in the world?"

"Um," said Al. He opened his shirt and sniffed it to see if he smelled bad. He looked up and smiled, sheepishly.

"My husband had nothing to do with building this place, you know. I know that's what you're thinking," said Ayn. Then added: "Go fish."

"Do you have any threes?" Al asked.

"No," she said.

He picked up a card, groaned. "You're gonna win again. I was never any good with numbers."

She ignored him. "I'm a pillar of this community. I don't see why it is people talk about me behind my back." While Al adjusted his glasses, she continued. "You'd think that people would be a bit more grateful, you know? But they're not. They're jealous. You know that? Jealous!"

"Maybe... are you going to play?"

"Yes. Fives?"

"Shoot," he said, laid down his cards. "Stupid fricken game!"

She grunted, laid back in the pew, and took in her surroundings. The world seemed intangible in here, the physics created only by light and shadow and color, optical illusion in the place of majesty.

"I don't see why you expect other people to be grateful when you're not!" Al laid down a five dollar bill and stood up. His face was peat red.

"I'd be happy if everyone didn't expect so much from each other unnecessarily. That's what I'm saying."

Albert relaxed, and the color drained from his face. He cocked his head to the side as if considering, then nodded. "That's true."

Ayn nodded, "Of course. I said it, so it's true. Now sit down and lose like a good sport." He obliged, and they kept going, round after round. After a while he asked, "How do you turn down the heat in this place, dear? I'm boiling."

She just shrugged. "There are hydrofluoric generators around here somewhere. Very efficient, very high-tech."

Albert blinked a few times. He said, "Hydro…fluoric? Like the acid?"

Ayn nodded. "Yeah, that's right. The people who sold it to me tell me it's perfectly safe."

Later, after he finally won a round, Ayn declared the game over. He ducked outside as if flames were licking at his heels.

"As if a stupid building meant anything anyway," he said, adjusting his jacket and starting off out of habit toward the pub. "Oh well, there's more important things. Like..." he looked at the car covered in dust. He ran his finger along the surface of the windshield. The dust was bright, it tickled his finger, and he felt a quiet pleasure from it, but then afterward an expression of dread crossed his face.

He imagined mountains of the stuff piling on top of him, blown by a cruel wind. He imagined himself drowning in sand dunes. He felt terror for himself, the future, the city, and for once, all of mankind.

He thought then of the owner of the car, the black man. He started to walk away from the pub, the car, the cathedral, and now he lumbered towards the jail, compelled by forces unknown.

***

There were two cells just across from the deputy's office. On the one side, the old stranger blanked, kicking his bunk with the solemn repetition that comes with boredom. Albert stood outside the black man's cage with the secretary, who took three glances into the cell with her scattered eyes.

"He won't tell us his name," she whispered. "He's crazy, he just rambles..."

"Rambles," Albert repeated. "Seems quiet to me."

"He's--"

He began to talk.

"Lord... you got to get away from the water, I know the tide is turnin'... know, you caught between a rock and hellfire but nothin's gonna get you to see dis... lissen, I bin in the dust, I seen what it done... it blind some wanderin folk but it leaveses alone the ones who stand... smell the ash in the air, you'll understand... if you could jus feel what it is to mean dis...

"You stand in the middle of it and the monsters won't bite you... but the tide will take you if you let it. You can't move on. You can't move on. You the last beyond a few in the rain of Florida, you can't move on, you gotta stay right where you live. We live in hard times, you gotta be hard too, but not so hard that you get to thinkin' you can't break... the sea is fulla lies, brother, and the dust will choke you if you swallow it, but here on the beach you safe as long as you dun move!"

There was a pause.

"Well, I heard saner things from a crazy person," quipped the guard, and added after a hesitation, "Which you might be."

"Now, wait here... what, what 'boot New Montreal, eh?"

"Oh. Oh, I seen them on the way heah. New Montreal last bout a week before the dust taked it down like Gomorrah. It's a tribulation, God's work, and how wicked He is I never know why. No suh. And the sea no bettah. The things that come in on the land, they washin' up by that chuch of yoahs... I come a long way, child, longer than you could imagine, farther than you seen, but that place is the key to what's washin' in on the beach."

Albert shook his head. "What's on the beach?"

The guard glanced at him. "Nothing's on the beach."

"Why don't you find out?"

The black man's words sounded like chimes. The wind pounded upon the outer walls of the station.
"Why don't you find out?" the old man repeated.

Albert paled. He crossed his arms. "Something here gives me the creeps," he said. The guard just smirked and turned back to his Archie comic.

"Yeah, I'll go, just because you're so earnest. I'll go and see your monsters. And when I come back and take a good look down by the docks, I'll ask Delany what-for. And then I'll come back here and I'll tell Leonard that we have to move on. Something here gives me the creeps," he repeated. "And it ain't just you, man."

The old guy through the bars looked hurt, and he just examined the floor as Albert left.

A few minutes passed without incident, and finally the guard spoke. Alan didn't need to look up to see his eyes - they were green, greener than the ocean, as arresting as a searchlight.

"You know what happens now, Alan," the guard said solemnly. "You know better than to interfere in this business."

The old man laid back in his cot and turned his back on the man with green eyes. He stared at the wall, inspected the graffiti, and he waited.

***

In the otherwise quiet room, beside an oblong table of art-deco make, there was a thumping noise. Above a tablecloth made up of books like "The Women's Guide to Etiquette", the latest issue of People, and an ancient volume of the Oxford Book of English Verse, and an issue of The Watchtower, there was a shadowed windowsill. We can see a reflection in it, the reflection of the figure in the single-sized bed. Frederick is deep in his slumber, his hands unconsciously smoothing out his comforter. On the other side of the window, Delany peered in. His breath obscured our vision of him for a moment, then disappeared. The things that were once his hands fumbled with the latch.

Celia's parents had always had a unique philosophy when it came to protection of the home. Despite alarm over rising crime rates, they always felt that to lock one's doors and windows would encourage paranoia. So the shadow did not need to break into the house, had it wished to; it merely had to succeed in getting the unlocked window open.

A creak in the door, a spill of light, and Celia's father was in the room, looking down at the sleeping boy. The shadow beyond the window fled.

***

Early the next morning, Rene and Jefferson were seated on the patio of a pizza restaurant. It was clearly an animated discussion; Rene gestured with his hands emphatically, Jefferson more demure, sitting quietly with his arms folded beneath a long turtleneck. As we approach, we can hear the particulars of the conversation - at first we catch only phrases, before the rest is drowned out by the utterances of other patrons. But now that we're closer, it becomes clear that they're discussing water.

"The reservoir isn't unlimited, brother," Jefferson said matter-of-factly. "We need to go to the sea for replenishments. We have - conservative estimate - 3 months of water left before we start having to drink sea stuff."

"And we din't have the resources to convert enough sea-water into fresh water from here, I know," Rene said. "But listen. That's unusual. There's something weird about the water; it tastes like vinegar."

Jefferson would ordinarily disagree for the sake of it. But he didn't - instead, he just sat and smiled. "It tastes like vinegar. Or it tastes like salt water. Rene."

The burly construction foreman just shook his head and sat back in his chair.

"It isn't normal," Rene said. "Some people are saying that the water company isn't doing a good enough job. I don't know if that's it, thought. Maybe it's the dust storms." He took a gulp of his orange juice.

"I'll tell you what it is, and why I need your help," Jefferson said. He seemed to turn pale, and he closed his eyes, shivering.

"Are you alr-" Rene was about to ask, but the thinner man nodded abruptly and continued.

"I have connections in The Company," he said. "They're stationed on the remote part of the island way past the causeway. They've told me what the problem is!"

"I thought that nobody could reach any other city by telephone, or otherwise," Rene quipped. "Except that weird old derelict that came in last night."

"It's just a matter of radio. You know how it is. And paranoia. It's just delusions. People, Rene, you know people! They have this funny way about them. They get ideas stuck in their tiny brains and it makes them paranoid. Especially in small towns like this." He paused and coughed again.

"Are you sure you're alright?"

"I'm fine, just listen." The thin, pale agricultural capitalist leaned up against the table and looked straight into his brother's eyes. "There's a salt block. That's it. A buildup of salt has made it impossible for the plant to keep running!"

"A salt block," Rene repeated. He nodded. "Well, damnit, why didn't somebody say something?"

"Interference and paranoia," his brother repeated.

Rene nodded. "Well, I'll take a bulldozer and clear it out. Simple."

Jefferson nodded, a darker mirror image of his brother.

***

Celia sat at the edge of the bed, motionless, watching her beloved fall apart.

"How could you let her in here!" Frederick screamed. His pitch broke as it rose, increasing his fluster. Celia had her arms crossed over her blue-and-black long sleeved shirt. She had her tongue bitten, and her nostrils flared.

"She's your mother. You have to talk to her."

"That cretin is not my mother," he whispered. "You know what? Damn you. I'm - I'm not - you didn't see her and you don't live with her and see how she lets him go loose."

"Right," Celia frowned harder. "And now all the universe has come undone, hmm?"

"I have a little brother," he said more forcefully. "Neither of us deserve this."

She was unyielding, and her brow creased further. "You have to know who you are at this age."

"YOU ARE MY AGE!" he threw the blanket from the bed.

"-Don't you DARE get up, Frederick, or I'll have my father in here lickity-split. AT YOUR AGE, you have to know how - how to be a man. That means you obey your father and honor your mother. You're making them do this by being stubborn, don't you see? Think of your poor mother! She gave birth to you!"

"That has nothing to do with anything," Frederick shook wildly, sitting back down. "My father… beats us. Very hard. Her … too."

"So what? Kids need discipline!"

Frederick stared at her, long and hard, and something passed between them, an invisible barrier of some kind. His eyes went cold, and the passion left his body. He laid down and exhaled.

Before he had time to react, his mother was in the room, and Celia had left.

"Hi," she said.

He couldn't speak. Not to her, or anyone. His tongue had died.

"The doctor said that you'll be fine," the aging housewife said softly. "Just don't get up or do anything fancy, okay?"

He stared out at the window blankly.

"I brought you a gift," she said, trembling. "I… I see you're angry, but you know how it is."

She took a step forward and revealed a family portrait. It was in a meadow, taken professionally when they were all younger, happier. Frederick could barely hold back his tears - or, perhaps, his scream.

"Go to hell, mom," he said. He regretted the words as he said them, especially as he saw her lurch back as if she'd been struck. But beneath that guilt, there was something alien, some satisfaction. He tried to ignore it. He tried to block everything out.

They would prove to be the last words he'd ever say to her.

***

Along the edge of the beach. A silence. The waves were calm and the air was green. Albert's portly form can be seen crisply, without any moisture in the air to distort his form from our view. He picks up a stone and tosses it into the still waters, expecting it to skip, and is treated instead to the sound of an unsuccessful 'plop'.

The beach itself was greyish beige, leaning more towards grey. A line of seashells were marooned at the very tip of the diminishing tideline. Very few things crawled there, at least now when the sun's out. The approaching dusk would bring out a whole new ecosystem, but Albert couldn't know this, and had no way of knowing.

He sat down on a nearby rock and wiped his brow. He was thinking of his sister, of all things - how she had taken that job in Florida as a real estate agent from the smiling and warm face of Applesworth. He recalled the first time she'd revealed her intentions to leave the country, and he had wished her the best of luck. She'd left him to care for his dying stepfather, a post-war poet he'd always known as 'George'. He'd written poems while he was supposed to be firing on enemy ships, and was by all accounts completely insane. Yet he had survived long enough to die without dignity, slowly losing control over his bowels and motor functions until it was difficult for outsiders to differentiate between his states of sleep and wake.

His funeral had been on a Friday. When Albert had gone, it had been reluctantly. It had been years upon years ago, far before this whole Crisis-with-the-capital-C had sucked the life out of the world. The time had been happier, if more earnest. He hadn't wanted to disturb the bliss he'd felt, or even interrupt it for a moment. The future was bright. The Nazis and the fascists had been obliterated. The free world had won.
Albert thought, looking over a field of poppies on that Friday, that very little had been won indeed. Because one of George's poems had been written on his tombstone, just below his increasingly irrelevant birth and death dates.

It read:

~ WAR is the sort of thing
that happens when
all the players
of the game
cash their chips in
way too early ~

Albert had thought it to be cryptic, flippant, and poetic of his stepfather to present this to eternity. He had also thought it to be undeniably George.

Albert thought of these things because by the boulder at which he sat grew a field of roses, redder than blood on a hospital gurney. Just looking at these things, growing like weeds from the sand at his feet, he became short of breath and hyperventilated. He thought at first that he'd been taken over by some measure of despair, that some subconscious errand had caught up with him for payback.

He was wrong. You see, as the sun set, all the air around him compressed, as the moisture within a few meters of the beach was absorbed by the ocean. He choked back gulps of the poison that would replace what had departed. Later on, after his heart had stopped, and his face relaxed into horror staring out at the decaying sky, the lobsters had come in from the green sea and began to work on his corpse.

***

The mob of hateful men stood before Alan that eve, carrying torches and killer grins. Alan knew of their coming, and did not run. He had been scared; and though he was never a man of faith before in his life, at that time he had found solace by reading the pages of a King James Bible.

He had no Bible to hold on to now, or anything else for that matter. He teetered at the edge of Barthford Peak, looking down at the jagged and unforgiving rocks that protruded from the beach below. Waterfalls echoed from in the distance, behind the roar of jeering ghosts.

The dark-skinned man turned his brown eyes to his executors, and breathed in the cool night air.
"May... may I have a last request?" he stammered to the mob. Expressions betrayed surprise at the sudden change in accent, and the thirst for blood seemed to thicken.

Cries suggesting his immediate and unmerciful death came as a response. The green-eyed man who took charge, however, raised his hand in a call for silence. "State your request, Braggart," he bellowed loudly.
The man's eagle-like vision scanned the faces of the mob. Most of those at the front were middle-aged, mixed with a healthy dose of twentysomethings. He could see those at the back from his angle as well as at the front, however, and a wave of gratitude filled his heart as he knew what needed to be said. What he said, he said to the women at the rear, the few with tears in their eyes and a shred of pity in their hearts.
"I speak to you, then," he said, pointing to a midwife at the back. "You, who speak not for the devil --"
Jeering overtook him at this point, but he carried on.

"--You, who hear me because my voice is true! Your hearts belong to The Lord. Why you should decide to stand idle is disinteresting to Him! He sees you now, and judges you now. You are more evil than these animals," he gestured to the men, "because your souls wish to be pure but do not remember what such a thing means! You are worse than animals; you are the tools of The Accuser! And that is not well, for you do not understand that! Whence you feel the Devil calling your names, that will be the day when you will understand, and become less evil for your understanding! Giveth thyself to the Accuser, and then atone for your sins, for the Lord is forgiving! Give thyself to The Accuser and then to God!"

By the time that Alan was done, the mob's furious heckling had reached a crescendo. They closed in on him without hesitation.

"I have not stated my request!" Alan screamed, trembling, as the horrible feeling of death crept up on him.
"Shut up," said the man with the green eyes. They advanced. Alan made a lunge for the canyon. Were it not for his pant leg, he would have jumped into the chasm and saved himself a great deal of pain. Unfortunately, the man with red eyes was quick enough to bring down his pick upon the poor soul's trousers, causing him to trip and fall upon the last meter of earth.

***

"Kill him," commanded Green Eyes. They obliged.

Alan screamed, "I curse you, I curse you!" over and over until he could scream no more.

***

As this was happening, Rene was standing in the cabin of the water treatment plant five kilometers from the causeway and on the other side of the island. On the desk before him, he saw an arrangement of harshly scrawled memos and transcripts. Jefferson was in the bush, somewhere, attending to the call of nature. This made Rene, a war veteran and skilled mechanical engineer, more relieved than words could explain.

The cabin and the plant in its entirety were abandoned. The only sound was that of the wind. It made Rene think of ghosts.

He listed his flashlight and brought it to bear on one memo after another.

RE: DECAY. New eq need. Date: April 1 63
TO: M Sutherland
- The guys are complaining they haven't got up to date equipment, all this stuff is corroded, last inspection shows it all was fine, so just leave it, just FYI, till the panic dies
- K

Hmm.

RE: sulfur dioxide detected. Date: April 4, 63
TO: Sutherland
- Have you seen this? You have to check this out, Bill is the one carrying the msg so follow him 4 details. -- K

Scrawled at the bottom, a smaller note was handwritten. It read: "hydrofluoric acid emissions + sulfur dioxide = ?" The question mark was underlined and traced and retraced several times.

Rene nodded characteristically and looked up at the wall calendar. It had been flipped to the seventh, and today was the ninth. So whatever had happened to the plant had happened in the past two days.

The burly foreman with short brown hair looked down at one last clipping. It was from the Halifax Free Press, dated 1961.

NEW YORK - Scientists today have speculated over the possible connection between sulphur dioxide and rising acidity levels in natural waters. While those claims are largely unsubstantiated at this time, some are paying real attention, especially to the words of young rogue scientist Dave Balmer.

"The more sulphfur dioxide you put in the water, the more it kills off fish," Balmer was quoted as saying at a press conference yesterday. "Sulphur dioxide comes from us - the smelting of various ores, and the emissions of our cars."

He went on to claim that nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide were also being emitted.

"When nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide combine with water vapor, it forms nitric acid," he claimed. "And sulfur dioxide reacts with water vapor to make sulphuric acid."

One critic accused him of being a false prophet. Balmer responded, very calmly, that he hoped he was. An industry analyst then came forwards and asked what [Balmer] was attempting to suggest, and who his funding came from. Balmer dodged the bullet by rudely saying, "Let's skip this game - industries give off sulfur dioxide, along with volcanoes and some swamp materials. The stuff gets into the clouds and then it rains down on US."

Then why aren't we melting, wiseguy?

"Ordinary pH - that's a scale of acidity - is above 5.6. In order to harm us, it would have to be measured at around 1. We have found measurements that are near to 2. While that doesn't harm us directly, it pollutes natural habitats of other animals like fish and quickly kills them off or forces them to migrate. Ecosystems are in jeopardy." Without missing a beat, he added, "Except in lime-rich areas. Lime renders the acid inert."

This reporter noted that he hadn't answered the question, merely dodged it. Balmer responded, "With the exception of sulfuric acid, nothing can melt human flesh except the hypothetical superacids. But superacids burn off all the moisture they need to be acidic, you see, thus becoming more or less unstable and harmless. You all know that old question from first year philosophy courses, "If you made an acid that was so powerful it ate through everything how would you store it?"

"That's not what I'm saying though, I'm not saying people will die, but very gradual things will happen that will affect people in major ways."

The analyst accused Balmer of attempting to get men fired from their jobs and of spreading paranoia.\

"I'm trying to tell the truth, that's all," Balmer continued. "Studies show that there are methods that industries can use to reduce emissions, like baghouses, electrostatic precipitators, and cyclones, which are extremely effective - though, yes, they may cost a bit of money to implement. But we need to do this, we need to stop polluting or else -

Rene got bored of looking at the dull yellow light. He moved his eyes around, and brought them back down on another clipping. It's headline read, "1961- Nixon's 'Bay of Pigs' goes off without a hitch". This was the sort of collection that a pessimist would keep, Rene thought to himself.

Then he looked at an opened a Time Magazine article from 1962. In between pages detailing the death of Marilyn Monroe and a review of beatnik culture, read a headline piece: "Superatomics explode in Central America; how to protect yourself with shelters."

Old news, really.

The door slammed open, and Jefferson stood there in violent white light. The sound of a generator blasted out from behind him. Rene was not usually on edge, but his brother had almost made him release his own bowels.

"Jeez! Jeez! Jeff! You scared the bejesus outa me!"

Jefferson's silhouette just nodded and left. Behind him was the bulldozer needed to clear the cluster that was blocking up the water at the entrance to the aqueduct.

Rene rolled down the steep slope of the bank, still on edge but more calm at the helm of his machine. Something about his brother had seemed different… changed, almost. The eyes, maybe it had been. Or was it his skin…?

"Right," Rene gritted his teeth. "No more distractions. Time to save the day."

Rene went down the slope and, using an attachment that hooked to the nose of the bulldozer, slowly clear out the stuff that looked like salt deposits, which was really a lime collection that had been put there by the now deceased members of the water company. When the waves of mixed pollutants unexpectedly splashed against the hill, the great machine fell into the entrance of the aqueduct and dissolved into wave upon green wave of fluoroantimonic acid hexahydrate.

Delany - or rather, the mutated creature he had become - simply watched with earnestness and rancor as the infrastructure started to fill with superacid.

***

The third time that Frederick awoke, he was in a steel, grey cell.

At his bedside, Celia lay unconscious. She groaned. He shook her shoulder.

"Shelter," she said. "No, dad. No. Not the shelter… let me be with you."

Frederick shook his head. In the corner next to him he saw a pile of Coke bottles. He reached over, picked one up, hesitated, then twisted the cap and drank the whole thing.

He waited for something else to happen.


"This story can be reproduced in electronic form so long as you don't edit or omit any text, you credit the author (Benjamin Nelson) and reference his webpage (http://www.lucid.org), you credit Jack Magazine, and you keep this paragraph attached. Also: don't sell the material and act surprised when you get sued. Also also: no mass mailings allowed, I'm trying to stay on people's good side here."

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