A ten foot sphere of water under pressure erupts in the middle of the sidewalk. It hangs together in midair for an impossible fraction of a second, and then bursts with exceptional violence, with a noise like a liquid mortar. A wall of water and debris blows out the window to a restaurant, and two or three in the apartments above it. A handful of pedestrians are sent rolling over parked cars and each other.
The remaining water crumples onto the dirty broken pavement and breaks, rushing off down the hill, leaving the traveler, the dog, and the French girl lying on the pavement, gasping for air. A piece of shrapnel is imbedded into the sidewalk a few inches from the traveler’s good hand. He stands up slowly, shaking water out of his hair.
“Huh, that was bracing. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”
He reaches down and helps the French girl up. The dog in his coat struggles out, letting loose more water onto the ground. It begins to hack rather pathetically.
“Awww. I’m sorry, boy. Here, tell you what, I’ll get you a steak to make it up to you, okay?”
The dog coughs again, shakes itself, and follows him. The French girl runs after him, running her fingers through her hair as she moves. It’s winter, though unusually warm. Perhaps equatorially so. Must be lower Mexico, or South America. Well, that’d be nice. He rather likes Mexico, and he has a handful of peso’s burning a hole in his money bag.
He stalks off across the street before the crowd gets around to figuring out what the hell just happened. The French girl follows him, shooting nervous glances at the people picking themselves up off the streets with bleeding mouths and broken ribs. A handful of diners inside the restaurant sit, soaked in saline, staring blankly out where the window used to be. One of them is thoughtfully picking a chunk of battleship out of his dinner.
The traveler leads them off the main road onto a cold dirt path, with clothes-lines criss-crossing of their heads. After a short distance, they pass a coyote fence beside a lot. The traveler climbs over it carrying the dog, and the French girl joins him. Across the lot, they crawl under a string of barbed wire, and into a dense network of alleys between buildings, many of them derelict. The traveler realizes that he isn’t wearing one of his boots, and pulls it on over the wounded foot. Cool air blows down the alleys. After a while, the traveler seems to decide that they’re far enough away, and sits down on a low brick wall. He inspects his foot. It appears to be intact. The bandage is wet, but drying. The French girl walks up to him.
“Savez-vous ce que nous venons de le voir? Vous êtes en guerre.”
The traveler shakes his hea.
“No, French girl, I’m not at war. They are at war. Not me. Them.”
He points in what he believes to be the direction of Hawaii but is, in fact, closer to China. He stops doing much of anything for a moment, just looks down at the ground in silence with an odd look on his face. The French girl approaches him.
“Hmm. What? Oh. Well. We’d better get a move on if we’re going to get any halfway decent food in this city.”
“C'est comme ça que ça va être? Beau. Dans ce cas, what the fuck was that? With the wall?”
The traveler rubs his head.
“It’s a really long story. The caged tunneling effect allows me and nearby solid objects to quantum tunnel through metal objects. Like, for instance, earth. When the field is fully charged, I’ll jump through the earth automatically. When it’s mostly charged, I can use it to pass through smaller metal objects. Like, for instance, walls. I just can’t do it too often or else I’ll get kind of fucked up.“
She gives him a particular look.
“Je ne parle même pas anglais, asshole. What the fuck est a quantum tunnel?”
“Right. Fine. I can walk through walls. Je peux marcher à travers les murs. Happy?”
“Oui. Let’s go.”
They pack up, and continue down the alley to a long street.
“Juste par curiosité, quel est ce pays?”
“Not sure. Mexico, maybe.”
At the street, the traveler steps around the corner and looks for damp, angry people accompanied by policemen. Seeing none, he rounds the corner. They find a restaurant some distance away. He buys a chicken burrito for himself and the French girl, and a plate of fajitas for the dog. Two glasses of water appear under the ministrations of the waiter, which he traveler prevents the French girl from drinking, and then dumps into the street as soon as no one is looking. They split the remaining water in his canteen over lunch.
She squints at him.
“What time is it for us? Subjectivement, je veux dire.”
The traveler shrugs.
“Time to eat, and very nearly nearly time to sleep.”
He eats the last of the burrito, waves down the waiter for another – here he glances at his money – four. He speaks only the barest scraping of Spanish, but humanity has been doing business with hand signals for five hundred thousand years, and is not about to stop now. He places the burritos in a sealed rubber bag, and tucks them into his coat. He and the French girl leave the restaurant, quite broke. By now, they have, slowly, begun to dry.
The traveler walks down the street, eyes open, constantly looking for danger. He stops by a store, notes a shelf of ammunition inside, and gestures for the French girl to wait outside. She walks off to investigate a nearby crow. The traveler and the dog head in. He finds a box of ammo, checks the price, slips it into his pocket, and places nothing back onto the shelf. He smiles pleasantly at the owner, checks the price of a belt, puts it back, and walks out of the store.
The French girl is waiting for him outside.
“If he had stopped you – what would you do?”
The traveler pauses to consider this.
“You know? I’m not really sure.”
He can feel the tension in the air as he walks. The bubble begins to form in the air around him as he walks. It stirs the grass and leaves lines in the dust as he moves down the dirt road. All the sounds are fading. He can hear a dog barking, and it sounds like he’s hearing it through water. He turns, and the French girl comes walking up. She shudders as she steps through the bubble. The dog is already sitting at the traveler’s feet, quietly alert.
He checks his watch. He has a few more minutes, and his foot is hurting again, especially since he put the shoe on. He reaches into his pack, and removes an empty syringe and sealed bottle of morphine. He fills the syringe. He remembers that you’re supposed to squirt a bit out of the end. He does this, then holds it up over his arm, inhales, and exhales slowly. He hates needles. He finds the vein, and pokes it. It hurts, but doesn’t break the skin. Oh, for fuck’s sake. He pulls it back, and brings it down into his arm with more force than is probably necessary. It goes in. He pulls back on the plunger, watching a little blood go circulating into the morphine, and then injects it into his arm. A warm pale haze takes him. He smiles and sinks back onto the ground, staring up at the sky. The French girl watches him with calm curiosity.
“L'homme sur le bateau. The soldier. He called you ‘sir’.”
The traveler looks around sleepily. A woman carrying a load of laundry is passing by the lot and staring at them. He smiles at her and waves lazily.
“It’s a long story.”
“Alright. I guess I could tell you. It’s all classified, but what the fuck. Not now, though, I think it’s about time to-“
His watch dings. He feels a instant of unsustainable weightlessness as the air turns into a haze of light in his lungs. The bubble shivers. Then, they are gone, with a noise like the echo of a gunshot. The woman carrying the laundry screams, drops the basket, and runs. After perhaps forty feet, she recovers herself, returns for the laundry, and stomps back towards her house, refusing to so much as look at the perfectly smooth crater carved in the empty lot.
The ocean again. No, that’s not right. He can see land on all sides, albeit a long way off, and the chilly water that gets into his mouth is fresh. Must be a lake. Some mountains to his right. Cold, getting to be evening. Smells like Canada. He makes a note to fill his canteen as he hurries to inflate the bedroll. The French girl is shivering. They climb onto the bed which shifts, water washing over the edge. The lake water is still, and there is startling silence, only the odd plunk of a falling drop or the distance noise of wind and an occasional bird. A fog hangs low over the water to the north, and more of it hangs like cold smoke rings over the mountains. The sky is a deep cobalt blue fading to breathless black.
He lays back and closes his eyes. The French girl rolls against him for warmth. An opiate smile blooms on his face. He feels warm and safe and happy, but that’s mostly just the morphine. He leans back and looks up into the sky, smelling the cold water and the pine blowing in off the shore. There is a moment of infinite peace, and then he is asleep.
He awakes to the French girl’s hands on his body, shaking him awake. He jerks up with a start, looking around. It’s night, mostly. Black sky and stars and only a thin pretense of blue around the setting run. Then he sees the light. It’s coming up on them like a flame in the dark. It rocks on the water. As it grows closer, he reaches into his pocket for the Beretta and disengages the safety. It’s close, now, very close. He can see the lamp at the bow of the boat, casting oil-fire glow over the wood. An old man with a sparse beard sits at the helm, watching them cautiously. Fishing gear sits piles up at his feet. The light draws the scene in hard pastel yellows and oily blacks. He doesn’t say anything, at first, just watches them. Then, after a long moment, when his little boat is nearly upon them, he says, projecting but not shouting,
“Are you folks in any trouble?”
The French girl breaks down laughing, a quiet little outburst of hysteria. She stops after a moment, wiping her nose. The traveler smiles at the fisherman, a little sadly.
“Nothing you can help us with. Thank you. Please don’t let us disturb you.”
“Alright. Just yell if you need anything. I’ll be over there.”
He points, then tips his hat.
He turns, and begins to row out into the dark. Within a few minutes, he’s nothing but a candle flame in the dark again. The traveler lays back down again, fingers laced under his head. A cool breeze blows over his exposed hand and face. He lets his uninjured hand fall into the water, trailing little ripples as the bedroll turns. Once again, cold water lapping at his fingers, he sleeps. He awakes to the ding, but it’s alright, they land on water again. He dips a finger in it and licks it. Saline, and it’s dawn. East Atlantic? The Mediterranean? He really can’t bring himself to care. He rolls over, mostly to shield his eyes from the growing light. He finds his face buried in the French girl’s neck. She smells surprisingly good for a person who hasn’t properly bathed in days. She does not wake, but leans back into him instinctively. After a moment, he removes his face, and drifts back to sleep.
There are at least ten more dings, and always more ocean. He sleeps and dreams narcotic dreams, and the French girl dreams of things that go bump in the night, but then fade away. The time of day varies wildly, but the three of them –the man, the woman, and the dog- sleep on. It is not until the sixth ringing of the bell, some ten hours later, that they begin to stir.
She opens her eyes first, and finds that she is cold. She stirs, and finds herself curled against the travelers body. For heat, of course. She picks herself out, and moves to the edge of the bedroll. She holds the dog to her, and looks around. Arctic waters, like volcanic glass. There are chunks of ice nearby, but she cannot bring herself to risk life and limb to paddle for them. So she sits up and hugs her knees against the cold. Her pale blue dress clings to her body, and she sits at the edge of the bed, staring off at the horizon, the color of frozen crème. She sits there for the longest time, not doing much of anything. Then the traveler stirs. He rises slowly, and twists the kinks out of his neck and his arms and his back. He glances around, the cold numbing his fingers and biting at his face.
“Well, there’s nothing like a bit of sub-zero weather to brighten up your day.”
He checks his watch.
“Hmmm. That was the first real night’s sleep I’ve had in years. This is a week for firsts. This calls for celebration. Burrito?”
The French girl starts, and accepts a rather smashed burrito from his jacket. She eats it without paying it much attention. She sees nothing but the horizon and the ice and the sea. The wind picks up a little, and her dress flaps around her legs and arms. She hugs her knees a little closer to her body. The traveler suddenly realizes that she’s barefoot. He wonders where that happened.
He considers lighting a fire, then checks his watch again. No point. They’ll be somewhere warmer than this in six or seven minutes. He finishes his burrito without any particular hurry, and then scoots up to the end of the raft, causing it to tip a little. He takes off his pack, and leaves it at the opposite end to keep the whole arrangement from tipping into the sub-zero water. He scoots up next to her. She’s not laughing anymore, or crying, or even eating. She’s just staring. He reaches out and puts his hand on hers. Her fingers feel like cold porcelain under his. She doesn’t move for a few seconds, then seems to come out of it a little. With a sad little smile, she takes her hand away. He looks her in the eye.
“Are you okay?”
She shakes her head and smiles at him.
“Pas même un petit peu.”
He nods, and tries for some sympathy.
“Y at-il quelque chose que je peux faire pour aider?”
“Cela ne marchera pas sur moi, M. Blanc. Je vous connais trop bien pour vous croyez vraiment soin.”
He blinks, and begins to turn away.
“Eh bien, si tu vas être comme ça ...”
“Arrêter. Ce n'était pas une insulte, c'est un fait. Vous ne pouvez pas les moyens de s'occuper des gens, et non comment vous vivez. Je le sais. Je crois vraiment que vous le souhaitez vous en étaient capables. Je sais aussi que vous ne pouvez pas.”
He can’t think of anything to say to this, so he doesn’t. After a moment’s silence, he says,
“Nous partons dans quelques minutes.”
“Je sais. C'est si paisible, est-ce pas? C'est presque une honte d'aller.”
He smiles a little, and shakes his head.
“Cet endroit vous tuerait, French girl.”
“Ah, mais ce qui est mort, mais la paix?”
“Ouais. Eh bien, si vous sautez hors du radeau, je vais après toi, la paix ou non.”
He turns, and begins to crawl back towards his pack. He can feel the bubble forming. Behind him, the French girl curls china blue toes against oilcloth bedroll and says softly,
Then there is a single crystal chime, and there is, once again, peace.
This time there is no ocean. They land with a crash of frozen water on cobblestones and paved sidewalks. It’s warm, nearly summer. The French girl staggers to her feet on the warm stone, freezing water pouring past. The traveler scans for any immediate dangers, finds none, and relaxes long enough to deflate the bedroll on the ground, roll it up, and hook it into place over his shoulder.
That done, he sets about figuring out where he is. The architecture is eastern European. Around a corner, he spots the hard black blocks of swastika. Somewhere in Germany, most likely. He sighs, and kicks a wall. Why Germany? Why just now? He glances at the French girl. She’s definitely figured it out. Her face has taken on a hardness that is more than a little frightening to him. He goes to say something, and then decides against it. There are more pressing concerns than the French girl’s politics. Like, for example, his near-total lack of food and money. Politics, as a consideration for action, come in on the list well below having enough to eat.
He nods at the French girl. He starts to try to phrase it in French - Je… no, this is simple, she’ll get it in English.
She turns to look at him, jaw set, eyes cold. He hesitates for a moment, then continues.
“It is time for us to steal.”
This surprises her. Then she looks disgusted.
“Je ne sais pas pourquoi je me serais attendu à autre chose. Avez-vous aligné tout les victimes? Ou devrions-nous commencer tout simplement voler les gens dans la rue?”
“No need to be so dramatic. You’ve been eating my food without complaint, you’ve no right to object to how I come by it. Now come on, let’s see if we can find an empty place. “
They walk casually for a few blocks until they find a residential house with the box stuffed with mail, and papers on the porch. No lights are on inside. The traveler casually walks across the lawn, and around the back of the house. There’s a small, neat backyard, and a porch with a swing. The traveler removes his knife and pin, and picks the lock. He leads the French girl inside. She follows, looking somewhere between disgusted, afraid, and pissed. He spends a moment wondering why she’s doing what he tells her to. He suddenly realizes, with a sick lurching sensation, that in a weird way she trusts him. He laughs to himself, and she looks at him like he’s crazy.
He leaves the back door cracked so that they have an easy escape route, if it comes to that. He heads into the kitchen, first. Nothing in the fridge. He finds a few cans of tuna and a bag of dried fruit in the panty, which he appropriates. From the bathroom, he steals a bottle of alcohol and a bar of soap. He considers showering, but decides that the mechanics of doing that with the French girl around would be more trouble than they’re worth.
He then begins to check for valuables. A few minutes of knocking reveals a small panel under the silverware drawer with a handful of new reichsmarks. Household cash, but it’s something. He walks upstairs. A search of the bedside table reveals some costume jewelry, but not much of any value. He looks in the closet, and finds a pair of very sensible shoes that fit the French girl, more or less. Under the eye of the French girl, his usual fast patter of searching and taking has taken on some ugly tones. He feels like a voyeur, like something obscene, looking into someone’s life without permission, taking what he likes. Perhaps those shoes were a family heirloom. No, the price tag is still on them. Still… No, none of this. Polite society may condemn him how it likes, he really doesn’t care. This is how the damned survive.
He finishes up his search hurriedly, anyway, and goes down the stairs two at a time. The French girl follows behind him with some relief.
Then they hear the sirens. Oh fuck. The traveler rounds the corner at the base of the stairs. They’re already in the house, already through the door. Neighbors must’ve seen them. No time to think about it now, he’s charging for the back door. The dog keeps pace behind. He aims for the fence. The French girl pounds along behind him. He sees police as he tries to vault over the fence. He would have made it, to, if it weren’t for the weight of the pack.
A policeman grabs him and throws him to the ground. He grabs for the legs, and the policeman goes down, but another is already on him. Three or four of them are fighting with the French girl, who is stomping repeatedly on the face of one, blood spurting from under her new shoes. Another comes up behind, and she sticks her finger in his eye. Finally, one of them takes her legs out from under her, and knocks her out with the butt of his gun. The traveler rolls over and sees them grab the dog, get bit, and throw it into a cage. Then they’re putting handcuffs on him. His foot hurts. The morphine must be wearing off. They lift him into the police car, close the door, and drive away.
BACK *** NEXT
Well, that was certainly different. Sorry that it's a bit short and late, I spent most of the week working on a Thursday story that totally failed to come out, which left me writing this at unseemly hours of the morning to make deadline.
Well, have a good Thursday, everyone.