They had been too young then, and arguably they were still too young now.
The years had been somewhat kind, at least.
One had not quite forgotten the other, but their words felt incredibly foreign.
"I'm sorry for your loss." Nothing more.
All at once, they felt like strangers, again.
They shared sad smiles and stories about the corpse. Her gaze snagged his and lingered - she was as beautiful as he remembered.
The service started and they squeezed into a pew, her bare leg snug against his. He thought of fucking her while they started the eulogy.
When they were young and still wet between the bricks they jostled against each other uncomfortably, chafing against the other's proximity. However, the years, as the years often do, mellowed such animosity. Now, in their old age they lean on each other, gazing upon the world in a comfortable silence.
Naturally, they were owned by identical twins. Twins that vehemently despised one another. So much so that whenever Twin A bought anything, Twin B immediately bought the same, not one to be outdone. Their lives were a monumental pissing contest.
A contest that ended when Twin A bought that shotgun.
If it lingered.
If it shot by in a careless fleeting moment.
These gentle, subtle signs gave her a glimpse into the future.
It crept past the clouds, their edges crisp.
She exhaled and prepared for the fire that would soon set ablaze.
Jagged blue light; pointed and sharp. It caught and snagged at her eyes, like brambles on a woollen jumper, unravelling her.
Another world perhaps, another time, but she was close.
She let herself drift, incorporeal.
She wafted between realities towards home, a soft bastion of warmth against the brilliant ice.
The first was interesting, almost fun. I had never felt frost, or such a bitter breeze.
Soon, my bones became brittle, my legs bare and hairless. I was forced to use strangers in a different way than before.
The thrill subsided, as I slowly chipped away at my nine lives.
I need no thanks as hoar frost grips again, for I keep my watch gladly.
When you built your home, I watched.
As your family grew, I watched.
You know my gentle presence, always watching. Forever distant, suddenly near.
Sweet melancholy rises as I regard your pallid features.
Fires take a while to take hold though, he reasoned. No point panicking over nothing.
He re-read the forth draft of his response to Sarah from accounting. Firm, but polite. He added an emoji, but thought it looked patronising so took it out. Send.
He took one last look at his email as he stood up to go, eyes smarting from the thickening smoke. 11 new emails. He had better reply to that one from Marketing, so as not to block them. There's still time.
Flames consumed him as he hunched over his laptop deciding whether to CC John's manager.
I didn't mind the warmth, but I didn't care for the smoke. Smoke inhalation was not how I wanted to go, so I had to close the bedroom window, which was also an inconvenience in the middle of summer.
The phone rang again, and I didn't answer, again - I wasn't going to leave.
Smoke was somehow billowing, which struck me as peculiar as I'd just triple-checked the window.
Walking downstairs I noticed growing embers in the corner of the dining room. It had seeped over.
As I looked around the room I realised I was about to lose absolutely everything.
Mechanically Assisted Stretching he called it, the pinnacle of therapeutic limb elongation.
"Now see here" he said, pointing at a leather buckle that dangled at the end of long chain, "this is where I place my right arm." He attached himself as way of demonstration.
Both his feet were already bound to his contraption and, with some help, he also attached his left arm into the relevant buckle.
"Most powerful stretch known to man" he boasted.
The engines fired up and his limbs became taught.
"Marvelous", he wheezed.
Charles Pembroke was not dealing well with the death of his wife.
It's like they were made of molten plastic, their joints surrounded by a sweet casing of caramel. I couldn't help but stare everytime they slowly lolloped past my periphery.
Filled with envy, I tried to emulate the long, low swing of his arms. My legs were more rigid so I imagined I had removed my knees and flopped forward with every step.
He noticed me, and life from that moment genuinely felt softer. I seemed to be constantly wading through treacle and when we made love it was languid.
He must never know of my deception.
Our children were skeletal.
The second I saw it, I knew that it was different to Box One and Box Two. It looked old.
“You look old.” I said to its worn out face. Of course, it did not reply. It simply sat there, looking old and distrusting. Rusting. It was also rusting.
With some elbow grease, expletives and downright brute force, I was able to enter its chasm.
The first thing I noticed was the sickly green pallor of its skin. I took a mental picture and then I took a knife to its throat. What unborn horrors could lie in Box Four?
They had fallen to my crowbar, but this one, bound in metal, required more subtlety. Silence, shallow breathing, click. The lock turned.
I lifted the hinged lid and propped it with the crowbar, shining a torch inside I illuminated a reassuringly macabre sight. A desiccated body lay within, a skeletal hand clutching a yellowing sheet. The map.
Too far to reach I swung a leg over, then another. Bones cracked as I landed inside.
I grabbed it and unfurled. No map, just words.
"Weep, for you are already dead."
The lid slammed shut and I was consumed by darkness.
People use this flaw of mine against me and constantly speak in a longwinded tongue.
They berate me through complex words such as ‘nihilist’, ‘consternation’, ‘obstinacy’, and ‘insidious’.
I can only reply with ‘okay’, or ‘sure’ when really I am not at all sure. My insides rage with unsureness. I don’t know if that is a word.
One day I started to read the dictionary - I wanted to read it cover to cover - but stumbled on ‘aardvark’ because the letters made no sense.
How can I learn? Where do non-understandable words live?
My life is overshadowed by vocabulary.
New English is full of these inscrutabilis though. New words with lateat meanings.
Every day people forget more of the old language. Words that everyone can understand like "officium" or "fortitudo" or "tumultus". Hard working, honest words.
Your sector is being purged.
What does that even mean? The Order always trying to hide the significatio of their message behind confundens words.
I look at my frater and soror either side of me. We will send them a message that can't be misunderstood.
It's like our forefathers used to say, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
It flowed in tiny streams along the meandering road, delicately skirting by our hiding place. A soft trickling made its way to our ears and my tent mate cautiously took a peek outside, intrigued.
“Do you see that?” He asked.
“Yeah, I see it.” I replied, silently annoyed that he had gotten a glimpse before I could.
“Why is the snow melting?” He asked.
“How would I know?” I replied, less silently annoyed. “I don’t know how the snow got here in the first place.”
Last year, sometime around June, we woke up one morning and the world was covered in exactly seven inches of snow. As the days, then weeks, then months trudged on, the temperature remained steady but the snow didn’t shift. If anything, it seemed to be rising, but we never saw a single snowflake fall.
We wanted to know more. We needed to understand what was happening. We decided to leave the city and witness nature firsthand.
One year later and the snow was suddenly losing its solid form.
“Do you see that?” He asked again.
This time I wasn’t annoyed. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The water was defying gravity, it was moving skyward.
The white frozen lands became green again, rivers began to flow, and Mr Hutchinson's body was finally found.
The constable was brought in. The good one, from the town over the hill. He stood and stared at the body, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops and leaning back on his heels. He felt like he should know what to do, but they didn't have many dead bodies turn up around here.
"Well..." he said, hoping that if he started speaking, some brilliant insight might follow. It didn't, so he sighed instead. "I guess we'll never know what happened to poor Mr Hutchinson here." He nudged the body with his boot to confirm which Mr Hutchinson he was referring to. The body slumped over onto it's back.
"I wonder if that could have something to do with it?" A hesitant voice questioned from the small crowd gathered around the ex-schoolteacher. There was no immediate response from the constable so they clarified. "... the knife" still no response, so they helpfully clarified further "...in his chest."
The constable whistled between his teeth. "Could be, could be. We don't want to jump to any conclusions now though."
It was almost definitely the knife.
It started on the first day when the computers went down. Days two to four were spent booting and rebooting in painful, drawn out attempts to get the machines back online, to little avail. Our collective stress was on the rise and morale was steadily being chipped away at.
By day six we were back to prehistoric telegrams that were being ferried through the tunnels as our only means of communicating with the Outside World.
The final day of the week was the worst. Rolling power outages across the entire complex threw the morning shift workers into disarray and a late delivery of supplies left dozens without breakfast.
“Excuse me, Leader.”
“What is it now?”
“You have a visitor.”
I snatched my head towards the door. I haven’t had a visitor since I started the Nobleman’s Peace Lands.
“It’s good to see you, Victor.”
I froze. That voice. The name they so casually muttered. I hadn’t heard either in almost a decade.
“Why are you here?”
“I figured you’d need some help getting yourselves back on the grid.”
“You did th-“
I could barely finish my line of questioning before I heard the emergency alarms blaring across the entire compound.
It was the first shift with her new partner. He had the frustrating habit of following the 'rules', but what Samantha had learnt in her 34 years was that the 'rules' were, at most, guidelines. Perhaps even that was too strong. Suggestions? Tips?
For example, the 'rules' stated that you can't use sirens unless you're responding to an urgent call. This is obviously unworkable for a huge number of reasons, chief of which was that the chip shop closed at 2pm and lunchtime traffic was awful.
She looked over at her partner hyperventilating into a crisp packet and sighed.
"Look, you've got to undertand, on the streets you can't always look up the perfect, home-office approved way to react to any given situation. Sometimes you've just got to go with your gut, otherwise the offender will get away."
He nodded slowly while the foil inflated and deflated with a crinkle.
"Good. Now, let me teach you about proper evidence collection, so we can prove that our use of force was proportional." She placed a knife by the vitcims hand. "See? Now it's obvious why we used our taser."
His eyes widened. Her's rolled.
"You might want to note that down."
Not too long ago, it came easily. It washed over me slowly and deliberately, pulling me downwards into slumber with a sweet, deep heaviness. I sank with relative ease.
Not too long ago I dreamt of faraway skies, of exotic delights that set my mouth yearning for tastes I did not yet know. Uninterrupted fantasies of former lovers, of faceless strangers who tapped into my deepest desires.
Not too long ago, it was sweet.
Now, I yearned for that tug into the unconscious abyss. I prayed for something like silence. Yet my mind whispered and roared into every corner that was once blissfully quiet.
Now, I lie and I think of you and the countless days we spent together. Endless scenes flit both in front of my eyes and behind my tiresome lids - there is no escape.
Now, I feel each one of my muscles and I stretch them to their full extent. Each finger burns in a very specific way. I think I like it.
I look at the calendar on the plain white wall of my bedroom. It tells me that it is Sunday. Possibly the third Sunday of the month. I don’t know when that happened.
"Always keep moving," her father had told her through blood flecked lips.
Since then she had never slept in the same place twice. Always moving. Always heading West.
She'd found this place last night, hidden in the rubble of a bombed out apartment block. An actual bed, inexplicably free of the detritus of war, light filtering through the cracked concrete ceiling. She slept better than she had in years. Deep; too deep perhaps. She had dreamed of eating pancakes in a diner on her birthday, but opposite her was not her dad but an officer of the Order. Handsome.
One more night would be OK, she hadn't seen any tracking drones for weeks. She needed to repair her rucksack, snagged on barbed wire. Just one more night.
She washed and repaired her bag. Found some tinned food not too far out of date. She ate. She slept.
She dreamt of the diner again, with the handsome officer. She tasted the maple syrup, the pancake, the cool tang of a strawberry.
She looked across the table, the officer's eyes were like ice.
His voice was the crackle of a military radio and she took her last bite.
Most other gardens contain a grotesque conglomeration of plants and flowers, choked with life, all clamouring to stay alive. Their ever demanding needs the bane of any gardener who slaves at their beck and call with no thanks, just for them to die after they have spewed forth their garish display of sexual depravity to attract swarms of chittering, creeping insects. A garden with plants is surely a marker of the deranged, trying to fool themselves with a few feet of flora that they don't reside crammed amongst the braying masses of their fellow species.
My garden is different and altogether more civilised. Though the judicious use of salt each year nary a green shoot thrusts itself unwanted from the ground. A fine soil takes up the majority of the plot, silent and calm. It provides the perfect substrate and backdrop to a collection of exquisite rocks which are elegantly placed in prime locations to be gazed upon from my windows. Each rock a solemn reminder of ones fleeting presence on this planet, a fractional iota of the existence of these noble stones.
I gaze at my creation and think not of it's demands but of my own humble insignificance.
Gazing through the grubby kitchen window, I am filled with daily regret. It was, once, a beautiful place of evergreen delights and seasonal bursts of romantic colour. Now it is a domain that is sadly lacking. It is untended, unkempt. A loving hand hasn’t graced its earth for a long time.
“Soon,” I whisper to its perimeters, “soon you will be tended to again. You will be restored.” I felt the weight of my own lies.
A knock at the door pulled me from my melancholia. Unexpected, not necessarily unwanted.
“Hello?” A tentative, but courageous, voice crept its way through the house. “Is anyone home? I just moved in a couple of doors down, and I’m doing the rounds!”
I cautiously made my way towards the front of the house and slid the peephole cover round in a circular motion. The action had a way of increasing my tensions, like a dial of anxiety I was unwittingly turning all the way up.
As I pressed my eye to the looking glass, I sensed a shift in the size of my pupils.
“Yes, yes, someone’s home.” As I spoke, something was blooming.
Through the grubby window, the first signs of spring.
It was an unremarkable one. The market, not the bee. The bee itself was magnificent, fresh and radiant in both appearance and aura. Immediately I could tell that it wasn’t from around here - Vlostek bees are very specific. Their average wingspan is at least one centimetre larger than those found elsewhere on the planet. This bee, at first glance, I could tell had the smallest wingspan I had ever seen.
And the colours. Allow me to describe its shades, constructed of hues not entirely yellow, mixed with a depth that was so much more than black. Canary, midnight. 06:04 on June 18th, 22:51 on December 11th. Shooting stars. An eclipse. It was astounding that something so small could so mightily stop me in my tracks.
Safe in its transparent case, the colours were exemplified, tiny mirrors bouncing them beyond their brass corners. Intrigued, I lifted the box higher, and at the same time inspected its seller.
They did not glance towards me. I tried once more, with a little extra gumption.
Still, nothing. Their indifference baffled me. The way their mouth continually hung open by a couple of centimetres made bile bubble in my stomach. I wanted to ask about the bee’s previous owner, to know of its life before. Looking at their face, however, made me want to steal. So I stole. While pretending to look at the other trinkets the buffoon was selling, I slipped the box and its bee into the inside pocket of my coat. I hunched forward a little so the lump wasn’t too obvious against my chest. With a subtle, smug nod of the head I said,
I could feel my eyes glow with juvenile delinquency. Walking with haste through the unremarkable market, feeling alive in the throngs of aimless shoppers, I imagined the wings of my latent bee starting to slowly vibrate. I longed to take it from its prison and inspect it further. The tram ride home had never felt so laboured.
“Alistair? Alistair, I’m back.”
The house rattled in its own silence. He wasn’t home. As I gently laid down my keys in their pot, I saw a note. It was written on a post-it, slightly larger than the typical post-it found in most stationery shops, but its bottom edge curled skyward as they all do. Scrawled in his typical manner was an uncharming haiku that tipped my stomach.
‘Martha, smell is worse,
I’ve had to call someone in.
Please don’t be upset.’
Inclination drew my eyes to the furthest end of the corridor. The door, concealing the stairs that led to the basement, was ajar.
As I drew closer to the stairs I heard metal clanging on concrete. Glass splintering. Gasp. Exclamation. Expletives. Someone turned as I reached the bottom step with a gentle creak.
“What kind of sicko are you?”
I dropped my prized possession as its minuscule wings fluttered into being. I knew there was something special about this one.
It's left wing was broken so I haggled the man down to 3 kopeks. He looked bored during the conversation and a bead of sweat trickled from his sideburns, down the side of his face and dripped onto my hand as I handed over my money. He placed the bee into a small matchbox and I walked back to my lodgings.
The boarding house was dark and the air felt greasy and stuffy. I shared my room with an old sailor who didn't speak. He sat in his bed all day smoking a pipe of cheap tobacco. A thin light filtered through the filthy windows and struggled to puncture the coils of swirling fumes.
I nodded at the sailor as I entered and took the matchbox out of my pocket, throwing my jacket onto the bed, sweat already forming on my brow. I picked up a stale crust from the remains of my meagre dinner, chewing it to distract my gnawing stomach.
Counting the days in my head I thought I should have enough time to mend it's wing and my heart glowed. Sitting on the thin mattress I hunched over the matchbox and slid it open. Inside lay the bedraggled bee, sluggish in the warmth of the room. I arranged a few drops of water on my dinner plate and scraped across some remnants of jam, before tipping the bee carefully beside them. It stumbled drowsily towards the water and began to drink. I smiled.
Over the next few days, with it's wing braced and a leash made of some spare thread, the bee began to recover. From small faltering jumps to clumsy hovers it progressed each day, my heart soaring with every inch it climbed into the air. By the end of the week it was flying confidently pulling at the leash which restrained it's meagre body.
On the Sunday I placed the bee back it in it's small matchbox, returning it to my jacket pocket. I shaved in the smeared mirror and tried my best to comb my hair with my fingers. All the while I could feel the impatient buzz of wings against my quivering heart.
I walked from my lodgings across the river to the tree lined streets of the Primorsky District. Their cool shade was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of the narrow alleys I had come from. I entered Neva park and sat on a bench, my foot tapping impatiently - then I saw him. My son.
He entered the park with his mother, chubby face glowing. I stood and hurried to intercept them, fishing the matchbox out of my pocket and secreting it into my palm. His eyes caught mine, then hers. Pity shined but I beamed, my heart bursting, anticipating my redemption.
He turned and I saw his pudgy fingers grasped a single silken thread pulled taught by a vigorous, plump bumblebee. My fist tightened and I felt the last flutterings of my hopeful heart.
The time itself was of no true relevance, just a rather intriguing coincidence due to the fact that one had left Tokyo a few hours prior, and the other was on its way to that very same place. Crossings at midnight. Departure and destination one and the same. Something of note. Serendipity? Or simply air traffic scheduling?
One plane was mostly white, with specs of red at the tip of each wing. Slender and surprisingly delicate, its command of the air was impressive. The clouds parted softly, unconsciously even, as it sliced through their fluffed up edges. Warm butter. Maple syrup. Molten lava. In the dark skies, its sweet nocturnal lights twinkled at a regular beat alongside the stars. Man alongside mystery.
I sat on this aircraft. Three empty bottles of wine, the miniature kind, were tucked away under my seatbelt. I yearned for another. My eyes glazed over a mindlessly chosen film. Spurred by the erratic combination of boredom and a restless mind I carelessly glance out of the window at those sweet nocturnal lights that lit up our wing. I was aware of time in its most singular and infinite sense. We are, at this very linear second, all of us onboard this vessel, in flight. At that exact moment, the aforementioned stroke of midnight, a similar set of flashing lights soared past in one blink at a speed that I could not determine. I pressed the bell.
As I craned my neck to watch the exasperated steward disappear behind me, I prayed that my choices had been right.
You sat on the other plane. Briefcase secured neatly under the seat in front of you, shirt crisply pressed - so much so that it barely winced under the claustrophobic weight of the seatbelt. It is worth noting there were no empty bottles hidden away underneath. As a matter of fact, you actively turned away the steward in a manner most polite when complimentary libations were offered.
The film choice was of severe importance - something serious, something with gravitas, not necessarily Oscar nominated but along those lines. You paid attention, your eyes did not glaze over in an erratic combination of boredom and restlessness. You seemed kind. The cart rattled past.
“Thank you so much, not for me. Thank you so much.”
The landings occurred at roughly the same time, taking into account the differing time zones. Passport control for us both was standard, full of scrutiny and critical eyes. We both headed for our respective taxi ranks, but a gentle pressure in your bladder took you on a detour to the nearest washroom.
You were aware of a soft ticking sound coming from the corner of the room. Your briefcase hit the floor with a neat thud as the first explosion bore itself into existence.
In my taxi, I refreshed the news manically. They were calling it the worst terrorist attack in years. I had a sudden feeling that my prayer would not be heard.
This carefully orchestrated routine had been occurring every day for the last 3591 nights. The pilots inside their spartan cabins made a note of altitude and flipped to a new day. They would pass by the plane again in exactly 24 hours.
Two planes, carefully controlled to exactly circumnavigate the globe every 24 hours. It had been years since the crews had touched the ground. They no longer knew what silence sounded like. True silence, without the roar of the planes engines reverberating through their being.
In the weeks following The Incident, when it became clear the situation was only getting worse, the decision was made to launch these two planes. One heading East. One heading West. Each contained a crew of 20 able-bodied members of the Air Force, 10 male and 10 female, and rations to last 10 years. Solar powered, the planes were able to fly night and day without stopping.
It was proposed that the planes should cross paths each midnight as a failsafe in case ground communications were lost. They would at least be able to visually confirm the fate of the other plane. Ground communications had been lost for 841 nights.
For years they had watched as the world below them changed. In the weeks and months after they took off they saw the virus spread quickly, from Europe across to Asia, eventually making it's way to America. They could tell when it hit a city, the chaos following a predictable pattern. Lines of cars attempting to flee, plumes of smoke rising as the infected overran, flashes of explosions seen at night as the army attempted to take back control. In the beginning they were just one of many planes in the sky, now they were the only ones, forever looping the globe. They watched tankers and cargo ships drift aimlessly on the currents of the oceans. Each night there were fewer lights as the power stations began to shut down with no-one to operate them.
They were nearing the end of their 10 years and rations were getting low. The hastily assembled plan had not been clear on what to do if the situation was not resolved after the 10 years. There were vague ideas suggested that the crews could repopulate Earth, hence the makeup of the crew, but everyone at the time had considered this an unlikely scenario. It was currently unclear who else might be left outside these aluminium tubes.
They had made plans of course. They would land at the airbase they took off from, rendezvous with other survivors. None of them really thought there would be other survivors. Whispered conversations talked of crashing the plane into the Atlantic.
They hurtled towards their passing point for the 3592nd time. At their speeds they had 34 seconds to communicate with the other plane. At 23:59:43 the radio crackled.
"Provisions low. Touch down tomorrow. Godspeed. Over and out."