A/N For the Review Game's WCC (June). "In the beginning there was nothing and God said 'Let there be light,' and there was still nothing but everybody could see it.'
I haven't done a one-shot in a while, so this was basically a chance to go uber-surreal. Hope it doesn't burn your eyes too much!
Seems like everyone round here is just waiting for something.
Maybe she's waiting for me.
She leans against the sign post, shading her eyes from the sun. In this quiet place of dead things, the girl in the yellow boots and forget-me-not jumper cut a stark image. She isn't welcome here; the sweetly stagnant air is distorted around her shape; her movements, although small and ordinary, are offensively quick.
The battered sign above her swings and squeaks hypnotically. It makes her smile a smile of a hundred thousand little hidden words.
Welcome, it says, to Skeleton City.
She continues to smile. "Wow." Her words shoot off and rebound almost instantly. From the terraced houses and the dark little shops and the church and the sepia-coloured verge, the sounds of her reverberate unpleasantly, but she blames the city and not herself. A spooky place it is, you see, this land of death and decay.
"Is she looking for me, maybe? That bright and unpredictable woman? That creature from another planet?"
I sit across from her, twinkle-twinkle yodelling through the dry lips of a starving guitarist. I play for the body of a dog with maggots for eyes and stiff, shaggy legs that twitch now and then. Maggots-for-eyes should laugh back at me – me, this weird and twisted living person who is talking to an animal and expecting a reply.
"Well. What do you think? Is she looking for me?"
Maggots-for-eyes is sarcastic and mean.
Who would look for you? No. Now play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or I'll bite your face off.
I play some more for him, anxious suddenly. The girl is too odd and too fast and too colourful. I consider putting down my guitar and running away.
No! We are all waiting. You must wait.
"And what does she wait for? Well?"
Quiet. She sees you.
I swallow. The girl in the yellow boots is smiling. She is walking closer. My heart races as she grins at me – she grins – she grins and puts up a hand and waves at me.
"Hello," she says. Her voice is odd and insulting.
Can I wait? Should I wait? Normally, well, yes. Wait. Wait when it's normal but now… Now a gammy old pigeon by the Greengrocer's spreads its dusty wings and shoots away. A dead old man in a cramped little house across the road peers through his ragged net curtains, sensing change. His ashen features, torn up with fear and confusion, are so obvious to me, and I shift uncomfortably. What is this young creature bringing into this place? How can I be expected to wait and see?
How I wonder...
I close my eyes and stand up. I place my guitar down gently – maggots-for-eyes can wait for the rest of the song to happen some other time; if we're all supposed to wait for something, he doesn't deserve to be treated any differently.
She acts unsure, so very unsure: her freckled cheeks stretch into an unsure smile, her heavily-lidded lavender eyes narrow into an unsure glare.
"What are you doing here?" she asks.
What am I doing here?
I'm running away.
In the tube station I stop, panting. Panting. With the crumbling creak of bones in my ears and the voice of the broken beggar selling riddles by the gateway, I try to convince myself that my routine is safe. I am at peace. I am waiting, just like everyone else, and it is calming and predictable.
But then I hear her footsteps – a mile away? A metre away? – and I feel tears running down my cheeks.
I sprint down the broken escalator to platform 2 and wait desperately for the ominous hum of the tube, the thrust of the wind in my face. I remember how I used to love that feeling, those sounds; I used to feel unbeatable.
I put my hands up to the safety barrier; a great fibreglass sheet cutting the platform away from the tracks. I smell rubber and sweat and kerosene, and I close my eyes. I feel the harsh, heavy beat of the blood in my fingertips.
"When was the last time a train ever came here?"
I look over my shoulder; see her standing there with her arms folded.
"How long have you been here?" she asks, her eyes shooting up and down, dead analytical.
I think. If you judge time by how well you remember people, I've been here years.
There are names, faces sometimes. There is Digby Davis, who taught me about boys and pornography, there is the girl in Starbucks with the lazy eye, there is a friend and a sister and a mother and a father. Friends, family, me and Digby Davis.
I remember my mother the least vaguely. That nagging voice of hers –
No goddamn daughter of mine... So help me, I'll chase you down...
Her words have little relevance to me now. In Skeleton City, words rot as well as people. The decomposing flesh of my mother's voice is long gone; I'm left with clean, meaningless skeletons.
"Who knows?" I reply, my voice soft.
She smiles and nods. "You're not ready for this place," she says.
"I'm not ready?"
"How did you get here?"
"I don't know."
Her eyes narrow again. "I've come to take you away. Will you come?"
Home. I close my eyes, finding the concept foreign and difficult to deal with. Maggots-for-eyes grumbled about the place called Home. He complained about light and colour and hot and cold and movement and improvement and competition and worry.
And then, more music, he'd demand. More, more, more.
And I'd play for him, try to remember my own home, and feel uneasy.
For a brief second, I feel the warm pressure of her hand around my wrist. When I open my eyes – open my lungs and mind and stupid great opinions to protest – I see-hear-say nothing but a brilliant brightness, a painful clarity, and comprehension, raw and sudden.
"Can you hear me?"
A girl in a blue jumper is shaking me, her pale face is twisted with worry.
I blink a few times.
"You can hear me?"
I can. And she's not the only thing.
I hate those lavender eyes of hers and those perfectly freckled cheeks. I hate the open, honest hope that is etched into her warm little features that suddenly seem so very at home in a world filled with noise, colour and panic. In the blue sky above me, a plane cuts white through the air and vanishes behind her round face. The streets around me thud with the weight of the living, the grinding sound of bones hidden in flesh and fat.
I suppose that it should make a difference.
"I'm still just waiting," I mumble. "Still just..."
I ache all over as it fully dawns on me. I'm lying on the street, broken and hurting and scared. In the distance, I hear the squeals of an ambulance. Closer, there is talking and banging and base music which hums like the buzz of blowflies.
"It doesn't matter," she says. "Just try to get better."
"Why?" she laughs at me, not understanding.
"I just... never mind."
We're all just waiting. Yeah, girl, waiting. And it doesn't matter whether we do it here or in Skeleton City. It's all the same really, in the end.
The girl, with her freckly cheeks and cheap jumper and smiles and hope and ignorance is relieved. She holds my shoulders, all warm and tight and painful, and looks out into space like some animal who just smelt something curious.
I can see the maggots in her eyes already.
As the seconds of my life tick by, I wait for the dull comforts of Skeleton City, the predictable movement of time, the routine and the rest. I wait to wait some more. I wait to move on. And then comes the gradual drip-drip-drip of denial. The feelings inside me blossom and bite.
My memories twitch back into life. There is a sister and a mother and a father. There are friends. There is Digby Davis with his blue eyes and his mocking, complicated smile.
I want to hold my hand out to them all.
Hold my hand out and shake theirs and welcome them.
Welcome them to Skeleton City.
And then send them running back to that place called Home.