Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 to High Tide

I'm told our parents celebrated 9/11 like it was some kind of holiday. Fly a plane into a building, years later they'll be having Macy's sales around it. I imagine that if scientists announced that a meteor was hurtling towards the Earth, a whole industry would spring out of it. Pharmeceutical profits would skyrocket. Meteor pills would be all the rage. And the parties. Holy fuck, the parties.

That's now how it happened though. High tide just came on coming, a little each year. We worked our way around it. When the subways flooded, we made barges. Marketplaces moved from street level to the second floor. We banded into groups. I've farmed on rooftops, built windmills out of metal scrap. Not everyone, of course. The transitional generation got it the worst. Unprepared and generally worthless, a lot of them withered away to nothing in the darkness over skinned knees and bruised prides.

I guess we were lucky to be born amongst the garbage and scrap cities. We banded together. We improvised, or we died. I was seven when the news media started reporting the 404 Attacks. Eight when the ever encroaching sea was half-jokingly called High Tide. Fifteen when I decided to be a joiner, changed my name to a number (79, if you're wondering), and started pranking corporations.

And I was twenty one when I met my first demigod. That will take a little explanation though, huh? It started when I met a runaway along the side of the road. The rest I'll piece together from what she told me, and what little imagination I have. Grant this old man some poetic license and come along with me, I've got one bottle of old Scotch left, ...

This bonus material piece was read by Tara Vanflower (Lycia) and P. Emerson Williams (Veil of Thorns). Music by James Curcio and P. Emerson Williams. First run 2007.

The sizzle of a match sparking to life momentarily mingled with cricket-song in the swampy air. A large, calloused hand guided it towards a hurricane lantern in the dark, its nails split from work and grimy to the quick.
“Bad smells, lil’ Missy,” a voice said, coming from a hulking form still mostly cloaked in shadow. “Fiyah. An’ pisssss.”

The wick of the hurricane candle borrowed life from the match, which expired with a wet sizzle in the palm of the other seemingly disembodied hand. The sweet pork and sulfur smell of burnt flesh filled the room with the growing light, revealing shelves of yellowed bottles holding dried herbs in front of a mildewed Confederate flag.
Sketch by Andre Malkine
Agatha loomed over the splintery hardwood of the table the lamp sat upon, the washed-out flower print of her dress barely visible in the flickering light. A broad-brimmed leather hat twisted the outline of her head demoniacally.
Two eyes, long-lashed and gorgeous, regarded Agatha in terror from the other side of the table. The orange puffing of the cigar she clenched between her teeth reflected in those doe eyes as she sat a moment in brooding silence. The smoke quickly blotted out all the other scents in the room.

Removing the cigar with a blunt, dirty hand, Agatha concluded, “Get up slut. Weyah takin’ a walk.”
Agatha marched down the cinder block steps outside her trailer, holding the lamp in one hand, and a taut, rusted chain in the other. The trailer was once bright blue, but now it was slate gray and pitted with mold. Shelf mushrooms protruded occasionally along the warped side of the vehicle, amidst vines that wandered willy-nilly from the trailer to the cracked staircase, bordering ‘gardens’ of toxic plants.

“Foul. Win’s got teeth tonight. Fiyah an piss an teeth,” she said to her daughter Mary, who was barely able to keep on her feet as the chain dragged her along.

“…There’s a three, lil’ cuntling. Fastah now,” she continued impatiently.

With a powerful arc of her masculine arm, Agatha yanked the chain. Mary lost her footing completely, and slid down the concrete stairs on her face. She fell in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, the skin shucked from her hands and knees like corn husks. Stomaching a sob, she rose to her feet.

“Thas’ mah darling,” Agatha said, turning towards a rusty machete that rested at the base of the stairs.
A baleful moon shed its light down on a cluster of trailers, almost swallowed by the surrounding swamp. At their center sat Agatha’s trailer, and an overgrown yard almost half-again its length. Dead pickups, trailers, garbage heaps and piles of lumber sprouted from between the foliage.

Agatha thumped her way in a direct line from her trailer, Mary still stumbling behind.
“Mebbe you ain’ seen, but us folk ah stahving. Die’n in ouwah wood jes lik’ lil’ los babbies. The world’s a changin’, darlin’…” She said over her shoulder, unaware that Mary’s terror totally overrode her ability to listen. Or care.
“Fiyah, piss, teeth…Time ol’ Agatha did sumpin’ ‘bout it all.”
She made her way down a sloping path to a rocky, dried stream bed. Mary shivered involuntarily, shrinking from the tendrils of growth that crept their way onto the path. The woods seemed to radiate illness.
Agatha smiled as she spoke, “Gone put you down heyah a bit. Cain’ have you hollerin while ah fix thins’…” She chained Mary tightly to the tree. Mary strained against crying out as the cold metal bit into her rust-stained skin.
“Is a new world, ‘lil bitch. Them wot’s strong gone eat them wot’s not. Gone git fat lik’ big ol’ mountin’ cats,” Agatha said, pinching Mary’s cheek with a gnarled hand.
Image by Jessika Kaos
“You jes’ res’ heyah a piece while ah go star’ it rollin’. Mebbe think awhile, why you ain’ the one getting et.”
Mary bit her quivering lip but remained silent. For a horrifying moment she thought the machete had her name on it. She concealed a sigh of relief when her mother passed her by.
As Agatha trudged back up the hill, crooning to herself, the sobs Mary had been holding back finally overcame her. The cold stones around her echoed her unanswered pleas as her mother’s out-of-key singing voice came rolling down the hill to her, “’Neath the trees wheyah nobodeh sees, wi’ll hide an seek wheyahevah we please…”

Now back at the foot of the staircase outside her trailer, Agatha picked up the machete. Her tongue lolled between her teeth like a corpulent earthworm.
“Vernon!” she called, tapping its hungry edge against her back.
A weak-looking, servile man poked his head out of the trailer door. “Hullo, sweetie?” he replied.
“Git out heyah, Vernon. Ah need ya,” she said.
He stumbled down the broken stairs like an awkward puppy, wearing stained long underwear. Moonlight reflected off his wedding ring as he stood uncertainly at the base of the staircase, running his hand over his balding head.
“Sumpin’ wrong wit’ the pig pen, ah need ya. Come on,” she said, moving the machete to her front nimbly as she turned and began walking away.
Vernon stood over a stained bathtub in front of an empty pig pen, scratching his head.
“But sweetie, whas’ wrong with it?” he asked, after inspecting it another moment.
Agatha neatly split Vernon’s skull with the machete in reply.
“Is empty!” she proclaimed proudly as he fell forward with a splat, his legs sticking out unevenly from one end of the tub. She wiped the machete on her pantleg as they twitched spasmodically.
“Cause thas’ the way us teddybehs have to piiiiic-nic.”
“But Motherrr,” Darell droned on in a whine, “how we gonna get out of here with no gas…no ’lectric?”
“Swamp seems to grow each’n every day.”
“No food,” another complained, holding a flabby stomach which pushed his overalls to the limit.
“Yeah, what we gon’ do?” yet another of the boys asked.
Agatha eyed them all with squinted eyes before raising a sausage in the air over her head. “Whut we gonna dooooo?” she imitated mockingly. “Snivelin’ pups. What’ya do wit’ out me? I’ll make good f’ya. Look you be good an’ plump, you et all y’like now. And we gon’ go. Gotta get out fore little drown rats y’d be.”
She stuffed the sausage in her mouth, savoring the salty pork flavor as her children wrung their hands. When she finished with it, she leaned forward with a grunt, and lifted a rusted chain from the filth.
“Hook this here on the wagon’n strap yerselves in. You gon’ carry us on outta here. Hitch it an’ get movin’, maybe then I feed ya.”
The trailer bucked and trembled as it wheeled over ruts in the road, Agatha’s boys dragging it forward like a pack of oxen in the field. They hobbled past abandoned gas stations, surrounded in broken glass, rent and rusted metal, abandoned cars stripped down to the chassis, and occasionally, charred bodies, tangled in blackened cypress roots.

Mary lay on top of the trailer, her hands bound, watching carrion birds circle between the limbs of the trees.
That night, she shivered up there on the roof as the bulk beneath her continued to quake, though the trailer no longer rolled forward. The quaking was now accompanied by the sound of Agatha bellowing like a gorilla, and the pathetic whimpering of her many sons as they spent themselves in the moist folds of her girth. Mary had no more tears left. Instead, she stared blankly at the moon as the world continued to shudder and groan.
The trailer bucked one last time, so fiercely that it seemed it might overturn. It didn’t, but Mary was pitched off to land with a thud in the grass. With the wind knocked out of her, it took a moment to realize she was free. The old ropes must have snapped.

Without a thought she took off into the brush, terrified they may have heard her gasp when she landed.
Her tender feet split on stones and roots, and her lungs burned as she ran through the forest, too terrified to look back or down. The taste of copper filled her mouth, adrenaline wracked her body. She was certain she was hallucinating when two lights drifted down a nearby road, Will-o’-the-wisps with a V-6 engine.
When the lights stopped with a punctuated screech, she realized this was no hallucination. Wonder was replaced by terror. She was an attractive, exhausted, barely clothed fifteen year old alone in the woods at night. This was a bullet-hole ridden Ford Explorer, cruising along like a hunting cat on the prowl. Though not worldy, Mary was well aware that never the twain should meet.
Hours before, she had wished for death, now she wanted nothing more than to live. Still, there was no way she could get very far on foot. And what fate could be inflicted upon her that was worse than what she had lived through?
Stepping onto the cracked street, she waved her arms back and forth. Having already seen her, the driver continued to stare. She couldn’t make out anything other than a blurry silhouette, blinded as she was by the light, so she inched up to the passenger side of the vehicle.
The driver seemed to be motioning for her to get in.
Cautiously, she opened the door.
A slightly plump man gazed back at her with a mixture of curiosity and guiltily restrained lust. That was me. Can't blame me, can you? I'd been on the road for a long fucking tmie.
“Hi,” I said plainly.
“Um,” she said. I had a necktie wrapped around my head like a bandana, a white collared business shirt left mostly unbuttoned, and a SIG sniper rifle balancing across my lap. Like I said, long drive.
“I’m Agent 79.”
“So…” I said, looking at the tattered rags that covered her young frame. “Going for a jog?”
Mary couldn’t reply. Instead, she started sobbing uncontrollably.
I put my hands up as if to console her, but couldn't bring myself to touch her. They floated there, uncertainly.
“Do you want me to…?”
“Drive!” She said suddenly, forcefully. “I don’t care where you’re going just drive!”
I dropped my hands to the steering wheel, “I am headed West…”
She wiped her nose with one hand. “I don’t care,” she said more calmly. “Drive.”

Mary was still shaking. Moments before, she had been strapped to the top of a filthy trailer as Agatha was delightfully gang-banged by her inbred children. She would never call her “Mother,” she realized, though couldn’t help thinking of what a Mother might be. Agatha was the exact opposite of everything motherly. She was like Baba Yaga without the walking house. Mary’s brother’s, who Agatha referred to as “ma pups,” couldn’t help what they were, but she still didn’t like thinking she came from the same stock. She refused to talk like them. They were animals. Maybe Agatha couldn’t help being what she was either, but Mary felt no pity for her. Agatha should boil to death in a cauldron of scalding oil, covered in the Colonel’s Secret Recipe of eleven herbs and spices.
That thought made her smile viciously, though it was all distraction from what was going on. Distraction was a unique skill she’d developed, fermented like a fine wine.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but what the hell are you talking about?”
“Talking about?” Mary asked. “No... but I was thinking quite a lot just then.”
“Oh I’m quite certain you were talking. About Kentucky Fried Chicken? Fine wine...And Baba Yaga. You read uh, Russian folk tales? And talk really propah for a Belle... In third person.”

She looked at me, startled for a moment, but then drifted away again. That old book of fairy tales was her first. No, no that wasn’t true. It was the only book she’d managed to get her hands on and hide. She’d read it over and over, her brothers lost in the zombie-trance of television... before they lost the electric. And yes, she fancied the British. And would never, ever talk like the others. But was that important? Now she was riding in an SUV with some kind of Secret Agent. Nothing like James Bond, though. He hadn’t even given her a proper name. Agent 79? Agent of what? None of the answers he gave to those questions made any sense to her. A “disorganization” of “de-ontological post-capitalist collectivism?” That answer, he admitted a moment later, was a load of bullshit. So she asked again, and he told her it was like a cult, but with better benefits. And he winked when he said benefits, which was kind of creepy, but kind of cute, too–
“You’re doing it again.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You just– you have no idea where I just came from.”
“You’re right about that,” Agent 79 said, waiting for a reply.
This was awkward, but it wasn’t so bad. She wasn’t chained to a tree or watching Agatha sharpening her knives as the pups dragged their most recent catch – a blindly shrieking boy – out of the swamp. She couldn’t watch what came after, but those sounds – those horrible sounds – would haunt her dreams forever...the chewing smacking of sloppy lips, but she knew they weren’t lips. The cracking of celery, but it most certainly was not celery. The drip, drip, drip of–
I threw up my hands, and the truck nearly careened off the road. “Wow! You know what? Let’s just not talk for a little while, OK?”
As the hours and miles of road slipped by, Mary came to realize that things weren’t nearly so dire as she had imagined. She even saw electric lights, magnificent beacons of a world she only dimly recalled from her childhood. By foot, they had not wandered far. Agatha told them civilization had fallen. No one came looking... Who was to know?
This country was still not what it once was. One could hardly even call it a country, now, could they?
“It’s almost like when the barbarians sacked Rome,” Agent 79 said. “The world didn’t end – just the civilization.”
“I’m sorry?”
“You were talking, I thought–”
There was still hope. She was still thinking about the beacons of light: the neon and street signs. Several towns in, traffic lights.
No, this won’t do, she thought out loud.
“You really are a strange girl, do you know that?” I shook my head and made a left.
“Where come from?” she asked, trying again.
“The land of barbarians and anal rape,” I said immediately.
“Huh?” she asked.
“Figuratively, I mean.”
“Huh?” she asked again.
“Los Angeles. Back before the bombing I worked in surveillance. Corporate, mainly. I mean what isn’t these days, right? I helped run a music label on the side. Ever hear of Babylon?”
She really had no idea what he was talking about.
“Are you headed back?” she asked, unable to think of anything else.
“Well, Los Angeles is totally screwed. Go boom. Uh. I’m headed to the red wood forests. Some of the members of that cult I was telling you about live out there. Feral vigilante lesbians. Make the radical Feminazis of a decade ago seem like Girl Scouts. They let me live because... Actually, I’m not sure why they let me live. So, your turn. Where’re you from?”
“I’ve been strapped to a chair, mainly. The last year. I mean, or a tree. Or the top of a trailer. Sometimes they’d let me out in the yard, though only on a chain. Then my– I mean uh, Agatha– killed my Dad with a cleaver and made sausages out’ve him.”
Another long, uncomfortable silence followed.
The sound of the door opening awoke her. She didn’t recall falling asleep, and for a moment struggled against the restraint of the seatbelt before realizing where she was. Outside she could see a long line of shoddily-built windmills, and a vast town of tents and buzzing electric lights.
“Wait here,” I said. “It’s not really safe in these villages…I have to trade some guns for gas and food…We have a long trip ahead. Just. Actually, get in the back where the windows are tinted, I’ll lock the doors from the outside, you’ll be fine. Trust me.”
She looked at me skeptically, her body instinctively falling into a fight or flight position.
“If I wanted to…do anything to you…I could have already. I’m not like that, OK?” I paused. “Not without your permission, anyway. Now please, get in the back.”
I went around the side and pulled out a large black canvas bag, slung his assault rifle over his shoulder, and slammed the door shut behind him. A moment later the vehicle pinged as the doors automatically locked her in. ...

Oh, hell. This would be a long story if I told it all to you.

We wound our way all around this shit-torn country, Mary and I. She didn't get even a little bit less weird, but she did open up little by little. Then one night, while camping outside the redwoods, they took us. A band of wild girls led by Artemis.

I could tell many stories about her, but this Scotch is nearly gone and I've already lost my place several times. I'll tell you this much. Much as I'm a human, flesh and bone, and she was too, she was also a demigod. I know it for sure. Wait. You'll see.

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