Advent Stories #2

  TO THE BEACH

Petra was all for it, which scared me deeply. I knew I would have to go along with her or risk losing her to Prentiss or Fauchon, the only other fertile members of our Warren. I wasn’t ready for that, not when I’d spent the best part of a year applying for a conjoinment. The other boys were younger, healthier than me; I could sometimes hear them beyond my wall, spending their lust on each other or on the matriarchs who were barren and dying.

What I’d initially hoped was idle fancy on Petra’s part had soon formed the focus of her every waking moment. Fatuous as it was trying to dissuade her I found myself attempting just that one night during breakfast. I waited till the screens came down, knowing how the stars and that faint, diminishing smear of red relaxed her (not me; that colour and the body it signifies chilled me to the quick). As I composed my argument I watched her eat, her golden eyes fixed on the thickening dark.

‘It’s suicide,’ I said.

‘Not if we take care,’ she countered, so quickly it seemed she’d been rehearsing her gainsay. ‘Then it would be as close to living as we’ll ever get.’ She stretched, pushing away her tray of powdered fruit and water tablets. The hairless curves of her body looked jaundiced and tired this evening; at least the sores she (and all of us) had inherited were weeping less.

‘There’s more to life than dreams, Petra. They more or less died with the City.’

‘You don’t dream?’ Had she eyebrows they’d have arched.

‘I didn’t say that. But I know the value of keeping a dream in its place.’

‘In its grave more like.’ The bitterness in her voice unsettled me. Would Prentiss have the balls for this? Fauchon probably did it all the time. They’d be her next port of call if I wimped out.

‘The sentries, Petra,’ I pleaded. ‘The cameras. The Craw.’

She swept her plates to one side and spread herself over me, sensing victory. ‘The Craw has never been seen baby love. I never knew you were a sucker for myths.’

‘What do we do when the sun comes up?’ I asked, thinking, shit I’m going to do this.

‘We find a place to hide,’ spoken as if I was an idiot.

I toyed with my tablets. She knew she had me, knew the reasons why I would accompany her. For a second I hated her for that blatant manipulation of my need. Love was an old fashioned concept, existing only on the crumbling onionskin pages in the library. I didn’t understand what it truly meant but if it could encapsulate all the warmth, the yearning I felt for Petra then love was something I knew for her. She was looking into the distance which had now blackened completely. What she held in her eyes for that skyline tweaked at the craving she invoked in me. She was my horizon in a way; often visible, frequently beautiful but beyond my reach. No matter how much we sexed, she’d be unattainable. I wouldn’t have her, I wouldn’t have an inkling as to the complexities of her essence. I wouldn’t know Petra. Perhaps she wouldn’t let me know her –knowledge is an unfashionable thing here; I’ve been in the library just once and that to administer first aid to an epileptic. I noticed a quiet that was unlike any silence I’ve ever known before. Only a small room, the library, but its hush is almost cathedral in its immensity. There are few books. Only a few of us are granted access to them. Maybe too many educated people would promote ideas and argument, and a rocked boat is something Lascelles, our leader, doesn’t want. Anyway, if this was Petra’s motive for not letting me inside her head then certainly it was a charitable one. Life here is too base for a caprice like love I suppose, or so everybody thinks. The cynic in me is convinced Petra just wants me for now, that when I’ve exhausted my usefulness and influence she’ll move on to someone fresher and stronger. I was about to broach the subject of us, but she could read my misery and cut it off with a kiss and a smile that made me wonder why I could get so lachrymose at all.

Her pluck astounded me. During the night, while I worked in the surgery, she’d got her hands on weapons, packs of water tablets, even a lead coated parasol and, best of all, some asbestos sandals. I felt terribly inadequate having pocketed stuff I had access to anyway: painkillers, zinc cream, ointments and salt pills. After long deliberation I’d thieved a syringe and enough morphine to see to us both should it come to that, should we manage to evade the sentry guns and the Craw, or whatever existed Outside – if indeed anything could.

We moved together when dawn came, sucking the safe dark colours from the sky and turning it metallic. Just before the sun appeared the screens came down, squealing grittily. Her voice was blunted by fatigue.

‘Toohey?’ I was amazed that she thought I’d drifted off – how could I? ‘I wonder how the sun feels when it touches your skin. How it used to feel I mean, before it was dangerous.’

‘Warm, I imagine,’ I said, pathetically, keeping watch over her face, only half recognisable in this false night. One of her eyes contained a glimmer.

‘Just think, all those stars, all of them as lethal as ours.’ She paused for a while, perhaps shaping her next sentence, perhaps awed by the enormity of her vision. ‘Strange how they can provide life and hope but…take it all away just as easily. Can you think of anything else like that?’

‘No,’ I said, thinking you. ‘We should sleep Petra. We’ll need all our strength come evening.’

The sun was little more than a hazy stain through the screens, like an ulcer wrapped in gauze. I held her till, in sleep, she pushed me away and turned her face towards the sky. Kissing her smile, scared to share the blistered dreams that no doubt burned beyond her ‘lids, I shut my eyes and cast my mind towards something wintry.

Instead I was filled with fire. Smoke billowed from my throat; bones turned to ash. And every step I took split the blackness of my flesh to show me something ember–red winking beneath.

I could feel myself clenching for a scream but Petra’s mouth glued the sound in. She was already dressed; I could see I’d have to be careful for both of us: she was high with excitement and hadn’t even noticed in how much of a state the dream had left me. I showered the sweat off and remembered to ask her about the key cards.

‘What?’

‘The key cards,’ I shouted, turning off the water. ‘Did you manage to get copies?’

‘Oh I did better than that,’ she purred, tossing me a towel. From her thigh pocket she extracted a rectangular piece of laminated plastic – its shape spoiled at one corner, which was clipped. Two bands of sharp green at the opposite corner told me it was an original and that somebody on Intelligence Tunnel 8 was missing it.

‘How – ‘ I began, but I saw her jaw harden.

‘Toohey, you don’t want to know. And it’s not important.’

I tried not to show how crushed I was that she’d sexed with another. Attempting to curry favour by displaying emotion was doomed to fail and anyway, I’m not the doe–eyed type. ‘Suit yourself,’ I said dismissively, hoping she’d be pricked by the cruelty in my voice. Fat chance.

card (1)

She squatted in front of a mirror and spread her eyelids with the forefinger and thumb of her left hand. With the other she gently pressed a flat black disc on to her eye. It melted, spreading across its surface till it looked as though the socket was empty.

‘You okay?’ she asked, turning to face me. The live/dead look of her made me wince and I recalled the dream, moving my fingers to where I thought the cracks would be. I nodded all the same.

‘Some of those lenses for me?’

‘Of course. Here,’ she said, blinking another into place. ‘I’ll help you put them in.’

There was a flare of panic when her empty face sank in front of mine but it was less cloying now and I was able to return – if somewhat shakily – the smile she offered. My lenses in place (I had to quell the urge to rub – it felt as though my eyes were too big to blink over), I dressed and collected together the stuff we’d hoarded for the trip. The corridor outside our room was empty and dimly lit. My shadow engulfed Petra’s as I followed her out. Locking the door we waited, looking at each other, listening for something that shouldn’t be, something that would force us back inside. All that I could hear was the buried thrum of the generators and people snoring in Fauchon’s room.

‘This is not a good idea,’ I whispered as we crept towards the shuttle.

‘No, perhaps not. But it’s an idea at least. I’m up to here with people who make their minds up for me. And with people who just stupidly go along with them.’ That stung. ‘All this…’ she spat on the wall where a large poster of deadpan Lascelles hung next to an inelegant chalk depiction of a penis encrusted with glass – the current celibate defence. ‘All this restriction can go to fuck.’

I had to stifle my laughter at her use of the old obscenity despite the forcefulness and crude logic of her point.

The shuttle responded to the key card and was silent enough but I knew that when its doors opened on the Chamber we’d be exposed to the motion cameras. Rumour had it that Security weren’t as effective as they might be – little went on these days to warrant their intrusion – but the appearance of the guards I’d seen around did little to support the gossip. Alert and pristine they were and I couldn’t envision them feet up on a desk.

I kept looking at Petra as the shuttle swept along, searching her face for some betrayal of emotion but she was relaxed, eyes just about closed, breathing measured as if she were psyching herself for what lay ahead. Her performance only made me more nervous. It would have been nice to hold her hand but I had to look as though I was in some control. Keep your eye on her, I told myself. No matter how calm she seemed to be I could sense a bristling energy rising from her. She’d surely commit some rash error if I didn’t watch out. Finally there was a deceleration and we separated to opposite sides of the shuttle. I missed the moment of its stopping – so smooth were its brakes – for the sudden whisper of opening doors surprised me. Deep blue shadows spilled in from the Chamber, along with cool air from huge, slow moving fans on its ceiling, some ninety feet above us. Petra gestured with her head that I should take a look. I craned my neck, trying to keep within the block of shade, and searched for the cameras. There were just two of them, set on either side of the great room: I could see the infra–red sheen that coated their lenses and belied their apparent lifelessness. One of them must have caught some kind of motion; click–whirr it went, a strangely unsettling noise which echoed and settled in the dim heights.

I moved slowly back. We’d have to go soon or the shuttle would close and take us back to where we came from. I widened my eyes, hoping she’d recognise the futility of this venture. Instead she pulled out one of the rubber balls I store in my surgery – they’re squeezed by people with wasting diseases to try and keep their muscles supple – and rolled it slowly across the floor. The cameras jerked round in our direction and then panned back, following the ball’s progress. Petra hustled me out and, hugging the wall, we tiptoed beyond their arc of vision to the vacuum doors set into the wall. I was getting excited by this time; I wanted a whiff of real air though I wasn’t at all sure if it was poisonous. We smeared zinc oxide on our arms and faces and unfolded the great parasols. The ball bobbled against the wall, its energy spent. Those pale red eyes began to sweep slowly back towards us.

‘Quickly Petra,’ I whispered. She swiped the key card across the lock and a pneumatic hiss filled the chamber. The door drifted open and we crept Outside. We waited till the tower’s revolving ‘eye’ was turned away from us before sprinting towards a low ridge of rubble from which broken fingers of steel thrust. Only when we were safely shielded from the Warren did the force of what we’d achieved sink in. Since birth I’d sucked in air that had been strained through millions of lungs. Now, though far from fresh, it was a thrill just to have the flavour of something different in my chest. Petra was smiling, eyes wet and wide.

‘You did it!’ I shouted, beginning to laugh.

‘Hush,’ she put her fingers over my mouth but she was laughing too. ‘We should be elsewhere – it’s not safe yet.’

We stumbled away, looking back to ensure we remained in the wake of the largest heaps of debris. Soon, the Warren was little more than a grey needle tipped with light. We walked in silence for a few more miles, quickly growing tired as we were unfamiliar to such exertion. I grew conscious of a dim shape pulsing at the corner of my eye but when I looked there was nothing there, the shape simply kept out of my line of vision. The lens must have been faulty – I was about to ask Petra if she could see okay when the klaxons went off behind us, carrying on the still night air in rolls of sound.

‘God,’ I said, looking back. The Warren was out of sight now though I fancied I could still see a faint pink halo low on the horizon. ‘They’re wise to us already. How can that be?’

Petra tugged at my hand. ‘Let’s go, Toohey. I’m sure I can hear its rushing. Can you?’

Maybe I could. Or maybe it had something to do with the creeping dimness in my eye. But I wasn’t interested in her Great Blue Need at that moment. ‘Who was it you slept with? Who was it you stole the key card from?’

She looked genuinely shocked. ‘I sleep with only you. It’s on paper. You know that – we both signed it after all.’

‘You respect the conjoinment?’ I couldn’t keep the sneer from my voice.

‘Why should I sign otherwise?’

‘There are benefits for couples.’

‘Such as suspicion?’

She had this unerring ability to make me feel guilty when it was her in the wrong. ‘So how did you get his key card without him knowing?’

‘I killed him.’

My mind wouldn’t allow me to understand what she’d said. ‘You kissed him?’

‘Killed, Toohey. Murdered. I took his belt and strangled him. Okay?’

‘No, not okay. How are we supposed to get back into the Warren?’

She managed to make her grin look incredulous. ‘Who said anything about going back?’

The klaxons had stopped. I imagined a phalanx of troops surging from the Warren baying for blood. ‘You didn’t think we could live out here? We’ve no food. Nowhere to go to. The Warren…we were always going back. You must have known that.’

She moved up close to me and gripped my sides. ‘Well we can’t go back now. They’ll carve us up. And anyway, even if I hadn’t killed him, they’d have put us in quarantine for months before giving us our own jail cell.’

‘Not if we were discreet. We broke out. We could have broken back in.’

‘Too late. I’m not going back to die.’

‘You won’t have to,’ I said, but my bitterness couldn’t penetrate. To the east, dawn’s yolky spread signalled another hour’s safety. We had to find shelter, both from the sun and Lascelles’ hunters. I thought of my room at the Warren – the drabness of the walls. I thought of my job treating people who were beyond help. Petra had pushed all my greyness away. I kissed her. ‘Time to go.’

We picked our way through a gutted church once the sun’s leading edge whitened the sky. A great black shadow filled one area – where, in the last century, Mankind made a last desperate attempt to save the planet by trying to patch the ozone layer with a thousand square miles of mirror. The shuttles orbit the Earth even now, their wizened crew no doubt still drifting: a monument to our failure.

The parasol fluttered at my shoulders; I made sure we were contained in its shadow as the heat soared. My breath grew strained as whatever was left of the air’s freshness was scorched dry. A tiny popping noise carried to us as the heat increased. We traded theories on what it might be to pass the time and stave off nervousness before discovering it was the sound of flies combusting. In the shade of a calcified apse we huddled, watching the bleached stone as the quickening day fell across it. Petra started humming a tune, now and then throwing in a lyric or two as if half–remembering them:

Here comes the sun….Here comes the sun and I say

It’s all right….

It would have been nice for some of her steel to pass on to me but her blasé attitude, even the delicate melody she toyed with couldn’t banish my distress. The dimness in my eye was gathering again. I caught a whiff of something green and cool which then translated itself into something tangible, whispering up and down my back to settle between my shoulders, stitching the flesh there with a chill that was not unpleasant. Petra’s song died. She slept with her eyes open; I could see myself fixed in them, my face doubled and curved across the black gloss of the lenses. I wiped away the sweat forming on the scarred dome of her head and tried to equate the brash, sassy woman with the soft bundle of peace I held in my arms. I think I told her I loved her before my own sleep came – at least, I like to think I did.

When I woke, my legs had stiffened and my arms were sore. The cool patch at my nape was a salve: the stone around us had been cooked well; it radiated a heat of its own which rippled the view beyond the apse’s archway. I ate a salt tablet and chewed on a brittle stick of yeast. Petra, smelling my breath, stirred and plucked the meal’s remains from my fingers. The setting sun found a sliver of stained glass. Its light became civil for a brief time, playing lilac and green on the nave till it moved on and regained its cruel whiteness.

‘How do you feel?’ I asked. My voice was dusty, beginning to fail.

‘Hot and wet,’ she replied, rising. ‘And stiff.’ She stretched and her spine crackled. She looked at me when her movement stopped yet the sound continued, scuttling down through the ruins. Could they have caught up with us already? I couldn’t believe that, much as I’d have liked. I knew that whatever moved beneath the crumbled span of the church roof was in some way connected to my neck’s chill and the bloom in my eye. I wanted to ask Petra to move – she was in my line of vision and something beyond her was shifting slowly, seeping down from the shadows like a tide of thick oil.

Finally she crouched and the full breadth of what was coming detached itself from my eye and swelled. Then it faded, making me wonder if it had been there at all – a suspicion furthered by Petra’s complete lack of reaction.

‘Could you not see that?’ I asked, trying to stand. She stooped to help me, shaking her head.

‘You must have wakened with one of your dreams running through your head. We must move on. And carefully, in case there are any hunters nearby.’

It remained with me for a while, like a pattern of light imprinted on my retina. The muscled bulk of it, furred with green, its eyes great liquid swirls. Its smile was a needled curve of ice.

We slipped outside. The ground, having sucked in all those hours of heat, seemed to hum with energy; my feet ached with the constant rush of heat, despite the asbestos sandals. Dusk still contained enough of the sun’s ghost to draw sweat. Within minutes we were open mouthed, feeling so dry I thought I might crumble. Behind us, perhaps a mile or two, metal glinted. Why should they be so bothered about us? Was it because they thought we’d try to come back, bringing with us whatever plagues we attracted? Or was there something Lascelles simply didn’t want us to see? Perhaps the very creature I’d glimpsed. But Petra hadn’t seen it. My confusion was distracting me. I could see Petra was heading towards a crippled tower on the horizon. The light was becoming so grainy now that the shapes of rock around us writhed as if trying to rise up and block our way. My eyes, though tired and scratchy from the lenses, at least were free of any flaws and the pressure at the back of my neck had lessened. I couldn’t help but feel these things had become more an internal part of me, that they had fixed upon me, chosen me rather than Petra. I also felt the shapes and the chill were parts of something bigger – the creature I’d seen or imagined – and its name was the Craw. Since childhood, when the Warren was little more than a maze to play in, the Craw has filled the darkest moments of my life. All my fears and shortcomings are wrapped up in the ripening of me and the accompanying stories of the Craw. It was as much a part of me as my memories of parents, or the peculiar, pregnant moments I sometimes experience at midnight when the sky seems friendly, when there could almost be the promise of snow and my mind flees to some land filled with green. Talking to Petra about this, once she finished scoffing, she’d mentioned race memory – the capacity some have to recall ancient occurrences through some marvellous chance twist in the genes. A sucker for all things magical, I lapped this up; something else to cling to when the leaden sky burned the hope from you. It was odd, to garner such a love for nature, to be fulfilled by something that was generations extinct.

Petra checked the action on her Splinter rifle as we walked. I passed her some food and tried to smile but my lips were too sore. She stopped me and rubbed ointment into them, her other hand resting on my chest. I couldn’t tell which of us was trembling. How could she read the disquiet in my eyes when both of us looked so blank? But she held me, containing my need to talk to her about the Craw. A hug was enough, for now.

‘Will we see it before they catch us?’ she asked. For a moment I thought her question referred to the same thing but then I realised.

‘I’ll make sure of it.’ I said.

‘If they’re lenient…if we can ever go back, then we should Produce. And I’d call it Atlantic. Do you like that?’

‘Very much, Petra.’ I might have cried if the water wasn’t so necessary.

We carried on and, sometime before the redness returned, I realised she’d taken hold of my hand.

‘Describe it to me,’ I said. ‘How do you want it to be?’

I could feel her swell with so many different ways to express her obsession and an attendant frustration that most would remain unspoken. I waited, trying to ignore the compulsion to check the hunters’ whereabouts or the proximity of the Craw.

‘I want it to be fresh and blue. The waves topped with frothy white crescents. I want it to be huge and loud and angry. The ocean is Life, Toohey, the Earth’s great magic cauldron. I want it defiant.’

I gripped her hand, excited by her vision and proud of the way she’d delivered it. All I could see though was a scummy, shallow puddle: lifeless and losing itself as steam to the sun. Not that I could utter my reservations. At best I’d cause an argument; worst, destroy her (and my) joie de vivre which had been leavened by this whiff of liberty. I hoped I was wrong. It would be heartening to stand by something that harked back to a more urbane period.

Now Petra had stopped talking the silence bore down on us again. I could still sense her, brimful with possibilities and I considered ribbing her about my belief that dreams had died – she was teeming with them, all of them briny and blue. The tower glowered softly. It seemed like a good enough target to aim for though I was conscious we could be travelling in the wrong direction. The chill at the back of my neck returned and I was glad of its company. When his voice came I had to look down at Petra to see if she’d heard it too but of course not – it wanted to speak with me. My faith was being rewarded, that’s all.

It’s to be a beautiful day come the ‘morrow Mr Toohey. Stay a while. Share a sunrise with me and you’ll see a fair sight. You’ll cast your eyes on a world no human has glimpsed for two centuries, you’ll feel the warmth of a sun unknown to millions.

‘Can’t. It’s too hot. I’ll die.’

‘Toohey?’ she said. And I looked at her as if she’d only just become a part of my life. The chill dissipated and I blinked a few times till I became more like the person I knew I was.

‘Sorry. Just daydreaming.’

In the dark I couldn’t tell if her face had softened with belief. The pale oval remained – I could imagine the concern etched upon it – before slowly turning again to the horizon. The light on the tower had died. The sun was scorching the other side of the globe now. I wondered if there were others, like us, pining for something as we were. Something that shouldn’t be so important yet was now vital enough to risk our pitiful lives upon. If it hadn’t been the Ocean, it would have been something else. The spirit needs something to feed upon I suppose, or, like so many of those convulsed people in my surgery’s cots, it withers away to nothing.

Its voice. So like my own yet some bass note had been twisted lightly; a discrepancy that made us separate, no matter how entwined we might be. I wanted to tell Petra. Just think, the Craw was communicating with me! The myth made solid. But Petra would scold me and tell me the sun was getting to what was left of my brain.

‘How much further?’ she asked.

‘I can’t tell anymore now the tower’s gone. Maybe we’ll make it by dawn. If we walk a while in the sun we’ll surely get there without the need for another night’s shelter.’

‘Don’t talk wet, Toohey. For the sake of God – you’re meant to be the sensible one. Yet here you prate: of strolling merrily in the red death of it all. Madman.’

‘We’d be all right for a time.’ The voice in my head, the chill in me said so.

‘Aye. And then I could scoop up your remains and carry you around in my pocket.’ She let go of my hand. Always a sure sign something’s amiss. I didn’t give her the satisfaction of asking what was wrong.

‘What’s got into you Toohey? I need you to be strong. If there’s trouble ahead I don’t want a half–man by my side.’

I couldn’t say anything to that, partly because I wanted its voice to say something else and partly because, at that moment, sodium flares – three of them – exploded above us, magicking odd shadows from anything erect enough to provide them. Petra turned, her Splinter rifle cocked and primed, its barrel thrusting towards the already failing canopy of light.

‘We’re well out of range Petra. They just want to see where we are. Don’t forget, they’ll be wearing protective suits. They’ll be weighed down.’

Maybe to show she could choose to spurn my advice she let loose a short volley of shots. The shells disintegrated, spraying the dark with thousands of metal splinters. I watched the tracer fire vanish and put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged me off and strode away.

‘Shape yourself,’ she hissed, but I was past caring. I walked behind her a while, angry that she’d caused the Craw to back off. A hint of it remained – something sourly tempting – how I imagined the forests of Amazon might once have smelled. Their photographs, which I’d glimpsed in the Library seemed to possess some of the Craw’s lushness. Might it contain the secret of the forest’s rejuvenation? I almost swooned with the heady need for green.

After a couple of hours it became obvious the Craw was unlikely to make contact again. By that time my anger had risen and I just wanted to be close to Petra again. She was still in front of me but she was tired, head down, sandals scuffing the dust.

‘I’m sorry Petra,’ I said, reaching for her hand. She didn’t move away. ‘I’m giddy with all this. It’s a novelty – you have to admit. And I thought it was you full of mischief. You’ve more sense in your little finger.’ I didn’t mention the folly of her trigger–happiness. We had to heal the rift quickly. What would be the point of our expedition otherwise? And, if we did have a future together – no matter how tenuous its link with reality – I had to try for it.

She thawed after a while and by the time the tower reclaimed its shape from the darkness – huge and twisted and frail – I’d won a smile from her.

beach (1)

‘Not far now Toohey,’ she said. ‘I can hear it. I’m sure I can hear it. You?’

I tried, but the shushing in my ears could only have been the Craw soothing me. A thin breath of air caught itself in the wrenched metal and moaned as if sensing the coming of the sun to soften its limbs even further.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘I have no idea.’

‘Maybe it was a beacon of some sort. Or a watchtower.’

‘Maybe.’ We crested a rise of land and Petra guided me into a great mountain of bleached wooden slats and lengths of salt encrusted steel. A large white board, flaking and warped, struggled to state some kind of name or message in painted words so pale they might have been ghosts.

B ACKPO       LEASU       EACH

That was all I could make out.

‘What does it mean?’ Petra’s voice was deepened by the echoes of the chamber in which we now found ourselves.

‘I don’t know.’ I felt ineffective. I wanted to offer answers but I couldn’t. Maybe I had something else on my mind. Or in it. ‘Petra, there’s still time before it gets dangerous. We could be at the Ocean within quarter of an hour.’

She was undressing. ‘The beach can wait,’ she said.

It was different, sexing beyond the confines we’d always known. Our inhibitions were still in evidence – a throwback to days in the Warren when we’d have to muffle our excitement or risk inflaming the passions of Prentiss and Fauchon – who were not averse to banging on the walls and hollering invitations to join a congress of their own. Petra took it all in good humour of course but I, perhaps because I’m old fashioned, fretted over the act. I didn’t want her running off to something else.

Now, though our instinct for silence prevailed, something in the freedom of our environment or the release we knew in our own bodies conspired to heighten the thrill. Sexing slowly, we stared into the blackness of each others eyes till our movements became strained and trembling. No longer able to hold off the sprinting will of our muscles, we fled towards that blinding moment: more instantly intense than any number of suns.

And then: Come with me and I’ll promise you a Forever that is Ocean deep.

My mouth was wet upon hers. Petra was pushing upwards still, trying to gulp every last twitch of me. I sucked her tongue into my mouth: something to suppress the yell of surprise and delight at the Craw’s return. Sanity returned, as did the normal beat of my heart. We might have dozed but the pull of the tide was too great. The sky was beginning to bleed: dawn could only be minutes away.

‘Don’t look at the sun,’ she warned, before kissing me deeply and scampering outside. We ran like children towards the shattered railings that buttressed the edge of what must once have been a promenade. I wanted so badly to be wrong in my prediction of the sea that I almost heard the frothing surf of Petra’s.

We were both wrong.

The hissing of the sand was all. It was shot through with black striations of oil like poisoned veins showing in flesh. Some of them were sootily aflame. Loose sand raced in ribbons of white movement across the surface. Far away, a beached oil tanker slept on its side, picked clean of colour.

‘Atlantic,’ she whispered, and I sensed her slump beside me – any soul she’d managed to cling on to evaporated like the water we’d come so far to see.

We found a set of pockmarked concrete steps and descended to the beach proper. The sand felt firm, and warm from the previous day. I couldn’t tell her how sorry I felt. Words would have been pathetic anyway. She dropped the rifle; I fumbled for her hand, which felt cool and reassuring despite her anguish.

Only when she stepped out from the safety of the parasol did I realise whose hand I was holding.

‘I love you,’ I said.

‘I love you too,’ they both replied, as a brilliant cuticle of light found our world once more.

She turned to me and smiled, her lips cracking, washing the teeth with blood. Then she simply walked away. I wondered if she felt the sun on her skin before the bullets ripped into her. Twin trails of smoke drifted from her hidden face as the heat found its muscle. She fell forward and began to blister. Fauchon pushed past me and shot her again in the back of her head.

The Craw was no longer holding my hand. There was a syringe full of morphine instead.

‘You must return with us, Toohey,’ said Lascelles, stepping in front of me. I liked the way he recoiled at the void in my eyes. Thinking of Petra’s nerve, I laughed.

‘Go to fuck,’ I said.

‘We need you back in the surgery. People are depending on you.’

The sun was a great, wonderful orb. I wanted to be a part of its mystery.

Come then, it said. Something cold chattered by my ear. It showed me the pulse in Lascelles’ wrist as he lifted his hand towards me. The syringe grew swollen with promise. His blood sang.

‘We need you Toohey. Let’s be friends.’ His hand opened. ‘Put it there.’

So I did.

 

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