As they race away, their shrieks ring across the emptiness of the old car lot like the distant cry of gulls, that maniacal screaming mirth. One, stringy brown hair flowing out behind like jet stream, twists her head, yells.
‘Come on, Ash.’
A ways behind them, smaller, thinner, Ash doubles her speed, jumps. Grabs the link fence with both hands and hauls her body up, face aflame with laughter and fear. They call her Ash because they found her in the burnt-out shell of an apartment block. Naked. Covered head to toe in a fine powder of grey.
Her memory of it is smoky, obliterating all detail. She only knows what they’ve chosen to tell of it in stories they spin around fires built to roast stolen meat. It’s not like the truth of it matters. None of them have stories they can tell with honesty. They’re just here. And they survive because they stick together, raise each other.
Ash’s feet smack onto the hard face of concrete. Then she’s running again. She’s wind and bird and wild; flames in movement, burning up the ground. She hears the furious roar behind, the pound of feet, but she knows the big ones won’t catch her now; they’re too large to wriggle through the spiked top of the perimeter fence. It makes her heart howl happiness.
The mob of big ones stops at the fence, slam it with their weapons of wood, of metal, bellow threats and warnings. Gull, almost at the opposite end of the lot, lifts his swag of meat and shakes it, leering. Pack does too, his face bright with a mad sort of joy. The type you see on the face of a cat who’s outrun a dog hell-bent on ripping its spine out. Home free it says. Home free.
And they jump and dodge and laugh as rocks fly in volleys over the fence and smash to powder on the ground about their racing feet.
Distant infernos illuminate the sky, a multitude of sunsets. Glass shivers in the faint glow of their smaller effort, a paltry flicker of wretched yellow.
‘They’re burning again.’ Glass whispers, eyes shadowed with memories dark as violence. ‘I wonder who’s died?’
Pack snorts, squares thin shoulders under a ragged scrap of fabric that might once have been a sweatshirt. ‘No one we know, Glass, no one we know. Who gives a rat’s piss? I don’t. Let’s just hope we finds none of them, we gots enough mouths to feed, what with takin on Ash here.’
Ash hugs her knees in the faint flicker of flames. Casts her eyes down. She doesn’t speak, has yet to try. She can see the words in her head, but her mouth’s unsure of how to make them, refuses to even try.
Treasure, one of the eldest, reaches out and pats her arm. ‘Don’t pay no mind to Pack,’ she says, giving him a look that shrivels his dick to a button, ‘he’s too fool to know what he says.’
Ash raises a smile. Like the flames, it flickers and dies down too quickly. She’s been with this band a handful of days. Watched them loot and pilfer food, ran with them away from the wrath of the big ones. What they’ve become to her can’t be explained in words or feelings. But it’s something like Treasure’s hand on her arm, that solid, that warm.
Even so, she thinks Pack knows what he says. She’s been last every time. Too small, too weak. A burden. She doesn’t blame him for that thought. It makes sense. He wants to live. So does she. She’s made a promise to herself to run faster, be stronger, but she’s not sure she can make that happen. It feels impossible, like talking.
She shakes her head. Pokes a stick at the flames. They flare up, and in the bright she looks at their faces. Hopeless, thin, grimy. There’s animal desperation in all of them though. A cunning. Like in a crow’s eyes. They’re quick, smart and savage these kids. If she were more like them, more like a crow, she wouldn’t be such a burden.
Distant yowling, a mingled cacophony of caterwauls, strikes the still air. It rings through the sound of wood on hollow metal, the rattle of fences. Pack swears, hard, like a spit. Jumps to bare feet and kicks dust on the flames. His face is a slab of concrete torn from the ground and stuck there on his head. All angles and flat. No emotion.
‘They’ve found us. I told you we shoulda gone all the way over to the river.’ He levels accusing eyes at Ash, who’d slowed too much, held them back till Treasure took pity and said to stop here instead. ‘Better run fast and long now, Baby,’ he sneers, and legs it, raising large puffs of dust, dirt sighs, in his wake.
Ash’s lungs burn with running, with stored tears. Treasure and Glass race just ahead of her, faces wiped clean of all but purest fear. It exudes like sweat from their pores, surrounds them in a sticky miasma. Slowing them down, holding them back. Feet drag like weights on hard-packed ground.
Behind them the hooting of the mob of big ones grows louder and louder, like an approaching thunderstorm. But it won’t be lightning and thunder, it’ll be broken bones and violation striking in this tempest.
The boys are way ahead of them. Dots in the distance. This race is all about survival, not about standing up for each other. Nothing they can do against armed big ones. They’re only kids, they rely on speed and knowing the hard places to get to, rely on wit and cunning. If it fails, they die, simple as.
With dead eyes, the girls watch the boys run, but don’t cry for help; they shut mouths to grim lines, pump limbs hard as they’ll go and hope they can outrun the mob. If one of them lives, it’ll be because they ran, not because the violence stopped in time. So they keep going, keep running, until breath bursts out in ragged streams and muscles burn sour pain.
It’s still not enough. The collected shout is now a furore at their backs, the stampede of big feet a drum-roll to their defeat. Glass gasps out a sob, it flies back to Ash, who catches it in her chest, holds it. Glass knows what big ones can do. The cuts on her little body, the name she chose, tell it all. Ash doesn’t want to be like Glass and Glass can’t live that again. So they run hard as hell.
Ash squeezes her fists tight as the feet pound ever closer. Then, a ripple across her back. The too-close swipe of a large hand. She leaps forward, a wild reach for more space, but they’re too fast, they flank her already. Their faces display insane grins, wide and dangerous as rabid dogs. They laugh at her, eyes shining. She’s caught, so they’re happy to play.
Ahead, Glass screams. Held aloft like a trophy, she’s in the grip of two big ones. Treasure lashes out, screeches at them. Grabs at Glass with desperate fingers. Glass is gone to pale, silent, too scared to even scream anymore. And then some of them have Treasure and Ash feels herself grasped in harsh fingers. Lifted.
‘Whaddo we do wiv bad girl meat?’ one of the biggest big ones yells. Spittle specks his mouth with flecks of foam. More rabid dog than person.
‘We gives it a few good poundins, then we sends it to darkness,’ shouts back a whip-thin big one, face all red with anger and malice. He’s one of the ones got ahold of Glass. Glass is empty, gone. Eyes like marbles.
‘Leave the babes be,’ screams Treasure, ‘don’t you dare hurt em, don’t you dare you fuckin pervs!’
The mouths of the big ones open wide. Harsh laughter falls hard as hail and Treasure’s thrown on the ground, fingers tearing at her ragged clothes.
‘Soft is it? Want to save yer sorry sisters is it? You first then, bitch,’ biggest big one spits in her face. Flecks spatter her cheeks and she twists her head to wipe them on the floor, spits back at him. A big looger. Gets him square on the hooter. He slaps at her, almost playful. But it leaves a bright red mark across one cheek, the dark beginnings of a bruise.
And Treasure starts to fight proper, screeching at him. Fights so hard, wildcat hard, all claws, teeth, spit and fury. But they’ve got her top off, small grimy breasts bare to the air and Glass begins screaming. A high whine of it. Building and building. Biggest big one, tearing now at Treasure’s trousers, shouts at whip thin big one.
‘Shut that bitch up, I’m fucking busy!’
Glass gets a cuff right around the mouth. Back hand. Smack, and her lip bursts like a balloon. Red spurts out over her chin. She’s all whites in the eyes and mouth hanging open like a trashed window. A gaping hole.
Ash looks to Treasure, to Glass. Something rises in her. Words. Words she can’t speak. They build like lava in the back of her throat. Molten and searing. Hurts like swallowing bricks. She swallows. Swallows. But it won’t go. The pain stings her eyes to watering.
And there’s Treasure screaming and fighting, all alley cat wild to stop biggest big one, and Glass, all whites and gaping mouth, and the lava’s rising, rising, rising in Ash’s throat, burning hard as flame. Boiling, bubbling, seething upward, to her tongue, behind her teeth. She clenches, fights, resists, but it’s too strong. It explodes.
The sound that comes isn’t words. It isn’t a scream. It’s like earthquakes and ruin and buildings cracking under conflagration. It vibrates in long waves through the air, rippling thick as heat, rumbles the ground, rattling it beneath them as if noise is a hand that shakes the earth.
Big ones pause. Yell. Totter as the ground pitches beneath their feet. Treasure scrambles back. Stares at Ash, jaw hanging. Then the tremor rises up from the ground, soaks in from the air. Into bones, flesh. Ash sees it ripple through them in waves. All of them. Not just big ones but Treasure and Glass too.
The big ones holding Glass drop her to the floor and she sits there, a broken doll, legs splayed, such a look of confusion in her that Ash clamps fingers over her mouth, tries to hold the noise back in, to restrain it, but it rolls onward as if containing a life of its own. A sentient momentum.
Flesh begins to roil like water and then, with a deep thock of noise, liquid and dull, biggest big one just pops apart. One moment a tempest of flesh, the next a trash heap of pieces, slithering apart as flesh drops away from bones. There’s a fragment of his face on top, eyes still holding a look of bewilderment, no time for fright or pain.
No time for fear in the rest either. They go one after the other like flesh-bomb dominoes. Pop, pop, pop. Ash races to Treasure, to Glass. Arms outstretched to grab them, hold them together if she can, but it’s too late. By the time her feet reach them they skid in little piles of what’s left of Treasure and Glass.
Ash falls to the ground in amongst the gore. Her face contorts around an open wail of mouth. But all that comes is that sound, winding down now to a low burr, the shudder of foundations, the hollow reverberation of collapse.
She falls forward on her hands, retches. Vomit spills, hot and acid, over the remains of her friends. Tears follow hard on its heels. A downpour. A torrent. And Ash is choking and crying on her hands and knees in the remains of the only people she ever knew.
Tears dry to hard, aching hiccups. Her mind thins, close to snapping, gaping too wide and still unable to absorb the truth of the mess beneath her knees, her hands. Ash scrambles up, wipes trembling palms, begins to move. Slow at first, stumbling, then faster, faster, till wind whips her face numb as her heart.
On past the lot she runs, away from grief, from loss, from the horror wrought by her voice. She moves swift as undercurrent in water, a silent force of movement seeking distance. Passes the mess of parts that were once Pack and Gull, all steaming in the cool air and, eyes straining out, clamps sticky hands to her mouth to hold it shut, hold sound in.
More featureless piles of parts lie further on. So many. A countless multitude in the streets, in alleys, slumped across chairs and floors inside diners. Lumps in crashed cars, crackling in the heat of engine fire. Their stench cuts into her nose, makes her cough and retch behind the clamp of her palms.
The death zone continues for miles and miles. And she’s running just to see how much further it can go, head a metronome of movement, seeking for the line, the demarcation between ruin and lack of ruin. But there is none. It just goes on and on in eerie silence. The smell of it, gut-throat pungency of split bowels, the odour of ripe meat, has become the air, nothing else to breathe, nothing clean.
Then Ash can run no more. She staggers along, bracing her hands against the gleaming surface of windows. And the crows begin to gather, circling down from the highest atmosphere. They alight on misshapen ruins of body parts; peck pecking at this morsel and that. Hop, skip, jump above her on signs and ledges, heads cocked, eyes beady with cunning.
They caw and cackle at her and in their voices, behind them, she begins to hear the resonance of another. It’s a mere rushing at first, soft as the gather of wind. Then it becomes whispers, meaningless sibilance in amongst the staccato triphop of crow talk.
Then sibilance forms words like the quickening of water. Flashing past her, through her, into her. Imprinting themselves as they go, so what she hears is an after-echo, a memory of sound. It calls her name. Sings to her a song of fire, of birth.
The crows raise wings; raise raucous cries to the heavens and beside her, in the windows, the words within her mind begin to form as pictures. A slow focusing of formless colour to faint, flickering images. Perhaps memories. Ash whimpers, tries to outrun them, but they pace her every step. She closes her eyes and they begin instead to play on the soft innards of her lids.
They show the dank basement of a ruined building. The slow melding of shadows to liquid flows of neon in effluent, building bones, musculature, the spread of pale flesh. Above the prone form, slow rain begins to fall from nothing, from nowhere. Black and viscous it drops onto the white of the skin, sinks in. Pale eyelids twitch. Flutter. Open. Pure black bleeding to the same pale blue that now stares, horrified, at the images in the window.
Then the images shift. They show the wide yawn of her mouth. The shudder of earth and flesh. The thudding pop of whole to residues. Not just Treasure, Glass, the big ones. It shows her Gull and Pack’s ends. A thousand others, over and over till they all become the same image. She turns away. Vomits, explosive, a splat of bile tinged yellow on the grey concrete.
Whispers rise to a roar. A forceful sound, it pulls at her. Her eyes. Makes them see. And in the windows roll an endless parade of atrocities that crucify her on the spot. Skin bled to translucence, eyes huge hollow holes leaking tears, and the images do not stop, they reel on and on–a primal dance of wickedness.
Brutal violations in the dark of alleyways. The secret perversions behind closed doors. Prancing forms silhouetted against flames, revelling in the roasted flesh of innocents. Blood splattered across the concrete. Strewn ropes of viscera hanging from the black protrusion of railings. The big ones at hunt, at play, in all their glorious, depraved savagery.
And the song croons within her mind, wills her to understand. She is a product of its hatred of the world they created. It made her to wipe itself clean, to purify the stench of humanity from its boulevards and highways, its tenements and terraces, from the dark bowels of its innards.
Ash’s head flies back and forth. Once. A sharp jolt of denial. She slams her hands over her eyes and runs from windows, from crows, from never-ending images of horror, from whispers that infiltrate and stain like wet rot.
She runs from it all. Blind and haphazard down streets filled with putrefying remains, bare feet slipping and tripping through slews of bloodied remnants, catching on shards of blood. They rip her shins, her feet, till her own blackish blood leaks in amongst the red, a dark unguent.
Then she’s sliding, falling, the ground once beneath her feet snatched to air, to incline. Her hands fly away, arms flare wide as a startled infant’s and she’s wheeling as she careens down the steep side of an embankment, mouth gaped on that silent scream, because sound has once again deserted her. Or she has deserted sound. No way of knowing as she stumbles, trips, begins to tilt.
Her buttocks hit the ground, she skids sideways in thick mud, rolls and tumbles until the ground goes flat and catches her. Ash lies there, trembling. Curls into the curve of her own arms, a tiny ball of limbs and misery, and closes shell-shocked blue against the city.
Lost in the embrace of sleep thick as unguent, she stirs, a waver of delicate movement. And the city sings to her, a lullaby of darkness to awaken her from dreaming. Fragile lids raise, blink into the ghostly light of dawn. She stares at the endless rise of city, a creeping wall of ravenous steel eclipsing sunlight.
The mournful call of crows courting clouds drifts down, soft as snowfall. Their shadows cross her eyes as if they fly not above, but within her. The city itself resides there too, rooted into the black cavity of swollen pupils. A reflection of endless arms of steel, of glass, raised up high enough to become all there is of sky.
The pale circles of her eyes swim dark confusion, then shattering remembrance. She looses a howl of bewilderment, grief, denial. A brief wail, there then gone as she realises what she’s done, clamps shut her mouth, hands tight to white lips. But the wail resonates on, becomes profound vibration.
It shudders through the air, into the ground, the walls. The mud beneath her laps against her skin as the earth ripples with waves of persistent movement, soft and insistent as water. The sides of the embankment shake and rumble, stone rattling against stone.
The movements swell and then, miraculously, begin to fade. Ash feels the pain of it deep in her belly. That it would stop now and not then is worse even than being caught by big ones. Worse than being a weapon. Worse than being alone. More than she can bear. She screws up her face, curls over and holds herself, as if all she is threatens to fall out at any moment.
She can feel it there, in the cage of her flesh, pulsing, impatient yet passive, this vast force waiting to be unleashed. Waiting for her to open her mouth and let it loose. Such power. A frightening, unbelievable amount. She wonders if there’s enough to destroy a city.
The song within her grows desperate. Pleading. The images flow once again. Of silent boulevards, the peace of empty streets and vacant houses. The city tries to beguile her with these sights, woo her, tempt her to forget all that’s happened, but she’s thinking about that vibration, that potential, and what it could become. There’s no room in her for what the city wants, only for what she wants for the city.
The images slow, stop, create a vacuum in her mind, a chasm in which only the sound of crows crying in the distance can be heard. Then a seething tide of acrid cold burns her from the inside out. A roar follows on its heels, a raging, the voice of the city as it rails at her.
She shudders, clasps thin arms ever tighter about a bird-like cage of ribs, breath coming in hard gasps as sharp, stinging sensations begin to hum in the depths of her bones. The pain is unimaginable. Overwhelming. Like every drop of liquid in her has set to boiling all at once
Ash arms fly open. Wild blue eyes stare at them, at her legs splayed out in the mire. Between slicks of mud pinpricks of black begin to well from her pores, a dark condensation. Each one feels like a needle pushing out through tender flesh and her breath leaps from gasps to short, savage puffs. One by one the drops begin to pull free. They drift upward, a reverse rain, float back to the city they came from.
Ash knows what it means. If the city can’t keep her silent, then it will unmake her instead. Put an end to her as it’s used her to put an end to everything but itself. A rush of something close to madness sweeps through her. She captures a drop as it flies up, presses it between small fingers. It’s slick, silken. Ichor formed of purest, black hatred.
This filth is what she’s made of. Given without permission, then taken the same. She’s only a vessel. But she’s also Ash, who ran with Treasure, Glass, Pack and Gull, who escaped the big ones, who sat about fires and ate stolen meat in the fragile warmth. And Ash will not go without a fight.
As the black rain rises around her, Ash lifts her head, opens her mouth wide as it will go and lets loose all that lies within her along with that slumbering coil of power. Funnels every speck of grief, of loss, of rage into a sound loud enough to break the world. And there is silence within her at last. Stillness. Shock.
The scream catches in the air, swells, grows, rebounds against itself. Creates echoes loud as the deep cracking of the firmament. About her, everything becomes thunder, all echoes, all movement and the distant crashing of buildings caving in upon themselves begins to resound upon the air. Ash’s song of destruction.
The embankment walls on either side shiver apart. Begin to break. Rubble falls from the sky, cracks down into the mud with dense, throaty splats. Ash doesn’t flinch. She sits, fearless, allows the sound to flow, to grow, even as hulking chunks of masonry land within bare inches of her thin, vulnerable limbs. Only when she thinks she’s done enough to ensure an end does she close her mouth, let the sound travel on without her.
In her mind the city finds its voice once more, screams out its hatred, its loss, but she’s no longer listening. She leans on the bony shelf of her knees in silence and waits for annihilation as the shell of the city succumbs to ruin.
© Ren Warom 2011