Through the arch another day declared an end, recalling the colour loaned to the vaulting overhead and leaving them in variated monochromes. Her gaze followed the fluted shapes in stone toward the wall, noting for the first time that it bore an image in the plaster elsewhere dissolved and sloughed away, the robust and wide-eyed figure of a mounted saint. His halo seemed no less sturdy than his plicated robe, its royal blue deposed by natron grey where the tempera proved as perished and forgotten as the order that had raised the remote redoubt.
From somewhere overhead the smell of another fire issued its primal invitation, en suite with the echoed, disjunct sounds of someone moving with a purpose she could scarcely envision, pain and torpor having pupated into something far more comprehensive. In its depths she was grateful for the enclosing seclusion provided by the surrounding structure, a quality promoted from its former station as the blandest facet of entitlement and beatified alongside the faded saint. Her pack lay against the wall, half-gutted of its contents. Banks of needles crowded the corners of the chamber, sere tokens of abandonment and solitude.
She rolled onto her side and was struck immediately by a sensation like the intrusion of a blade, an outward-looping vertigo drawing back the walls and floor as though on rubber bands. They swayed, one version doubled over the other, returning only as the agony began to slacken, leaving her tightly knotted. Susan opened her mouth to breathe and inched backward onto her shoulders, the taste of festering gore flushed from under her tongue as she stroked her broken tooth and the flesh that pounded all around it. Though startled by the hinges grinding by the rust-streaked door she lay still as Sachiin eased a dark shape balanced on his head around the partition, a copper pail in each hand, nodding the bundle of fraying fabric onto the floor and arranging its cache of fresh pine needles against the wall. With the same discretion he set down the carton of cigarettes beneath his arm, letting himself onto his knees beside the smaller pail.
"It'll be warm for about ten more minutes." Allowing for her apathy, he waited half that time before reaching back into her pack for her face cloth. "The drool is fucking with your bloodstains now, poupée..." he added, attempting remediation from which she rolled toward the wall despite the toll exacted by her tooth. Sitting back, he sighed and took up the box of cigarettes, plucking the golden tab encircling its cellophane and drawing out the crisp, beguiling sounds of its removal.
"Just give me one and go away." she croaked, clearing her throat.
"I thought you were giving up." he smiled to himself, sitting the damp, balled flannel on the side of her head when she did not reply. Susan turned again toward him, dark stare framed by strands of rain-washed hair and fluvial deposits, then dragged herself onto her hands, leaning over the bucket to lap the water from its rim. "How's your tooth?"
"Where is everyone?" she murmured, lapsing back against the stone.
"He's out jerking off somewhere. Haven't seen Pet yet."
She lay still.
"Now I can't call him Edward." He waited for her to elaborate with the same forbearance, two fresh cigarettes parked between his teeth. "It sounds... wrong... once you've seen him... doing things."
“I know. It's like calling Satan Toodles. Kar-lar-amaat-yah…” he suggested in a lugubrious tone, though she did not seem to have heard him. Squinting, Sachiin lit the cigarettes and piped the smoke from the corner of his mouth. "Allez... a problem shared is everybody’s problem.” He shrugged at her lack of response. "Well, I've got nowhere else to go, so y..."
“Stop being so fucking nice..." she snapped. He glanced around himself uncertainly. "I ran away and left you, alright? They could have been... ripping your fucking arms off...” The feeble glow from the arch diminished again as the sun dropped beyond the unseen horizon. Sachiin folded his legs.
“I can't say how it looked to you, but I don't think we were ever going to be dancing around with their nutsacks on our heads, so don't feel like you stole our chance at glory. If you hadn't been there, personally I’d still be headed downstream like there was a fucking inboard up my arsehole." He smiled and offered her a cigarette. "We made it out in three good pieces... pas de probléme." A glance related the inadequacy of his assurances and he reclaimed the damp cloth, warming it once more in the bucket. She did not protest its application. "I've always thought the chick who wrote The Art of War should have done one called the art of not getting into shit in the first place, but then none of the hot mess headed for the front line actually fucking read, do they? I mean, I look like I fell out of a fucking cement mixer and I didn't get that way smoking a bowl in a titty bar after bugging out of Nuristan before I got my head kicked in..." he laughed. "And that's because I'm a retard. But like I said, pas de probléme... if you live, pick up your ninja wings... you just qualified. As for running like a little bitch, I think that was me powering right past you. I probably pushed you over trying to put on speed."
She closed her eyes again against his arguments.
"You're not fucking useless... I am. I can't carry my pack, you had to go back and get it... I can't do fucking anything."
"Silence, mortal." Sachiin pronounced. "Would I steal a box of home-brand Ukranian cigarettes from a vampyre for a useless person? I went back for your pack because I'm too much of a fucking gimp to watch you suffer." He lifted the end of the sleeping bag and made a quick survey of her feet. "That's not heroic, and it's all bullshit anyway... heroic people are just impatient cowards. The dickhead who throws himself on the grenade is the same dickhead who would have bolted like everybody else if he'd thought about it, but then boom... he's human stucco, and stucco can't express regret. So stop feeling bad, immediately. How's your tooth?"
She drew her feet beneath the covers.
“Pet doesn't want me here.”
“Did she say that?"
"She didn't have to."
"Ouais, she's suffering you in silence because politeness is like a religion to her." he laughed, rolling his eyes. "Christabel, you just startled her dead arse.” He reached back toward her boots. “Come on... you can bring your hump upstairs.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce