We began meeting at the abandoned cinema off state route 9. Our group lead, Adrian Kleist, had a neighbor friend responsible for the slow decay of property who drew up a waiver spanning everything from alien viruses acquired in the bowels of the vacant men’s room, to hyper-extensions suffered within the folding seats of the viewing gallery. We remained undeterred and signed in flamboyant and swooping cursive. Our group known for its abnormal though symbiotic approach.
We were actively dying. Rapidly subjected human failure.
At our initial meeting, in the basement of Mercy Hospital Springfield, Adrian began group by stating, “Most of you will not outlive Jenna Elfman’s career.” We understood all too well the severity of such a statement. A good portion of the people got up and walked out. Adrian sat in a folding chair, hunched forward, elbows on his knees, a lanky man with the severity of a general’s brow. He had a way of wearing clothes that seemed European, scarves doubled at the throat, button downs without collars. “Anyone else?” he asked. “Now you don’t have to like what you hear, nobody’s saying that, but there’s no help on the way.” Ashley Snell was a mere two months from the dirt at the time, arms dangled loose as the ball and string of a Chinese hand drum. She nearly lost all ability to swallow. Relied on her teenage daughter to thicken liquids and feed them to her like oatmeal.
Movie posters collapsed and rolled into themselves. An empty popcorn bucket hovered over a desolate aluminum valley. Projectors hung head in projection booths, an unsure populous of once luminous machines. Meredith Trammel raised a spool of film, “Prime example of a sequel that should have never been made.”
“There’s a whole market for that stuff now days,” offered Dave Rami.
“Less talking,” Adrian advised. “I want these images to come upon you and pass, as though you were falling right through them.”
Upon initial diagnosis I began hibernating within the well-worn walls of hooded sweatshirts. Spent all my time watching PBS, Nat Geo and Discovery. Natural disasters programs mainly, with an every now and again emphasis on theological hopelessness. I wished tectonic plates to buoy forth, inciting such cataclysmic fuck storms that every city, civilian and cell be swallowed up by the savage waters of the world. I wrote a blog encouraging Presidents, Prime Ministers and Dictators to rouse a few nuclear fist fights and then awaited missile defiance in thy neighbor’s air space. I even admit to an attempt to bring down my mother’s curio cabinet, kick out a leg and watch it topple like a wounded elephant, sending generations of fine china out across the linoleum. The latter of these abolitions resulting in the loss of the big toe nail on my left foot.
None of us wanted to die.
Don Feedback caught up with me on the stage of Cinema 3. “Babinski,” he said. No one called me by my first name. Nobody cared too much for Don. He was our newest member and my elder by about fifteen years and the type to pin you down in conversation that seemed to circumvent into other conversation and never reach a climax. His famous line was, “To make a short story long,” which he would follow up with jocular laughter that enunciated the oceanic rolls of his flabby belly. The planks in the hardwood opted to pry loose at random times and there was that far off chance one would seesaw up and break his jaw.
“We’re not really supposed to be talking Don,” I said. “Adrian wants us to take in the scene.”
“We’ve been here what? Eight fuckin’ times? Not really much more to soak up.”
“Twelve,” I corrected him. “You just joined the group six months ago.”
“My point is, smart ass, I don’t really get what he’s going for here. All of us hold up in this dilapidated old movie theatre.”
“Even still,” I added.
My speech had become somewhat slurred of late, nasal, and I didn’t much like talking. Deke Howell and his brother Grant punched through the emergency doors alongside the building. Deke played middle linebacker for Ryle when I was just a boy. Type a guy who hit people and left them for dead. Had thighs like gasoline mounts on a motorcycle. Now his bro carried him like a ventriloquist might carry a dummy. Muscle atrophy for the books. Nick Laird and Angie Bodkin fumbled at each other’s waistbands in the back of the theatre, all too aware that this ability would one day leave them. Through a generous hole in the roof an early October snow began to fall.
In Cincinnati the minor seasons are allusive and often skirted all together.
Loud throttles came from the tiny window of the projection booth, until a motor finally began to hum. Blue light kicked on momentarily, the motor stalled and the theatre became mostly dark again. Moments later that same throttle and that motor was up and running, spiritual pipeline of light out the tiny window.
“Damned right!!” Adrian yelled.
The screen began to fade out on that lanky bitch holding her torch. Above her it read in big block letters, COLUMBIA. Meredith Trammel walked in and mouthed, “What’s going on?” And Dave Rami poked his head out the tiny window just to let everybody know he was up there with Adrian, as though a cool kid had invited him to a party.
“Damn right,” Adrian bellowed again over the roar of the motor.
And then, I wasn’t up there, but Dave Rami swears he said it, “You can’t kill the Cinema.” Likely as we took to our seats, eyes wide with grandeur, eternal pictures upon the screen.
Lancaster Cooney lives in Northern Kentucky with his wife, two daughters and sweet little pup. His work has appeared at Everyday Genius, Matchbook Lit Mag, Blackheart Magazine and The Molotov Cocktail. He received an editor's nomination for storysouth's 2012 Million Writers Award.
Eric needed a new pair of shoes. He had been a government courier for years and now, obviously, his shoes were done for. Both soles were cracked and the cold slush of an early November snow seeped through piercing his feet with cold. Sometimes bare patches on the sidewalks spared his feet, but when he stepped from the sidewalk into the gutter, the ice water that collected there, in addition to seeping through his soles, would wash over the tops of his shoes and seep through places where the storm welts failed, and fill his shoes with water.
However, he liked these shoes; he was a courier and they had given him good service. He had paid more for them than he had intended, but the soles, a rubber-like compound, had proved better on ice than most. Moreover, the shoes had stood the gaff for nearly three years.
He had bought them at a place called Tigress on a seedy part of Yonge Street. The owner, was a man of medium height, mid thirties, ruddy complexion, and jet black hair, in other words he looked like a real lady-killer. But he knew his business.
Eric had seen a pair of shoes in the window of Tigress had entered the store and was examining the soles of a similar pair in the store when the owner appeared. “I know exactly what you want; a pair of shoes that are good on ice and that you can wear inside. What size do you take?” Eric told him but the man brought a half size larger. “Wear them for a couple of days and they’ll take the shape of your foot. I know what I’m talking about. This is my career.” He did know. The shoes were comfortable; they were good on ice, and they were still presentable.
Now, three years later, Eric was going to Tigress again to get another pair. The owner was on him soon as he entered. Eric asked for the same shoe, but the owner told him the manufacturer had discontinued the line and replaced it with another. “It’s heavier and tougher. It’s good on ice. It doesn’t look bad. It’s more expensive, but I’ll sell it to you for the same price.”
Eric tried them on. They felt loose on his feet. He walked up and down the store with them. The soles had thick treads on them. The shoes felt heavy. Instead of a glossy finish, the uppers were oily.
“What do I put on these for waterproofing?”
“Mink oil,” said the owner. “It’s available at any shoe repair shop.”
Eric was unsure of them. He took them home in a box, put them on and walked up and down his bare-floored apartment. It was the weekend; Eric stayed inside and continued breaking in his shoes. By Sunday they had taken the shape of his feet and he felt at home in them. Monday morning a storm was raging. Huge wet flakes of snow fell and turned to slush. Slush was everywhere. In this weather, his old shoes were impossible, so Eric ventured out with his new ones. They proved to be excellent. He had treated the oily uppers with Mink Oil and the slop couldn’t penetrate them. When the temperature dropped and the slush turned to ice, the heavy treads were as good as he could hope for. And the heaviness of the shoes had an added benefit: when faced with sudden gusts of wind, he was steadier; he had no need to fear that his feet would be whipped out from under him.
Indoors, the shoes were almost as successful. He thought the shoes looked clunky, like boots, but Maysie, a clerk in his office, complimented him on their practicality. “I felt so sorry for you in your other shoes. When it rained you looked so uncomfortable. I could see you were limping and they were coming apart. I don’t see how you could wear shoes like that and then go out in the snow. In the summer, maybe, ok. But in winter with the snow and the ice; uh-uh.”
“I liked them,” Eric answered. “They were comfortable most of the time. I hate to give up on comfortable shoes.”
“Me too! I hate to throw them out. Are these ones comfortable?”
He smiled. “They’re pretty good.”
But comfortable as his shoes were, there were problems. For one thing, the right shoe rode up high on his ankle and chafed against his Achilles tendon. He put a band-aid on his ankle and worked the back of the shoe with his thumbs in hopes of loosening it. After a few days, the back did loosen; the shoe became comfortable again, and his raw flesh healed.
But another problem was more serious. His new soles caught on the carpets. He noticed this problem the first week in his home office. He was carrying some letters from the manager’s office to the director’s and his sole caught. Instinctively he reached out and grabbed the side of a file cabinet and managed to stay on his feet. Nevertheless, Maysie had seen him.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“New shoes,” he said irritably. “It takes a few days for the soles to lose their edge.”
But it happened again a few days later. One of his managers asked him to take some papers to Mr. Krindishin in the minister’s office a few buildings away. Eric frequently made deliveries there and when he entered the minister’s waiting room, the receptionist pressed a button to admit him to the suite of offices used by the minister and his staff. The common area was large, well-carpeted, with a slightly uneven floor. As Eric made for Mr. Krindishin’s office, the tread on one of his shoes caught and he was suddenly on his knees, as if in prayer. He was up in an instant. He glanced around quickly, hoping no one had seen him fall. But one of the secretaries, Celsa from the Philippines, had and came over.
“Are you alright?” She asked.
He blushed red. “I’m fine,” he said. “New shoes. Uneven carpet.”
While finishing his delivery, he was careful to lift his feet.
In the middle of January, the minister’s office moved to a different building. In the new building, the minister’s suite took up an entire floor. The minister’s personal office was larger; the offices for his staff were smaller and opened into thin, ill-lit corridors. The minister chose a new sumptuous carpet to cover the entire floor. One afternoon one of the managers in Eric’s home office told him that the following day he would be asked to deliver a file to Mr. Krindishin in the minister’s office and some letters to Alice Green, one of the minister’s assistants. When Eric went home that night he knew the following day was going to be busy.
The following morning when he was leaving for work, a five- year old boy from down the hall ran into the apartment lobby. The mother, a tall humourless lady who lived upstairs came bustling into the lobby after him. “Wait! Watch where you’re going!” she called after the child. She gave Eric a stone-faced nod, caught the little boy by the hand and hurried off to the bus stop. When he reached work he was still wondering about the woman living on her own with the naughty little boy. Where’s the father? Did he run off? Is he dead?
Eric had several deliveries to make that day. Rushing from place to place, he soon forgot about her. Late in the afternoon he arrived at the minister’s office to deliver the material for his staff and material for him. He had one more delivery make afterward.
On the instructions of the receptionist he found Mr. Krindishin’s office in the north east corner of the floor. He knew he was late. After leaving the file he rushed down the thin corridor toward Alice Green’s office near the south west corner. As he rushed, the sole of one of his shoes, (he never knew which one), caught on the new carpet and he fell. It seemed to him he fell slowly, but with documents in his hands he was unable to protect himself. He saw the floor coming up towards him. He hit his face hard.
The frames of his glasses broke; he was hurt and badly shaken. A young man from one of the offices rushed out and helped him up. Celsa came over and picked up his documents. Eric stood trembling with his glasses in his hand.
“You’re bleeding,” she said.
Eric felt the blood running down his face and saw the scarlet drops falling on his jacket. “Where’s the washroom?” he asked.
“Just a minute.” She fetched a band-aid from her desk and then answered his question.
When he was in the washroom he looked at himself in the mirror. His eye was alright. The blood was coming from a cut at the end of his eyebrow near the temple. The plastic rim of his glasses had snapped and part of the plastic had cut into his skin. He soaked some paper towels in cold water and pressed them to the cut. In a few minutes the bleeding stopped. He cleaned himself up and put Celsa’s band-aid on the cut. The rim of his glasses had only broken in one place; but the frame kept its shape. He put the lens back in and put the glasses on. The lens was loose, but the glasses were wearable.
When he left the building he realized he was too shaky to make any more deliveries that day so he headed back to his office where he applied cello-tape to his frames to hold the lens in. He was still shaky. He rested a while before leaving for home.
When he entered the lobby of his apartment building that night, he met the tall woman with her naughty young son.
“Good evening,” Eric said
The woman looked at him and asked what had happened.
The woman stooped down to her little boy and said, “You see what happens when you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing.” She caught his arm and the pair vanished into the elevator. Eric went into his apartment and closed the door.
At dawn his eyes were sore and the lids swollen but he kept them shut tight as if someone were trying to pry them open. He could see the sun come over the horizon as a pink glow through his closed lids. He couldn’t tell if this new colour came from the translucence of his closed eyes or from the blood he knew must cover his face. He couldn’t tell, in fact, how much his eyes had been mutilated from the acts of the night before in which three men had held him down while another stitched his eyelids shut.
Shut up, just shut up, was all they had said in whispered tones, laboured from the effort of restraining him. They had meant to make him suffer before he died, his knee-caps shot out from under him as a parting gesture that shocked him at the first shot but made perfect sense by the second. It had become plain to him soon that this scene was being constructed with a cinematic eye, the details meant to be seen and later spoken of in story-telling fashion sparing no dramatic flair in the name of efficiency. So by the time of the second shot he had choked back his cries and almost expected what came next with a composure that must have been unnerving to the other men.
There’s an odd distance one is able to place between oneself and the worst parts of pain, when each different thought and feeling, each sensation of sweetness, sourness, joy, mirth, fear, and yes, pain too, is the last ambassador of its kind upon an ailing frame. There, in the new moon black before dawn, eyes sewn shut, he felt time measured in the throbbing pulse of blood in his ears. He couldn’t help but count the beats as one does when humming a tune. And even during the scuffles and gunshots and then while he heard the tinkling sounds of men pissing on his legs’ open wounds and in his mouth, he separated each act as if by chapters, punctuated by the metronome beat of the blood still in his veins.
Now in the horizontal light of morning, his eyes, too, throbbed, feeling too big by half for their sockets as if the diaphanous skin of his lids was all that held them in his head. Then a voice. A moan he knew was Jorge, whose being alive jolted him as when one is shaken to find someone else close by while sitting in a darkened room. There had been four shots the night before. The first two took his knees. Before that and before they had blinded him, they had used a knife, too big for a mouth, to cut out Jorge's tongue. They had struggled with the logistics of it before the smaller one holding the knife used his free arm to hold Jorge’s head stable while he turned the sharp edge of the blade around and in two clean cuts opened up the left then right corners of his mouth. Snapping Jorge’s jaw was next and only then did the blade go in unimpeded and the bloody flesh come out, lain askew, discarded on the bright red ground in a scene familiar to several of the men, who in the honest parts of their lives performed similar motions a thousand times a day in the abattoirs north of the border: rendering body parts, catching the lard and the tallow, and at the end of each day, themselves being transported back across the noisy border in trucks not unlike the ones used to carry the raw materials of their labours.
He whispered to him but there was no further sound. All told he considered himself to have suffered the least of it. If Jorge wasn’t dead he would soon be and if not he would wish to be. If by some miracle Jorge lived he would never speak again. They had cut out the tongue of the writer and blinded the photographer. The rest of the matter was gratuitous, meant to terrify those who found them and then those who would hear about it, fear and paralysis multiplying like a virus. It seemed that as communicators even their murders would serve a purpose, their lives and deaths all in the service of bringing forth a message albeit a hijacked one. As far as obituaries go, the bookend to his life, strangely, would complement what he felt to be the meat of it.
Another moan and the sound of Jorge dragging his shot-up legs across the ground.
Look at the sun, Jorge. You can’t imagine how I envy you. You get to see the sun one last time. Look at it and tell me what you see. Are there clouds?
His left eye felt hot, the needle having pierced the eyeball several times as this was the first eye to be blinded and the beginning of his captor’s learning curve. Even if he lived there would be no saving it and likely it would have to be gouged out for infection. The dragging sound continued and was now somewhere left of his head.
We did ok. It’ll be alright. If we live through this. Imagine. Imagine the story. The chicas.
He chuckled a little though it sounded more like a child’s cry, and the dragging sound stopped and Jorge moaned softly again, this time something closer to a gurgling sound.
If they don’t come back we’ll be ok.
The dragging began anew and then stopped when it seemed to be coming from directly in front of his mangled, unfeeling legs. He could hear each laboured breath from Jorge now as he rested from his effort. Jorge’s hand found his and turned it over so the palm faced up. Jorge squeezed the other’s hand gently, then placed it on the open cavity of his own abdomen.
Oh. Oh, I see.
He could feel Jorge’s intestines hanging out of his body, a deep depression where they once had been. In the rational, abstracted part of his brain, it occurred to him that the viscera were almost optional, the real human starting and ending with something quite a bit less than the forms that walk and talk in the world around us. Jorge could move, think, feel, and but for his tongue would be able to speak. It all seemed hopeful this way until his hand moved further in and felt the pooling blood. And then he smelled the shit that had inevitably come from a nicked or severed intestine.
It’s ok, he said. We did ok.
He withdrew his hand from Jorge’s flesh and turned to where the light seemed brightest, toward the first parts of dawn. The sun shone pink behind his eyelids but milky as through cataracts. He touched his eyes and wondered if the chicas would prefer him to Jorge, then he thought about his work and what it meant in the end. After a while, he tried to see the details of the sun through closed lids, hovering somewhere on the horizon, pink and piercing the black of night. He wondered if there were any clouds.
Chris Chew: I am a Montreal-based technical writer who writes fiction on his phone on the bus and metro while commuting - unless there are dodgy characters about in which case I stow the phone. I live with my wife, two children, and up until recently a border collie who all are smarter than me and see me more as a cautionary tale than an inspiration. I only recently started submitting my work to journals on the suggestion of my mentor at the QWF. My wife knows me well enough to know each success only feeds my already well-developed ego but she is supportive nonetheless.