Three Months Waiting

Magda wondered how it had all gone so wrong.

She came to Warsaw with dreams! She came to get away from her village, to live in the big city, and to experience life outside the stifling walls of her bedroom. Now, she was afraid to leave her own apartment.

It had all started when she left for Warsaw.

She had found the most perfect of all apartments. She saw it online and- not a moment later- she had paid for it upfront. The first three months rent were taken from her hard earned savings and put into that damn landlord’s hand.

Some would call her idiotic and some would say she was barking mad. But they were not living her life. They didn’t have to live in a tiny bedroom, in a big house, afraid of the beings outside her room. Walking through the hallways and looking at her feet when their presence passed. Going to church and listening to the village priests. The same priests who got fat on wine and donated metals. Who screamed about damnation, about pregnant women, about immigrants. About the current government, the devil, and about everything in between. They screamed about everything and anything and- in the end- nothing.

Her life in the village was one reason to leave, but the apartment had a million more.

The Nazis had not bombed it and Warsaw’s history had not blemished it. A building clean and fresh from Stalin’s stain, and without another soul between its walls.. Also, the ceilings…They stretched so high…she could just float away…disperse into nothing…and lose whatever anxiety she had..

Her parents had only given her their doubts. They stabbed their food and stared at her.

How can you afford that?”

Warsaw is dangerous! Are you looking to get stabbed?!”

You have a home right here…Are we not good enough?”

She ignored them. She answered politely, ate her pickle soup, and allowed their complaints to wash over her like water. They couldn’t understand, it was not about home, it wasn’t even about money.

She got money from her online editing work. She made twice the Polish average and was swimming in złoty. Her parents had no reason to be worried. Worse, they didn’t understand her in any way. Didn’t they realize that, in the heat of their proximity, she was just withering away? Didn’t they know? Didn’t they goddamn know?!

The train arrived in Warsaw when the sun set red.

She walked from the station, her luggage clunking along the cobblestone. The 24 hour pharmacy signs flash between the scenic sky. Strangers watched her. Cars slowed as they approached her. Her heart in her mouth until she got to her apartment and entered her home.

She felt as if somebody was waiting for her.

She searched the bedroom. She searched the kitchen. She found nothing at all. But…that feeling of being watched from the shadows… She looked underneath the couch. Nothing. The bed was cold and the shower absent of any figures.

She forced herself into bed. She had to, or she would be listening to her own heartbeat. The people moving upstairs, and the televisions blaring through the walls. Just a skin away. A thin membrane of paint and plaster…

Why couldn’t she go to sleep? Her eyelids were heavy with moisture, her neck creaked and her bones ached. She could almost fall asleep, but something always yanked her back.

Opening her eyes wide caused her to look in the corners then check under her bed.

Who in the world, she wondered, was making so much noise? Why was that television so loud? What in the world was going on?

Why did she imagine a man in the shadows?

After her first night, her editing work improved in leaps and bounds. She had such enthusiasm, such zest for life and love for work. She had something to look forward to and something to make her own. This is her property and nobody would take it from her even if she were to die.

Life was good for those first few months.

Well, except for one thing, and it wasn’t even a big thing, it was just…every now and again, at the exact same time, every day or so, she would hear a noise in her dream. The ding-rang of her doorbell rang. It echoed in her ears and dragged her from her dreams until she stumbled out of bed. Wondering.

But, when she looked through the peephole, nobody was there. The stairway empty and clean as freshly picked bones. With a noonday sun cold and desolate.

Besides that, life was good. She even started leaving her apartment! Walking through the park, visiting the library, buying some expensive ice cream. No longer was she going to bed with the sun up, and waking up with the sun down.

Work just kept coming in. She bought a coffee machine, a brand new television, and books so fresh that they bled black. Now what else should she do with her money? Should she go to Italy? France? Germany? Saudi Arabia? Well, maybe not Saudi Arabia, but there were other places. The world was endless and her future infinite.

Then, one of her clients failed to pay her.

At first, she did not worry. She just shrugged her shoulders and told herself that these things happened. But, as if part of a long laid plan, all her work just fell away. Her clients found other editors. Her emails went unnoticed, her work returned, and more and more clients ‘forgot’ to pay her. She spent all day checking her email. Hour after hour, clicking that link, until her vision glittered in blue and black.

Her life turned to empty nights. Playing her computer loud enough to swallow her thoughts. She turned it louder as her neighbours began to crash against her walls. Smashing on her ceiling, and thumping on her floor.

She stayed awake all night. Trying, and failing, to find a way out of this situation. A way for her to keep this apartment. A way to stay in Warsaw. A safe place away from home. Night after night the question churned in her mind. As she bit her nails, and paced, until, finally, only one outcome remained.

The landlord just wouldn’t receive her money.

In Polish law, there is no easy way to get rid of a tenant who does not pay. You could tell them to get out and call them at all hours. You could even threaten to fine them, but, thankfully, you could not come to the apartment without consent.

The landlord would have to go to court and wait three months. Then, give the tenant a piece of paper that told they had to be out in a month.

It would give her a chance to save the money from the little work she had. A month of money inside Warsaw would last half a year outside the city. Yes, that would be the best idea. She could save it and not go back in shame. If the landlord did try anything, then, well, she would have the law on her side.

She took her money out of the bank, just in case, and kept it in an envelope by her bed and, whenever she awoke, her hand would land on her little homemade safe. Counting. Recounting. Worrying about whether she could trust her memory. Anxious when she left her home, fearful of the landlord’s stubby fingers on her door.

Counting, checking, counting, three times a day turning to twenty. The sweat from her hands turning the ink sticky and moist. Her hands raw from touching the harsh green paper, and her eyes seeing money falling through the air.

In the beginning of the second month, she began to hear the doorbell during the day. While she was trying to sleep. The ding-ling invading her dreams, so that she would wake up with her heart pounding. And slip back into sleep, to wake up again, and again, her mind going from velvet black, to white light.

Her stomach churned at every movement in the building. Every footstep now the police, every neighbour now her landlord, and every little creak a claw on her wall.

The nights were filled with the light of her laptop screen, and the sounds of neighbours. Like great beings scratching on the cardboard of her walls. Trying to find a spot to push. To needle in. To fill her sanctity with their essence, and invade her innermost safety.

Halfway through the second month, she saw her own lunacy. Nobody had emailed her. Nobody. Shouldn’t he be asking for her pound of flesh?

Did he have so much money that he could ignore a month’s rent? No, she was wrong, he most probably had compassion for her.

And, sensing the change in the air, was allowing her to leave with dignity. He probably even knew her troubles and did not address it out of Polish politeness. Yes, that must be true.

For the first time in months, she left the apartment.

To bite into a zapiekanki so fresh and well-cooked that they crunched. With a thin tomato sauce covered by mushrooms, topped with cheddar and mozzarella that turned to butter, mixing with the salami and black olives.

The burst of flavour awakened her, and the care of the serving ladies revived her. Gently asking about the bruises beneath her eyes, and the paleness of her skin. Asking her if she wanted more. Hell, how could she say no? It’s not as if she had any bills to pay. They prepared the three zapiekanki she ordered with such care and love. Patting it, and closing it, so as not to lose one ounce of the precious liquor.

God, she had been so stupid! Of course the landlord was not going to actually do anything. He was probably so rich that he did not even notice! He just had to grin and bear it.

So, she began to plan her evening. She might have a cup of coffee. Maybe even watch the grey sky go by. Crack open a book and feel the gentle smell of dusty pages wafting through the air. Just relax before going to bed and get some well deserved rest. She smiled for the first time in a long time, and, slowly, she looked at her apartment block.

To see her landlord glaring from her bedroom window.

His eyes were smoking with flame. His black clothes burning in the sheen of the glass, his hair like living light, his lips spitting fire. His fingers were so tight on the windowsill that she could see bits of blood dripping from his knuckles. He opened his mouth, filling the air with poison and putrid vileness.

She ran. Not thinking about her safety, only about her money. Bursting into the apartment. Checking every room. And finding…

Nothing.

Where had the man gone? Could he be in the corner of her eye? Hidden behind her? Or, even, underneath the bed? Maybe he was watching from the mirror or whispering from the corner?

She was afraid to blink lest she saw him in her eyes. She stared at the mirror, expecting him to twist from beneath her bathroom basket.

She couldn’t sleep. The man could be there by her bed if she closed her eyes. She couldn’t shower! He could be waiting for her. She kept checking her money and finding it short. Of five zloty. Of two zloty. Of even hundreds of zloty!. More than she had ever had. Odd numbers in her money, strange marks, inhuman tears and bits of grease that stuck to her skin.

Two weeks until the third month and her doorbell went Ding-ling.

She froze in the hallway. Staring.

Ding-ling

She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t blink.

Ding-ling

Ding-Ling

DING LING!!

She just couldn’t bear it! Each of those goddamn ding-lings tearing into her. Filling her whole body with agony. Forcing her into the corner, expecting something to open her door.

Coming in and seeing her rotten self. The rubbish bags in the corners, the smell in the air, and the unwashed dishes in the sink.

They would take her money and give it to the landlord. She would have nothing. Nothing! No way to buy a train ticket home. They would just kick her out onto the empty streets. Like a dog.

And, then, the landlord would come for her. He and her neighbours. Suddenly surrounding her in the night, their eyes so bright, reaching towards her with eager hands. Calloused fingers covering the sounds of her scream so nobody would hear her.

Or care if they did.

Her thoughts had swept her along, and filled her with so much horror, that she had not noticed the sounds had stopped.

No longer did that dang ding-ling fill the air. It was quiet, so quiet that she could feel it in the air. Adding weight to the door. Pulling on her eyes like stones falling to the floor.

She couldn’t turn away. The door so black that it seemed like a puddle of oil. the glittering keyhole the only blink of light.

She watched that handle. With the same kind of fascination she would a corpse. Noticing the detail of the lock. How it was so smooth, and strong, and almost seeming to wink. Twisting in the air. Shivering.

As a key turned it from the other side.

She was on her feet before she knew it. Grasping the handle, half expecting her hands to sink in muck, but finding it shaking in its socket. She stopped it from turning. Barely. Great blows rocking her. Shouts cursing her. Threats making her blood run cold. The handle tearing the ligaments of her wrist.

The landlord’s power finally flung her like a ragdoll. Ripping the handle from her hand. Tossing her to the far wall and smashing the back of her head into concrete. Forcing her to watch.

As the door began to open, to show one bone pale hand. Reaching through. Pushing…pushing….

Before, finally, hitting the second lock that could only be opened from the inside. Just a thin bit of metal that one kick would break. Just a bit of steel from the earth. Stopping the thing that came from the Warsaw cold.

The thing beyond the door sighed. Feeling the contours of the lock. Testing it with a gentle, slow, almost sensuous, pressure, before pulling it’s weight from the door. Closing it millimeter by millimeter and sucking all the fetid air that had bled into her home.

After that, she thought it would be best to get the hell out of here.

Where were her clothes!? Where was her money!? She ran around, tears running down her face, and feeling as if every second would be a second too many. Flinging things that she didn’t even see into her luggage.

The walls were watching her. The neighbours sliding up against it, their pale, sticky eyes following her. As if they would come out of the shadows around her. And their hands would be as sharp as blades…

She opened the door and, a second later, realized she had forgotten her money. She paused. Looking out at that empty stairway, with the moonlight shining in, and the trees shining softly beyond the window.

Her money would only take a second to get…

She searched her apartment from top to bottom. Throwing things all willy nilly. Until, finally, finding it amidst the rubbish in the corner. How did it end there? She had sworn that she had put it in her pocket. Hadn’t she? Hadn’t she?! Was she losing her mind?!

Ding Ling!

She cried out. Imagining the landlord back. But thankfully, it was only the ringtone of her mobile phone. Not the landlord. Not death. Nothing but a message from somewhere in this city. She opened her phone and, only half paying attention, scanned the message from her email:

Magda Dear,

I have been on holiday for the past three months and I still have not received a rent payment.

Please contact me as soon as possible.

All the best,

Pawel

She paused. Reading. Remembering the ad that had stated that the rest of the apartment was empty, She slowly turned to look behind her as the air thickened. The hallway darkened. Her phone falling. Moving as if through water. To shatter into a million pieces, each as sharp as a blade of grass that spun and filled the air before her.

To show the thing that closed the door behind her.

-This story was originally published in Write the City  by Timothy Connolly.

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In the Garden of Krakow (Part 1)

‘I hope you can fix it’

That woman wouldn’t give him a moment’s rest. Sweat ran down his fingers. He could taste the
garlic on his breath. Christ, he didn’t want to talk to a beauty when he felt half a beast.

‘I’ll do my best.’

He heard her walk away and he breathed a sigh of relief. It had been near the end of the day when Marcin got the call. His back had ached, and he had been washing the grime off his fingers. The phone had rung. The voice would not take no for an answer. Could it not wait until tomorrow? No? You want me right there right now? You want me to drop my evening just so I can handle that water heater? Sure, why not. What else could a plumber in Krakow have to do on a Friday night.

If it was a man, he would have told them what to do with themselves. But, well, women were a different sort. Even listening to that voice sent a thrill through his synapses. It lit him afire. He hoped she hadn’t heard the rasp in his voice. Truth be told, the only women he knew were his wife and his sisters. He hadn’t been able to think. Had no chance for reason. Sure as hell wasn’t thinking of her as a sister. And all he could smell was that subtle scent of perfumed air. While he still fumbled, this woman struck. She offered him a large amount. So large as to be stupid. He had no choice but to say yes. And he had packed his stuff with a sigh.

Right now, his back ached. His knees trembled. The tiles pulsed red, the bath as white as milk. He couldn’t kneel. It would look savage. Couldn’t touch the bath. What if she wanted to shake hands? His calves ached from the stress. It was difficult to take apart a water heater. Lots of parts that crunched. Gushing water that stank. His callused fingers reeked of grease, but it helped to block out the scent of the woman. He paused. What was that…something had glinted in the depths of the machine. A star in a coal mine. He pulled it out. The cylinder was scratched as if by nails. His eyes ached as the silver clashed with the colour of the walls. He had to get out of here. He could taste the copper in the air, and the salt on his tongue. He put it in his pocket without thinking and packed up his equipment.

If god willing, he would have a drink when he went home. Boil some pierogi, open a can of peas, and throw it all together with some soy sauce and vinegar. First, he had to get the money off the woman, and his mouth dried at the thought. He walked through the hallway. The pain in his calves leached through his body as he stood. The floors were clean. The wardrobes spotless. A child’s box lay in the corner. It was green with a purple petal on its cover. It had been opened. He saw an old coin, a beaten book and a bent spoon. He entered the studio apartment and he noticed a couch. A bed. A table, and little else. The ceiling was in the shape of a square that had been spun on its axis. His feet felt unsteady, rolling with the very movement of this world.

The woman’s back faced him and he licked his lips at her shape. Her shirt left the centre of her back to touch the curve of her buttock. Her hair gushed like ink on her shoulders. She turned. Motes of silver burned in her hair. The outside light turned the whole room red.

‘Have you finished?’

‘Yes’

He felt awkward. Uncomfortable under those cool dark eyes. His eyes were drawn to her lips, her hips and her cleavage glinting in the light. It was as if he were the gardener suddenly called into the tea‐room. Should he sit on the floor to eat with his hands?

‘Nice place you got here. Tidy.’

‘I wouldn’t live here. Someone else did’, she replied.

‘Oh. Good. Well then…who was that?’

She leaned against the windowsill and he kept his eyes on her face, ‘Immigrants from another place. A gas leak killed them. Accidental. The minister told us so.’

I wasn’t saying he hadn’t.

The woman’s disapproval flavoured the air. He could smell his sweat. The blue of his overalls had never looked so faded in this room. Christ, he had been married. He should be able to talk with one woman. He didn’t want to leave a bad impression.

‘You know, I found some strange scratches on the machine. I can check them out for you? I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been doing this for years. And, you know, some of these government folks can be wrong.’

She paused, ‘Really?’

‘Here, why don’t I show you?’

He held it up and it blazed like a bloody sun.

‘That’s strange. Why don’t you leave it here and I can check with the minster?’

‘Don’t bother. I can check myself. I’ve been at this for years. Won’t miss a thing.’

‘Really’, the piercing on her tongue glowed green as she licked her lips, ‘…What did you say your name was?’

‘Marcin’.

‘Well, Marcin. I thank for offering your help.’

She blinked her lashes and he could feel their softness from where he stood.

‘Okay. That’s fine.’

He found himself short of breath. Flushed as if in fever. Blood pounding all around his body as the light flushed her skin.

‘No, it’s not fine. Not many other men would have been as gallant as you. So brave, so strong, so fearless to go against the long arm of the law. Marcin, you are a ripe apple that falls from the sky.’

‘Eh, well, maybe.’

‘A man of few words. I see. I wonder….’

‘You wonder what?’

The shadow of her opening legs ripped wounds in the floor.

‘Whether there is another way to pay you.’

In the Garden of Krakow (Part 2)

He left the apartment with sweat dripping down his back.

Christ, that had never happened before. A woman offering that. Christ, that. Jesus, he hadn’t known what to do. The only thing he could think of, besides that, was to get the hell out of there.

He didn’t even get the money. The snow touched his blush as he remembered what happened. She probably thinks he was an idiot. ‘Don’t worry, I can find out what’s wrong with your machine.’

She was probably mocking him. The mucky plumber man. His Kinga would know what to do. His wife, well, his ex‐wife, would know what to make of a woman like that. Whether she was a strumpet, a seductress or the Virgin Mary herself.

He sighed as he stepped between a shadow reaching for the stars. He needed vodka. Like a baby needed milk. Like he needed his wife. But, unfortunately, she had left him. His mind turned black.

Focused on the metal in his pocket. What could have marked it like that? A bit of machinery caught? But it’s so goddamn unusual? Perhaps he should find out and show that lady he was no fool.

Marcin went home and opened the door. He looked at the mess. His mother had cleaned, and then his wife had cleaned, and, when they were all gone, he had been unable to. Clothes lay on the floor. A nude woman looked at him from the wall. The picture of the pope squinted through months of dust. Marcin felt a moment of absurd guilt. He really should clean, but Christ, the pope himself is hardly going to visit.

He turned the television on low. Just to hear another human being. The news played a scene of starvation and disease.

The pierogi flavoured the air like burning wax. His fingers pressed on smooth metal as he popped open the can. Ancient paint flaked off his skin. He could feel the silence in his apartment. As if the ceiling reached to infinity. The dust in his fingers. The grain of the wood. This feeling of weight…

The piece of metal lay before him on the table. What could make that mark? It was not accidental, of that he was suddenly sure. No other metal was ruined. No parts were bent. Nothing was amiss except for this single hunk of icy steel. He remembered the woman’s black eyes glinting from the sun. He wondered what had happened to those immigrants…

His doorbell rang. And, still thinking of that piece of metal, he got up and opened it.

‘Marcin,’ the voice spoke with the scent of smoke and old leather. He blinked. The man before him had silver at the side of his hair. Lines ran along his face, his eyes were pale and the pink of his lips flaked. White blazed from his collar like a dying sun.

‘Yes… how can I help you, Father?’

‘My sister sent me. You may have met her today while you carted off that damned contraption?’

He blushed when he remembered.

‘Eh, we may have said hello.’

‘I’m sure you did,’ he looked at him as if Marcin had forgot his schoolwork, ‘May I come in? The night is cold, and these bones are so old.’

‘Of course… Of course, Father.’

He let him in. The light grew bright. Showing the magazines, the dirt, the lack of a woman, and ending with the dusty picture of the pope. Marcin covered the magazines with a rag, and dusted the neglected Pope. Smiling, he looked at the priest. The priest stared at him.

‘Eh, so Father, what can I do for you?’

‘It’s what I can do for you.’

He stopped himself from scratching his head. The priests used to frown at that when he was a schoolboy.

‘Sure, sure. Sit down please,’ he fiddled with his thumbs. ‘So, how can I… No, how can you, help me?’

‘My sister was telling me about the man she had met. An unfortunate meeting as our brother should have arrived. My sister should never have called you. I have to ask… have you met him yet?’

‘No… Should I have?’

‘Good. It’s best that you don’t, lest he leave a stain. Let us two men, old men, wise men, talk this out amongst ourselves. Leave the women, leave the children, leave that man who you will not meet, it is just us. Two men all alone in a too young world. In a place where evil is rife and redemption infinite.’

‘I’m sorry, but…’

‘Go on my son.’

‘I completely lost you.’

‘Few people can follow,’ the atrocities of the television lit his eyes and formed a lullaby beneath his words. ‘But I hope you will. What do you see when you look out that window?’

He looked out the window. Streetlights spread like stars in the sky and, if it were not for this man, he would have felt like the last person on earth.

‘Some streetlights.’

‘What else?’

‘… the sky?’

‘Exactly. Light and dark. Two opposing forces that we must contend with. We all go from the light, every night, into the dark, and hope we are not spirited away. We fear the footsteps, as we should, in case we cannot find our way. We fear the strangers, as if they may take our soul. We fear ourselves, as if we will be swayed from this mortal realm. It is a terrifying place. This land of light and night. A place to tempt you, to corrupt you, to end you. But we all walk out again. We all remain pure. Uncorrupted and back in this heavenly realm. Where we belong. Don’t you agree?’

‘I have no idea…’

‘If somebody passes into the darkness, should you stop them from coming back to the light?’

‘Father…’

‘Just think, my child. The son of God. A man of free will, passed from father to child.’

He looked at the piece of machinery, and it blazed with its own scalpel glow.

He looked at the priest and his voice hardened, ‘Father.’

‘I’m saying all that can be said. I’m saying nothing. I’m saying what needs to be said.’

‘Get out.’

It was the priest’s turn to blink, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Get out. You are not welcome.’

His mother would have scolded him if she had heard him. Christ, he would have had some slap.

But, in that moment, he did not care. The priest stood up and left.

But his presence did not leave. Marcin could taste it on his tongue. It smelt of hot air, undulating candle flames and shadowed alcoves. It smelt of heaven, hell, and every dark crevice in between. He looked at the metal. He held it in his hands. He touched the scratches on its surfaces and wondered…

Could this have kept the gas flowing?

This was originally published by Timothy Connolly in Murder and Glut

In the Garden of Krakow (Part 3)

That night he dreamed of Krakow. He walked. His footsteps ringing like bells. The streets empty. Not a soul in sight, and the chill hinting that there were none to be seen. The neon lights passed him. Red. Green. Pulsing. Arterial. Made up of gas‐flame blue. With a silver hue. Covering him in its dew.

He passed a nun on a mobile phone. Incongruous in her hands, as she ordered the newest magazines. Her face melted. Flames covering her head to heel to leave blackened flesh a falling.

The priest looked at him with a light in his eyes and covered with the soot of his betters.

He passed a school. A child watched him go by as she ate her ice‐scream with a spoon.

He walked and could feel it following him. All this time. Since he had left. He heard the sigh in his ear. The nails on his back. Its hand sliding in between his legs. Firm breasts pressed against him.

Soft lips touched him with the sharpness of its teeth.

He looked up to see the woman’s great black eyes.

***

The hammering at the door woke him. 5:00 am. On a goddamn Saturday morning. Fuck his life. Who was this? He stumbled out of bed and cursed the day he was born. Couldn’t he get one night’s rest? Couldn’t he deal with that dream in peace? The hammering increased and he could feel it like a blow to the head. His anger grew. First that woman, then that priest and now this fool at the door. He was sick of this shit. He was a plumber, for Christ sake, not a detective, with a drinking problem and an ex‐wife.

He flung open the door.

‘Do you want something?’

The man came in stinking of alcohol, dirt and day old aftershave. Stubble marred his chin. His hair like grease on his head. Marcin sized him up. Muscles knotted his frame. Bones showed in his face. Needle marks, healing, but not healed, bloomed on fresh skin. Marcin would have thought he was a football hooligan, but he knew, on some level, that this guy was some special kind of prick.

‘Why the fuck are you in my home?’

The football hooligan stuck a yellow finger in his face, ‘Listen here, chap. Me brother and me sister had a chat with ya, but you can’t see your arse from your elbow. But, I’m here – ’

‘Son, you’re about to get your ass whooped good and proper.’

The brother fumbled in his pocket, but Marcin was already on him. A knee to his balls sent him gasping and he followed it up with an elbow to the back of the head. Marcin grabbed his ear and, the hooligan shrieking all the way, he opened the door and chucked him into the hallway.

‘Tell your sister and your brother who did this to you. I am sick of this shit.’

He slammed the door. Fury bubbled in him. He couldn’t rest. He couldn’t relax. He couldn’t even sleep. That goddamn lump of metal had crashed into his life and uprooted everything. He flung the chair into the table. Sat down. Goddamn, but he was going to show them what he was made of. He’d figure this out. That woman wouldn’t know him as a fool, and that priest wouldn’t treat him like a little child.

He looked at it. Really, really looked at it. What could have caused those marks? Something curved. Something with a little bit of leverage. But, here, what’s this? The scrapes went wild. What was that? Something had happened. Something had changed. Something had… broke.

The dawning truth almost blinded him.

‘Oh Christ.’

He stood up from the table. The day turned to night, the shadows grew, and the sun died.

***

Marcin found himself at that apartment again. It opened at his knock. The smell of cinnamon wafted out. He stared, with that same lead in his stomach, at the person who opened the door.

She was barely five. No marks marred her skin and there were no shadows under her eyes. Clean hair. Immaculate clothes. And none of that smoggy muck that filled your senses as you walked out the door.

‘Is your mommy here?’

‘No, but big sis, big brother, and mean brother are here.’

He wondered who was who, but, before he could ask, she opened the door. She led him in. The three figures in that blood‐red room watched him and told the child to play outside. They watched him as he walked in. They watched him as he dragged a chair from the corner. They watched him as he sat.

‘I know what happened.’

The thug had bruises like blooming lips. The priest stood in the shadows of the sky. The woman’s figure filled the room like a burning cross.

‘It was the spoon. It bent. As if this,’ he took that damned piece of metal out of his pocket and threw it on the floor, ‘had broke it. I can see what happened. She was playing, or not, and it slipped, or not. It bent. It broke the safety valve and gas began to seep out. That immigrant couple came here, they slept here and they died here. All because of that goddamn rusted spoon.’

The priest licked his lips, ‘Can we punish a child for what she did not know?’

‘If it kills somebody…’

‘Listen here, you mess with me sister and you won’t be safe no matter where you go.’

Marcin almost stood up, but the woman broke past all of them.

‘Who cares? Really. You’re asking me to care about an immigrant couple? While my little sister’s future is at risk? You are worse than a fool if you think I will do that. You are worse than the lowest of the low, worse than druggy mothers and garbage fathers. You are worse than anything.’

‘People are dead.’

The priest banished Marcin’s words with a raised hand.

‘We are at a crossroads. Like all people in life. We have three roads to walk upon. One down. One up. And one leading only God knows where. You have to make your choice Marcin. You have to choose what to do. I will not choose for you, my sister will not persuade you, my brother will not force you and God will not show you. It’s your choice in regard to my baby sister’s life.’

‘Perhaps this will help your choice,’ she threw a package on Marcin’s lap with a glint in her eyes.

The envelope spilled crinkled bills on his faded pants. He could buy his ex‐wife a dinner with that. Of sumptuous steak and red wine. No, open a business. Keep his body warm in winter. Have his belly full and his throat wet.

He looked at that woman, with her jewels, her hair, all the trapping of wealth. She must have ties. People to talk to. People to see. People to help him get on his feet. And all he’d have to do is…

He shook his head and stood up. The money fell in a fan around his figure.

‘No. Keep your coins, woman. Keep your god, priest. Keep everything that you could ever offer me. A couple is dead.’

‘If you won’t take me sister’s money, perhaps I’ll take your ‐ ’

‘Stop brother. We all have to make our own choices.’

‘I ain’t letting her end up like m – ’

‘Let him go,’ the priest’s cloud grey eyes watched him, ‘We all have our choices to make.’

Marcin walked out of that red rimmed room into this frozen world. Shadows walked about in coats. The snow fell. Blackened trees reached for the skies. The streetlight had soft curves that stroked him as he passed. What should he do? What could he do? A child’s life lay in his hands. Accident or not, she had killed somebody. He walked on frozen grass. It crunched underneath. But did he have the right to ruin her life?

It was as if he were walking up a gradient. The lights of the city below, the stars above, and darkness everywhere. A burning pillar blazed toward the sky. A recess led into the deep‐dark earth and, when he walked between, his soul trembled.

He smelt smoke. The neon hurt his eyes as he entered the pub. The bar felt slick to the touch. The drinks were harsh. The drinkers worse. Throughout the laughs, the shouts, the screams, the television played the usual torrent of evil. He turned to the man next to him and asked what was going on in this world. The stranger had the tired eyes of a day‐time drinker.

‘Nothing new, my friend. Absolutely nothing new.’

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