by Jay Caselberg
The fog was up again, adhering to walls, streets and alleyways, cotton-thread tendrils dissipating between sculpted sandstone, glass, sliding across marble building fascias. Justin Kutsenda leaned at the window, fingers tapping a rhythm on the rough stone sill, watching the murk creep below, an expression of wry disapproval on his face. Since the collective effort of will that had wrested the city from its place and sent it skywards, the fog had had its own frequent presence. The city now floated high enough that when the cloud layer was low, it invaded.
Justin turned from the window, his lips pursed. He hated the fog. It dampened sound and vision, sucking clarity away as if it wanted to absorb even the memory of who they were. Hopefully, the butterflies would not be back again today, though they had been appearing more frequently of late, like some misplaced reminder of what life had been like before. Their metallic blue wings caught the light, flashing neon sparks high between the mud-yellow buildings, but in the fog, they were pale blue-grey ghosts, an almost-seen presence haunting the edges of perception. Uncanny. Uncanny and out of true context.
He wondered briefly if Janessa had been watching the fog. She could spend hours just staring, tracking the internal flows and eddies as they shaped and reshaped, smudges of darker grey on a flat expanse of pale shadow. She could see things there, things that remained hidden from Justin, but then Janessa could see lots of things that escaped him, even in their relationship, even in him.
Janessa seemed totally happy with their existence, here in their floating city. She seemed to be happy with many of the aspects of their life. Justin was not so sure about what they had together, but lack of contentment was not quite enough to send him on the Long Walk down First Avenue.
He glanced through the window again as he buttoned his shirt. The fog was set in for the day, it seemed, and he gave a short sigh. In a few minutes, he’d have to go out in that to meet Janessa. They usually started this, their joint rostered day off, the same way, sitting having breakfast in their favourite coffee house, discussing what they might do with the rest of their free time together. Normally, it would end up back in bed at either of their places, but first there was the breakfast and the rest of the day. He looked forward to the leisurely discussion, watching as the rest of the city’s population grumbled to themselves and strode past, buried in the necessities of their workday. It was as if the coffee house was Justin and Janessa’s own sealed bubble, shielded from the rush and bustle, sheltered in a tiny backwater of time, the Two J’s together. With its rich wood panelling, pinky-orange metal fixtures and warm interior, heady with the aroma of roasted coffee and cinnamon, the regulars entered gratefully, shoulders straightening like a load had just been removed. The Copper Kettle was refuge and they all made the most of it.
Justin eagerly anticipated their unhurried indulgence, the time spent with Janessa. It outweighed having to go out in that damp grey. The Copper Kettle lay only a few blocks away, near enough so that strolling through the semi-blankness didn’t get to him too much – just as long as the butterflies weren’t there to haunt him.
A quick dab of cologne, a final check around the living room to make sure it was tidy just in case they ended up back here – Janessa was a stickler for neatness – and he was ready. He should have fed the cat, but he didn’t have a cat. Nobody had pets since the city had taken to the air. There were just too many problems with the cleaning and care of animals of any sort, but he would have preferred a cat. A cat rather than a dog. He glanced into the kitchen, picturing where its bowl would be. Somebody to keep him company, because they were somebody, rather than something. He could almost see the angular face looking up at him, china-blue eyes wide, looking expectantly as he prepared something to eat. Probably just as well. He shook away the thought and headed out the door.
His building had on old-style brass elevator, and he stood rocking on his heels in the stairwell, waiting for it to climb to his floor. The whirr and whine sounded loud in the tiled space, and he winced as he pulled back the concertina door and slid it shut behind him with a crash. The city was a quiet place, normally, apart from these fleeting intrusions. He punched the button for the lobby, checked himself in the mirrors on the way down, practicing his smile, tilting his head first one way, then the other, trying to catch the best angle, practicing the first words he would say to Janessa. The elevator shuddered to a halt, and he stopped his self-inspection and put his weight against the door to pull it back. Stepping out into the glass and faux-marble lobby, he wrenched the elevator door shut and stopped for a few moments. There was a wooden partitioned area there, where once would have stood a doorman, but nobody bothered with such things any more. There just wasn’t a need. Nobody had taken the trouble to remove it, so it stood there, untended, a silent reminder of the way things had been before they left it all behind. Instead, cluttering the lobby, were racks of bicycles, new, old, various shapes and sizes.
Looking out onto the street with jaundiced eye, Justin took a deep breath and headed out the main glass doors. The fog was cool, not cold, and only slightly clammy on this morning. Justin shrugged his jacket around himself, and turned towards the Copper Kettle. As much as he disliked the fog, he appreciated the way it dampened the sounds of footsteps upon pavement, of the electrical whirring of the motorized shuttles or the street cleaners. There were no cars here. It could take you two and a half hours to walk from one end of the city to the other, down the main avenues. Otherwise, there were the bicycles or the shuttle.
As he walked unhurriedly towards his meeting with Janessa, he became aware of something tracking him as he walked. He glanced around, peering through to what he could see of the street’s other side, slowing his pace, but though there were people about, no one seemed to be matching his step. He gave the slightest shake of his head and continued walking. Half a block further on, and the feeling was back again. This time he stopped, listening. Nothing. He stood there waiting for a few seconds, testing whether his senses were playing tricks with him. Then, there, the slightest motion against his cheek, the barest breath of air and it was gone. He shifted his attention to the air immediately around him. A vague shadow shape flitted through the air, flickering through space. Damn it. He lifted his hand to his cheek. The damned thing had touched him. He rubbed at the spot on his face, then grinding his teeth, started walking again. It was only about a block to the Copper Kettle now. As he quickened his pace, he glanced continually around him, seeking the airborne invader, ready to dance away from another threatened touch.
As he reached the Copper Kettle’s doorway, he nearly bowled someone over on his hurry to get inside. Holding his hands up in apology, Justin slipped through the doorway and felt relief washing over him with the familiar warmth and smells, and the gurgling rush of the coffee machine. He’d be okay in here. There was no way the insect flurry could find him inside. He searched the crowd, noting a few familiar regulars, and spied Janessa sitting exactly where he expected her to be, in their usual spot in the large comfortable leather chairs by the window. She sat, leaning forward, her long dark hair trailing over her face on one side and pushed back over her shoulder on the other, her chin on her hand, staring out the window. It was such a familiar picture, he could have hung it on a wall back home. He wound his way between tables and chairs and stood watching her for a couple of seconds, all of his prepared greetings gone completely out of his head.
“Hey,” he said finally.
“Hey,” she said, pulling her gaze away from the window and looking up at him. “I’d just about given up on you.”
“Oh, you should never give up on me, baby,” said Justin.
“Hmmm? Is that a fact?”
“Yeah, well. Sorry.” He pointed with his chin at the lingering grey outside. “Seen anything interesting?
“Not really. Not yet. Same old.”
He leaned over and lightly ran the backs of his fingers over her cheek, her dark eyes looking up at him, catching the scent of her hair as he did. “So, you want coffee? Pain au chocolat? Juice?”
She nodded – her regular breakfast order — and he headed to the counter. He watched her as he waited for the things to arrive, one by one. Her attention had drifted back to watching the people shadows moving past outside the window. Really, he ought to think about making something more permanent out of their relationship, but he wasn’t sure whether he wanted that level of commitment. It suited them both, somehow, to have their own space and their own place. That way they could prepare for being in each other’s company. Sometimes you needed the arm’s length.
The order arrived and he juggled the tray back to their low table, and then dropped into the high-armed leather armchair opposite her. He busied himself removing cups, glasses and plates and placing them on the table, her pain au chocolat in front of her, his croissant in front of himself, and then putting the tray to one side. Lastly, he placed a simple folded paper napkin down beside each of the plates.
“So, what are you thinking about?” he said, when she took a few moments to notice.
She pulled her gaze back from the window, looking at him, a profoundly serious expression etched across her face, a slight frown creasing her forehead between her brows. It was a moment before she spoke.
“Did you hear about Ben Riley?”
“No, I didn’t think you could have. He took the Long Walk.”
“Jesus, no.” said Justin. Ben Riley of all people. He would never have expected it. He’d counted Ben as at least a friendly acquaintance, if not an actual friend. “Jesus,” he said quietly. “When?”
“Yesterday afternoon, we think.”
Janessa sighed. “I spoke to her last night. She sort of saw it coming, but there wasn’t a lot she could do. It’s like any of those things. She kept telling herself that it wouldn’t happen. You just don’t expect it, do you?”
Justin shook his head. “How’s she doing?”
Janessa shrugged. “As well as can be expected, I guess.”
Justin shook his head again. “Jesus.”
They sat there picking at their breakfasts in silence after that, hesitating to meet each others eyes. The news had put an effective dampener on half-formed ideas he’d had for the rest of the day. He glanced up at Janessa, but she was seemingly lost in thought, concentrating on her hand as she slowly stirred her coffee, around and around.
He thought about what he should say, picking which of the questions felt right. Clearing his throat to get her attention, he spoke again. “Are there any more details?”
Janessa shook her head without looking up. “No, not really. I’ll speak to Amanda over the next couple of days, find out what I can, but that’s it for now.”
He understood that she didn’t want to talk about it any more.
“So, okay, what do you want to do for the rest of the day?”
She looked up slowly. “Well…”
Justin said, “I’ve got a couple of thoughts, but we’ll do whatever you want.”
Again she hesitated. She placed her spoon down gently beside her cup, and then shook her hair back from her face. “I want to go out to the edge.”
The edge was the end of the world. It was that rough boundary marking the city from the sky. If you stood in the middle of First Avenue on a clear day, you could see where the city stopped and sky began. That was the edge.
Justin bit his lip. Than, after a moment’s thought, he said, “Yeah, okay. I’m not really sure we should, but okay.”
Briefly, Janessa narrowed her eyes and then nodded. “Good.”
Justin went back to picking at his croissant, watching her surreptitiously as she stared out the window, a couple of crumbs adhering to the side of her mouth.
Amanda dabbed at her eyes, though the moisture was long gone. She peered blearily into the mirror, her face puffy, clear tracks marring her pale cheeks.
Ben. Her thoughts kept returning to Ben.
She took a deep breath, but it came out as a shuddering sigh. She clutched the handkerchief in her fist and turned away from the mirror. There was no point looking to see if she was presentable now. There was no one here to see her.
What could it have been that made him do it? She couldn’t help returning to the thought that it was her own inadequacy. Somehow, she had failed him. She looked around the orderly living room, seeking traces, looking for…
He was gone.
Realization struck her again. Slowly, she collapsed to the polished wood floor, sitting, her knees drawn up and arms clutched around them. For the space of half a dozen breaths, she rocked, gently. Then her face crumpled, and she released her legs and slid back, untidily, one arm out, her head falling to one side, blond hair rumpled. She let the sobs take her.
“Ben.” His name came out as a low uneven moan.
After a time, she took several long, halting breaths and slowly pushed herself to her feet, then ran her fingers through her hair and smoothed it into place. She pressed her teeth into her bottom lip and shook her head faintly.
Not wanting to deal with the empty room any more, she crossed to the window, looking out, down onto the street, down onto the heads and shoulders of people going about their own business. Barely registering the life going on beneath her, she allowed her face to drop forward, letting her forehead rest against the cool glass.
The fog had thinned by the time they left the Copper Kettle. They stood out on the street, watching a couple of bicycles whirr past. One rider rang his bell, though there was no one in his way.
“Good, I’m glad it’s clearing,” said Janessa, glancing up at the sky. “It will be better if we get a good view. We might be lucky and be able to see all the way to the ground.”
Justin wrapped his arms around himself. There was still a chill in the air, and the building’s shadow fell across the street.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Well, we’d better get going. It might change later.”
Janessa nodded and reached for his hand. “Come on. It’s not that cold.”
Justin unfolded his arms and let her take his hand and lead him off down First Avenue. As they strolled, he glanced furtively up and behind, just in case.
“Justin…” said Janessa.
“You know what.”
He stopped walking. “What?”
She reached for his hand again. “They’re not here. Okay? Let’s just walk.”
Justin knew that she was right. Janessa was invariably right. Half-grudgingly, he took the proffered fingertips, waving at him encouragingly, and nodding slowly, turned his attention to the street ahead. The glass storefronts looked strangely oily this morning. They caught the reflections of the bustling masses and bent them, painting them with vague muddy-coloured streaks. The new season’s fashions were in, mannequins arrayed in a-la-mode sameness, store after store, the passers by half reflected in the glass in front of them. Janessa barely glanced at them. She’d always dictated her own sense of style. More recently, she’d dictated his.
They passed a bike shop, and then a diner. An old man stood on the corner, his bicycle propped against his legs as he looked blankly at the people around him. He was unshaven, white stubble mottling his chin and cheeks, a long dark coat, slightly the worse for wear, trailing around his calves. He scratched at his head, frowned, then lifted the bike and turned it to face the opposite direction. He looked up the street, seemed to come to a decision, then mounted and rode off, weaving unsteadily in and out of the other cyclists.
“Did you see that?” said Justin.
“What, the old man?”
“Yes. What do you think? It’s not as if you can get lost in the city.”
Janessa didn’t look at him as she answered. “No, but we all have those times in our lives. Maybe he’d just forgotten something.”
They had passed beyond the shopping district and now passed between tall buildings almost entirely devoted to office space. Glass and metal reception areas fronted the street, boards listing the names of companies in different lettering on an inside wall, or above the uniformed man guarding the empty space. Most of the buildings had couches or chairs placed aesthetically around the lobby, but Justin had never seen anyone sitting in them, ever. It was all about looks. It was just like the fake potted plants that sat in the corners, fake straw in large planters. His office, further up the worker’s district, was just the same. He’d be back there tomorrow, taking his own proper place, merging with the aesthetic sensibilities of the corporation, just another furnishing for the corporate image.
Blankness. In a way, that’s what it was all about. Blankness. They’d removed themselves from the disorder and strife that lived, no thrived, below. He guessed it was still like that, though it had been some years since they had climbed, bound within their special urban cocoon, to struggle awkwardly into the sky.
The air had cleared completely, the sun cresting the buildings’ tops having burned away the last of the mist. He could see right down to the end now, down to the edge. A slight breeze pressed uptown, making sure the last traces were swept away.
As they neared the lower end of First Avenue, the numbers of people thinned. There was nothing much down here, apart from a few low-rise residences belonging mainly to the dockworkers, and the vast open expanse of park. The buildings themselves were faded, tatty, in places in desperate need of repair. There was none of the corporate gloss in evidence further uptown. They huddled closer to the docks on one side. In the park’s centre, you could almost forget they were there – almost. The park stretched right to the edge, a smooth flat area, paved over with wide stone blocks, dotted with sandstone benches and statues of the city founders. Right in the middle, stood a bronze statue of a dolphin, a flying child suspended by one hand gripping the animal’s dorsal fin. Ragged trails of what Justin presumed were meant to be seaweed streamed out behind it. He had no idea whether it was meant to be a boy or a girl. The gender was somehow hidden by the streaming weed and the weathered bronze. The child had an absolute look of unrestrained glee on its face. He’d stood in front of it, wondering at the incongruity, here in the centre of this stone-clad space, many a time. The ocean was who knew how far away. Once upon a time, there were trees, bushes, grass and flowerbeds here. Not any more. No more the odour of lawn and brightly coloured blooms. No more the scent of freshly turned earth. The smell of earth was one of the things he missed.
They reached the edges of the park and Janessa stopped, closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly back.
“Do you get that?” she said. “That smell?”
There was something on the breeze, which was slightly stronger now, here, closer to the city’s edge. Justin tried to identify what it was. It smelled like forest. No matter how long you were removed from them, you didn’t forget smells.
“Mmmm, yes,” he said.
“Come on,” she said, opening her eyes. “I want to see over.”
Justin didn’t like the edge. “You go. I’ll wait for you here.”
“No, Justin. It’s important. I want us to think about it, to think about what’s happened. You can do that for me.”
He heard the petulance, the unflattering accusation that lay beneath the words, and though it annoyed him, he’d let it go. She was right as much as she was not, and he had no one to blame for it but himself. It was easy, in this, their floating sanctuary to settle back and let life simply flow around you.
He pursed his lips and suppressed a sigh. “Okay, I’ll come with you.”
She took his hand again and they crossed the park. With every step closer to the edge, Justin could feel the cold growing inside. The wind was definitely stronger now. Just before the edge, a single row of fence posts ran almost completely around the city, threaded with twin taught lines of single-strand wire. As they neared, he could hear the sound. A low humming wail issued from the fence as the wind played across the tightly strung circumference. It was occasionally undercut with a thrumming rattle as the wire vibrated against the holes in the metal posts. Each rattle ran through him, making his breath catch.
Janessa was strolling towards the fence.
“Can we hurry up,” he said. The hum was grating in his teeth now, the low moaning wail filling him with a plaintive despair.
Janessa frowned and stopped. “This is important, Justin. I want us to do this properly.”
“All right. All right.” He lifted a hand, and then slowly lowered it, allowing her to take it again.
As she led him to the fence, he tried to keep his attention on something else. Over to the left jutted the docks where the skyboats came and unloaded provisions. Import day wasn’t until next week, and the docks lay empty, extending from the city rim like discoloured metal teeth. Large blocky warehouses sat atop them, faded paint in red-brown, grey and cream. There’d been a river there once. If you looked hard, you could see the old tide marks discolouring the lower spars. Now the river was the open air. They got pretty much what they wanted in the city, flowing in to meet the population’s taste. Things were more expensive because of the import duty, but as a major financial centre, full of banks, financiers and brokerages, the city could bear that particular pain.
They were at the fence. Janessa took his hand and placed it on the top wire, then placed her own hand beside it, the skin just touching. The vibration in the wire pulsed beneath his palm.
“Will you look at that,” said Janessa, leaning forward against the fence, her voice breathy.
Justin forced himself to focus his attention out beyond the wire, out beyond the city, first into the empty air, the few clouds scudding above them, painting creamy sun-touched streaks across the sky, then down, down, down, into the haze.
Far below, smudged with distance, was an unbroken carpet of trees, mottled with light and dark olive, emerald and jade. Here and there, a patch of yellow ochre broke through. That explained the forest smell, though how it had reached them up here he didn’t know.
“Isn’t it lovely?” said Janessa. “If you look really hard, you can almost see the individual trees.”
Spread out below like that, their distance was unimaginable. There was no fear of height, because the height didn’t make sense. He could reach his hand out and touch – almost.
“Jesus,” he breathed. “How could you? How could anyone?”
“I know. It’s hard to imagine.
Though there were still those that made the Long Walk, stepping out to plummet to the land below, simple, unthinking, like stones. He had never understood what could force someone to do that. He supposed it was like being trapped inside a burning building. Was it better to launch yourself into empty air, rather than face the consuming flames? The thing was, the city wasn’t burning, not even metaphorically. At least you’d see the underside on the way down, the hidden belly of the beast. He’d pictured the trailing cables and spars dangling through the air like some enormous root system. He’d wondered if there might just be some old subway train ensnared in the dangling mess. What a vision to go out with, as it receded, growing smaller and smaller above you.
You were supposed to be dead before you hit. How could they know?
“Jesus, Ben,” he said.
“Let’s just remember him,” said Janessa.
As they stood there in silence, the slight wind stirring their hair about their faces and plucking at their clothes, a dark swathe streamed up in front of Justin’s sight. He narrowed his eyes, not quite understanding what he was seeing. The trailing cloud turned and caught the sunlight. Dark grey turned to flashing blue, sparking electric shine along its length.
The uneven track of colour arced out above them, over and behind, heading away from the edge and into the city depths, meandering through the air. Justin caught his breath, covering Janessa’s hand and gripping it with his own as he watched them disappear behind the buildings.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she said, lifting her other hand and holding her palm gently against his cheek. “We’re all going to miss him. I know it’s hard. I just hope Amanda’s going to be okay. She’s going to need us.”
Later, at his apartment, Justin made them both a drink, and then moved to join Janessa on the couch. He’d placed a dried flower arrangement in the centre of the low glass table before leaving, just in case they wound up back at his place, and he readjusted a couple of the hard brown stems before sitting.
“Listen,” he said. “I’ve been thinking.”
“About this whole Long Walk thing.”
Janessa held her glass cupped between her hands and looked at him with a curious expression. “What do you mean?”
“Well, who’s to say? How do we know?”
“I don’t understand.”
Justin placed his drink down on the table. He wanted his hands. “Well, what I mean is…in a place this size, it wouldn’t take much simply to disappear. How many people are here? Two million? Three? Say you’re tired of a situation, tired of your circumstance, tired of your friends, or your job, or your girlfriend, or–“
“What are you saying, Justin? Are you trying to tell me something?”
He sighed. “No, no, listen. I just don’t think there’s any evidence for the Long Walk. I mean, have you ever seen it happen? I haven’t. It’s just one of those things you accept, isn’t it?”
Janessa’s eyes were slightly narrowed. She looked from his face to his hands, tracking their movement in the air, then back to his face. “You don’t have to see it. Christ, Justin, do you actually want to see it? That’s just morbid.” She shook her head. “And so soon after…” She shook her head again and turned her face slightly away. Her hair obscured all of her features from him.
He reached over and gently pushed the dark strands out of the way with his fingertips. “That’s not what I’m saying. I just think…I don’t know what I think.” He sighed and stood, starting to pace as he thought about what he was saying. He crossed to the other side of the room and straightened a picture, just slightly. It was of deep blues and greens, somewhere in Africa, showing ocean and coastline and a rugged tree-covered bluff, naked dark chocolate rock on top. The sky was deep, deep blue, behind the outcropping. He stood looking at it for a few moments, then turned, clasping his fingers behind his neck.
“Listen, what I’m saying is this. You’d have to be pretty desperate to take the Long Walk, wouldn’t you? I don’t know whether people are actually moved to that level of desperation. Well, not people we know.”
Janessa was looking at him blankly. She drew her legs up in front of her, clutching her arms around her knees.
He paused, chewing at his bottom lip before continuing, dropping his hands to his sides, holding his hands palm forward. “People could just go away. That’s all. We don’t even know what’s down there, underneath. Take that old guy we saw today. Does he look like someone who lives in a place like this? He can’t be the only one. That’s just a small part of it. I mean, you could make someone disappear, couldn’t you? No one would be any the wiser.”
He started pacing again, traversing the entire length of the living room, pausing to look out the windows, then turning and walking back. Janessa tracked him, the frown on her forehead growing deeper.
“Maybe that’s what’s happening,” he said. “Maybe people are just taking themselves away from things, turning up somewhere else with a new life, getting a new job. It’s not so easy just to change, here. Things grow stale. Maybe it’s both. Maybe people are disappearing on the one hand, or on the other, people are making them disappear.”
Janessa slammed her hand down on the couch beside her. “Justin, stop it!”
He turned to face her. “What?”
“Can you hear yourself? I know Ben was a shock. It was a shock to all of us. It doesn’t mean you have to rationalize it like this. It’s just crazy. Imagine how Amanda’s feeling. Spare a couple of thoughts for her, instead of playing stupid what-if games in your head. There’s nothing underneath. People don’t disappear and pop up somewhere else. It just doesn’t happen.”
“How do you know there’s nothing down there? Where do people like that old guy go? And where did he come from anyway? I don’t know if I buy this Long Walk bullshit any more.”
“No. I’ve heard enough. I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Finish.”
He swallowed back the frustration and nodded. “Okay,” he said reluctantly, moving to rejoin her on the couch and reaching for his drink again.
Later, they made love, but it was lacklustre, and they both knew it. Justin spent a long time afterwards, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling with his eyes wide open, several inches of bed separating the pair of them.
He ran his hand gently across the empty expanse of sheet, calculating the space. No one is an island. But they were all islands here, all of them here, together, an island of humanity.
Janessa met Amanda at the door of the old church, now a wine bar and bistro, a couple of blocks down from her building. Faith had taken a severe blow when the city had taken to the skies. Standard religion just couldn’t cope with the miracle that wasn’t theirs, though they tried explaining it away – for a while. There was hardly a place of worship left that had not been converted to a more useful function. Janessa liked the place. The stained glass gave a great atmosphere, bathing the inside with low colours, and the place still retained some of the atmosphere of reverence that had existed in its former life, ideal for an intimate conversation.
Amanda was waiting for her just outside, wearing a soft pink cardigan, cream blouse and grey tailored skirt, looking even more fragile and wan than usual. Quite a contrast to Janessa in her jeans and loose-fitting hooded coat. She kept scanning the people who passed on the street, as if looking for someone. Janessa didn’t think it was her. She noticed her as she approached and Janessa gave a short wave. She walked up and gave Amanda a kiss on each cheek.
“How are you doing?” she said, reaching out to gently rub the top of one of Amanda’s arms.
Amanda shrugged. Her expression was bleak. “Is Justin not with you?”
“No,” Janessa said. “I didn’t want him to come. I thought it would be better with just the two of us.”
Amanda nodded and allowed Janessa to lead her inside, one hand beneath her arm. “Let’s get a table, then I’ll get us some drinks and we can talk.”
Inside, the place was half full. Long, dark, polished wooden tables were set with benches on either side, pewter candle holders in the table’s centre, dripping with solidified trails of the thick beeswax candles that graced each one. It gave the feeling of an old monastery or something similar. It was early enough that the candles remained unlit, enough rich blue and red light streaming through the windows. Janessa spied a table off in one corner, one of the smaller ones, and led Amanda over in that direction. Amanda slid into the bench closest to the wall and smoothed her skirt. She looked vaguely around the bar, barely registering the other customers.
Janessa stood, watching her. “White wine okay?” she said.
Janessa didn’t like what she was seeing. Just as well she’d arranged to meet her. She headed for the bar, and stood watching Amanda across the room while the barman poured two glasses. She carried them back to the table and slid into the bench opposite her.
“So, really, how are you doing?”
She was toying with a locket around her neck, eyes half-focused in the middle distance. She took a deep breath before answering. “The worst thing is, I can’t stop crying.”
Janessa reached out and took Amanda’s hand. “I know it’s hard, but talking about it might help.”
Amanda gave a little shake of her head. “It won’t change anything,” she said.
Janessa released Amanda’s hand and reached for her glass. She really didn’t know what to say. One of the bar staff, dressed all in black except for a long white apron was wandering from table to table lighting the candles. She sipped at her wine – it tasted strangely metallic — waiting. The scent of beeswax floated up to mix with the crisp acidity of her wine. The barman walked away out of earshot.
“I know it won’t change anything, but have you talked to anyone at all?”
Amanda turned her glass around and around on its base, staring down into the wine as if she might find the answer to her problem there. “Who can I talk to?”
“I don’t know. Someone at work? Anybody. You can talk to me — you know that.”
Again, Amanda shook her head. “There’s no one at work. I haven’t been in. I took the two statutory personal days, but I’ve taken another. I went in to the office briefly, but it was like I wasn’t there. Everybody avoided looking at me. I felt like I was invisible. I just couldn’t concentrate. The office was worse than the apartment. Much worse. In the end, I just went home.”
“But being there on your own isn’t good. Do you want me to come and stay for a while?”
Amanda slowly lifted her face to meet Janessa’s gaze. Her eyes shone moistly with candlelight. She swallowed and gave the barest nod. Janessa reached across and covered her hand with her own.
“All right. That’s settled. Now. Can you talk about it at all? You need to talk about it, Amanda.”
“I don’t know where to start…”
Janessa leaned forward, sliding the candle holder out of the way. “When I spoke to you the other day, you said that you’d suspected it was going to happen. What did you mean?”
She hesitated. “Ben wasn’t happy. He kept telling me he wasn’t happy. At first I thought it was us, but I don’t think it was. You know. Sex is the first thing to go. Our sex was great. It wasn’t that. I would have known. He was restless, frustrated. He started shutting himself away, spending more and more time alone. When I asked him about it, he just snapped at me, said that he had thinking to do. I don’t know…”
Now that she had started, Janessa could see that it was all going to tumble forth. “So what was it – work, money? You said it wasn’t the relationship.”
“No. Well, partly. It was work. He told me that there was nothing there for him. Finally he started saying it was here, this place. Just being here. I couldn’t understand it.” She brushed at her cheek with one hand and shook her head again. “Of course I started to believe that it was us, the relationship. But then it wasn’t that. I know it wasn’t. I can’t help thinking somehow I was doing something wrong. I can’t help analyzing it like that though, looking for someone to blame. Always it comes back to me. I’m the only one to blame. But Ben was right; it’s here, this place.”
Janessa glanced over at the next table, but the group there was immersed in their own conversation. She turned back to Amanda.
“What do you mean?”
“He wanted me to go with him, you know.”
Her eyes welled again and she rubbed her finger up and down, clearing a trail through the moisture on the outside of her glass. The next words were halting. “I couldn’t. I was afraid.” She looked up at Janessa, seeking something – approval, for Janessa to say it was all right, that she’d done the right thing – but Janessa didn’t know what to say to her. Nothing she could say would make it better.
“So you’re telling me he told you what he was going to do.”
She nodded, chewing at her bottom lip, eyes brimming. She reached beneath the table, withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes, then lowered her hands, twisting the handkerchief. Janessa reached over and patted her hand. “It’s okay.”
“Sorry. At first I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He kept talking about transition. How he had to make the change. He said he had to do something for the city, for all of us, to put back some of what he had taken. I didn’t understand what it meant. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Her expression crumpled and she buried her face in her hands.
“Jesus, Amanda.” Janessa stood and crossed to the other side of the table. She slipped onto the bench beside her and put her arm around her. Her friend turned and buried her face into Janessa’s shoulder, her slight body shuddering with sobs. Janessa gently stroked her fine hair, murmuring soothing noises as she looked around the bar, checking to see whether anyone was watching.
“Look,” said Janessa. “We’ll head back to my place and pick up a few things, and then we’ll go to yours. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Once we get back to your place, we can open a bottle of wine, take it easy. Then you can tell me what you meant by transition. Okay? Does that sound like a plan?”
Amanda nodded meekly while Janessa continued stroking her hair, her lips pursed in thought.
After a moment, Amanda looked up. “What about Justin?” she asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about him. It’ll do him good to be on his own for a few days.”
When Janessa had left, things had been distinctly cool. Justin decided he’d simply give her a day or two to let it pass. Anyway, he had things to do. He had to show her, somehow. The shadow of an idea had been forming since their conversation and he wanted to explore, or at least test it out. He still couldn’t believe that everything was as it should be: the myth of the Long Walk – and he was convinced it was a myth — the disappearances, the strange characters he’d seen popping up on First Avenue and other places. There was too much remaining unexplained to leave his suspicion unchecked. He had to show her something. It was like some sort of justification of his own worth.
Janessa had said there was nothing in the underneath. He didn’t believe that.
The day after they’d been together, he had gone into the office as usual, spending a wasteland of a day drudging through the figures, his mind on other things. He’d quickly arranged a personal day, no explanations; he just needed a day off.
That morning, he’d donned an old pair of jeans, a warm shirt, and an olive weatherproof short coat with a zip-up front and bands at the cuffs that he could cinch tight if he needed. He hunted through the apartment for a torch, but it was something he’d never thought to acquire. He stood frowning in the centre of the living room, thinking about what else he could use for illumination, but nothing came to mind. At least there was no fog this morning. It would have to do. With a shrug, he left the apartment. He’d deal with whatever he discovered when he needed to. Hopefully there would be enough light filtering through to let him see. If, as he thought, the underneath was not empty, there’d be other light sources anyway.
His first target was an old subway entrance on the corner of Fourth and Eighth. Out on the street, he checked his direction and headed off at a brisk walk. The morning air, still crisp with the evening chill made his breath fog in front of him. An industrial taste overlaid the air, hinting of streets and factories. That was strange. He wondered where it came from. There were no factories here, no industry to speak of. Sunlight was creeping up the end of First Avenue, bathing the edges of the last blocky buildings with orange-yellow light. It caught and reflected in a high up window, flashing briefly, as someone inside moved the window, either opening or closing it; at this distance, he couldn’t tell. Slick moisture lay, waiting to evaporate from the roadway’s surface.
There were few people about. The day was early. Further up the block, a solitary man pushed a cart in front of him, straining his back. Probably one of the numerous street vendors, trying to get a march on his competitors, more than likely going to set up far uptown in front of the library steps. He’d never thought about it before. Where exactly did these people live? From a side-street, came the sound of an automated cleaner, whirring and scraping along, half guided by its operator. It seemed that these were his only company. As he crossed the street, a black-clad rider appeared out of nowhere, zipping past him with whirring wheels. Justin had to step quickly back out of the way. Watching the rider disappear up the avenue’s centre, he shoved his hands into his coat pockets and finished crossing. A faint nervousness was working in the pit of his stomach, but he felt good about what he was about to do. It had been a while since he’d taken such decisive action, any action, in fact, happy just to coast through the ease of their cushioned environment, letting Janessa guide the shape of their life.
It took about five minutes to reach the old subway entrance. He stared across the barrier, down steps leading into gloom. The sign on the archway above the stairwell had long been painted over. A vague musty scent drifted up to him from the damp depths. Justin ducked beneath the barrier, having to worm past an angled board, and took his first hesitant step down towards the city’s underneath. One by one, he stepped down the stairs, holding the handrail, cool and slick beneath his grasp. At the bottom of the stairs, there was a short passage, and at the end, a rusted chain-link gate. An old padlock and chain hung from a square handhold. He stood there looking at it.
Damn! He hadn’t thought this through properly at all.
He approached the gate and shook it. The crashing rattle was loud, and he glanced nervously up the stairs. There were no voices raised in query, so he shook it again. The chain was solid. He peered through the wire, trying to see what lay beyond the gate, but an empty passageway leading into shadow was all that was there. Old faded posters and advertising signs, stains and mildew making them incomprehensible graced either wall. Shreds of paper hung from one or two of them.
He stepped back, staring at the barrier with his fists planted on his hips. What was he going to do now?
The only option was to try the next subway entrance four blocks up. He dusted off his hands and climbed back up the steps.
Again, he walked briskly. More people were out and about now, and he didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself, so he kept his head lowered. Once there, he glanced around, checking whether anyone was watching him, then waiting for his opportunity, slipped beneath the barrier. The bottom of these stairs was much the same as the others, except that a pool of scummy water lay to one side. A dead butterfly floated on its side atop the white-streaked surface, one wing darker than the other because of the moisture beneath. He curled his lip and headed towards the passageway.
Another barrier confronted him, but this one was different. Somebody had cut through the metal and folded back one of the mesh panels. The rusted ends of the wire where it had been cut extended towards him like stained and rotting fangs. But he was right. At least someone had been here. This was justification.
Stooping, Justin eased himself through the triangular hole, taking care to avoid the panel’s ragged edge. A short corridor led to another staircase, winding down, bilious yellow tiles on the walls, edged with green. The smell of damp and age was stronger here. It was dark, but not too dark; enough light made its way down through the stairwell to be able to see what he was doing. Placing each foot with care, he descended.
At the bottom of the stairs, he paused, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. A wide flat area, cement-floored, looking slick, green-grey – he couldn’t tell whether it was just shiny, or whether the surface was slightly oily – stretched out before him. To one side sat the old ticket booth. Long-disused vending machines lined one wall, their colours dim. A line of turnstiles marked the entrance to the platform, and beyond that, a low roof, stretching out into darkness, thick red-brown metal girders running from floor to ceiling supporting its bulk. He stood listening, but everything seemed still. On the one blank wall, someone had scrawled something in foot-high black letters, arcing across the wall in an incomprehensible testament to their presence.
Realizing there was nothing here, he vaulted the barrier and stepped out onto the platform, his footsteps sounding loud in the hard-surfaced space. It was darker here, and he peered along the platform length, either way. He stepped to the edge and looked in both directions. Nothing. He stepped back from the edge and wandered along the platform itself, looking for clues. About halfway along, he found something. A bundled form lay against one wall. He caught his breath, taking one step, two, cautious, leaning down a little, trying to work out what it was. He didn’t want to meet some crazy. As he grew nearer, he breathed a sigh of relief and straightened. It was just some old rumpled rotting blanket. Someone had been here, but it looked like it hadn’t been for some time.
“What are you doing, Justin?” he said quietly. Was it really that important? He thought about the conversation with Janessa.
Okay. Maybe there was nothing here, but that didn’t mean that this was the end of it. It had become a matter of pride now. He had one more thing he wanted to try here. He didn’t know whether any of the other entrances might afford such easy access. He’d found his way in, so he was going to make use of it. Thinking, he pushed at the piled blanket with one foot. The humped shape fell to one side and the scent of damp and rotting fabric washed up. Shaking it away, and giving a wordless sound of disgust he turned back to the platform edge.
Crouching at the lip, he turned his head first one way, then the other, then back again. Which way? Narrowing his eyes, he looked again. One of the tunnels seemed vaguely lighter than the other. He looked again, comparing, making sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. No, he wasn’t imagining it. The tunnel entrance to the left was almost imperceptibly lighter. He ran the locations of the old subway stops through his head, thinking for a moment that it might just be light filtering in from the next access to the street above, but no. The next stop was at least six blocks uptown. It couldn’t be that.
He lowered himself down from the platform and started walking towards the tunnel, keeping in the centre of the tracks. The whole city moved above him, awake now, huge and solid, separated by the merest of layers. He felt that weight, that bulk as a presence in the back of his neck and across his shoulders. He imagined that he could almost hear the sounds of footsteps and the whirring of bicycle tires above him. He glanced up at the ceiling nervously and licked his lips. Perhaps it would have been better to try and convince Janessa to come along with him. Was he stupid, here, alone like this? No, darkness made you imagine things painting fearful impossibilities on the inside of your head. He shut thoughts of what lay above away and picked up his pace.
Justin had to sidle past an old train, four carriages long, on the way. As the silver behemoth had loomed up on him out of the darkness, he had to stifle a moment of panic. When he was close enough to work out what it was, he laughed at himself, but then his thoughts strayed to the detritus of things past that littered their environment, unseen. Despite his suspicions, he couldn’t help wondering how long it had been since someone had looked upon the forlorn, empty carriages, lying empty in the tunnelled gloom. Winding unseen passages wormed through the consciousness of all the city’s inhabitants. Were they all merely hiding what they had been away in unseen shadow? It was grim thought.
As he emerged from the space beside the obscuring mechanical husk, the light grew distinctly stronger, daubing the tunnel walls with silver. A slight movement in the air stirred against his face. He stopped, listening. Somewhere ahead, almost below the level of perception, he could hear a slight sighing sound. Too long in the tunnels and he could easily be imagining things. He walked slowly forward. Up ahead, the tunnel curved, the light stronger against the left hand wall. He could definitely feel the slightest breeze now, and the air tasted cleaner, fresh. This wasn’t what he was expecting to find at all. He wanted to find people, an encampment, or an underground community, not light and air – rude shelters cobbled together from spars and old advertising hoardings. He wanted to hear the noise of conversation, of old unshaven men sitting around in tatty threadbare coats, picking at the remainders of a communal meal. He was starting to suspect he’d find nothing like it.
As he rounded the corner, he stopped in his tracks. A long gash ran the length of the floor in front of him, growing increasingly wider as it extended into the tunnel ahead. It was dark down there. Sticking to the tunnel wall, he followed it, frowning now. The light grew stronger, the breeze more apparent, and it was undercut by the slight susurrus of something in motion. He rounded another corner, and the gash became a chasm, opening into a wide, yawning hole, its walls ragged and rocky. The tunnel walls had disappeared. The tracks had gone. Before him stretched a chasm, wide, open, and empty to the land below. The noise was coming from all around, subtle, but there. He stood at the edge of that precipice, staring down, his breath coming in short gasps. The breeze moved the hairs on his scalp, but Justin was motionless. The shapes of tree-covered hills, green, rolling, looked back at him through the jagged window into the city’s underside. He stood transfixed.
His attention finally came back to the hole itself. The walls, strewn with cracks were in vague motion. That was where the sound was coming from. He got down on his hands and knees, easing himself forward and looking out over the edge. Something was crawling over the rocky surface, darker patches against the brown. As he watched, a piece of the shadow broke away and fell towards the waiting ground. For just a moment, Justin thought that a large, flat flake of the rock itself had broken off, that the city was falling apart, slowly, from the underneath. The shadow emerged into open air and resolved itself into myriad floating shapes. Direct light caught them, flashing blue, electric, iridescent.
Justin gasped. Butterflies.
Slowly, slowly, he turned his head to look above him at the ceiling of the inverted cave and swallowed, not once, but twice in quick succession. The entire surface was crawling with blue-grey winged forms, moving one over the other, making the slight rustling sound.
Suddenly chill, he turned to look back down into the gaping hole. Now that he had his attention on them, he could see them, thousands upon thousands of them, their wings in perpetual motion as they clung to the walls and crawled over each other.
Janessa and Amanda had talked for hours, and slowly Amanda had opened up, getting past the halting, tear-broken explanations. She spoke of Ben, of the things that he’d told her. Janessa listened, occasionally reaching out to stroke her friend’s arm or thigh. In the early hours of the morning, they had reached a joint decision. After a brief couple of hours of sleep, they had woken, sitting, looking at each other hesitantly in the pre-dawn light. Their joint looks had been charged with understanding. Finally, without saying anything, Janessa had slowly nodded. Amanda had returned her gaze, and then she too had nodded, her face somehow set with resolve. Now, truly, they were ready.
Amanda took one last look around her apartment. She glanced at Janessa, hesitating, lingering in the doorway.
“Come on,” said Janessa. “Now’s as good a time as any. It’s a beautiful day out there.”
Amanda tore herself from the doorway and slowly closed the front door behind them. Janessa waited, watching as she fumbled with the key.
Amanda turned and looked at her. “Okay, I’m okay.”
They took the stairs down to the street in silence. Standing outside the entrance for a few moments, together, they watched the passers by.
“Which way do you want to go?” asked Janessa.
“I don’t know, Janessa,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“Listen. This is what you want. I’m here now.”
Amanda looked at her and smiled. “Yes, I know. You’re right.”
Together, they walked to the centre of First Avenue. Janessa reached for Amanda’s hand and her friend smiled at her, shyly. They stood there, together, holding hands for a few moments, looking down towards the end, lost in the distance.
Just for a moment, Amanda’s face grew serious. “But what about Justin?”
Janessa gave a short laugh. “So much for theories. Oh, don’t worry, he’ll work things out. He may be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but I wouldn’t say he’s stupid. He’s just a boy, you know?”
Amanda nodded her understanding.
Janessa glanced up at the clear, pale-blue sky. “It really is a lovely day, isn’t it?”
Together, hand in hand, they started their walk down toward the park, ignoring the occasional curious glance from the people around them.
It took Justin the entire day to process what he’d discovered. His head kept filling with the image of those crawling, living walls, and the flashes of colour superimposed on the green hills below them. He locked himself away in his apartment, nursing a drink and staring into space. He kept running what he was going to say to Janessa over and over in his mind, but the words just wouldn’t come out right. It wasn’t just admitting that he was wrong – it was the enormity of what he’d seen.
Thousands upon thousands of them, beating those fragile wings.
When it was finally late enough that she would have had time to get home from work, Justin called. There was no answer. He left it half an hour and tried again.
Maybe she’d gone out for a drink with someone from work.
She’d been talking about Amanda last time he’d seen her. He tried calling there, a little hesitant, considering what had happened, but he needn’t have worried. There was no answer there either.
Concerned now, he started to pace. Perhaps she was just trying to teach him a lesson for his stupidity. After the third call, he started to become annoyed. He grabbed his keys and headed out to Janessa’s place.
It was dark when he got there. His knocking and calling outside her door brought no response. He sat on the top step in the darkened stairwell, reconciled to waiting.
Later, much later, bored, his backside numb and his legs stiff, worry was starting to overtake his annoyance. He headed out into the night, looking in the local bars and restaurants that he knew Janessa liked.
It was very late when he finally got back to his own apartment. He tried calling again, but still there was no response. A deep unease was starting to work its way into the depths of his abdomen.
That night he barely slept.
At first light, he tried calling again.
He knew he had to go to work, but he was tempted to just forget it. He had to find out what had happened to her. If this was some sort of lesson, it was achieving what it was meant to. Finally, he decided to go into work anyway. He called her apartment from the office three times before giving up. He called her place of work, but the people in the office said they hadn’t seen her. She hadn’t been in at all for the last two days. No word. No explanation. Nothing.
He slowly ran his hand across his forehead.
“Jesus, Janessa,” he said to no one in particular.
Three more times, he called her apartment during the afternoon. Twice more he tried Amanda’s.
On the way home, after work, he called in at her building, but there was still no sign of her. The sinking feeling was back, and this time it had tiny chill spines that worked at his insides.
All thought of anything else had dissipated like the fog.
Perhaps she’d be back by the morning.
The following morning, Justin stood by the living room window, staring out at the monolith forms, shining with their metal-clad tops in the sunlight. He felt empty, removed. It was so clean up here, such a contrast to what lay below, but all of it was soulless. A flicker of movement caught his attention from below and he leaned closer to see. A cloud of butterflies moved in the spaces between the buildings, swirling and sparking with flashing shafts of iridescent light. They obscured any movement beneath them. There were so many of them. There seemed to be more of them every day.
There was something about them, something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. For all their obvious beauty, they just didn’t belong, and no one had been able to explain satisfactorily what brought them here. None of it made sense to him. There was little vegetation among the stone clad streets, few flowers or plants where they could feed, yet still they came. Justin knew that the city streets and byways couldn’t possibly be their native habitat, despite what he’d seen during his excursion to the city’s guts. Maybe as they moved over forested land below…. But no, that just didn’t make any sense either.
As he watched, a single winged shape broke from the cloud and fluttered up towards him, its wings shining electric blue. He frowned, tracking its approach. There was no question; it was heading for his window. Still closer it came, and he caught himself holding his breath.
It was outside the window, directly level with his eyes, hanging there in a slight breeze. The barest riffling at the ends of its wings marked the air currents supporting it, but it looked for all the world as if it was just suspended there, almost motionless outside the window, looking in, looking at him, while it floated on nothing. Somehow, it reminded him of a tiny human shape. But it was only a butterfly – a butterfly with electric blue wings, spanning the width of his hand.
Justin swallowed. And in that instant, he knew.
Hesitantly, he lifted his hand and pressed his palm against the cold glass. He swallowed again, fighting against the moisture suddenly threatening at his eyes, threatening to blur what he was seeing. He wanted nothing to cloud the vision.
Nothing. Not now.
Author Bio: Jay Caselberg is an Australian author based in Europe. His work has appeared in multiple venues worldwide and in several languages. More can be found at his website, www.caselberg.net.