AKA What Lurks Below
Nicu had been staring at the ceiling so long his eyes felt like knuckles. He knew every fissure up there, every crack, like the back of his hand. Exhaustion only made it worse, but the less he slept, the less he cared.
‘You could always kill the bitch.’
He got up and rubbed his face trying to massage the sleep that refused to take him with it somewhere else. Nicu knew where that would lead, and he’d no desire to be dropped into one of the holes the city kept for those it broke.
His reflection in the room’s solitary mirror waited for him to answer. But all the thin youth with the red eyes did was watch him like it could drill a hole through his skull to somewhere else. He’d be patient. He’d been practicing nearly every day now, and he had time after all.
Everyone from church workers, to teachers, had traipsed through the flat at one time or another not to mention Mum’s boyfriends. All of them with plenty of ideas on how to solve Mum’s problems. Sometimes he thought family values was just another way of other people getting involved in your pain.
Nicu thought of the last man to have put up with Mum for more than a week. The poor bastard had all but run out the door after he’d woken up with a knife at his throat. Mum had been having one of her suspicious turns.
‘Now that’s a sad shower of rejects to have to deal with at the best of times.’
The flat was quiet now though. Nicu put his ear to the wall, but the latest victim to have been treated to a wall shaking monologue must have left.
‘Not a sound, count yourself lucky tovarisch. I listen to her every night.’
The rants never varied either: men were all shits and the world was out to get her. Mum was never particular about where she cast the blame.
‘You’ll never leave if you’re not careful Nicu.’
He could only breathe it. That was her favorite slur; the one she used when she really wanted to hurt him; the one thing she knew would get right under his skin.
‘Course, I won’t Mum. You never did, did you? Spent your whole life living in this dump.’
He pressed his head against the mirror hoping it would cool the thudding in his head. With a bit of luck whoever her lover had been he’d given her something nasty. The hours when she was locked in the toilet where the safest he owned. She shut up a bit then, particularly if she couldn’t remember who it was that had caused the complaint.
‘You do keep going though don’t you? You’ll be out there soon enough dragging them back, looking for the one prick that’s going to sort it all out.’
It was a miracle she’d been cold and desperate enough to go through with having a little bundle of fun like him at all.
‘Not much Dad can do now he’s inside though. I wonder what he’d say if he knew you were up to your old tricks? But, you’re not as mad as you like to make out. He’d have left you years ago if you hadn’t had me.’
It hadn’t been much in evidence last night as their neighbours voiced their opinions to the racket hammering through the tower block.
Nicu’s stomach growled, as he punched a crater in his bedding with his fist.
‘Always enough money for booze though isn’t there?’
He grimaced, she’d started up again, ‘Nicu, Niccuuuuuu.’ The echo’s sawed though his head like needles. Sometimes he wondered if it was her that had cleared half the flats in this floor and the one above.
‘What is it Mum?’
‘Nicu, baby, come talk to me.’
‘…baby…come talk to me…’ The echo’s bounced around his head. Nicu felt his stomach lurch.
‘Go back to sleep.’
‘Bayyyyby, I’m sorry I was nasty to you earlier.’
He reached for the light and wondered why he was bothering. The city was in darkness half the time anyway, at night it was worse.
‘Alright, I’m coming where are you?’
Nicu didn’t really need to ask he could smell her in the darkness, hot and sweet, like bile.
‘You been sick?’
‘I don’t know, I can’t see anything, the lights are off. I can’t find the switch.’
‘I’m not cleaning you up again if you have.’
‘That doesn’t matter, my head hurts sweetie, come and help your poor Mum find out where she is. You know I didn’t mean any of what I said last night.’
Nicu’s fingers rummaged in his pocket. He had a lighter in there somewhere. Flames sparked and he caught site of her behind the sofa.
‘Course you didn’t Mum. It was just the booze talking.’
The warm wet smell of puke filled his nostrils.
‘You’re not upset?’
Nicu shook himself, like he cared anymore.
‘No, you do wonders for me Mum.’
There was the sound of drunken laughter, ‘Come cheer you’re old Mum up. Why won’t you talk to me anymore?’
‘Because you’re an embarrassment.’
He kept it low so she wouldn’t hear. He’d explained to his Mum once before what he thought of her. It wasn’t worth another sleepless night.
‘What did you say Nicu? I can’t stand up, help me. You’re my son.’
‘I thought you didn’t need anyone, or maybe you don’t remember that?’
‘Don’t be an arsehole Nicu.’
He realised he’d been right about her being sick when his hands came away wet.
‘What’s up Mum? Couldn’t find your way to bed again? You can’t be very comfortable down there.’
He got one shoulder under an armpit, wrinkling his nose at the smell. Nicu had gotten used to putting her into the recovery position years ago, but the smell was something special.
‘Why won’t they come fix anything anymore? I swear they do it deliberately to keep us like animals. It never used to be like that, years ago things we’re different. People had respect then.’
There’d been a time, if Nicu thought really hard about it, when the world had seemed different. Back then he hadn’t been able to understand what the bags under his Mums eyes meant. But, those days had vanished along with her beauty. Now she looked like what she was: a waste of space, sprawled on a mattress stained with drink, and other things better left inside your body.
‘Sweetheart will you get me some ciggies? I need my ciggies, I’m all out.’
Nicu’s eyes went to the window; it was still well before morning. But, the refusal on his lips died as soon as he thought about it. The only hope of getting any more sleep lay in what was left of the bottle of vodka she was cradling, not that it would be him doing the drinking.
‘You need to give me money first.’
‘Bayyyyby…’ It was amazing how she managed to sound hurt even with eyes that couldn’t focus. ‘You know I will. I look after you, don’t I sweetie?’
‘I’ve cleaned the fridge out if that’s what you mean. You even noticed that?’
‘I was enjoying myself Nicu. I’m allowed to do that aren’t ?’
‘Didn’t sound like fun to me. Just give me the money and I’ll get you your fags; then go to sleep.’
‘I’ll be good baby, I promise.’
She tittered, and looked up at him through her eyelashes. Nicu’s stomach did a somersault. He backed away.
‘’Course you will Mum.’
It was time to leave, if he let her get wound up it would only end with the coppers being called again. He didn’t trust himself to get her through another encounter with the authorities without her blowing it.
‘Be careful Nicu, you’re my special little boy, remember.’
Off the block he felt a little better. The night might be cold, but it was crisp not Siberian, although that didn’t stop the shivers. His clothes were starting to get too small again, but the cross fader he needed ate any spare cash.
Tower blocks flickered on the horizon; like roadmaps to the stars. You learnt to navigate by them if you went out after dark now.
He stepped into the square making sure to watch for signs of movement amongst the pillars; this early the gangs would be hungry. Most of them knew his face, but with another power cut underway you couldn’t be sure they’d recognise you.
Or they wouldn’t care, the early hours of the morning was when things changed, the streets got hungrier when they were empty of pedestrians.
Nicu burrowed deeper into his tiny coat. Last week they’d found one of the youth lying on the pavement, frozen so solid they’d had to cut him off the concrete. Nicu’s feet took a short cut down the nearest alley. The quicker he made this the better.
‘Who’s that? This is my spot.’
‘None of your business. Anyone can go through here. You don’t own it.’
Ducts were splayed across the brick spewing warm air into the night so at first he couldn’t see the figure wrapped in rags as they leant into the light.
‘Go on then, try it.’
Nicu’s fingers felt like they had frostbite already, ‘Just let me past, and I’ll leave you alone.’
‘I might, but the others won’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
Nicu looked about him, but the alley looked empty.
‘Saw some of them didn’t I? Shifty little beggars, always hiding, waiting for the next idiot to come along. That’ll be you.’
Nicu stopped; the alley ended just ahead, but it didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. He knew what sort of games the gangs liked to play.
‘Where are they?’
‘Up ahead, most of em anyway, like laying traps don’t they?’Nicu could see teeth grin.
‘I know, used to do it myself’
‘Glad to see you’ve grown up a little then. What are you doing out at this time of night? You’re going to get yourself killed.’
‘God save me from assholes; every lad your age is a cross between Godzilla and Superman. I was trying to be helpful not piss on your pride. Now, what is it that’s got you roaming about when it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a monkey?’
Nicu let himself relax a little.
‘Mum sent me out.’
‘Ah, she’d be one of the all night variety?’ The tramp nodded to himself like he knew exactly what that meant, ‘What’s her poison?’
‘Mostly booze and smokes these days. She wants me to go get her some.’
‘Or, she’ll be up half the night moaning? You don’t have to answer, I know the type. I might even be able to make your life a little easier if you’ll do something for me.’
Orange flared in the gloom as the man lifted the lid on an oil drum and sparks danced in the night.
‘Stay a while; listen to a story. The fires hot, it’s got to be better then going and meeting them up ahead, don’t you think? They won’t wait forever it’s too cold for that.’
Nicu considered his options. It wouldn’t hurt to listen.
‘Don’t worry I’m not going to cause any trouble.’
As Nicu got closer to the flames he could see the man more clearly, although he soon wished he couldn’t. He was a good example of what the streets did to their tenants. It looked like battery acid had eaten through his skin.
‘How old are you gramps?’
‘Something like sixty last time I checked.’
He looked about eighty. Nicu felt himself relax all the way.
‘What’s your story then?’
The tramp took another swig from the bottle in his fist, and Nicu found it waved in his direction.
‘The name’s Ilia, drink?’
‘No thanks, I’m good.’
‘Not stupid are you? The stuff round here’ll take years off you as easily as it’ll keep you warm. I’ve lost count of the amount of friends I couldn’t wake when morning came. Quit standing there anyway, if you won’t drink get closer to the fire’
Nicu stepped a little closer, careful to keep the flames between him and the tramp.
‘Where did you get the smokes? They’re almost as rare as leccy these days.’
‘I’m connected boy, been around a long time; a hell of a lot longer than you by the look of things.’
‘Give me one.’
The tramp grunted and slung a battered packet in his direction.
‘Alright, but in return listen. You’re at my death bed and there isn’t much time left. I deserve that much.’
‘Whatever you say.’
Nicu noticed something he hadn’t spotted before. It wasn’t just cataracts in the man’s eyes; he’d seen that look before, and the stains spreading through his cuffs.
The tramp noticed where his eyes had gone.
‘Already started work before you turned up kid; didn’t hurt half as much as I thought. Saw you running by and thought I could do with some company for the last bit, sorry.’
Ilia shrugged, and a knife tinkled to the floor, scarlet and steel catching what was left of the city’s lights for a second before the shadows claimed it.
‘You wouldn’t know what it’s like to feel really afraid, not yet, you’re too young. I never used to feel like that either, but I learnt.’
‘I’m terrified already,’ Nicu stifled a yawn, ‘what’s your story? Better hurry up old man. You haven’t got long.’
Eyes that looked like they’d been bleached blinked back at him.
‘First a drink.’
The tramp nearly dropped the bottle on the way to his lips.
‘You need a hospital, not that shit. You might have lived longer then.’
‘Another night tucked up with the scum round here you mean? I’m better than that. It’s time to say goodbye. Nothing works anymore, not the tranquilizers they put in your food, or the rotgut that keeps you going. I can’t stop remembering.’
Nicu thought of his Mum, there wasn’t much longer she could go on like she was before something broke either, and she wasn’t anywhere near as bad as this reject. He moved a little closer to the fire and thrust his face over the drum so the man could see it clearly.
‘Why don’t you get on with it then? I’ve other things to do than listen to you.’
‘’Course you do boy. Your problems are plain as day. I bet you think it’ll get better if you tough it out, it won’t. I’m living proof of that.’
Nicu thought back over the amount of times he’d heard that before. His Mum made sure of it every time she got drunk, him and the rest of the world that is. Nothing was going to get better, it was all somebody else’s fault. He supposed it made life a little easier for her to bear if everyone else shared her misery.
‘Have another drink, and tell me all about it. It’ll seem clearer then. It normally does for people like you.’
That got a response he hadn’t been expecting. The tramp tried to leap to his feet, and slipped, slumping back into the garbage instead.
‘I’m Inspector Ilia Vladovitch: a hero of the migrant war. You will address me as sir.’
‘’Course you are…sir’
Nicu just about kept the smile off his face, it looked like you could knock the asshole over if you so much as breathed on him.
‘I’m sorry, I was disrespectful. All men who lived through the old day’s are like gods to me.’
That seemed to work, the man relaxed and dropped his hand, taking another swig as he did.
‘It wasn’t always like this you know.’
Nicu waited mildly surprised when the answer he was expecting didn’t come. Inspector Vladovitch fixed him with those washed out eyes, ‘No…it was a lot worse.’
‘It can’t have been worse than it is now.’
For a moment Nicu regretted saying it, but Ilia had already grabbed his chance.
‘You’re too young to remember what it was like.’
As far as Nicu was concerned that was no bad thing. Still, at least listening to the man’s story would kill some time. He pictured the level on Mum’s bottle in his head. She wouldn’t be finished yet. If he was clever she’d have passed out by the time he returned.
‘Go on then, enlighten me.’
Ilia’s smile matched the wounds on his wrists.
‘It was different back then, the whole of central Asia was on the move. I can’t say I blame them really, the seeds had failed for the fourth season in a row, and their wells had dried up. That pretty much took any hope of a future for most of them with it. The fighting did the rest as they tore themselves apart for what was left. They did what I’d have done; they moved. Not just a family, or two, whole populations upped sticks and hit the road. ‘The politicians and the far right tried to lock down the borders of course.’ His laugh echoed off the walls flat, and hollow, ‘They might as well have tried to dam a sea.’
Nicu stifled a yawn, everyone knew how the war had started; you got it rammed down your throat every day at school.
‘I’ve heard this before, what’s it got do with you?’
‘Just listen, it was my job to deal with them when they appeared picking through the city like we were the lucky ones. We used to take them out past the suburbs and shoot them so they didn’t disturb the families that hadn’t left.’
‘You shouldn’t have bothered. You got sold out, same as the rest of us.’
The look that passed over the man’s face was gone quick, but he couldn’t hide it.
‘I’m not talking about the betrayal.’
‘Then what do you mean?’
‘Wait and I’ll tell you. We didn’t know what was coming back then. I’ve heard of a plague of insects that hits parts of America once every sixteen years, the war was like that.
‘People are more difficult to kill though.’
‘Yes, but we did anyway, in droves. Not that it made any difference; they’d come back twice as strong. When the leadership disappeared the army didn’t take long to follow. It’d have included me and my friends too if we hadn’t started fighting each other. I shot them in the end before they took my share of the goods. How else was I going to start a new life?’
Inspector Valdovitch chuckled and took another swig from his bottle.
‘Anyway, they’d started up with the artillery before I decided I needed to get my family. The hills were black with them by then, and that was only one part of their army. At that point I was really beginning to sweat. The landlocked countries hadn’t had any food for months, and if there’d been a decent human being among them at the start there sure as shit wasn’t by then.’
Nicu had to admit he was pretty interested now. He shuffled a little closer to the fire and watched the blood try and swallow the light leaking from its sides as it spread from the man’s wrists.
‘Better hurry, Inspector, I don’t think you’ve much time left.’
It didn’t look like Vladovitch had heard him. He was staring though the alley wall like it didn’t exist.
‘I did my best to hurry, but the streets were rammed. By then everywhere I went there were people begging for help. I had to use my gun so many times I ran out of bullets.’ He paused, ‘You should have seen the expressions on their faces. I’d gone through three clips before I got home. It had been gutted, and they were making my boys watch what they were doing to my wife.’
‘Did you kill them?’
Ilia turned tired eyes toward Nicu, ‘I bet you would wouldn’t you? A strong lad like you, but there was nothing I could do. I forget what happened after that. The world was full of bullets, and I helped, just for the fun of it until there was nothing left to shoot at anymore.’
The Inspector paused, and stared at nothing for a moment. When he spoke again he was quieter, like he was scared to speak.
‘I remember sitting there in my cruiser for an hour, maybe two. Anyway, I was calm when the rubble began to get busy again. The rats that had been nibbling at my city for weeks had arrived, in force, and behind them they’d brought their tanks. Those things are hideous. Even back then they were as big as houses. God knows what they’re like now.
‘Did they fire at you?’
You could only just hear Ilia’s voice now.
‘No, I think I had some idea about surrendering, but most of all I didn’t want to die in that car. I wanted the air on my face, and something heroic on my lips. I’d been looking at the squares statue you see, it was of this revolutionary general, and I was trying to find something inspirational for my last words. That’s when it moved.
He stopped, like he was waiting for Nicu to say something, maybe to laugh, or call him a liar. But, Nicu kept his mouth shut, this was far too entertaining. He’d never seen a copper bullshit their way into death too.
‘At first I didn’t believe my own eyes, cracks were running over it everywhere I looked. I thought maybe it was disintegrating, damaged by shell shot like a lot of the building back then.
Ilia paused, and drained the bottle.
‘But, it was coming to life.’
He looked straight at Nicu then like he hadn’t lost nearly five pints of blood, ‘Don’t try and argue with me boy. I know what I saw even if they tried to drug, burn, and beat it out of me. I know what happened; I see it in my dreams.’
Nicu held his hands up, palms out.
The Inspector grunted, he was starting to look like the snow: dirty and washed out.
‘He wasn’t the only one, either. There were more crawling from the houses, all the things the stonemasons had carved into the cities corners. Some of them weren’t human, some of them were, but they seemed pissed, and they were all headed one way: towards the new comers.’
Nicu hadn’t heard this before. The official story was the horde had been beaten back by the brave actions of the cities military police who’d been the only ones not to run when the fighting got really bad.
‘To their credit the enemy at the end of the street didn’t all run when they saw them. They were men of God I suppose, and they didn’t give up their belief that they were protected, even with gunfire skipping off the statues like hail. It was only when the things had gotten close enough the ricochets were digging holes in their ranks that they tried to get away. One of them managed to get a decent shot in, I remember that, but all his target did was pick itself up and replace its limbs like it was picking up sticks.
They found out pretty quick that they had even worse problems because those tanks had gotten in the way by then. It’s not like you can reverse one of them in a hurry; particularly when the drivers hadn’t been trained to use them. By the time the worst of the screaming was over there wasn’t a man left standing outside those machines. Then those statues finished the job.’
‘But you were a hero, weren’t you? You killed them and saved the day.’
Nicu smiled, the man would bleed out soon and his little fantasy would be over. He wondered how many times he’d told it.
‘No, I got back into the car and sat there swimming in my own mess, I’m not ashamed to admit it, I was terrified. I watched them climb back onto their ledges, one by one, praying to anything that was listening that they didn’t notice me.’
For a moment Nicu thought that was it, the man was breathing so shallowly now it was hard to tell he was doing it at all.
‘Thanks for listening, I needed to get that off my chest one last time. I told them all before they chucked me in the nuthouse. They couldn’t shut me up though, now you can tell them too.’
Something cut the last thread that had been holding Ilia’s chin off his chest, and he slumped still clutching his bottle like it was the last thing that meant anything to him. It didn’t need much for Nicu to tell he was dead.
It had to be one of the crazier stories he’d heard decided Nicu as he rifled through the tramps pockets for the rest of his smokes. Nicu’s stomach growled, there were other more important things to worry about. Mum had to have passed out by now.
‘Come on, you’ve got to have something to make all that worthwhile.’
He gave the dead man’s corpse a kick.
In the morning the body would be found, and if the tramp was particularly lucky, reported.
‘Got you, that’ll do nicely.’
Nicu rattled the change he’d been praying the man would have on him in the palm of his hand.
‘Enough for a decent breakfast, spasibo tovarisch.’
But, that wasn’t all his fingers had found. As he rummaged through the rag the man had been using as a wallet his fingers found something unexpected.
Nicu could feel the nubs of embroidery under his fingers as he pulled them free. He had to be sure.
He was looking at an Inspectors pips, old, and frail, but unmistakeable.
‘You told the truth.’
Nicu shrugged and spat on the man’s face.
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