The one mirror in the trailer had white flecks along the edge where a previous resident had stuck stickers. Norma regarded her hulking nakedness in the glass. Her linebackers shoulders and blue black nipples. Rounded belly, dark fuzz below. The DNA resequencing process long ago mastered, but agony still, the lonely woods wracked by her screams. Every cell a blue heat. She turned away from the glass. Dressed quickly, pulled on her boots and headed into the night, clenching her pelvic floor muscles as she always did. For luck.
She could feel him near, could smell him at the edge of an unbroken dream. She headed south along the tracks, crossed the highway, and kept walking until she got to a narrow canyon on the other side of the lagoon. A blighted road wound its way through an abandoned office park dominated by a disused trailer factory, now home to meth labs, cage fighters, karaoke bars, and obscure churches. She walked in past the Samoan security detail through the high loading dock, headed left up four flights of stairs to Una’s. White, orange, and blue lights twinkled on across the sea of reclaimed workshops, production lines, and managers’ offices. Cargo lifts at either end of the building creaked up and down, ferrying a new kind of middleman—barefoot fighters, technicians and specialists going about their nefarious business.
Una’s was through a doorway at the end of a creaking catwalk. Norma breathed in the familiar smell of Una’s sauerkraut masked in frangipani oil—beer, seed, urine, onions and preserved meat. Over the door of the bar was a Balinese stick puppet, its costume faded to a sepia color and its wooden limbs long gone. She could hear the clang of metal plates and barbells from the gym downstairs, an underground Langley for minders and militia and gladiators in the bare-knuckle arena.
Norma made it past the scattered customers without attracting any apparent attention and took a stool. She eyed the room-freshening candles glowing desultorily in every booth. An armed Holoscreen above the bar replayed a Chargers game. Another, on the other side of the room, ran a lingerie cooking show. A chubby man in white hammerhead shoes was setting up Karoake.
Little Barry swung down from his perch at the other end of the bar, stepped up onto a cinder block and pulled her a beer. Shoved it in front of her. His flesh hung in folds over his eyes, one of which had a sideways cast to it. His wife, Una, pushed into the center of the pass window behind the bar. Her face red as rubber, a boiling ball of rage and defeat stirred by the rage and defeat she saw in her husband and could not cure. Little Barry had taken over the bar after winning a bet, but for his sins, it remained too high for him, everything beyond the reach of his stunted limbs, so that he had to set up a row of cinder blocks beneath the bar, and have ladders soldered to tracks to reach the hard liquor.
‘Meatballs,’ Norma said. ‘Please. With potatoes.’
Little Barry looked at her blankly, twiddled a finger in his ear. She repeated her order, careful to move back into men’s speech. Little Barry wrote what she said down on a damp-looking pad, rocked to the pass window on his midget legs and impaled her order on a spike. Norma shrank from Una’s glare, turned to three drinkers at the edge of the bar. They seemed to be formed from the darkness itself—their eyes a yokey glaze, and their skin stretched over muscles crawling with fresh ink. Una repeated Norma’s order out loud in clotted syllables.
‘Meatballs?’ said one of the fighters, projecting his voice across the space, as if in rehearsal for a play. ‘Carna del burro, if you please.’
Signed pictures of Lady Gaga and Philip Seymour Hoffman gathered grease on the cheap woodgrain panels of Una’s Wall of Fame. Norma nodded at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s bloated gaze. They were the same, she thought. Naked and fake and far from home. And something else.
Norma started and looked around her, but there was no one else there apart from the three fighters. The voice had been an unexpected hazard of the mission. The voice that became more insistent over time. Sometimes telling her to do… things.
‘I like donkey meat,’ she said over the voice.
One of the musclemen, Augustine, snorted. He wore wire frame spectacles. His jaw lanterned out when he spoke, and caught the red and blue light from the TV.
‘Jeez, Louise. What planet are you from?’
A chopper circled over the coastline, hovered, then rumbled off south. Sometimes there was blood on her hands and she told herself that she had no memory of how it got there.
‘Planet Slut, Galaxy Snatch, Star System 69,’ said a voice approaching the bar. ‘Your mother says hi.’
The voice was female, reedy and young. Its owner scrambled on to a stool halfway between Norma and the three fighters. She recognized the blue parka. It was an urchin who hung around the market across the tracks from the trailer park, and who sometimes slept against the pay phone that Norma used when she had to call home.
‘Look what the cat threw up,’ said the lantern-jawed fighter.
Una’s head reappeared in the window, and she said something to Little Barry in German, pointed at the urchin. Her husband ignored her, ferried two heaped plates of food to the men.
‘Speaking of which,’ said the urchin. ‘How’s the schnitzel el gato today, boys?’
But the heavy-jawed man had already begun to eat, wolfing down his schnitzel. His lackey, even bigger than he was, eyed the urchin and his own plate, trying to decide on the odds. He picked his surgically modified nose reflectively, wiped his finger under the bar, then tucked in to the food, tightfisted and methodical. Norma watched them eat, elbows cocked and cheeks bulging, grease running down their chins and smeared on the hairless arms they drew across their lips. In the wavering light their elaborate seething tattoos were an unfinished scrawl, erased and seemingly rewritten, every movement revealing—or so it seemed—a new pattern of interchangeable motifs—bird, snake, deity, demon.
The third man who was with them did not eat. He was much smaller than the other two and appeared to be absorbed in his cell, an old model. Norma caught him sneaking sidelong glances at the diminishing piles of food. The urchin also watched the men eat, her tough-kid face locked in an expression of stagey revulsion; but for Norma the scene was both tender and obscene. Almost arousing. Beta males in feeding mode. Behind a rice paper screen somewhere, or mahogany paneling, or towering edifice at world’s end hunched hunters with the same hungers whose shadows clawed at other walls.
Little Barry banged Norma’s meal on the counter in front of her, spilling grease as he lurched up onto the blocks, but the arrival of the urchin had taken away her appetite. She didn’t like the way the third man, a runt called Blaine, eyed the urchin, and she recognized in his look yet another kind of hunger that she’d seen before. Not lust, or blood, but an all-consuming self-piety. Deluded bottom-feeder. Go home. You need the sun, not this half-light. Starved stripling. Foreigner. His pocked skin was gray, his hair a dried-blood red, and there was a flayed quality to him.
The urchin’s parka billowed around her narrow shoulders. She had lightened her hair to the color of dunes, and it stuck out around the milky skin of her face. Her dark eyes darted warily and were ringed with red. She looked to be around twelve, but Norma guessed she was older. Her wrist bones protruded sharply from filthy sleeves. Fingers misshapen from cold and godless commerce were wrapped around her beer mug. She lifted the mug tremulously to her lips, like a chalice, and did not gulp or even seem to swallow so much as to just tip her head back and let the drink flow down her throat. Suddenly appearing to gag, she set the glass down with a bang, and spurted a mouthful of beer across the bar.
‘Jesus wept, Barry,’she said. ‘You been pulling horses’ dicks again? This must be the worst piss yet.’
The midget smirked, but Una said, ‘Shut your slot, you little hole.’
Norma’s face began to crease and go peculiar. A snort leapt from her lips and Little Barry’s eye shot sideways, which made her laugh even more.
‘What you laughing at?’ said the midget, one hand on his hips and the other wielding a filthy rag.
‘She said hole to rhyme with whirl,’ Norma said. “Hurl.”’ She held her stomach.
‘Crazy bitch,’ said Barry, sloshing the rag over the counter where the urchin had spat her beer.
Behind Norma tables filled up as the Karaoke started. In the mirrors behind the bar she watched a lipless man in his sixties sing.
‘Girl… you really got me going… you got me so I don’t know what I’m doing.’
A woman standing near one of the tables danced with bent knees and pumped her arms back and forth. Darkness fell in the bar as the candles sputtered out. From the ceiling beams high above them dangled long cords from which swung dim yellow bulbs. The smoke and the din in the bar grew heady. Norma thought, why am I here? She drank and looked across to the three fighters and to the urchin. Loops of speech and song wound around her like razor wire, but keeping her in or out, she could not tell. She remembered her dream. Dead wolves in the snow. A paw, and icicles clinging to a ragged tail. Windblown footprints of the killer in ever decreasing circles. Hehe, she’d laughed into the vicious wind. Vermillion drops in the snow from where she’d wrung her hands.
The fighters, sated, cast querulous glares up and down the bar.
‘These eggs taste like Una laid em,’ said Augustine. ‘I eat another bite, I’ll bark.’
He meant to say barf, she was sure, and his lackey looked momentarily confused and opened his mouth to correct him, but then had second thoughts. Augustine pushed his leftovers away. The pink eyes of the runt floated between the plate, Augustine, and the lackey.
‘You all done, Tine?’ the runt said.
He had an Australian accent. Or English, maybe. His lips had recently bled. The swinging bulb above them picked up tiny flakes stuck to his russet lashes. Augustine took the steak knife from his plate by its thick wooden handle and lunged at the runt while the flunky laughed. Then, with a sudden, flick of his raw-boned wrist, Augustine flung the knife high into the shadows overhead. The thwang it made on impact, beyond the range of normal hearing, rang in Norma’s ears.
She lifted her face to the ceiling, aware of Little Barry and the urchin and the other men doing the same thing—spectators at a fireworks display. Waiting for the flames to fall.
Una unleashed a torrent of Teutonic outrage. Little Barry waved at her to shut up.
‘Shit, Tine. This ain’t no midway sideshow. You gonna throw blades, take it outside. That’s the good stuff. Ordered in all the way from—what is it—China or Spain or somesuch.’
‘I give a shit, Barry,’ said Augustine.‘You’d be the first one I’d give it to.’
The urchin palmed her cell, played the light over the ceiling, laced with rows of steel supporting struts below angled skylights.
‘There,’ she said, the synthetic rustle of her parka unleashing gooseflesh across the back of Norma’s neck.
The flung knife quivered from the underside of one of the skylight frames thirty feet up. The men shone their cells into the dark, squinted at the tiny speck. Their high giggles reverberated across the bar. The runt’s laugh turned into a wet cough, and Augustine rounded his pumpkin sized biceps over his plate to shield it from the spray. He looked over at the runt, his brow wrinkled in irritation.
‘Get the knife, Blaine, and my slops are yours. I’ll even throw in a beer for the effort.’
Blaine raised baleful eyes to the ceiling. The lackey wrinkled his movie-star nose, splashing beer on his huge knuckles as he gestured toward the ceiling.
‘He’ll never make it, Tine. It’s two floors up, maybe three.’
‘I can make it,’ said Blaine, squaring his puny shoulders.
‘I’ll do it,’ said the urchin, dreamy eyes trained on the knife. ‘Me and Blaine split the cat meat.’
She sounded like a child trying to not sound like a child. Norma gauged that she was riddled with worms at the very least, or maybe some more sinister intestinal infection, but her eyes were clear and focused in the prism light of the bar, and Norma could see that they were a hard blue.
‘No deal,’ said Augustine. ‘Kids can’t play.’
‘That’s not what you told your sister in the back seat of the Patriot last night,’ said the urchin, sliding her cell phone shut.
The room lurched for a moment, a wretched seesaw of karaoke screens and white faces and dead candles.
‘Blaine can have my meal,’ said Norma. ‘You aren’t climbing up there.’
The urchin turned to Norma with a pinched and focused fury.
‘The fuck it has to do with you?’ she said. But there was doubt at the edge of her words and Norma thought she saw something surface in the urchin’s summer-storm eyes—a dull and wary recognition.
‘The beams won’t hold,’ said Norma. ‘Dry rot and rust and quake damage.’
‘Eat shit and die,’ said the urchin. ‘Freak.’
‘She’s right,’ said Little Barry. ‘Whole building’s condemned.’
‘You want to climb up there,’ said Augustine, ‘so Blaine can eat my slop?’
‘Fuck Blaine,’ said the urchin. ‘I haven’t eaten in three days. For Bin Laden’s slop I’d suck your dick, if I could find it.’
The men, all three of them, roared their appreciation. They bumped fists and grabbed their crotches and the ritual was complete. Una crossed herself and slid the pass window shut with a bang. Norma winced. She felt nailed to her stool. You come out to find a guy and you find this instead. Or it finds you. Oh, she longed for him. To find him, the one she came for, and be gone. She tastes him, smells him, feels him when she touches herself. How many more nights, years, centuries… of this? She felt a wave of nausea generated by Una’s muffled Hail Marys, and, floating across the room, the strains of “Heart Shaped Box,” sung by an Avon lady. Little Barry wiped his face with the bar rag and shook his head at the ceiling, face-flesh flapping.
The urchin drained her glass and pulled out pupa-like from the parka. She was surprisingly sturdy across the chest, with long ropy arms. But her shoulder blades poked through her too-small T-shirt, and her legs were long sticks in a pair of unflattering jeans. She pushed her bangs off her face and squinted at the ceiling. Norma told herself that this might just be something previously attempted. The urchin had the air of unfinished business about her. Of expertise acquired over time and in secret. Her lips moved soundlessly, mapping out a path. They watched her scramble onto the bar. Norma’s hands felt wet, but when she looked down it was only perspiration and she wiped them on her jacket, said nothing and inwardly cursed herself. She had her orders: don’t interfere. Stay focused on the mission. But her superiors didn’t know what it was like. She had not told them about the wolf in the snow…
The urchin strutted along the bar to the end, crouched to lift up a stool, and positioned it square against the wall. Another customer came to the bar, but Little Barry didn’t move. The urchin climbed on the stool, reached up to grasp a pipe and used it to swing onto a triangulating strut. She crawled along it and onto a steel beam running the length of the visible portion of the building. The beam was about twenty feet up, maybe ten inches across, and she knelt there on all fours for so long that Norma thought she might have changed her mind. Then she abruptly straightened into a standing position. Norma stood up too, her arms held out and mirroring the urchin’s. Her stool crashed to the floor behind her. Blaine gasped. Barry crossed himself. The lackey said, shit a brick.
The urchin shuffled along the beam a few yards, hanging on to the lower ridge of the skylight that ran above. She then stepped from the beam onto one that crossed it. Norma’s mouth felt dry, her tongue thick and wadded. The customer tapped a coin on the bar and Norma could have broken his neck. The urchin was now lost in darkness, except for sporadic flashes of light from the cell phone she held between her teeth. Then the light flashed once and was gone, and Norma heard the terminal clack of the dropped cellphone and then nothing. Until at last the high reedy voice floated down to them from the darkness.
‘Any of you cuntasses want to help out with some light up here?’
Little Barry dove and rummaged under the bar. Augustine whipped out from his backpack an army issue flashlight, its lens fixed at a right angle to the olive drab body, which he held like an upside down camera. He hopped onto the bar, nimble as a ferret, and side-stepped across to just beneath the urchin. He aimed the blunt head of the flashlight, found the tiny figure crawling along in a tube of hard white light. His wet lips hung in a loose grin and a forked vein pulsed at his brow.
Norma felt her heart hammering in her chest. Her neck hurt from craning. The urchin crawled along the rusted beam and cut back along oxidized supporting struts, scraps of sacking and rope and plastic fluttering in the light like victims of a lynching. She moved with care, but without fear, creeping with a studied functional grace.
‘ Shauest nicht unten,’ Norma heard Una sob from behind the window. ‘Nach unten zu schauen ist zu fallen.’
The urchin did not look down. She crawled along another few feet, then stood up just under where the knife pierced the skylight frame. She straightened and clutched a vertical pipe, its peeling white paint skeletal in the beam of the flashlight. The urchin swatted at the knife, but it was just out of reach. Norma swatted the air in mime, her fingers a claw-like shadow across the bar. She dimly saw how fire had melted the base material of the pipe and reformed the outer coating to a blistered and deceptive glaze. She called out.
But the urchin did. She swung out from the pipe and was able to loosen the handle with her fingers, but unable to pull it free. The pipe she clung to dissolved silently in her hand, and the fall through thirty feet of dark was also, other than the hollow pop of half-grown skull against a lower beam and the mocking ring of the knife hitting cement, totally silent.
This is what it sounds like: the silence of the fall.
Augustine had dropped to straddle the edge of the bar, his legs dangling, Little Barry stood on tiptoes behind him. Norma knelt beside the urchin’s body without remembering how she got there. The urchin’s eyes were open, a dark bubble of blood teased in and out of her mouth with every shallow breath. In what manifested as a single movement, Norma then scooped the child into her arms, smashed the lackey’s nose with her elbow, grabbed the knife from the floor and pinned Augustine’s scrotum to the bar with it, and was out the door. The men would later put it down to a trick of the light, random static in their adrenal glands, the way blurred fragments of her form—a swinging arm, a boot—looked strung out across space and time, the way she seemed to be both here and dimly adumbrative, there.
She’s had her wings genetically clipped before the mission. That was standard because retractability was difficult to encode in wings at the DNA level. She contemplated running back to the trailer, but even at the speeds she was capable of, there would be no time and it would attract attention. The urchin’s face was petal-white, jammy matter leaking from her skull onto Norma’s jacket. Norma could hear the Coaster rocketing up from the city. She got to the tracks and jumped the train with the urchin clutched to her breast, and dropped off again at the trailer park. She stuck to the shadows, veered past the twins spooning in their army blanket beneath the old pine. The usual scatter of trailers had pulled into the park under the cover of darkness and the old leasing building was ringed in lumpy shadows, the disembodied glow of cigarettes and crack pipes, the tangy reek of wieners. A guitar strummed sadly. The ocean moaned.
Norma got to her trailer, the moon peering down from behind black branches. She fumbled the door open and lay the urchin down on her bed, wondering if she should call home for permission, just this once, and knowing there wasn’t time. Bitches’d say no anyway, never let Norma do a thing any more, not since she was a woman. Norma had never brought anyone back before, not to mention one so new. She awkwardly pushed the tawny hair off the high forehead, pale as milk. She ran her finger down the young arm with its old scars, and the unaccustomed contact registered as a mild electrical shock. With the same hand that she’d touched the urchin, she punched a hole in the wall behind the bed. She raised her head and howled.
It was possible that contact with the lower beam may have broken the urchin’s fall, minimizing the number of broken bones and ruptured organs, but what was clear to Norma was that the urchin’s brain was boiling from the impact, and that it would soon be awash in blood. She brought her trembling fist back to the urchin’s face and extended her index finger a hair’s breadth from the tiny nose. She withdrew her hand, closed her eyes and poked her tongue out.
Norma’s tongue ended in a fine point and the slightly curved tip flushed a deep lapis blue. She leaned over the urchin, inhaled unspoiled skin, and read unwritten life in the pliant bones and filthy hair. Norma’s jaw hinged open and she convulsed. Her tongue unfurled, the blue tip raw and pulsing and it hurt like hell, not just the burning blue tip, but the muscle itself, from deep in her throat, as if caught on a meat hook. She flailed. Her viscera spasmed. She tasted her own tissue and tears stung her eyes, mucous filling her passages until she could barely breath. The tongue elongated, sought the tip of the urchin’s nose and found it. Touched it. The urchin’s eyes flew open. Locked onto Norma’s. The tongue snaked into the child’s right nostril. Norma choked on her own cry, her head shaking back and forth and her hair whipping at her face. The tongue wormed its way past the urchin’s throat, through the optical cortex and into her brain. Bound chaos all around, looming ganglia and quivering lobes, starry meninges and sunken medulla, all drowning in blood, a red surge tearing at the shoreline, until Norma’s tongue commenced to lick it clean, every inch, traversing the bloody world, monstrously and a little shyly, like the leviathan of old.