The Journey Prize Stories 21 (20 page)

BOOK: The Journey Prize Stories 21
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On the ward, the child wakes. She blinks, fills her eyes with light. A nurse shuffles near the bed. She turns her head, watches. Licks the inside of her mouth. Dry. She clears her throat.

The nurse comes over. She wears bright pink lipstick. When she smiles, her lips leave pink on her teeth. The child laughs.

“You're awake, sweetie,” she says. “How do you feel?” The child nods. Fine.

From somewhere the nurse has a pen. She holds it in her hand like the booth button and a light blares into the child's face. She blinks and turns her head.

“Okay. Sorry, bun!” The nurse smacks her lips like they're bubble gum. “Just checkin'. Dear, can you tell me where you are?”

“The hawpital.”

“And what's your name, sweetie?”

“Genevieve,” she says.

The mother enters the room. Her eyes are red, but her face is as stiff as ever. She pauses at the end of the bed, her mouth half open. Nothing comes out.

The child speaks again. “Genevieve.”


t a bar in Soho, the walls bathed in electric blue light, I met Leo Olm for the first time. He had cappuccino eyes and scour-pad hair, and cast pink and yellow shadows on the floor. The salamander tattoo on his arm writhed among licks of flame, more lively than the light from the potted tea candles on the tables. He said he felt hemmed in by the lab colours that divided the environment into cold, clean spaces. So we went outside, where the heat of London smog was strong enough to turn white moths black and curl the corners of scattered flyers.

I wasn't as comfortable as he was walking down the tight alleyways of Soho. My fear of hypodermic needles set in. There were too many sunken doorways and smoky sulphur corners. But Leo rushed along the streets with his hands in his pockets, walking razor-straight.

When the streets finally opened out onto a square packed with jugglers and firespinners, I was gasping for air. We walked by a dancer who liquefied his limbs like a puppet and
slowly pieced himself back together in strobing jolts, a body fluttering and fighting against unseen strings. An old man in plaid and acid-washed jeans was fanning gusts of lime-green smoke into the air. We reached the centre of the square and Leo began to pull things out of the pockets of his cargo pants: a Scotch bottle, an old dishtowel, a tube of Vaseline, a lighter, a pack of cigarettes.

First he coated his hands with Vaseline, then with kerosene from the Scotch bottle. He brought the lighter to his right hand, tapped his hands together briefly so his left would catch fire, then spread and clenched his fingers, creating wisps of firelight that expanded into rolling, turbulent balls. A gawking crowd formed a circle around him. A few reached into their pockets, paused, unsure whether it was polite to throw coins to a man for lighting himself on fire. Leo used the last lick of flame to light a cigarette, sat down on his heels, gathered up the few coins he got for the display and dropped them into his topmost pocket.

“Wanna try?” he asked.

I shook my head, bending down to examine his hands. They were still greased with Vaseline and covered with black soot. He wiped them on the towel and showed them to me again – they were soft and smooth, with a slightly pink tinge.

Like the slow withering away of a log, Leo's hands must have been changed. But the change was invisible to the eye. Contained fire turned twists of newspaper into black dust, roused a slow chemical blue from cereal boxes, electrified nails with pops and sparks, melted marshmallows into lava-like goo, and turned leaves into dark skeletons before they flashed away. Leo's fire was ethereal, not of this world, brilliantly
shivering for a moment before spinning out in unfelt bursts. Timeless in another dimension, a ghost of light that had no power in ours.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

But Leo just flexed and released his fingers, staring off into the city, where small areas of black seeped between the buildings.

When I got home that night, Eddie was sitting cross-legged in front of his aquarium, watching his fish as intently as a cat stares into a shadowy crevice. I walked across the tile floor to the fridge, my heels making that clicking sound that always makes me feel overdressed. Eddie had been shopping and had filled the fridge's shelves with loaves of pumpernickel and rye, halved papayas and pineapples, smoked salmon and fresh-caught sole, capers, Saran-Wrapped plates of sushi and spring rolls, blue cheese, havarti, pimentos, three bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon lying sideways on the metal wires, and a mango. I closed the fridge without choosing anything; instead, I filled a glass with tap water.

Eddie's chin dropped away from the aquarium and he let his gaze travel over to me. “There's apple cider in the fridge.”

“I know. I saw.”

He turned back to the aquarium and began wiping the glass with the end of his sleeve. His toes popped out from underneath his calves, clenching and spreading, then he dropped his hands into his lap and turned back to me. The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. I could tell he was about to enter into one of his half-hour monologues.

I said, “I'm going to bed.”

“Wait.” He leapt up, landing squarely on his large feet, and came over to hug me, pressing his chin down onto the top of my head. “I remembered you didn't like Merlot after I'd already bought a couple of bottles so I went to the park and shared one with a wino, then split another bottle with a teenage boy who was pierced all over with kilt pins.” He pulled back so he could look into my eyes. “Then I came home wanting to get high and go to the planetarium, but you weren't here.”

I shrugged and peeled myself away from his chest, heading down the cream-coloured hallway. He followed, dragging his palm against the wall as he walked.

“Then I went and broke a beautiful ex-con out of jail, we went on a murderous rampage, ate three calves worth of milk-fed veal, and had sex on a Ferris wheel.”

“Why a Ferris wheel?” I asked, entering the bedroom and kicking my shoes into a corner.

Eddie stopped me before I reached the closet. “You're listening.”

He generously helped me take my shirt off and flung it toward the laundry hamper, where it hung like a Dali clock.

“You know, when the Ferris wheel was first invented it was considered quite exciting – only the most daring people would ride at those speeds.” He planted a kiss on my belly button and slipped my skirt down around my heels. “Same with the automobile,” he continued, stripping off my nylons. “Twenty kilometres an hour was absolutely dizzying, and if you brought the machine to thirty, you were considered a homicidal maniac.” He lowered me to the bed, squeezing me between his body and the mattress while he unhooked my bra, and I decided it was only fair to help him take off his own shirt. “Nowadays, of
course, we can go up to speeds of 150 without noticing much difference in the landscape. Some say this is evidence,” his voice was muffled briefly as he shifted his body weight, pressing his lips against my breasts as he successfully removed my underpants, “of evolution in the human brain.” Eddie raised himself on his knees to allow me to slide his pants down. “Which means evolution itself occurs at rapid speeds, and in two hundred years we could all very well have gills. Which means,” he added, tracing his finger along my lips, “we would no longer have any use for these.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you sure?”

He sketched a figure eight over my breasts and another one over my thighs, then slid his hand up and secured it alongside my neck.

“Where were you tonight? Out being naughty? With the girls?”

“With a boy,” I whispered.

He rocked onto my body so that his weight spread evenly along the length of my torso. “Horribly disfigured, I hope.”

“Terribly,” I agreed. “A real charity case.”

I imagined his hands leaving charcoal prints as they slid up over my chin and into my hair. I arched my head back and gasped as he fit himself into my body, felt his lips tugging at my ears, and saw the yellow walls recede into a deep ochre. The two dimensional leaves on the Henri Rousseau painting above my head began to sway in and out, the lion rippling and curling as though it wanted to break free of the painting and prowl around the room. I reached up over my head and pressed my wrist backward on the wall, trying to steady its surface. Eddie pulled my hand away but it was too late. I was sinking away
from him, into the mattress, into a dark void where humans still roll with the waves that rock them, absent and unaware.

Leo and I met again at Camden Market, fusing with the crowd and racks of second-hand clothes. Leo winced as he looked around, unused to the harsh daylight that flooded the wharf. He scratched his fingers against a pair of polyester pants, smiling at the crackling sound. We pushed our way past tall glass bottles full of infused oils and hash pipes carved with the rotund faces of gnomes. Leaving the main square, we entered rows of unplanned streets lined with peeling warehouses that echoed the city noise through their open doors. One of these old buildings was stacked high with cobwebs and second-hand furniture. A man in a grey golfer's hat sat in the middle of the room beside an antique cash register.

“Have any old horsehair couches?” Leo asked.

The man eyed Leo's army-green tank top and studded wrist band. “You want an old Victorian settee? I've got one of those. Fifty pounds.”

Dry, brittle horsehair, eroded into dusty clumps, peeped out between rips in cornflower-blue fabric. Split, faded wood emerged from the head and foot of the settee, giving Leo an excuse to lower the price twenty pounds. He brought his van around and we rocked through the London streets, tossed about on bad shocks. Through the back windows a polluted sunset dripped crimson. I was half asleep when the night turned sapphire and Leo stopped the van.

We were at a schoolyard. A tube slide protruded from the sides of a jungle gym like a tongue. Some giant metal studs, holding the wood together, gleamed in the sinking twilight.
We placed the couch in the middle of a chalk-lined field and sat, smoking a little, stuffing our hands inside the couch to feel the grainy, crumbling horsehair. I was reclining, watching the stars develop in the filmy sky. Laughter filled my rib cage as I slipped my feet up Leo's shirt. Gentle shocks. Spontaneous and everlasting, converting soil-sprung minerals into airy gusts. We waited until cars stopped travelling by and the bite of city noise was thinned out by a spreading void. I savoured the expectant air, imagined prowling beasts winking at us, licking their front teeth, fang to fang. Leo had chosen a place that lacked streetlights. He seemed to stare into a ripped darkness distorted by the sawtooth edges of trees. I closed my eyes until I felt him tense beneath my feet, and then slowly rose, straightening my hair and my shirt and shifting to a space on the edge of an imaginary ring that circled the couch.

Leo opened the back of the van and brought out a container of gasoline. The liquid inside rang out with a ritual gong as he placed the container by my feet, bending to one knee to twist off the thick black cap. After he had fitted the yellow nozzle in place, he closed his eyes and placed his lips against his hands, taking a long, slow breath as the salty fumes leaked into the night. He rose without looking at me, one hand firmly around the handle, the other at the base as he tipped the gas, first up and along the field's centre line, then over the couch in swirling figure eights. The dark patterns he made slowly bled into one another, saturating the couch. He retraced his steps over the chalk and back to me. We stood shoulder to shoulder, leaning into one another as our legs threatened to crash out from under us. Leo took some matches from his pocket and offered them to me.

“I can't,” I said.

“Yes you can. Just drop the match and watch it burn.”

“I can't.”

“You're going to miss the opportunity.” He held a match in one hand, the book in the other. I grabbed them, struck the flint, and dropped.

Fire appeared with a whoosh, leaping into our dimension with sparkling clarity. Heat crackled around us and into the space between us. Horsehair rose from the settee like brilliant butterflies. The wood carvings were engulfed by lavender flame and edges gleamed gold where the settee's skin peeled away from its frame. I let my hand drop as the firelight pressed against its own boundaries, heaving and swelling, stopping just before it touched our faces.

I was worried that Eddie would be able to smell it on me that night. Lemon sourness that hits the back of the throat and turns sweet on the tongue. Grainy remnants of smoke resting in almost invisible waves on my skin. I felt that the flavour of fire would rise to overwhelm the faint tendrils of jasmine incense and the mossy soil of houseplants, that the smell of gasoline would take shape in front of Eddie's searching eyes.

He was reclining on the couch, his feet up on green silk pillows, a copy of
lying open on his chest – which he read for the pictures, not the articles. I leaned against the doorframe, slipping off my shoes. “It's hot out tonight.” I pushed my bangs back from my forehead. “I need a shower.”

“Wait.” He came over to me, pressed his face into my hair. When he pulled away, my hair stuck to his day-old beard. “You smell like soda.”

“I'll have a shower.”

“No wait.” He held me by my arms. “I came home early to tell you about these tree frogs I found. They're illegal, but fuck it, they have these great pod toes that look like they're about to explode. I got them from this guy who wore a silk robe like some sort of geisha. He's got a flat overlooking Camden Market – I thought I saw you through the window. Were you there?”

He still gripped me with his hands, and I saw that his pupils were dilated. “Have you been licking tree frogs again?” I asked.

“You know me, always communing with nature. But no. It was this bag the old guy gave me. The bag was full of brown things, small and wrinkled. I thought it must be shrooms. But I don't think so. He told me how to make a tea out of it, and he gave me the frogs, and the bag, for forty pounds, which is like one hundred Canadian, I know.”

BOOK: The Journey Prize Stories 21
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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