Runner no. 573 (TAKE Two)
I’ve got a bad habit of rambling — or rolling off onto tangents. I try to contain myself, but too many things go through my head that I wanna share and I….overflow, somewhat.
Working on’t. I could blame it on OCD &/or ADHD, but the honest thing is to own up and admit: at the end of the day, this is just me.
I’ve been writing this story (which began under the title of “The Whisperer By The Well”, but has now far outgrown my original outline) for one year. The themes at its core have been urgent issues for me for a long time (mayB life-time), but as I sat in shock and watched the Paris Attacks unfolding out of the toob last year, I was galvanized to write something.
Writing helps me deal with things that are too big, too difficult, for me to approach otherwise. Two days before (11–11–15), I’d been pleading for sanity and understanding, on Armistice Day/Veterans’ Day — calling for a reevalutation of the War On Terror, and a new perspective on its underlying dynamics. We cannot hope to win an ideological war which the media and government persistently present to us in the terms of a land-war. You need to step outside that narrative, in order to meaningfully change jack-shit pertaining to this neverending cycle of hostility.
When the shit went down in Paris, my mind was already furiously focused on the idea of an alternative approach to the War On Terror. So the story I sat down to write, if I was gonna try to sum it up in a nice clean phrase, aimed to do the following:
Examine how people react, interact, in moments of random violence. Not cowering from the amorphous ‘terrorists’ we hear about on the news, but looking at how Terror manifests and how people fight it. How we’ve fought it in other eras, cultures, situations. Seven historical scenes — that was the original design of T.W.B.T.W. .
I hope that, in reading what follows, you feel I’m getting a bit of that onto paper (as ’twere). I’m still feeling my way into it all — it’s been burning inside me for a year, and properly live as of eight days ago — but what you read below (probably after skimming this italicized iceberg of an intro) is only scratching the surface of this story.
And (as I did in last week’s draft), I’m leaving some of my self-criticisms and editing-notes. Perhaps these will be instructive, or at least amusing. They’re as much a part of this story as the clean text — if not, in some ways, deeper glimpses into the monolith I’m chiseling out.
A chasm of glass burst from potential into reality, sprinkling blue sand into its microscopic depths. In its precise center, a lucky red nail shivered. Minutes ago, it had been rattling amongst (amidst? alongside?) hundreds of its brothers inside the old pressure cooker which had served its final purpose as the body of an improvised explosive device — now it sat firmly in the perfect notch it had carved, dead-center through the glass eye of an eighty-three year old woman who had been standing six feet away from the bomb.
Helluva trick, the nail reflected, smugly taking in its surroundings. As though this miraculous bullseye had been its precise intent.
Nearby, one other nail punctured the old woman’s face: contentedly sunk into skin, shattering her jawbone. Farby, those other hundreds of nails found their own destinies in skin and fabric and the hard-grown flesh of the trees which lined this broad city street.
Hannah’s grandmother had had a glass eye. After the old woman died, she kept the sphere. It tied her to the dead, through an object which had sat in her head for decades. From cavity to fingertips to….her left pocket. More vital to her than wallet or fone, this was the anchor around which she pivoted her life.
Morbid rambling, she chided herself. [not right. change tone. tweak this.] It didn’t serve a purpose to draw up the spirit of Bubeh Leah — she had to focus on the world around her. On the sudden silence, the carnage and acrid aftermath of the bomb.
Later (if there was a Later), she would consult the fragment of her bubby’s soul. Whether or not the old woman was truly still in touch with her [insert Yiddish word 4 ‘gdaughter’] by ectoplasmic cable, talking to the small glass globe helped Hannah ground herself in the present.
THREE DAYS EARLIER: “Hannah?”
“Adrian’s gonna bring some of those ‘magic brownies’, you know, the, uh…”
“The pot-brownies?” She sat up, making no attempt to cover her bare body. “Sure, I’ll try one. I mean, I tried smoking joints in high school but never really liked it much. Are brownies like that?”
Brandon scratched his head with the clamplike attachment which ended his right arm (mostly hidden by the gentian corduroy of his jacket-sleeve), and said “I dunno — he says they’re really strong, so I guess that means they’ll be good. We’re just gonna have them at the apt before we head out for the marathon, so we don’t have to worry about carrying any….you know. They’ll kick in while we’re walking across the Common. Should be a fun time.”
“Yeah,” she said, rolling over with a kittenish expression of casual enthusiasm. “There’s not really much to watch at the marathon, anyhow. Just a lot of people running.”
NOW: People running. People screaming. People falling and yelling, and pushing, and generally panicking. This spring, Slisk Sports’ big thing in runwear is animal-prints (with all profits going to organizations that deal with endangered species!) — from above, the mixed human hurd [conglom: ‘herd’ and ‘horde’] sporting zebra-stripes, leopard-spots, and other faux-pelts behaves like any other herd: stampeding in terror.
Hannah’s mind whorlbs furiously, as she tries to adjust to the level of stimuli pouring into her hyperextended consciousness. The old woman with the split glass eye is beyond help. She leans down, tucking the lady’s midnight-blue scarf across her ruined face. It’s the least she can do.
Hannah’s eyes slid off the old woman, and onto a heavyset young black man slumped against a nearby fire hydrant. He’s wearing designer jeans with improbable slashes in the fabric, as though a bomb went off in the factory. The careful distress of someone whose jeans never have the chance to tear during any natural adventures. Now, a chunk of metal has lodged itself into his inner left thigh — true distress, pumping redly in (or out of) vein.
Husky jeans: classic Levi-Blue, incarnadine purple. Black band tee, whose design is a blue spiral shattered by spiky orange lines. With the hyperfocus of terror, Hannah notices the shaky green letters of the band-name but doesn’t register the word. It has no bearing on this scene of chaos.
This man is still alive. His lifeblood oozes, slowpulses out from his heart frantically fatally pushing blood through his system. As Hannah moves towards him, as he sees her, he whines — uncharacteristically, unsettlingly like a wounded little bird or kitten.
[unexpected. In my draftwork, I kept him alive to do that whine (thinking of SLJ in THE HATEFUL EIGHT), but now I’m gonna make this an interaction as well.] ç ed1530, 11–21–16
“Meerz nish-git,” Hannah murmurs to herself, looking anywhere now but at those two first victims.
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO: “Remember, bubeleh, ‘meer’ means ‘ME’!”
NOW: “Meerz nish-git,” Hannah repeats, a bit louder. She hasn’t spoken Yiddish with anyone for years — her grandmother was the only person she knew who’d really spoken it, and Hannah herself only knew it because the old lady was lonely and wanted someone to talk with in the language of her soul. Unlocked by the shock of crisis, her mind focuses, begins to think in words and concepts she had forgotten that she knew until this catastrophic moment.
Without thinking — simply on impulse — Hannah looked for someone in need of help. Her eyes slid across bare brick and huddled bodies, trying to assess where the danger lay. [go on further here. another sentence or two, things in this scene of Chaos & Terror. ALSO: mention somewhere that she’s a nursing student. Figure out how to add that subtly.]
A Slisk Sports storefront display has been decimated by the blast: armless runner-dummies modeling animal-print runwear. Their torsos are covered by the unmistakable purple-with-orange-piping jackets of the ‘Thon. The jackets’ arms drape limply from flat-stumped shoulders — phantom arms weirdly limp at their sides.
Well, formerly at their sides — now splayed flat on the flood in the aftermath of the blast. One flying mannequin has knocked over the rack of 25%-OFF running-shorts near the door (quite a feat, given its lack of fists). Shards of glass and crumbly rubble cover the floor.
The amputated dummies grotesquely echo the tragedy in the street. But the truly strange thing is standing in front of the shattered window: the yellow-and-black striped barrier bearing the legend “UNDER CONSTRUCTION”.
A middle-aged woman with blotchy orange dyed hair huddled fetally against the door, shaking and weeping like a storm-whipped willow.
She was wearing a fashionable white dress, now smeared with soot.
Hannah made to move towards the woman in white, but then was struck by the realization that she didn’t know where Brandon, or any of her other friends, were. A wave of something like seasickness hit her, causing her to stagger. She threw out a hand, desperate for purchase — felt pain unexpectedly, yanked her hand back. An irregular raw-red circle throbbed at the foot of Mount Apollo. Impossible stigmata.
The cool clarity of a moment ago caved into uncertainty. Paranoia. And the noise of the world was coming back — the low-level buzz of people thinking just beneath the level of a murmur. The plaintive, hungry cry of birds circling somewhere above. The crunch of glass underfoot.
She looked around, but her boyfriend was nowhere in sight. She pictured that odd floral shade of blue corduroy [too, if you’ll excuse the pun, flowery. Stop trying to stuff in extra adjectives.], but couldn’t spot it in the nervous horde of onlookers.
The world seemed to be sporadically ringing with silence.
Hannah walked through the acrid lemon haze, looking at all the people on the ground around her: limbs lying horribly on the ground nexto their quondam owners, people screaming silently, children staring in wide-eyed disbelief at the scene of destruction around them. Her throat felt tight, and her eyes began to water mercilessly.
A minute ago, they had all been fine. It was a sweet spring day. Everyone had come out to watch the marathon, but now…
Sound began to come back, like someone was turning up the volume on a fuzzy radio-set. Hannah heard sirens, screams, and the confused babble of a crowd unexpectedly turned from spectators into spectacle. She wished that the silence would return.
She looked down, and saw red. The left forearm of her fawn-colored spring coat was spattered with blood and ash. Electric murmurs in the world caught her up, kept her attention focusing outwards, but….no. She was fine. All her bits were where they should be, thank G —
oh GOd. her legs gave out she slumped to the ground, feeling it hit her. She could have been one of them. Who knows, the weird ways of Fate — a step to the right, or her wanting to get just a bit closer to, to…
She had had to go back up to the apt to get her nail-oil. How long had that little action taken? By how much, and by what minuscule degrees, had going back for that bottle influenced whether or not she had just now caught a chunk of sharp hot metal?
Her eyes rolled up, overwhelmed by an uncharacteristic rush of existential horror at how randomly she had/n’t been chosen to wind up on a list of today’s victims. For want of a nail…. [too blunt (ironically/oddly. Cuz it’s a nail.). Having her go back for ‘nail-oil’/polish was a cute idea, but needs 2B developed, & form a subtler conx.]
Hannah opened her eyes.
She had counted to sixteen, but with the frantic thumpthumpthmptmptmptmp’ing of her heart, didn’t know how long it had truly been. Her sense of time was fucked.
But she did open her eyes. And she saw….the Whirlwind.
At the heart of the mustard dustcloud which had so unnaturally blossomed in the midst of this spring afternoon, Hannah saw a darker shape. (was this real? or all just part of a bad trip? she swore to herself, at this moment, that she was never ever EVER doing pot again.)
The dark thing took on form, resolved itself into…a girl. A very beautiful dark-haired girl, with red and yellow beads clicking at the tips of her long braids. She wore a runner’s placard with the number 573 on it, and a zebra-patterned Slisk jogging-outfit (in indecently [too much? implicitly judgmental: good or bad here?] spraypaint-tight Slim-Fit Spandex). She was covered in grainy yellow dust, except for the twin wet streaks which ran from her eyes down to her pointed chin.
She came jerkily, hopping along — Hannah looked down, and saw with a lurching sensation the shattered bone sticking out oddly from the once-smooth flesh of the runner’s left leg; with the weird detached clarity of shock, Hannah registered how the skin flapped, how the girl’s skin itself was tattered and devoid of muscle underneath, like a pair of fashionably faux-torn jeans.
Her lips were moving soundlessly, saying something. Saying the same thing, over and over.
Hannah took a deep breath, and approached the mangled girl. Her head was spinning, her senses overwhelmed by the horrific pounding amplified stimuli of this scene, but she reached down and — somehow! — found a calm place inside herself.
“You’re bleeding,” Hannah said, taking the dazed runner by the arm. Her dark green eyes flickered, as though she was returning from a yawningly deep place without name, and the somnambulistic trance was broken.
“I am?” she said in stunned surprise. She looked down — saw the impossible stump of her left leg — and let out a queer shuddering wail. Hannah caught her, heedless of the grease-marker smudge “573” rubbing off the runner’s bicep and onto Hannah’s fawn forearm.
As Hannah carried the injured runner to the nearest empty spot of sidewalk, her left foot sank into…..something squishy.
Squishy is a squiggly sort of descriptor. Childrens’ toys tend towards squishiness. Some of the most fun parts of the anatomy could be described (perhaps a bit clumsily) as squishy. And fruit that’s too squishy, maybe juuust a bit past when you should have eaten it. [unsure whether I like this or not. Still trying to figure out the tone of this narrator — I want there 2B playfulness, but it’s REALLY hard to gauge when I’m trying to balance out such a dark scene.]
Hannah looked down, her mind flickering through these and other half-formed things. Reptiles. She shuddered.
[scribbled @TOP pg. 6: “Fight Flight Fix”.]
There was a yellow spludge under her green and black Slisks. Settling the wounded runner onto the curb, Hannah scuffed off //heartbeat like rolling waves// the rind of an unfamiliar fruit. Stamped into its innards, Slisk’s stylized mobius-strip logo. The husk had contained a pair of nuts; their empty niches had collapsed like a broken heart under the weight of her heel.
Hannah positioned the girl’s gushing limb for best access; she took off her belt and wrapped it around the stump, forming a crude tourniquet.
As she did this, Hannah saw that the yellow haze was blowing west, away from them now: chaos reigned around them — but here, just here, there was a bubble of control. She felt a buzzing, bizarre rush of adrenaline, THC, panic, and elation (this last, from her mastery of the situation): the heady cocktail of being calm in the midst of chaos. Birds cry in plaintive hunger, somewhere above.
“What’s your name?” She looked around, hoping to see someone in uniform, someone who could help Hannah get this girl to a hospital, to get proper medical attention.
“Berit,” the girl said with a choked sniffle. Her eyes were fixed on the stump of her left leg; Hannah put two fingers on Berit’s cheek, and gently tilted her head away from the gristly sight, to look into her eyes.
Eyes like blank discs, in that sooty face: black and hollow, filled with the horror of sudden agony. Hannah was struck by the chilling realization of how terribly random death could be, how arbitrarily pain had chosen its marks amidst the spectators.
Berit blinked, tears welling up from those twin voids of pain. Hannah groped for something comforting to say, some reassurance that would lessen the unspeakable cruel thing which had been inflicted on this poor creature lying by her side.
“Is there someone I can contact for you, Berit? Someone who’d want to know that you’re okey?”
The question seemed to rouse Berit from whatever terrible thoughts she was lost in. She looked down again, at the wreck of her left leg, and whispered “D-d-don’t tell my boyfriend. He loves to see me dance.” She gulped, coughed, and began to speak quickly, her fingers tightening convulsively around Hannah’s wrist. “I’m a dancer. I’ve been studying since I was five years old, going to dance-school, going to…I,” she gestured hopelessly, at the stump of her life, “I was going to be a famous dancer, and now I, now I — ”
Her head snapped back with alarming speed, a sound emerging from her throat that was inhuman (or perhaps, too human) in its despair, a high-pitched howl which resolved itself into something more terrible still: laughter.
Berit laughed, hysterically, her black&white body sprawled limp and mangled across the sidewalk. Hannah looked down at her, head ringing spinning with unfamiliar overwhelming disorienting hypersensitivity, absorbing the absurd horror of the ruined life beside her, the roiling terror in the air, the way the sun glinted off shards of glass from a shattered shop-window, the warm piss spreading across the crotch of her jeans, the darting eyes of others, variously fixed on the broken world around them.
The smell of fear is strong in the air, harsh and sour. Unmistakable and unpleasant as garbage spilt on the living-room rug. [one more sentence here?]
Hannah began to chuckle, which became a convulsive shudder, and soon she was lying on the sidewalk, helplessly giggling till tears ran from her eyes and she could hardly breathe.
People ran around the poor girl, lying alone on the sidewalk. Eventually, someone would ask if she was alright, but for this moment she just lies there.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this second stab into the world of T.W.B.T.W. !
Comments and questions are very welcome; I can be reached here on Medium, on the ASP Twitter-account, or @timeofposting (my personal account). I’ve spent — and will spend — long hours in the darkness, developing this thing by my lonesome. I’m eager to bring more of what surrounds this excerpt into the light.
Story-contents (and that of this blog) are by Adam Singer © November 21st, 2016.