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by Dean Pajevic

The War

We drove little, shiny scooters, like zipping paperclips. Rain soaked the broken asphalt as we needled through dizzy, whirling trucks that looked like teetering, run-away buildings.

Our mouths shot sparks. Words burned like meteors and then faded, lost in the crash and groan of traffic. Once, twice, our scooters side-by-side, our arms outstretched, our fingers touched. The city swirled like a great sluicing stomach. You asked if I'd ever live in a city this big. I said maybe.

I wore glasses with solid wood lenses. I peered through tree rings, looking down the years. You were the water coming up from the ground. Your nose was my nose. Your hands, my hands. Twinned together, we met your mom. She took us to houses encrusted with gold filigree and shiny baubles. Inside were oil paintings, still wet. While no one looked, we touched the paint. Our finger drew circles through the sloppy viridians and ochres. We signed our name with a squiggle.

Explosions and fire outside. An ancient, rusted battleship screeched along the concrete. Dead elephants lay draped over its bow. It turned its quivering guns toward the castle atop the hill. Dripping lava spewed forth. The castle burned. I felt lightheaded, my vision blurred, and then we were apart. I reached for your hands like a camera grabs for the fading light. We would meet again soon. We promised. A flash bloomed, your face lit bright, then gone. Our hands slipped and fell away. I joined the brigades to fight. You sped off, your fingers still wet with paint.

The Commander barked and pointed toward a darkened doorway. It led to the burning castle. My armor lay cold on my limbs. My machine gun felt cumbersome and odd, like a living being in my arms. I folded down the helmet shield over my face and stepped in. I was in an underground passage. The clank of my armor echoed down the hall like our parting words. I saw our hands twist together like dirt and water in a fast flowing creek. Then I remembered the Commander's face. His medaled chest. His mouth and metal teeth. My stomach flipped, flopped, fell on its face. Could you wait a little longer? I walked for hours in darkness, then I saw light. A doorway. I lumbered outside.

Jewel-colored dragonfly planes soared overhead. Their mouths spat bullets and their bellies birthed bombs. Our soldiers stood ashen-faced dead in the courtyard. "Onward!" I shouted and pulled the trigger. My machine gun sang an opera of metal. A dragonfly crumpled into green and red flames. Again my gun sang. Fire lit the sky. Then I remembered. Oh my god! I looked around, but you were not there. I raised the gun until the dragonflies littered the ground in smoking graves of torn metal. Far away someone screamed. Someone moaned.

There was a blast of horns, hooves on the cobblestones. "The Queen! The Queen!" they shouted. She wore a smart gray business suit and sat astride a three-legged horse. In her hand was a bloody sword. "Look!" she cried and pointed toward the valley. The Lake was rising like vomit from the mouth of a drunk. It spewed over the smoldering dragonfly wrecks; each hissed, then was quiet. It gurgled on. The outlying hamlets were already drowned. Then it hit the buildings below the castle and chomped and chewed as the panicked people jumped out of windows or swam like mad dogs. "The people!" I cried. "No," said the Queen, "That part of town is not as nice as it looks." With her sword she pointed at the castle, "This is the nice part of town." But the water did not stop. It continued to eat. Her subjects drowned. With tears on my cheeks, I looked up. It was your face in the clouds. Your eyes were closed. Your mouth was silent.

I turned and ran, my armor falling from me as I sped through arch after crumbling arch. I stumbled into an old stone amphitheater. There were dancers leaping and turning to the beating of drums. A small group watched quietly: tourists in white walking shoes. I peered at them through a telescope, seeking your face, but you were not there. The music choked quiet. The tall dancer gazed on me. Then he spoke with a voice that sounded like raining shovelfuls of dirt, "Private reception." My hands shook. A stone gargoyle flapped his wings. Somewhere coffins filled a cafeteria. I fell through a torn velvet curtain.

Dust blew across the parking lot. The Commander waited. He saw me and smiled. His teeth were blinding. I raised my hand to shield my eyes. He stood near twenty gleaming, black, 1930s roadsters. "Booty," he yelled. He pulled a large silver key from his pocket and handed it to me. I grabbed it and all twenty cars started at once. Again I felt lightheaded and my vision blurred. With a sucking sound like a kidney draining, I split into twenty men. One for each car. We drove maniacally, elbows and knees pumping, clouds of dust in our wake, bouncing and shrieking out of the city and into the country. The lake was dry. The houses and people gone.

The sun spun three times across the sky before we stopped at a rusted metal sign. "Nature Preserve". We got out and stood before giant, 30-foot high mushrooms. They smelled of rot. I put my hand across my mouth and nose. On each mushroom was printed a word: Right, Wrong, Courage, Fidelity, Honor, Glory, Victory, Peace. The Commander stood atop a roadster and spoke, "This sorrowed, bone-filled land shall be 'healed' by these glorious fungi!" Twenty of me nodded. "Wonderful," we gagged through our fingers.

Flies buzzed like busy signals. Then I heard another sound. Low and deep. Drums. Drums beating from beyond the mushrooms. There was a narrow, crooked path, and we walked through. We were back in the cold stone amphitheater with the dancers. The drums bubbled and bounced. The dancers shuddered like leaves in a windstorm: once, twice, three times and then froze. The moon looked down. Silence. The moon coughed. One of my twenty selves stepped forward. "I-I-I'm late..." he began. The tall dancer with the dirt voice laughed and pointed, "She's right here." Twenty hearts leaped. The woman turned. My stomach flipped, flopped, fell on its face. It was not you. Empty shell-casings lay bunched at her feet. Her thinning hair was tied up in bones. And each eye stared like a chittering abacus.

I felt the lightheadedness and blurred vision one last time. All twenty of me collapsed back into one. She smiled and cracked her fingers. I pulled off my wooden glasses and turned away.

I had lost you.

©2005 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers