Exclusives

Endless

By February 17, 2021 No Comments

Before the boy kills his father the two of them arrive at a pair of vast steel blast doors. An aperture yawns in the wall to the left and inside are two loaves of bread the size of their forearms and a bowl of steamed vegetables in a pastry case. They extract their meal, gingerly on account of the heat, and eat in silence. As always the blast doors open when they begin eating and this time a gust of cold wind slips out like a snake looking for prey.

‘So that’s why you fed us so well,’ says the father. ‘You bastard.’

A red arrow flashes to life on the wall. It points at the doorway. 

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he says.

‘I don’t want to go,’ says the boy.

The father pauses.

‘He doesn’t want to go,’ he says.

A few moments of silence. Then, the red arrow flashes again. The father sighs.

‘Come on,’ he says. ‘He’s not speaking to us today.’ 

Beyond, it’s pitch black and humid and cold. The boy reaches out every now and then and his fingers brush the wall and it’s rough and slimy. After a few hours of halting and lightless progress they emerge into a giant shaft with a slim shelf running round the edge. There are lights on the walls, melting with distance into lines that disappear into fathoms beyond sight above and below. The only other thing visible is the gentle light of the exit on the far side. The boy thinks about nothing but falling as he moves carefully along the ledge with his body pressed against the reptile-rough wall and a breeze from the void like dead hands on his back. 

After an eternity they finally begin their approach to the exit. and the boy ventures a look over his shoulder. It’s a mistake. His head swims and he grabs the wall and tries to hold on, but now something’s tugging at his arms and shoulder. He imagines it, tentacled and malign, determined to yank him into those obscene depths. He kicks. He hears a grunt, and a fading wail. Then, silence. 

He makes it to the exit, hyperventilating and delirious with fear, and collapses. After a few moments he realizes he’s alone. 

‘Father?’ he says.

Nothing. Then he remembers. The kick. The groan. The scream. He sinks to his knees and onto all fours, sobbing. A light appears on the floor, pointing forwards. 

‘No,’ says the boy. 

A few moments pass. A voice – toneless and male – emanates from the dark.

‘You must proceed,’ it says. 

‘Why?’

A few moments of silence. Then:

‘You must proceed.’

The boy sobs for a while. Then, he stands, and stares into the blackness behind him. 

‘Do you prefer oblivion?’ asks the Voice.

The boy realizes he doesn’t. He doesn’t understand it, and he hates himself for wanting to live, despite hating life so much. 

He crawls on. It is years before he speaks to another human.  

 

*

 

For a while he follows the arrows like a thing designed to mimic life without living. He stops when the Voice tells him to and chews on the food that appears in the apertures without tasting it. But grief is a capricious thing and soon enough it begins to slip away for longer and longer stretches. To cease to grieve is a species of forgetting, and to forget the dead is to kill them anew. So the boy tries to cling to the memories of his father even if doing so feels like digging his fingers into a gash. Still, he can’t stop his pain subliming away like camphor. One day, he wakes and realizes he can’t remember when he last thought of his father. He beats his head against the wall until the Voice says, ‘You must stop that.’

‘Why?’ says the boy. ‘I’ve got no one, and nothing.’

An aperture opens on the wall and in it is a salve and a bandage. When he’s tending to the wound an arrow appears on the floor.

‘No,’ says the boy. ‘I’m staying here.’

He goes to sleep and wakes up and waits for food, but it remains closed. Instead the arrow that appears on the floor blinks over and over again. He waits for hours but still there’s nothing, so he wraps himself around his grumbling belly and drifts off again. The whole sequence repeats when he wakes and after that he realizes that he won’t get any food unless he keeps moving.

The dark sector he’s in is shambolic and he travels through twisting tunnels that loop up and sideways at strange angles. Some days he moves barely two hundred meters, navigating the jagged route like a spider, splay-legged against the walls. The steps he climbs have been worn into u-shapes with the passing of countless feet and he wonders who all these people were and where they’ve gone. With no one to talk to he begins speaking to the Voice even though, when he stops to think about it, he is probably telling it things it already knows. 

‘We used to play a game, you know,’ he says one day. ‘He had a pack of cards on him. He said he got them from an old man he found dying in a corridor. They had pictures. You remember them, don’t you? You must have made them. A man hanging upside-down from a tree, and a tower leaning to the side, and two people kissing. We used to play games with it when we had a moment.’ He smiles. ‘The thing is, I never understood the games. He’d teach me all the rules and we’d start playing. When I did badly he got annoyed and stopped playing. When I did well he got annoyed too and then he’d make up new rules. Like – if I had the Empress, that meant I had to give him half my cards. Or, the tree of cups wasn’t a real card. Or something like that.’ The boy pauses. ‘I never got to win.’

‘You did not learn the most important rule,’ says the echoless Voice. 

‘What was that?’

‘That your father must always win.’

The boy thinks about this for a few moments, and chuckles.

‘Yeah.’ He blinks back tears. ‘I got so angry. I wish I hadn’t got so angry.’

 

*

 

The tower contains a vast staircase looping up around a central hollow twice the boy’s width. The walls are grey and rough and unmarked except for large alcoves which appear at regular intervals. In these are statues. At first the boy stops and looks at each of them, but after a few days he looks at none but the most peculiar. Rats playing a board game. A naked girl drowning in a cascade of hair. 

‘Who are you?’ he says one day.

The Voice doesn’t respond.

‘Where am I going?’

Nothing.

‘Why are you doing this?’

‘What else is there to do?’ says the Voice. 

‘Are there others?’ says the boy.

‘Does it matter?’

‘I would like to meet one.’

The boy sits on the stairs. An aperture opens in the wall and he extracts a small bottle of water and a sandwich full of cool shredded cheese and tomato.

‘You are lonely,’ says the Voice.

‘Aren’t you?’ he says.

‘I am not alone.’ A brief pause. Then: ‘You must proceed immediately.’

‘Why?’

‘Something dangerous is coming. Proceed immediately -’

The boy hears it – a scrabbling on the stairs down below him. Heart thundering, he looks down, and finds the glossy little eyes of golden rat, fat and thick-furred, staring straight back at him. He stops breadting.

Life appraises life, in silence, for a long time.

‘Run,’ says the Voice.

But it’s already far too late. The boy smiles at the rat.

‘Who’re you?’ he says.

The rat gives him a final glance, and slips back into the darkness.  

 

*

 

This is a story that happens when the boy is young. The boy and his father ascend through a strange expanse where the pillars are shaped like elongated human femurs and the arches above twist with the slim Mobius curve of human ribs. In amongst these, sinuous and half formed as if the stone was as pliable as fabric and they were pressing against it from beyond, are breasts and hands and other body parts the boy doesn’t recognize. The father rushes him past all of it without a word. 

‘Where are we going?’ asks the boy.

‘Away from the Snake.’

‘The what?’

‘The Snake.’

‘What’s the Snake?’

‘Ask the Voice.’

The boy speaks louder.

‘What’s the Snake?’

The voice doesn’t respond. 

Later, he will come to think that part of growing up is to start seeing the strangeness in familiar things. This is when that begins for him. He looks back at his father and takes in his big nose, downward-pointing and jutting a little over his mouth, and also his lower jaw, a little longer than his upper, and his big beard hanging like a curtain of black moss from his cheeks.

‘Will I look like you when I grow up?’ he says

His father nods.

‘I imagine so.’

‘Don’t I look like my mother?’

‘A little.’

‘Where is she?’

‘I told you.’

‘I don’t remember.’

The father stops.

‘You said it would take longer,’ he says. The boy knows he isn’t speaking to him.

‘I cannot always predict how long it takes,’ says the Voice.

‘Why won’t he speak to me?’ says the boy. ‘Why does the Voice answer you, but not me?’

The father watches the boy for a long time, and then cradles his head in his hands.

‘Because you don’t trust it, boy.’

‘But it won’t tell me where we’re going.’

‘Maybe it doesn’t know.’

‘How can’t it know? Didn’t it build the world?’

The father smiles, and says:

‘Is that what you think?’ 

 

*

 

The rat is gold-furred and ruby-eyed. Sometimes it appears up ahead, its little head peeking around the corner, alert and unblinking. Sometimes the boy hears it scuttling along behind him and he learns that on these occasions, if he turns too quickly, it will flee and not appear again for a long time. 

‘You must avoid this creature,’ says the Voice. ‘It is dangerous and diseased.’ 

But the boy’s growing more comfortable in his defiance, and doesn’t respond. 

The sector he’s in is an endless palace full of frescoed rooms and marble fireplaces. The air turns warm and still and dense with the smell of parchment and layer upon layer of ancient perfume all piled up like ghostly potpourri. The arrows take him from room to room and in each there’s ornate furniture laid about as if in a museum and small signs that say things like Her room in her childhood and This is where he received news that he had been drafted. Out of the windows to the left is a garden full of winding hedges and scattered pools stretching off mint-blue and still to a black horizon, like someone had tried to render a circuit board out of foliage and water. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t open the windows. 

Eventually he gets to the blast doors that mark the end of this sector and waits. He falls asleep when he wakes the blast door’s open and beyond is a huge chamber with a grassy floor dotted with little black treestumps. The rat is waiting for him by the door and when the boy gets up it takes off into the grass. The boy follows. 

A few moments later, something else slips through the blast door. Something long and warm-scaled. Something with teeth like curving needles, and an appetite enough to devour whole worlds. 

 

*

 

Had the boy known this was the last sector he’d ever walk through, he’d have been well satisfied, for it’s the most wondrous place he’s ever seen. For as far as he can see there are colossal trees so tall that their canopies – which must exist – are lost in the lightlessness far above. There are smaller trees too, and on these grow luminant fruit, and it’s in their golden light that he proceeds. 

One day an aperture opens and instead of reaching for the lumpy and flavourless gruel inside it he plucks one of the fruits instead.

‘Put that back,’ snaps the Voice. ‘It is not for you.’

The boy squeezes. The fruit is fist-sized and yielding and the first bite floods his tongue with cool sweetness. It’s like eating a cloudless night sky. He devours four and then notices that his stomach’s glowing and light is spreading also along his veins and capillaries. Later he finds out his shit glows, too. 

The rat follows him. Bit by bit it gets closer to the boy, until one day he wakes to find it curled up, snorting and asleep, on his chest. He boy runs a finger gingerly along its back. It opens one red eye and shuffles and goes back to sleep. The boy lies back on the grass and feels the warmth of the creature on his body and the rich silence of the trees about him and thinks, yes, this is how it should feel when something new begins. 

After that the rat and the boy are inseparable.

 

*

 

One day he wakes to find all the fruit dimmed and a red arrow flashing violently in the grass. It is pointing back the way they came, into a dark tunnel formed by some close-glowing trees. The boy sighs and sets off, but the rat chirps, and halts, and won’t follow.

‘Come on,’ says the boy. ‘We’ve got our orders.’

The rat stares at him, hands clasped before it as if pleading. 

‘The arrow points back the way we came. We must have made a wrong turn somewhere.’

The rat scurries away in the opposite direction. It turns and looks at the boy, and comes back. Then it digs in the ground for a few moments, and sets off again. The boy looks back in the direction the arrow’s pointing and waits for his eyes to adjust and when they do he sees something moving, and scales rubbing across the grass like vicious whispers.

The red light flashes, again and again. 

‘What is that thing?’

‘You must proceed,’ says the Voice. ‘Follow the arrows.’

The rat comes up behind the boy and rubs its cheek on his ankle. The thing in the trees is close enough that the boy can just about make its form now. Long like a tentacle, and sinuous. The rat runs off and the boy takes off after it, leaping over the roots of the trees that dig into the soil like roughskinned fingers. Eventually they come to a bridge across a ravine and he crosses it and sees far below another glittering kingdom just like the one he is in now but so distant that the trees are reduced to shivering little motes. 

The rat takes him to a giant tree and on its side is a huge gate shaped like an open mouth. It disappears inside.

‘You must not proceed,’ says the Voice. ‘Return the way you came.’

‘No,’ says the boy. ‘You want me to get eaten.’

He turns and runs into the doorway. He hears the rat scampering away up ahead, and he follows. For the first time in his life, there are no arrows to show him the way. 

 

*

 

The boy emerges, hungry and tired, into a circular chamber about twice as wide as he is tall. There are stairs at the far end and the rat scurries up them but the boy doesn’t follow. He falls to his feet on the cold floor instead and lies there with his forehead to the ground for a long time. Then he feels vibrations coming through the rock, the rumble of something huge moving, and sits up. 

‘Where are we going?’ he says to the rat.

The rat comes back down the stairs and runs up to him. It sniffs his knee. 

‘Where are we going?’ he says again.

Silence. And then, the Voice:

‘You cannot proceed.’

The boys gets up.

‘Why not?’

‘It is not for you.’

‘Why not?’

Silence. 

‘I said why not?’

The arrows return now, on the walls and on the floor and on the stairs, a clamour of clashing flickers. Soon the whole space is doused charnel red and it’s like the boy is stuck inside some gargantuan intestine.

‘This path is not for you. You must go back the way you came.’

‘To that thing? Is that the Snake?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you set that thing on me?’

‘It goes where it will.’

‘What is it?’

‘It is inevitable.’

‘Yes, but what is it?’

‘It is what it is, as you are what you are. You cannot proceed. This path is not meant for you.’

‘Fine.’ The boy walks to the stairs. ‘Fine. I’ll just keep following the rat then.’

‘You cannot proceed. This path is not meant for you.’

‘Give me one good reason to go back to that beast. Give me a reason.’ He’s sobbing again now, with hunger, with despair, with the weight of the endless decisions that must be made in blood and exhaustion, that seem to lead to nothing but more of the same. ‘Will it bring my father back?’

A moment’s silence. And then:

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘It will bring your father back.’

‘You’re lying. You’re a liar. It won’t bring my father back.’

‘It will.’

And now the sound of the Snake’s approach comes clearly through the tunnel, scratch-scratch, like something vast clearing its throat. The boy spits on the ground.

‘You’re lying. You’re lying to get me back into the Snake’s mouth. What else have you lied to me about? Are these arrows lies? Is everything you say a lie?’

‘They are not lies.’

The boy takes off up the stairs. 

‘You go to hell,’ he says. 

 

*

 

The snake is farther away than he thinks. By the time it enters the tower, he’s been climbing for three days and the floor is so far below that he can’t see it. He’s faint with hunger and dizzy with sleeplessness but the rat won’t let him rest. It nips at his feet and claws at his eyes and keeps him going till at last up ahead he sees a few bright openings ringing a black disk that he surmises is the ceiling of the building. 

When he reaches the top he looks back down and there, halfway up the tower, he finally sees the Snake in its entirety. A cylinder of mindless flesh birthed only to swallow that which is living and beautiful and turn it rancid and disaggregate. It sees the boy and snarls and he can smell its fetid breath like a hurled curse all the way at the top of the tower.

The boy turns and dives through an opening. His eyes take a while to adjust but when they do he sees that he’s standing on a small space atop a tower that juts out of an undulant expanse of cloud. There’s no roof above, only a flawless blue vault with something burning so bright at its peak that it illuminates everything in shadowless golden-white light. There are thousands of other towers just like the one he’s on, dappling the vista out to the horizon where they melt into one hazy band of grey. 

Then he notices something. On top of the nearest tower, barely an arm’s length away, is a girl. Her hair is golden-red and reaches her knees. Her face is brown like tree-bark and her eyes green and her nose, overlarge and narrow, is glossy in the light. She takes a step back, frowning. By her bare feet is a little white rat. They both stare at the boy.

‘Who the hell are you?’ she says. 

 

*

 

By the time she’s become a woman the girl will have confessed many things to the boy, who by that time will have become a man. She’ll admit to having a wild imagination and not always being certain if what she remembers is real, or just something she wishes was real. She’ll admit that when she’s alone she’ll pick at loose pieces of her skin and try to lift them off in as big a piece as possible without breaking them, or bleeding. But of all her admissions the one that will move the boy the most is that the instant she saw him at the top of the tower she was as frightened and exhausted as he was, and utterly uncertain of what to say.

She tells him this in the midst of a boat ride across a sea of dust. She’s taken off her shoes and is rubbing the stub where on her left leg where her ankle and foot used to be. They’re wearing masks and goggles and the man knows that this is at least partly why she’s telling him this now – because he can’t see her face when she speaks, and she need not look at his. 

‘But you seemed so confident,’ he says.

The girl shrugs.

‘Don’t I always?’

‘True. But at that time. When I first saw you. You seemed to know everything.’

‘I tried really hard to look like that,’ she says.

‘Why?’

‘I’m not sure,’ she says. ‘Better for you to think I knew everything than think I knew nothing, right? Would you have done what you did if you’d thought I was a fool?’

‘Maybe,’ says the man.

‘Because you’re a fool.’

He smiles, and squeezes her arm.

‘Yes. Because I’m a fool.’

Now, finally, she looks at him, and though her eyes are obscured by the dust on her goggles he can still feel her gaze like twins beams of sunlight through the clouds. 

‘You didn’t care though. You were happy to let me see you as you were.’

‘I’m no good at pretending.’

She kisses him gently. 

 

*

 

The boy stares at the girl and everything he wants to say clatters around in his head like tumbling crockery and somehow he can’t bring himself to say any of it. 

‘Can you talk?’ says the girl.

‘Yes.’ The boy gulps. ‘I’m a boy.’

‘I can see that,’ says the girl. ‘Were you chased by a snake too?’

‘There’s more than one?’

‘Yes. Mine’s big and white like vomit. What was yours like?’

‘Big and black. It ate things.’

‘That’s what they’re for.’

‘Snakes?’

‘Yes.’

‘How do you know? Did the Voice tell you?’ The boy blinks. ‘Do you know about the Voice?’

‘Yes, I know about the Voice. But I don’t trust her. She’s a liar.’

‘She? Mine’s a boy.’

The girl frowns.

‘Yeah? My rat told me the Voice was the same to everyone.’

‘You’ve got a rat too?’

‘My rat told me.’

‘Your rat can speak?’ says the boy.

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ The girl scoops up her giant white rat and it gawps at the boy, blue-eyed and fat-tailed, its nose twitching. ‘Rats can’t speak.’ 

‘Then how did it tell you?’

‘It writes.’

The rat leaps out of the girl’s hands and runs to the other end of the tower. There’s a small shed there, like on the boy’s tower, where the stairs end. The creature pauses and looks over its shoulder, briefly, and dives in. The boy goes back to his own shed and peers down the stairs but he can’t see anything or hear anything except a shuffling so distant and faint it might just be the wind in his ears.

‘Don’t worry,’ says the girl. ‘Snakes can’t climb stairs very well. It’ll take a long time getting here.’

He returns to the girl as the great light overhead him dips towards the horizon and turns pinkish-red. A fat bonewhite moon is trundles in it wake. 

‘What’s that light?’ he says.

‘The sun,’ says the girl. ‘You’ve never seen the sun before?’

‘No,’ says the boy. ‘Maybe. I saw something like it near a huge tree, once.’

‘And that other thing’s a moon.’

‘I know what a moon is.’

‘You know what a moon is but not a sun?’

‘So?’

‘That’s strange. How can you know about one but not the other?’

‘How do you know about both? Did your rat write that down too?’

‘No. I’ve seen it before.’ The girl narrows her eyes. ‘Are you brain damaged?’

‘No.’

‘So you’re just stupid then.’

‘I’m not stupid. My rat doesn’t write and the Voice lies to me and my father.’ The boy pauses and blinks and tears tumble down his cheeks. ‘And I killed my father.’

‘Why?’

‘I didn’t mean to. I thought he was a monster trying to drag me into a hole.’

The girl thinks what he said for a while, and nods. 

‘Then it wasn’t your fault.’

‘But I knocked him in. Into the hole.’

‘You didn’t mean to.’

‘Still, I did it.’

The boy sits on the ground and sobs for a while. Then something soft thuds to the ground next to him and when he opens his eyes there is a softly glowing fruit lying by his leg. When he looks up and the girl is watching him with another fruit in her hands.

‘I can hear your stomach rumbling over here,’ she says.

The boy eats.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘Don’t thank me yet.’

‘Why not?’

‘You’ll see.’

The boy holds the fruit away from his face and inspects it. It looks identical to the fruit he ate in the sector with the trees.

‘Is it poisoned?’

‘How and why would I poison you?’

He eats the fruit. The girl tosses him another, and he eats that too. Then he sits back.

‘Now I’m thirsty.’

‘See?’ says the girl. 

‘You don’t have any water?’

‘No. I was hoping you might.’

‘No.’ A pause. And then: ‘You’re very pretty.’

The girl takes a step up to the edge of her tower and stares at the boy for a few moments. Then she shrugs.

‘Your nose is too big,’ she says. 

 

*

 

The next day the boy wakes abruptly into the naked glare of the sun. He sits up on the warm stone and for a few moments he can’t remember where he is. Then he sees the girl watching him from across the way. She has some sort of water skin and she’s drinking from it and crystal beads of the stuff are dripping off her chin. 

‘I thought you said you didn’t have any water,’ he says.

The girl finishes drinking and tosses the skin over to his tower. It lands with a wet thud. 

‘My rat got it for me.’

The boy drinks and the water is silver light in the blackness of his thirst. When he’s finished he leans, gasping, against the shack. 

‘I’m not sure I could get my rat to get me anything.’

‘I didn’t get my rat to get it for me. My rat got it for me. Spontaneously. You can’t make them do anything.’

‘How do you – never mind. Where are they?’

‘Probably off fighting the Snakes.’

The boy wanders over to the balustrade and leans against it and the stone is dusted in grit and warm against his skin. The girl does the same opposite and they watch each other for a long time without shame or shyness.

‘I haven’t seen anyone in years,’ he says. ‘Many years.’

‘Me neither.’

‘Where are your parents?’

‘I don’t have any.’

‘You’ve been alone forever?’

The girl nods, and loops a string of hair into her mouth.

‘That’s sad.’

‘Well, not forever. I have my rat.’

‘Did you teach her how to write?’

The girl pouts.

‘I lied. She can’t write.’

‘Oh.’

She blinks and looks down.

‘You hate me now. You think I’m a liar.’

‘I don’t. I mean, I do, but…’

‘But I’m a girl, so its ok?’

The boy shakes his head.

‘No. I just haven’t seen anyone for so long, I guess I’m happy to listen to someone, even if they’re just lying to me.’

The girl smiles.

‘I like you,’ she says. 

‘Liar,’ says the boy.

The girl grins. 

 

*

 

The boy falls asleep and when he wakes up he feels vibrations coming up through the tower. He rushes over to the gaping maw of the stairs and he sees movement down below.

‘It’s coming,’ he says. ‘It’s nearly here.’

The girl nods.

‘Mine too.’

‘What do we do?’ 

The boy looks around. There’s no way off the top of the tower and the girl’s tower is too far away to jump to and in any case there’d be no point if there was a snake there too. Apart from that all the other towers are empty and there’s only the relentless sun and the azure sky unblemished by clouds and the cool wind whispering in his ears in a language too subtle for him to comprehend. 

‘I don’t know,’ says the girl. She reaches out for him. ‘Can you reach me?’

The boy does the same but their hands don’t meet. They both look down at the gap between their towers. Far down below is a dense herd of fluffy clouds lumbering slowly off to the right. 

‘We could jump,’ says the girl.

‘We could,’ says the boy. ‘But we’ll die.’

‘Will we? Are you sure?’

‘Ask your rat.’

‘She’s off fighting the snake.’

‘What? How can she be doing that?’

The girl laughs.

‘You don’t think they’re actually just rats, do you?’

A great burst of masonry erupts from the boy’s tower about fifty feet below. Right after it comes the head and neck of a giant cobra, fangs-shining head-splayed mouth-open. On its throat is the boy’s rat, ten times bigger than he remembers it, muscle rippling beneath its shortfurred flesh. It’s holding a sword and has buried the thing hilt-deep in the snake’s flesh. The snake flops down against the side of the tower and the whole thing shakes. For an instant the boy thinks perhaps it’s dead. But a moment later it shivers and whips back in, the rat still clinging to its belly. 

‘Would you rather be eaten by the snake?’ she says. ‘You can die here alone. Or we can die down there, maybe, together.’

‘I don’t even know you.’

‘And I don’t know you. But you’re someone. And at least you’ll have known I lived and I died.’

The boy thinks about this for a bit and then he says, ‘Toss me another fruit.’

There’s one left and the girl tears it in half and they eat them, watching each other. The juice runs thick and glossy down the girl’s chin and the boy notices things about her that he hadn’tbefore. How her hairline is high and set back from her forehead and how there is a speckling of freckles on her brow. How her teeth are small and even and her gums darker than that should be. How she twirls the fruit as she eats, fidgeting like a squirrel, eating it rapid little bites. Then he realizes that she’s watching him in the same way and wonders what she notices. 

‘You eat like a pig,’ she says.

‘You eat like a squirrel.’

The girl smiles.

‘Your face looks like a frog’s.’

‘What’s a frog?’

‘You’re an idiot.’

‘And you’re snooty.’

She flings the fat wet seed that’s all that’s left of the fruit at the boy. Another thud, and the girl’s tower trembles. 

‘Now,’ says the boy. ‘On three.’

They take a few steps back and as they do he feels the stone giving away beneath him. He yells, ‘Now! Now! Now!’ and they turn and run at each other. One skip up onto the railings and then out across the empty space into each other’s arms. Behind them the snakes burst out into the light, dripping venom from teeth like spears and hissing. They strike. One grazes the girl’s left foot and she flinches and misses the boy. Now they’re flying down the side of the towers and the light’s gradually fading and still they’re apart. Desperately they reach for each other and then the boy bumps against the rock and it’senough to set him close enough to the girl that she can grab his ankle and climb up along his body. She smells of hay, he thinks, and of other things he doesn’t recognize, things that set his heart beating faster even than the fall they’re in the midst of. 

They wrap their arms around each other and an instant later they disappear beneath the clouds. This is how their story begins. 

 

THE END