Part I — All-in on alien.
On the screens above their rainbow heads it's all tentacle sex, gaping and surging, eyes wide and watering, what happens, perhaps, when your culture gets gut-punched by two nukes. Below it's all human-enough—people-shaped, smells unfamiliar but not outright wrong, sounds like laughter, anger, need—it's just that it's not coming through on the right channels. The faces mean the same things, they're just unfamiliar to my uninitiated gut. So I keep my head down and suck my noodles alone.
Barking syllables, repeated, give me the he means me jolt, repeated again because you never look up until you're sure, and when I do the other face is clearly pissed off, same family after all. His body language is a giant sneer, and he repeats himself, this time with a two-finger poke into my shoulder that twists my skeleton. My hand wants a gun like a prayer wants God, but they don't let you fly like that around here and my contacts were all head-shakes on the weapons part. I decide to play dumb until I have to hit him.
I turn in my seat to free a boot from the bar rail and line it up, all sneaky-like, with his inseam. That's when I see the tats and know this isn't random. He barks again and I think about a chain of events that doesn't start with me getting shot, but does have me rabbiting through an Orwellian panopticon, built to prevent pretty much everything I might think of to escape. There's a ludicrous car chase that ends with a hostage I don't want and a cartoon sniper taking the shot—
Through the super slo-mo of brains-blood-teeth-single-flapping-eye I see her step forward in the unusual direction and engage him with hot gibberish. His face does this thing like he's been asked to fuck a three-headed dolphin and he turns with comic leisure, the leading edge of him a barely contained backhand slap. They trade sounds and faces and postures that ratchet ever upward and finally he hits her, spinning her hair into a dark shining spiral. She puts a hand to her face and withdraws. He turns to ignore her and perhaps give me some, then folds his arms with the arrogance that comes from living with a tribe of thugs at your back, feet wide in genital-wagging bravado. And then she's back with a stick produced from nowhere, the first crack across his skull almost quiet, then magnified on the second shot by his open mouth when she breaks it over his head, grabs him by the hair and pumps the jaggy end into his gargling neck three, four times. He hits the floor and curls sideways like a gill-sprung fish where she takes an athlete's windup and kicks him in the brain hard enough to make the rest of his passing painless. The whole thing is almost refreshingly familiar, human, humane. Comparatively speaking.
She eyeballs everyone in the joint and they give her a radius like a force field. "You," she says to me, "he will see you."
Part II — In through the out door.
We didn't fuck in the car, though it smelled like we might, with all the unbuttoned humanity freighting the air. That came later at the coffin hotel where she went at it with the workmanlike enthusiasm of a bucket-list tick, all business and taking care of herself, my own orgasm slapped out of me at the last moment like a half-forgotten ellipsis dot dot dot.
"You need a better hotel. Another driver will take you to one." She slid into her pants and to the hatch, popped it and sat on the edge, a wilding shape. "Clean yourself and wait for the call."
Her walk away, pulling her scent with her, was that ancient, ultimate ad: This way to the eggs. Loud enough to tell from the other side of a roaring river whether or not it was worth the swim.
Cigarette smoke and a ringing in my miserable head that comes from having a firearm discharged too close, these are the things they leave me with. Instead of a finger I have the object of interest, grasped in a half-hand and bloody towel. It's a cylinder of quartz with the top taken off at a funny angle, fine silvery-white tracings inside that hint at puzzle pieces, constructed, not flaws. If they knew what I know, they wouldn't have left it with me, traded it for the puffs of nothing that are promises, information, gold.
When I move my mind a certain way and regard the object just so I am lopped and hollowed, sectioned, an exploded view of myself, and the shame at so few moving parts is one of those parts, making it an embarrassingly large percentage of what I am.
Time passes and I fall through places chasing understanding, ejected from the penthouse within 24 hours, then a week at the coffins, a month in an aptly named hostel, the better part of a year in the streets where no one really lives. When understanding finally dawns in fullness, it's because I've become extenuated enough for the caverns of darkness to shine through, those dense overhead miles encompassed by my smeared gaze. I'm the only thing that reflects anything in here and I can see that I'm done.
When it comes it's like a migraine tear, space-time jabbed and pressed into and nothing I can say can describe it—it struggles with an earnestness we would call "rage" but that doesn't even come close. We are thin in a way it is dense and the pull of its gravitational emotion smudges the edge of what I am, permanently.
Part III — It'll come to me.
One outrageous act, it's all I can afford, all I'll have—I almost said "time for", but of course that's meaningless where I'm going, where I am. Too many open doors showing the trajectory of my life, points connected in a neat spiral with a sudden, paper-tearing pulse off the table. It will find me, it's only a matter of—"time" is wrong, again.
And so I open doors along the curve of the harbor, looking for that summertime past, through the uprights of the dragon-tailed torii, traditional thresholds delimiting the sacred from the profane—which side is which cannot be determined here. I push against a current of time, following the regression of modernity, everything bulking, simplifying, steel and concrete curling into wood and paper, clothing losing the conqueror's twang for something more authentic.
I follow a rising wind that hums with the attenuated shades of once-people, it grows to choking with their ashes as I cross into a stain upon the world, a graveyard convulsed and inverted, its underside crawling with smoking ghouls. The air growls and grows ever hotter until it ignites into screaming tongues of flame that recede toward a mad point in the sky where they compress themselves into a sudden apocalypse of light.
It is the summer of 1945, and children play in the park.
Everything stops when they see me, their headmistress calling to gather them back across the sward. The children's faces are unafraid, observant at the sight of me out of nowhere, my flesh a door to forever, a beacon that calls to the thing beyond for whom time itself is meat and drink.
There's a little girl ahead of the group, an outlier with a red bow at her neck, and we both run for her. I scoop her into my arms and she is light and calm until her headmistress screams and the girl turns her little head and begins to cry, infected with terror.
"I'm sorry," I say, and let the torrent of time drag us back.
My stuttered self sets her on new grass with new children and she has only just left my hands when I am consumed