The bar was shabby, full of hot light leaked from the afternoon sun. Outside, the asphalt glowed white. Men in hats filled the black shade under the trees. Behind a high mesh fence, cars without wheels rusted quietly.
Patch McGivern drained his glass of beer, snapped his fingers for another. Tess, three sizes too big for her apron, slouched over and filled Patch’s glass from the jug. Her eyes never strayed from the ancient CRT screen hanging from the ceiling, but the beer didn’t miss. The television showed two nurses arguing on opposite sides of a hospital bed. On the bed was a man wrapped from head to foot in bandages. The comatose patient couldn’t hear what the nurses were saying. The sound was turned down, so neither could Patch.
A fly landed on the table. Patch thumbed it flat. Eyes still fixed on the television screen, Tess drifted back to the bar.
The screen door crashed open. A woman ran in. She snapped a glance backwards, threw herself on a stool and ordered a beer. Her hands were shaking. She gulped half the beer, ran long fingers through greasy hair. She was thin under a grimy cheap dress. She was breathing hard, restless eyes everywhere.
Patch watched the woman for a while, wondering what she’d do next. The beer seemed to calm her. She sat, one leg trembling, gazing up at or through the television. Patch went back to looking outside. A dog ran over the road and vanished into the scrapyard. Under the trees, one of the men moved his head.
The woman got herself a fresh beer and turned her gaze to Patch. She sipped, looked, sipped, looked. When her glass was half empty, she abandoned the stool, came over and sat down. Her movements were fast, nervy.
‘I’m Dahlia,’ she said, extending her hand.
‘Patch.’ He shook her hand. Her fingers were hot hard sticks. Dark circles clutched her eyes.
‘Nice to meet you, Patch. You come here often?’
Patch barked a laugh at the line. ‘Every weekday. Regular as clockwork. Just ask Tess.’
‘Why’re you interested?’
Dahlia drank the rest of her beer, watched Patch finish his. ‘I’ve got no time for small talk,’ she said. ‘I’d rather just get down to it.’
‘Down to what?’
Way off in the train yard the high sun flashed off a descending signal paddle. A klaxon sounded, sending the dog scooting from under the fence. A three-bagger train rumbled past but the men under the trees didn’t move.
‘You want another beer?’ said Patch.
‘That’s kind. I’ve got no more money.’
‘Tess lets me keep a tab.’
Patch snapped his fingers. When their glasses were full again, he said, ‘Twenty years I worked in that train yard. Time was we all did. But times change. They automated it. Computers. Most got laid off, except the ones they picked to stare at the screens. So there I was, pushing buttons instead of pulling switches.’
Patch swallowed beer.
‘Then things changed again. The yard closed for good. Thing is, a year later it opened again. Heritage centre. They’ve got the freight stands all dressed up as platforms, you know, through the ages. They run three old locos pulling fancy coaches and the crowds just lap it up. And you know what? There’s more jobs in that yard now than before. There’s a food hall and a shop, even a little movie house, plenty of work. In the summer they need folk to dress up in old-fashioned costumes and walk about and have their pictures taken. Some of the old-timers went back there to work, but a lot, they moved up to the city. Plenty of work up there too, if you want to talk to strangers on the telephone. The rest of them, well, they’re sat out there, under the trees. Me, I said yes to a job in the yard, handing out tickets on a back-and-forth railcar. But I couldn’t stick it. The visitors, they think they’re seeing things how they really were. They’re not. They’re taking day trips to a boneyard. Thing is, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Alma I’d thrown in my job. So every morning I get up and leave the apartment, just like before. Only, instead of showing up at the yard, I show up here. I sit and drink beer and work out some little story about my day, something I can tell Alma when I get home.’
‘What do you do for money?’ said Dahlia.
‘It’s mostly gone now. Like I said, Tess lets me keep a tab.’
‘But you can’t go on like this forever. Sooner or later the money will run out.’
‘What will you do?’
Patch thought about this for a long time. Another fly landed on the table. Patch watched it crawl, wings folded, towards his glass. ‘I don’t know,’ he said finally. ‘Move up to the city, I guess. Talk to strangers on the telephone.’
‘You don’t sound happy about it.’
‘Why would I be?’ Patch drank the rest of his beer, then slammed the empty glass down on the fly. But the fly was too quick. It flew towards the bar. When it crossed in front of the ancient television, the flicker of the tube made its wings move like bad animation.
‘So what’s your story?’ said Patch. He’d lost his thirst. He stared at the sunken-eyed woman, trying to measure her age.
‘Me?’ said Dahlia. ‘Oh, I just blew in. I’m a tumbleweed.’
‘I haven’t seen you around.’
‘You wouldn’t. I’m new.’
‘Just passing through?’
‘Something like that.’ Dahlia picked at her thumbnail. Patch saw that all her nails were ragged. Dirty underneath. Her hands were still shaking. ‘There are some people after me. I got a head-start but they’ll be here soon. I was wondering … could you maybe give me a lift into town?’
‘So what did you do? Did you steal something?’
Dahlia shook her head, slowly. ‘I’ve committed no crime. But they want … I think they want to kill me.’
Though he didn’t believe her, Patch nodded his head. ‘Kill you, huh? I don’t suppose you want to tell me why anyone would want to do that?’
Dahlia looked down at her hands, seemed to will them still. Little by little, they obeyed. ‘I’ll tell you,’ she said, ‘if you’ll just get me out of here.’
In the train yard, the three-bagger had come to a halt. Clanking sounds rang in the heavy air. A calliope joined in, adding melody to the untuned steel. People cheered.
Under the trees, one of the men stood, adjusted his hat and walked into the sunlight, across the glowing asphalt, towards the bar.
‘Okay,’ said Patch. ‘I’m done here anyway. Place always busies up on a Friday.’
Dahlia looked round at the empty seats, said nothing.
‘My pick-up’s parked outside,’ said Patch. ‘I guess I could clear the passenger seat.’
The air in the pick-up was stifling. Once they’d reached the straight town road, Patch opened the throttle, pushed the old heap as hard as he dared. Hot air blasted in through the open windows. The tyres rumbled like a summer storm.
‘So, what kind of town is it?’ said Dahlia. She’d stuck her head through the window; she was gulping the air like a dog.
‘It’s just a town,’ said Patch.
‘Were you born there?’
‘No, we moved when I was … wait a second, isn’t it your turn?’
‘Oh, yes, sorry.’
The road turned them under a steel rail bridge. A small white van went past, dressed in gaudy logos, headed for the train yard. Dahlia shrank down in her seat.
‘Find a quiet place,’ she said.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Find somewhere to pull over. Somewhere quiet.’
‘I thought you wanted to go into town.’
‘I changed my mind.’
Half a mile up the road, on a steep curving gradient, stood a derelict barn. Patch turned in its shadow, where a dandelion-filled farmyard was waiting. He killed the motor. Without the breeze, the air started to bake.
‘Look, lady …’ Patch began.
‘It’s Dahlia. And if you want to drop me here and just go on your way that’s fine. But …’ she clutched Patch’s hand with her long, trembling fingers, ‘… I’d rather you didn’t.’
A cloud of diesel blew through the barn’s broken weatherboards. Unseen, hidden by the barn, a truck was labouring up the gradient. The sound of its motor faded. A blackbird sang.
Dahlia’s touch was like hot bones on Patch’s skin. He didn’t push it away. ‘Well talk, if you’re going to talk,’ he said. ‘I don’t have all day.’
Still clutching Patch’s hand, Dahlia said, ‘I know you don’t believe me, about them following me, I mean. But it’s true. I belong to this … this group of people. Most of us are okay but a few – it’s always the minority, right? – a few are crazy. Really crazy.’
‘So crazy they want to kill you?’
‘What is this? Is it some kind of cult or something? I never heard of anything like that round here.’
‘Like I said, we’re tumbleweeds.’
Patch prised his hand from Dahlia’s grip. ‘You’re not telling me anything. Maybe we should go.’
Dahlia slumped in her seat, stared out into the farmyard. Thistledown seeds rose in clouds from the dandelions. The late sunlight turned them to burning embers.
The blackbird stopped singing.
The ground shook. Something thumped Patch in the back. His ears popped and for a second or two he could hear only a low murmuring, like sobs or the ocean. Scared, he looked round the yard; something invisible had wafted through the thistledown cloud, turning it to chaos. Birds erupted from the trees.
‘What in hell was that?’ he said.
In the rear-view mirror, Patch saw the sky fill up with something black, looming. He turned, stared through the smeared back window, down the gradient and over the fields. Two miles back, the reinvented train yard was a fractured sprawl of glinting metal and carnival canvas. A crowd of people, like insects, flowed towards the west gate. Across the road from the gate, behind the scrapyard, a red-rooted column of black smoke was climbing past the sinking sun. It was the bar, where Patch had spent every day for more days than he cared to remember. Where he’d met Dahlia. The bar. An explosion. Now fire.
Patch turned to find Dahlia’s intense, sunken eyes hard on him.
‘Now do you believe me?’ she said.
‘The day it happened,’ said Dahlia, ‘I woke up just before sunrise. I knew something had changed right away. I felt … different. I was lying in a ditch, exactly where I’d gone to sleep I’d walked a long way the day before – fifteen, maybe twenty miles. I’d been sleeping rough for a while, ever since I walked away from my life.’
‘Walked away?’ said Patch.
She nodded. ‘Did you ever feel like that? I guess people do, from time to time. You know, when the mortgage payments start creeping up and the dishwasher breaks down and the garage door needs painting. All the little things that aren’t so little. When you realise all the friendly faces where you work really aren’t friendly at all, and that everyone’s just pretending they want to be there, including you. When you stand in the supermarket and you can’t bear to choose what you’re going to eat next. When it feels like it’d be the easiest thing in the world to walk out of your front door and just … keep walking. Did you ever feel like that?’
Patch swallowed the stone that had grown in his throat. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, that’s how I felt. So I just walked out. Out of my life.’
‘When was this?’
‘Four weeks ago. Maybe five.’
‘You look pretty good. Considering you’ve been on the road that long.’ Actually, he thought, she didn’t.
‘I had some money with me. It’s all gone now. There’s places you can get food, get washed. If I stayed out here another month I wouldn’t look so good.’
‘If? You going back?’
‘No. I’m going to die.’
Patch checked the mirror again. Blue lights had encircled the blazing bar. Traffic was starting to leave the train yard, bunching the exits, hustling towards the fast bypass, away from the town. There were no vehicles coming this way at all. Maybe there was a road block.
‘Was that them?’ said Patch. ‘The people who want to kill you? What are they, terrorists or something? What did you do to them?’
‘Like I said, I’ve done nothing wrong. Except be what I am.’
Patch turned the ignition key, scowled until the cranky starter coughed the motor to life. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘where d’you want to go? Town’s not far enough – these guys mean business. You need to be a long way from here. So where?’
Bony fingers laced themselves round Patch’s, twisted them so the key turned back and the motor died.
‘Right here’s just fine.’
‘No way. We’ve got to …’
She raised her hand to his face, stroked his cheek. Her touch felt like stone, burned like fire. ‘I’ll die whether they come or not. It’s just that there’s something I have to do first.’
She’d unclipped her seatbelt. Now she was kneeling on the passenger seat, leaning over him. Inside the dark circles, her eyes were bright and alive. She pulled up the long sleeves of her thin dress. Her forearms were covered in writing: tiny inked paragraphs, long jumbles of numbers and letters that might have been codes, or chemical equations. Patch could feel the heat pulsing off her skin.
With her right hand, she delved under her dress. Patch shrank back, frightened, aroused. Dahlia worked her hand down there, never breaking eye contact. When she drew her hand out again it was red to the wrist. Blood dripped, steaming, on the seat.
‘Hey,’ said Patch. ‘What?’ He was hard up against the driver’s door. Through the window, the sun beat on his back. But Dahlia was hotter still. ‘Hey …’
‘It’s all right,’ said Dahlia. Her voice was a low cello. ‘I’ve been on the road a month, but what happened to me happened today. This morning. Like I said, I just woke up and … I was listening to the dawn chorus. I could hear every bird, every note of every song. I knew what they were singing about – I understood them. I watched every speck of dust in the light of the sunrise and knew where that light had been and where it was going. I stood up and I knew I was more than myself. I felt born. When I set out walking, I felt like I was turning the whole world under my feet, like a treadmill. Everything I saw, I understood. I still do. I see you, Patch. I understand you.’
‘Lady …’ Patch scrabbled for the door handle, failed to find it. At the same time, he didn’t want to leave. Dahlia was leaning closer, her bloody hand outstretched. There was something in it. ‘I think maybe you better leave.’
Dahlia’s left hand – the clean one – stroked his cheek. The touch calmed him. He relaxed, stopped reaching for the handle. He let her eyes hold him.
‘That month on the road,’ said Dahlia, ‘it was a kind of labour. I see that now. The work before the birth. Only what I was giving birth to was me.’
She pulled away a little. Mercifully, her bloody hand dropped into shadow.
‘Oh, the things I saw as I was walking this morning! The things I thought! I found a pen on the road and started writing it down, on my arms, here, look, over and over.’ She brandished herself. ‘You know, Patch, they say a person only uses a fraction of the brain’s potential. We’ve got so much inside us, all the time, only most of the time it’s asleep. But it’s all of us. It’s all of what we are. And that’s what happened to me this morning: all of me woke up. And when it did, it knew everything there was to know, right there, right then. Everything.’
Dahlia’s eyes dropped. When they came up again, they were desperately sad. ‘It’s like … like a metamorphosis. An insect coming out of its cocoon. It’s a glorious life, Patch. I’ve only lived it for a morning but it’s glorious!’ Eyes sadder still. ‘But it’s brief. Like a mayfly. One day, Patch, just one. Then it’s over. That’s part of what I know now. I know everything. I know everything.’
She seemed about to say more, but her cello voice choked. Patch touched her arm, endured the scalding heat.
‘It sounds like a miracle,’ he said.
She pulled away. ‘It isn’t.’
‘But … what you said. About knowing things. What kind of things do you know?’
A shudder contorted her body. ‘Too much. I spent the most of the morning in that train yard you used to love. Not speaking with anyone, just looking. Knowing. I see a face and I know the thoughts that live behind it. I know what’s coming. And I know there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I see all the beauty in things, and the way those things all come to an end. They do, you know. Everything is so brief. I see that. I know that.’
Patch wanted to hold her. He was afraid he’d burst into flames. ‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Tell me more about what it’s like.’
‘I can’t.’ Again the hot touch to his face. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
‘Then tell me who these people are,’ said Patch. ‘Who want to kill you.’
‘They’re people like me. Some of us … when it feels like everything is known, and everything has been done, all that’s left is sport. Hunting.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Dahlia’s face folded up. She gulped back tears. Patch watched her shoulders shake, wanted to cry for her.
‘I haven’t told you everything I’ve done this morning.’
They found each other in the shadow of a lightning-struck oak. He was a vagabond too. They knew each other at once for what they were. There was a scent, and a quality of light, and a weight of touch on the ground, and a million subtle signs, right down to the atoms that circled in their wake. They knew their kind, and were drawn to each other.
The act was quick and sensual, in a way the human act it resembled could never be. The little death it brought held more life than any human seed. They rode high and looked down where ordinary people can only look up. They cried out, and the sounds they made were like the vibrations of the stars.
They parted as swiftly as they had come together. It was their way to move fast through the world. For him, a new urge replaced the old. Before the sun met the noon, he would be running with one of the growing gangs of satiated males.
As for her, she walked on, with a goal of her own.
Dahlia brought her right hand out of the shadow. Patch didn’t want to look at it. He forced himself.
The blood on her hand had dried almost black, except for a puddle of crimson in the palm. In the puddle lay a small, twitching thing, tapered, segmented, clearly alive. It gave off a stink, like vomit. When the sunlight touched it, it spasmed. Dahlia tipped her hand so the thing rolled down her fingers to the tips. She lifted it towards Patch’s face. Patch tried to pull away.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘Trust me.’
She moved fast. Patch barely saw her. Her hands danced. He cried out, felt her fingers fluttering over his upper lip, which was wet. Her fingers slithered into his nose, continued. Something hammered his sinuses. Now both her hands were moving over his face. In his face. Then, without warning, the pressure went away.
Dahlia fell back in her seat, both hands dropping empty in her lap. She looked haggard and spent. Patch’s head was full of something that scratched and burned. He sneezed explosively. Strings of blood splattered the dashboard. Something squirmed behind his nose. Patch screamed, smacked his hands to his face. Dahlia watched. The wriggling moved. Now it was behind his eyes. It was pressure and sound. Something that boiled like radiation. It swelled, descended; now it was sucking at the back of his throat. Pain shot through his forehead, then was gone. The squirming was gone too. Everything, gone.
Patch wiped his lip, took his hand away bloody. He was exhausted. The backs of his legs throbbed. The burning in his head had turned to fog, dulling his thoughts.
‘Shit, lady,’ he said. His mouth was numb and the words melted together. ‘Shit.’
‘It takes about four weeks,’ said Dahlia. Her voice was distracted, no longer low. ‘Maybe five. You’ll feel normal. You’ll feel restless. The way I was. You won’t remember me, or anything about how this happened. It doesn’t matter. After a while … you’ll wake up.’
Patch rubbed his eyes. His head felt full. Too much to take in.
‘Look, Dahlia,’ he said, ‘I …’
Diesel fumes blew through the barn boards again. Tyres roared. A flat-bed truck skidded into the farmyard, scattering gravel. A dozen men jumped off the back, rushed towards Patch’s pickup. One of the men – short, dark, barrel-shaped – yanked open the passenger door. A hairy hand grabbed Dahlia’s ink-stained arm and pulled her out.
‘Hey!’ Patch shouted.
Another man, pale as pork rind, ran his fist through the window and into Patch’s cheek. Patch’s world turned over, went grey. He fell forward hearing liquid shouts, somebody screaming, far away. Time passed. When Patch raised his head again he saw a billion thistledown seeds floating in low evening light.
In the middle of the farmyard, a mountain had grown. No, not a mountain: a heap of something. Of men. Patch watched the men climb down off each other, like a circus trick. The men walked through the floating seeds, climbed on to the truck. They didn’t look at Patch, slumped in his seat. Transmission whining, the truck backed out of the yard and disappeared.
Patch opened the door, climbed out. The men had left something lying among the dandelions. Patch went over to it. It was Dahlia. She was lying on her back, limbs splayed, face purple. The whites of her eyes were red. Her chest had been flattened.
The sun sank behind the barn. In the sky, starlings made flocks like shoals of fish. Then, as one, they plunged to roost.
Patch took Dahlia’s ankles and dragged her into the barn. He found a place where the earth floor was soft and buried her there. Then he went back to his pick-up and drove home.
That night, Patch told his wife Alma about the bomb at the train yard. He talked about the frightened tourists, as if he’d been there. He could imagine the panic, so inventing the story was easy. He told Alma a chunk of shrapnel had made the bruise on his cheek. Alma tutted and fussed.
By the time he went to bed, Patch almost believed the story himself.
Next morning, when he woke, he couldn’t remember Dahlia’s face. He pretended to leave for work, as usual. The bar was black, still smoking, so he sat under the trees with the other men. In silence, they watched investigators stringing incident tape. Camera crews came and went. The men sat and watched.
For the next four weeks, Patch spent his days sitting under the trees. He forgot Dahlia completely. His mind wandered. A lot of the time he felt tired. He slept a lot.
They fixed up the bar. The damage hadn’t been so bad. Just a big petrol bomb. They never found the culprits.
The morning the bar opened again, Patch walked up to the screen door, peered inside. Everything looked the same. Tess was there, still too big for her apron. The same hospital soap was playing on the ancient television. Patch felt in his pocket for loose change, found nothing.
He started walking down the road, away from town. He felt restless. Maybe he’d just keep walking. A man could cover a lot of miles in one day.
That evening he ate scraps from bin behind a burger van. That night he slept in a field, under starlight. Next day he walked again, and each day after that. It got to be a routine.
In the back of his mind, Patch knew the routine wouldn’t last forever. Soon, things would change. He’d find himself something new to think about, something new to do. Maybe a new girl.
Maybe go hunting.
Ephemeron by Graham Edwards is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Image by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Thistle seeds Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons