Nairu stares up at the vertical, perforated panel of the play tower, a grater-like surface from which protrude pink climbing holds like half-jammed-in butt plugs. Although the metallic panel and the plasticky climbing holds must differ from any rock wall or tree that Nairu may have climbed, she reaches to grab one of the holds, then she pulls herself up. She attempts to climb further, kicking her right leg like a monkey, but her left foot slips. She falls flat on her butt with a thud.
I gasp. This is my fault: if I hadn’t brought her to the present through an invisible portal, she wouldn’t have had to suffer the indignity of landing ass-first on a rubber tarmac. I expect Nairu to start bawling and then increase the decibels exponentially, which is what I would have done, so mommy would rush to her aid and fill her mouth with one of her flesh pacifiers. Instead, Nairu springs to her feet and wipes dirt off her rear end. Her unbreakable confidence that whatever she does, both of her mommies will remain forever by her side to pick up the pieces, must have made all her woes vanish as if they never existed. She squints at the climbing wall with newfound respect.
Our girl stands on her tiptoes to reach a climbing hold, but Jacqueline approaches the child from behind, grabs her by the armpits and lifts her. Nairu, defenseless against the might of an adult, goes limp, until she clings to the closest metallic poles. She places a foot on a climbing hold and steps onto the top of the tower. The girl, turned into a watchtower lookout, surveys her surroundings: the splash of color of the rubber tarmac, the park that spans the hilltop, and the encircling trees, most of which are leafless, but also taller and older by a few decades than Jacqueline’s apartment bulding.
My girlfriend’s show of strength has caused tingles to shoot through my body, with my groin as their neuralgic center.
“Holy damn, Jacqueline,” I say in awe. “You are ground-sloth strong!”
Jacqueline chuckles. She adjusts the collar of her peacoat.
“Am I that strong, or should you eat healthier and exercise with me more often?”
“Likely a combination of those three things.”
“Anyway, I want our doll to experience how it feels like to go down the slide, so she’ll have a better motivation to scale the tower. Don’t you miss playing with this stuff? My parents brought me to indoor playgrounds quite often. I guess they paid by the hour so I could jump in ball pits, cross suspension bridges, slide down plastic pipes, lose myself in mazes made of netting and padded walls… Don’t you wish you could access such equipment as an adult?”
“That sounds enthralling, but my parents never brought me to magical places.”
Jacqueline shoots me a look imbued with pity. I feel as if I dared to examine my face in the stark light of a bathroom mirror, only to remember that my skin is marred with scars and pockmarks.
Coldness spreads in my chest. Did I become depraved because I was deprived of a girl’s dreams?
I avert my gaze, in case my eyes reveal the misery lurking within.
“Don’t look at me like that, please. I wasn’t one of those latchkey children, although I stole food from stores, and hocked jewelry and clothes. I worked as an assistant for a black market doctor and a bootlegger, until one day I fell in love with a nobleman’s daughter. All in the past, though. I’ve had lots of fun with you, Jacqueline.”
“We sure have.”
Nairu utters a garbled string of nonsense syllables. She’s standing at the top of the slide, hunched over and eager to put herself at the mercy of the playground equipment that may butcher her, but hesitating like a dog that considers jumping into the pond where its owner has thrown a stick.
Jacqueline and I walk up to the slide. After she signals for our adopted daughter to pay attention, my girlfriend squats down, which causes the flesh contained by her cinder-colored tights to bulge like a fruit about to be squeezed out of its juice.
“It’s easy, Nairu,” Jacqueline says. “Lower your butt to the slide, then…” She thrusts her waist forward. “Let yourself go.”
I picture a child, the size of a sack of potatoes, throwing herself down the slippery surface of a kilometric slide, but as she accelerates, she remains unaware that further down the metallic slide turns into a grater. Its sharp-edged grating slots gleam in the moonlight as they anticipate snagging the child’s skin and shredding her flesh. When the slide’s grater takes the first bite, the child screams and screeches. She hugs the side of the slide, but the metallic teeth dig deeper and deeper into her flesh, which bubbles under the strain. Her tears fall like raindrops from a starless night sky; they mix with the waterfalls of blood that paint the scene in scarlet hues. Her heart sputters and shuts down.
The chewed corpse lands on the rubber tarmac with a thump, like a sandwich dropping to the pick-up port of a vending machine. Her mother rushes over, only to discover that her child has become a flayed-pork carcass. The father rushes in too late: the dismemberment and devouring of his child’s remains has begun.
A cold shiver runs down my spine. The flood of this vision has carved through the mountains of my brain like an Ice Age outburst of subglacial meltwater. I’m bracing myself for more devastation, for more blood-soaked trauma. My consciousness keeps cycling back into madness, and I’m having a harder and harder time clambering my way out of that spiral. Will one day my nerves burn so violently that I’ll beg my girlfriend to push me off a cliff?
I unclench my teeth, then rub my eyes as my heart calms down. The slide squeaks; Nairu is sliding down the smooth metal at breakneck speed. She braces herself for landing, and at the end of the ride, she bounces on her feet and wiggles her arms in wild excitement. Our girl shrieks with laughter.
“Good job, darling!”
“She loved it,” I say, relieved. “And kept her flesh intact.”
Nairu bounds to the climbing wall. Once she faces it, she jumps and clutches a climbing hold that protrudes halfway up. She swings her legs and pulls herself up to reach the next hold, again and again until she summits the play tower.
Nairu straightens her back and shows off a triumphant smile. A giggle bursts from her lips along with puffs of white mist. She hurries to sit down on the flat part of the slide, and as she crows with delight, she launches herself into her descent, plunging feetfirst on her back like a luge track’s racing bobsled.
I keep a playlist with all the songs mentioned throughout this novel. Seventy-seven songs so far. Here’s the link.
Hey, do you know that neural networks can generate quite competent images? Check out some inspired by this chapter by clicking this link. I’ve already posted twenty-two such entries, which you can check out through this link.
Leire’s sickly daydream feels right now like the most harrowing in a while, perhaps because it involves a child. But hey, if I have to endure intrusive daydreams, so should you; it’s not like anybody forces you to read this shit. Poor Nairu, though: of all the people that could have visited the Ice Age through an invisible portal, she had to end up with my protagonist.
The current sequence had already become the longest in the novel. Once I realized that Jacqueline, Leire and Nairu would spend at least four chapters in this park, it became clear that I could split the sequence into two. The previous sequence, titled “A Hail of Meteorites Upon Our Heads,” ended back in chapter 73. The current sequence is titled “Who Stole the Stars?” You can check out all the chapters of this novel through this link.