When I step out of Jacqueline’s Audi into the night and I exhale, a ghost escapes from my mouth in a cloud that glows citrine-yellow in the light of the streetlamps. On the other side of the street, beyond a boundary wall that the Ice Age civilization that built the pyramids would point at and mock, on the third and last floor of the apartment building, a parapet encloses the balcony that may have cost half of what my girlfriend paid for that apartment.
As I refresh my lungs with cold air and I stare up at that home, a lump of emotion grows in my throat. For years I have lifted my weary legs off the bed every morning, although I couldn’t justify why I should bother. Half of the days that I got off at the Euskotren station in Irún after hours of overtime, I felt like turning around and waiting for a train to come in the opposite direction, so I could step in front of the death machine and let its wheels run over me like a hulking lawnmower; instead of that I rushed to my dreary apartment, where I threw off my clothes and ate chocolate while I masturbated furiously. My mind was too weak to dig me out of the ice-cold soil where it had buried us; it hunched between my legs, and whenever it got shamed or scorned, it forced me to bury my fingers into my evil cunt again and again and again.
But I endured these thirty years so at the end of the day I could return here, to this isolated apartment in the hills of Donostia, away from the stench of the car exhausts, away from the wastoids and their shrieks, away from the dog shit and the urine splashing down from their balconies, and high enough that when the sea levels rise again, our island of peace will protrude from the crimson tide of blood and corpses.
I yank my mind back to my wilting body and I order my legs to carry me across the cobbled road, but a dizzy spell bleaches my vision, making me stumble. My hands are trembling. A growing headache and my exhaustion have coalesced into a grimy mesh of spiderwebs inside my skull. How many pastries did I gorge myself on back at that cursed patisserie? My heart must be pumping liquid sugar.
A hand cups my elbow. Jacqueline has materialized in front of me, standing in the middle of the cobbled road. Clothed in a dark sienna peacoat and a black turtleneck sweater tucked into a plaid skirt, and with her legs hugged by cinder-colored tights, she looks as if she just walked out of a movie premiere. She has draped her other arm around our Paleolithic daughter’s shoulders, squishing the back of her scarf. The child is staring up at me as if my sugar-induced infirmity was an exhibit at a zoo.
Jacqueline wastes her limited time on Earth working as a secretary for a pig; the money she earned through that degradation, apart from the porn videos she sells online, paid for our girl’s sweater, yet its fabric has been ruined by five brown stains, each surrounded by tiny stains caused by splashed droplets, as if a villain had thrown coin-sized turds at the child’s chest. Mommy always seems ready to turn towards an ambushing paparazzi and flash a radiant smile that would burn out the camera’s electronic components, so how come she has cointaned herself from peeling off the sweater and tossing it into a dumpster?
“Are you okay, darling?” she asks me in her sweetest voice.
I squint, then rub my temple to emphasize my headache.
“D-don’t you feel sick after the bombardment of sugar we’ve received? I have become permanently dumber, as if a goblin had been nibbling at my brain.”
“I feel jittery. But do you know what would do us some good on this November evening?”
“Rush to your apartment and jump bare-assed under the covers of your bed?”
Jacqueline chuckles. A smile warps the skin beneath her eyes.
“Also take a nature stroll through the park I told you about this morning.”
“After you woke up from a nightmare, you got teleported to a boreal forest from thousands of years ago. Let’s end this momentous day by exploring willingly a closer sanctuary enclosed by trees, one that will welcome you from now on whenever the world gets overwhelming.”
Jacqueline might as well have asked me to unload furniture from a truck after I’ve been awake for forty-eight hours straight. But as I stare at her face to formulate my defense, I’m silenced by those soft-angled, raven-black eyebrows; her gleaming, ivory-white skin; the cupid’s bow of her upper lip and that thick lower one into which I’d love to sink my teeth; her features designed by a team devoted to rendering the loveliest mommy face; and her breeze-swept hair gathered in a braided ponytail. I want those half-lidded, cobalt-blue eyes to keep staring at me, at this loosely human-shaped bundle of flesh and bones varnished with vaginal secretions and covered in spiders, because the moment Jacqueline ceases to acknowledge my existence, I’ll get vaporized like the breath that pours from between her lips, and I will vanish into the night as if I had never existed.
“Okay,” I surrender. “But I may end up vomiting and passing out.”
“In that case, I’ll carry you in my arms back to my apartment, and I’ll tuck you into bed.”
“Now I want to risk it. Let’s go.”
Jacqueline steers me across the road, with the child in tow, toward a path that ascends between her apartment building and the closest one. We stroll along a four-meter-tall fieldstone wall, the kind that upmarket neighborhoods often choose instead of brick walls, because laying randomly-shaped stones must be more expensive and annoying.
To our left, a view opens of the rounded top of Mount Igueldo, a black mass darker than the night sky and that blocks the horizon. Isolated clusters of lit pixels reveal the presence of those who could afford to live on the slope of the mountain. And now I can retreat to a shelter located about seventy meters above sea level, which fulfills a need for security that must have been inscribed in the genes of humans from when we witnessed the sinking of our world beneath the rising tides. We’ll also spot the invading hordes as they trudge uphill, which will give us time to roll down flaming tar barrels towards them, or at least push them back with head of our pikes.
Jacqueline stops next to an open gateway. Past the entrance, a flight of stairs leads to a darkened footpath where a tall person would stoop to pass under the low branches, most of them nude like skeletal fingers. I look up at the canopies of the trees closest to the fieldstone wall. They reach higher than the nearby apartment buildings, and have grown outwards as if trying to escape.
“This place looks like private property,” I say.
“I know, right?”
She shepherds our child into the park, and I follow them up the stairs. Further down the path, a row of streetlamps is casting circular pools of light on the asphalt, which is bordered on our left by clusters of thin trees like the European equivalent of bamboo, and on our right by an ascending, grassy slope littered with dried leaves. The arched canopy filters the moonlight.
As I walk, my shoes scuff the rough asphalt, that reminds me of a go-karts track. The streetlamps throw our shadows in front of us, and stretch them across the path. The surroundings smell of moist bark, soil, moldy leaves. This cool, dark wood may swallow up my uneasiness; I want to venture deeper towards its enticing scents.
I’m groggy from the fatigue. After I blink away tear-stickiness, I lift my gaze to our right, towards the crest of the hill. Its grass has concealed the path, but I spot the upper half of a white bench bathed in the light of a streetlamp. The hill is bare except for a few segregated trees that have shed their leaves. Three frail, leaning trees are strapped with rubber belts to nursery stakes driven into the ground.
Lamplight illuminates the contour of our child’s silhouette; she has skipped ahead and is prancing about with a graceful gait while she talks to herself in her native tongue. A sudden breeze whips my cheeks and lashes, and makes dead leaves skitter along the asphalt. The chill dips into my bowels, but our girl is acclimated to boreal conditions. In comparison to her, Jacqueline and I are house cats who have pestered their owner to let them out in the snow, only for us to regret it and claw at the door to be allowed back into the coziness of a modern home. While the child’s footsteps sound ahead of us, I feel blessed by her presence, as if a snow leopard had chosen us to be part of her family.
Does our new daughter consider her relocation to this world as a strange vacation? Does she wonder how she will explain to that father of hers the sights and tastes we’ve presented to her? I can’t imagine how she’ll react once she realizes that she’s stuck in this present forever. She’s more resilient than me: by this point I would have already run into traffic with my hands on my ears, attempting to outrun the pain, or maybe I’d have pulled a knife and cut my throat. However, Jacqueline and I should be pleasant and kind to her to diminish the trauma of her displacement in time.
The child flinches, startled by a person who’s jogging down a bend in the path: a bearded guy who’s wearing tracksuit bottoms, a hoodie and a beanie. At the other end of a leash attached to his belt, a black-and-white border collie is running alongside the man. The dog’s tongue is lolling out, and its ears flapping about. The pair’s vaporized breaths are trailing behind them. As the man passes by us, he nods to acknowledge our existence, or maybe to apologize for having bothered us.
Why the hell is this punk intruding in our private park? I sigh, then remind myself that random human beings are technically allowed to exist near me, as long as they pay for the privilege.
Our daughter is standing in the grass next to the path. She has craned her neck towards the pair that is about to disappear through the park’s gateway. I hope that she’s interested in the dog instead of in the guy’s ass.
I walk up to her, then pat the crown of her head.
“C’mon. You’ll get to see plenty of cool wolves throughout your lifetime, because we protect them from extinction.”
The child tilts her face up to mine and shares a look of wonder: her eyebrows are raised and her mouth is broadened into a grin that shows her gums. She utters a few words in an enthusiastic voice, but they sound like gibberish.
“I’m sure you’re right, Ice Age girl,” I say.
I put an arm around her shoulders to guide her towards Jacqueline, who has tucked her hands into the pockets of her peacoat, and whose nostrils are exhaling wisps of vapour.
Leaves crunch under our feet as we walk up the bend in the path. Although this park is enclosed by a wall of trees, the breeze is picking up and cutting through the leafless branches to chill my exposed skin. My body has realized that I will force it to trudge upwards, and now my head is throbbing.
I fix my gaze on the vision of that swaying white bench as I fill my lungs with cold air.
“L-let’s rest a bit, Jacqueline. I haven’t been young in a thousand years.”
She steps closer to me and slips an arm around my waist as if she suspected that I would tumble face-first into the asphalt.
Once we reach the bench, I lean my ass against its side. I’m blowing a stream of vapour when the slats tremble through me as they complain with a wooden creak; our child must have jumped onto the bench. I cross my arms, which presses a solid frame against my ribs. Ah, I was carrying my revolver, wasn’t I? I’m a huntress, the protector of a child who’s lost in a world she can’t understand, and who doesn’t know what to expect from this life.
As the vapour dissolves, I notice that from behind the uneven palisade of trees, most of which are naked except for a few semi-deciduous ones that hang on to their leaves, stick out three belfries. They end in spires topped with crosses. The structures may belong to a monastery, or to an insane asylum.
I close my eyes and take deep breaths of the crisp air, that smells of damp earth and rotting leaves. It gives me goosebumps and makes my head feel lighter. My heartbeat is slowing down. I hear the distant echoes of a barking dog, as well as the background hum of traffic like a sonic blanket draped over the city. I hear the thump thump of the music that some dickhead is blasting out of his car speakers.
A rustling in the trees past the bend in the path makes me open my eyes. I glimpse a lumbering black mass stalking the tree line. I straighten my back and uncross my arms, but after I stare at the space between those two tree trunks, I only see a mesh of branches, which quiver as if they were the timid nipples of some as-yet-to-be-discovered mammal.
I cock my head towards Jacqueline; she must be standing in front of the bench.
“Your neighbors haven’t spotted sasquatches marauding around, have they?”
She giggles, then puts a hand on my shoulder. My girlfriend must be unaware of the sasquatches’ history of kidnappings, mind-wipes and probably molestation of humans throughout the ages.
“I don’t interact with my neighbors remotely enough to bring up Bigfoot, honey. But I think that being surrounded by neighborhoods would dissuade any of those creatures from settling in this park, unless they spawn wherever a forest is present.”
“They might. I wish I could ask our girl about them; the Ice Age must have been a giant sasquatch den, where monsters and humans coexisted for many millennia. The age of miracles.”
Wait, why the hell would I be worried about sasquatches attacking us? I’m armed. I should be able to punch a few holes through the chest of a sasquatch before it manages to control my mind. That should be enough to topple over one of those eight-foot-tall interdimensional monsters. But if they were already trying to summon their goddess so she would twist her mad weavings over the world, then we’d be fucked, along with the rest of mankind.
My head is pounding; I feel like there’s an angry, feral god locked inside my skull. I dread to glance at the tree line, in case the glowing yellow eyes of a sasquatch are peering from behind a bough. Perhaps the rank stench of their musk will hit us first.
I push myself off the bench.
“We shouldn’t risk it. Let’s get going. If at any point we find ourselves in a bubble of silence and we can’t hear the breeze, I’ll grab your hand tight. You grab our girl’s. Then we’ll sprint to the nearest exit.”
“I’ll have that in mind, darling,” Jacqueline says in a serious voice.
She offers a hand to our child, who is balancing herself on the backrest of the bench, lit by the glow of the streetlamp. The girl gets the point; she jumps down to the asphalt with a soft thud. We continue strolling upwards towards the next bend in the path.
I rub my eyebrows to dispel the image of sasquatches that are hiding in the trees, behind bushes, beneath piles of leaves, waiting to pounce on us and tear us apart. A middle-aged woman’s voice startles me.
“What a cute child! Is she yours?”
A random stranger has materialized in front of us. She has a bob haircut dyed blonde, as well as round spectacles. She’s wearing an oyster-pink cardigan over a denim dress, and she’s holding a few shopping bags, one in the crook of her elbow.
This bitch must know Jacqueline. I step aside to let them talk, but the woman’s eyeballs roll to follow me. Why would this stranger care about whether the child is cute or ours? Maybe her fake smile disguises an enemy in our goal to keep the Ice Age orphan for ourselves. Maybe she endures a boring routine as a librarian or a researcher, and now she wants to feel virtuous by rescuing a child from the traffickers that have fed her tons of pastries. My fingers are itching to grip the revolver under my jacket.
When I look down at our girl, she was already staring up at me in confusion. Those monolid eyes belong to a doll. I envy that smooth peach-orange skin, and I want to squeeze her chubby cheeks while babbling nonsense. She makes an angel look like a succubus on crack.
I hold the nosy stranger’s gaze. Is she a sasquatch in disguise?
“Our child is quite pretty if you are into mongoloids. Regarding your question, does it look like my girlfriend and I can procreate? We adopted this child from the Ice Age.”
The woman grimaces, crinkling her nose, as if she reached to pet a dog only for the beast to snap its jaws at the tasty hand. She opens her mouth, then closes it.
“Excuse my utterances; I’m insane,” I add.
The woman avoids my gaze. She lowers her head and hurries to walk around us, then past the bench.
I take a deep breath. This pointless interaction has gotten my heart racing again, although I had taken a break to attenuate my anxiety.
“Is this what happens when you have a child, random people come to steal her from you?”
Jacqueline caresses my neck with a thumb. The breeze is brushing a lock of raven-black hair against her face, and when our gazes meet, she flashes a smile like a white flame.
“I have always admired your talent to stupefy people into silence,” she says huskily.
The grassy slope is already concealing the lower half of the stranger as she scurries down the path to escape us.
“I fucked up, didn’t I? Was she one of your neighbors?”
“I’ve seen her a few times; she must live around here. But who cares.”
My heart is still pumping like a piston. I shake my head.
“Why would any stranger dare to vocalize towards me? Can’t they tell that I’m unhinged?”
Jacqueline chuckles. She steps closer, lifts my chin and gazes into my eyes. A streetlamp is backlighting her head, bringing out loose hairs, but her cobalt-blues are gleaming. She’s eating me alive with her intense gaze, filling my veins with hormones, kindling something ferocious and primordial within my being.
“I love it when you lose control, baby,” she utters in a predatory tone. “It makes me want to spread you on my bed with your ass raised in the air.”
A hot jolt shoots through my body. The monster inside my brain stirs awake: the master of lust and vengeance, of addiction and despair. My blood is boiling at such a rapid pace that even our child, whose face is impressed on the fringes of my awareness, must smell it in my veins. The dark deity arrives to pulverize the mind and incite erotic insanity within me. In another life, I would have found a hideout in the park to masturbate, spreading my genital lips to spread the plague, and I wouldn’t stop myself from molesting myself in the dirt, against a tree, in the water of a pond, wherever I could reach, until I rubbed myself to death.
The Paleolithic girl, who is standing next to us, has tilted her head as she observes our interaction with curiosity.
My desperate need for cunt distorts my awareness, and for a moment I’m frozen in place. Some programmed instinct attempts to shame me for exposing a child to perversion, then I recall that this girl hangs out with us without understanding a single word of our private conversations. Maybe everyone’s children should be prohibited from learning the local language until they become adults, when they’ll have any business figuring out what the fuck is going on in this world. But perhaps that’ll be the custom when civilization degenerates to the stage where trees grow through cities, and the devolved ghouls freebase sugar sprinkled on piles of skulls.
Author’s note: the four songs for today are “Communist Daughter” by Neutral Milk Hotel, “Red Moon” by The Walkmen, “Slow Show” by The National, and “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” by Modest Mouse.
I keep a playlist of all the songs I’ve mentioned throughout this novel: here’s the link.
Holy crap, this was the most agonizing chapter to write in a long time. Took plenty of freewrites. I’ve been in an awful mood recently, which hasn’t helped.
I figured that Leire would be instinctively aware of the sasquatches’ goddess and her evil designs.
A kind neural network took time out of its day to generate plenty of images related to this chapter: here’s the link.
The next chapter should conclude the current sequence, and we’ll be getting into third-act territory.