You Don’t Breathe Because the Air is On Fire
Bill and Lucy sat on the floor in the living room, their backs against the wall, as the heavyset man limped in, helped by Lepere and the wound-mouth man (who looked worse than he did ten minutes before). Mancini came next, through the wide door into the living room, examining himself. His suit was torn and there was a scrape on his cheek. The Icelander stood with his sunglasses on in front of the fireplace, holding Bill’s pistol down at his side. Even in his working man’s coat, he looked like a Secret Service agent, stone-faced and statue-still. Yet, to Bill Prime, he looked like a man pantomiming a Secret Service agent, being still because something had instructed him to, standing upright on two legs because this was how you did it here in this particular realm of being.
Where he comes from, Bill thought, unable to keep his reeling mind in check, you don’t even breathe. You don’t breathe because the air is on fire.
The idea struck another chord in him, resonating with a part of him that wasn’t preoccupied by his terrible pains, his draining blood, or the fact that Lucy was now sharing his plight. The idea of fire made him glance down at Lucy’s hand, the one with the burn between the fingers. He saw that the blemishes were still there. Bill closed his eyes.
He opened them.
The Icelander had taken the maul from Lepere at some point. He swung it in an arc now, first with his hands choked up toward the iron, then, as he swung it, letting his grip slide over the wood toward the end. The maul came smashing down, splitting-end first, biting into the wet, stained, threadbare carpet and the wooden floor beneath. The Icelander continued to hack away in this fashion, splinters and chunks of floor flying, hitting Bill and Lucy, and raining down throughout the room. Whack. Crack. Whack. Crack. The heavyset man, Bill noticed, was gone.
“Big business in C-sections,” said Lucy next to Bill. “It’s a whole c-section generation. Designer births. Women used to squat down along the trail, now they’re making appointments and checking into hotel hospitale.”
Bill looked at her. “Luce?” Sometimes Lucy babbled like this, non sequiturs, tangents from nowhere. Sometimes it was just because Lucy was someone who talked about random things. Sometimes it was her way of concentrating on something else entirely. She glanced at him. “I’m fine,” she said.
They watched the Icelander tear up the floor with the maul, Bill and Lucy flinching from darts of wood, the man protected by his sunglasses. There’s a reason for everything, he thought.
He said to Lucy, “Why the note and tape if they just want us gone?”
Lucy shook her head, No. She squinted as some detritus flew her way, and spit out a piece of curly carpet fiber. “No, no,” she said, “that’s not entirely true.”
“What do you mean?” They spoke in practiced whispers, but Bill could have sworn the Icelander was listening in as the maul rose and fell, rose and fell. Was he going to hack up the entire living room floor?
“I mean, not everybody is coordinated, not everybody is on the same page all the time, even in business. Someone wants us here, Billy, and you know it.”
He did know it. She didn’t even have to call him Billy. He had been wondering, he had to admit, what sense it made, what with Lepere dropping him the tape – and then it struck him, sure as the maul struck more of the ancient floorboards: He’d been the one to discover the sphere. He’d been following directions, sure enough, but there was a vast difference between the person who gave the directions and the one that actually followed the route. And the witch, too. Bill realized he’d become expendable only after these two things – these ‘elements’ – had been witnessed by the rest of the men. Then, it was out the front door with him.
In the back, in the kitchen, someone had come through the mudroom door. There was a loud clatter; what sounded like lumber, like boards, knocking and vibrating as they landed in a heap.
“What about the fourth?” Bill was looking at the Icelander, who had hacked up nearly a third of the living room floor and had stopped now, wiping sweat like a road construction worker standing in the hot day. “There’s one more element,” said Bill, not liking the pleading he heard creep into his voice. “It’s not finished yet. You need us for that.”
He felt Lucy put a hand on his forearm, and at the same time, the Icelander looked over at him. Bill felt the dark, rectangled lenses on him, and the distinct sensation that there probably wasn’t, after all, anything beneath the glass aimed at him, nothing but mush in the sockets hidden behind them. Then, again like a man who’d learned American culture from watching Clint Eastwood movies in a faraway land, the Icelander turned his head to the side and spat into the floor, littered with floor bits around the ragged hole, covered in a patina of wood bits and skindust.
Bill looked down at Lucy’s hand, the one with the burn marks between the fingers. He looked up and saw something in Lucy for the first time – Lucy looked afraid.
“When the New Native American discovers himself,” she said, “the Earth will begin to renew itself.”
“Luce,” said Bill. His voice cracked on her name.
“Get in.” It was Mancini, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and living rooms. Behind him, Lepere and the wound-mouth man were carrying boards. Bill wondered for a second where they’d gotten them from. Lepere had said something before about the foaling shed, that there might have once been other hardware inside. Why did Margaret Stender still have lumber and any sort of tools lying around the place? Bill supposed it wasn’t uncommon. Perhaps there had been plans to fix up the large shed. Or form an addition on the house. Before the economy’s traffic signal had turned from yellow to red.
Lucy asked, “Beg pardon?”
“Get in the hole,” said Mancini. His voice was toneless. His eyes – it could have been a trick of the light, but Bill didn’t think so – were lightening from their muddled brown and turning a yellow-grey. Behind him, in the doorway, the heavyset man reappeared once more, limping his way in, carrying a battery-powered screwgun.
In Bill’s mind a song began to play. He must’ve heard it on the radio sometime over the last couple of days. Neil Young was singing Comes a Time.
The wound-mouth man (looking worse for the wear than ever, Bill noticed, an infection of some kind in one of the man’s swollen, red ears) hooked a hand under Lucy’s armpit and hoisted her up. He grunted with the effort. “Jesus, lady,” he gurgled, “have a salad.”
“Get up,” Mancini said to Bill.
Bill pressed against the wall and slid himself upwards. His mind raced, trying to come up with something, some reasoning, some plea. How had it come to this? Who were these men – if they were men? They acted like the preparatory crew before a presidential rally, cordoning off an area, checking for assassins. Only these men seemed more like the assassins themselves.
Oh-ho, sang Neil in Bill’s chattering mind, this ol’ world keeps spinnin’ round…
“Move it,” said Mancini, indicating the ragged hole in the living room floor. Carpet tatters lay around it, jagged and splintered chunks of wood.
Bill stepped forward, toeing the edge. It was perhaps two and a half feet deep. The bottom of the hole was concrete slab. There was no basement foundation to the rambling country home, only slab. An air gap to accommodate the slope of the earth (in the kitchen, Bill figured, there would be maybe six inches at best, as the land’s declivity was towards the front of the house, the backyard four or five feet elevated over the front).
Bill stepped in.
“Lay down,” said Mancini, and at the same time the wound-mouth man ushered Lucy into the excavation next to Bill. She moved willingly enough.
Bill sat, then reclined, the back of his head touching down on the concrete. Lucy did the same. They were side by side, and the impromptu construction crew of eyeless men started laying the lumber down on top of them. Heavyset appeared, and pressed the trigger on the screwgun. It whined to life, the chuck spinning the Phillips head bit into a blurring whirl.
It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t layin’ down, sang Neil, and the darkness formed around Bill and Lucy as the boards were lain.
Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Eight: Buried Alive and The Demon Comes (10.19.11)
CHAPTER NINE: The Dream