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Finite [ENGLISH]




" Civilization is like a thin layer of ice
upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.

" One day there will be nothing left but stories. "

" Sunsets are proof that endings can be beautiful too. "

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | (...)

(written 12-07-2016 to 29-07-2016)

It could be said that people have dropped like flies, hadn't those been thriving, as they flocked, scornfully gracing mankind's funeral with own presence; a thick shroud knitted of their buzzing bodies wreathed the corpses, which laid forsaken on the streets and in the parks of Tianjin since the moment they were let to rot wherever men drew their last breath, and dropped on their knees, then collapsed, aiming to lift themselves with blotched arms, too weak to let them crawl away, and like cockroaches hide in the shadow of one of many unpeopled skyscrapers. The latter have too showed up in herds, encouraged by the default of sanitation workers, whose shortage was suffered already during the first days due to their exposure to infected biological matter, no less eager to spread the disease after its carriers' death; the dead themselves, with faces distorted by decompositions' evil grins, seemed to look upon it all favourably - you too shall glance, they said. We're gone, you'll soon be gone too. This is our legacy. Our shared heritage.

Those who avoided infection either because of unexplainable reasons, or, exhausted, survived the incrementa [reportedly here and there vaccines were being worked on; but those were only rumours, passed from mouth to mouth, and even if they had a grain of truth to them those who were responsible for finding the cure died struck by the double-edged sword they fought with; maybe the cure itself together with new strains of bacteria was melted by a nuclear blast] from the street level were observed by the deceased and vermin, which escaped from underneath the soles and wheels whenever footsteps, screams or engines' clatter echoed in the silence each time the lonely bikers - or their groups - meandered between abandoned vehicles.

Here, at the meeting of diverse nationalities and ethnicities first divisions emerged as soon as germ warfare took its first toll; people feared - as the time has later proven, reasonably - that Hai He's current would bring death from the heartland, carrying it incubated in corpses that were ditched into the Grand Canal. The English, French, Germans, Russians, and other foreigners, who - chasing tax reliefs - came to China and until now had lived peacefully, have turned against each other and the locals, cultivating the oldest and the worst among the european traditions - "that's your fault"; "it's because of you"; "you are the ones who should have perished"; "you do not deserve to live". Survivors, more numerous than the name suggests it, fought; some neighbourhoods were captured and governed by ones - rarely in unity; among the distinct groups hostile fractions proliferated like bacteria and engaged in their own civil wars - and the rest by the others, who jostled one another as if they were kids, wrestling in a sandbox over a dry bucket. Gallons and bottles of uncontaminated water were the most demanded; food, petrol, and anything that could be used in self-defense came second; then the rest.

Pieces of broken glass jutted out the vitrines like the last of teeth spared from being knocked out in a street fight; looking closely one could sometimes notice bloodstains - someone cut themselves breaking in; somebody else's head was bashed against the window. The red fresh spots concerned Claude the most, and enforced greater wariness - they warned him that he wasn't here alone. Chunks of broken glass clattered underneath his shoes. First step, second, third, fourth - with the fifth one the sound of clicked heels resonated through the room; single chunks sprinkled the floor flaking off the soles; silence. His ribcage inflated with short, disrupted breaths. Having assured himself that the area was safe, he walked through the aisles, avoiding broken shopping carts; nearly everything was already taken, but in desolated, although not completely plundered back he found preserves, few batteries, which must have fallen out from a torn package, a set of bandages (the box had been trodden and seemed empty; perhaps for that reason it was left alone) and a bottle of juice which even a toddler would find to be too small, it must have been accidentally kicked under the counter during someone's immediate retreat. He exited through half-opened delivery gate; it was deformed and bent, as if someone had crowbarred it from the outside - in the past few days the levels of aggression rose proportionally to the rate at which stocks of food were melting in the storehouses located in the dear to everyone heart of Tianjin. Claude didn't want to know what had happened here before.

Right next to him and across the street in another shops random people, with whom he had formed a temporary alliance, were seeking loots - he and Gaspard were French; their third companion was a German, who spoke French just as much as they spoke German, but in English, disrupted by native cusses, they have came to an understanding and established arrangements that addressed matters fundamental for their future cooperation. They did not know each other, they were not fond of each other, but despite that shared whatever they've found. In Claude's opinion it was a matter of time for one to work up the courage and slaughter the others in their sleep, and then take it all - or bloodlessly run away with their joint belongings, as a traitor and a thief, putting himself at risk of revenge.

Not so long ago many were hesitating to take whatever they needed from the abandoned shops; as time has passed, these doubts focused on real estate, but once again it didn't take long for people to start breaking the locks - there were those who sought new shelter, having been banished from a place they had previously occupied; naturally, there were also those who, to satisfy their devouring avarice, were practicing it since the day it all had started. All, in a smaller or greater extent, like magpies were bringing loots to their current nests.

When approximately two weeks ago enough time has passed for everyone, who had to die, to let out their last whistling gasp, Ralf begun to make calls.
He heard signals that would last until somebody's phone would burn out; voicemails, "I can't answer your call right now, please leave a message" - he did! - "the person you are trying to reach is currently unavailable, please try your call again later"; one voice - from too far away for his "hang in there" not to be balancing on the verge of appropriacy; the most intriguing "the number you have dialed is currently busy", which he heard repeatedly over the period of one hour, until he realized that somewhere, scattered across the globe, there were laying two corpses, with their faces lit by the screens; a number of times silence has answered his phone call, and patiently listened to his sorrowful wails.
If at the time his phone rang he would inevitably crash it of joy, but the only notice that he has received was from the system, as it informed him about the battery running low; after that the screen got covered in a web of broken lines, as it bounced of a wall and hit the floor repeatedly. He husked out the sim card and hid it in his wallet with what was left of his hope; four others were already there - a German one, for the rare occasions during which he was home; English one, which he carried there since he left university and England; French one from last year's vacation; corporate one, these useless gigabytes of data - you could find some calls for help on social media, until malfunction of emergency power hasn't silenced the humming of server farms.

For whole days he was tempted to search pockets of the clothes, which covered the bodies that were rotting across the city, or to kick somebody's phone from their stiff fingers, but these intentions, when confronted with reality, made him repel, and for the rest of the day left a grimace of disgust on his face. He therefore only searched through the bags, which someone has often already emptied; and when today he has looked inside one and found a powerbank of questionable capacity he heard the echo of that slam, wall-floor, which was drowned out only by the tempest of frustration that took his thoughts over. This entire time he himself was unreachable for anyone, who would have enough luck to find the signal, power and his number, and naivety, to be seeking rescue that way; he hasn't cautiously copied his contacts; calling and texting was pointless, and if he'd think about it at the right angle - absolutely nothing had a point anymore. But he took it, some painkillers, and tissues, which he disposed on his way when they turned out to have already been opened.

He assumed that some sense of security could be reached either by being ostentatiously loud, or by silencing every rustle of the fabric and every creak of the joints, which accompanied each step that he made in this irrational hurry - often nothing but wind carried right from the waterfront could conceal this noise, as its whistle was forcing its way in between the buildings. Despite there being every chance that humanity could only revisit its barbarian stage, to realise it he needed a number of direct incidents.
The herds that surged through the shops have quickly purged their shelves, although some of these people could hardly nibble on their reserves before leaving them and own bodies to unsparing putrefaction; it was dangerous to run into one of the groups which entertained themselves by chasing the Europeans away with everything they found within their arms' reach; when a gun was pointed at him he, without hesitation, put the sixpack of water on the ground and retreated with his hands up, despite knowing, that the man who had his finger on the trigger knew about shooting about as little as he did.

He didn't consider this savageness necessary, until finally he found himself kicking a frail silhouette that searched through a pile of boxes, and then has frightened the person away with yet another kick as soon as he noticed her hand that reached for already gnawed food. In spite of all his virtues he begun to see those who shrunk of hunger as just as repelling as the infected and their corpses. Biologically justified aversion was supposed to ensure survival, and when the shortages begun to occur the competitiveness increased - just as the percentage of those who died as its consequence.

Whenever plans and suggestions emerged there were none who could ensure their realization. Barricades - made of strategically parked cars and furniture scattered across the street - that have appeared in some of the neighbourhoods could be considered the only memorials erected in the loving memory of cooperation. They were supposed to keep the epidemic outside their borders; unsuccessfully.

Even the union which he formed with the two Frenchmen didn't give his hopes much leeway. Some time ago he got along with a particular neurotic Englishmen, but one day they haven't found each other after separating to explore different sectors of a mall - when he called out his name some movements in a nearby shop were the only thing which he heard in response, but they were too numerous to be him; and now Ralf waited to share his fate. As he entered the room on its other end some boxes fell on the floor; some people started to run, but the pace at which their shoes hit the ground suggested they were only kids, who must have found something if they fled. With some hesitation and without unnecessary hurry he followed them, until a pot was thrown at him from one of the windows, and smashed on the ground precisely in the number of pieces, in which he'd like to shatter the skull of whoever hid under the ledge.

"Did they steal something from you?", he heard one of the familiar voices when he approached his companions; they were already waiting at the checkpoint. English disrupted their French conversation only for a moment, making another defiant request slip from his mouth, for them to, at least when he's around, withhold any comments he could not understand.

At the checkpoint they sat on gate's staircase - behind their back they had a fence, separating them from Shanghai Road; in the front they had rows of banks, medical centres, single hotels and shops, where others kept exploring. Gaspard, who having superficially searched the nearby buildings left empty-handed, if one disregarded the two trifles he brought, and only in the Tanggu high school - some time ago turned by the government into a field hospital due to all medical institutions being overfilled - has managed to enrich his resources by a few cans of salted peanuts, five untouched bottles of water and four of cola. He found all of this in nurses' stations scattered inside the building, but at an enormous cost, as he later told them while sharing the loots, which till now he dragged as if he was a workhorse, and while doing so described classrooms, converted into makeshift isolation wards, in which the infected decayed. Sour, vomit-inducing stench has been successfully keeping majority of people at distance.

We could check the harbor, they reckoned as one, and just as quickly as they grasped this idea their ecstatic excitement has turned into doubts. In the left to itselves containers they could find everything they needed and much more, but only on the condition it didn't grow mold; having gone below deck of any nearby ship they could surely make up for the losses of last days, but their mouths bursted with questions regarding the fact, that somebody could have gotten ahead of them and occupy the port. As the military actions begun all ships considered hostile were held captive together with their crews and goods as bargaining cards, but in the end there wasn't a single person left who could make use of them; how many of the sailors could have possibly survived? How many local enclaves were formed? Even with an overly optimistic assumption that in the state of amok they eradicated each other, there was no rule that said their own countrymen haven't yet claimed the goods.

From the very beginning Russians were avoided in particular - it was said that at the early stage of new collectives being formed some, in accordance with totalitarian patterns, gripped own fellow countrymen by their snouts and never let go; that they moved in herds like wild dogs that circled through Moscow's suburbs, attacking trespassers without a clear reason; this and other stories sprouted on the fertile grounds of prejudices and fears, but couldn't have come out of the blue. Bunches that matched these descriptions could be seen here and there, but for security reasons others stood out of their way without determining nationalities of respective units - they might have as well been Europeans mixed with locals; or, just as easily, only Germans, Spaniards, or the English, none of whom would be suspected of similar extent of bestialization.

While they discussed it, afar, within their field of view, some children materialized, hid in the stairwell and shut its doors behind themselves; then a single bang disrupted the suburban silence and finally, from around the corner, Ralf emerged. Having established whether he was robbed or not, and what had he found, they returned to the subject of harbor, until the profit and loss account balance forced them to require third party's opinion.
'We can search through the neighbourhood till we drop', concluded Claude, having briefly introduced Ralf to the issues whose resolution they sought. 'It's a waste of time and unnecessary misuse of our energy.'
'There's no guarantee that elsewhere you'll be able to find-'
'There's no need for you to be telling me that', he interrupted Ralf, 'We've already discussed it.'
'Oh really?', irony could be heard in the German's voice.
'Does a slight increase in the degree of risk make that big of a difference?'
'There's a chasm between "alive" and "dead". And health to be lost-'
'As for someone whose countrymen had started two - excuse me, this one makes it three - world wars, you really shouldn't be bothered by such nuances', he interrupted Ralf again, irritated. 'You can lose your health everywhere - we can leave behind both it, and you. You don't want to go - then stay.'
Something about Ralf's expression changed; something uncatchable.
'Then prepare a white flag - what a devastating loss it would be if the French had nothing to wave with, begging on their knees for mercy.'

By looking too closely and paying too much attention one could broaden his knowledge with information, without which the weight of recent events wouldn't be so terribly overwhelming - it was a fact that some bodies had their parts missing since the locals begun to recommend achieving immunity with few bites of the infected flesh (Ralf expected the population to decimate as a result, and equally impatiently waited for this custom be misinterpreted, just as many others already were, and make him - them - find themselves at the tips of butcher's knives); and it was a fact that both his voice and facial expression soon made one thing obvious: he had no intention of facing all of it alone. Not because being on your own came at the cost of enormous losses; nor because all the uncanny sounds could no longer be prescribed to own loud companions, for the sake of not facing a much scarier reality, whose core components were other people - and he didn't want to meet them knowing that in the name of survival they were eager and ready to do precisely what he found himself capable of; for Ralf it all came down to embedding his mind in social standards, which, when alone, he recently begun to break more often.

If the time shown by his synchronised wristwatch hasn't made him turn towards the gate, where he was already awaited, he'd go forward, grab something, something sharp, something heavy, and would follow the pack of kids who hid as soon as he reached the checkpoint.
If the time shown by his synchronised wristwatch hasn't made him turn towards the gate, he'd lay on the ground with his skull shattered, not knowing that a bigger, more organised structure stood behind the childish silhouettes, which out of curiosity would hover above him, and trace the blood escaping his body.
'Since you decide to take such a far trip down memory lane, let us recall Moscow, which we, following your own attempts-'
'There's no correlation.'
'We'll see.'
Claude gritted his teeth, not letting out a single word which tried to burst from his mouth.
'We should go', instead Gaspard has risen his voice, as he looked around with some resignation, making their conversation spread even louder through the neighbourhood.
'Oh I'm sure.'
'... away from here. You'll finish that later. Come on, move.'

'So what's the plan?'
Ralf evened his pace with Claude.
'You want somebody to hear it and jeopardize its success?'
'It's almost as if you read my mind.'
'Don't worry, I'm sure you'll get a chance to show off with some German tactical thinking.'
Since beidou became inaccessible despite the satellites steadily hanging on Earth's orbit, Ralf started to drop by tourist points looking for Tianjin's maps, and always, at the last moment, pushed away the urge to requisition them all and as the demand reached its peak trade them for anything he would be lacking at the moment; or to burn them, so that everyone would be equally lost as he was, remembering solely the familiar routes which he used to move across the city before the epidemic, before the war.
Taking each turn could make them face danger, although as the nomadic groups, which wandered between the buildings, begun to settle one could mark their territories on the maps - but it was still too early for that.
Ralf had to leave his most far-reaching plans for later, often not believing that anything besides a warm meal or a sip of water - taken without remorse and awareness of the fact that he'll have to wait hours before taking the next one - could make him happier.
Among other concrete caves Gaspard's apartment seemed the most suitable, regardless of how often Ralf had the vision of a hotel, in which society could be restored; this noble idea, however - and others, which he enjoyed exploring - was only supposed to outshine the rest of his dark thoughts. It was this idea that allowed him to maintain some human dignity, along other measures, which he subconsciously took to preserve it. The keys turned in two of the outside locks; then again on the inside.
'Do you have any idea', he started, reaching his backpack, 'how far away harbor really is and how impassable some of the streets are?'
'Haven't I made myself clear?'
'You have', a can hissed as Gaspard opened it, 'But let me take a look.'

From the balcony a view of the massive skyscrapers expanded towards the horizon (each building was the darker the longer and deeper shade it casted; even if someone stood in one of the windows, Claude couldn't possibly see them from where he stood) behind which the setting sun, in many aspects similar to a rusty yuan, begun to hide. In twilight's darkness the tips of two imported cigarettes were glowing - spiral streams of smoke were climbing the air, and disappearing as the sky slowly turned gray.
From the insides of the apartment a pleasant noise of water again flowing down the pipes has reached them; a day ago they supplied its shortages by bringing gallons from the resident's pool located beneath the building - it was chlorinated, and hence useless for other purposes. Bringing it up on the fourth floor was neither easy nor pleasant and if the impenetrable darkness - and the persecutory delusions associated with it - hasn't overtaken floor minus one, not to mention the oblivious risk of breaking one's ankle or neck on the slippery tiles, they would have scraped dirt of their skins downstairs.
'We should get rid of him.'
Claude didn't answer, nor did he let him know in any other way that he understood a word from what was said to him; together with Gaspard, who was leaning against the railing, he vacantly stared ahead, as if they talked about the weather.
'Dying in one's sleep is a nice death. Two minutes and there would be just the two of us left.'
'Did you suggest him the same thing?', Claude asked eventually. The smell of tobacco floated above them for a while; then wind carried its cloud away.
'I was hoping I wouldn't have to', Gaspard replied, 'Think this over - of course, if you insist on standing by your stance, you can just as well leave tonight.'
'What a generous act of mercy.'
'Who said it has to be you? Even if now it's of little to no relevance - we're both French. And your own people come first', Gaspard reminded him. 'Besides, we could use each others' help.'
'You're willing to get rid of a pair of hands that's just as helpful.'
'I saw you haven't taken a single look at the map, and he too must have noticed. Tell me, how long have you lived here?'
'Long enough.'
'How many years?', Gaspard insisted, Claude shrug his shoulders lethargically.
'Nine, maybe ten. If you're looking for a tour guide ask a rigsaw - some must have made it.'
Gaspard ignored the latter comment; instead of answering right away he threw the cigarette butt out and traced its flight, until it was out of his sight.
'You see, I've lived here for three years - and for these three years I was not interested in anything that happened outside my office. Maybe that was a mistake, but how could I know?', he laughed shortly, but quickly got serious again. 'I've lead a comfy life - a good life', he admitted. It seemed to Claude that Gaspard was talking to himself, not to him; then the latter snapped out of the deep thought and addressed him directly again. 'Make up your mind till tomorrow, please. We could get rid of him even in the harbor.'
'You're going to make it look like an accident?'
'Not necessarily. Making him think it was one should do.'

Ralf, crammed in a recliner, was happy to be falling asleep with his blonde hair still wet - even if he slept only for an hour, and even if only to wake up more anxious than he was before his consciousness surrendered, hid behind his shut eyelids, and kept on listening despite him hardly understanding a word. Lights of the torches occasionally ran through the city, nearly invisible from their floor's level - majority of sudden brightness that lit the streets sourced from the moon, which flashed every once in a while from behind the clouds that raced across the sky. His instinct warned him not to move, and made him tighten all of his muscles until their ongoing readiness made him ache; around five in the morning he got up, and took a walk through the apartament, fighting the urge to get out, into the night. He always considered late-night walks to be the safest - noone in their right mind would harass somebody who, too, wasn't afraid to go outside after midnight; and now, in the present state of both the world and his mind, he would be the one to terrorize the streets.
'Go back to sleep', he heard a murmur from the couch on which Claude was sleeping, so inaudible that if it wasn't for the deafening silence he wouldn't have understood him.
'Shut your mouth', Ralf whispered equally unintelligibly.

'Looks like we're walking from here.'
The engine went silent. Five meters ahead of them the street was cut in half with barricades, chains, wiring, and climbing ropes that kept it all together.
'There's a long way-'
'I did what I could', Claude interrupted him impatiently, getting his gloves and a torque wrench off the dashboard. 'A short walk won't kill you.'
The German seemed as if he wanted to elaborate, but in the last moment decided not to; Gaspard, in accordance with conclusions drawn the day before, moved on to open every compartment and the trunk; the car was supposed to look as if it had already been searched thoroughly, after being rushly abandoned - so that bypassers wouldn't bother to drain its tank, or waist their time slashing the tires.
Gaspard and Ralf went first, sometimes looking over their shoulders to make sure Claude wasn't going to turn back and drive away without them; he himself then caught up with them, scampering vigorously, with still warm sparkling plugs weighting his jacket down; the keys, useless without them, stayed in the car, underneath the foremost passenger seat.

'I'll go around', Ralf declared, stretching his neck as he looked up on Gaspard and Claude, who without much effort tried to look over the barricade - the first one which couldn't be crossed neither from beneath nor above. With some resignation Ralf nodded, pointing with his chin at own hands, ready to lift the two of them; his arms and knees trembled in effort supporting Gaspard's weight as he climbed up, but soon returned to their initial position before Claude could say anything, and before he himself could think of leaving the Frenchman alone on the other side. He should have been alarmed when his proposal wasn't met with anyone's objections, and more so, when in response to own 'I'll be right behind you' he hasn't heard anything more specific than 'sure thing'.

Rubbing his hands on pants' fabric he cleaned them of gravel and other shards that leeched onto the soles of their shoes; having noticed few points which, stripped of skin, slowly begun to turn red, he reached for one of the sanitizing tissues that he regularly collected from the shelves of the passed drugstores. And then tossed it at own feet, disturbingly eager to carry him to the top floor, to the roof. Going through the corridors he pressed on every door handle, until one of them gave in, letting him inside the printing house, using whose backdoor he could have come out, hadn't they been closed shut in advance. In the single window only a side wing could be opened; he had to take it out, so that grabbing its frame he could jump from the height of one and a half meter. His legs collapsed beneath him when the wave of pain reached his joints, making him fall on the ground, but after a couple of longer moments he got up and, stumbling, started to walk towards where he thought he came from. Two corners and one unnecessary turn later he got on the other side, only to discover that noone has waited for him - neither in front of the barricade, nor anywhere within his sight. He took a deep breath.
'Shut up and come!'
He tied his shoelaces, rolled up the sleeves of his hoodie, adjusted his backpack, and watching his step went towards where Claude's voice - having echoed between the nearby buildings, which as he walked grew in size and importance for the economy - seemed to be coming from.

Stairway draping building's eastern wall squeaked under every step, and bolts that attached it to the entirety of the structure wriggled, trying to position themselves in holes that a couple of years ago have already loosened. It was one of the warehouses stretched within the few kilometers from harbour, having climbed on top of which they could finally see the skyline with a ship anchored closer to the horizon than the docks; for a brief moment it looked as if it was sailing towards them. From that height the vehicles spreaded across the area looked like toys, left by a child whose mother called him for dinner; he was never going to return and play with them again. Ralf spent a while standing on the roof's edge, then took a walk along it and unable to locate any familiar building, at least the logistic centre, which disappeared in this composition, he sat on a ventilator, having made sure it won't collapse beneath him. He laid down on it observing the sky and the shore - hundreds of kilometers away North Korea must have spilled across the continent, perhaps spared by her isolationist policy - until he got involved in the conversation, interlaced with laughter, that the French continued without him.

Gaspard again and again stared morbidly at Ralf's back and even before his gaze meet Claude's - just after Ralf, unaware of it all, had stopped on the roof's edge; a light push would make him fall right into Death's yearning embrace - he knew well enough what he was going to see in the eyes of his countryman, possessed by this single thought. In the silence Claude firmly shook his head - not now, not now - to which Gaspard responded with an assuring, yet hesitant nod. They needed Ralf just as the Nomads needed beasts of burden or - Gaspard laughed the previous evening, as if Claude told him a good, yet flat-falling joke - just as the Romans needed Jesus to carry own cross at the Calvary.

'Why aren't you in the zone?', Ralf shouted, noticing the hunched back of a man who tried to tear the plastic that wrapped each of the pallets - having heard his voice he went still and after a while turned toward him, eyeing Ralf up with the wild gaze of an animal, whose territory was violated. With a genuine smile and expression of cheerful surprise Ralf made his way toward him, jokingly apologizing for mistaking him with somebody else.
'Is English okay? Any chronic diseases? Injuries? We have three medics back there and priority for the newcomers; we rarely find them in a decent condition. Are you all right, sir?'
Not a single sound escaped man's parted lips, but the corners of his mouth rose as he made a few careful steps towards Ralf; Ralf wouldn't have touched him without the glove that separated his scratched hand from man's comfortingly patted back.
'Why haven't we seen you before? Two trucks have already arrived, and we were sent here only to calculate how our food supplies should be rationed. You haven't run into any of our squads, have you?'
'Sometimes they look quite threatening, but those more easy on the eye aren't capable of carrying the boxes', he smiled. 'Were you afraid to approach them?'
The man laughed quietly, nervously.
'Are you alone?', Ralf continued. 'We could send someone to get you and bring you to safety. It's a long way, but trust me, it's really worth it. We run a canteen there, and all-', he fished the switchblade out of his pocket, cut the plastic wrap, and handed one of the cartons over to the man.
'My English isn't very good-'
'I'm sure you'll find someone with whom you could get along. You wouldn't believe how many people we managed to gather', Ralf looked outside the container, inside of which they stood. 'Where's Guo, Yating, and that other guy-'
The names he came up with must have belonged to someone he used to know, but he couldn't remember whom.
'I saw them!'
'Really? Which way did they go?'
'That way. But it was long ago. Will you take me and my friend? I don't know where he is, not too far away. I think there are others, but they-'
'Sure. You can look for him while we're around. We won't lose you if you're loud enough', Ralf wrapped his hand around his back, escorting him outside. 'It's safe, go on, you'll be alright. Just go that way.'
'What the fuck are you doing, Ralf?'
'Wait a minute. Are you armed? With knives, guns, anything of that nature? I must ask before letting you inside the car. There already was an incident or two, just so you know. They do a pat-down at the entry, one guy already swallowed a bullet because he refused to let go of his knife, would you believe? They shouldn't fight violence with more violence, don't you think? They'll ask you what your job was, but personally, I don't care. Every life is worth its weight in gold.'
'Ralf!', Gaspard called out.
'I almost believed you', Claude said, approaching him.
'And so did I', Ralf let laughter escape his clenched throat. His fingers tightened on the Chinese's arm. 'Go that way. Shout if you see anyone and tell them you've been sent by some European fellows. We'll join you later.'

When the Chinese disappeared out of their sight, Claude, for a moment that couldn't last longer than one heartbeat, thought that Gaspard - seemingly relaxed and suddenly lightened; only a closer look made him realise that the smile didn't reach his eyes, as if the corners of his mouth were lifted on two hooks - will pounce on Ralf right here, right now; sun's reflection in Ralf's switchblade, which seamlessly cut through layers of plastic, got this haste out of his head.
This afternoon was filled with distant echo of sounds resonating within abdomens of the empty containers, with the noise of broken locks, failing to protect the warehouses, and that of ripped packaging, but above all with yelling ("take it, this might be useful", "leave it", "take", "give me a hand with that one", "help", "move", "on the count of three") - and after completing each of the tasks Claude once again established this unspoken agreement between him and Gaspard.
Not now, not now.
They focused on work, with short, nearly symbolic breaks for rest. Occasionally seagulls could be heard - their screams, often resembling those of a child, at first distracted them; they listened to them until they became indifferent to their calling. Much more often it were the squeaks of ungreased hangar doors opening in front of them that tore the silence apart - when for the first time inside of one they came across corpses in advanced stage of decay, Claude covered his mouth with a sleeve, stopping in the doorway with Ralf, who didn't do it in time and choked on polluted air before stepping back and doing the same.
'Do we really want to enter?', asked Claude, moving away just enough not to let the fumes make him gag.
'Not really. There are other ones.'
Gaspard, who having explored the school grounds likely became less prone to shock, looked over his shoulder and once again Claude felt his half asking, half urging gaze. When, Claude? When?
Not now.

From the pavilion filled with the deceased they brought nothing but death's stench in their nostrils.

'We could turn back', Claude suggested, zipping up his backpack, in front of which he kneeled for the past few minutes making sure he won't lose its content on the way. Their baggage kept slowly but visibly swelling up in the past few hours. Ticks filled with fresh blood, he thought. 'It will last us for a long time.'
'Just one more', said Gaspard. He was clearly tired, they all were tired, but only he still had some life left in him. 'Just one more and we'll go - let Ralf finish if he has already started', he added with an indecent grin, not reflected by anyone.
When the deformed padlock, together with what was left of the lock itself, the crowbar, and a blunted bolt cutter, fell on the ground, a blade flashed in Gaspards hand. Claude bared his teeth in a silent warning, unable to call him to order in any other way.
Not now.
Now, now, precisely now.
He shrugged his shoulders. I feel sorry too, Claude.
The wrath and bitterness caused by the world, in which he was forced to find himself overnight, until this moment - as if passing through a lense - were focused in the person of the German, but now concentrated on Claude, who similarly to a mirror stepped between them trying to redirect these centred beams; Gaspard didn't like what he saw in this reflection - it wasn't the kind of person he considered himself to be, nor the kind as which he would like to be perceived. His pocketknife, punched out of his hand (a solid one, not even slightly resembling cheap local products, falling apart after a month of usage, what Claude had noticed earlier, when the knife fell out of Gaspard's jacket as he dusted it off) similarly to a woman brushed against Ralf's arm - gracefully, almost seductively, as if in the attempt of stealing a shy lover's kiss - and having missed the base of his skull in a safe distance, and the exposed side of his neck, with a loud thump fell nearly at his feet; and having bounced a few times off the ground temptingly landed a couple of meters further - close enough for them to reach it, but far enough to make them both throw themselves quickly like speedsters, who on the given signal jumped off the starting blocks.
Claude was the first to catch it, then Gaspard, but soon it again disappeared accompanied by screams and swearing, only to appear and hide again, appear
and hide again, appear, just as blood on their faces, on sliced arms and on fingers, and finally a key in Claude's hand. Uncontrollably rising and dropping throat appeared in his sight. Gaspard's raspy
breath changed into growling, as he pounced on Claude. For a moment his vision blurred
and sharpened again, just as the shadow casted by the pocketknife around which Gaspard clenched his fist. He let go of it, yelping miserably, when a kick punched it out of his hand, and another one caved his nose into the sinuses. Ralf's switchblade straightened up like a soldier on guard duty
[ NO ]
with a discrete, but distinctive ching. Gaspard tried to get up, but blood flooded his eyes. He tripped.
His whining echoed. Claude remembered the white flags which Ralf has mentioned.
White flags on a battlefield.



(written 30-07-2016 to 08-08-2016)

Ralf often heard he was a good man - too good - and he really was, he hardly ever said no, donated some percentage of his income to charity and took an intense interest in everyone's wellbeing, lended money not demanding repayment of these loans, and did numerous favours never wanting anything in return; he looked at everyone with gentleness of botticellian Aphrodite, only occasionally and in private letting his face take the shape of John the Evangelist's frown - the expression which he made while listening to commands of the God, combined of her and other members of the Greek pantheon.
The trachea was the last to burst under his blade's pressure; at first, despite the effort and prayers he couldn't pierce it - it was easier to stab Gaspard in the gut and under the ribs, to only then, having practiced this movement, repeat it again on his neck, which was already covered in the redness of blood, springing from beneath his sliced skin.
He was a good man in an atoning manner; polite like a convict, who still hoped to be acquitted, like a child, who tried to distract from own disobedience with kisses and sweet words - hoping his mother will never notice that broken vase - he was like a husband, who having cheated on his wife became more affectionate, and was suddenly ready to squander his fortune spoiling her with gifts and daily bouquets; as if from the very moment he was born he bore the weight of the most original sin, of something terribly vile and unforgivable. He spent his life diverting others' attention away from it, pointing his finger at the bright future ahead of them and promising it to every person he met; he didn't allow even himself to catch a glimpse of the dark shadow which he casted.
He lived as if every of his past acts of kindness was a price he had to pay for plucking the switchblade from Gaspard's body, seemingly indifferent to the gushes of blood that made its handle slippery, and for every other crime which he unknowingly committed; afar, the Chinese curled up, stabbed to death, of which Ralf Voigt was guilty, despite him not seeing the man after some time ago he disappeared behind one of the hangars.
Ralf took a look at Gaspard - he could have left him alone once he no longer posed a threat, writhing like an insect on the ground; but didn't he finish him off in an act of mercy, sparing him from further pain?; after all, there was no medical help he could have received - then looked at Claude - who froze, as if the thick crust of drying blood made him unable to move, and who only later started to crawl away from the red pool that kept spilling further and further - and finally he looked at himself; his clothes were soaked, as if wearing them he jumped into a claret ocean. Their weight slowed him down; the hand he gave Claude couldn't stand the gravity and fell back down Ralf's side before the Frenchman could grab it. Ralf promptly ignored the metallic odour in the air and the taste in his mouth, and picking up his backpack aimed to encourage his companion to follow his footsteps, many of which left bordeaux imprints on the road.
Halfway there he suddenly stopped, finally becoming aware of a warm stream running down his torso; he patted his body down and with the same dread that appeared in his eyes as he stared at own stomach, covered in sticky, scarlet, bloody smudges, he looked at Claude, only to after a moment of hesitation ask him:
'Are you alright?'
A few seconds of silence.
'Yes... Yes.'
They continued their march again.
'A short walk won't kill you, huh?'
Claude didn't answer.
Blood dripped down his hand.
'I'll drive.'
He didn't say a word in response.

'Just go, go, I'll carry it myself. Go. Just leave me some water.'
The stairwell was flooded with darkness and only single specks of light came through the windows, despite it seeming there was none left on the outside; it reflected in Claude's eyes when the stairs forced him to face Ralf. His gaze avoided him.
Had adrenaline stopped rushing through Ralf's veins, while dragging two of their backpacks upstairs - step after step, step after step - he would have felt the pain of every single fiber of his muscles that silently snapped, unaccustomed to this effort. Having reached the second floor he heard water, splashing. Its small amount awaited him next to half-opened bathroom door, which he entered to grab a brush and - prior to lighting the candles - scrub black dirt from underneath his fingernails, from the pores of his skin, from the swirls of his papillary ridges. When his lighter spat out fire what seemed to be black gloves, reaching up to his elbows, glew red in the light. Water, already tinted with blood, left a pink coating on his arms, which he could only dry with a towel before reaching for clean clothes.
'Are you dead there?'
Claude hasn't left the bathroom for a long time.
'Bandages. Are there any more bandages left?'

Roof's entrance reopened with a silent tap caused by a brick that prevented the door from spreading any wider. Claude's gaze, hazy just like the night sky, slipped from the firmament onto the patio - grass, unwatered, died some time ago, bushes have wilted; only small trees, adapted to this condition, still looked the same as prior to the beginning of the end - and finally stopped on half-empty bottle, before he stared into the distance again.
'Is that you, Ralf?', he made sure, asking instead of looking over his shoulder. 'Did you find the note? Did Gaspard have a spare key?'
'Maybe - but you left the door open. I didn't have to check.'
'Maybe', Claude repeated.
The dry grass rustled with each of Ralf's steps.
'Are you drinking?'
Claude wasn't sure if what he picked up in his voice was mockery, or pity.
'Yesterday we promised each other that we'll open it today - you know on what occasion, don't you?', he tried to chat with him, smiling with bitter superiority; but the next moment the smile went out, replaced by seriousness accompanying a toast. 'Here's to you, Ralf.'
'Perhaps you consider me broken, perhaps you're wondering what to to with me if by the morning I won't decide to jump', he pointed at the roof's edge, 'but you see - it's not exactly how it works; I'm a reed - I bend. You don't have to look at it', he explained calmly. 'And, oh, don't be scared of me, I won't touch your sacred share of water, although reeds really, really like water.'
'You're drunk and-'
'That you can be sure of, but it's better than being dead - do you think you'd play this role well?', he asked with contempt, raising a toast to the moon, which vanished among the clouds. 'It was a close call, today. You see, Gaspard tried to leave me with no choice - he wrongfully assessed the situation; he gave me an ultimatum at the wrong time and at the wrong time he raised his hand at you. If only he had waited... But you're smarter, aren't you, Ralf? I can see that you are. A ta santé!'
'You shouldn't have let your patriotism exceed the symbolism: the wine ought to be German, for this is my blood, drink it in remembrance of me! but in the end, it fits.'
Claude's pupils twitched; their darkness rumbled; something came to life and surfaced, having emerged from the very bottom of his conscience - like a shark, lured with the smell of fresh blood, the ribbons of which escaped the meet he's been feed - but it soon turned back, scared off by Ralf's gaze, making his eyes strangely cloudy until he blinked a couple of times.
The wine affected their stares, their hands, the mere touch of which made Ralf realize how deeply he yearned to be embraced as he reassuringly patted the back of Claude's hand, their speech and their breaths, both loud in the night's profound silence, which was disrupted solely by their two voices; whenever they kept quiet for too long Claude spoke up, as if he didn't want the third one to join them; and finally their steps, I'll be fine, I got this, stay away.
'You'll kill yourself walking down these stairs.'
In contrast to daytime, the nights didn't differ much from others that came before them - only the edges were sharper, the surfaces more unreliable, and every unexplainable cramp felt on the body called for 112, 120!, who could have known if they both weren't in need of a tetanus shot; but if one could ignore it, the nights seemed as if in the morning one could still get up, and having put on one of freshly ironed shirts still go to work, joining the crowd, the rivers of which used to flow through the streets only to then reach a common destination.
Ralf knew that in the morning the memory of every felt and passed corpse will fade, just as all images disappeared in front of his closed eyes; but until then he remembered every detail: there was Gaspard's dead body; there were their bodies, now more aware of own mortality than ever before; there was every corpse that was yet to drop dead - because of a coincidence, because of illness, because of t h e m.
He offered Claude a sleeping pill, breaking one in half with a knife.

'Were you hoping to lure here someone else with that smell?', Claude entered the room.
Ralf looked at his reflection in the mirror, which he put on a sill - he was just finishing shaving in the sunlight that was coming through the window; for a moment he took the blade away from the skin of his cheek, wiping the rest of shaving cream with his thumb. The air was soaked with the smell of pancakes - he made them on a gas burner using a premade powder, which according to the instructions was milliliters of water away from a nutritious meal; he boiled some water for coffee, using its steam to heat the towel; he then held it wrapped around his jaw, placed two plates on the table and in between them put everything he considered appropriate for breakfast, discovering, with some bitter amusement, that this morning his choice was broader than prior to the epidemic - even if the contents of the jars and boxes wouldn't be met with his enthusiasm before its outbreak.
'Help yourself.'
He applied aftershave, more expensive than any which he used before. Ralf got up early, not caring to look at the clock which still displayed the time; it's been a while since he checked the date, he didn't know which day of the week it was, nor which month. He looked into the backpacks as if they were two fridges, and spent a while going through their content, at the same time thinking that these few forthcoming days, free of the earthbound struggle for water and food, will be worse than any of those which he spent preoccupied with mere survival. When it came to a purpose greater than that he thought too far ahead, making own ideas seem surreal, and causing him to burst with laughter.
Black trash bags laid next to the door; they contained their clothes and Gaspard's blood cells.

To forget Gaspard's face - his angry screams; the way he wailed, no longer able to utter a word; how in his final impulse he fought back, despite knowing he was doomed to failure regardless of the effort put in pushing his executioner away; and lastly how he wheezed, choking - Claude needed the nausea, the pulsating and haunting headache, which jointly came after him in the morning; at first he accepted them as a fair punishment for what he did - for what Ralf did - but after a few hours it became his scourge, and before the sunset he had lost sight of why he decided to get drunk, now remembering only to take two more pills before going to bed, and to change the soaked bandages. In the evening, feeling the urge to do something - anything - with rising l'esprit de corps during Ralf's absence he cooked dinner, too lavish for these Spartan conditions, and responded to his questioning looks with "would you rather wait until it expires?"; whenever he looked down on his bandaged forearm and the sliced inside of his hand, he asked himself whether or not he too, within the next two weeks, will only be worthy of being thrown in the rubbish bin along outdated dried meat, should the wounds get infected. Several times - while chopping brined vegetables with unnecessary engagement - he wondered if he would have broken even letting Gaspard split Ralf's throat open; then kept trying to convince himself that the man whom he idealized after his death, motivated by remorse, was far from the one of flesh and blood, and even if Ralf had the tendency to be a waspish bastard, he should keep turning a blind eye on it, as long as he was willing to cooperate.

'Just go to sleep already.'
'You took the words right out of my mouth.'
Claude, who for some time now with his eyelids half-closed was listening to the way rain drummed against the window, reminding him about inevitable onset of the monsoon season, and to the steps of Ralf, who behaved like an encaged animal, now lifted himself on his elbows.
'You're getting on my nerves.'
'Once again - I could have said the very same thing.'
'Donne, au moins jusqu'au soir, repos au généreux, a Cain le remords', Claude mumbled the words of a prayer under his breath, throwing the blankets aside, 'et pense a moi un peu.'
'Nothing. Lay down', he said over his shoulder, opening the balcony door. 'Do you smoke?'
'Don't you see a conflict of interests there?'
'It's the ersatz of a glass of warm milk. Maybe that will make you fall asleep.'
The German turned on his heels and finally stopped; with the cigarette that he was offered held in between his lips he leaned towards the flare of lighter's fire, which Claude out of habit covered with his hand when the curtains bloated like sails as the wind blew stronger.
'It's dripping again', Ralf noticed.
Ralf let the smoke out of his lungs and pointed at Claude's hand; crimson flowers bloomed on the white bandage.
'That's nothing.'
'Perhaps it requires stitching up.'
'I'll ask my doctor during my closest appointment; could you please call him in the morning and ask if I could visit him? Oh - the reception won't answer, because everyone is dead. Bang go the stitches', he replied, moving his gaze from the nearby rooftops onto Ralf. 'Too bad.'
Silence. The cigarette butt, hissing, drowned in a rain-filled ashtray.
'Maybe I could-'

Ralf, who out of boredom looked through the content of Gaspard's closet, where they kept their own belongings, for a brief moment has lost interest in the found collection of pocket squares.
'Have you ever sewn anything?', Claude addressed him, clutching own fist to his chest; he knew the answer and the moment he heard it he begun to wonder, if this this need of seeking confirmation shouldn't be classified as masochism, or at least its seed.
'Then why did you offer to?'
'Is it bad that I want to help you?', Ralf looked at the silks again.
Some time has passed before Claude released a resigned sigh.
'With you, the Germans, many things are simply wrong.'
'You shouldn't insult your surgeon right before the surgery.'
'Try not to fuck it up.'

When many years ago, still in his native Toulouse, the dog, which he too roughly pushed away, in an act of revenge sunk his teeth into flesh of owner's leg, it seemed to Claude that the suffering caused by yanking it out of its mouth will follow him right to the grave; that it will weaken only to attack again, and again, and again, as it did when the wound was sterilised and numbed, as it did when the stitches were put in and taken out. This didn't happen, but the sense of some sort of permanency of that experience has never faded away; it was like a museum exhibition, drenched in tarpaulin, waiting for a worker to notice it and spare from oblivion.
The curator with such fatal fancies turned out to be Ralf.
The itching of Claude's skin on the very sight of the first-aid-kit, which they gradually expanded, was a mere prelude; as the needle was threaded, and as it entered it, at first shy chords - in comparison with the ones that were yet to come - emerged from his mouth; after the third stitch was made his nerve endings begun to play own Dies irae; before Ralf finished Claude - his compassion for Gaspard melted away like fat, leaving him only hatred; if he wasn't forced to grab his knife by its very blade to push it away from the throat, this whole bizarre experiment wouldn't be necessary - in spite of himself accompanied this choir, the singing of which was occasionally joined by Ralf's comments. "Don't clench your fist", rang in Claude's ears almost perversely; even though he himself was guilty of asking for this favour, at that point in time he would have payed a lot to make him scream at least half as loudly, as he himself was forced to.
The wound, now cleaned and disinfected, wasn't half as gruesome of a sight as Ralf expected it to be, having more experience with over-exaggerated movie characterizations than with real injuries. After taking a look at own hand he noticed that two of Claude's major vessels were cut, and tried to merge back with the rest of his bloodstream unnecessarily pumping the blood outside of it; he tried to avoid them both with the needle and his sight; everything sogged under too many layers of the antibacterial ointment, about which he religiously reminded Claude, having found it in the fourth visited farmacy - they were the first to be robbed, back when seemingly overpopulated Tianjin started to seek the nonexistent cure.

'Done', he announced after entire eternity has passed. He seemed as unmoved as if he did it everyday; his lack of skill indicated otherwise.
'I hope you had fun', Claude said bitterly, while washing off the blood with gentleness he would have never expected of himself. The engorged hand was burning as if it was on fire; this time the red patches appeared in his sight, instead of on the gauze.
'Definitely more than you did', Ralf noticed; the corner of his mouth revealed presence of a smile. Seeing his uncoordinated movements he added: 'Can I help you with anything else?'
'You're a cunt, Ralf, but thank you, I won't say no.'
'If you pass out I'll do your arm too', he informed him stretching own hands, both of which were tired of holding Claude. They took turns pinning down his trembling wrist to the table (the impulses made Claude's hand spring each time the needle sunk in the red edge of his skin; he himself aimed to mute own screams by hiding his face, distorted with pain, in the other arm) and the fingers which kept on clenching - each time he hit a nerve they danced as if he was playing piano - sometimes on Ralf's hand, making it all seem more tempting than it was; Ralf was too focused on joining the sliced skin evenly together to think about blowing this thought off with laugher, and only later did he let it out.
'I'll do you something too if you touch it, Ralf.'
'Out of gratitude?', Ralf sat on the bed's edge; in Claude's slow exhale the echo of screams, bouncing of his lungs' walls, could still be heard. When he let out the first one Ralf reminded himself about the dentist office, which he must have passed on his way, about the trays, hidden inside one of the lockers, on which next to curettes, probes and mirrors there usually laid syringes with local anesthetic - he wouldn't even know how to use it, but it was there, it was there with its power of convincing people they simply didn't have that body part; but it was too late.
'Well, let me know if you change your mind. I'll be in the living room-'
'... trying to cope with this lack of prospects and boredom alone; you really stepped your game up when it comes to things that could remotely entertain me.'
'Keep it down. I said wait.'
Ralf looked over his shoulder; Claude slowly exhaled, as if he tried to release the pain radiating from his hand along the air his lungs contained.
'There's someone on the stairwell.'
'You're imagining things.'
'You should lay down.'
'There's somebody there.'
'You got delirious.'
'If you took a look at yourself you'd see how pale you got, and you'd listen to me right away. If I were you I would get nauseous at the very thought that I have a gap like this in my skin. You were brave enough letting me stitch it. That's it. Now rest.'
'You know what, you're right. Whoever's there can fuck off. Maybe somebody who has actually studied medicine was rushing to the rescue, having heard my De conscience, demeurez, but you did great, he's no longer of any use! I'm fine, Ralf.'
'Would rushing to the rescue be your first instinct upon hearing screams in those circumstances, or would you get the fuck out of there and run in the opposite direction, because whoever caused them could get you too?'
'Ask our friend these few floors below us. We both know you want to go there now and check on what is happening to whom.'
Ralf casted a smile back on his face, only to lean towards Claude once again.
'I want to. I want to do many other things, from doing which I'm holding back equally successfully. Would you like me to tell you about them?'
'Maybe later.'
'That's what I was thinking. I didn't hear a thing.'
He got up; he felt Claude's frustrated gaze drilling into his back as he walked; he stopped at the doorstep, took a deep breath and let it out along strained words: 'The door was locked.'

Another deep breath. While blinking Claude closed his eyes for few seconds longer than usually, and perhaps thanks to this finally opened them wider, but Ralf didn't see it, focusing both his gaze and thoughts on the table, operating table, on which they were going to eat their breakfast, dinner, breakfast, dinner, breakfast and dinner; he wiped off the droplets of blood, diluted with spirit. The door seemed to be observing him, as if it was wondering what would he do if their handle dropped and started to shake should someone start wrenching it, what would he do if he heard knocking and if Claude was right; when in the silence bed creaked beneath Claude, Ralf looked at the entrance, which pulsated in his eyes in the rhythm of his increased heart rate.
He couldn't turn on the TV, the noise of which would fill in the gaps in what was left of routine; excess time could no longer be consumed along a fancy meal, ordered in one of Tianjin's many restaurants - all of which were now similar to an empty plate, dirty with rotting leftovers, which nobody was going to rinse; the company which could entertain him with a chat was reduced to himself and Claude; all that was left were the books, which regardless their language he found himself incapable of reading, but he flicked through them, flicked, flicked, flicked, so that the fluttering pages would fan his thoughts away.
Newspapers could be used to perform the world's autopsy, but he carried it out a long time ago without their help.
Claude, with a silent sight and numb forearm, which he clutched to his chest tightly like a lover, having taken one last look at the door turned his back on Ralf and his decadent likings. Having dug his book from underneath the pillow, and having based its spine on the wall, with careless movements he flipped the pages to where he finished, being interrupted these few days ago and forced back to reality with an earthly reminder that he must carry upstairs the things, which in other circumstances he could have simply ordered, and had them brought here on the delivery man's back - in the embassy they were rushed from one place to another, they were forced to wait in the foyer observed by chargé d'affaires and his secretary, who moved between the ground floor offices; once they passed the embassy's gates there was no return. In retrospect, there were many signs that it were the couriers who delivered death to that building, even before the water and air begun to carry it.
Even back then his life was nothing more than constant waiting: waiting for the alarm to rip him out of his poor sleep, for the lights to turn green, for his presence to be required, for the ambassador - whom he remembered with sentiment despite his erratic disposition and attachment to one driver only, because of which Claude's work schedule was irregular, or: synchronised with ambassador's daily regimen - to appear, to finish his meeting, and another one, and another one, and another one, and to go for a lunch, and back to the embassy, and for a meeting, a m e e t i n g. During those wasted hours - days, - w e e k s - he was accompanied by writers and musicians; when at night on the unfortunate coincidence fatigue triumphed over his sense of duty, it was Charles Aznavour who humbly greeted Claude's surprised employer; now all of the great ones sang only for him in the memory hall beneath his skull's vault, and he himself kept waiting with his eyes opened - for the sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, and lastly death.
'You should have already came to the realization, that you were', he found pleasure in stressing the past tense, 'someone who had to be entertained; get used to the silence. Since you've already learned to kill, kill the time too.'
Behind his back Ralf pretended he didn't hear that last remark.

'The door was locked, Claude', he mimicked Ralf right next to his ear with a high voice; on the floor, right in front of the entrance, footsteps gloated imprinted in mud, and three meters further petered out. 'It was locked, Claude; locked just as I was on each word you said.'
'Just shut up already.'
'You're delirious, Claude', he couldn't be less inclined to stop, delightfully stretching the vowels of own name. 'You're imagining things, Claude.'
Ralf turned around and for a moment it seemed he would pounce on him like a dog, who's been teased through the bars of his cage; instead they stood across from each other, like two roosters, face to face, one step away from bumping with their noses.
'Could you please shut your mouth?', he asked. An unspoken threat hid beneath the coating of politeness.
'I would do anything for you', he paid him back in his own coin, smiling shamelessly. 'It seems to me that we can agree as to whether these were delirious delusions or not.'
The German casted a glance at the flecks of glass that lined the floor like a layer of frost, at the footprints fossilized in dried sludge.
'He went in and out', he said after a while of silence.
'You must be terribly disappointed. Just as I am - he might have made a better partner than you.'
Ralf looked at him with a smouldering, hostile glance. Claude laughed.
'Don't sulk at me. I will remain faithful to you until our interests diverge and do us apart.'
'What a sad prospect', concluded Ralf, following the trail of the imprints.
'That's what you must have said entering our land back in nineteen forty - then you got choked up with our culture - please remind me, when did you start rebuilding your cities in the Parisian fashion? - you were eating and drinking in our kitchens, you took our women to your beds. Even if as a nation to you we were only subhumans, there was and there is something within us that turns you on. We'll work this out.'
'I asked you once and I won't repeat myself.'
'Forbidden fruits.'
'Claude, for fuck's sake.'
'You're the one who provokes me.'

Every single time that Ralf, having opened the door, was not welcomed by a familiar turmoil of the streets, he felt as if he overzealously became the first one to attend a conference, and had the rare opportunity to see its room with still evenly arranged chairs, untouched beverages, cake, and the desk covered neither in wet rings that bottoms of the teacups were always leaving, nor in fingerprints of hands that didn't yet start to bang against it.
A closer look at the floor gave him a clearer understanding of what happened - everyone has already walked out, leaving each chair turned in different direction; leaving teacups, distinguishable from one another with their placement and the amount of coffee left inside of them; leaving the cakes: a baklava with fork's shape pressed into its layers, as it failed to cut through it, crumbled el-maha, sekerpare with one bite missing; everyone has jointly got up and walked out, leaving him with some obscure feeling of guilt, as if his words offended them, as if he didn't foresee something, as if he forgot about something - about dying! There was nobody left who could clean it all up, the janitor has already finished his shift, the security would refuse to leave their station and maybe, by way of exception, would respond to his goodbye. All of it were extra hours, pro aris et focis, and he could have simply not taken them.

The world has absorbed ambiance of each museum that was scattered across it and of each art gallery, visited solely by a niche audience and the tourists, incapable of understanding the exhibition on their own - their groups, creating dense, shapeless formations, from time to time emerged from behind one of the corners; exchange of accusatory looks occurred between them each time they disrupted each others trip, or entered frames the of photos they were trying to take. Whenever Ralf found enough free time to enjoy higher culture he prefered to have it exclusively for himself, at the same time feeling like a trespasser while being left on his own with the exhibits, as if he was violating the stillness of this frozen space, and as if others who were there did the same - the languages they spoke and the words they used turbidded this silence, and in his view should have never been heard by the antiques imported here from the other side of the globe.
The field of view was woven with decaying bodies, which soon, disappointed with absence of anyone who could have buried them properly, were going to create their own calcareous tombstones; from behind often busted shop windows they were observed by eyes mummified with printing ink; these permanent smiles shined with their teeths' whiteness, but if one took a closer look red spatters could be noticed on their surface. In the morning light shopsigns glowed with vivid colours - comforting slogans xi hi, cheerful strength, naai kee, overcoming the tiredness, were scornfully imprinting themselves on the retinas of the two. Far away from between the buildings the Opium des Volkes statue peaked on Ralf as he walked; Marx was trying to remind him that gods and devils were born of wild man's powerlessness in his fight with nature, but those who remained alive would do it with a much greater success.
A dog leaped towards them; it was a stray mongrel reaching up to Ralf's knees, with brown hair interlined with black smudges; a ping tongue, yellow fangs, warm breath; stench of decay coming up to his throat from the stomach, wrapping itself with soliva around his wet teeth.
'It will bite you.'
'You're more likely to. It's far from being hungry - or thirsty.'
Ralf kneeled down, only to scratch the dog carelessly behind its ears, to pet its firm belly and lively back, and then move away from its widely opened eyes, wet nose and the tongue that tried to reach his face; the fumes of life and death it emitted made him wonder when will he begin to miss meat, those dark stripes grill always left on sizzling steaks, which would melt pleasantly on his palate.
Still keeping the dog at a distance he took a look around, smiled to Claude who observed him unamused, and got up, wiping his hands with his jeans, intending to reach antiseptic wipes on his way. Every day his aversion to majority of the things he touched grew stronger, even if at first glance they were coated neither with mold, nor with dust, nor with a colony of unknown bacteria.
They lost the dog few blocks further, just as some time ago they had lost the trail of whoever entered their building.

'I can hear someone.'
'You're drunk, Ralf. You're imagining things.'
'Don't be ridiculous', the glass rang against the table as Ralf leaned above it towards him.
'There's somebody there, Claude, I can hear someone across the street!'
'Claude', he sighted with tipsy cheerfulness and shaking his head leaned back on his chair again. A single cloud that was sliding through the sky was passed by birds; a heavy, wheezing coughing made its way through the streets, masking the noise soles made when hitting the ground; groaning with each breath a girl
ran in their direction, with her face red of effort and fever, her skin pale, unhealthy, strangely mushy, her knees bleeding. Ralf looked at Claude, he turned away, but this slight movement was enough to make her run in the opposite way - she was scared off like a pigeon was by one step made towards it; she turned around, someone was chasing her, and hid in an alley; her caught slid through the gaps between the fingers she used to cover her mouth. For a brief moment he was ready to join her abusers, eager to wipe out this last reminiscence of the plague - but the next one he reminded himself the symptoms he has seen with own eyes, none of which matched the ones she had; it could just as well be asthma, a common cold, maybe pneumonia. He pointed his head at the bar's entrance, but Claude has already got up, and hid behind its door.
He took his glass, emptied it of what was left, and joining him clutched it with his hand, letting his arm drop down by his side in resignation - he could have thrown it.
In the closed and as a result of the following events abandoned bar, chairs put upside down rested on the polished tables, whereas thoroughly washed and dried glasses stood above and below the counter, as if in spite of everything the owners were hoping that together with the waitresses, the cook and his assistant, they will have returned to work - by the next week, month, maybe year. Having looked away from the window, from the frames of which shards of glass stuck out like teeth - and having masked the screams coming from the street with own thoughts, about as loud as they were - one could have forgotten about everything that was happening on the outside; they could close their eyes waiting for lounge music to flow from the speakers above their head, for someone to appear with a cold beer on a tray next to their table; they could lose themselves in the echo of the old world, l'amour, l'amour, will there be anything else?
Then instead of music they heard wailing and screams interrupted only by swearing. From his place Claude listened to them indifferently; Ralf with some moderate interest observed what was happening on the street. Jerky weeping upon one last burst of cry changed into staccato of the steps; the latter ones grew louder, and when they finally stopped shadows spilled across the pavement right in front of the entry. Ralf, whispered by Claude together with the look aimed at him like a pocketknife opened beneath the table, were not a threat, but rather a benevolent call to order, in case he acted upon one of his spontaneous cravings. The German's lips stretched in a kind smile, caused by the level of alcohol in his blood; he has just downed in one this pure amusement, distilled and maturing in oak barrels. Repeated one more time Ralf made it go away; his face returned to a grimace of boredom, and he himself shrug it off abruptly, like a teenager, tired of being reprimanded, who nodded at every word of his mother just so that she would finally leave him alone.

The dark silhouettes disappeared, the steps faded in the distance; from the same unspecified point at the horizont screeching of seagulls and the sound of crickets have reached them. The streets and buildings drowned in the sea of redness. Whiskey was diminishing from their second bottle, whilst hours stretched like the smiles exchanged above its glasses. The lazy afternoon was morphing into a warm and lethargic evening.

A wild and hardly resembling human yell scared off the curled up shadow even before a bottle smashed just few meters away from the man; when he ran away, the scream changed into uncontrollable laughter. Allez! Riez un bon coup, Milord! - Claude's howl followed him when he shouted over Ralf who got hoarse, as if they screamed for too long and too loudly on a show of a forgotten star. Riez ou pleurez!
They screamed, screamed, screamed, with random and for the most part useless objects picked up from the ground, now in their hands instead of the bottles. Using them they scratched the sides of passed cars until their roaring sirens made them no longer hear cats' meowing as they escaped the dumpsters; windows were caving in; they mutilated the darkness, turning overfilled trash cans into candles that burned on humanity's grave. Together with smoke up to the sky soared their laughter, cold and cruel, devoid of joy, and spreaded through the empty streets like toxic fumes whipped by wind - it outran them; inhaled by others, who could pose a threat, immediately choked them; it cleared their own way back.

'Ralf, what are you-'
Ralf stumbled, pulling Claude with him and making them both dangle on the handrail. They laughed despite the hurting ribs, despite the tiredness and despite it being a matter of fact that neither wanted to; there was nothing funny about any of it, but they laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
'Fuck these stairs, I'm staying here', Ralf announced.
L a u g h t e r.
'You can't.'
'Can't? Why's that?'
'Because I'll miss you.'
L a u g h t e r.
'That's only one argument.'
'Come, asshole.'
They went ahead crookedly - sometimes greeting the walls with a brotherly pat, sometimes the railing, sometimes the stairs themselves; they greeted the door of their apartament too, exaggeratedly calling it home. The laughter became more quiet, only occasionally and briefly bursting like the last flares shot on the fourth of July. With great effort they found bottles of water and pills, with even greater the right beds, no, that one's yours, goodnight, stop laughing already, QUIT IT RALF, NO YOU QUIT IT CLAUDE, CHRIST LIE STILL GOODNIGHT GOODNIGHT SHUT UP GO TO SLEEP ALREADY.

A deathly hush fell again on the mass grave which Tianjin was during those days.



(written 10-08-2016 to 18-08-2016)

Ralf's body got light; his limbs, mussed by discomfort, floated across the mattress; his skin stung, almost like sunburnt, as if alcohol that lingered in his pores kept disinfecting it while seeking vent; as if something inside of him still boiled because of the fire - the one that flowed through his throat into the stomach, and the one the tongues of which last night licked mournful tears of rain from the buildings. Bird's singing and the fluttering of their wings that reverberated outside sounded like a late ovation; his so far half-opened eyelids now bowed completely, exposed to the blinding light. It glared right in his eyes as if he found himself in the spotlight, the blistering whiteness of which cut him off from the world, and all he wanted to do was hide behind a curtain of the sheets - the most refined shroud which for a longer while mankind could hope for.
Ralf scooted towards Claude again (how many people were lying beneath duvets, how many beneath each other, and finally - how many of them were covered solely by the cold morning mist, or warm fumes of decay?); the thick air made each of his movements lengthen in time, as if the clay used in creation of men has parched during the night, and without water and creator's caring touch was soon going to dry ad finem, last evening hardened and scorched by the flames.
'Hey, Claude', ragged words climbed the walls of his sore throat, 'are you sleeping?'
The pillow rustled as Claude drowsily shook his head. His breath swept down Ralf's neck and - when he tilted it to eye him up with half-awake gaze - made the single hairs falling on his face quiver; each smelled of smoke. Everything got sharper; the ends of them were piercing his cheeks, the covers were scrubbing against his skin, and every wall that surrounded them was being drilled by the odour of decomposition, the sources of which - while Gaspard wasn't yet emanating it; while there hasn't yet appeared a single premise that he would become one - for own peace of mind they carried outside of the closest apartments and embalmed with a sparse amount of gasoline.
Intoxication still held Ralf tightly and wasn't going to let go of him soon; its pain radiated from his skull up to his fingertips.
'Will you miss me', he rasped, 'if I go and get myself another bottle?'
Claude laughed quietly.
'With the tears cried-', he started slowly; Ralf raised himself on his elbows, 'cried out of longing', he gave himself a while to think; Ralf put his legs on the ground, 'I could', he stretched; Ralf, swept by a wave of coldness, grabbed Gaspard's robe, 'fill one myself, you know?'
'Oh my, are you bringing the higher culture back to life?'
Ralf slid his arms into the cashmere sleeves; Claude closed his eyes again; angst started to slowly eat through this blissful indifference, as it soaked through the cavities of the concrete they were surrounded by.
He took beer out of inoperative freezer - a hiss slashed the air - and leaned against the balcony's railing; the edge of his lips was pecked by the dark beverage, which like a tongue slid outside the tilted bottle; he coughed, gagging, twice; on the third attempt - having convinced his stomach that it was for the best, and that he has mindlessly drained their stocks of drinking water already - he poured half of it down his aching throat. With the intrusive thought that he was only a dose of painkillers away from joining the undocumented deceased of this city, he returned to the bedroom - Claude hasn't moved since when he had seen him last, and laid with his stitched hand away from the rest of his body. He did so only when a cigarette begun to smoulder in Ralf's lips, and the smoke he exhaled spreaded through the air.
'Go somewhere-'
'That's pointless.'
When he walked across the room to sit on the bed, white ribbons - like that of sage, supposed to drive evil spirits away - begun to dance around them.
'I'm going to check how our neighbours are doing.'
'Right. Good luck. What's the fucking matter with you?'
Claude sat down.
'I'll be right back.'
'Great, go on, au revoir, goodnight.'
The door shut behind Ralf. Claude's head sunk into the pillow again.
The corridor was quiet as if everyone was still asleep, despite it being past noon; sunlight was pouring inside through the windows, just as the stink of decay flooded their floor running through the stairs from higher levels; the building was about as calm as a tree on a windless day; the dead roots of water pipes and electricity were still stretching underground, unnoticeable.

'Jesus Christ.'
Covering his nose and mouth with a sleeve Ralf cautiously backed off from under the door of apartment he passed last - each time he looked around his thoughts made a pirouette; his twirling eyes kept looking for the familiar plate of their own entry; he felt almost as though he was on a trip in the catacombs, but the odour of death was too fresh and - because of the hangover, retrained with that last beer - nauseated him more effectively than it would if he was sober; the tobacco, if it wasn't for its contrast with rot, would have made him vomit a long time ago.
He tried to think about returning to own hotel room after a party, its five stars turn out to be mere four, the hallway stinks because of the detergents, which at this hour shouldn't have been smelled by anyone, and there's a swimming pool just beneath him, waiting for him with its cool water; as he entered the apartment he was welcomed by a whiff of chlorine and shampoo - Claude looked up at him, leaning over the sink and trying to wash suds of his hair and forehead with the healthy hand. Ralf wanted to tell him that if they won't bother themselves with exhumation, the neighbours could draft them an order of moving out any day now, but I know, Ralf, emitted by Claude's eyes, made his lips shut before he said anything. I really know, Ralf.
'Are you just going to stare?'
Ralf forced a smile and bounced off the doorway he was leaning against.

The stone skipped fourfold prior to stumbling over a crease on the river's surface and disappearing in its waters. Formerly joggers used to come here (often white and wealthy, with muscles sculpted at the private or upon request emptied gyms, where nobody besides themselves could see them drenched in sweat, falling and rising up, rasping with each breath they took as if they were about to die; a vast majority of them chose the paths based on probability of running into one of their clients or competitors in the market that they were trying to impress), along families with children and curious tourists with cameras in their hands; in the evening couples took walks across this boulevard, contrasting with the lively and attracting attention youth - the children of brokers, developers and local tycoons, who grew up here, even in the era of globalisation and advanced international integration forced by their environment to bond only within respective cultural and social circles; privately the Americans didn't fraternize with their East Slavic brethrens - and vice versa! - whereas the Europeans behaved as if the Old Continent' borders were applicable even here, observing from a distance the actions of the overseas scum. From time to time - although the differences in upbringing and mindsets made it a rare occurrence - they were joined by the locals, met usually through a common acquaintance; both were for each other nothing more than toys, imported from across the ocean, in which they quickly lost their interest.
'So you're saying you've studied in England', Claude stated.
Years ago he used to be like them - he took walks on the same paths, randy or bitter; sometimes it came down to one and the same thing. Lost memories and headache were all that was left of this joy and fun, as if all recollections evaporated through the pores of his skin along sweat and fumes of alcohol. People, with whom he used to hang out were gone already a little while back - he himself went away for university, but not abroad; then those who were left started their own families or companies. And now were dead.
'There's so much you've missed out on', he continued.
The second stone pierced the air; hit by the waves it sank immediately. From afar the Tianjin Eye observed them unfavourably.
'Are you going to keep throwing this shit until the water level rises and makes The British Islands disappear?', Ralf asked impatiently, having sat down on the stairs from which he watched as Claude skimmed stones.
'Of what relevance is that for you now?'
'Of none, but if you don't shut up at this very moment we'll see if you can fly further than this one', Claude tossed the stone in the air and grabbed it with his hand, before he threw it having taken a look at Hai He and having waited for the right moment. 'Five bounces, second time.'
'England's gone. France too.'
'And Germany.'
'Exactly - so why do you harbour a grudge against me?'
Claude turned on his heels for a moment.
'Why don't you answer that for me?'
'I? I have nothing against you.'
'Hey, Claude, look.'
He turned around again. Ralf pulled a beret, which he must have found along the way and kept in his pocket waiting for this opportunity, down to his eyes, and with one graceful motion tilted it.
'Oui, oui, Paris, vive la France! Do you feel at home now?'
Claude answered with a sloppy salute and raised his arm in a german greeting.
'Wrong hand.'
'My apologies. In my house we used to welcome each other by other means', he pointed out with a bitter smile before returning to the disrupted activity. The stones collected during this short walk kept diminishing. 'You're a tourist. Just like Gaspard.'
'You consider yourself a local?', mockery could be heard in the German's voice.
'Why don't we check it?', Claude suggested nonchalantly. The stone went down with a splash. 'Each of us will return on his own. Or even better - let's step things up; we'll go a bit further and see who manages to return before the night. I know the shortcuts, do you?'
'Do you want to lose?'
'Here's my GPS', he tapped his temple with a finger. 'And yours must have died jointly with the battery, am I right? Since we're talking about it already, why don't you tell me - have you ever went outside your office? Have you met anyone? If I were to guess, you were hoping to get laid with someone from the company, you know, a one-night thing, God forbid you could have a life outside of your job!, but one day you woke up and understood that something more serious came out of it. You settled on it, not having the time to look for someone who would meet your standards. Convenience and egoism prevailed.'
Ralf bursted into laughter and made himself more comfortable on the stairs.
'Yeah? And what else could you tell me about me?'
'With all due respect, you cook miserably - somebody must have done it for you.'
'That's it? All on the basis of how I cook-'
'I wouldn't call it cooking, really', Claude cut in with clear scepticism. 'There's a possibility that you were wealthy enough to go out and eat everyday, but I still think it's more likely that somebody cooked for you, and you were the one who was cleaning up - otherwise you would have poisoned yourself a long time ago; but you tie trash bags like a born garbageman, I won't deny that.'
He couldn't refrain his spiteful smile. Ralf noticed it.
'It makes me happy that you'll fulfill yourself as a housewife - what a relief! At least one of us still has some potential for personal growth.'
'Was that supposed to hurt? If I were you I'd try to target something else', Claude gave him a hint in a conspiratorial whisper as he leaned above him reaching for the backpack. 'Let's go. Try not to get lost.'

A victorious smile responded to every of Ralf's noticed glances - it was the opposite of Dagu bridge arches that were garnishing the view; behind them silhouettes of blue skyscrapers leaned above Haihe like chessmen scattered across a chequerboard .
'Go on, Ralf, which way? You're doing great; try tracking by scent.'
Ralf turned around on his heels to continue walking backwards for the next few steps; he was a couple of meters ahead of Claude and was trying not look back at him.
'Your perfume is distracting. Are you hoping to attract somebody?'
'That's a deodorant and you're about to follow its smell.'
'You tell me.'
Ralf wrapped his hand around the arm of lovers' sculpture and as if dancing he circled around it; coldness spreaded through his cheek and temple, which was still being haunted by a vague ghost of pain, as he pressed them against the shaded stone.

At first he thought that a skittish rumble of bass was nothing more than his own heartbeat, and for the following minutes he let the two sounds merge into one - each of the looks he reassuringly took at Claude made him deem it as nothing more than delusions, eventually, however, his head begun to sway in religious rapture to the ever louder rhythm, and was soon followed by his arms and hips; his step begun to run together with the music, carrying him towards its source - as if church bells were calling to a mass, drums were opening a ritual, and legs stomping the ground were bringing back the attention of forgotten gods, who could trade a blood sacrifice for fertility. Claude stopped and looked at him with some concern in his eyes; Ralf stopped too in the middle of another spin - he made them from time to time like a radar.
'We should be going.'
'But we are', Ralf responded.
The setting sun reflected in Claude's widely opened eyes.
'We'll just take a look around, come on, it's not that far away. It'll be fun.'
'People die when the Germans are having fun', Claude's smile flashed right in front of his face.
Ralf shrugged and smiled innocently, pointing his chin at the street. Louder and louder music flowed through the labyrinth of concrete walls; they were getting closer, the sounds begun to form syllables, syllables formed words, words sentences - repeated like a mantra during chorus.
On one of the junctions - which they checked every time peeking from behind the buildings, to the walls of which they clinged when the pulse of bass was distorting their own - they backed off as if the shaft of headlights burnt them when it nearly brushed the tips of their shoes.
'Don't walk away', Ralf's voice rolled behind Claude like a ball and chain as he turned back. 'Don't. They don't hear us, but we do hear them.'
The closest door didn't give in when wrenched; Ralf neither when looked at insistently; but the entry of a bank on the parallel street - to which the roundabout way he dragged Claude - was hollowed like an euphorically dug out tomb.

'Remind me, why are we doing it?'
Leaning against the opposite frame of window Claude was staring at Ralf for quite some time, as he let his gaze wander through the opened doors of the car that stood in the middle of the street (it was battered, as if its driver still had years ahead of him to apply for a licence, or as if on the sight of what was left of this world he no longer saw a point in cautious driving) and through its trunk, next to which stood a table carried outside from a nearby restaurant. The record spinning in the drive was in the middle of its second loop; around it all from time to time people who were exiting the neighbouring enterprises collided with themselves in helpless kisses, or quick chats, as they brought out things they gutted from the buildings.
Ralf couldn't stop thinking about the two temples which they passed on their way - despite not seeing there food offerings made for the deceased he was positive that it wasn't caused by carelessness of Chinese traditionalists, which got more eager with each day they survived. The kids he was looking at, wild and crude like some sort of tribe that mimicked western civilizations having heard a bunch of stories about them, looked like the very embodiment of posthumous hunger - the offerings they must have collected from shrines gave them stamina, which ordinary people had no right to experience. Two bottles of wine slipped from the hands of Asian girl right on the table; in Europe their labels would make everyone's eyes leniently roll.
'Would you like my opinion about people these days to be based solely on you? You're embittered. Sentimentalism makes you reach into the past further than a hundred years before this purge. The conflict between enjoyment and pain reflects itself on the closest persons-'
'Have you studied law or sociology?'
'... making you wish to screw them gently, while lovingly not shutting up about Elsaß-Lothringen, right in their ears.'
A mesh of veins strained along Claude's neck as he tilted it backward, letting silent laugher escape his throat. Ralf pressed his smile with clenching lips.
'Tell me I'm wrong. Do you have any questions left?'
'If we won't come back within an hour you'll deprive me of the chance of doing it on own, paid for in blood, land.'
'Please, feel welcome', with hands pointing at the door Ralf bowed servily. 'We'll visit our new friends, Claude.'
'I'll keep an eye on your belongings while they'll be slitting your throat.'
'You know damn well-'
'I do.'
The waves of bass kept crashing against their chests; thirty compressions, two breaths. They were noticed only once they entered this small crowd. The wine which was being loudly opened tried to shout over the music.
'They're high.'
Four pairs of glossy eyes stared at them in fear mixed with worship, as if they were a sight known only from icons, ceramics, paintings and statues.
'No, I don't think so'.
They're afraid of us because we weren't afraid of them, Claude.
We need to get outta here. We need to get home.

The older two looked at everything with the same admiration, as if the very sight of the city and sky was something foreign to them. Their mechanical movements were a label of one of Tianjin's nine prisons, covered by the signs and documents of factories.
The girl was the first to speak; Claude answered her.
'What did she say?', Ralf asked.
'I told you: we need more glasses.'
'And you?'
'That they don't. I see you've been sent here thanks to your competent tongue skills, was your girlfriend the one to confirm them?'
One of the men laughed sincerely.

'Haven't you fetched us a dinner yet?'
'Invoking your own words, I cook miserably.'
Claude who has already reached bathroom's doorstep mumbled his smile with a curse. Water flew down his spine, dripping of his hair which he had just slicked back; with a towel wrapped around his hips and one hanging on his shoulders he entered the kitchen. Air that was trapped in the can of Coca Cola he opened exited it with a hiss - it was rich in calories enough to trick hunger that was nesting in his stomach since the run, and to make him gain some time - a second time today; the inflamed Asians, however, had eventually slowed down and were left behind a corner, contrary to hunger, which didn't let Claude forget about itself, just as the pain, penting up in his burning lungs, which even after he has changed the pace into march kept pestering in his ribcage like a far echo of self-preservation instinct.
Until recently widely available, fresh and affordable shrimps, which he used to look down on due to them frequently ending up on his pan, fried in a hurry with garlic and chili [sometimes at the same time he was hanging his laundry out and hiding trash bags from his unexpected guests' sight, as he apologized for the fuss while pushing rumpled clothes off the chairs, so that they could sit down; "bachelor's hermitage"] have joined relicts of the past; the sight of tinned fish and vegetables made him forget how nauseous he was getting back then while waiting for the pan to get hot; the deficits made him glorify these memories; he remembered fondly them and other dishes made on the run.
'You could always go back and check if our new friends wouldn't give you some of their leftovers', Ralf offered obligingly, spreaded across the couch.
'They would serve me you, braised in cheap wine - and then, having me fattened, would sacrifice me to Guanyin. Next time you're going to welcome them on your own.'
'I'll consider your pickiness an indicator of abundance.'
Claude flinched and opened this arms.
'That's what you call abundance?'
'Many would consider it cornucopia's very temple.'
'I'm starving and sore, not to mention my other needs, and if there was a way of putting an end - even for a moment - to one of these problems, I'm prepared to overlook anything. To hell with my conscience - this', he raised his right hand; the swelling was slowly getting down, but lobes of skin kept together by the stitches with every movement were dangerously tightening up, threatening to tear apart, 'won't let me sleep, won't let me undo a fucking bottle. We're far from abundance, Ralf. Very far.'
'Would you kill for a temporary relief?', asked the German. His voice was soaked in evident, and therefore deceptive innocence, which against Claude's will reminded him of carnivorous plants. 'You're talking about making sacrifices - despite them not having been made - because you'd like to make them yourself. Tell me I'm wrong.'
'Don't lead me on - you know very well what I'm talking about. If on somebody's expense drugs were to end up in my hands, I'd be all in. And you too - you're starting to remind me of an unleashed dog', he sighted, resting himself on elbows against the headrest right behind Ralf's back. 'Without owner's leg right next to your ribs, in which with penchant you were being kicked from time to time, so that you wouldn't breakaway, you have now started to feel wonderfully unpunishable. Well, well - biting the passers-by became common. Would you like to jump to one's throat? There you go, allez! - but let's do it together. Let's earn something.'
He tenderly caressed Ralf's cheek with the back of his hand during its way towards the chin; his thumb hooked against his bottom lip and pulled it down, revealing bottom row of his teeth, before Ralf tore loose like a convict strapped to a chair.
'Are you out of your fucking mind?'
'Not everyone is such a cold-blooded prude as you', he laughed like a child, whose interest in poking electrical outlet became the more intense the more angrily his parents shouted at him, forbidding him to do it out of concern for his safety. The fingers which he was running through Ralf's hair clenched into a fist, and with a provocative pull forced him to lift his head and look ahead, into tomorrow and all the days coming after it, into one of visions for their future.
'You see, some have already begun to miss women - own, someone else's, it doesn't matter,' he continued, 'and soon, if they haven't already, they'll start to hunt them down, then they'll drag them by their hair outside their shelters and will use them all they want. That's the inevitable way things are. We can be the first ones to reach out to them; to show them that they can redeem whatever they want. We can live off the commission.'
'That's bullshit - and stop touching me, or else the only thing left of your dreams about brothel-'
'Don't interrupt me now, please', Claude instructed him. Another cursory pull; his neck gave up; the back of Ralf's head rested on the couch; he gave him a revolted, sideways glance. 'You accuse me of being sentimental, but I'm afraid we're going back to the times when livestock constituted a currency. How many healthy and remotely attractive women have we encountered? Not much, right? And the ones we've seen ran away, because they knew what I'm currently trying to tell you, ascetic dick.'
A brotherly pat on the back. Ralf, being let go of, straightened up and carelessly smoothed out his ruffled locks, not taking his heavy like the executioner's axe eyes of Claude; at some point his gaze casted down like a guillotine's blade; no heads rolled. Claude sat back in the recliner in front of him, throwing his legs over the armrest.
'I'm telling you now, so that in the future you won't scare away our commercial offer like a flock of pigeons. You tend to have quite peculiar ideas', he noticed.
'Our?', Ralf looked up again. He seemed amused by the confidence, with which he used the pronoun. 'Before I address it, could you please head somewhere private, jack off and reflect on certain matters once again, just to spare yourself from backing out of this plan, and me - from wasting my breath?'
'I pity you, Ralf, I pity you from the bottom of my heart if you have the basis to think that a hand could ever beat a woman in this field - or a man, if you will; after all these years let us not be under the illusion that everyone has identical preferences.'
'You're not limiting yourself.'
'I'm not defending the stiff schemes', he shrugged it of, as if aiming to signal that it wasn't relevant at this moment. 'The question is, are you going to delude yourself that others are going to live in abstinence?'
'The only one who's deluding himself is you, Claude - you spend too much time speaking, and you dedicate too little to thinking about the shit you talk. That's ridiculous-'
'Not so ridiculous if you dedicate a while to reflect on the last three thousand years', Claude defied, giving him a smile that spoke volumes. 'Ralf, I may regard you as whoever I please, but it doesn't mean I can't see your positive sides. As a matter of fact, I need you and your smooth lies. Someone has to establish the prices.'
'And that someone is supposed to be me?', Ralf seemed entertained.
'Why not?', he briddled at him. 'We need only one for a start. If together with Gaspard we managed to bribe you with this misleading sense of security and a promise of greater comfort, we can bribe every single one of them.'
'I wouldn't be so sure about who was the one bribing.'
Claude ignored this comment.
'We need only one for a start', he repeated patiently, 'to test the waters, and if something-'
'Your concept of decency never ceases to amaze me.'
'I'll surprise you on many other occasions. Think about it - that's all I'm asking.'
'Covering the costs of living for another person, Claude', Ralf addressed him again after a while of silence. 'It seems to me that we both enjoy taking showers longer than anyone would consider it appropriate. And would you rather have a third taken out of your serving - oh, don't say you wouldn't miss the food if I was the one who cooked it - or be forced to restock sooner?'
'You know that overtime it will pay off.'
'I do. What I'm asking now is if we have the assets for this investment. That's what you call abundance?', he repeated Claude's gesture from a few minutes ago. 'I too crave some company and would be happy if someone besides you got interested in me, but! - I wonder how many "dear, another rape?", "I couldn't possibly imagine your pain, do you need help?", how m a n y of those incidents are necessary for our new friend to turn her back on us. People aren't that reusable.'
'And yet prostitutes, for entire centuries, were doing just fine under the caring custody of-'
'What percentage of women engaged in this profession? What's the probability, that they will voluntarily-'
'If you were left with no other choice you too would become eager to do a couple of things, which you have likely never considered before.'
'I already am.' Ralf pierced him with his eyes. 'You too are.' A moment of silence. 'For instance, you don't look like someone who in his spare time contemplates making a living as a pimp. And the thought of it still makes you feel uneasy, but the longer we discuss it, the more normal you believe it to be. And so do I. It loses its meaning like all the infinitely repeated I-love-yous. After a while they become indistinguishable from make us dinner.'
'Make us dinner, Ralf.'
'You too.'
A crushed soda can glided through the air; Ralf catched it with both hands and on his way to the kitchen threw it outside the balcony as if he aimed it at bowling pins; in the silence they heard it hit the asphalt and bounce off it. This sound made a memory flash right in front of his eyes: he was paying a fine his friend got for throwing emptied beer outside the window; it scratched the bonnet of a car that was driving behind them; it wasn't even a year since he got his own one and a licence, but he sticked his neck out; the gas burner hissed making a pillar of fire soar above the lighter, below the pot.

Before Claude, defeated by the cutlery which he humbly put down on the table - cautiousness characterizing the movements of his right hand made it nearly useless; clumsiness of his left one gave barely better results - could consider switching to eating with his fingers, crowning the savagery that was inevitably beginning to grip them, Ralf sat next to him having moved own chair and [not fighting the memory of each time when still in his home city of Hamburg his younger sister insisted on having her dinner cut up into little pieces] grabbed the knife.
'What a skill-', Claude begun, shoving himself slightly away, but Ralf responded before he could finish:
'Should I put the plate on the ground? You could always eat of it like a dog.'
'Open wide, there comes a messerschmitt? I can do it myself.'
'You wouldn't complain if a woman did it instead of me, would you?'
'Not necessarily.'
'Poor little thing - she would stroke your hair. It must be hurting a lot - she would look with compassion at your hand. Don't worry, we'll find you one and before you know it you'll forget about the pain by telling yourself she should be cheering you up. Bon appétit.'
Ralf ran his fingers through Claude's still wet hair and wiped his hand with own shirt.
'Don't sell yourself short, Ralf. You're giving me hardly anything to complain about. Perhaps you should stand for a while under one of these inoperative street lamps and do some market research before we release our final product? Or maybe you're willing to become it?'
Ralf focused on own plate.
For a while they ate in silence. The fork rang against plate's porcelain urging Ralf to look up.
'Did my remarks hurt you so badly you have finally started to put some heart into those meals?'
Ralf rested his head on his hand; in the slowly unfolding twilight Claude's eyes were glowing as if they concentrated what was left of the daylight, looking like two suns setting behind the hills of cheeks which the smile has caused to rise.
'I've been gradually lowering your expectations. I can make up for my skills only with tactics or thick layer of Provence herbs, which perhaps could revive your inner patriot enough for you to not acknowledge other flavours.'
'Apply this approach to other aspects of our coexistence and maybe one day you'll hear me say some kinder words.'
'Vice versa. I just keep waiting for sending you here and there to stop verging on animal abuse.'
'Don't tell me you feel exploited each time I ask you for a small favour.'
The plates clattered as Ralf put them atop each other; for quite some time now he didn't know what to do with the dishes: he could have thrown them outside and one day laugh stumbling across the porcelain shattered on the ground, or he could have fulfilled the last will of environmentalists by using the smallest amount of water possible. Standing in front of the sink, in which he put them indifferently, he turned around and looked at Claude again.
'No, I don't, I assure you - the impression I have is an antonym of what will be running through the mind of-'
'I've barely suggested incorporating another person under our patronage and I'm already losing your full attention.'
'I'm glad you enjoyed it.'

'Ralf', Claude groaned below him, twisting in laughter and pain, 'for fuck's sake, Ralf, get off me.'
'I'm playing a feminist while I still remember what that means.'
'If you're trying to show me', the hand which Claude tightened on his rib cage pushed him away offensively, only to grab him again and (as if he angrily pushed a bottle off the table and at the last second catched it to put back in its place) pull closer, 'how far from pleasure is having man's hands put on you against your will, then I'm sorry, but one of the factors doesn't match up. Get off me.'
Ralf hovered over him; having exchanged a shameless smile with Claude he withdrew himself and laid on his side next to him, letting the covers soak up the water which a towel failed to collect; the drops that fell off him on Claude's skin glittered in the falling night like stars when he turned towards him and with an almost questioning gaze made Ralf burst in immature laughter. He looked away, far away - the rhapsody from a couple of hours ago kept playing in his head; the bass was beating, bottles were hitting the table, the glasses were ringing during the toasts, as if having directed his gaze off the wine which was swaying inside them he could have found himself in the middle of a corporate banquet; the chatter of languages he didn't speak got faster and faster until belligerent scream joined it, along their disbelieving laughter and lastly the chings of knives being opened; then they ran, struggling to maintain the pace, hearing the flow of air in their lungs and of blood in their temples - when he looked back at Claude he turned out to be still observing him, amused.


(written 19-08-2016 to 23-08-2016)

He held off announcement of his presence until the blade, pulled away from Ralf's neck, was replaced by a wet towel, with which he then covered his face when in the silence, distorted by francophone lilt, guten Morgen has resonated. In the reflection of mirror put by Ralf on the window sill, he saw surprise appear in his eyes and a hesitant smile on his face; then Ralf himself looked over his shoulder, having regained control of his facial expression.
'How many times have you whispered a hello still in bed, before you could say it out loud without choking?'
'Salut, Claude, tu t'es levé tôt - j'espere que tu as bien dormi! I really appreciate that we're doing our best not to fuck this morning up', he smacked his lips successfully imitating the manner of speech, which Ralf with penchant was unknowingly using; passing behind him on his way to kitchen he pat him on the shoulder. 'I'm French - I've got a talented tongue and throat; it'll take more than that for German to make me choke. Coffee?'
'You're late to your shift. Already brewed.'
'I would have set my alarm to drink it with you, if only I saw a point in getting up at the crack of dawn.'
'If you'd rather have it cold-'
'Hot - your attitude is cold enough', he replied teasingly. 'And if you have trouble finding yourself a place, you're welcome at mine.'
'I'll stick to being one step ahead of you.'
'Do you really want to have me behind your back?', Claude asked with a blithe grin forcing its way onto his mouth along words, which he struggled to swallow with the first sip of coffee gone cold; in spite of that his voice has already soaked up this amusement, just like palate was absorbing the sweetness of sugar.
'Are you implying something?'
'Nothing besides suggesting that if you got up forty minutes, or an hour later, you'd be served breakfast practically speaking in bed - like I was', he responded lightly.
'Coming with dinner the previous day?'
A smile replied to a smile.
'Keep it up, Ralf - in those rare moments when you don't happen to be ruining my day I'm starting to think I might like you.'

In the humid shadow mannequins with impersonal, expressionless faces were hiding like kids, who in the face of ever-growing risk of being found were trying to sneak on their tiptoes behind the back of the seeker; who behind folding screens and curtains were standing still, frozen, whenever they sensed any movement in the chamber; when looked at, they were forgetting about breathing, shutting their eyes and teeth tightly, so that shrieks indicative of excitement wouldn't escape the prisons, which their congealed like plaster casts bodies became for the agitated feelings.
Claude looked at them, at each and every one of them, right after going through the door.
'Wasn't it Nietzsche who said that when you stare into an abyss, the abyss will stare back?'
'That's quite possible. Are you going to stand there and wonder what Nietzsche would advise you to take?', Ralf asked him blankly; his gaze was slipping through the scattered shoes and pieces of clothing torn of their hangers.
'And have you ever wondered if you could live without all this irony?'
'I would have asked you the same thing, but God forbid you'd die during that experience.'
With a sigh of disdain Claude walked away towards the back room; his jacket stayed behind him on the floor, marking his trail - similarly to the blouse, ripped during the last days, which until recently would only have to be thrown into a washing machine, and to the shoes, which he slipped off his feet carelessly, despite them hardly having a sign of being used.

Long forgotten slogan JUST DO IT could motivate only towards depriving oneself or others of life - the scruples about the former and latter one were losing their significance, and people refrained from it only with regard to social conventions, which now took the shape of dead weight that was to be discarded. The list of things that needlessly burdened one's conscience was being expanded everyday, and because of it swelled up right in their eyes like the Jerusalemian Wailing Wall seen up close; the creaks and holes tore in reality's carcass were filled in with pleas, complaints, and grievances, all forgotten the moment one turned their back on them.
Looking for the right size - majority of boxes in the chamber were knocked over, similarly to the stands, as if any display of order in these chaotic times caused somebody pain bordering with physical one; reminding people about the paradise they lost - Claude returned to the back, blending with its darkness, having dressed himself like a mourner. Naked and dismembered mannequins laid there like rape victims; when one's leg cracked in the depths of the shop, was that you? Just me, resounded - then it was an arm that cracked; above the pile of torsos Claude reached for untouched packaging. Don't be bothered. I'm just bored.

'What are you-'
'I'll throw in ten more american dollars if you take these off', Claude offered. Bills tucked behind the edge of Ralf's trousers rustled when he spinned halfway; Claude rested his chin on Ralf's shoulder, spreading a creased fan of euros, blue like skies over France, reddish British pounds, and renminbis gone yellow, right in front of his eyes. 'And almost a thousand in any currency if you dance for me.'
'Where did you-'
'Will you do what I asked you, or not? Money isn't an issue.'
With arm, until now loosely hung over Ralf's neck, he embraced him slantwise at the height of his chest; the buckle clanged when he playfully pulled the belt out of its loops. Their eyes met.
'If you're too shy we'll leave them alone - but I'd really love to see you dance.'
'Then do it first. Show me the steps.'
Laughing, he glided below Ralf's arm and pulled him by it, locking his hand in a firm grip; the line of his shoulders flowed down in a nonchalant bow.
'I think you're familiar with them. Don't make me beg.'

His lips, pressed against Claude's cheek, tightened on the skin that melted in between them, and relaxed by a smile they shifted closer to his own; then they locked, making their bodies attract and repel like two magnets endlessly changing their polarity; they deprived each others of air, until its absence - the unwanted guest, which by custom they both have invited - forced them to extend the distance, on which they let each other go; they laughed; Claude's breath wrapped itself around Ralf's neck pulling him closer. Under his hand successive muscles tightened like sailing ropes; not fighting own impulses he pressed him closer and closer, feeling their interlacement and texture under his hand more and more clearly, then fingers, up until now molding in accordance to their movements, flowed down the line of Claude's side; a lurch; they looked at each other from the mirror's reflection and piece after piece detached one from another, until stade du miroir let them recognize themselves as separate people, who just happened to be leaning on each other. Without much engagement Ralf retained own hand from Claude's, and on its way back to his body patted him on the cheek.
'I tend to forget the classics.'
'Why', Claude's gaze climbed back at the level of his eyes; he shrugged and turned around; the smile with which Ralf was already familiar flashed briefly in the mirror. 'You have Greeks' approval. Ancient Rome-', in the form of toga he flipped a hoodie, which he grabbed on the way, over his shoulders, 'would have given you a standing ovation.'
As he walked it flowed down and following the money - which ran away from beneath their steps like worthless confetti - bestrewn the floor. Ralf pursued him lingeringly like a dog, whose attention for a brief moment was absorbed by something else than the owner's voice.
'Hey, Claude.'
Claude turned back on his heels.
'Will she do or do you prefer a more lively one?'
The arm of a mannequin which he hung over own shoulder - holding it like an element of contrapposto - fell off its joint and, left behind, slipped through the sleeve of a blouse it wore, stretching its fabric; plastic fingers touched the ground like a hand of sprinter ready to start his run. Only the lack of a gun signal seemed to be stopping the plastic corpse from following them.

The sun was coming through glass ceiling of the shopping precinct as if through pantheon's oculus; the patch of its light, chopped into pieces by the window frames, like a prehistoric turtle was shifting past the tiles lining the floor. The sacred silence was waiting to hear their confessions - coldness radiating from the falls was ingesting words of their silent lips, and giving both the chills voiced its disapproval of them not seeking atonement.
This place became an antique; the civilization which erected it has died weeks ago. Only tourists sticked around, with each step impairing its structure, the restoration of which from now on nobody was going to undertake.

Claude, peeking outside the cramped booth in which they sat, unhitched himself from Ralf's legs - thrown over the couch filling this alcove; over the languishing social norms - which he, just like his back on entire pile of pillows, rested against the opposite wall.
'Barbarians', Claude took the beverage away from his lips; few minutes ago they clinked bottles' necks in a careless toast. The local soda was fizzing silently on Ralf's tongue. 'These herds are asking to be taken under our rule.'
'Tell them what you just told me and enjoy being democratically outvoted by law of the fist. But it's flattering that looking at me, you're thinking of an empire - I'm afraid, however, that this region is governed by Hunger and Fear, supported by legions of bacteria. They're the world's strongest army.'
'Our Sparta is doing better, Ralf.'
'Indeed, we control it with great success', the bottle rang being put on the table. 'We control, but hardly ourselves, mein Herr.'
'Arm yourself with patience.'
'I'd rather with something else.' Ralf put his legs back on the floor. 'Am I supposed to wait for you to think about fetching us a weapon once you find yourself held at gunpoint? I was, one time. I might not notice the next one. Someday I'll ask you for the account of all the opportunities we lost-'
'Opportunities? Weren't you the one talking about the sense of morality?'
'- and you won't be capable of counting them. Come on. Your friends at the embassy must have had it provided-'
'- if you yourself, just in case, haven't had one jumping in the glove compartment whenever you suddenly braked. So should we ask around there or take our chances at airport's security headquarters? Or maybe you have other ideas?'
'I had, Ralf, but perhaps I should hold them off for later.'
'Go on. Accept mine and you won't hear a word against yours.'
'Funny how you trust me more than I trust you.'
Ralf leaned above the table.
'This should be giving you the basis to reciprocate this feeling.'
For some time Claude systematically, like during rehabilitating exercises, was shifting the bottle from one hand to the other.
'Think about Li', Ralf continued. 'Li! - he was calling her whenever she wandered more than two metres away. Hadn't she been sweetly holding that guy's hand, we would have been one step further. Married fucking couple.'
'They could have known each other barely a day. She could have been tired of his constant screaming.'
'Don't act like the corpses laying around here and there aren't tying tighter knots than priests and officials used to.'
'I can't deny it. All I ask is for a german bullet to the head not to be your first thought next time we see a couple, but, instead, for instance, asking the woman if gentleman she's with isn't bothering her.'
'Sure thing. I'll approach her and convince that Stockholm syndrome is what keeps her by his side.'
'You see. All you had to to was think of it earlier.'
'You could have too.'

Untrimmed hedges have grown behind the closed gates, losing their elaborate shapes, but besides that not much has changed - in front of the building, up on the mast, the flag was twitching in agonal convulsions; bleached gravel carpeting the driveway crunched with each of their steps; the windows were reflecting blurred outlines of nearby buildings, and when they got close enough - their own.
In accordance with predictions the front door turned out to be locked. With a light heart and keys clinking each time Claude tossed them in the air, he turned around and leaded Ralf through paving stones stained like aggregate from the front of the building, across the withering lawn, to its back; there, both the lock and knob gave in.
'I shouldn't be glad to be back', the ray of torchlight slipped by the stone tiles, glass surfaces and metal finishings, 'yet here we are. Wait for me.'
'Where are you going?', Ralf asked, visibly torn between going behind him and ahead, to the empty conference rooms, offices and sealed archives. In many aspects this place reminded Claude of catacombs - stale air was mixed with dust and faint at this floor scent of decay, which worsened as one headed further to the private apartments, arousing angst bordering with devotional; Ralf's attitude was suggesting he felt as if he entered a labyrinth in an abandoned amusement park; stay out, no trespassing.
'There's a generator downstairs. We had one in case of an emergency - matter of disbelief rather than necessity', he explained, 'with emphasis on had - they must have worn it out once power has died. Having said that, I'd rather check it myself.'
'Why didn't you-'
'Why didn't I tell you? Why haven't we docked here?', Claude turned his head looking up at Ralf, who was disappearing behind the bend of wall at the top of the stairs - in darkness his eyes, in which glimmering lights were reflecting, resembled two wishing wells; coins gleamed in their depths. All that resonated in the dead silence were the sounds of steps he made on the stairs, and the two of their voices multiplied by echo. 'The reason is simple - that's an embassy.'
'I don't see the problem.'
'Ralf, people felt lost - they wanted to get out of here at all costs and refused to accept the fact that everyone here had equal trouble departing. They wailed, they screamed, they made threats - we're citizens of France, we have the right to return, to cross the border, to escape! - and when their dreams went to hell, they kept coming regardless. What surprises me is that they haven't kicked the door down, haven't dragged outside everyone they could find here at the time, and haven't hanged them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't we appreciate the peace and lack of stones thrown at our not bulletproof, yet untouched windows?'
'Well, in that case, excuse me as I have a look around - do you want me to get you the flag, Marianna's bust...?'
'Very funny', Claude rolled his eyes. 'Watch your step. There's another entrance near the private rooms and I'm not sure if about it too we shouldn't talk in past tense.'

The lamps lightened up with dim, fluttering shine, as if unsure if they should glow or go off; the generator choked like an overburdened worker, who despite the imposed overtime and exhaustion attributed to it, wasn't allowed to go rest before his shift has ended; through the noise accompanying air conditioner's launch pierced crescendo of devices being activated, which - like employees caught skimping - at once returned to business as usual. Claude, getting up of his knees, straightened up and in livelier, bordering with jog pace - hundreds of thousands years ago it was fire that brought mankind out of the shadows and let it enter the path of transitions; the triumph over darkness was the first step towards civilization - returned to the ground floor, where in the registry he found Ralf. The muttered "move" wasn't heard - they bumped into each other; curses were said; finally Ralf stepped down. Broken protective cover of the control pad fell off the wall. Air conditioner went silent. The lights in the lobby went out.
'We must do without these amenities', Claude said after a while, having torn himself away from the console. 'And without them everything else will soon go down... Don't touch it, you won't find anything', he instructed Ralf more harshly than he intended, having noticed him open the desk's drawers; he regretted it shortly after. 'Sorry - just don't root around where you don't have to.'
'These documents are worthless', Ralf noticed, putting down the date book. 'Pieces of paper. You're not betraying anyone's trust.'
'What I wanted to say is, we don't have the time. This bloody armoured safe won't come to us on its own, nor will it open itself. This may take a while.'

Wind flipped the calendar's pages; the same cold blow of nightly air, enfolding his neck and arms, made his skin cover with goose bumps, which could be scraped off with a knife; after all the years of residing in China the memory of relatively warm transitional seasons in southwest France didn't recede. Sitting cross-legged on the floor Claude shivered and took a look at the watch - more expensive than half of equipment in the flat he abandoned - which he took off the shelf, and the weight of which on his wrist reminded him that having spent over an hour staring at the numerical lock, and having inserted a dozen of combinations, they still were in a jam.
'Do you understand now why I was sceptical about it?', he asked loud enough for his words to be heard in the adjoining room. 'Do you really think that at the airport or police station arms will await us on display?'
'I understand, but at the same time I'm surprised you don't have anything up your sleeve', responded Ralf; pages of notebooks and files rustled when he was flipping through them. 'It would have spared us the effort.'
'Have you ever looked into conditions for obtaining a firearms licence?'
Eloquent silence was all he heard in response.
'Think carefully', Ralf continued after a while. 'You knew this man.'
'Perhaps you didn't notice, but I've been thinking for quite some time now, for fuck's sake, unlike you. Do you think I'm picking the numbers at random? Would you like to sit here and try yourself?', Claude bursted. Resentment was welling up inside him like pus. 'So what if I knew him? - not well enough to know this fucking code too!'

B a n g; the steel door remained unaffected, just like the mahogany desk, in the extended side of which the safe was installed.
Claude moved away enough to stretch his numb legs - his joints cracked; leaning his back against the wall he took one more look at the buttons - not rubbed off, not greasy, as if they were never used, which couldn't be ruled out without knowing safe's content - and he closed his eyes. From the face with features as melancholic as its very expression, fixed eyes were looking at him; quiet, yet expressive voice; Bailly, you're wasting yourself at your own sweet will; wooden scent was floating in the car; the tilted mirror reflected smiles the girl was flashing at him - she shouldn't have done this; in the glow of street lights jewels on her neck seemed to be burning just like her lover did - living his midlife crisis - with desire; there were times when he dropped her off in the morning; one of these times she gave him his employer's card with own number written at the back - another wrong move on her part; call me - he doesn't have to know; apologetic smile. The ambassador, blinded by earthbound itches, would have left his family for her, if only it wouldn't ruin his career; she decided to take the risk and gave her number to his driver.
He didn't remember it. He didn't even know if he kept the card.
In the wallet besides ID and useless credit cards there were bills, which he scrunched up and threw away along payslips from the bank account. From beneath the trash the corners of thick, cream-coloured box with engraved name have resurfaced.
First part of the number. Silence.
'Ralf, pray for me.'
He inserted the second part.
Click of block being released.
Ecstatic cry.

'Smith & Wesson, first chamber empty for security reasons - you won't blow yourself anything off if it somehow discharges; if someone steals it from us we'll have only a moment to slit their throat. Besides, enough bullets to reload twice - we'll have to be thrifty. Shoulder holster. What will you give me in return?'
'Myself', Ralf struggled to move his gaze at Claude; it sparkled with excitement as if his eyes while he was taking them off the gun have peeled the grainy shine of metal. 'At your service. Even if I was to walk away, the bullet would reach me.'
'You're more likely to display that kind of behaviour; I'd skimp on wasting one for someone like you. Two reloadings', repeated Claude, rising his shoulders and corners of his mouth; the two seemed connected.
One, shouted the voice of reason - drowned out by the waves of euphoria - which every day kept losing interest in reminding others about own presence, one, if we want at least half of the other to reach the target.

The moon, pale on a blue sky, seemed not to notice them like a lens clouded by cataract; when the world was tilting its head to look at them with both of its eyes, Ralf kept vigil at the window, awaiting the slightest reaction to the fact that again - wide awake with restlessness that couldn't be channeled since Claude the previous evening has suspiciously denied him acting on it; tomorrow, he said - he outran him by minutes, if not hours; the time was flowing at uneven pace, just as clouds were on the firmament, all pushed from different directions by the blows of pre-monsoon wind. Ralf was lively like a gullible child, fooled by a promise made only so that it would go quiet; tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow; on the dresser in the bedroom a new toy kept shining, but he would sooner break it than figure out on his own - he was supposed not to touch it, as if it was Christmas, and only at sunrise he could reach the gifts laying under the silver fir. Prints of his fingers were covering the steamed glass like paintings did the walls of Lascaux; nylon - mankind's triumph over nature, which kept failing its demands - covered in toothpaste scrubbed silently against his teeth, arranged by alloy of unknown to him metals over the course of two years in accordance with beauty standards accepted by now dead majority; his swept-back hair were slowly losing the shape of their cut, which just two months ago was making him blend with primate pack along carefully ironed shirts.
'Salut, Claude.'
His hand gently smacked the shoulder showing from beneath the duvet and having received no response with resignation slid off it; Claude slowly turned his face towards Ralf and targeted him with his eyes; a bullet seemed ready to fire right in his head from his drowsily opening mouth; empty chamber, you won't blow yourself anything off.
'I thought', another one filled it, 'it was going to sound worse. How many times-'
'Less than you did.'
From the sky like through water-can's sieve fine as sand droplets of rain began to pour; it then seemed as if a hand was about to reach out of it, ready to uproot the weeds, but the flashback of rumour about nuclear blasts, that plowed through the lingering people, soon on its own enriched the water running down the window with herbicidal compounds - although its fresh as ever smell, like cologne atomised on the neck, was contradicting the concerns, which having crossed his mind hid again somewhere around its corner.
'In weather like this stop counting on me going out.' Sitting up Claude pulled the duvet higher; Ralf rested his elbow against his bended knee.
'Where's the tomorrow you promised me?'
When, even before it's been called an epidemic, the number of canceled plans begun to grow - "I'm not feeling so well"; "my wife has a terrible fever"; "I think I should take her to the hospital, you know?"; "that's funny, he's recently been complaining about that nasty cough too" - Ralf was only feeling disappointed with his emptying schedule; when the most far-reaching ones were called into question he looked up from his calendar, and his own heart skipped a beat once he noticed what was happening around him - the world was on hire, and all he felt were whiffs of warm air; eventually each of more or less filled pages could be burned in its flames; even the numbers of upcoming days have lost their significance.
'This day hasn't yet started, I swear.'
'I'd love to sleep through entire days, really, as if I was on vacation and finally had a chance to make up for every night which I've lost to duties and obligations, but-'
He couldn't name whatever was keeping him awake; it was so strange and primal that the word for it has died thousands of years ago.
The next glance at Claude made him feel the same emptiness, which appeared when a dog or a cat chose couch over the lap that was awaiting them; when it turned away from a hand reaching to pet it; when it didn't brush against owner's leg while passing him in the doorway.

'Why don't you serve as a moving target, Claude? How about that? Goose hunting, or a wild goose chase, if you will, like in the good old days.'
'Give it back.'
The corners of his mouth swam against the current of blood rushing down from his face.
'I'm just kidding.'
'But I'm not; holding it like that you'd sooner shoot yourself than anyone in the cross-hairs.'
Smith & Wesson's barrel looked down like a head humbly hung in shame, and with three hands wrapped around its neck looked up again, as if they forced it to tilt its chin.
Weighing down Ralf's stretched out arm it was asking when has firing become a better response than a diplomatic maneuver.

In some places one evening the night fell forever and - if at all - was only fading in the light of torches, which like moons, having went through full, new, full, and new moon phase, were going out as if covered by dense clouds of stale air; sometimes there appeared two or more, as though this part of the world was pushed out of orbit into the arms of a foreign, dead planetary system, against which with a millennial delay signals from Earth were brushing, incapable of being received. The shadows, swaying side to side in pitiful dance, were waving them goodbye before returning to the motionless body of the darkness; there's nothing here, they were saying.
'What actually are you looking for?'
In the beam of light Claude's pupils contracted, as if their blackness, frightened by it, followed the steps of murk filling the university library; his irises briefly glowed with heat, and like a match blown out by rapid motion they went black when he moved his gaze onto the bookshelves.
'Any recommendations?'
'A French phrase book. It should keep you busy for weeks, judging by how long-', Claude pulled a book out and quickly put it away, '- how long it took you to utter a single word.'
'If only you promise you'll at least try to learn English. When you're talking to me my hope to one day hear you say in German something more than good morning, simply dies.'
'Have you contracted my sentimentality?'
Someone once told him that the day knowledge ceases to cost, humanity shall enter the next stage of progression, and as he glided his hand against the books' spines - on which like on a thousand of gravestones there were glistening names of people, who either died long ago, or too late for the falling judicial system to write them out a death certificate, or who, somewhere on the other side of the world, were doing just as well as he and Claude was, finally having the explanation of poor demand for their novels - he wished he could look over his shoulder and with a smile, like an echo, repeat those words.
'By what means, Claude?'
Textbooks laid there like bricks, which with enough workload could be used to build a solid foundation for a better future, but Ralf himself - having a word with only one person, instead of at least a dozen; seeing only a few, instead of indistinguishable thousands - doubted that there was anyone who could live in a house for which they would serve as a building material. Despite it, he was leaded there by the same impulse that made him drag Claude in direction opposite to the silhouette, which has appeared in the window of a skyscraper a few blocks away; it fell on the ground and crashed loudly like a cup, which was dangling dangerously on the table's edge; what was it? - Claude looked back - what? hey, look - Ralf pointed at the guidepost - why don't we go there? - what was it? - n o t h i n g - his urging stare couldn't contain the truth; Ralf turned him around by the grabbed arm - it was nothing, let's go.
'Look', muting laughter wiped off the word's end. 'Look!'
For quite some time now he was looking outside the windows more frequently, with the same persistence, with which until now he was checking his phone; the sun was trying to reach them through its frames; afar, behind the glass, there was a woman or a girl walking; from that distance there was no difference between a fifteen- and forty-year-old; in those circumstances the difference was about to cease.


(written 03-09-2016 to 06-09-2016)

On her moon-shaped face, by emotions not fully kept in check painted red - a colour which was visible beneath the mortar coating of sweat and dust - expression of fearful mistrust seemed to be impressed as if onto a coagulating wax seal; uncertainty and desire to escape were channeling through her uncontrollable movements, through the tight clutch of her fingers, with bitten or broken nails, on the shoulder-straps of her backpack, through the shuffling of her feet made with visible intent of extending the distance, through her fevered gaze. They would have scared her off calling her from afar in foreign and hostile to her English; accompanying melody of her native language, which cut through it right when she was about to start running, has forced her to hesitate. At first sight Claude determined her to be between twelve and sixteen years old; when she dared to speak - her voice cracked, unused vocal cords failed; she cleared her throat; regained control over it - it only added to his conviction that she couldn't be any older than he estimated. Claude, Ralf - excluded from the conversation Ralf twitched; Fei Fei; along reassurances of having no unethical intentions both sides exchanged the questions, which back in the day made immersed in crisis Gaugin reach for his brush - Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? - and the girl listened carefully; when she herself spoke, time and time again she brushed the greasy hair off her forehead.
'She speaks English', Claude repeated, 'you can speak, she'll understand you. She's sorry, but she's nervous and afraid of an misunderstanding - and of embarrassing herself.'
'She would have to try really hard to compromise herself more than you do, Claude.'
Out of respect Fei Fei covered her chapped lips, stretching to her own surprise in a smile; from between them words managed to escape before tightening muscles made it impossible. Claude, infected with that grimace, shifted his gaze at Ralf.
'What did she say?'
'That we all sound like savages, like barbarians. And that my too formal for those circumstances Chinese isn't too bad, for a foreigner.'

'She's just a child.'
'It's time to grow up.'
Behind closed door of the bathroom Fei Fei made use of their hospitality; in Gaspard's bedroom, given to her for own use - just like in the living room - candles and incense kept burning; the stench of death was making its way through the scent of sandalwood, reminding them to think about relocating - if not at the very moment, then any day now.
'How will you communicate it to her?' After the second strike of match against the side of their box, flame bloomed at its tip, reflecting itself in Ralf's eyes, and then in Claude's, as he leaned right above it to light own cigarette. '"I'm afraid that's it, your childhood's over - but we can offer you help in becoming a woman" - you won't gain anyone's favour with that.'
'She understands that kindness comes at a price - unlike you.'
'You're limiting me within frameworks of your own mind.'
'I'm trying to think in your terms.'
'And failing miserably.'
Leaning against the railing Claude threw his head back; together with smoke out of his throat has flown laughter and soundlessly repeated you don't understand, you don't understand, you don't understand anything.
'Figuratively speaking, on the pedestal of my ego there's very little place for the needs of third parties - I can put there only you, nobody else; making me and you equal, making my needs equal to yours, putting an equal sign between "mine" and "yours" - don't interrupt me - it doesn't come so easily to me. If selling her might benefit us, I'm not going to maudle her age, nor the amounts of water that will have to flow down those pipes before she starts feeling abused. Did I make myself clear, or would you rather seek someone else - English, American, I'm sure someone will turn up! - someone whose impeccable accent would impress you, but someone who, given an occasion, on the first unfavourable profit and loss estimate, will try to get rid of you? You wanted some trust - then you have it. Are you with me or against me, Ralf?'
'You tend to be pompous to a fault.'
'I'm making up for you.'
'You know that if I was against it we wouldn't be standing here, talking like that.'
'Oh, Gaspard proceeded on the same assumption - where is he now?', Claude asked with a voice so sickening in its cordiality, that before the last vowel could resonate fully he felt some kind of disgust for himself. 'I'm capable of learning from the mistakes of others.'
'What are you hoping for, really? Excuse me, should I sign in own blood some agreement, that I won't do what you've already once done? Can't you see the irony in it?'
'All I can see is what I've told you - equating me with you. There is nothing I wouldn't do for myself.'
Despite Claude not raising his voice even once above the filled with irritation whisper, the silence, which fell then, seemed equally deep as the one which used to fill up their ears like cotton in the place of building up clamour.
'We're living on debt, Ralf, and we'll die incapable of repaying the ever so increasing interest', he sighted, continuing in a tired voice. The cigarette's end smouldered. 'Until then I'm going to live beyond my means, to the fullest, exploiting whatever's left of life. And you, how are you going to use this time? Regretting everything you didn't have the courage to try? There's no God, no family, not even coworkers - there's no one left who would accuse you of indulgence, but also, no one who would help you get up off the ground if you fell; we're both on our own. I ask: will you grab me before I break my neck?'
'Ask yourself', Ralf, unhurried, put his cigarette out in the ashtray that stood between them. 'I could give similar speeches each time you avert your eyes at something you'd rather not see; I don't do it, having humility, which you apparently lack.'
'I've already told you how much I care about humility, lately', Claude looked over his shoulder; they had no company; in the bathroom Fei was washing suds off her skin. 'Come here, I'll show you something. Closer.'
His fingers juxtaposed with the skin of Ralf's neck, anemic in comparison - but those were just appearances; their blood boiled; lips, which he locked with own, proved to be equally fiery; under their pressure smiles of eager sinners have aligned and dissolved on the tongue, leaving a bitter aftertaste of tobacco and tangy sweetness of wine they had with dinner, which couldn't sweep them of their feet half as greatly as one moment of indecent arousal. A bite right below the line of Ralf's jaw made unhampered laughter surge from his throat; it was then silenced by a lustful kiss. There was enough space between the railing and his spine for Claude to embrace him, having pulled him beforehand closer; between heated up layers of his clothing enough for his hands to stay there, continuing to caress the unexplored territory of his unclad back and sides - and then back off in secret as soon as the bathroom's lock has turned, as if the two were connected.
'That's what I call having fun', Claude whispered. 'You liked it - otherwise you wouldn't have let me do it again; I'm not going to judge you, I do not care about your reasons. I entertain myself however I can - while I can.' He slicked his hair back, laughing. 'Sleep well and please, don't wake me up if you don't have to.'

Although everyone who until now has known Ralf would have said he has aged - even if they couldn't tell exactly why: was it his thinner skin, a change in his eyes, as if instead of the passing years the unavailability of operational healthcare placed him a few steps closer to death - he was only feeling younger, to a point where he sometimes seemed to be on the verge of immortality: especially when he looked at his hands, which absorbed all of the cuts as quickly as if they were only a bad dream, or when he looked at the empty streets, each time he went out reminding him that he has survived something which majority of the population couldn't endure. Likewise, each look taken at Fei, who was still keeping up a guard of seriousness, was strengthening his belief that every day he was only getting younger; getting childish - realizing how little he knew about the world and how little he would be capable of doing, if he was to undertake something beyond what he has learned in his previous life; it included nearly every right thing that the world needed in its current condition. He could only speculate how electricity used to be delivered (his explanation of lights sparking up with a touch of the switch to an electrician would sound like a myth, a legend, or a fairy tale) and what exactly was pumping the water into currently dried pipes; he more or less understood what was preventing him and others from jumping to each other's' throats, but even of that - judging by own compulsive thoughts - he now wasn't quite sure. In the face of everything they needed the most, his capabilities seemed limited to walking, talking, and botched replicating of behaviours he observed in his parents; he might have as well follow their steps and lay motionless on the ground.
The collar of his shirt, the creases of which he hid rolling his sleeves up, was hanging low below his neck, spread widely like his legs.
'Those apartments', he pointed his hand at the door; without the once held gun it seemed strangely light, 'are pretty much clean and unlocked. You can take a look through them to find yourself some fresh clothing; if not - we can look for them after the breakfast. We have nothing else to do, unless Claude wakes up with a more explicit willingness to leave those four walls.'
Fei mustered the courage to smile; she would hardly answer, but her eyes, because of that silence seeming very old, in the air were outlining unknown to him characters as her gaze jumped through every nook and cranny of the kitchen; he made no attempt of finding out their meaning - it wasn't an alphabet which he could wield.
'If you're hungry', he repeated, 'all you have to do is say. We have plenty of food and some of it would surely expire without one more mouth to feed. Cereal? Something warm? Do you drink coffee, tea?' Perhaps you're still holding on to your mother's milk? 'Or we can wait until Claude wakes up, if with him you're more likely to come to an understanding.'
'Could we eat together?'
'It's no big deal, though I'm getting hungry already.'
'It's hard for me to have appetite, here.'
'Then dazzle me', he leaned above the table, 'where were you finding it easier to have.'
Fei didn't answer again; Ralf got up to brew himself a coffee. With its sip he swallowed the words trying to burst out of his mouth.
'Balcony or rooftop, Fei?'

When Claude, with drowsy carefreeness, has walked across the living room, Ralf, above the head of Fei, who clutched the carried dishes, responded to his stare with a steady and uninterrupted with a single blink signal; he was closer to laughing than smiling.
'I hope you slept well.'
'The longer we know each other, the more I think that more than - what? three? six? - hours of sleep would serve you well. Good morning.'
'Good morning.' Fei turned her head in the doorway, but didn't look at neither of them; the heavy steps which she made on the stairs have reached them, getting into the apartment through its half closed door.
'You're doing great with keeping up the appearances. You really look like a decent man.'
'How long will it take you until I can say the same?'
'Are we in hurry? Oh, right, the flight, what time is the meeting? Will we have enough time to eat something after the arrival, or will we have to taste the gourmet dishes served on board? Some nuggets sound great; the rations of other meals, alas, make them barely appetizers. Where have you sent her?'
Ralf pointed his finger at the ceiling.
'Remind me not to leave you alone with anyone.'
Ralf advanced on him, pressing his hips against his own; together with echoing footsteps Fei has slipped inside.
'Is there anything else?'
Ralf retreaded towards the hallway.
'Take my jacket, it's hanging right there, you could catch a cold without it. I'll be right up. Claude too.' She disappeared again. 'Do you know what and how to tell her?' He leaned towards Claude conspiratorially again.
'Bon appétit. You might not like the taste of it, but Ralf' doing his best.'
Another stare, longer than it was appropriate; a caught glimpse of lips being stretched in delight; a shameless thought, passing as he violently exhaled, as if it was drawn out by his muscles clenching for this fraction of a second.

If having taken his eyes off the sky and off Claude, who every once in a while appeared in his view - leaning in to hear him or be heard in the gusts of wind - he took a look around, laying on the roof with his legs bent, the void prevailing at this height would have astonished him; resting his head on the ground reminded him solely of days spent like that on the beach, and of the way, in which he could have formerly died - hit by a car, spread in the middle of the cold asphalt, with a fractured skull, waiting to hear the ambulance. Ralf spoke to the clouded blue of the sky as if only he and the dead gods had the right to judge the brilliance of his words:
'The upper floors mean more space, light, and a better view, but if everyday we were to climb the stairs-'
'We would have gotten into shape, which would be useful while running away from the neighbours. Somebody must have occupied that area already.'
Ralf tilted his head, letting the memory of the sweat, which covered their skin a few days ago as they blindly ran ahead, to drain on him right from Claude's squinted eyes; - If you'll keep acting like that- - I know, I know, it would do us no harm, but we no longer have to fear anyone- - Should I wait until you change your mind?
'We must cross out all of the hotels that are neighbouring hospitals - the lineups must have reached them just when it all has started-'
'Why hotels?', Fei looked up from her plate; Ralf kept looking at the sky as if it was the one asking him questions like a teacher, on a hunt for mistakes.
'Think of all the keys at the front desk. Doors, which you could simply lock, instead of barricading them with the dresser to feel safe. Fresh sheets. Towels. Perhaps water in the tanks. Some of the rooms must have been awaiting the new guests. Maybe-'
'Nobody's ghost will come with the interior design and leftover items', Claude addressed her, but Ralf knew he was the one spoken to. 'Besides, the ones dedicated for economic tourists had everything they could have dreamt of. They didn't have to go out, not even once', he leaned above him again, 'right?'
'We'll see', Ralf patted him on the cheek, stretching upward his arm, which would otherwise be waiting for a handshake sealing the deal.

Two or three of Fei's steps constituted Claude's one; their echo, resonating through the empty halls, was crashing against the dusty parquets. He knew because of the way she was running up to him that of being left behind and of getting lost in the corridors' maze she was afraid no less than of Ralf' silence, and of those of his looks, which without revealing any of his thoughts seemed to signify his fatalistic wishes - the latter ones she seemed to be trying to postpone with humble apologies, which she made while stepping aside whenever having become distracted by something - anything; by the sculptures known to her only from the illustrated handbooks or from movies imported from abroad, or by the familiar, yet alien from the apartament's perspective view - she bumped into him. Despite "it's fine" she went quiet, as if she didn't step on his heels, but on own chances to get under the protection of people, who in her opinion were in control of own circumstance; and only after being approached one-on-one she begun to slowly and unwillingly answer with more structured sentences.
'And?', the void swallowed Claude's voice; rays of light reflected themselves in the glass of bottles lined up behind a bar counter and having went through what was in them cast shimmering projections on the walls; Buddhistic mandalas. 'Designed in too pretentious fashion? Too modest? Or maybe simply too empty and you'd rather look for one in which we would find some company, too?'
'The only thing excess is you.' Ralf got up from the armchair; shadows cast by arabesques bathing in flashlights' glow danced on Fei's face; Claude observed her for a while, bewitched - memories, lured like moths, fluttered in the air, bumping into each other - and aware that those patterns have covered him too.
'You won't find me in Shangri La, you have my word.'
'And in Banyan Tree?', the strobe of light shone right on him from behind the partition, as if he was being interrogated; soon questions about where was he when the world choked on blood were going to be asked; about where was he going to be during the funeral, which was about to lack mourners.
'I would visit you.'
They were two unbearable clients, whose expectations, out of touch with the local reality, did not fall along mankind - they had reasons to shout at the desultory staff: bring electricity and water back, we payed for them! open the kitchens! open the saunas!; both of them were tourists, unadjusted like their very watches, who were coming for breakfast first, even before the cook has appeared, and were the last ones to leave the casinos; at nights it were they who much like jellyfish were going to float on their back in the swimming pool, to then sleep through the day in alcohol's haze with empty bottles next to their beds. Perhaps someday they would dream deliriously enough to finally open their eyes in own, eight thousand kilometers away, home.

The curtains swung in the wind; the flames of candles standing slightly afar from the covered windows twitched in convulsions - two of them died, their wicks drowned in the wax; the intense, flowery scent was mixing with the smell of paraffin and tobacco smoke. Claude moved aside in the doorway letting Fei inside - and as he returned to the tangled sheets of his bed, she gathered the courage up and slowly followed his steps through the hall, through the dim living room, to the bedroom.
'I don't want to bother you', she said. Having looked up from the deck of cards laying at his hand's reach he invited her with a gesture to sit next to him; she did it, but still uneasily watched the cards and the jack he was flipping in his fingers, pondering.
'You're not.'
'Where's Ralf?'
'Not here. I don't know. Not in own room?'
'He went out.'
'So he'll come back... or not.' The cigarette he held between his knuckles was hanging right above the bedsheet; Claude carelessly swept ash off it. 'Everybody needs some space - on top of that Ralf is an hopeless introvert, as you might have noticed yourself, but I respect that - and that's why I'm playing solitaire instead of talking him into playing blackjack with me; he needs some rest from my emotional exhibitionism.'
The girl barely noticeably nodded her head as a sign of understanding. After a while of sitting in silence she pointed at the candles.
'What's the scent?'
'Why not lavender?', confusion could be heard in Fei's voice; the mere handful of information she possessed slipped through her fingers like fine sand.
'Maybe if I was from Provence - that's southeast, right by the sea - but I'm from Midi-Pyrénées, southwest; we're harvesting violets there. They have little to no smell, not when compared to lavender, and yet I couldn't stand them for years - all they made me think of were tourists and some ridiculous holiday.'
'We can swap', she suggested after a while. 'There are cinnamon candles in my room - Ralf gave them to me. Should I go get them?'
'Thank you, but there's no need to - I brought these ones myself', he sighted. 'This is that flaming sentimentalism of which even I myself am getting sick; it must be strangling Ralf', with a bit of bitterness he smiled at the cards. 'After all the more efficiently I'm fooling myself, the better with myself do I feel. Shouldn't you be sleeping?', he asked, having taken a look at the watch. 'It's almost one in the morning. Whatever Ralf has to say about that, tomorrow we'll have to return to that apartment to get water and a couple of other things.'
Her heels stomped as she put them on the floor. Before Fei got up Claude hovered above the deck of cards and kissed the top of her head. Her cheeks flamed up with redness of poppy, which shouldn't have happened; it was a bad sign. A mere peck was making her shy - how was she going to react to the demand for her to undress and surrender to someone, to whom she owned nothing more than gratitude for not raising his hand against her?
'Good night.'
'Good night.'

The darkness outside was no less unpredictable than edges of a dense forest, which were pushing against the houses and tents built in its middle as if the woods swelled up with shadows filling spaces in between the trees; instead of people Ralf passed own reflections appearing in mirror-like black windows - had men been as quiet as those while alive, he wouldn't have privately wished anyone to go silent, not forever. The walls of succeeding corridors - as the eyes of animals in dark wilderness did - gleamed with green, yellow, and red lights of locks living on batteries; being presented a hotel card key they blinked as if this offering made them turn a blind eye on violation of their exclusive territory. Ralf's own shadow kept jumping in his way each time the moon's light resurfaced from beneath the clouds; the shadow was hoping to scare him away, and convince him to go back, in its company, and maybe return there together with the sun, which was more rational and capable of explaining each suspicious silhouette; it wouldn't listen to Ralf, according to whom it was hope which took him by the hand, although he wasn't sure if its viscous touch wasn't making him sick; yet it encouraged his steps as music did those of a clumsy dancer.
The apartment was too big for one person only; the hotel had too many of them for such silence to prevail there; the world - more of a concept than an actual place - was too big for a man to find his way in it, let alone find others.
Ralf was restless as a ghost who hasn't resolved its earthbound issues, but if the afterlife was to look that way everything the deceased had abandoned would be endlessly dancing in the air, making more noise than people left alive.
The flames of candles litting his room trembled in panic as he returned, as if they too had been expecting somebody worse to enter it - then returned to their anticipatory stillness. Had he got lost their scent would lead him back there; despite all the time that passed he couldn't help but notice it more clearly than the outline of his surroundings, dissolving in the darkness.
All the keys collected from the front desk rested in his nightstand; yanking out the universal ones from the closed drawers required all of his energy - the one which used to pry open his shut lips with words soaked in blood; he gutted out the staff rooms just as he swore to gut out everyone who underestimated him; dismembered the desks and cabinets as if he was rationing meat, the taste of which he already forgot.

Footsteps snapped Claude out of lethargy - half befuddled and disoriented, half morbidly alert and fully aware that the bed he was lying in wasn't his, that the phone people dialed in case of a burglary wouldn't respond, not even with voicemail, he sat up and listened to own heart, the beating of which filled the silence; he concluded it must have been Ralf, who was strolling back and forth through the corridors in trance that bordered on somnambulist unable to lie on his back for even a minute in an inherently hopeless attempt to fall asleep, Claude allowed his head to drop back on the pillow; like this, he could await the coming of a heart attack, which - had it decided to surprise him - would have killed him on the spot had he checked the time and realized that Ralf knocked on his door two hours ago and gave him two of many found packs of cigarettes, having decided to end his hotel walkabout.
The steps went silent. Safety, taken off the gun, resounded. The lock clang.
The corridor was empty, and except wind murmuring in the crowns of trees and rain hitting against the windows, silent. Claude's fingers drummed against the door jamb; it opened before he could lift his fingertips. Clouds covered the moon, their only light source; Ralf's silhouette dissolved in the darkness; he suspected his own did the same. They were but two smudges of ink.
'Have you heard it...?', Claude asked. 'Perhaps Banyan Tree wasn't that bad.'
'Are you going to move, in the middle of the night, each time you hear something?'
In the dark they ran into each other as the door closed shut.
'Have you emptied your liquor cabinet or are you just afraid of sleeping alone?', Ralf teased him.
'Don't act like you aren't feeling uneasy too.'
'Let us not forget about Fei; maybe she won't be able to fall asleep on her own, either?'
'Maybe I should keep her company.'
His lips were damp with water; Ralf indulged on each of its droplets warily; shivered as fingers brushed against his waist and laughing it off disappeared again in the shadow that reached a distant candle.
'I paid her a visit.'
'She paid me one too.'
Ralf shook his head and pointed at bottles seemingly spilling on the floor from his own cabinet, unable to contain them all.
'You wanted to have more for yourself?', Claude's silent voice turned into a whisper; obligatory curfew remained even when nobody able to enforce it had.
'If she developed an aversion to alcohol we'd have one ace up our sleeve less - if we're to actively support the worst visions of a perfectly free market. That's my share of regulation.'
Claude stretched on his bed as if it was his own and after a while of staring into space he shifted his gaze onto Ralf, 'What would your price be?'
'Are you asking about the days I could go on scarce amounts of water alone before giving in?', a wave of amusement went through his bones, muscles, and nerves, unnoticed. 'No need to bother yourself with counting. Move.'
Claude's eyelids shut slowly and after a while opened again, sins glowing of hellfire peering through them in anticipation. Ralf stood there leaning against a vanity table, his eyes narrowed by smile, looking down on him like on own worst temptations - like a mother looks at her children, unable to coerce them while others are watching the way she would if they weren't.
'I'm disturbing you. You want me to leave.'
'How come?'
'I'm not asking', Claude shrugged, 'and I don't want to know.'
Ralf moved the curtain revealing the city; sometimes he thought he saw light flashing somewhere, but each time he looked up, at the moon, it shone apologetically, it's just me. When the sun was setting a couple of hours prior, all of the windows harmoniously lit up with warm glow, but instead of people moving in their apartments he saw clouds moving through the sky, reflecting in glass, passing through the walls, disappearing into thin air and appearing again on the surface of another building.
The mattress settled below him, so did Claude, on whose faint outline Ralf looked for a while hesitantly; his lips, parted by a smile, lured him for some time, and finally, as if bored by waiting laughed hollowly.
'It was you', Claude accused him.
'Excuse me?'
'You were walking there right before I came here.'
'No, it was room service, delivering champagne for the couple from room 426.'
'Where is it? They should hurry.'

Edytowane przez Choo dnia 16-07-2019 20:35

(written 06-09-2016 to ----------)

Knocking. Louder and louder; ROOM SERVICE!; Have you ordered breakfast?; a fist was pounding on the door, another one and weeping seemed to be joining it any second. When Claude raised his head Ralf made him lay it back on the pillow, brushing dark hair of his face, and got up himself, as if realizing that the room was his; as if he remembered it was him who put now whistling kettle on the stove.
Fei looked at him with some relief, but fear was still boiling in her, the same kind which he'd hear in own voice last evening if he listened closely.
'Did you sleep well?', Ralf asked.
Shaking her head Fei looked at him with odd reproach.
'I'd offer you sleeping pills, but even I wouldn't take them from somebody like me - you would probably hear some nasty words of disapproval before you could wash them down your throat with water. Claude must still be sleeping if it's him you're looking for.'
She kept silent so long that with each blink of his eyes he expected her to dissolve, and be replaced by empty space that some foggy continuation of a dream temporarily filled.
'I'm sorry. I thought there was no one here.'
Habits caused by now dead customs almost made him explain why there was somebody in his bed, but the bedroom couldn't be seen from the room's entrance; he understood what she meant just before the first syllable could escape his throat, and laughing, as if at her instead of own thoughts, hugged her as reassuringly as he could.
'You would hear it if we were trying to leave.'
She soaked up the warmth of his embrace in silence.
'I don't know what to do with myself', Fei finally mouthed the words right into his chest. He could almost feel the movements of her lips on his skin and vibration of the vocal cords in her neck, pressed against him; he frowned, but only the endless walls of hall could see it.
'You're on vacation. You can do whatever you want. There's still water in the swimming pool, if you're interested', he said into the void, as if seeking its approval.
'Who could have made it dirty?'
At night, when the beam of his torch brushed it, the pool seemed more of a lake, something eerie swimming at its bottom.
'You would have to try really hard to get lost on your way there. Just check the water yourself before you enter - maybe it all looks worse in the sunlight.'

'Clean?', Claude repeated after him. 'Isn't that what you say about your conscience?'
Ralf felt like a player on a football pitch who somehow heard the people watching the transmission scream at their screens for him to pass the ball to his left or right, all already aware how the situation was going to develop if he hadn't done it; as if the was participating in a quiz show and the entire audience knew the answer he wasn't capable of providing. Some of the dead Gods must have considered him to be the equivalent of an illiterate reader; others applauded him on remnants of their power, slowly, almost cautiously. He rested his hands against the countertop of Gaspard's apartment:
'Later she told me she hasn't even dipped her fingers in it.'
'At least she is capable of thinking.'
'You shouldn't be so happy about it. It's a bad prognosis.'
'Is it? Neither of us will have a reason to complain if she's intelligent enough to make some sacrifices.'
'Well, tell her that, then. Maybe she'll buy it', Ralf whispered in his ear passing him, just to turn around on the sound of Claude's voice again.
'She could be writhing of itch with some bacteria inhabiting her skin.'
'And someday she will, although she'd probably choose this over gonorrhea!', Ralf shouted quietly; looked at the table and back at Claude.
Downstairs, keeping an eye on the things they carried there, stood Fei.
'Are we taking the car?', finally Ralf asked sweetly with an ostentatiously naive smile, his eyes remaining unchanged.
'You'll walk - and hopefully walk off this motherfucking smile.'
'Sorry if I happen to run you over while turning, Ralf?'
'There would be no skid marks left', Claude appeared right behind him; with eyes glued to the torn edges of books he held, he shoved the box of them into Ralf's hands with intentional, albeit entirely unnecessary force, cardboard edges trying to pierce through his ribs. 'Don't drop these.'
'Like you've done it with your assertiveness somewhere along the way?'
'Perhaps I should have cleared things up over breakfast', Claude hissed; his agreeability had got left somewhere between the pages of Treatise on Tolerance, laying atop the box; purchased and displayed on Gaspard's shelf represented one of many props of comparable value, whose sole purpose was to inform the guests he hosted of his erudition with their mere presence there. 'Fei, please put down baozi for a moment; here, take this licorice cane - we must use it to check if your throat matches Ralf's with its depth. How did I come up with this comparison, love? It must have been a slip, but soon I'll confirm it as a valid point of reference! A brilliant idea, Ralf - it would have only taken her appetite away!'
'Perhaps we should reassess our assumptions; perhaps you would prove more suitable for it then either of us.'
'Let's auction me then, go on - but, contrary to you, I know my price', Claude leaned over the box with an appalling, sour smile. 'You can't afford even five minutes of my time', he pushed onwards, forcing Ralf to take his first step of retreat. 'Carry. This. Right. This. Moment.'
A few moments later a thunderous thud reached him from a couple floors down; torn paper was rustling; dropped tomes were falling like hail; Claude could feel the echo that trembled through the staircase right in his bones, as he stood there, his fingers going white, clenched on the back of a chair he held onto.
They ditched the place in miserable condition - forsaken belongings scattered across the carpet, cabinet doors left wide open, and drawers sticking out of furniture like tongues or pulled out and thrown aside. At the doorstep stood a bamboo basket, carrying useful trifles they found and a blanket, skinned from the bedding at the very last moment; the keys to the apartment drowned in its folds as if they had never existed even before Claude reached the ground floor for the very last time.

The flame of his trusty lighter kept appearing and disappearing, as if choking, refusing to run a full circle around the burner of one among many vintage gas stoves (true veterans in their class, unreplaced by induction hobs owing to aberrations in the financial statement; they were going to last until natural gas, accumulated in the pipes, would tear the line having been triggered by one stray spark) until finally its flint sparked and fanned the flames of his hatred towards himself and towards all of those useless things, the significance of which in his life until this very moment remained unnoticed - because why should he have...?
The lighter vanished in the darkness as he threw it in expression of his fuming helplessness. Shadows casted by candles danced on the walls as Claude rested his elbows on the table and hid his face in his palms, held as if in a prayer. In this state - defeated among unscrewed jars, torn containers and shreds of plastic - he had been found by Fei.
'Are you okay?'
'Yes', he straightened up slowly, yet didn't give her a single look. Under a lid covering the pan millet was soaking up tomato paste with herbs and dried garlic; another pot yielded rice slowly swelling in cold water; and Claude himself was stewing in his own bitterness and unspoken resentment, seething because of his own inattention. 'Please bring the mathes - they're upstairs, and the lighter just gave up its ghost.'
'Are you sure?'
'It doesn't matter. I threw it away, and lighting this with a candle-'
'No, no - are you sure you're okay?', her worried gaze landed on him instead of a hand, which she hadn't had the courage to put on his shoulder; she was thoughtlessly cracking her fingers instead.
'Christ, Fei. Yes. Yes - I've had better days, but there's nothing you should worry about', he replied; forcing himself to display this bit of warmth, which failed to reach his voice in time, took more than he would have ever guessed. 'Go get the matches - you can also ask Ralf - assuming you stumble upon him - if he's not allergic to dried calamari. If he asks if I'm planning to poison him with them, answer yes.'
'Did you have a fight?'
'I wouldn't call it this way', I'm not sure if I should kill him or myself; you'll get to know how it feels, 'I'm not going to defy him', you're not going to defy us either; you'll lose your strength on the mere thought of it, 'Not in those circumstances.'
Fei turned around. Before she was gone, he added:
'You could also ask him if he happens to eat desserts; what does he like? - Just be discrete, please. You don't have to mention I'm the one inquiring.'
The hinges of swinging doors creaked; the sound of Fei's footsteps became more and more distant. Having been left alone in the kitchen, which was hardly differing from a hangar - in its glory days the afternoon rush must have made the staff passionately curse the lack of space, of stoves and of breathable air, even with the extractor fans running at full power - Claude wandered between the rows of empty counters, polished sinks and shut down fridges; in the nearby room bony frames of dining trolleys were awaiting the return of waiters. Pushing one of them in front of himself back to the place from which he came, he was close to feeling like a pathologist with his hands on the handles of a mortuary cart - having looked down he would have seen himself, reflected in its shiny surface; a patient undergoing vivisection and the doctor performing it in search of lesions at once.
Dinnerware he found was already awaiting Fei by the time she came back; she observed the constituting elements of dishes prepared and plated in bowls and tureens hesitantly - perhaps with the exception of rice - although covetously; he used to look the same way at produce sold at the market - at shrimps, sea cucumbers, those hundreds of other unnamed foods - able to think only about the fact that he was about to embarrass himself in front of the seller; all of that was far from home cooking, the memories of which he retained together with the goodbyes and reminders to call as soon as he arrives, regardless of the local time.
'Do you know how to set the table?'
Fei hesitated.
'Then just pick us one and take it there.'
'Ralf said he's not-'
'Great', he interrupted her, 'Just in case I made him a serving without it. Take those dishes and bring him here before it all gets cold.'

Haunting wailing alternated by sobbing traveled through the corridor like a whistling draft. With a cigarette in his mouth - third or fourth in row; reeking clouds of their smoke hovered in Fei's bedroom long after he had exited it with her apartment's key in his pocket; they made for a foggy curtain, behind which he could see her eyes open in disbelief, tear up, swell, and redden after a couple minutes of this talk - he banged on the door in front of him with his whole hand; by the time he knocked last they flung open and his arm nearly smashed Ralf's chest, carried by momentum reversed at the very last moment in a versatile, unspoken finally!
'Don't try to convince me this breaks your heart.'
'Too late', withered cigarette butt was starting to burn his lower lip; Claude took it out carelessly. 'It broke by the time I got to the point.'
Allowed inside he looked around for an ashtray, which Ralf passed him a moment later; grey ribbons of smoke were still rising from the put out cigarette when he reached for another one. 'She handled it much better than I was expecting her to anyway.'
A frown flashed on Ralf's face - a peculiar combination of contempt, disgust and boredom, soon replaced by distinguished indifference.
'You're going to start smashing trinkets she didn't break just to make your expectations fulfilled?'
'Shut your mouth.'
'So much for the courtesy, huh?', Ralf asked with pity. 'Fine. Let me just briefly remind you that you were the one who pushed this idea - your idea; now, if you'd be so kind as to go back to your room and take these pathetic pangs of conscience with you.'
'You have no idea how much I regret not choking you to death in your sleep.'
'You might still get the chance to do it.'
Claude moved his gaze from Tianjin's skyline - anger, smelting in solitude, finally cooled, leaving ashes and ruins; wind was blowing away the flames of smoldering rubble - onto the distant figure of Ralf, who was looking at him as if at carcass, a bag of organic waste to be disposed at the time of garbage truck's arrival.
'Actually, I'm here to apologize.'
'You're doing it in a pretty fucked up way; I hope you know at least that.'
'And with much the opposite of intended effect', Claude reached out his hand, offering Ralf the pack of cigarettes. 'I don't know another way.'
Ralf's cold gaze could have caused water to freeze in the vases, had it not evaporated weeks ago and the flowers wilted; Claude shook the pack encouragingly.
'Ralf, not everyone can be lucky enough to be born German; I'm but a Frenchman - that's one step away from being a wop, raising my voice for no reason and gesturing pointlessly. Don't expect too much of me.'
'I'm surprised your mother hadn't drowned you by the time you turned ten.'
'Mothers are our first role models; you would have liked her - she knew how to handle men; she cooks - cooked - much better than I do.'
'But she's dead.'
'She is', Claude nodded, 'What a surprise.'
For a while they smoked in silence.
'Fei needs some time to cool down. I doubt she will cause problems later on - leaving aside the question of her initiation; she doesn't have any experience; a n y', they exchanged glances, 'But she did manage to acquire our love of comfort.'

- translation in progress -

Edytowane przez Choo dnia 19-09-2020 00:16
discord: ralfvoigt
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