"He gets involved in his stories" is usually a high compliment to a journalist. But "He becomes part of the story" is an insult. The line between the two can be as sharp as a razor.
I shifted a little bit, enough to get some fresh blood down to my feet. They'd gone numb, so numb I'd forgotten about them, down there in my ancient high-top Reeboks. Now they came back, first with that weird fizzy feeling like when you put your hand over a freshly-poured glass of 7-Up, and then a sparkling pain, pins and needles, the pain of fresh blood washing out the fatigue poisons or whatever it is. The science editor explained it to me once, but I wasn't really paying attention.
I hate this city. It disgusts me, that something like the Zone can exist in a theoretically civilized world.
I suppose that, hating the city, hating the Zone, I should by extension loathe myself, but I don't. The way I see it, hating myself for what the world has made me is a cheap excuse to climb onto the accelerating downward spiral of drinking.
No, I don't hate myself. Even if I am a vulture.
Sometimes I wonder what the kid's real name is, the one who keeps calling me. He tells me his name is Lupus Yonderboy, but I know that's not it because that's the name of a minor character in a book I read a few years ago. I wonder if Lupus read that book. There was one time there when he didn't call me for about four months, and I started wondering if maybe he'd been one of the dead- and-dying left there bleeding. Then he called again, and when I picked up the phone his voice was a little bit deeper. "Jack?"
I recognized the voice and automatically slipped into our pattern, created on our first conversation and never strayed from since. I said, "Yo?"
"Fourth and Mason."
"2 a.m. Hasta la vista, baybee."
I wanted, that time, to ask him where he'd been, but there was a dry click and dial tone.
Tonight was Ninth and Kruguer, 3 a.m. I shifted again, 7-Up on my calves now, and touched the pad on my watch.02:42I always come two hours early, always on foot. If they ever see me, they never let me know. Maybe the camera bag is my white flag of truce, my ticket of safe passage.
Maybe they don't know about me, but I think they do. My neck hairs can feel their eyes on me, just out of my range of vision, in the dark under a dark sky.
02:49in dark seven-segment numerals against the pale blue glow. I always do this, in the last twenty minutes or so. Check my watch every couple minutes, wondering where the hell they are. It's a twisted kind of anxiety, kind of like a vulture waiting for an animal to die, and I really prefer not to think about it. This way lies madness. Or at least booze, and I'm not about to get back into drinking.
Downward spiral, get thee back.02:51
I ground my cigarette out on the wall beside me, then looked out the window. Nothing but dark street, the glitter of a full moon glinting off smashed windows in dead buildings. Where the hell were they? Maybe they were out there and I just couldn't see them. I'd trashed my night vision smoking that cigarette, and it was still rebuilding. Should've closed one eye.
I shifted again -- feet -- and pulled open the "soundless" Velcro closure of the camera case. It made a sound, but in the tomb-quiet of the abandoned tenement, my breathing was loud.
I grabbed the camera and hoisted it out, brought it up to my face. My thumb found the power stud on the light-amp hood by memory, and I was looking at the crossroads of Ninth Street and Kruguer Way by green daylight.
Nothing. No one. A framework of rust that had probably been a Camaro, up on blocks. One of the cinderblocks had collapsed and the ex-Camaro was now tilted, the right front wheelwell on the sidewalk. Ruined buildings, some blackened by fire. Cracked and busted asphalt.
I thumbed the switch again and it was all gone.02:55
Rachel called me a vulture when I told her about Lupus, which was after the third call. That was when she was my wife instead of some woman who happens to have the same last name as me. I never figured that one out, why she kept my name.
"Where were you last night?" she asked, that morning three years ago.
"Out. Lupus called."
I didn't want to tell her, but I also didn't want to lie to her. She wasn't happy when I told her how Lupus had been calling me when there was a battle coming, and she really didn't like it when she wormed it out of me that I'd been in the Zone.
"You could have been killed," she'd said, and I didn't have any kind of reply to that. But then she asked me how old I figured Lupus was, and when I said fifteen maybe, her eyes went all hard and she said, "Jack, you're a vulture." Then she got up and started to get dressed.
When I touched her shoulder at breakfast, standing behind her chair, she shrugged my hand off and my stomach just fell.
It's a weird irony that she got the divorce when she did. All those years while I was busy killing myself, she stuck with me, but then when I got off the booze she walked out because I took pictures of people getting killed. Maybe she liked cleaning me up when I shit myself, but I don't think so.
I think she blamed me for the Zone, the war going on there. The children dying every few days in skirmishes and battles at the core of the city. The war's been there for fifteen years but it's my fault. My fault, even though I'm not a general, not a combatant, but only the war's chronicler.
02:59and I heard a sound, a click, bootheel on pavement.
Brought the camera up and thumbed the switch. Green daylight.
Forty of them, give or take. About half in longcoats with no sleeves, no shirts on underneath, muscles rippling. The rest were in no particular uniforms but they all wore white cloth strips around their right wrists. I'd seen these two gangs go at it before, a couple months ago. All of them were packing: Uzis, pistols, a couple sawed-off shotguns, you name it. One guy with a cloth bracelet had a machete strapped to his back and a .30-06 in his hands. The strap for the machete doubled as an ammunition bandolier.
They sometimes have a weird version of the Geneva Convention in the Zone, and occasionally some rules of engagement. The two groups just glared at each other for a few seconds, and then -- at
02:59:30by my watch -- they scattered.
03:00:00brought gunfire and screams.
It's kind of like being a war correspondent, really, only less and more frightening at the same time.
Less frightening because, at least instead of being alone in some foreign land, I'm in my own city.
More frightening because I'm in my own city.
You never get cops down here. People living near the Zone have gotten hardened to the sounds of war. Of kids, screaming and killing and dying. Gunshots. I wonder sometimes why I bother to take the pictures anymore.
While I wonder, my index finger does the work for me.
clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clikInstants frozen in time:
...A Longcoat firing a .357 Magnum, the flash from the pistol overwhelmingly bright in the light-amplified photo, a round ball of glare blotting out most of the gun.
...A long-haired White Bracelet sliding down a wall, mouth slack, leaving a trail of shiny darkness.
...The guy with the machete, grinning insanely as his blade cleaves a Longcoat's forearm, the fingers still clutching an Uzi as the meat falls to the ground.
...A White Bracelet lying in the street with no face.
...The guy with the machete standing with a great dark cloud coming out of his back, the flash still fading from the pistol held by the Longcoat who has just shot him at near point-blank range. The guy with the machete is still grinning like a berserker. I watched him as his knees buckled and he collapsed to the blood-wet pavement.
...A Longcoat crouched behind the tilted hulk of the Camaro, reloading his pistolized eight-gauge pump.
...and so many more, black-and-white photos, grainy with light amplification, taken from a third-story window in a condemned tenement in the heart of the Zone.
A vulture and his camera.
And in the middle of it all I saw lupus.
It had to be him. The way I'd imagined him, talking to his voice on the phone. There -- blond hair to his shoulders, cloth bracelet white against the skin of his wrist, everything tinged green by the light-amp hood. He shot three while I watched, forgetting to take pictures, one in the throat -- dead -- one in the chest -- dead -- the third taking the bullet high and a gout of blood from his shoulder -- running. Lupus. Yes, it had to be him. I knew that, just this weird intuitive certainty.
And I knew I had to meet him.
03:34and it was all over. usually what I'd do was wait at least an hour before leaving, just in case, but this time--
Well, I had to meet him. Had no idea how, but I decided I'd think of something.
I popped the image chip out of the camera and hid it in the little pouch in my jeans, in the back of the knee, sealed the soundless Velcro. Packed the camera and hoisted the case, stood up and let the new blood do its work, pins and needles all down my legs.
03:40and I was out the broken doorway, down the stairs, and out onto the street, where the dead and dying lay silent or moaning. Soon other, more dangerous vultures would be out: the ghouls, pallbearers of war night in the Zone. I didn't want to be anywhere near Ninth and Kruguer when they showed up.
I got about a block and a half down Ninth, headed west, the way the White Bracelets had gone, when something heavy and hard hit the back of my head.
There was a brief, intense light show...
...and I was gagging, sputtering, cold stale water in my sinuses, my face.
"Wake up, wake up, we want you awake fer this--"
"W..." I said, then gagged again. Whoever it was quit pouring water in my face.
"Hey, muthafucka," said a voice, "where you get a toy like this?" I looked towards the voice and it was Lupus, dangling my camera. They doubled back, I thought, like that was going to help me. "Nice fuckin' toy," said Lupus, in a voice that wasn't his, and I realized then the terrible mistake I'd made. He grabbed the camera by its case, both hands, and hurled it into the paved ground. I heard glass shatter, the multitude of lenses trashed, and a piece bounced up again, high as not-Lupus's waist. The light-amp hood. "Now it's shit."
"Hey," I said, starting to roll, to get up, and faster than that the other guy was on me, knee on my chest, something sharp at my throat.
"Tell'm what we gonna do, Skull," said not-Lupus.
"What we gonna do," said Skull, "yeah, is we gonna take you apart, my man. You come in here, man, comin' deeper into our Zone, you ain't fuckin' welcome here, so we gonna take you the fuck apart. Slow." He grinned. "An' you stay alive, man, for hours and fuckin' hours. 'Cuz we start with your feet."
Not-Lupus laughed and stooped down and showed me something made of shiny steel. A scalpel. It glinted in the moonlight. "Gonna start," said not-Lupus, "with your fuckin'," and right then there was a spray of something warm on my face and the knee was gone from my chest, the knife from my artery, and two gunshots and not-Lupus was on his back screaming, I was standing, Skull was dead with a huge hole punched in the middle of his forehead, not-Lupus was screaming screaming screaming a raw thick high girl-wail that went on and on and on and on there was something gray and shredded hanging out of his flayed belly in a long obscene loop I turned and a huge dark fist hit me in the face drove me to my knees my nose was bleeding and through a haze of pain I watched the black guy in the sleeveless longcoat stride (click of bootheels angry on pavement) to not-Lupus and point a pistol, shoot him one more time in the face and not-Lupus finally quit screaming.
Then the black guy came over and grabbed me by the back of my jacket, hauled me to my feet. I saw not-Lupus with a hole right between the eyes and a dark puddle around his head starting to stain his blond hair to red.
"Are you Jack?" the black guy said, conversationally. I knew that voice.
"Why'd you--" I couldn't say it, couldn't say kill. I have no idea why.
"Gutshot. Can't leave a man to die like that. You Jack?"
I nodded. The guy was maybe eighteen. Maybe.
"Lupus. How'd you get so fuckin' stupid, Jack?"
"Why the fuck didn't you stay put? You always did before."
"No," he said. "Don't bother. Just get out."
"Get the fuck out of the Zone. Go."
"Lupus," I said, "thanks."
"You're welcome. Run."
I haven't gotten a call from lupus in eight months now. I don't expect to anymore.
I've been moved to the science section -- I have an undergrad degree in physics, after all -- and I'm doing fine there. No more nightmares. Well, not so many anymore, anyways.
And on the nights when the faint sound of gunfire comes to me over the four miles separating my place from the Zone, I call the cops.
One of these days they'll go in there. Maybe then we can start reclaiming the Zone.
Pat Johanneson (email@example.com) was born in Winnipeg in the early '70s. He lived in a small town called Saint Rose, graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Brandon University, and still works as computer operator there.
InterText stories written by Pat Johanneson: "Chronicler" (v5n4), "Watching You" (v5n5), "Other Flesh" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Pat Johanneson.