by Jamie Mason
I left part of myself back in the war.
We have all lost ourselves at one time or another and been forced to crawl into a dark place to find it again. Whether the darkness is of our own making or someone else’s doesn’t matter.
I am stumbling over uneven ground, sirens screaming as anti-aircraft fire lights the shattered buildings in pulsing flashes. Searchlights carve the sky. Somewhere in that dark soup of smoke and stars, dark as the eclipsed seasons into which the lost part of me keeps slipping, the tiny forms of Heinkels and Junkers drop death from their bellies.
You are waiting for me, sheltering in the lee of a broken wall. I see you grasping jagged brick to steady yourself where you kneel in grit and debris, one bare knee visible above a striped public school sock.
“What are you doing out here?” I fling a shoulder to the bricks and hunker, wincing at the sound of falling buildings, smashing glass. “Why aren’t you in a shelter?”
“Mum locked me out! She’s drunk!”
I grasp and pull you close. In the second before your face disappears behind my cheek, I note your dead, flat gaze. And then your ragged breathing is at my ear. I feel you tremble, the only sign of fear your terrible self-control will permit as I shelter you against me.
“Your mum’s often drunk?”
You pull away and nod, not blinking quite hard enough to catch the single tear that slides loose.
“Come on. We’ll get you to a public shelter.”
“You’re mad.” Your frown and eyes tighten. You jerk a chin up the street, much the way I imagine you pointing down the rugby field to explain a play. “We’ll die out there!”
“Listen to me.” I grasp your shoulders and shake just hard enough to get your attention. “I’m a detective and a security officer and I’ve been in so many punch-ups, brawls and knife-fights I’ve lost count. I’ve never been beaten. And nobody under my protection has ever come to harm.”
You are listening now, eyes widening a bit on the word ‘detective’. “Are you like a policeman?”
“Something like that. Now, I’m going to carry you on my back. Piggy-back, right? And we’re gonna run like hell -” an explosion blossoms and the ground shakes “- run like hell up this street, keeping to the middle so we’re not hit by flying glass or brick. See that church up there?”
“They have a shelter.”
“And we’re going to get to it. Now come on.”
The explosions’ tempo picks up as the bomber group draws near. The hard soles of your shoes pinch my thighs as you climb aboard, arms circling my neck. I am calculating distance. The steeple is about a kilometer away. I regularly run three without difficulty, but not usually through a war-zone with a seven year-old boy on my back. I tell myself that we’ll actually be safer on the move, because if we stay here in a partially demolished building we risk a direct hit, flying shrapnel or a firestorm to swallow the wind and sear our lungs black. Better to make a break for it.
“Better to die on your feet than on your knees, kid,” I say. “Words to live by.”
“You’re mad.” I sense your frown but you can’t hide the reckless approval swelling your voice. Even at seven you’re already fearless, already a risk-taker. In the numb vacuum following the next explosion, I cinch my forearms under your knees. We slip out from behind the wall.
I’ve never grown accustomed to the sun on my scalp, to the heaviness in my limbs on a desert summer’s day any more than I have to ‘business’ meetings on the golf course. But you must know what you’re doing because the game you just finished against an aide to Senator John McCain (who beat you by five strokes) has opened the door to a huge investment opportunity.
“Call Roger and tell him to have them send the first wire transfer up from Turks and Caicos.” You open the Cadillac’s trunk impatiently, supervising my stowage of your prized Dunlops. “Time to bump the stock price. This needs to happen today.”
“Right.” My job at these meetings is to take notes and drive the golf cart. “Do I have time..?” I reach for cigarettes.
I can tell by the pause in your breathing, by the tightening of your eyes and frown that I’ll have to wait. Moments later we’re in the El Dorado’s air-conditioned cockpit, gliding out from under the grand port-cochère and sweeping down the drive toward the highway. As is your custom when you have me trapped alone in the car, you commence a monologue on a topic of great interest to you.
“I want to talk more to you about liquidity and assets.” You clear your throat carefully, the way you always do beforehand. “Think of money as energy. The best state it can be in is … in motion. Money loses value when it slows down. And it works best for you from offshore. Got it?”
“Which is why you never want to live in the same country as your money, right?” I say this automatically, staring out the window. I say it because I know it will please you, because I know it will buy me a few moments peace from your hectoring, insistent probing.
“That’s good.” A horrible pause bubbles, rimmed with menace. “Now look I know you want a cigarette but you should stop staring out the window and pay attention to me because this stuff I’m telling you isn’t common knowledge. Understand?”
“Sure. I mean, of course.”
“What did I just tell you?”
“That your money works for you best off shore. That it should always be in motion and that it loses value when it stops.”
“And what should you think of it as? Come on, I hope you were paying attention. This isn’t common knowledge, you know …”
“Uhhhh, right. So. This little problem we’ve been having with Peter and the Mexicans. With the, you know. Nonsense. The … lawyers, the court appearances and suchlike. It’s just a cash flow problem. It’ll get solved once I finalize the Orpheus acquisition. We’ll be a bit behind the ball and so have to pay a little more but money keeps you fluid, keeps you moving. Buys your way out of problems. See?”
“Good. Now. I need you to take the car back to Roger’s and let him have it for a couple of days. Give him the keys. Take a taxi back to the club to pick up your car. What do you have planned for the long weekend?”
“I don’t know. Catch up on sleep. Drink a few beers. Maybe grill a steak.”
“Still eating meat?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well, that’s between you and your God. As for me, I moved a few things around and managed to charter the Gulfstream again.”
“You haven’t done that in a while.”
Again, the squint, the frown but you say nothing, steering the Cadillac down a side road to the private airfield. A guard rattles open chain-link gate and you motor toward a neat little terminal before which is parked the white and tan Gulfstream we chartered to Dallas five years ago, back when things were riding high.
“You have cigarettes, right?”
“Give ’em to me. I don’t have any.” You fish out a fifty and hand it over without looking. “Buy yourself a carton.”
I transfer your bags to the Gulfstream’s hold as you light one of my cigarettes. When I’m done, you speak to me, smoking as you study the darkening horizon.
“Take a few days off but stay near the phone. I may need you.”
You turn and walk toward the plane. Then: “Oh! Yeah. This is yours.” Rummaging in an inside pocket, you produce a stack of envelopes which you extend. “Bills, some correspondence. Some private stuff for you. Look it over when you can.”
I am about to pull open one envelope when your hand touches my arm. “Hey,” you say. “I love you.”
At this I have no answer. I am as unwilling to move as a deer caught in a wolf’s gaze.
The Gulfstream pivots toward the runway, nav lights blinking. The twin Rolls Royces utter a compressed shriek – an aerosol spray of engine noise. I watch the jet taxi to the apron and then return my attention to the mail.
Another rejected Platinum Club Card application, the third in two months. I’m still wondering why when I open the subpoena.
The Gulfstream is revving for take-off.
It seems a $350,000 loan from a venture capital firm in California was taken out in my name. The bearer then defaulted on the loan.
I moved some things around …
My name. Which is the same as yours.
Managed to charter the Gulfstream again.
The jet plunges skyward with an iron shriek.
I fall into the hip-swinging rhythm of the distance runner. I’m accustomed to wind sprints so it takes a few steps to gather speed. And then there is an explosion. Is it my imagination or is that sense of impact, the warmth bathing the back of my neck the same you feel when a lion roars uncomfortably close behind? Your arms clutch at me, and I sense your fear. I’ve never known you to be afraid.
The anti-aircraft fire is coming so thick and fast now that the street is lit up like broad daylight. You flatten as much of your body against my back as you can, almost choking me in your zeal to hang on. We’re running over cobblestones. The street actually ripples with each concussion and it is a task to steady myself. To your credit you move with me, leaning left and right like someone riding on the back of a bike. There is no talking. It is too difficult to breathe.
Any instant of quiet, however brief, is like a stone cathedral of silence. And each explosion afterwards is like a stone cathedral falling.
All around us, Edinburgh burns.
There is no time for fear. There is only now – this second, this instant of survival, this pause between the collapse of two cathedrals. And all I have time to do is run, the precious cargo on my back, through streets pulverized by engine and flame. Part of someone’s dining room is jutting out into the street, the sideboard smouldering. Broken dishes strew the sidewalk. A tea pot. A novel. A half-melted doll. And quiet for two, three, four …
We’re between bomber groups; we have a little time. The church looms ahead. You point. A set of stairs leads from the sidewalk to the basement level. We dodge and clamber and leap down then hammer on the door. The sound of plane engines dies off and for a moment I think it’s passed. But then the delicate whisper of the next wave arises and I know we may soon be done for.
“Listen …” I glance up. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it so I’m going to say a couple of things. The first and most important is that they don’t win. The Germans, I mean. I know it seems right now like they’re invincible and Churchill keeps talking about how they’re going to land and there’ll be a long struggle. But you mustn’t be scared because in the end, they lose.”
You examine me with mild amusement. “Why are you so sure?”
“Because I’m from the future. I’m your son.”
You say nothing.
“I know that sounds incredible but it’s true. I want you to know that you don’t grow up to be a very nice person. In fact, you lie to a lot of people and hurt many, including me. Maybe me most of all. But that’s okay. I mostly blame all this. The war. What it did to you. You’re terribly young to be dealing with such horror and devastation. Whatever you may have had wrong with you before the war, the Blitz certainly worsened it. You never grew up whole.”
But now you’re nodding. “You’re my son,” you say matter-of-factly. “You come from the future. You know the Germans don’t win and what I grow up to be. I believe you.” I remember the same flat, dead look in your eyes when I pulled you close. “Do I need to change?” you ask, the odd half-smile on your face again.
“You end up in very serious trouble with the law. You manage to avoid that for years because you’re smart but in the end it catches up with you. Your fortunes decline. You take out a loan in our common name using my social security number then default on it, ruining my credit.”
“What does that mean?”
“I can’t even get a credit card. For a decade I live in total poverty.”
I sense that you want to ask what a credit card is, but you understand the word ‘poverty’ well enough. “Because of me?” you ask, a hint of concern in your voice. “Hey, I’m sorry.” Your hand touches my arm and I am a deer caught in a wolf’s gaze.
The whisper overhead rises to a drone. I pound the door. And when I speak again, it is hurried, voice raised against the whine of approaching engines.
“I started to forgive you when I began thinking about what I would do if things were reversed, if I could go back in time and be there when you were vulnerable and scared.” I glare desperately at the clouds. “And then I found a way. To return here and find you – that piece of myself I left behind in the war – and show you that I would do anything – move hell and earth, risk my own life, run through an aerial bombardment – to save you.”
“Why?” Your puzzlement is genuine.
“Because we’re connected to the people who came before us and those who come after. They matter.”
“So you’ll protect me.” You say it dully, like you’re reciting times tables.
“Yes. Because for some reason, that’s a lesson you never learned. But maybe it’s not too late to start learning it now.”
Engines roar directly overhead. You cower against me, clutching my legs. I look up. They’re here, with all the steel and fury of a monstrous fist that will shatter Europe for a decade and then die, only to re-emerge in the next century. I am praying when the door opens.
“Come in, come in!” A terrified vicar, sweaty and unshaven beneath a steel helmet, crouches there.
“Piss off!” you hiss, shoving yourself away from me. You hurtle past the startled Vicar, who turns to look after you as you vanish into the sheltering shadows.
“The poor laddie. Good gracious, what are you two doing abroad in a’ this? Are you alright?”
I have no answer.
Jamie Mason is the author of The Book of Ashes, Certain Fury, and The North Atlantic Protocol. His short fiction has appeared in On Spec, Abyss & Apex, Crossed Genres, Kaleidotrope and other places. His forthcoming sci-fi novel Time Out will appear later this year from Wolfsinger Publications. Learn more at www.jamiescribbles.com