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Ten years, Mac’s been hauling them up, up and away. Below, waves are flexing muscles. He listens to their prowling shapes. A moment, then – hair on Mac’s neck. A tern cries needy and human. Using his feet as guide, Mac inches along narrow cliff, pieces crumbling into the Atlantic. Nightly he patrols, as familiar with each gulley and wind-honed incline as his own salt-streaked palms. Today it’s quiet.
Mac likes checking the dial-tone. Putting the phone down, he slots a thumb into his crown’s shallow indentation. No deeper than a finger-tip width, he was born with that groove. As a boy, his mama said the Almighty was sizing him up for the world. Poking him like he was a cinnamon bun, warm from the oven. Later, Mac suspected that dime-sized dip meant something was missing. Every life’s wrong turn pinpointed to when something was poked in, something else pushed out. At night, Mac sees this lone speck of brain floating around the universe. Unclaimed, like a meteorite crumb. Hard to say whether believing this has been a comfort or a curse.[private]
Moving his lips, Mac tells himself the sky is dark. Dark-dark with lighter-dark at its edges. Important to be specific. Otherwise there was potential to be crushed. Taken Mac nearly sixty-one years to understand that if he’d thought, been more specific, history could have swerved. He wouldn’t have crossed that stateline, an action sequence singing at his life’s heart. His wife slamming the door, gunning the once-smart Honda. He, Mac, ploughing nose-to-tail for three hours down the airport freeway. Having the foresight (or bad luck) to take his passport. Threatening at the departure desk. Phoning the kids on his cell, phoning next door to keep an eye on the kids. Handing his Visa to the check-in girl, noting through his haze her lips painted the solid colour of optimism.
The air-hostess gave them looks during the flight. When she’d said Cool It, his wife’s eyes had lightened, turned metallic and shiny as new pennies. Arriving in California, they’d checked in somewhere, nowhere, slumping by a turquoise kidney-shaped pool, him with a Pabst Blue Ribbon, her with a bucket-scale piña colada. As if they were thirty years younger, as if they were on vacation, everything in between erased on an Etch-A-Sketch. Chlorine fumes had vied with gas, a memory-smell that today still tugs him off balance. “Mac,” she’d said, “you understand.” She’d sipped her colada, then tilted her head, slugging the rest like cough medicine. He’d been addicted to that vision of her, as if he’d paid to see a film and she was it. “Our real children are out there, honey.” She’d sucked away the sweetness from her finger-tips. “We got somebody else’s. Let’s switch.” He’d been about to say, “I hear you, and if we-” when they were interrupted by a tannoy calling them to reception. Their son had been found on the wrong side of a cliff.
On a good day, Mac allows himself to think it was that lone missing brain speck. That whatever thing would have held his family together, he’d missed. Some tiny screw nudged loose. People believe history is made by assassinations, presidencies. Wars. Mac knows better, that it’s the small things that keep the world spinning. And his history is folded deep in that cliff belly.
When the wall clock shows 4am, Mac tugs his ears. He flicks at the small wattle underneath his chin, a drooping piece of flesh he’d no say in growing. The room isn’t much of a kingdom. He studies it how a teacher might a group of students, with caution. A single painting hanging in a cheap bamboo frame is the only decoration. A flamingo for godsakes. Wobbly brushstrokes of cheap, explosive pink. At the bottom of the paper the words: FLMINGO BY DYLAN AJD FIV, 3 DAYS AN 1 HALV A MORNIN. Precocious, was how teachers described Dylan. Yet Mac had felt the true scald of Dylan’s genius. Dee now, she hadn’t the gear changes for precocity. Slapdash from the get-go, a blur, always moving. Opposite to her shy, secretive older brother. Instead, Dylan at fifteen had been whole and perfect, huge, shy conker-eyes fringed by lashes tipped red as a fire-fly. Mac’s careful, oh he his, not to let the littlest memory-drop spill. When the last Dylanness shivers away, he blinks. Fingers that tight, wishful groove in his crown. Decides yes. Dylan is ready.
It’s very nearly pitch-black. Just that slight, light crinkling at the edges. Young Milkman, son of the Old Milkman, will be stopping by. A car-door famously opened in Young Milkman’s face, back when things happened to other folk. That accident left Young Milkman simple, locked in the grooves of time. Wasn’t everyone locked in time? Birthdays, funerals, childhoods. People always stopping somewhere.
In Mac’s meat box sits a chicken from Stacey’s Bird Farm, ready-cooked. In the freezer, ice-cream. Funny how yesterday’s details scatter, but the sweet-sour tang of Dee’s grape ice-cream – now, that was preserved in Technicolor. Occasionally Mac drops by a Walmart dairy counter, just for the half-pint of memory. He blinks. Whiskey now, that’d be good.
There, on the coffee table is the globe of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wooden base glooped with varnish, thick glass protecting the cathedral’s filigreed dome. Snowflakes and plastic birds alike have settled like sugar dust in windows and doorways. Mac had bought it when Dylan was three, or nearly three. When everything had been fresh. They were on a family trip to England, to Marcia’s cousin in London. In that artificial little tourist hole in Westminster, Dylan turned the globe in his hands, like it was a lump of dynamite, like it could do something.
“Thanks, oh Poppa, thanks!” Well-mannered even so young, bursting with not-yet-received pleasure. Stuffed with a hope Mac would have mistrusted in anyone else. Different to the sister arriving three years later. Had Dee known her portion of life had already been chewed-over and spat out? Oh, if someone had warned Mac there was a set amount of love, he could have set some aside, like surplus food. Because when he’d looked at Dee’s black hair and round, huskie-blue eyes, he’d known he owed her. The thing of it was, he’d married his neat wife because of her ways, her easy-flowing laughter. Her sweet dancing skills, especially The Chicken. Her own happy lip colours. Spry she’d been called. And their plans had matched everyone else’s – children, jobs, grandchildren. Then – when? – unhappiness had taken root in their shared future.
Mac feels anger, hot and likeable. Where was everyone? Dylan’s friends, they’d been computer types. Married? Or split up with first wives. Second marriage in, it would be the same story, but more. More babies, bigger mortgages, larger homes. They’d lived to tell the story. Big office jobs paying for kids’ summer camps. Shiny cars. Mac’s own social life had been what you might call modest. Containable. Activity that could be held in the palm or let loose without a moment’s thought. There was Bute from the auto-mechanic at work. Bute probably wasn’t even his real name. Dee now, she’d had shadowy bucks waiting in the drive, tan elbows resting on open truck windows, engines gunning as they’d collected her en-route. Mac had known and not known Dee was using her body as cherry-bait. But he’d left it to Marcia.
In the end, Marcia had returned for Dylan’s funeral. Dressed in head-to-toe black from a mall, there’d been a flush to her cheeks. As if she’d been interrupted from looking at her future. Her old work-friends had attended, a group from the hairdressers in town, high on hairspray and celebrity magazines.
Mac’s past sixty and he saves people from jumping from cliffs because he wonders – who’d do it otherwise? But saving people doesn’t address Dylan. He’s navigated his painful and not so painful way through the equipment of a long-gone youth. Pot, weed, sensimilla, skunk. Hydroponics. Mushrooms. Cookies, bongs, spliffs. Pies, pipes. Drifting into a consciousness sometimes, not always, offering him his son. No-one had yet jumped when he’d Journeyed. December’s first three weeks are far from spring or summer, seasons when most people get happy. When suicides spike.
Snow, light and feathery, slides down the picket fence adjoining his and Mrs Gabel’s plot. Hers is a loyal army of plants drilled into the earth, not a leaf nor a bush out of place. Mac has thistles, half-dead and dry. Looking out, Mac imagines the snow tasting like ice-cream. Vanilla-cream. Lemon-sherbet. Nearly-three Dylan would have gotten a buzz from that. Oh, Dee too.
A staccato sound makes him blink. He holds the telephone with white-knuckle grip. “If you hold,” he says, after listening. “I’ll be there.”
Thermos and car-keys he grabs from the breakfast counter. A burglar alarm code is punched. Outside, Mac doesn’t bother checking for black ice. He’s aware of a contradiction in setting an alarm and not checking for black ice but that’s okay. The car’s back seat is full with blankets, thermos, three candy bars. Glucose tablets.
Everyone’s different. The last had burrowed, frantic as a moth, into his army blanket. A dead-weight, drunk on dreams. Rain had hurled against the windowscreen while Mac waited for the emergency services. The authorities don’t know what to make of him, unsure where to place him on the axis of hero and tragedy. It shows up as pity and admiration – and something else. Mac wonders how many have remained alive. Or whether elsewhere they’ve succeeded. Gratitude letters, sometimes sent, are tipped un-read into the trash.
Cliff-side, he notes the snow has cleared, flakes gone. Pulled back into the earth’s core or melted into the atmosphere. The moon is a neat disc, light arcing in from the East. He reaches them better if he can see their eyes. Sometimes he visits when it’s sunny, when people are dog-walking. Tries to imagine it different.
He’d approached the first, a thin slip with cropped peroxide hair, by accident. It was late, one of those staticky nights. His head was full, but he’d been empty. He’d found her crouching, thought maybe she was stealing tern eggs. Her head was angled, like she was dialled to a radio station inside herself and wanting more signal. With every exhalation, more words left his body. After a while, her face had sealed and she’d curled up, spent. Had he won or had she? Half-dragging her, he’d pulled the girl towards the car and driven to the nearest help point. Then, he’d been hoping he could turn back time. Now, he knows what he thinks of that theory. You don’t turn back time. You loop across it, psycho-active compounds singing through your veins, urging you on.
Leaving the car, he swings the blanket over his shoulders. It slumps, a dead weight. At the cliff’s edge, the fluorescent numbers of his WANT HELP? board glow Florida orange against dented cream plastic. Dug into the cliff, the phone is his hotline, its instalment covered by Dylan’s life insurance. The authorities had been reluctant, scared of any responsibility, until local press scented the story. Mac thinks the reason people listen is because they understand he doesn’t care.
The caller is pressed against the beige-and-cream rock. Hat tugged low. Hands a shock of whiteness. Wind buffets Mac. Below, moonlight bounces between the teeth of rocks. A raw familiarity to the woman’s profile itches, tugs at somewhere sore in him.
“You can step back,” he tries. “Come to me.”
A pause. Then her words: “You told me he was fine. Yes sir. I believed you.”
Mac thinks he hasn’t heard right, then thinks maybe he did. He hooks fingers into the crumbling yellow rock face.
On the phone the voice had been muffled. Off-key, distant. Here, it’s clear as bone who the speaker is, despite the wind. She’d looked up to her brother. When Dylan got those tics, began collecting the habits like loose change, Mac had ignored everything from fierce love, wanting it to be alright, goddamn it. It was Dee who’d discovered the Ramones T-shirt. Odd, angled flash of leg. While Mac had been preoccupied hauling back their mother. Hadn’t realised what the situation required. Hadn’t been specific enough in his assessment. Hadn’t counted on that missing speck of brain, floating around the universe.
Dee’s hat spins off and away. Mac sucks thirstily at this new-old vision of his daughter.
“Does it help pop, your numbers on that board like a hotline to Almighty?”
Filling his lungs, Mac lies to himself that Dee needs saving. That she’s like the others.
“He was important, Dee,” he says. “To me. Your mom-”
“Mom was part of it.”
“Yes,” is all Mac can say.
He’d moved to class A’s. Cocaine, meta-amphetamines, MDMA. But these were synthetic, making him yabber all night. So he’d discovered plant-based, psycho-active compounds. Peyote, Kratom, Yopo, Khat, Salvia Divinorum. He’d arrived at Ayahuasca. A Quecha Indian word, Ayahuasca meant vine of the dead, promising connection with spirit world. On his last visit, nearly a year ago, Mac drunk bitter tea from a leather gourd bought at a community market up-country. With curtains closed, he’d sat cross-legged. Vomiting into a plastic bucket, peace had settled in his bones. Closing his eyes and falling back, he was taken to a desert where the sand was like snow and the snow became a presence. Saying Dylan was very nearly close.
Out of nowhere, Mac recalls a game Dylan and Dee had played. One stretched summer, Dylan and Dee enjoyed Deaded as much as they’d enjoyed spraying hose-water into dense blue sky. Deaded meant running against a wall, then falling with heads, arms, legs, bruised. Had Dylan been the leader? Had Dee? Both were bright-eyed, bodies torn. It was a summer of ointments, and bandages, and visits to the doctor. Marcia had no idea why her children played a game called Deaded.
Five years now, Marcia’s been hitched to a retired used-car salesman in the Sunshine State, bright-eyed host to three alien step-grandchildren. Some people feel happier taking the shortcut. That’s the truth. Requesting a snapshot, Mac received a picture of his ex-wife’s three step-granddaughters. Three little girls wore white ribbons, white as the slat-boarded house behind them.
Oh, it’s cold. Mac watches his army blanket shuffle down the cliff, then gather speed. Low-bellied clouds shield the moon. Relaxing his fingers, he hears the faint rattling clatter of his torch falling. In those slowed-down seconds before his daughter steps forward, Mac thinks of the Unsaved. Then he thinks of nothing, because his daughter’s nails are catching on his coat buttons, his pockets, his lapel, reaching for the first time in, well – he doesn’t know how long.
And he can’t help but be specific. He thinks of two doves in flight. He thinks; dark-dark and dark-light. He sees the fluorescent numbers on his HELP REQUIRED? board and of course, he understands.[/private]
About Rebecca Swirsky
Rebecca Swirsky is a London-based writer specialising in short fiction, and is being mentored by the writer Stella Duffy through the Word Factory Apprenticeship. Rebecca's fiction is featured in, among others, the ’13 Bridport Anthology and the Big Issue in the North Anthology, Matter, Ambit, The View From Here, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Pygmy Giant, Stories for Homes anthology for Shelter, Cease, Cows and online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine. She has been highly commended for The Manchester Fiction Award, shortlisted for the Bridport Flash Fiction and Short Story Prize, Fish Short Fiction Prize, commended for the Bristol Short Story Award, longlisted for The Bath Short Story Award and Sean O’Faolin Prize, semi-finalist in the Big Issue in the North anthology and awarded third prize in Ilkley’s Literature Festival. Copywriting includes journalism for the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine online, the Royal Society of Literature Review and an acupuncture blog. In March 2013, Rebecca will be running Flash Fiction and Art Workshops and Life Writing Workshops as part of Haringey’s Literature Live Festival, for which she hopes you'll join her. She won the A.M. Heath prize for her MA (Distinction) in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University and is shaping her debut collection 2.4, for which she was awarded a Literary Consultancy Free Read bursary.