Conrad Pollock was born and raised in London. He began writing at a young age and has had some theatrical productions of his work put on at Bath Spa University. He has never been published anywhere else before.
Hurry Up Please, It’s Time
It’s hotter than usual today, the skeletons will be groaning shortly. The shadow in the bunker keeps pockets of air chilly so that I can dip into them when it gets too hot. I don’t know when it started being so warm. Sometimes I think it’s always been like this but then I remember being outside and it being colder, back in the days when clouds would hang overhead. I get up from the little metal shelf, put my stompers and long-blacks on, before heading outside through the clanking hatchway.
The light burns, but not as strongly as the wind. It weighs down and sucks on all of my skin, pulling the hairs and flesh outward like a vacuum cleaner. I seal the door behind me and look around. The ground is ash, the air is ash, the sky is ash blurring a spectral sun, and if you told me the swollen burning giant was ash too I’d believe you. The disc is fat and red and boiling, anywhere you look in the sky you feel it scorch the back of your eyes. At night the sky is starless and the world freezing. You’d be dead in minutes.
I always cherish the first steps into a crisp new layer. It’s dustier than snow, at least how I remember snow being. It breaks apart if you hold it but still gives that exciting little jolt up the leg when it pushes back against your foot. The sky crackles with a spreading golden sheet that looks to swallow the whole horizon. From my coat pocket I withdraw a single stamp and slip it onto my tongue, letting it dissolve in my mouth. At once, the spark sketches down through my mouth, across the roof, beneath the chamber in the nose. I look at the sky again and it begins to thin, the heat plastered over by a cool neutral white. I begin to feel tendrils worm their way under my skin but I hold them off, denying them the passage to take control.
I head down from the ledge that my bunker’s on, and reach the main flatlands a few feet below. The plains stretch as far as can be seen, dust whisking over the barrenness. There is a strong scent in the air, too powerful to be called a smell. It is closer to a shroud of noxion, that has sunk from the beating cauldron above and settled around me. I carry on forward, and the pop that comes to my ears tells me the nearest skeleton has awoken.
I skirt over a mound and looking down into the miniature valley, see the bones of an ancient giant. They are well-preserved, serpentine in shape, twisted back onto its spine as if writhing in agony. The skull is huge, as large as the bunker, and the appendages that would have been fins are each big enough to crush me. The tail tapers off, disappearing into the rock of the hillside. I wonder how much more is hidden. There comes a creaking, then a noise like shredding paper, before the POP comes again. It originates at the neck and I almost see the shimmering light of gas drifting out. The stamp is still wearing on me and a new sensation comes over me. It’s like cotton wool has ballooned around my limbs and torso, and I can’t tell where the wool and I separate from one another.
I expect the skeleton to shift from the sand, ascend into the air and swim away. There are scars all over the remains; when it is reborn, the same battles and attacks will leave their marks once more in the same places. It lies dead in the ash, but it has not left existence yet. A darkness descends on my vision and I see as though the universe is in reverse. The creature leaves the dirt, is recast in flesh, its eyes bulging out of the haunting narrow skull, before it is returned to deep blue waters. This killer was alive once, its instinct leading it to search gratifying prey. Soon it’ll hunt again, bringing the long overdue bloodbath.
I recognise it’s time to move on and proceed sluggishly over the ash and foothills once more, taking a final glance back at the decomposing monster. There’s nothing to focus on in this landscape. No isolated structure or significance on the horizon, everything melts into flat distance as all deserts do. I have nowhere to aim towards as I walk. Sometimes I’ll find I’ve travelled in a circle a dozen times in a day, the stamps and heat mixing together into my fugue.
I miss books. I haven’t seen a paperback in a long time. I can’t remember the last title I read. I used to know all the great ones, years ago, but now they’ve gone. I miss them. I’m sure one or two would hold the key to understanding my predicament. I had a chance not long ago where I could have got some. I don’t remember the specifics, I just had to deliver something. It wasn’t much to ask, I could have done it in an afternoon. But for some reason I didn’t want to. Now I’d give anything for a task to do. Life’s not seasoned without a thick vein of irony.
That stamp I took is decreasing, I need another. I fish one out, wrap it into my gums. It pistons instantly, the lagging power of the last one rocketing upward, even further than the original took me. Everything feels heavy, but not burdensome. Sounds aren’t heard but felt, coming like echoes through walls. The world feels empty and unanchored, as if I’m floating down the gentlest set of rapids. There’s no sentence that describes it adequately. The crackling in the sky comes back, this time with greater intensity. Sparks whip around and over me like snakes’ tails. I feel the hairs on my skin bristle and expand again, and I almost hold my arms up, inviting the lightning strike, ready to embrace certain fatality. But the storm passes. The universe’s disinterest in me persists. Ash has clumped around my feet and I break it apart as I move on.
It’s a never-ending battle, trying to avoid taking another stamp as I walk. I’m in control, I am steady on the plateau of control. It is a wide wooden structure that floats on water, buoyed toward a destination I have picked. But control itself is susceptible to chance, bucking wildly at moments of raw emotion. Like sleep, we all must push ourselves into it.
I hate sleep and try to avoid it. They say if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it then the sound can’t exist. Well, it’s just me now, and if no one’s awake and watching everything, who’s to say I’ll wake up and it’ll still be here?
There’s no sense in avoiding it, it’s happened before. The universe has spiralled out to its natural end and all of existence has condensed down into a single molecule. And that molecule in its rush to escape The End has torn open the wearied lands of Time and Space and has gone back as far as it can ever hope to go. It has gone to the very beginning, to before Time entered its first moment. It will all push out of that single spot once more, that great cataclysm that will spur on all things to come of this universe and set reality ablaze. And then it will happen again; the fire will dwindle to a single spark, which will retreat and restart the same fire for the same universe, and so on as long as Time is shackled to Eternity. This type of cycle does not originate in a void. It makes me wonder how cruel an authority any Maker really is.
I remember when I first witnessed Time’s entrapment by its incalculable age. I was challenging myself to walk as far out as I could into the desert before turning back. I often do this. That day I’d brought marker rocks with me to show how far I’d gone. I’d gotten slightly further than my last effort, looking back I saw the evidence of that trial. The heat of the sky was toxic on my skin. I felt the scorch like I never had before. It forced its way under my long-blacks and seemed intent to drag every breath out of my body. My throat and lungs rasped like damaged machinery. I reached as far as I could go and almost collapsed placing the next stone. My previous one appeared further off though I knew it was only the heat making it seem so. I realised that I would and could not go any further, that this was as far into the universe I was ever going to get. And then I saw Time rip open above me, like a whirlpool had enveloped the sky and was tossing the strands of existence over me. It was beautiful and terrifying, wondrous and sad to behold. It twisted spectrally above me, like a giant mouth sucking on reality’s fabric. I saw all this, my feet like jelly underneath me. My stomach seemed to be turning over itself within me, like a bicycle wheel lifted and spun in the air. My body was broiling within itself as Time unfurled above me. Then the moment closed on itself, the sky flattened once more, the angry destroyer was gone.
If I start walking now I’ll be back at my bunker by sunset. But something tells me I need to stay here. I’ll go back later. The heat has reached the critical point, where every step feels like it is taken underwater, where depth disappears and is replaced by the solidity of air. I know it’ll stay this way for some time, so I kneel, the blistering heat still shrouded upon me, then I slip down onto my back, lying flat on the ash. My eyes are scorched, my mouth empty of any feeling, but my senses are obscured enough so it doesn’t bother me.
The wind swirls softly around me, prickling the edges of my ears, brushing ash into my hair. As I lie on my back I feel myself begin to rise, my body flat but raised into the air, like a lift climbing a shaft. I keep going up and up, and soon I’m hundreds of feet above the ground, above the dust and desert and skeletons. I feel as though I’m perched atop a mountain. Then, calmly, I take that step off the other side and start to fall. I twist over mid-flight, face towards the rapidly expanding terrain. The movement is fast and uncontrollable, but I feel no fear. As I fall I brace for impact, and running through my head is a sound I’ve never heard before. A deep celestial scream. And still no understanding of it all.
I return to falling on my back as I connect with the ground and am unhurt upon landing. There’s something squirming in my neck that wants to escape. I let it spring up my throat. It rises from my mouth, a tiny smooth silver ball. It hovers over my face like a bird of prey then swoops into the sky, resting atop the landscape. I can barely see it before it expands, twists and changes in the air. It gets larger, soon it is the size of me, then twice that, then five times. The shape grows tall and irregular and I realise it has abandoned all semblance of a sphere and has become a human heart, its cold metal surface reflecting the dead star’s redlight. A rhythmic beat starts, and wires stream from it, hooking into the angry roasting. Though I try to look away my eyes can’t lift from this scene. The sound of my turning stomach is now bellowing like a furnace.
I can’t shield my eyes or scurry away to hide. I can’t roll onto my side and clutch my stomach. I can’t move, as though I am pinned under a weighty invisible tarpaulin. I stare at the terrible thing pumping in the sky, watching the iron pulse in the bleached atmosphere. It begins to pull away, making me feel as though I am moving rather than it. It shifts off into the distance, and soon melts off out of my sight.
I lie very still, feeling the ash build up around my limbs, getting under the edges of my long-blacks. The world’s changed so much since I first got here I hardly recognise it. Over there once was a grove of trees and lagoon that came from a hill stream. Beyond that ridge was a temple. I don’t know who built it, if it’s even still there, the only pathway’s been blocked for so long. There was a man there, guarding it; I’d be surprised if he wasn’t dead now. I could find another way there if I really wanted to, but somehow the inclination has evaded me.
Time is a liquid, its precious waters constantly swirling softly in the air around us. It twists and folds back over itself and repeats its same patterns again and again, like waves on the shore. You don’t walk through Time but float with it, the soft edges touching very gently the top of your skin. In that place there is no fear, no doubt, no sense that something terrible can happen. I lie back into it, as I do now with the ash, and allow the waves to wash over me, between my fingers, over my eyes.
I could stay here, watch Time run out, live beyond the death of this world. I would pass beyond the plane of touch and sound and colour and thought into the great wilderness of non-existence, the howling turmoil of nothing. I would hang like a creeper from a tree, looking down beneath me, forever uncertain if the drop was a few feet or thousands of miles. Everything I’d left behind would come from an age of which there was no trace.
The universe will be reborn and countless new dreams will spark from it. I could be afraid, but I’m not. By now the ash will be covering the door to my bunker. It’ll be night soon and everything will freeze over, I look at the sun. It’s never looked so small or far away. I’m just about done and maybe, for the first time, I might actually be ready for sleep.
© 2018 Conrad Pollock