Dank, festering mould spattered the walls in the abandoned tenement selected by the latest generation of drug-takers as their private hang-out, unmolested by the forces of law and order. Alcohol was passed freely from hand to hand, smouldering spliffs close on its heels, others opting for the powders that played havoc with a man's nasal passages, others still lying near-comatose with needles still in their arms. There are some things that war, peace, government and even the passage of time cannot change.
In this most liberal of rookeries one group sat around a low table, or at least an approximation of a table. The stark reality was a sheet of plywood laid across two sturdy boxes, a few aged mattresses sprawling around it for the comfort of the tenement's guests. A bright-edged piece of broken glass adorned the centre of the table, for use in such situations as merited it. At this point it was smeared with the few drops of anonymous white powder that those around and about had missed, now too far gone even to notice.
One of the makeshift couches lay propped up against a wall, inclining itself to become more of a seat than the others. Upon this rested a young man and woman, comfortably cuddled up to one another, the girl's chest resting lightly on the man's shoulder. Between his fingers he held a joint, the wafted aroma of marijuana thick about the pair of them. The girl looked more sleepy than anything, but the man was bright-eyed and smiling to himself, lost in the deep thoughts that only occur to the heavily stoned. He was tall, slender, long dark hair falling past his shoulders in the style that had been popular some years before, though here in this room it was looking wild and untamed, something no fashion had insisted upon for a great many years now. His dark green eyes, so very uncommon among any ethnic group, still shone clear from beneath the wisps of hair that trailed across his lean, handsome face, though the whites were shot through with red in the way that only drugs can achieve. The girl on his shoulder was pretty, in a petite sort of way. Never beautiful, but far from plain. Striking, some would have said, with long black curls trailing down her back in a style that had been popular, or at least admirable, since long before the old queens of France had undertaken to coil their locks. Both were ultimately white of skin, though they shared Hispanic blood somewhere back down the ages.
The others around them, their companions in this refuge from legality, were of all shapes and sizes, creeds and colours. Of the men, one was black, the kind of pure black that only emerges from the midst of the Nigerian jungle, one was half-cast like so many in this cosmopolitan world, two were white and one oriental of some variety. Mixed blood made it hard to tell. The two other women present were both white, one blond and a little mousy, the other tall and willowy with flowing chestnut hair and eyes an incongruous shade of electric blue. This second woman fell back, away from the table and the politely-proffered sheet of glass, her eyes rolling up in her head as the hefty dosage of snow flooded her system.
Across from this scene lay the couple on the propped-up mattress. The girl opened her eyes and leaned closer in to the man, whispering something in his ear. He grinned widely and turned his head to kiss her, passionately and without any kind of restraint for being among company. The midnight-black man struggled upwards to lean on his elbows, watching silently. One of the two white men saw him heading vaguely upright and made to do the same himself, wondering what had prompted this reaction. He saw the two others together, coupled on the mattress, and a sneer spread across his scruffy, dirt-ridden features.
"You going to share that around?" he demanded, the lecherous smirk on his face revealing his deep-seated intentions to the world, even if his words might later deny it. The boy and girl did not respond, locked together as they were, but for the raising of a single middle finger in his direction. The lech scowled, the tip of his tongue flicking out through the gaps in his teeth.
"You're smokin' my pot, bro," declared the half-cast, sitting up and leaning forward, smiling in a way that revealed his gleaming white tombstone teeth. "What else you got to offer in return?" At that the long-haired white man abruptly removed his face from the girls, staring at the half-cast in surprise tinged with anger.
"You already helped me get through my stash, bro," he announced, emphasising the final word to make it clear he felt the bonds of bro-hood were slipping away fast. The girl shied away slightly, moving to just behind her man's arm and shoulder, seeking what protection she could from him. The oriental man sat up too, then, as did the other two girls; they could smell trouble in the offing. The half-cast pushed himself upwards, getting to his feet. He swayed a little unsteadily for a moment as the blood rushed to his head and then away again, but then he stood solid, arms by his side, stance combative. The long-haired man stood up too, brushing the stray locks away from his face. In the moment it took him to regain his balance after the initial distortion the half-cast struck, reaching out a broad brown hand to slap him backhanded across the face.
"Michael!" shrieked his girlfriend, scrambling forward to help him, but he waved her back, jaw set and green eyes determined.
"Michael, is it?" crowed the half-cast, dark brown eyes bloodshot and mocking. "I'm Hansi, the man who's going to beat you into the fucking ground." Michael raised his head, wits dulled by the cannabis, but the pain was dulled too. He could handle this. He lunged forward, landing a blow to Hansi's midriff. The half-cast buckled at that as the breath whooshed out of his lungs, but his flailing fists caught Michael a sturdy blow to the head that sent him sprawling. He slipped on the grimy floor and fell across the black man and the tall, willowy woman. She pushed him off with a look of contempt and the black man kicked him away, heavy boot connecting with Michael's neck in a moment that left him gasping for air, virtually unable to breathe or move. The half-cast stood over him then, sneering, and kicked him in the side of the head. Even with pain numbed by narcotics, there is only so much a body can take before it just gives up. Michael blacked out, his last thought fear for his beloved. Justified fear, as he found when he awoke.
* * * * * * *
The fog slowly cleared around Michael's eyes, but the throbbing in his head showed no signs of abating. He cast around with his body, seeking out any damage. The first thing he noticed was a sharp pain his wrist that he could not account for, followed by a serious difficulty in breathing. The next thing was a nauseous sensation, centred around his torso somewhere. He retched, but that only made the pain worse. Fortunately the acute distress of his broken ribs cleared his head somewhat, and he opened his eyes to find that his vision was nearly as good as ever. He assumed it would clear once the haze of narcotics still in his system had cleared. Hoped, anyway. Who knew what damage had been done in the beating he'd taken?
He groaned. The beating he'd taken. He wondered why he'd gotten involved in a fight for a moment before the memories flooded back, crushing his mind back against the walls of the toxic prison within his psyche. Images and words flashed across his mind's eye, unflattering pictures of a bruised and broken man sprawled across the filthy floor of a tenement inhabited by drug-pushers and their shady clientele. Around him now, though, was nothing but silence. Silence and a body. Michael struggled for consciousness as he was wracked by another bout of nausea, dryly retching, his guts already devoid of anything to remove but for the acids that dwelt there, scorching the base of his throat as he passed out once more, his body simply unable to keep him awake. The last thing he noted was the slim crescent of the moon highlighted against the empty black sky, once so full of satellites and bright futures, now as empty as his own tortured stomach.
* * * * * * *
Michael dreamed this time, this spell of oblivion closer to sleep than simple blackout. As his body slept his mind leapt and bounded, chained by the bonds of terror and fury that had replaced the happy, carefree young man that had once inhabited that mind. Oceans of blood crashed mighty waves around him, leaving him smeared in crimson gore. He found himself trying to wash the stains from his hands in the grim scarlet waters, but they came out worse every time. Then he was screaming, and drowning, the bloodied waters of his mind rising up to engulf him. His hands, scrabbling away at the surface of the water, sought desperately for purchase to keep his head above the waves. His fingers alighted on something soft, something floating on the surface, and he dragged himself up to the precious air above. He took a deep lungful of air, certain that would save him from the towering waves, but all he found was the next horror of his wounded mind. The driftwood, the piece of jetsam upon which his fingers had found such promise, was no mere lump of sea-borne waste but a corpse, the corpse of his beloved Selena, the girl whose honour he had been trying so hard to protect before his humiliation and defeat at the hands of the half-cast. He screamed then, anguish and fury raising his dream-voice high into the heavens, the force of his despair so great as to set the very heavens themselves rumbling and to make colossal cracks across the ocean floor, tremendous crevices into which the grimy sea of viscera and bodily fluids drained away. As is the wont of dreams, the seas drained away in a moment, emptying themselves to the last drop.
Now Michael found himself in a nightmare land, the ocean floor rent apart by the strength of his emotion, trees of bone spiralling up into the sky like twisted skyscrapers, and in them Michael could see faces. No, not faces. A single face, repeated over and over again all around him: Selena's face, beseeching him, crying out for his help as she died, time after time after time. Michael stood helpless on the ground far below, knowing he had to do something but equally knowing there was nothing to be done, that the damage was already long since inflicted. He sank to his knees, tears streaming down his face, burning his skin in their wake but he felt nothing. What price devotion now, he wondered. His dream-self looked on, down at the Michael on the sea-bed screeching his pain at the world through half-sobs and terrified fury, and he knew that he had to help the poor man below, only vaguely aware that the man on the sea-bed was himself.
Strangely absent, dream-Michael descended upon himself, gently, slowly moving alongside his body. He raised his body's chin with a hand, looking deep into the startling green eyes that had drawn Selena to him in the first place, able to see nothing more than pure, untainted despair, no trace of the happiness or calm or even humanity that had made Michael who he was. This new creature, wallowing in the memories of blood, was painful, terrible. Dream-Michael could not leave him like this. He slowly sank into his own body, crushing down all sensation until he felt nothing, mere emptiness, a reflection of the sea-bed around him. This was the Michael that he needed to get through this nightmare, empty Michael, human by name but inhuman by nature.
New Michael got to his feet, looking around at the bone-trees of the desert the land that was once ocean had become. He saw that they each had words carved into them, names. The closest was marked simply as 'joy'. New Michael strode towards it, the sound of his footsteps echoing off the enclosure created by the forest, slowly but inexorably encroaching on the tiny part of this new mindscape in which Michael stood.
In his hand now was an axe, forged like a giant hatchet, blade on one side and thick handle like a slim tree trunk, barely small enough for his hands to encircle. He swung the axe at the bone-tree, not bothering to shield his face as shards and splinters flew off in all directions. He swung the axe again and again, hacking away at the stem of the tree, toppling it like any other lumber. He turned to the next, the axe growing and sharpening at a thought from New Michael, sweeping through the trees with no regard for his own safety. Debris settled around him, coating the ground in a thick layer of dust, red with the unsettled layering of the ground and disconcerting off-white with the new floor of bone shards.
Michael awoke, flailing wildly, screaming his rage at the room, warm, sticky blood running down his cheek where a cut had been reopened by his writhing. The trail was matched by one running down his arm where he saw a cable-tie had secured him to a wall fixture and cut deeply into his wrist as he struggled in his sleep. He turned away, unable to bear looking at chains of his imprisonment here in this room, and came across his other arm and the tiny spot of blood leaking out of his vein. He knew instantly what this meant: he had been shot up with something to stop him coming to quickly enough to deal with his aggressors. He looked around for a moment, all it took to find the syringe, dislodged from his arm, doubtless also during his nightmares.
He looked up and his eyes found the subject of his dream, and he knew that his brief glimpse before falling into unconsciousness before had been correct. Selena lay before him, skirt ripped away and body violated. Bruises had blossomed on her cheeks and breasts before her death, trails of blood silent testament to the brutality of her killers. With that thought Michael knew that he had no choice but to hold every single one of the others responsible for her death, regardless of what individual part they had played in her torment. Strangely, he felt nothing, looking at her battered and abused body. The contents of his dream were fading fast, and for a brief moment it occurred to him to wonder why he felt nothing, but the thought passed and more pressing matters assailed him.
"How to get out, for one," he muttered. And where to get something to eat, his stomach added. He had always been slim, but a few days spent without food would leave emaciated to a degree he did not wish to contemplate. He raised an arm to pick at the cable-tie holding him in place, but his limbs felt leaden, barely able to lift themselves above his head.
Michael pressed on, scratching away at the embossed plastic and getting nowhere slowly. Fear began to flicker across the back of his mind as he realised what might happen if he found himself unable to remove the thin chain of synthetic fibres around his wrist. He could actually die in this place, this grim little room smelling of blood and semen and mould and sweat and, above all, fear, so palpable Michael could almost taste it. He wondered if there were still enough narcotics in his system to let him sense such abstractions, but dismissed the thought. It wasn't fear he could smell; it was the stench of pain and anguish, the sweat and blood combining to create the unholy aroma that now drove Michael on. He breathed in the smell, letting it linger on his palate, remembering the scent, storing it away to ensure he would never forget the score he had been given to settle here.