by Zoe Gangell
Image: Aparna Arora
‘Hey, uh sorry to bother you but uh.’ He cuts short and shuffles where he stands. ‘Could you, uh, um-’.
The vendor looks up from the bench screen covering half the countertop and grunts, ‘spit it out already.’
The man wipes his brow and tugs at his flailing jacket. ‘Sorry, sorry. I just wanted to rent, rent out an arm. Left arm… for the day. My friend, you see-‘
‘Yeah OK,’ the seller clatters around in the back of the small pop-up shop and shouts, ‘which are you? 24? 26?’
He pulls out joints and spare limbs in his half-assed search. ‘40 pounds.’ The guy presents a metallic right arm possessing a few dents across the wrist joint and lower arm. The elbow creaks when he drops it between them.
‘Return it before next morning, it’s the last one I have in service.’
A trembling exhale leaves the man as he bows his head and drops his loose coins atop the wooden surface.
‘Thank you so much. Thank you, I will definitely be back before the second call.’
‘Alright, mate.’ He replies curtly, turning his attention back to the screen.
The man mutters his gratitude once more while fumbling to take the arm. With the perspiration clinging to his clothes and slithering along his skin, he startles when his clammy hands touch the cold metallic texture of the spare limb, but nevertheless grabs it with fervour.
Before leaving, he turns his back to the seller and hunches over the arm, opening the wrist flap and stuffing it full while pretending to regard the hailing storm beyond the little shelter of the shop. Closing and locking the arm, he places a blue protection sphere securely in the closed metallic fist. The thick air ripples around the limb before it blurs out of focus. The man struggles to look at it closely and a headache begins to bloom the more he tries.
Neon lights blink from the overhead sign through the tumbling droplets, calming the man slightly as he flicks on his warped rain cover and departs for the nearest station.
The shrill laugh of the downpour nearly drowns out the whistling cries coming in and out of the station. Guards stand at attention in pairs from the southern entrance to the boarding platforms. He watches them silently, shuffling past with a lowered head and darting gaze. Only until he reaches the platform does he halt and gauge his surroundings. The well-lit space holds little occupants, with abandoned benches stretching down the clean-swept space. Heaters above dispel the little water that managed to slip past his conjured protection. A whistle echoes through the tunnel, becoming louder by the second.
When the night train rushes to parallel the platform, and the man expects a strong breeze to push against him, but no wisp of wind shifts through the enclosed space, barely a stir of speckled dust. He scratches his head before walking down the platform and sitting at a dark brown imitation of a wooden bench. As he began to fidget, the train’s doors open silently, and some few passengers make their way across to the exit corridors. One hooded stranger, hunched over with a grey coat covering every notable feature, appears as more of a ghost than a person, standing still at the train’s doors. They look around the platform and catch the curious eye of the man. He expects the stranger to slink through the terminal, as tales swapped under rat infested roofs and between the cracks of buildings promised him, but instead, the stranger walks in a plonking waddle, as if injured and limping.
A lump sit in the man’s stomach.
He keeps his expression straight, but as the stranger limps closer, he tenses unconsciously.
‘Taron.’ Monotone and smooth, the stranger’s voice barely echoes inside the station’s silence.
The man pauses before nodding a few times. ‘That, that coat is very old,’ He swallows a ball of spit. ‘M-must be at least two ce-centuries, right?’
‘Why are you here.’
Taron sits, waits, and feels the air rush from his body. ‘What? I, uh-’
He fumbles to take the sphere from the clenched fist of the spare limb.
The stranger brings his attention to the detached limb. With his face covered in the hood and a black mask, Taron cannot tell if he is upset or indifferent to the gesture. Looking each way, he pushes it fervently towards the stranger. ‘T-take it. I don’t want it anymore.’
The stranger grunts but does not take the arm. Instead, he turns it over in Taron’s grasp before resting his hand atop the wrist panel. His fingers, wrapped in what appeared to be a sort of bandage, once a cream colour but now a smudged grey, tense and stretch over the small latch. He does not open it.
Taron flinches at the demand. ‘W-where?’
The stranger slowly taps against the arm. The sound of his nail on the metal drums in Taron’s ears.
‘I was told- told to get it from the southern entrance. Harvey’s Spares- a small desk sort.’
The stranger stands silently, tapping the arm. The metallic ticking is deafening.
Taron swipes his tongue over chapped lips. ‘Ah, sorry to ask but who is he? Wh- why him?’
The stranger regards him, his dark blue eyes raking over the rugged man’s tense frame and strangled grip on the metallic upper arm of the spare limb. ‘Nothing. He is nothing so nothing should happen.’
A hiccup of air startles out of Taron, ‘oh.’ He shifts his gaze away from the stranger to across the platform. ‘You’ll just be returning this, right? I- I didn’t… He didn’t do anything bad, no one in this city is good, so he didn’t do anything bad.’
The stranger retracts his covered hand and reaches into the numerous folds of the hooded coat. Taron feels his bones try to retract out of his body but instead of a gun or knife, the stranger points two slips of paper towards him. He licks his cracked lips again before taking them into his shaky grasp. Two tickets. One for the city over. The other further south. A district not familiar to him.
Without another sound, the stranger takes the arm and stalks away.
He limps slowly across the platform, heads for the shadowed edges and gradually falls into their embrace.
Taron blinks, rubs his eyes, and looks to where he saw the stranger slink to, but he was gone.
The train whistles, quiet and piercing. Taron rubs at his head before standing on his numb legs and walking to the closest cart.
The pitching cry travels through the station, signalling the train’s departure like a wailing child at a funeral. The stranger taps against the wrist panel again, opening it this time. He pulls free the package and, in its place, leaves three small glowing green orbs. He slings the arm over his shoulder whilst leaving through the northern entrance of the station. He walks with his uneven step and a concealed frown fixed on his face.
Spying the small lit up stall, he finds the owner fixated on the tabletop screen. His eyes narrow further from under his hood. The guy appears to be a little over seventy, alone in the city’s shallows. Amidst all the downpour, it was unlikely he would get any help, barely noticeable amongst all the garbage rotting on the curb side – least in the next few days.
The stranger curses under his breath before he stalks up to the stand, slamming the arm down. Without waiting for the owner’s outburst, he leaves, turning down the next ally to wait. The annoyed grumbles of the man can barely be heard under the rain hitting his ears but only seconds past… A popping, spitting sizzle.
The pained shout punctures the air, only growing louder and louder before passing after three minutes. The stranger starts along the alleyway with the package tucked securely in his inner waistcoat.
It was not long, a couple of twisted streets and damp lighting here and there, before he finds himself upon a familiar red door. He ducks under the narrow crook of the doorway and shakes his hands in a useless attempt to dispel loose droplets.
Passing through the decrepit entrance, he ignores the nails sticking through the loose wooden floorboards, the static sound of television the next room over, the flickering sickly yellow overhead lights. His stride smooths out as much as he possible can cope with and he heads directly into the kitchenette with a metronome step.
‘You look like a drenched rat.’ The words slither out from the corner of the room, where the shadows seem longest.
He raises the package from his pocket and waves it towards the lounging figure, ‘I was already near.’
‘Yes, but I specifically told you not to come here. It is dangerous. So, I hope you are just dying to see me.’ The shadows shiver, alight with energy.
He could taste sparks dancing on his tongue when he breathes too deeply. ‘You use such roundabout ways.’
‘He would have died either way. At least you had some fun.’
He grunts and fiddles with the cloth before tucking it away again. ‘I go far north for some months.’
‘Oh, no.’ Atop, in and under, the shadows fold into themselves, crawling towards him. ‘Don’t be like that.’
‘I have the Bai.’ He absently taps his pocket.
‘Come on, darling. You came all this way.’ Black roots rise from the loose floorboards and curl over his feet, holding him loosely in place. ‘He deserved it; you have no idea how many people that fool screwed over.’
He keeps his left foot from flinching under the sudden weight and growls, ‘you are Kamisama.’
‘Well, no- but I can’t help it if he decides to trust in a broken system.’
‘Do not decide the living.’
A hand, like tree roots, twisted and textured, reaches over and pushes away his hood, touching his covered cheek before tugging the mask down. ‘Why? That’s the fun of life.’
Strands of brown hair fall freely across his eyes as he leans into the frail palm, allowing himself a moment of comfort. ‘You will become sick.’
‘I am sickness.’
‘You are liar.’
He hums in reply, turning slightly so the humid air from his lungs ghost across those spindle-like fingers.
‘Why bother lying to that rat?’
The hand on his exposed cheek caresses the bone and muscle beneath as he mutters, ‘he is no rat,’ before staring down at his own wrapped hands.
‘Oh, don’t pretend. Ignorance is not cute on you.’
He looks up into those black eyes, endless inky depths pulling him in and leaving him bare. His head barely shakes, such a small gesture, so easily overlooked.
‘Fine. Fine,’ they hiss, ‘dismiss and avoid. We both know you are just a coward. Always hiding things from me.’
Chuckling at their words, he pulls away, careful to not stumble, and takes out another package, this one wrapped not in a grey scrap of cloth, but rather, in fine scarlet silk. ‘Here.’
Unfolding it with fingers of twine, they find two bronze rings. Delicate and handcrafted. Small vines were carved along each one, creating a stunning, simplistic design.
‘Thank you.’ They finally say after a moment of silent regard, ‘your offer is welcomed.’
They stare down at the twin jewels and a silence descends upon the pair. Distant sirens are drowned out by rain as it pelts against the boarded-up windows and hollow walls.
Finally, the shadows shiver around him and they whisper, ‘best you leave through the eastern suburbs, where the rodents are few between.’
The stranger regards the rings with a set jaw and pulls the mask back up. He nods once, then twice before turning and leaving for the door. Opening it, he pauses, glances back to the strangled shadows only once before continuing alone into the consuming night.