TW: hallucinations, panic attacks, and depictions of burning to death
Dedicated to the friend who helped me build this world.
“That’s the thing about this city…” I muttered into my glass.
"It keeps you prisoner. There's always a job and a room for you, but at the cost of your freedom."
The man next to me gave me a strange look, and the bartender topped him off.
"It's not all bad here." She reassured him. He wasn't upset by my statement, he was confused because that was the start of our conversation. I continued, "You're new in town. Probably here for work in the mines, huh?"
The man nodded wordlessly.
"Here's some advice. Keep your gas mask on when you're sleeping. That's when they air the mines out."
The bartender gave me a pointed look. I ignored her.
"You see, when you're born here, you get used to the gas. You learn what it is, and all the ways it can hurt you. One day you wake up, and you don't need the mask anymore. Newcomers… well, everyone's got skeletons in their closets, and at night those skeletons come out."
The man drained his glass in one gulp and motioned for another drink. He didn't have a mask with him, but I didn't either. The bartender hit me with her towel, "Stop scaring the nice man, you scavenger."
"I'm just giving him a warning. From one gentleman to another."
I grinned at the man and raised my drink in a toast.
"To Orion and their many subsidiaries, including but not limited to Monoceros, Octans Filtration, and Circinus.”
The man stood up, tossed his money on the counter, and left in a hurry.
“Now look what you’ve done.” The bartender griped, “You scared off my business.”
That’s what she was worried about. Not that the mines would be opening any minute and the man would most likely be caught in the gas waiting for a cab that would never come. No, she feared for the money she lost. I pulled out a wad of cash and slapped it down in front of her.
“Double what he paid. Put it on my tab.”
“One day you’re going to cash into that tab.” The bartender counted the bills with a frown, “When you do, you’re going to drink me out of business.”
I gave her a mocking smile, and she glowered at me in return. I could get free drinks for a week if I wanted, but I never wanted to. The bar opened in the evening, but only those with a death wish would get drunk before the mines opened for the night. A little alcohol could numb the hallucinations. A lot made them so bad your heart would stop from the shock. I drained my glass and flipped it upside down on the counter.
“Hold my spot tomorrow?”
The bartender sneered at me, “Drop dead.”
“That’s the dream, isn’t it?” I called back as I walked out the door. It was time for me to go to work.
My job was simple. Find the tourists and travelers, wait for them to succumb to their fears, and then rob them blind. It seemed heartless, but if I weren’t the one committing the crime, someone else would. At least I left personal possessions alone. As I walked down the street, the sirens started going off. A warning to those still outside to put on their masks or seek shelter. The sirens were located on the Octans building, the biggest skyscraper in the city. It persistently glowed despite the thick covering of filth that caked onto the rest of Orion’s crown jewel of mining. In the distance, the mines started to open. I glanced past the Octans building, watching a faint yellow cloud began to rise. It never took long to spread through the streets. I walked through the pleasure district, passing casinos, strip clubs, and the odd restaurant or two from days before Orion's new worker productivity initiative. If anything, the initiative led to more easy targets for pickpockets and an uptick in unionizing. The man from the bar was leaning against one of the many buildings, trying to catch his breath. Either he had sprinted away from the bar in an attempt to get to his hotel before the mines opened or he wasn't used to the way the gas burned when inhaled. I tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned around I decked him. He fell backwards against the building with a cry.
"No hard feelings." I muttered as I patted him down for his wallet. He stared past me in horror.
"Barbara, please, they're my children too!"
I pulled his wallet out of his pocket and emptied it on the street as he babbled about someone named Barbara and their daughters. There was an ID card under the name Hank Smith, which I figured had to be a fake. Hank Smith was an Orion executive. He wouldn’t be caught dead slumming it on the streets when he could be in the house with the white picket fence and the family he loved so much. I held the ID card up to his face and chewed on the inside of my cheek in thought.
“Well you do look like him. Greasier, but you have those beady little eyes.”
I put the ID card down and continued searching. He had seventy-six dollars and five cents on his person, as well as an ATM card. I pocketed both. The rest of the items on the ground were photos of Smith’s wife and children. The pictures were too bright, too happy. I shoved them back in the wallet and put it back in Smith’s pocket. He whimpered and reached out to no one.
“I didn’t mean to cheat, honest I didn’t! She seduced me, I couldn’t help it! Please, don’t take my babies from me!”
The pieces started to fall into place. Why would an executive be in a mining city? He probably had an affair with someone from the office, most likely the blonde secretary at his press conferences. His wife, sick of him cheating, divorced him and took the kids, and Orion threw him aside to avoid a scandal. Where else could a disgraced man go to find work but in the mines? I pulled the wedding ring off his finger and put it in my pocket.
“You don’t deserve to hold on to this.” I spat, hands beginning to shake. He had taken his family for granted and still expected their forgiveness? I couldn’t help but kick him while he was down. Quite literally, as words wouldn’t reach him in this state. It didn’t help with the rage that was building up in my veins, causing my vision to go red around the edges. I slammed Smith’s head against the building he was leaning against, and seeing him crumple to the side made me feel a bit better. I glanced up at the building, hoping that I hadn’t just defiled one of the clubs currently on strike. A cheerfully lit sign greeted me with the words Monoceros Italian Dining. A remnant of when Monoceros got into food production.
“You seeing this shit?” I gestured up at the sign with disgust, “The seats are sticky and you get in and they give you a basket of bread but the bread’s dry and as soon as it’s on the table they charge you for it. You order the veal parmesan and you take a bite and the veal’s got cardboard in it because they pulled it right off the display, so you go to complain, right? But the staff says well you ate it anyway so why are you complaining?”
I was rambling, and the only one around to hear it was a former Orion executive currently unconscious on the ground and trapped in a nightmare of his wife leaving him. I flipped the restaurant off with a sour expression, knowing damn well I had reservations for Thursday evening. Smith moaned from the ground, still in the throes of the hallucination, and I felt the rage from before wash over me again. I kicked him a second time, then a third. It had been a year since I was affected by the gas, and I needed an outlet for my anger so I wouldn’t relapse. Any scientist could tell you that the stronger your emotions were, the more powerful the hallucination. A hand settled itself on my shoulder and I whirled around, sure that a cop would be there to take me in for beating a man senseless. Instead I was met with the face of my father as it burned off his skull. He gave me a small smile, charred lips pulling and breaking against ash covered teeth.
“You used to be so much better at keeping your temper, kiddo. What happened?”
I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. The only thing I could do was turn and run as far away as possible.
There was a heartbeat pounding in my ears. It was rapid and fluttery, and I couldn’t tell if it was mine or another hallucination. I fumbled for my pulse as I ran, and through fingers like lead I realized that it was my heartbeat I could hear. The entire situation felt so ridiculous that somewhere deep inside I wanted to laugh. It came out as a choked and wheezing exhale. Imagine me, scavenger that I am, running from figments of my imagination because I got a little upset with the guy I was robbing. My chest felt tight, like someone was compressing it. There wasn’t enough air but that didn’t matter if my lungs weren’t working right. Invisible hands carded through my hair as I ducked into an alleyway to try and get the never-ending panic to recede. If I closed my eyes for a moment, maybe I would be able to calm myself down. The feeling of someone playing with my hair disappeared, and my heart rate started to slow the more I forced myself to breathe. Then I opened my eyes, and my mother stood in front of me. She wore that stupid shirt from my third grade field trip to the zoo outside city limits over her burning body. Smoke rose from her hair, flames twisted and marred her face, and as I stared at her in disbelief, one of her eyes burst.
“Y-you’re not real.” I mumbled. My mouth was dry and my tongue felt swollen. I couldn’t figure out if it was a side effect of the gas or if it was my own fear of the situation. My mother laughed.
“As long as you’re real, I’ll be real too.”
I backed up against the wall and she reached out. Her hand was soft and warm, and suddenly she wasn’t a gruesome depiction of a fiery death, but the version I remembered from my childhood. She smiled at me, “Look at you… you’ve grown so much.”
“Go away.” I swatted her hand away, but she cupped my face again.
“You’ve grown so much…” She mused, “But when it comes down to it, did you really grow?”
Her hands shifted to my arms, grip turning bruising. I gagged on the smell of burning flesh and she started to laugh again.
“Have you grown as a person? You take advantage of others at their weakest in order to fill your own pockets.”
“I won’t justify myself to a hallucination.” I spat, trying to get out of her hold. Her expression fell, from one near sadistic glee to one of mourning.
“You’re my son, I’ll always be a part of you. I said it before, as long as you’re real, so am I. I just want you to reach your potential.”
I couldn’t face her. Not like this, with her eyes burning right out of her skull and her hands trying to drag me down. There was something wet on my face, and she reached up to brush a stray tear away. Her touch was agony, scalding my skin and causing my heart to pound in my chest like it was about to burst.
“You can’t be here!” I yelled, squeezing my eyes shut in the hopes of stopping the tears, “You’re dead! I saw the building come down!”
When I opened my eyes, she was gone. I had no energy left to run, no idea where in the city I was. The world twisted before my eyes, and I couldn’t trust my own mind not to put me in the path of something real and dangerous in my panic induced hallucinations. I sank to the ground, the smell of burnt skin and hair lingering around me. My stomach flipped, and I barely had enough time to turn to the side before whatever I had eaten during the day came right back up. Somewhere deep inside, I knew I had to get home. I was carrying stolen goods, so if the morning patrol caught me I’d be thrown in jail in no time. There was also the matter of my damaged pride. I was supposed to be unshakable, and I made sure everyone knew it. They passed stories around about me in bars. Some thought that I was a psychopath, that I felt no remorse and could ignore my hallucinations. Others thought that I was immune to the gas. They would have a field day if they found me curled on the ground next to a puddle of my own vomit. With this in mind, I pushed myself to my feet and started walking. The worst of the hallucinations seemed to be over, and the gas wasn’t as thick in the streets as it had been before. I was halfway to my apartment when I heard a girl’s voice behind me.
“You may be done with us, but we’re not done with you yet.”
Seven years ago, my sister sat at the kitchen counter while I shoved snacks into a backpack. It was close to midnight, and our parents were asleep.
“I hate your friends.” She told me.
“I hate them too.” I gave up on trying to cram the box of crackers into the backpack and focused my efforts on the candy.
“Then why do you hang out with them?” She asked through a mouthful of chocolate chip cookies.
I shrugged, “They know how to party, I guess.”
“If Mom and Dad find out you snuck out they’ll be mad.”
I offered her another cookie, “They won’t find out, because you’re not going to tell them.”
She took the cookie, “I’m going to need a bit more compensation than that.”
I slid the rest of the box to her, and she nodded, “Alright. Just be back before the sun’s up, okay? You know how Dad is about being an early riser.”
“Take care of the house while I’m gone, okay?”
Hours later I returned home to the building burning to the ground and the charred corpses of my family.
My sister stood in the middle of the street. She wore the pajamas she had died in, arms crossed against the fuzzy pink heart on the shirt. I turned away and continued walking.
“You should’ve died with us.” She said, appearing in front of me. I flinched and put my hands over my ears.
“I’m not listening to you.”
“Why not?” She tilted her head, “We both agree. You shouldn't have snuck out that night."
Her words echoed in my head, and I pushed past her. I just needed to get to my apartment, where I could shut everything else out and regain my wits.
“Was it worth it?” She asked, keeping pace with me as I sped down the street.
She giggled, “Of course not. I think you’ve suffered more than I did, and I choked to death on smoke."
I opened the door to the apartment building, and when I turned my sister was gone. Hoping the hallucinations were done for real this time, I made my way up the stairs to my apartment and locked myself in. My bed was unmade, a single pizza box sitting open and empty on the sheets. It had never looked more inviting.
“I thought you wouldn’t live in an apartment complex after what happened. Or maybe you hope it happens again? It would be a fitting way to go, dying in an apartment fire seven years after your family died in one.”
I threw my pillow at my sister and it went right through her.
“The gas is clearing up. You’ll be gone soon so just leave me alone.”
“Then I’ll have to say my piece now.” My sister leaned forward as I stumbled back against my bed.
“You should’ve died with us. The only reason you survived was because you were a disobedient kid. Dad would’ve punished you for sneaking out, so I’m going to punish you for leaving us to die.”
I flinched away from her as she kneeled down in front of me and put a hand on my knee to balance herself.
“You’re going to live a very long time.” She promised, “You’re going to keep living with the knowledge that the only people who ever saw anything in you are dead. Every day you’re going to be reminded that you shouldn’t have survived, but just as we’re not done with you, you’re not done with this city. The streets are paved with blood and tears here, and you have enough to spare.”
She burned to ashes with a smile, and I was left alone in my apartment with phantom hands rubbing my back, stroking my hair, and patting my shoulder, as though my parents were trying to catch up on the years of familial affection I had lost. I curled in on myself to get away from the touches I couldn’t tell were fake anymore.
I screamed until I passed out.