A short, paradoxical time travel saga.
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From the collapsed doorway of The Corner Stone Café another cumbersome figure struggled over fallen masonry and debris; its grime smeared countenance questioning the dimming skies.
In its wake trailed the dead form of another, a child Skip thought, its thin, lifeless wrist clutched in the abomination's fist.
The cadaver was nude and horribly mutilated, eaten in some places. Its left leg was devoured almost to the bone. Desensitised to such obscenities now, Skip watched the thing crest a short pile of bricks, then abruptly halt.
The body, Skip noticed, had snared itself behind a fallen lamppost; its head wedged against the unyielding metal. The deformity glared reproachfully at its lunch, the way an owner might regard a dog in the throes of a sudden shit. It yanked hard on the cadaver's emaciated arm.
Glancing nervously above, Skip's thumb and forefinger absently traced the outline of a solid protrusion on his right arm beneath the fabric of his filthy coat. The blackness was gathering strength. It pushed back the dawn, casting long, dusk shadows upon the debris-strewn street.
Past the grimy window of the long-ago Warren's shoes the cannibal grunted in frustration and once more heaved angrily on the dead child's arm.
Like a pistol shot; the crack of snapping bone.
Creaking like old rope. A squelch. A muffled pop.
Not as armoured against the atrocities of this post-apocalyptical world as he had given himself credit for, Skip spun away, a hand clamped to his mouth. Outside the abomination stumbled backwards, the severed limb clutched to its chest.
Hopelessness regained free reign of Skip's head, a heavy, blood-stained blanket of reality settling over his mind, as the sickening soundtrack of dismembering bone, muscle and tendon mashed the repeat button in his head. The resplendence of the Corner Stone café was compressed, smothered, crushed. The calm oasis of tranquillity trampled by the marching Jack-boots of truth and a dawning realisation that this might all begin again, that the past ten years of careful seclusion had been for nothing.
Overhead, a tearing, like ripping cloth, and skip flinched. Behind him the dog scrambled from its filthy corner, barking, howling in terror, the taste of its own testicles ceasing to award whatever scrap of comfort it might have drawn from them.
Is this how it all played out last time? Skip wondered, his attention darting frantically from the dog to the severed-limb-clutching deformity outside to the ruined ceiling and the black morning sky.
Above him, as the booming drums of Skip's own pulse contended admirably against the dog's raucous entreaties, the heavens unzipped. Myriad fissures and tears, so stunningly bright against the blanket of dark that Skip raised an arm to his face.
Rushing blood in his ears. The dog's frantic baying. The shredding of the world's very substance.
It all racked Skip's brain; a lancing, piercing agony that threatened to crack open his very skull.
Nausea now and Skip's hand once more found the small, metal circle implanted in his right arm. Without it he might forget, might enjoy the short respite before this fucked-up world was re-created. Perhaps, whispered an increasingly tenuous voice of sanity, you should have torn it from your flesh years ago. Made yourself oblivious. Just went with the flow.
Outside, the mutant -still clutching the child's severed arm- began to advance once more, its own cumbersome gait mocking its attempts at haste. Scraps of decaying flesh flapped like rags from its ravaged face.
From the skies now; a distant, mechanical whining. It advanced swiftly, building to a deafening crescendo of screaming engines and whooshing air.
The mutant stumbled, dropping the child's limb, and in that moment stole a fretful glance toward the source of its anxiety. Lurking deep in its decayed countenance, fear danced a seldom-witnessed cameo in its blood-shot eyes.
Invading from the heavens, the ruins of the Corner Stone Café and its adjoining structures were suddenly bathed in searching beams of gold, the seeking light growing ever brighter, more encompassing. Whatever threat the freak outside had presented was suddenly superseded by this larger predator and skip flung himself away from the window. He scooped up his dishevelled canine friend and, with the dog held tightly to his chest, he ran.
Head-rattling noise. Pursuing flames like a furnace at his back and suddenly Skip was propelled into the furthermost wall of Warrens Shoes' shop floor.
Striking a half-standing rack of dusty footwear, his head was briefly filled with things far removed from his present tumult. For a gloriously drunken instant, Skip held a beer in his hand whilst chatting to a buxom young thing in a bar. The sensation of her breast pressing against his arm as she leaned in close and laughed. Cold elixir chugging down his throat. Welcome distractions, all.
Then it was gone, replaced by the roar of flames and the moribund yelping of Skip's last true friend in the world.
He dared not look. The hot, running wetness cascading over his hands and down the sleeve of his coat, the sudden stiffening then limpness of his friend all indicated the inevitable. Instead, he dropped to the floor, allowing the dog to fall, and held up his arms against the rapacious, searching flames.
Skip was on-fire.
His coat burned. Heat seared his face, branching through the inadequate guard of his arms. Hair in his nostrils crackled and burned. The scream he so dearly yearned to vent was plucked from his throat by the fire's thieving fingers, taking with it the very air required to breath, dropping napalm in its place.
Bedraggled and unkempt, the flames consumed each greasy strand of Skip's hair, marching ever closer to his scalp. Instinctively Skip's hands attended to this new danger, protecting that sensitive skin. But as his fingers blistered and vomited, as naked fire branded his cheeks, ran unmolested across his agonised lips, instantly he returned them to his face.
Yet, curiously, amid the torture -perhaps conjured by it- a sense of dejavu washed over him. A crazy comparison running unbidden through his mind.
It was a jog. Seven consecutive laps around the block where he used to live; back when running was merely recreation, not necessity.
Each lap was exactly the same as the last and the next. Everything was the same, save for the stockpiling acid in his legs and the rising crescendo of his own respiration. The buildings, cars parked in various spots by the curb, the dog shit nestled snugly at the feet of lampposts and fledgling trees. The cracked and subsiding pavement slabs. Each loop, every lap of the run was unchanged. Everything, that is, except him. Only Skip's own mind differentiated between one circuit and the next, or the last.
Is this what his existence had become? The thought poking between minute gaps in the searing heat. Was he part of an endless circuit in which day after day everything was the same, his own mind and a small circle of metal fused to his arm amounting to the only difference? Was he about to embark on yet another lap? Was the fire's all-consuming agony the acid in his legs as he rounded that final bend?
Flames streaking in his wake, he was charging down the final strait, and up ahead lay the finish and the end. Crossing that line would begin it all again.
Everywhere the sounds of tearing -in many ways as sickening as the tongues of fire corrupting his flesh- invaded the very room in which he suffered. The splitting of reality, of the thin air he so desperately attempted to breathe. Bright rents in the fabric of existence, through which, passed forms from the past? The future?
Skip's fear, the adrenaline -though attempting to smother the intensity of his pain- denied him proper access to his senses. Nevertheless, he was able to discern forms, vague silhouettes emerging from the divides. Some walked, others were propelled, bullied from whatever place they called home.
So too was the inanimate drawn to the burning husk of Warrens Shoes. A car -horn blaring, tires screeching. Bouncing, thudding, hammering sounds threatened to drown out even the roaring heat, all engineered by the invasion of yet more things from other places. Ultimately, though, Skip knew, everything was just fuel. All would feed the rapacious, unrepentant, insatiable fire.
Then, suddenly, the flames were gone. Their flicking, fiery tongues no longer tortured his blistering flesh.
From his prone vantage on the floor, Skip squinted between the burned sleeves of his coat, at any time expecting the flames to suddenly return and devour his sight. Though smouldering he was no-longer aflame, yet curiously, the only resultant odour of the fire seemed to be of that coming from his own clothing and flesh.
Warrens Shoes was silent, deafeningly so, his own ragged respiration mounting the only counterpoint.
Madness, he thought, and hauled himself painfully, shakily to his feet, his effortful grunts infused with the resonance of those announced in an empty room. But, as the earlier give-away sounds had alluded, the room was far from empty and Skip realised his assessment had been wrong. The flames had not dissipated. They were, in-fact, frozen.