They’ll never see eye-to-eye and there’s no hope for change. Sometimes living feels like being a cadaver that forgot to die. Every morning, there’s a fresh coat of dew on the grass and leaves and shrubs like cellophane, but the wreckage never dissipates (it’s the only constant in this world), and the refreshing and rejuvenating (and, as much as it makes me want to vomit and makes my skin crawl, there’s a concomitant nebulous feeling of rebirth and renewal unleashed with each new day, like each day was a suffocating gaseous bomb detonated in perennial chemical warfare) morning glow is juxtaposed against the ubiquitous rubble, ruin, and devastation. Sometimes it feels like the only time this vague and untenable notion of God manifests is in devastation, because it’s ubiquitous and there’s no escaping it and it’s the only consistent facet of living we can rely on.
All we wanted was change. But when opposing sides get entrenched in a need for change, it disallows any change to occur. It’s a motherfucker because change is a negotiable term that doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of insular communities. Outside of exclusive dialects and lexicons, impossible to translate and decipher on account of the granular nuance that composes them (it’s like sifting through dunes of sand in an unending desert for kernels of truth). So change doesn’t mean anything at all. And the clock hands creep slowly across its face, crawling past demarcations of time like points in a race, and it almost looks like it’s wiping its forehead in relief. Like the closer time carries us (because it’s a courier in its own fucking way [a conveyor belt]) toward oblivion (toward death, toward whatever the fuck), the closer it inches us to relief. And I guess the only change I can hope for anymore is relief. Whether it’s bequeathed by the sweet release of death (because the kiss of death sounds like it always leads to a happy ending) or whatever the fuck else can dispense it (though I’m honestly sick of relief doled out in morsels, so maybe a healthy dose of death is just what I need).
“This world feels like an abscess on God’s writhing body in hospice,” John says, “after contracting some fatal disease. Laden with lesions and sores. Pale and rail thin and staring up at the ceiling with vacant eyes. Irremediable.”
We’re huddled in a condemned house. John wanted to light a fire but I said we shouldn’t. Because that wouldn’t do anything but get us detected. At some point you have to learn to love the obfuscation of darkness and abandon the clarity of light (and honestly, I started resenting the way light ratifies ugly truths by illuminating them long before this shit went down) if you want to get by in this world. At some point, you have to appreciate occlusion because it feels like the only beneficent force at work. I’m tired of knowing and I’m tired of seeing. I’m just fuckin’ tiredof being.
“You’re in a brooding mood today,” I say talk to John with unearned wisdom like he’s my kid brother.
“Like you’re not most of the time?”
“All I’m saying is that we thought we’d change the world, and the world just changed us. It just corrupted us and warped us into these fucking animals.”
“I hate to break it to you,” I say. “But we’ve always been animals.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I guess I do.” And, to be honest, I do know what he means, but sometimes I pontificate to deflect because pretending you know more than you do can be the most comforting thing in the world. It makes you feel like it’s comprehensible (another instance of obfuscation [this time via the opaque smoke screen of a lie, which is about my only consolation]). “But this is a good lesson—harboring optimism is as good as ingesting cyanide. Which doesn’t sound half bad these days.”
“Look who’s brooding now.”
I can’t help but laugh because I don’t really know what else to do when everything feels hopeless. And then we hear a calamitous sound and some hushed whispers (three voices) and John’s eyes bulge and his pupils turn into points you couldn’t even thread a needle through (so small atoms couldn’t even permeate, let alone percolate through), and they’re almost reptilian from fear (primordial and atavistic vestiges from when God dumped us on this planet like negligent parents unloading their kids at an orphanage). My stomach knots up like my body was wringing it out. John turns to me (and I know it’s mostly for direction and assurance that we’re gonna be OK, for some solution for an insoluble problem, because even if this encounter doesn’t go entirely south, there’s no real hope for reconciliation when human nature starts surfacing so saliently it feels like an incursion (like a missile soaring into us all and bursting in devastating sparks and flame [sometimes destruction and devastation are so chromatic that it’s the most beautiful sight to behold, like a rainbow trawling after an unnerving thunderstorm that produced a tearing tornado]), and I start resenting this role I assumed.
I put my finger to my lips. All we have are flashlights, and I turn mine off and John does the same. But I still see his face. Rays of moonlight pour in like refugees weary after struggling through the dense dark of night but desperate to provide some light, and even in the pallid light I can see soot on his face and his hair sticking out in tufts, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen a mirror (which is the only blessing this collapse has bestowed) that I wonder how rough I look. But at the end of the day, the people closest to us become the only mirrors we need. I pick up a steel pipe that we found along the way for instances just like this (when I first picked it up, John rolled his eyes and said I was being dramatic and we wouldn’t need it [well—I hate to say I told you so, I really do]). I’m trembling. John probably doesn’t notice. He’s catatonic with fear, sitting with his knees hugged tight to his chest and staring at the door.
“John,” I whisper so hushed that it’s practically inaudible; I’m mouthing the words more than saying them, “pick up that brick. Just in case.” I point to a brick laying next to him. I can hear him swallow it’s so fucking quiet. His trembling hand slowly picks it up with the sorriest display of commitment I’ve ever seen. I nod and he does, too, and at this point we’re both pretending (about as convincingly as soap opera actors) we’re not shitting our pants.
I hear a voice. I can’t make out everything it says, but it’s either a woman or a eunuch (and I pray it’s a woman because something about being attacked by a eunuch terrifies me twice as much). I know they’re in here…gonna kill ‘em…revenge…they did this…should have surrendered…didn’t have any right to ask for as much as they did…should learn their place…our birthright
I can’t help but think about how similar their sentiments are to ours. How we all want the same thing in some fucked up way and resort to the same fucking measures. In the end, we invariably start eating our own. My grip tightens on the pipe like choking up on a baseball bat as they get closer. I concoct the vague semblance of a strategy and hug the wall. I’m gonna use John as a decoy (I know it’s fucked up, but he’s practically useless at this point). They’ll come in and see John and charge toward him while I hug the wall in the shadows and blindside them from behind in an ambush—like asymmetric warfare. It’s about our only hope because John and I (deep, deep [and I’m talking incalculable fathoms deep] down) are spineless. Better at capitulating and surrendering than defending or standing our ground. It’s in our nature. We adapted to contemporary suburban life, which atrophies any capability of survival. Because somewhere down the line, we bred survival out of ourselves and called it progress. Unaware at how maladaptive it rendered us.
I can almost feel them walking closer. Their voices are still muffled and hushed but there’s a cacophony in my head. All these contingencies and their voices and my fear start to crescendo. And then in a burst, the door swings open. It sounds like it was kicked, but that might be my fucking brain dramatizing things (as is its proclivity). I barely register it for a moment, but then I see a woman leading two men stalking in with predatory intent. They’re intent on John, who yelped and dropped the brick. I can almost smell the piss as soon as his bladder forfeits control. We haven’t had much water (or anything of sustenance, really), and it smells like he’s dehydrated. They’re imposing. The two men are walking eclipses, and the woman prowls with the uncouth demeanor of a mountain lion. For a moment, I’m enraptured at the absurdity of it all. What precipitated it and how inclemently everything transpired. Like how fate sometimes feels like a set up to jump out and mug you.
“I think he pissed himself,” one of the guys laughs. This enrages me inexplicably. I may break John’s balls but only I’m allowed to. “Fucking pathetic.”
John’s eyes are fixed on the woman. They all have knives. Time’s moving so slow it’s almost like it was sedated and descending into somnambulant delusion like a patient in a psych ward. “Pathetic is right,” the woman hisses. “Can you believe these pathetic fucks think we’d ever come to terms? That we would ever negotiate with them? That they have any right to anything? We’ve been residents of this fucking place longer than you or anyone else you’re allied with, and we’re gonna have to teach you the hard way: all you have a right to is death. Because we’re not gonna let you encroach on what we’ve earned from being born into what we were.”
“We’re gonna have fun with him,” one behemoth says.
“We’re gonna take our time,” his counterpart says.
There’s something idiosyncratic about sadism—everyone has the capacity and everyone has their own spin on it. They start walking slowly toward John who can’t even make a sound. He’s about to cry. I just need them to get a little further away so I can put some fucking elbow grease on my first swing. So I have room to cock back and show these motherfuckers what’s what. Show them it doesn’t matter what you’re born into, we all die the same sad husks. And it’s calculated—within a few of their steps toward John, I lurch forward almost soundlessly, cock back the pipe, and swing. The pipe collides with the back of one of the big hulking motherfuckers’ heads. He lets out a grunt and the thud is sickening—moist almost. He collapses and the woman and other brute swing their heads, utterly stunned. In a fluid motion, I swing the pipe as hard as I can when I’m bringing it back over my shoulder and it crashes against the other motherfucker’s cheek. I hear the bones shatter and teeth go flying. My stomach is wrung with a queasy feeling adjacent to disgust. That’s how pathetic I am—even survival makes me sick. He collapses in uniform fashion and I start thinking maybe we’ll make it out of this alive.
But then the woman lunges toward me so quickly I can’t properly react. She’s plunging the knife toward my gut, and the only defense I can muster is swinging my arms down to redirect it somewhere less fatal (like negotiating terms with death and fate), and I manage to divert and reroute the attack into my thigh, but the pain is immediate and excruciating and I howl. My legs get weak and I collapse and drop the pipe. She falls to the ground from her own momentum but quickly gets to her feet. She approaches me, seething with rage, and I can see it in her eyes (that primal animalistic glint that never really dissipates from us, the shit that bonds us together and tears us apart). She’s not even saying words. It’s more like growling, and she grunts with each kick she delivers to my midsection. I feel my ribs break.
She raises her foot and I’m staring up at her boot (almost like a cognizant corpse watching earth shower down during its burial), laying supine and stunned. Unable to move and in overwhelming pain. Each breath is belabored and each breath hurts. But I can’t begrudge her for it because we’ve perpetrated the exact same thing with commensurate brutality, because sometimes brutality reactionary. Disproportionate brutality breeds disproportionate brutality, and it’s almost impossible to deduce who started this domino effect of devastation. All I know is ours feels permissible and sanctioned and theirs feels abhorrent and despicable.
“I’m gonna smash your head like a bug,” she says. “I’m gonna smash your head like a bug and you tell everyone wherever the fuck you heathens go when you die this is what you get. This is what you deserve. You won’t take this fucking neighborhood. We were born here. We have proof—we have the documents,” (the documents being HOA forms from when the neighborhood was first constructed and people first started moving in proving that they, in fact, were the original inhabitants, thus making our cohabitation impossible for them to stomach). “We have a right to this neighborhood. And we won’t stop killing you motherfuckers until you get it through your heads and decamp.”
And in my fucking delirium (honestly, I don’t know why I say it), I say, “Can I have a pen and paper to take the message? I don’t know if I’ll remember everything.”
This really peeves her off, and she raises the boot higher (I’m assuming to add velocity and do more damage, which [if I’m being honest], I can’t say is entirely undeserved. My mouth has gotten me in more trouble than I’m proud of.). But then something strange happens—there’s a wet thud and she collapses suddenly. I think I’m already dead. But then things start calming down and the pain starts amplifying through my body, and my leg hurts so much it’s almost numb. I look up to see John standing there, holding the brick limply. His whole body’s trembling and he has this look of utter confused terror on his face. Despondent. Like he barely knows what happened. And just looks down at me and tries to smile but it looks harrowing instead, and it breaks my heart because it seems like everything good is made to be corrupted. And John’s good. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody. But that’s what this shit does. It makes murderers of us all.
“Holy shit,” I say.
“Yeah,” is all he says. “Holy shit.”
We stare at each other silently a while, and then he sits down and starts weeping and I think we both realize it’ll never end because we’re as culpable as anyone else in perpetuating this shit. Starting way back when we first petitioned to change rules and regulations to the HOA. When we tried to buy up some houses to flip and sell them, and the long-time residents who’d lived there for generations took issue. Resisted change and thought we felt entitled to their territory. It started as a disagreement. A debate. But factions developed, and the most common consequence of factions is unbridled contempt. And then people started fighting—some even got jumped. It escalated until one person was put in critical condition, and that was the incendiary catalyst we needed. Because it just takes one person to show that you can perpetrate violence for everyone else to catch on and realize that there are hardly any consequences for anything you do (and then entire fucking human condition variegates into lurid and vermilion reds of bloodlust).
Eventually, the lynchpins of our respective vociferous mobs agreed to negotiate terms. It was actually looking up. Like the tide would turn. They even came to some kind of agreement—armistice. The conditions weren’t entirely favorable to us, but it was worth it for peace. Until those lynchpins were killed in their sleep. Assassinated. And all hell broke loose—chaos erupted like shrapnel out of a grenade. Everyone turned more extreme. Eye-to-eye was quickly superseded by eye-for-eye. Because the mob wants what it fucking wants even though it usually has a vague idea of what that is exactly. Eventually people started burning down houses and making makeshift bombs to blow them up, and the entire neighborhood was reduced to rubble. Because we’d rather everyone live in rubble and disarray and desolation than our opposition fucking live in prosperity and harmony and security.
“I just want it to end,” John says. “I just want it to end and I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
“I know,” the words strain through my pain like coffee percolating through a filter. “But I’ll settle for some sleep now. I just want to sleep.”
John nods and lays down. We both fall asleep knowing the next day will be just like this, with the dew dampening everything and the ubiquitous rubble that superseded the ubiquitous contentment and hope and happiness that was once here. At least I thought it was, but now that I think about it, that was probably just a lie I told myself as consolation. Because I think those sentiments went extinct as soon as we started banding together millions of years ago. We’re the meteor that decimated that extinct species.
Joshua Rodriguez is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. A Business English teacher and content/technical writer, and editor-in-chief at Fishbowl Press. Twitter and Instagram: @fishbowlpress
Joshua has been published in Door is A Jar Magazine, Expat Press, FIVE:2:ONE magazine, Terror House Magazine, and Silent Auctions Magazine. He has a novella out via Alien Buddha Press called, ‘FAMINE: Get the Hell Outta Here While You Still can’.