science fiction and fantasy writer

Grey Snow in the Shadows

Lex was right in front of the cathedral when the Pall bells rang. She flinched, hands jerking halfway to her head before she caught herself. Suddenly everyone was hurrying. Lex dithered as bells pealed across the city. She was several blocks, yet, from the print shop. She almost turned back, her instinct not to leave the children alone under the Pall. But turning back wouldn’t put food in front of them.

She picked up her pace, hugging the patched and tattered greatcoat tight around the gnawing hollow in her middle, skip-stepping between a run and a walk. Down the street, she saw the black curtain rolling in from the east. In front of it, snowflakes fluttered down between the tenement blocks, jittery on the breeze like a fall of white butterflies.

The bells stopped before she was halfway to the shop, echoes quickly fading. Lex broke into a dead run. She could see down the cross-streets, the Pall closing, in the city now, swallowing buildings as it advanced.

A truck sped past, lights blazing, its open tray crowded with soldiers. Lungs already burning, Lex coughed in the fumes of its exhaust.

She was still coughing when she burst through the door of the print shop and slammed it behind her.

The others looked up in surprise while she leaned, wheezing, against the door. Lex’s head spun, her legs trembled, her famished body too weak for such exertion.

Reno swiped her uncut hair back out of her face and returned her attention to the bench top where she’d already begun setting type. As soon as she bent her head, her hair fell forward again. Guillam stared at Lex, unblinking. His eyes focused beyond her, through her, and he turned back to the window.

Max, older than the other two and with her generation’s better manners, poured herb tea from a pot and got up from her seat. Loose skin sagged from the back of her arms. Similar excess hung beneath her jaw, empty jowls. She had been fat when she’d first employed Lex at the print shop, before the Pall.

“Lex.” Max pressed the hot mug into her hands. “All right?”

Lex coughed once more, nodding, and pushed herself away from the door. The tea was warming, but without nourishment. Before the Pall, when bees and fruit trees still thrived, its bitterness would have been tempered with honey and lime. Neither of her children had ever tasted honey.

“You cut it fine,” murmured Reno, without looking up again.

Lex was disturbed that she was working with the window shutters still up. Of course, no-one could see the words Reno was setting from out in the street, and Max published a small community newspaper that could, perhaps, justify their working into the evening if challenged. A new edition of the paper would appear in the morning, its typeset pages already stacked by the printing press. Even so, Reno’s behaviour seemed indiscreet.

Max evidently had the same thought, and reached for the nearest window shutter.

“Here it comes,” said Guillam, in the same moment that Reno said, “Leave the blinds. Turn the lights off.”

As they spoke, the leading edge of the Pall came over the roof and reached the street. The light of the lowering sun dimmed with unnatural speed. Max lowered her hand. Reno got up from her stool to join them by the windows.

“Wait,” she said.

Lex hung back a little, clutching her tea. Her pulse rose again. Already, it was dark enough that she could barely see across the street. Then she could hardly see Max, an arm’s length away.

Then blackness, and she could see nothing at all.

“Listen,” Reno said.

Moments passed.

There came a pattering outside, rats scuttling about in the quiet.

Sudden heavy footsteps, fast and startlingly close. A rat squeaked in outrage. A muffled crackle, little bones snapping. Hisses and whispers followed, right outside the windows, voices that grated at the edge of hearing. Then a flapping, as of heavy cloth being shaken out.

Lex’s pulse pounded. She had listened to those sounds through the thin walls of her tenement flat as she lay awake in the pitch dark, her arms around Morgan and Henrie. She held her breath.

Heavy engines growled in the distance, coming nearer, and with them a metallic squeal and clatter that Lex couldn’t place. Headlamps abruptly lit the street in bouncing yellow. Shrouded misshapen figures lurched for sanctuary in laneways and the shadowed nooks of building frontages.

Lex squeezed her eyes shut.

The engine notes grew to a roar. The metal squeal rose to a crashing intensity that rattled the windowpanes.

“Look!” exclaimed Max.

Lex opened her eyes in time to see an armoured car roll past, soldiers alert in its machine-gun turret. A tank followed, filling the windows for a full second. More soldiers were packed into the three trucks that came behind it. Each man had rough strips of pale cloth tied around his upper arms and the barrel of his gun. A second armoured car followed the trucks.

In the red of the convoy’s taillights, Reno reached for the nearest window shutter. Guillam did likewise. The lights came on. Lex squinted in the glare as Max lowered his hand from the switch.

Reno’s eyes were wide. “Did you see them scurry from the light?” she said. “That is what the Government says holds us in thrall.”

“Sometimes people disappear,” Lex said, not really meaning to speak aloud.

Guillam sneered, but Reno looked at her seriously. “Sometimes people do disappear. But I do not believe it is these creatures of the Pall – these hunters of vermin who flee the light – that take them. The Unseen are just a pretext, an excuse for the Government to maintain martial law.”

“What are tanks doing in the city?” wondered Max.

Reno flashed her teeth. “What, indeed?”

She stepped back to the workbench and tipped out all the type she’d set. “We have something new to say. Lex, help me.”

Lex swallowed the rest of her tea and settled onto the stool Reno had vacated. Max helped her sort the jumbled pile of type while Reno scribbled furiously with pen and paper. Guillam took up his customary position by the door, hands thrust into his pockets. Lex was conscious of his eyes lingering on her.

Her stomach grumbled.

“Food tomorrow,” murmured Max.

Lex nodded, lifting the corners of her mouth to approximate a smile, trying not to think about her children, alone in the flat.

Reno tore the filled page from her pad and thrust it towards Lex. She had started on a new page before Lex took the first. Lex’s fingers flashed over the trays of type. The metal blocks clicked rapidly into the frame.

The Popular Front for the People’s Democratic Voice calls upon the Army to fulfil its role as defender of the People. Turn aside from the illegitimate Government! Cast down their Secret Police! End the war against the People’s Democratic Opposition! Bring terror to the Terror Squads! Let the Popular Front broker a lasting peace…

Lex had no idea how many members the ‘Popular Front’ had. She’d only ever met Reno and Guillam. She didn’t know if they had any actual association with the Opposition. Even if they did, it seemed unlikely that they could have any means of communication across the battlefront. Less likely still that they might be able to get a message to Jonas, out there fighting with the Opposition, if he was still alive.

She had never dared ask. Guillam, at least, had made it clear that she was present only as an employee.

She would have followed him, would have taken Morgan and raised her in whatever hiding hole they might have found. But Jonas had wanted them safe. It was his name on the party register, not Lex’s.

The city hadn’t been starving then, the crops not yet failing under the Pall.

Reno tore off the second page and slapped it beside her. She kept writing on a third. Lex handed the full frame of type to Max, who took it over to the printing press. There was a hum as she switched on the power.

Lex wasn’t sure how involved Max was, either. Certainly, she appeared to sympathise. But the arrangement at the print shop was also a commercial one, with Reno and Guillam among the shop’s last paying customers – them and the Ministry for Propaganda that kept the newspaper afloat.

Most often when Lex came to the shop during the day, now, she would find Max perched on the stool Lex now occupied, staring at nothing. Lex still came by though, every day, so Max could tell her if Guillam had been round and there was work tonight, or tomorrow, or in two nights time or three.

She didn’t know what Reno and Guillam did with the pamphlets. Distributed them among their members, perhaps? Could they have five thousand members? Certainly she had never seen any of the pamphlets once they left the shop. Possession of one would be enough for a person to disappear. She shied away from thinking about the consequences of being caught producing them.

The print shop seemed such an easy target for the secret police.

Her stomach complained again, reminding her why she was here. Three mouths to feed. Three bodies to keep warm. Reno tore off the third sheet from her pad and started on a fourth.

#

The Pall hadn’t yet passed by the time the clatter of the press faded into the surrounding quiet. Max brewed another pot of bitter tea and they sat, unspeaking, while they sipped. Reno seemed at ease, almost sexually spent after their work. She let her fringe hang forward over her eyes, a secretive smile twitching her lips. Lex noticed the glances the other two began shooting at Reno, at each other and herself. Clearly they wanted to discuss matters that were not for an employee‘s ears.

They assumed she cared. She had been political, once, but her priorities had become too narrow for that, her horizons too small. She drained her cup and stood.

“You can use my bed,” Max said. “I’ll wake you when the Pall lifts.”

She crawled into Max’s stale-smelling blankets. Her bed filled the floor space of the storeroom at the back of the shop. Lex lay in the half-dark and fretted about Morgan and Henrie, at home in the flat without her.

#

The door of the vacant flat next to hers stood open. Lex hurried past. Empty places stayed empty, these days – where the Unseen went, to wait for the Pall’s return. People whispered that they hid in cracks in the walls and the gaps between floorboards.

Passing the door, Lex thought she glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye, a dark shape inside. She looked around, startled. The room was empty as always. She stared, barely breathing. The skin crawled between her shoulder blades.

Heart thumping, she hurried to her own door and fumbled for the key. She took a few seconds, once the door was closed behind her, to compose herself.

It was still early, even after she’d queued for a couple of hours for food and coal. The flat was freezing, and dim, the solitary window shadowed by the building next door. The room smelled of faeces and stale urine. The potty needed emptying. Lex kicked off her boots and dropped her greatcoat by the door.

The piled blankets under the window shifted, her arrival disturbing the children. She lifted the covers.

“There’s food.”

Morgan, aged five, sat up immediately, rubbing her eyes. Her hair stuck out in random spikes. Henrie, three years younger, lay on his belly, peering up from the corners of his eyes.

“What food?” Morgan asked.

“Bread and cheese,” said Lex. “Fresh bread. And I got a lime. Some rice for tomorrow.”

“Mummy, I don’t like lime. I like orange.”

“Lime is what there was. It’s good for you.” Lex broke off chunks of bread and handed one to each of them. Morgan tore into hers with her teeth. Henrie pulled his in and tucked it against his chest. Lex held down a surge of frustration. “Eat!” she wanted to shout.

She had to clench her fists and wait for the tension to pass before she could reach out to stroke his hair. It was pale as wheat, like Jonas’s, so different from hers and Morgan’s. The fine bones of his skull jutted under translucent skin. Neither of them had known she was pregnant when Jonas left.

Lex stood and went into the washroom cubicle to empty the potty and wash her hands. The poop was tiny and hard enough to clink against the side of the toilet bowl. Morgan’s, probably. She doubted Henrie would have moved from the blankets while she was gone.

The cheese was stale, the lime under-ripe. Lex cut them on the bench of the flat’s tiny corner kitchenette. Her shoulder bumped on the shelf that held their small stack of plates and bowls. Morgan dutifully sucked on her quarter of lime, then screwed up her face and reached for the bowl of cheese.

The flat Lex had shared with Jonas had been just as poky and dark. It had been homely, though, its corners crammed with their possessions. Here, the only piece of furniture was the solitary, sagging armchair, typically draped with their meagre assortment of spare clothes. The rest of their belongings consisted of their blankets, the radio and a few bits for the kitchen. She had never gone back to the old flat, although it was only a couple of blocks away.

She pushed a cube of cheese into Henrie’s mouth. He chewed a couple of times then lay still, without swallowing. The urge to shove the food down his throat was almost overpowering. She kept it bottled up inside her, just.

“Please, just eat,” she whispered. “There’s little enough food as it is.”

Sucking on her own piece of lime, Lex put a briquette in the stove and lit it. Then she took the cheese away from Morgan, who was still shovelling it into her mouth.

“I’m hungry,” Morgan protested.

“You’ll make yourself sick,” Lex said. She wrapped the cheese in cloth and shut it and the leftover bread in the cool box.

Morgan was already burrowing back into the covers beside her brother. Lex joined them, wrapping her arms around both of them. Small fingers gripped her shirt, Morgan’s fiercely, Henrie’s only weakly. Their backbones and ribs were prominent under her hands.

Henrie nuzzled against her chest.

“I don’t think there’s anything there for you,” she said.

She rucked up her shirt, nonetheless. He found her nipple and began to suck.

#

The rap of knuckles on the door woke her. Lex stayed under the blankets, the children’s small, fever-hot bodies half on top of her. Whoever was outside knocked again. Morgan muttered in her sleep.

“Lex? Are you in?” Max’s voice.

She sat up with a start. Henrie gave a mewl of protest, the first sound he had made since she got home. Morgan tucked up her legs and pulled the blanket back over herself.

Lex stumbled to the door.

“There’s been a coup,” Max burst out, as soon as Lex opened it. “The soldiers we saw last night. They’ve executed the President and arrested most of the Government. There was an announcement on the radio. It’s General Begg.”

 The name meant nothing to Lex. She rubbed her face. “What will happen?”

Max’s eyes were wide. “We don’t know. All the announcement said was what they’ve done to the President and Government, and that the army is in control. Reno wants us at the shop tonight.”

Lex was shaking her head before Max finished speaking. They couldn’t print another edition of the paper already, surely? It seemed too dangerous to print the pamphlets without even that scant cover.

“Reno says it doesn’t matter about the newspaper,” Max said. “We’ll be celebrating.”

Lex couldn’t see how Reno’s optimism was warranted. But work meant money, meant food. They stood awkwardly for a few seconds, the threshold a barrier between them.

Behind her, Lex heard Henrie protest. Morgan had pulled the blankets off him.

“How are they?” Max asked, standing tiptoe to look past her.

“Alive,” Lex managed, unable to say more without it all gushing out in a torrent that would bring her to her knees.

Max’s empty jowls wobbled, her face going through a series of pained expressions, Max wishing she could do more to help. Lex shook her head again. She knew Max already gave her more than her share of the shop’s income, although Max would not admit it.

Lex dropped her gaze from Max’s face, unable to bear the sympathy she saw there.

“We’ll start at the usual time, Pall permitting,” Max said.

Lex nodded. “Thank you.”

Max stepped back as she started to close the door.

On the bed, Henrie lay uncovered, listless, where not so long ago he would have bitten and yelled and fought for his share of warmth. Lex pulled enough of the blankets off of Morgan to cover herself and him. She lay with him limp on her chest, staring at the cracks in the walls.

#

In the afternoon, Lex made gruel from the rice. She got a few sips of water into Henrie while it was cooking, but he refused to eat. The spoon went into his mouth without resistance, the gruel dribbling out again as soon as it was removed. Then he turned his head away.

Lex’s fear and frustration boiled over. She raised the spoon, as though to strike him, then flung it at the wall on the other side of the flat. The bowl followed, spraying gruel, and smashed, prompting a squeal from Morgan. Henrie didn’t react. Lex curled into a foetal crouch, squashing her clenched fists against her lap with her belly, afraid to touch him.

Morgan crawled across the floor, wiping up the spilled gruel with her fingers and sticking them in her mouth while her mother sobbed.

Lex shared out the rest of the gruel between herself and Morgan, and left Henrie unfed. She would have to try the hospital again. The futility of the thought almost brought her undone a second time. She had to hold onto the bench until the feeling passed.

Later, she tried the radio, but found only silence on every band. She sat on the kitchenette bench with Morgan on her lap, absorbing the sunshine for the brief minutes that it reached into the flat. The kettle was on the stove to boil for drinking water.

The Pall bells began to ring. Lex sent Morgan across the room to switch on the light while she pulled the blind down over the window and dumped the clothes from the armchair. Morgan came scurrying back and they sat together in the chair, listening to the quiet after the bells. The daylight around the edges of the blind faded to black.

All Lex could hear was her own breathing and Morgan’s. Henrie was silent in the bed. Then thump, from the other side of the wall. More heavy steps sounded on the boards. The whispering reached her ears, faintly, as the Unseen moved out onto the landing and down the stairs.

“Mummy.” Morgan pressed tighter against her.

“I know.” Lex stroked her back.

“Will they come?”

“No, sweetheart. The door’s locked and they don’t like the light.”

Morgan shifted to a more comfortable position on her lap. “Sometimes one does, when you’re not here.”

The breath vanished from Lex’s lungs. “What?”

“Sometimes when you’re out, and the Pall comes, one comes in.”

Lex caught her daughter’s shoulders and leaned her away so that she could look at Morgan’s face. “Into the flat? An Unseen?”

“Mm-hmm.” Morgan nodded. “With a black cloak over it.”

Lex stared at her hard, unable to tell if this was truth or a child’s fancy, a way for Morgan to express her fear of waiting out the Pall without her mother. “How does it get in?” she asked.

Morgan shrugged, one shouldered. “I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just here.”

Lex’s eyes roved the cracks in the walls. “But not every time?”

A shake of the head.

“And what does it do?”

“Just stands, mostly. There.” Morgan pointed to a spot near the bed. “Once it touched Henrie’s hair.”

“What did its hand look like?”

Another shrug. “It stayed inside the cloth. Sometimes it whispers.”

Lex didn’t know whether to be soothed or alarmed that her daughter’s account of the supposed visitation was so matter-of-fact. “And what does it say?”

“‘Hello.'”

Lex laughed in relief. A child’s fantasy after all. She hugged Morgan tight and kissed the top of her head. “Perhaps it’s friendly, then.”

Morgan smiled, and seemed satisfied with that.

After a while, they crept over to the bed and under the blankets with Henrie. Lex slept fitfully, with the light still on. A roar of engines broke the Pall’s usual smothering quiet, passing by the front of the building. Lex pictured armoured cars and trucks loaded with soldiers. She wondered why they were travelling under the Pall.

#

The Popular Front for the People’s Democratic Voice applauds the Army for consenting to take power on behalf of the People! This day will pass into history as the day our nation regained its Freedom! A corrupt oligarchy had come to rule in our country, in this city, hiding behind the name of Government. It based its power on fear, on exterminating everyone who held a different view from theirs or who objected to their corruption. We salute General Begg and the Army, the People’s Defenders! We call upon General Begg to consolidate the People’s victory by: one, lifting the state of martial law; two, releasing all political prisoners of the counterfeit Government and filling the empty cells with the members of the vile Secret Police; and three, reconvening the parliament and installing the Opposition as an interim government until free and fair elections can be held.

“The Popular Front offers a manifesto for the Army and the People to march side-by-side into the future…

#

There was a small park across the street from their tenement building, a little square of half-frozen mud and pale weeds that struggled up through the snow. A rusted playground stood ignored while the children built a snowman. Morgan was among them. Most of the rest belonged to the couple who ran the corner shop. They raced around, full of energy and endeavour, none of them caring that their snowman was more black than white, or that the wetness of the snow made him sag.

Lex sat on the playground’s surviving swing. Henrie was on her lap, bundled up inside the greatcoat with her. Broken chains that had supported a second swing hung neglected beside them. Henrie watched the other children play with dull disinterest, not lifting his head from Lex’s chest to follow their movements.

Would the Army really make peace with the Opposition? Reno certainly seemed to think so. It seemed too much to hope for.

Lex pulled Henrie tighter against her. He was so frail and limp that he seemed to crumple under her hand. She had to try.

She stood. “Morgan, I’m going to the hospital. Do you want to come or stay and play?”

Morgan didn’t look around from her game. “Play!”

“You go with your friends if you hear the Pall bells.”

She walked, Henrie a too-light bundle inside the front of her coat, her fingers interlocked beneath him. New snow gave the grey drifts in the shadows of the buildings a frosting of white. The drifts would darken again quickly, with the soot of factory coal furnaces and exhausts of diesel trucks.

The admissions waiting room was virtually empty. Just one old man tucked into a corner near the door, with a persistent cough like a death rattle, and a younger man, even more emaciated than Lex, asleep along a row of seats at the far end, a bloody towel wound around one arm.

Lex walked up to the counter. Her heart sank as she recognised the nurse on duty. He looked up at her approach and she saw his lips compress in irritation.

She forestalled him shaking his head. “I have money this time.”

The nurse’s eyebrows rose fractionally. Lex hefted Henrie inside her coat, freeing a hand to dig in her pocket. She dropped the notes onto the counter, everything she had held back, scraped together.

His mouth opened, as if to speak. Closed again. A muscle ticked under his eye. He laid a hand over the money. Lex drew breath sharply.

The nurse slid the schilling notes back towards her. “Keep it,” he said. “I could let you in, but the doctors wouldn’t see you.”

“My son is dying,” she said, not quite believing.

“I know.”

It was the note of pity in his voice that drove her away, made her turn and run with barely the presence of mind to take her pathetic little savings with her, stumbling out into the street, unable to see.

#

The grey snowman stood alone in the park, staring blindly with lopsided coal eyes, its arms of bent fence wire splayed wide, as though trying to steady itself as it melted.

Lex went to the corner shop to retrieve Morgan. The family’s mother reached out to stroke Henrie’s hair.

“How is he?”

Lex couldn’t answer. Couldn’t speak without saying that he wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t speak, would only move from the bed if she carried him. That the hospital wouldn’t take him and she didn’t know if she could keep him alive or bear the cost to her and Morgan while she tried. That she thought the dread of it might burst out of her all at once, and that she would shatter when it did.

Instead, she shook her head and fled, towing Morgan by the hand.

Morgan was still full of energy, chattering all the way up the stairs to their floor.

“Mummy, look!” she exclaimed.

An Unseen stood in the middle of the vacant flat. Lex staggered back against the landing rail, almost dropping Henrie. The Unseen was a hunched, misshapen lump under a shroud of dark cloth that draped the ground. Henrie squirmed. Lex held him tighter. Shapes moved under the Unseen’s shroud, rising, shifting, receding, as if several restless bodies were hidden inside.

A protrusion that might’ve been a hand extended towards them. The Unseen whispered, “Your son…

Pall bells pealed. With a yell of terror, Lex grabbed for Morgan. Henrie croaked, too weak to wail, getting squashed as Lex bent over to scoop up his sister.

Lex pounded down the stairs with both of them struggling in her arms, past startled neighbours hurrying the opposite way, home.

“But, Mummy,” Morgan cried, “you said it was friendly.”

Lex ignored her and bolted outside. An armoured car roared along the street. It would have skittled the three of them if Lex had been a step faster out the door. She skidded to a halt, heart hammering, the clanging of the bells scattering her thoughts.

Morgan squirmed, trying to get down. Lex held her tighter and took off, across the park and past the snowman, along another block at a staggering run.

She all but fell down the stairs of a basement pub and stood gasping in relief at the bottom. The Pall bells had fallen quiet. Morgan squirmed again and Lex let her down. More steps thudded on the stairs. A pair of middle-aged men excused themselves past her. Both of them hailed the barkeep by name, belonging to the crowd of regulars who sought comfort in numbers under the Pall, nursing their beers and playing cards and dice for the interminable hours until it passed once more. Henrie was still complaining intermittently. Several patrons looked up, frowning.

Morgan slipped her hand into Lex’s and led her over to a vacant booth. She watched her mother silently as Lex pulled up her shirt inside her coat and shoved her nipple into Henrie’s mouth. Lex winced as he latched on.

A barmaid arrived at the booth, looked them over without sympathy. “You can stay if you pay.” Lex ordered small beer for herself and lemonade for Morgan.

She looked down at Henrie, dozing with his eyes half lidded. She ran her fingertip along the jutting lines of his cheekbone and jaw. His eyes were sunken in their sockets, nothing left of the chubby, sturdy boy he’d promised to become.

The drinks arrived, both cloudy with sediment, home-brewed on the premises and as nutritious as most food they were likely to get. Lex scooped the few coppers change into her pocket and sipped her beer. It was bitter and gritty and even the tiny amount of alcohol in it brought instant heat to her face.

#

Guillam found her there, sitting half-unconscious with the dregs of her small beer in front of her and the children both asleep, their heads on her lap. The pub had largely emptied when the Pall lifted, but Lex had been too exhausted herself to rouse them.

Guillam’s lip curled with a smirk, condescending, seeing her jolt back to alertness. He placed a small glass of neat white spirit on the table and looked sideways at Lex.

“Your neighbours said you ran the wrong way when the bells started,” he said.

Lex didn’t respond, just watched him, trying not to let anything show on her face. She hadn’t realised Guillam knew where she lived. Max must have told him. Either that or Guillam had followed her from the shop. However he knew, that he did made her queasy.

Guillam took a thick roll of schilling notes from his pocket, more money than Lex had seen in a long time. He counted off a few and tossed them onto the table beside her glass. “Max says you’re having trouble feeding your brats.”

Lex stared at the money. Slowly, she pushed the notes back towards him.

Guillam snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself.” He looked at her directly for the first time. “Max told Reno your brats’ father is fighting with the Opposition. Now she thinks you’re some kind of Bride of Liberty.”

He looked away again, toying with his glass. “Reno will be a great figure in this country, one day,” he said. “She’s a visionary. But she doesn’t see the world the same as other people. She always sees the ideal.” His stare this time was intense. Whether he was trying to convince Lex of Reno’s qualities or that his sarcasm a moment before didn’t equate to a disloyalty, she couldn’t tell.

Guillam lifted his glass and knocked back the contents in one shot. His breath hissed between clenched teeth. “We have an interview, tonight, with General Begg. Reno, me and Max.”

Lex’s gut clenched. Fear sparked anger, enough for her to exclaim, “And you came to me?”

Morgan stirred but didn’t wake.

Would the secret police have followed Guillam? It seemed a given. Damn him! She had said to Max that they mustn’t do another print run straight away–

“Reno asked for an interview,” Guillam said softly.

Lex stared. After all their care and secrecy, Reno had gone and turned them in? Thrown them upon the mercy of the men who had just overthrown the civilian dictatorship and put themselves in its place?

Guillam’s lip curled again, but this time the sneer seemed false. “Reno says you’re to come, too. Be at the shop at the usual time.” He held up the money roll before putting it back in his pocket. “There’ll be more if you do.”

He stood and stalked towards the exit.

The notes he had tossed her remained on the table.

Enough to feed three, for a few days more – enough if all three would eat. More money if she went. Enough to get one into the hospital? Lex stroked Henrie’s hair over his round little skull.

Her hand shook as she reached out to scoop the notes up. The barkeep was watching her. She dropped a couple back on the table before pocketing the rest. The barkeep’s gaze slid away.

#

Max’s hands fidgeted ceaselessly in her lap, clasping and unclasping, adjusting her sleeves. On the wooden bench beside her, Guillam sat rigid, his eyes fixed on a spot somewhere above Lex’s head. Shadows danced around their faces, thrown by the battery-powered lantern bouncing on a hook at the back of the truck’s cab. The sunset was a ragged gash of deep red between the horizon and low clouds heavy with snow.

Lex sat jammed between Reno and the soldier on her other side. The soldier and his five comrades laughed and joked, sharing cigarettes, relaxed while their officer rode in the cab beside the driver. All of them were lean, but healthy and strong. Even rank-and-file soldiers ate well.

Reno slouched forward, smiling slightly, as outwardly at ease as the soldiers. Her hair fell forward, covering the top half of her face.

Lex wondered if these soldiers were escorts or captors. Would they be delivered to General Begg as promised? And what might happen if they were? She had left the children in the care of the family that ran the corner store, had left all of the money Guillam had given her for food. After her encounter with the Unseen, she wasn’t willing to leave them in the flat alone anymore. The money was far more than enough, if she returned that night as planned. If not didn’t bear thinking about.

Walking to the print shop, Lex had not been at all certain whether she really would go through with it. Almost, she had turned back. Fear of what might happen if she didn’t go had kept her walking. If she didn’t go, the secret police or the soldiers might come and take her anyway, and if they found her with the children…

But what would happen to them if she was taken but not them? She squashed the thought.

When she had arrived at the shop, she had asked Reno, “Why are you so certain they want peace with the Opposition?” – more words than she had ever said together in their company.

Reno had flicked back her fringe and regarded Lex serenely. “Why else have a coup? If the Army is in favour of martial law, or war with the democratic forces of the nation, then it is in their interests to hide behind the civilian government. Open military rule will only galvanise the Opposition.”

Floodlights bathed the plaza around the presidential palace in stark light. There were tanks parked outside the gates, squatting wide and ugly like gigantic toads. The gates themselves were gone, only twisted hinges remained bolted to the stone pillars on either side.

The truck jerked to a halt beneath the wide sweep of steps leading up to the palace’s main door. The officer jumped down from the cab and banged on the side of the tray, ordering them down with the same peremptory tone that he’d used to direct them aboard.

A spray of bullet holes pockmarked the wall inside the palace door. The young officer marched ahead of them through a maze of dimly lit corridors. Lex thought his back and shoulders were stiffened more by resentment of his task than military bearing. Doorways opened onto pokey offices, some ransacked and in darkness, some occupied by officers in uniform, others by civilians watched over by bored soldiers with guns.

They paused before an imposing pair of dark-panelled doors guarded by a quartet of soldiers with body armour and helmets. The officer opened the doors a crack and slipped inside. A moment later he was back, opening the doors wider and beckoning impatiently for them to enter.

They found themselves in a large room, appointed with leather couches and dark hardwood side furnishing. An enormous desk of the same timber dominated. Paintings in classical style lined the walls. The President’s office, Lex realised. Was this where they’d killed him? Or had they caught him in his bed, or fleeing through some service tunnel? No dignity offered by a bullet in the back.

A group of army officers stood by a bay window that opened onto a large, floodlit veranda. Most were older, moustached and with grey in their hair. The gold braiding on their epaulettes and shoulder tabs highlighted their seniority. All of them were well-fed, healthy, some even verging on portly.

The young officer halted them with a sharp gesture a few paces short of the generals.

Lex’s attention was caught by a sideboard, loaded with more food than she imagined all the residents of her tenement block would see in a week. And richer food, too – fresh fruits out of season, lobster, prawns and other seafood, all of which must have come across the border, breaking the sanctions that neighbouring countries had imposed. The heady fragrance of it all was almost overpowering. Lex had to swallow, her mouth suddenly full of saliva. Her stomach knotted painfully.

There were plates on the tables near the generals with food half-eaten, leftovers discarded. How many families could live off their garbage? Lex looked at her companions. Max, too, was staring at the food.

With the generals was a muscled giant in plain combat fatigues and military beret. Lex took him at first for a bodyguard, and scanned the others in the group, wondering which was General Begg, until she noticed that all the generals were looking to the giant.

Begg looked them over expressionlessly. His eyes lingered on Lex, travelling down and back, then looked over Reno the same way. Lex’s skin crawled when his gaze came back to her a second time. The other generals observed with open sneers.

Begg focused on Reno and smiled suddenly. “You are Reno?”

Reno inclined her neck. “I am. These are my colleagues…”

Begg waved the introductions aside. “I was going to have you killed, you know – all of you,” he said, conversationally, making Reno start in surprise. Max couldn’t contain a gasp.

“But I was curious,” Begg continued. He flashed another abrupt smile, on and off. “Curiosity has always been a failing of mine. Come, sit with me.”

Reno took a moment to react as Begg ushered her over to a pair of nearby armchairs. Guillam started to follow, taking a pace before the young officer stayed him with a look.

General Begg and Reno settled opposite each other, Reno perching, Begg leaning back and stretching out his long legs. Their postures, the one compact, the other sprawling, emphasised their difference in stature. Reno looked very small and frail.

“So,” said General Begg. “Your group is pleased to see the Government overthrown.”

“The Popular Front for the People’s Democratic Voice is excited by the opportunity…” Reno began.

Again, Begg waved her into silence. “What is it you think you can offer me?” The general’s tone was now brisk, businesslike. It made the hairs stand up on Lex’s scalp.

Reno wet her lips. She swept back her hair, stalling, Lex thought, while she gathered her thoughts. “The Opposition is winning the civil war,” Reno said. “Every week brings the front line closer to the city.”

A dangerous quiet followed. Begg went perfectly still.

Reno continued, her expression serene again, believing, Lex was sure, that she had regained control of the situation. “The Opposition are armed and supplied by our nation’s neighbours. If they take the city by force of arms, then their backers will decide the shape of the new government they install.”

Begg scratched his jaw, throwing a glance over at his fellow generals. His eyes swept across Lex and paused, once again, to look her over. She wanted to shrink away, forced herself to remain still. Begg returned his attention to Reno.

“Go on,” he said.

Reno lifted her chin and drew herself up straighter in her seat. “It is not in the interests of the Opposition, the Army or the people for the Opposition to win this contest by force. If they do, our country will become a puppet, dictated to by others.”

Begg said, “And what is your place in this?”

“We can broker a peace,” said Reno. “We can advocate for you. When you release the prisoners of conscience from the city’s gaols, we will bring them…”

“I have no interest in granting amnesty to criminals,” Begg said. “And now that we are not hamstrung by civilian interference, the army will inevitably win the war. These are trivialities.”

Reno stared at him.

“Trivial…!” Guillam began to exclaim. A sideways glance from Begg silenced him.

“It is,” Reno stammered, “it is the great crisis of our nation.”

Begg surged forward in his seat, elbows on knees, large fists clenched, his expression abruptly intense. Reno flinched back from his sudden proximity.

“You are mistaken, my young friend. It is all a distraction.” Begg wagged a finger at her. “These monsters that afflict us in the blackness of the Pall, these monsters of the dark are the ultimate threat to our nation. They must be rooted out, dug from their holes, harried through the dark, until they are destroyed.

“That,” he said, “that is what you can offer me. The people must be made to understand, when we raze their homes, when tanks hunt in the streets, that we do it for their salvation. They must understand that their hardship is for a cause, and support the Army in this great crusade.”

Begg leaned back. “That is what your pamphlets will say tomorrow. You may go.”

Lex saw his gaze flicker back towards her. She all but ran from the room with the others before he could call her back.

#

There was no ride back to the print shop. They found themselves ejected from the palace grounds through a side gate, and had to walk through unlit streets and a heavy fall of snow, several blocks over from the route they had been driven along from the print shop. Tank tracks cut the drifts of grey slush. The bitumen below was cracked and dented from the weight of the tanks’ passage.

“He’s mad,” muttered Guillam, shakily lighting a cigarette. “Completely, raving mad. What the hell do we do now?” He raised his voice, “Reno, what the hell do we do now?”

Reno walked unsteadily ahead of them, like a woman concussed.

Lex realised they were going to pass through the city’s central market, a crowded hurly-burly place before the Pall. Near lifeless, now, with the produce trucks from the provinces that were its lifeblood more and more rare.

There was activity there, tonight, but not the buying and selling of goods. The trucks parked on the cracked bitumen apron weren’t great dusty haulers, but open-backed army vehicles guarded by soldiers. Banks of floodlights were blinding bright after the dark streets.

More soldiers loitered about, guns dangling loosely from their shoulder straps, watching olive-painted bulldozers demolishing rows of empty market stalls. Still more soldiers herded market folk – vendors and squatters – from the stalls nearest the parking lot, their wares and belongings hastily loaded onto barrows and backs. Clearly the demolition would not be confined to the vacant parts of the market.

“Oh, no,” Max breathed. “What are they doing?”

Lex saw with horrible clarity. “They’re hunting Unseen.”

“What?”

“The Unseen hide in empty places to wait for the Pall,” Lex said, her throat tight. “So they’re knocking down empty places.”

Guillam flicked his cigarette into the rubble. “And knocking down places that aren’t empty,” he said, gesturing at the evicted market folk, “so the Unseen can’t sneak over and hide there instead.” Lex was startled to see that he was almost in tears. “Unseen hide in cracks and shadows. Can’t get rid of those by knocking a place down.”

There was a resounding crash. The bulldozers weren’t stopping at the edge of the market. One had ploughed into the side of a warehouse on the far side.

Soldiers were coming their way, moving the crowd on, no lingering allowed to witness the destruction of their homes.

“Madness,” said Guillam.

Reno hadn’t stopped at the market, had stumbled on, apparently unseeing.

Reno!” Guillam bellowed after her. “What the hell do we do now?”

“Enough!” snapped Max. “Pull yourself together.” She raised her voice, picking up her pace at the same time, “Reno!”

“Bah.” Guillam waved her on her away.

“Guillam,” said Lex. “You said there would be more money.”

He rounded on her and for an instant Lex thought he might actually strike her. Then his chin trembled. Guillam dug roughly in his pocket. He caught Lex’s wrist and slapped something into her palm. “Here, take it, if that’s all that matters to you.”

Shaking his head, he strode off after Max and Reno.

Lex slowed, staring down at her hand. Guillam had given her his whole money roll. Enough, she thought. Her heart leapt. More than enough. She put the bundled notes in her pocket, clutched it through the worn fabric. She started to hurry, still following the others for now because the print shop was on the way home.

The turn for the shop came up soon.

Guillam paused at the corner, stopped still. Lex held the money roll tighter, thinking perhaps he had realised what he had done, was going to take the money back. She started across to the other side of the street.

There was a shout. “You there! Stay where you are!”

Guillam ducked back, pressed himself against the building. His eyes were wide. He waved Lex away urgently. “Go! The bastard changed his mind!”

She stared at him. He bared his teeth. “They haven’t seen you. Don’t go home. We all know where you live.”

Lex was shaking her head before he finished. “My children…”

Go!” He stepped away from the building, raising his hands.

Lex fled.

She didn’t look back when there came another sharp command. A gunshot cracked and Guillam cried out. Lex changed direction sharply, sprinting for a side alley. She saw Guillam crumple, clutching at his leg. The young officer who had taken them to Begg stood over him with pistol in hand. A soldier dropped to one knee, a rifle raised to his shoulder and aimed at Lex.

The bullet chipped the wall behind her head before she heard the crack of the shot.

She hurtled down the alley, stumbling through trash, heedless and barely slowing in her terror. She burst from the other end and dashed diagonally across and into another alley. A stitch pinched beneath her ribs. She clutched her side and kept going.

A jeep roared past the end of the alley. Lex skidded, trying to stop. Her feet went out from under her and she landed painfully on hip and elbow. Whimpering, she pushed herself back to her feet and ran down the street in the opposite direction to the jeep.

A soldier shouted. She heard the squeal of the jeep’s brakes and dove towards a cross street, sprinting as hard as she could, coat flapping, arms flailing. Her heart thumped painfully, her lungs burned. The Pall was rolling in, ahead. Only then did she realise the bells were ringing. She had to get home.

Her hamstring cramped. With a cry of dismay, Lex tried to keep running, could manage only a crippled skip-hop. She ducked into another alley mouth, pressed herself into an alcoved fire escape, tried to control her breathing as her head spun and blood pounded in her ears.

Booted feet thudded on the pavement. The daylight dimmed rapidly. The bells went silent. She heard soldiers’ voices, close at hand, calling for lights. Lex peered out from her hiding place as the black leading edge of the Pall passed overhead. Then the dark was absolute.

She held her breath. Soldiers called out to each other impatiently. Lex clamped her jaw as the feather-light touch of the Pall crawled over her skin. It threaded itself through her hair, insinuated itself inside her clothes.

An engine rumbled, approaching. Floodlights bathed the street. Crazed shadows danced across the alley wall.

An Unseen stood directly in front of her.

It was all she could do to stifle a scream. Shapes crawled underneath the black shroud. Its voice rasped inhumanly, “Come with me if you wish to see your children.”

She stared at it stupidly. The soldiers were right outside the alley mouth.

Close your eyes,” the Unseen said.

She did so, squeezing  her lids tight.

Something gripped her hand. She flinched. It coiled around her fingers, muscular and tentacular. Its texture was like the dry bark of a tree.

She felt a moment of nausea. The world seemed to tilt under her, compressed, stretched… And she was somewhere different. Indoors, suddenly. She could feel it in the texture of the air. The soldiers and their vehicles were gone or, rather, she was gone from them.

The tentacle released its hold.

You can open your eyes.”

Lex wondered if she really had, staring into absolute black, until there was a click and suddenly she was blinded by the light of a bare electric bulb.

She was in her own flat. The piled blankets she shared with her children lay against the wall in front of her. Morgan sat with her knees pulled up to her chin, her brother lying beside her, his face to the wall. It took Lex a moment to recall that she hadn’t left them here.

“Mummy!”

She lurched over to them and fell to her knees. Morgan flung her arms around Lex’s neck and held tight. Lex pressed her lips against her daughter’s hair. She held onto Morgan with one arm and placed her other palm on Henrie’s chest. His breathing was shallow and rapid, his heartbeat a weak flutter, erratic. His eyes were not quite closed, a sliver of white showing between the lids.

Your son is dying.”

Grief filled her throat like a plug. She snarled. “No,” she said. “No! Not now.”

It will not be long.”

Tears came, then. She wiped them away angrily, turned to face it. “Then do something.”

 “He has chosen.”

  “I have not,” Lex spat back.

The Unseen was inscrutable, mysterious shapes moving slowly under its shroud. Its presence seemed to warp the room, making it strange and unfamiliar.

 “I have watched you.”

 “Will you help my son?”

The shroud shuddered, a sudden shift within. “I have watched you,” it said again. “Because you were here.

“Mummy, it’s friendly,” Morgan whispered. “It brought you back.”

Lex asked, “Why did you help me?”

The Unseen regarded her, somehow, from within the secret folds of its shroud.

Pity,” it said. “Curiosity.” A pause, then, “Some among my people despise yours, and shun them when they find them. Some have a more… aggressive stance. Some of us have been merely curious.

Have been. “The soldiers are hunting your kind,” Lex said.

Yes,” the Unseen agreed.

 “What will you do?”

It is not for our sake that we shroud ourselves,” it said, its voice soft.

Lex felt a thrill of fear. People did disappear, under the Pall. She turned back to Henrie, stroked his chest. He felt as fragile as paper under her hand. “Please help him, just enough for me to get him to hospital.”

The Unseen shuffled over to the bed. A limb extended , a tentacle or an arm. Lex drew back her hand as the shroud passed over Henrie. The Unseen began to murmur, a sibilant hum, rising and falling.

“Is it saving Henrie, Mummy?” Morgan asked.

Lex’s pulse fluttered. “Yes, sweetheart.”

“I told you it’s friendly.”

The Unseen withdrew.

Morgan reached to put her hand on her brother’s bare leg. Lex stroked his hair. They sat quietly, Morgan on Lex’s lap, both of them touching Henrie.

The Unseen said, “Your pursuers have been intercepted. It begins.”

Henrie’s breathing had deepened. His eyes were fully closed now. Lex shifted her hand back to his chest. His heartbeat was stronger. She shifted Morgan off her lap, climbed over Henrie to lie behind him, pulled Morgan down with them.

#

Grey light filtered around the edges of the window blind. The Unseen was gone.

Lex grabbed at Henrie. He frowned in his sleep, pushed her hand away. Morgan was already awake and alert, staring at Lex with huge eyes.

Lex stood, lifting Henrie with her. His weight was no different, still too light, birdlike. Her left side was numb, her foot like a lump of rubber on the end of her leg. She tottered to the door and out. Morgan followed, slipped her hand into Lex’s.

The vacant flat next door was empty. Leaning against the bannister, Lex clumped unsteadily down the stairs. Sensation began to return to her left foot, stinging with pins and needles. Henrie mumbled a sleepy complaint.

A jeep was crashed into the building opposite. There were no soldiers in sight, ash piled on its seats and blown across the slush beside it.

Other people were out, walking slowly, or just standing. Only civilians, no soldiers.

An army truck stood at the corner of the next block. A curling updraft lifted swirls of ash from its benches.

They passed another jeep, two more trucks, one crashed into the back of the other, empty of all but ash. A tank was parked across an intersection, inert.

There were piles of ash at the corner near the print shop, but no sign of Guillam.

Inside the shop, Max and Reno both lay face-down, shot in the head. Lex held Morgan’s face against her side and went back outside.

A gust of wind made her cough. She turned her face away. There was ash everywhere, enough to turn the grey snow black.

#

She slapped the roll of schilling notes down on the counter.

The nurse looked at it for a long moment. He wet his lips then, slowly, reached out with both hands to peel a few notes off the outside. He pushed the rest back towards Lex.

“Keep that,” he said. “You’ll need it for the doctor.”

#

The Opposition arrived a few days later. Lex and Morgan sat out on the hospital’s front steps, two in a silent crowd, to watch the convoy of tanks and trucks and armoured cars rumble past, all flying bright yellow democracy banners.

The generals on the front line had surrendered, after they had been unable to contact their superiors, and came to the city to discover for themselves what had happened.

Emotions battled on the faces of the Opposition soldiers as their vehicles rolled past – apprehension, confusion, sullen resentment. Lex could see them wondering, why was no one cheering? Weren’t these people – the people they had fought for – pleased to be liberated?

She looked for Jonas among the weathered, bearded faces. He had been clean-shaven and pale when he’d gone. She wondered if she would even recognise him.

#

He found her the next afternoon, in the small park beside the hospital. Henrie was off the drip for now, Lex had taken advantage of him sleeping to give Morgan some time outdoors. They had eaten cured sausages and oranges and hard rice cakes, that the liberators were handing out on the street corners.

There was no playground at the park, but Morgan occupied herself climbing the skeletal black-barked trees while Lex sat on a bench. There were buds on some of the branches. It had been days now, since the Pall last returned. The city seemed to hold its breath, waiting to see if it had really gone for good, as Lex did, daring to hope that the doctors would continue treating Henrie until he was well.

“Lex?”

She looked up at a tanned, blond-bearded fighter, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. It took a couple of seconds for her to recognise, beneath that unfamiliar surface, the father of her children.

She was so surprised she could barely react. “Jonas.”

“Lex.” He dropped to his knees in front of her, words tumbling out. “I went to the old place. I knew you wouldn’t be there, but I didn’t know where else, I thought I wouldn’t find you, and then I tried at the hospital, just in case, I don’t know why.” His smiled broadened until it seemed his face could barely contain it. She felt an unbearable vertigo as he flung his arms around her and crushed her against him.

“You’re so thin.”

Morgan ran over and climbed onto the bench beside Lex, tucking herself against her mother’s side and looked up at Jonas with wide, suspicious eyes.

“This can’t be Morgan,” he exclaimed. “Is it little Moggie?  I’m Daddy.” Jonas was smiling and crying at the same time. “I’m Daddy.”

Lex reached out, abruptly, and put her fingertips over his lips. “Jonas.” She laughed, just a breath, then put her hand flat on the side of his face. “Jonas, we have a son.”

And, as she said it, her fear was gone. She was going to walk back into the hospital with Jonas – this new Jonas, with his combat fatigues and his gun, a soldier of the city’s new masters – and the doctors would know that they were treating the son of one of the Liberators.

She laughed again, fully this time, at his stupid expression. She twined her fingers through his.

“I called him Henrie. Come and meet him.”

~END~

 

Author’s Note: This story owes a debt of inspiration to the novella “The Gray Snowman” by Ch’oi Yun, an account of underground political activisim in South Korea under the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee. The grey snowman is included here in homage.

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