Corruption, the first book in my dark fantasy series “The Corruption Cycle,” is finally getting some reviews. This latest one from Dab of Darkness is my favorite one yet. Dab reviewed Lurk, too. There’s also a fun interview after the review in which I get to talk about bed bugs, Gene Wolfe, and other random stuff. One minor quibble: his name is Rat Keeper, not Rat Catcher 😅
I visited Auschwitz today
Under a coal sky
I visited Auschwitz today
Under a coal sky
I lived in Krakow for two years
Before getting up the nerve.
The concrete rooms
Stank of evil
In defiance of time.
Each barbed wire fence
A shadow of our worst selves.
Nationalism and racism
Are powerful drugs,
Changing our compasses.
But I saw no well-intentioned roads there,
Only sorrow and a multitude of names.
I wondered what it felt like
Being forced to march
Towards a wall
Or into a concrete room.
But what I should fear instead,
Is not that I will be marched somewhere,
But that someday,
I could be the one
Forcing others to march.
They met in the Market Square, in the Old Town of Krakow, where day hides itself with the shadows of brick buildings weeping their plaster shells and night falls to the gentle elegy of laughing girls and the opening of doors, always smelling like coal and never sleeping. She was Polish, he American. They made love the same night after a sarcastically offered rose and a challenge as to who could drink the most vodka without stumbling over the word Przebrzezin, all part of carefully-designed routine he’d practiced hundreds of times before.
Now they sat at a small table in the window of a café on a cobbled street corner, him looking like a different man, she the same. Her name was Agnes. His was Paul, but his friends called him Hollywood.
“How have you been?”
“Good. I’ve missed you.”
She swirled her wine and looked around the café. “I remember what you asked me here. Our first date. You asked if I was a beer girl or a wine girl.”
“I’m glad you said wine girl.”
“So, Paul. Hollywood.”
“So, Agnes. Little Bird. What have you been up to since the last time we talked?”
“This could take a while.”
“I’ve got time.”
“Nothing much. I don’t know. I’ve been resting.”
“I need my beauty sleep.”
He chuckled. “You do. Ag, can I just get this out of the way? I’m sorry. Okay? I was bad to you.”
“I know. Because we weren’t just hooking up. I cared about you.”
“I know you did, Ag. I was young and stupid.”
“You were thirty-four. Don’t treat me like some country idiot. It’s your state of mind. You haven’t changed.”
“Okay, fine. Probably not. Am I getting put on timeout?”
“Ugh. You are very rude.”
“You used to say I was charming.”
“Maybe I did. And what?”
“Maybe. Remember what else you said? You said…”
“Maybe is deep and wide. I’m so happy you remember,” she finished, feigning a smile. “Do you remember why?”
“Yes. Because the words for maybe and ocean in Polish are homonyms.”
She smirked. “I knew you did not have memory problems. You lied to me.”
“Hey, I wasn’t lying. My memory’s shit. That idiom just happened to stick. I’ve missed you, Ag.”
“Did you think of me when you were sleeping with other girls?”
Agnes made a face. She hadn’t lost any of what attracted to him to her in the first place, the tangles in her autumn-colored hair, the lioness intent of her eyes, or the curl of her words through her cello-like accent.
“You don’t look older,” Paul said.
“You do. But you’re still handsome.”
“Maybe. At least better than most American guys.”
“You’re the expert.”
He winked and raised his beer.
“Is it getting harder?” Agnes said.
“Is what getting harder?”
“Picking up girls, now that you’re old.”
It was his turn to smirk. “No.”
“Maybe a little bit. But my age is counter-balanced by the fact that my skills have improved. Still, too much of this,” he tapped his glass. The beer was a bright amber color, the same shade of the wintering leaves falling in their soft, scattered mountains outside. He took her hand. “Not enough of this.”
“I think you’re right. You should drink less. You look fat.”
He grinned. “I probably put on a few pounds. Sorry. Kilograms.”
“But your character has improved.”
“I’m not just bantering. I mean it.”
“We don’t say bantering.”
“Serious. You were more insecure when I knew you. You seem sadder now. But you know who you are.”
“You’re the one who told me you loved me in the first two weeks.”
“I know you did, Ag.”
She was silent for a minute, swirling her wine, tugging at the corners of her hair. “There’s so much I wish I had said before. Words that I can’t say now.”
“I’m sorry.” He paused to take another swig. Her wine remained untouched. After he swallowed, he said, “Were you afraid?”
“No. It was too fast.”
“That makes me feel a little better.”
“I was worried that you suffered. I lost a lot of sleep over it.”
“It didn’t hurt my body. But it was very cold. And it hurt my head. I was thinking about you.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Not as sorry as I am. But not for myself. For you. I prayed for you.”
“No. I won’t. Why else are we here?”
“You’re not even angry at him? The driver?”
“I was, at first. But not anymore. Are you?
“You have no idea how many times I’ve thought about killing that guy.”
“Holding onto anger cannot make you a better person.”
Paul shook his head. Defensiveness seeped into his voice. He almost pointed a finger at her, but stopped himself, thinking it would make him look crazy to the other guests in the café. Some were already looking at him funny.
“You’re one to talk. You know what you signed up for,” he said in a hushed voice.
“No. But you did.”
“You resent me that much?”
“No. I don’t resent anyone or anything, because I can’t. And that is not your fault. But you promised me something, Paul. Hollywood.”
He looked her in the eyes, those dream-puncturing eyes he had thought about every night since she was gone that he didn’t spend drunk, fewer and fewer as the days crept on.
“I could never forget you, Ag.”
“But you tried.”
“It didn’t work.
“You didn’t even weep for me.”
His voice creaked. “You know I never felt that kind of pain before, or since. There’s a hole in my life. I had to find out on the news, because none of your friends would tell me. I fell into that hole. Did the only thing I knew how. I picked up girls. But it didn’t work. They couldn’t fill the place that you left.”
She gave him a teasingly arrogant smile. “Because I’m the prettiest.”
“Not just the prettiest. The sweetest. The most thoughtful. You were wife material. I tried not to hurt the others, the way I hurt you. Even tried to be good to some. Even let one call me her boyfriend. But they weren’t you.”
“Like I said before, your character is improving, from awful to bad.” She grinned a little and swirled her wine.
Paul forced a laugh. Then it faded. “Were there other men? After me?”
“A guy I met at the square. The night we broke up.”
“That was fast.”
Agnes folded her hands over his. “What can you change? Even God does not change the past. You can only change what you do.”
He nodded. She had said that once before, but he hadn’t heard her then.
She went on. “When I was a little girl, my village was very poor, because of the communism. We did not have many toys. So, we often played with kites, which we made ourselves. And when you crossed strings with another kite, you would help the other person so you could both keep flying. We never stole the other person’s kite, and just ran off, because that would hurt both parties. You understand what I’m saying?”
Kite lines and narrow crooked streets bleeding lamplight from their old stones. Atoms in gaseous states colliding without rhyme or reason. Agnes and him. Agnes and the tram. He understood.
“Maybe you did feel pain,” Agnes said. “Maybe you cried. But not when it mattered.”
“When would it have mattered?”
She stared at him, her unblinking eyes boring into his body, but he couldn’t meet them. “When they buried me.”
Agnes was hit by a tram while crossing the street. She was on the way to work, a new job she was interviewing for the day before Paul told her it wasn’t going to work. When he said it, Paul was already sexually involved with three other girls.
The animated GIF of her being struck, falling under the tram car and dying went viral on the Internet. Her picture was played on the Polish news. One of Agnes’s friends, who knew what Paul was, emailed the GIF to him out of spite. The knives he felt. The emptiness. That terrible, numbing void.
She reached across the table and took his hand. “Paul. We do not change anymore after we die. Who we are when we die is who we are forever. I loved you with my whole heart when I died. So I will love you with my whole heart forever. I’m here because I want you to be happy again. But I can’t make you.”
He fought the urge to cry. “I haven’t felt a single moment of happiness since you died. Not with those other girls. It became an addiction. It didn’t make me feel better. I only felt emptier without it. Sleeping around was the only thing I could do to take my mind off of you. And even then, it was only for… seconds.”
She smiled, pursed the bell of her lips, and said, “Because I’m unforgettable.”
“Oh, come on,” Paul said.
“I have one last question. Then I need to get going. Have you been with any girls during this visit to Krakow?”
Paul took her hands, kissed them, and said, “Would you believe me if I told you no?”
Agnes stood. “Goodbye, Paul. Hollywood.”
“Goodbye, Little Bird.”
When she was gone, and the long silence billowed around him, the waiter approached and asked timidly, “Another beer for you?”
Paul shook his head. “I’m good, thanks. I guess my friend isn’t coming. Can I just have the bill?”
“Sorry to hear that, sir. Will you be paying by cash or card?”
He paid and left, following the well-remembered spider-web of streets to the edge of the Old Town, where he climbed a hill. The grass was full of mud and it clung to his fine leather shoes. A freezing wind descended. The headstones with their unpronounceable names watched like the ghosts of the unforgotten dead, silent in their judgment. Red and gold leaves flew past him, clinging together and falling where they intersected.
He found her name carved on a tiny granite block in an unseen corner of the cemetery, where he knelt and let his knees sink deep into the grass. When his fingers opened, they let slip a rose, not given to a girl, but to a grave.
(First published in Sirens Call, October 2015)
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