After her third shower, Lora decided it was time to give up. There was no ridicule in defeat, this was something her father had impressed upon Lora many times when she was growing up. Even now, when she rarely visited and thought about him only when she looked in a mirror, she could still hear the man’s advice, coming to her from across a beneficial distance. It was nice, in a way, and disappointing in others. That she had reached 27 with no more important man in her life than the one she’d been given at birth. No ridicule in failure, her old man said as she stepped out of the shower, winced at the feel of her flesh on the tiles, and realised that the smell of dead things was still on her skin.
It wasn’t quite as bad as abattoir work, but only by a few degrees. Like a child still trying to believe in God, Lora was thankful every day for small things. For instance, today, the morning her cat had run away and was almost certainly dead (this being a neighbourhood that seemed populated almost entirely by dog lovers), there was the small good thing of her brother’s arrival. He’d needed a place to crash yet again, and so would be around her house all day. Lora knew that Cloud, the cat, would be much more likely to come back to an open door and her brother than to wait around in the rain for Lora’s return. Loyalty was not one of Cloud’s traits. Another small thing was that in the place that she worked, the carcasses she chopped up into finer and finer pieces were already dead. They’d passed the final (and most important) stage of their existence, and now were just waiting to be eaten. She was almost glad to see them in this part of purgatory. It was bad to see them in the wild (or as wild as they got). She knew from watching nature shows that she still had a soft spot for most animals that weren’t dogs, and so she wouldn’t be able to farm them. Nor would she have been able to kill them, even though most of that was done by machines these days. Reports from her fellow workers suggested that the bellowing sometimes as they died could be heard from miles, piercing right into your dreams.
Ever since she’d arrived, Lora had been stuck living in poorly-lit suburbs. Inevitably it would be dark when she walked home. It was dark too in the mornings when she left, but that wasn’t quite as demoralising. For all she knew the world stayed dark the whole time she was working. She took her breaks in the food court, so she wouldn’t know any different. Some days it struck her as strange that the meat she sold at the shop was basically the same as the meat she went out to buy for lunch. She didn’t envy those selling cooked meat though. It was likely they went home with the same kind of smell, they had their three showers too. Except they would have that feeling of singed flesh. Sunburn of the soul. On the day her cat ran away, Lora was sitting in the food court trying to eat her lukewarm meat when a stranger came up to her table. Thinking it was just because all the other seats were taken, Lora shuffled her tray aside, but the old lady leaned over and said:
‘So what’s your name then?’
‘Lora, why?’ she said, before wishing she was a better liar.
‘I mean your Christian name,’ the stranger said. Lora took a few seconds to try and decide if the lady was dangerous. It certainly wasn’t unusual to get crazy people wandering through from time to time, although management tried to keep them out.
‘Lorazepam,’ she said finally, hoping that would be enough to make the lady leave her alone. ‘Isn’t that funny?’ the stranger said. ‘I’m Rozerem, but of course my friends call me Roze. Pronounced like the wine.’
Lora shrugged. ‘Okay.’
‘Isn’t that fascinating?’
Lora looked around. The shopping centre was the .5th circle of hell. The place for people who forgot to take their dogs for a walk or lied to their partners about how much, exactly, they loved them. The seats in the food court were just that little bit too hard, and the tables were clean enough to look at, but if you touched them, the whole thing left just a little bit of residue on your fingers. Invisible, but uncomfortable nonetheless. Like the conversation Lora was being subjected to. ‘Names say a lot about a person,’ Roze continued. ‘Think about it.’
‘They sure do.’ Lora was trying to be polite, but she didn’t see where this was going. Partly as a distraction, partly because she was hungry, Lora took a bite of her lunch.
‘Urgh, how can you eat that stuff?’ the stranger asked, reeling back as if Lora was chewing her own family member. ‘Don’t you know that we were like that once?’
‘Sorry? You mean, long ago, evolution and suchlike?’ She was curious, but a little uncomfortable. Her lunch was starting to get cold.
‘We’re just like them,’ the stranger pointed to the meat. ‘We’re just as trapped. Have you ever tried to get out of here?’
‘Sure,’ Lora said, ‘at around five pm every afternoon.’
‘Ahh yes, but you came back didn’t you? It’s hardly escape if you come back. Yes, they got you,’ the stranger walked away and Lora was only too glad to let her. ‘They got you real good…’
As she walked back to work, Lora tried to find something to be thankful for, some good to have come from the lunchtime exchange. There’s no point looking down on people you’re better than, her father said in her head. But Lora hadn’t been looking down on the stranger, just a little disquieted.
‘You off break?’ Desyrel, her boss, asked as the door dividing the customers from the back of the store swung shut behind her.
‘Yeah,’ she said, thinking about what she’d heard at lunch. You’re just as trapped. That didn’t seem anything to be thankful for. ‘Actually, hang on,’ she got her phone out and texted her brother to see if Cloud had come home yet. ‘Yep thanks,’ she tucked her phone into her apron and went out to face the customers. There weren’t many. It was a Monday, so besides those who had run out of meat over the weekend, the rest were in the shopping centre for other reasons.
‘Got any calf?’ an old customer called up to her. Lora had almost missed her, as it seemed to her that the elderly shrunk with age. They never lost their fire though, and almost exclusively seemed to buy calf cuts or fingers. Lora didn’t really care for fingers, which were a hassle to prepare and never seemed to have enough meat on them. She supposed old people had all sorts of recipes to make it go further though.
‘Sure do,’ Lora said, pointing to the calf cut which was just to her right. She wondered why such customers also never seemed to read. She supposed that bluntly asking saved them time. They didn’t have much left.
‘Okay, can you give it a poke for me? Last time I bought half a thigh from you choppies it was hard as a rock.’
Lora did as she was told, dutifully poking the meat. It was slightly spongy and the impression from her finger stayed for a few seconds after she pulled away. She looked at the customer. As much as she was used to weird requests, her boss also liked it when they bought something.
‘Okay, just a half-kilo then. And try not to give me too much sinew this time!’
Lora shook her head a little and concentrated on picking a few of the less sinewy calf cuts into a plastic bag. In a past life she’d surely been a vegetarian. The game-y smell washed over her, as familiar as her father’s breath.
‘I’m off,’ Lora called to her boss. ‘Finally,’ she added under her breath.
‘One sec,’ Desyrel called out. Lora threw her blood-stained apron into the communal bucket where it would be washed even more vigorously than herself.
‘What?’ She stuck her head round the door to the back office.
‘Just wondered if you could take the shift from Zale on the weekend?’
Lora didn’t need an extra shift, and more to the point, she’d been planning on spending her weekend putting up missing posters if Cloud hadn’t come home. She checked her phone, but there was no word from her brother.
‘So?’ Desyrel was waiting.
‘Ah I can’t. Tell Zale I’m sorry, but I’ve got plans.’ It wasn’t quite a lie, but she still felt bad, which meant it probably counted as one. Her boss seemed to know.
‘Having “plans” isn’t really the best way of getting promoted.’
‘I know,’ Lora said, hating that she was still the youngest in the shop.
‘Well,’ Desyrel said. ‘What kind of devil would I be if I got in your way? Just give me a call if your availability changes.’
‘Will do.’ Lora felt relieved.
‘You’re a good worker,’ her boss said, slowly packing up his own desk. ‘But the road to hell is paved with good workers.’
It didn’t sound like something her father would say, so Lora ignored it and left before Desyrel tried to offer her a lift home.
Lora liked the walk home, even if it was in the dark. She made a point of always looking up at the roof to see if any light had cracked through, but it rarely did. It was much better to walk than be stuck in the stagnant, meat-smelling air of Desyrel’s car. Despite buying a “new car smell” air freshener every second week or so, the car made Lora feel like they were removalists, but for corpses rather than furniture. As she was nearing her street, she saw Normison coming back from the shops. He lived a few houses away and the two of them got along well. Norm was wearing a black leather jacket and white leather shoes that had both laces undone in a way that managed to look stylish rather than forgetful. Lora liked how the clock of his face was perpetually stopped at five o’clock shadow. He shook her hand in greeting, Lora felt her palm retain the imprint of the clasping fingers for just a moment longer.
‘Your brother doing okay? I noticed he’s finally arrived…’
From anyone else, this would have been a too-intimate question, but even though her neighbour was much older than her, Norm always spoke in a quiet and respectful voice.
‘He’s fine,’ Lora said, ‘I guess ’cause he’s new it’s taking him a while to get used to everything.’
‘Ah I remember when I first arrived,’ Norm said, which was a joke, but it took Lora a while to get it. No one remembered how they arrived. The best they could do is remember the means. And those were so thoroughly entrenched as to become a new name. ‘He’s just lucky to have an older sibling here before him. I hope he behaves himself, but I don’t mind if he doesn’t, I need a white jacket to match these shoes.’ Norm was a real joker.
‘I guess,’ Lora said. There was a pause, and she realised it was her turn to drive the conversation. ‘I saw a strange woman at work today,’ she told Norm. In any other town he would have been some kind of worker of mild bureaucracy, likely a postman. Though there was no need for a postman here of course. Even if there were so many who would want to get in touch with those back home.
‘How?’ he asked, ‘strange how?’ he added: ‘is this the thing to do with the ribs again?’
Lora smiled and shook her head, the reference meant nothing to her
‘But hey, speaking of, you work at one of the butchers, correct?’
‘Well I was just thinking, the other day we were eating dinner-’
But Lora felt her phone start to vibrate in her pocket. She fished it out.
‘Hey look, it’s Diaze, sorry, I’m sure he just wants to know how to light the stove or –’
‘No no, it’s fine, you get it.’ Behind him was his loved one, following him home. Of course he was staring straight ahead.
‘Hey Diaze, found Cloud yet?’
‘What? No, I wanted to know if you’d brought any bicep back from work?’
Lora laughed, ‘What kind of sister do you think I am?’ She waved goodbye to Norm, his quality patient leather clothes, his rigor mortis smile. ‘I know how much you eat.’
They ate a quiet dinner.
‘I still can’t get over how much it tastes like chicken,’ Diaze said, almost to himself.
‘Yeah,’ Lora said, but she was thinking about the stranger in the food court. Of course she had to keep coming back, but what other option was there? You didn’t get promoted by slacking off. Otherwise you really were stuck here, haranguing people over their meals…
‘What did you say?’ Lora said, running a hand through her hair that was still wet from the showers. On her hands, a slight residue.
‘I asked if you knew Modafinil.’
‘Damn how could you overdose on that? No, who is she?
‘Works at the shops. I went there to buy the paper. Why didn’t you tell me there are no papers here?’
‘I didn’t think,’ Lora said, and wondered why it hadn’t occurred to her. Memory loss was a strange thing. ‘Forget my own head next.’
‘It was something our father said, a saying, like…’ but she couldn’t think of any others and Diaze was looking at her strangely.
‘Our father was a drunk. He didn’t have any sayings.’ But Diaze was suddenly distracted. From out the corner of the window he’d seen a flash of white. ‘Cloud,’ he said quickly and Lora rushed over to the window by the sink. But it wasn’t her cat. It was instead a small crack that had appeared in the side of the sky, right where a horizon would be, if she’d been able to remember that word. Diaze came up behind her and rubbed her shoulders, gently tenderising her. The two of them stood there, picking meat out of their teeth and watching the strange bright light. But even from this distance, they could already see some devils working hard on the repairs.
Image: Daniel Spiess
A recent Creative Writing graduate and a founding member of Dead Poets’ Fight Club, Rafael S.W has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. He also regularly contributes to Going Down Swinging online and competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. http://rafaelsw.com