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by Frank Duff

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559 Nathan Abbott Way


Quickly, so as not to allow himself time to reconsider, he shoved the acid under his tongue. Or rather, he shoved the not-quite-acid under his tongue. Acid is more stable on blotter than it is in crystal or liquid form. Even so, certainly the drug must deteriorate somewhat in three weeks time, even on blotter. This is what Johnny tried to tell himself as osmosis invited the foreign chemicals into his system. Certainly, he was actually ingesting something less than five hits worth. Johnny was not unaware of the fact that he still was completely in the dark as to what had eventually become of Lyle, not to mention all the kids he had sold the blotter to. Were they all dead? Brain damaged?

Suddenly, there was a sound that Johnny could only identify as a shotgun thanks to a childhood misspent on videogames. But much louder. Thoc tumbled down the stairwell and into Johnny's field of view. He came to rest against one of the mildewed concrete pillars with his head twisted at an unnatural angle from his shoulders and leaking blood from several dozen holes in his chest. There was another burst of firing outside and someone was yelling in English. Johnny had never seen a dead body before, except at his grandmother's funeral. He was too saturated with adrenaline to go into shock just now, but it did remind him that potential drug overdose was hardly his most pressing problem just now.

The room had only one exit, the one through which Thoc had just entered. His guards had generally been poorly disposed toward the idea of letting Johnny close to that door. Still, over the weeks, Johnny had managed to surmise that immediately behind the first locked door, there was a stairway going up and at the top of that stairway, another locked door. Johnny had no idea whether a street, a landing, a hallway or the open desert lay behind that second door because the guards were always careful to ensure that one door was securely locked before opening the other. Or they had been careful of that until now.

Johnny rushed over to Thoc's broken form. It was instantly clear that he was completely and irreversibly dead. By some reflex born of action movies, Johnny took the pistol from Thoc's grip. It was heavy in his hand and simultaneously frightening and reassuring. Knowing nothing about guns, Johnny could only assume that it was loaded and the safety was off. Looking up, Johnny saw an unobstructed pathway to freedom. Both doorways stood open and the stairway was obstructed by nothing more than still-glistening trails of Thoc's blood. Johnny could see another dead or dying body leaning up against the doorframe at the top of the stairs. Through that doorway, Johnny could see only ceiling, but natural light was leaking in from somewhere which meant either a glass door or window.

He stood frozen for perhaps fifteen seconds trying to steel himself for a mad dash to freedom. Finally, wrapping his fingers tightly around the pistol's grip, he took his first step towards the stairs. Just as he set his foot onto the first step, a stray bullet struck the wall near the top of the stairs, exploding in a mist of plaster dust. Johnny took a step back, shut the door and clicked the deadbolt into place. Trying desperately to catch his breath and calm his nerves, Johnny leaned his back to the wall next to the door. Slowly he slid down into a sitting position. He set the handgun across his lap, held his head in his hands and waited for the acid to take hold.

His sense of time was the first thing to go. How long had he been sitting there? Minutes? Seconds? Hours? Was it over? Was everything safe? But no, everything was obviously not safe. So said the dead Korean man three feet off to Johnny's left. So said also the loaded and dangerous weapon laying across his knees. The barrel had the words "Custom 10 auto" etched on it. They meant nothing to Johnny.
Abruptly, the sound of gunfire began again. Seventeen shots, Johnny counted without intending to, from three different guns. As the report of each bullet being fired reached Johnny's ears, he noticed tiny variations in the patterns of air movement across the hairs of his arm. Which hairs, speaking of, seemed to be growing at a fantastic rate. Before Johnny's eyes, his arms became those of a yeti, encased in improbable sheaths of coarse vibrissa, of which each filament was its own private door of perception. Yet the visual image remained unchanged. His arm looked just as it ever had; It was the meaning and context of that image which had shifted and distorted. If the drug had in fact denatured while on blotter in Johnny's pocket, it must have started out several times as potent as LSD!

And here a sudden breeze played across the wheat field of his arm, electrifying follicles in its wake. Somewhere in Utah, a butterfly was flapping its wings.

Johnny became fascinated by the still growing pool of blood surrounding Thoc's body. The uneven character of the chamber floor dictated a rivulet of blood towards Johnny's left foot. The rivulet was a branching off of a larger rivulet which was itself an extension of a pseudopod connected to the primary puddle. Surface tension prevented the tiny red line near Johnny's foot from branching off any further. As he stared, Johnny realized that the puddle was not shapeless or random but was in fact a very close approximation of the Mandelbrot set. He watched, fixated, as more and more blood collected near his foot and began to form the bloated abdomen of a beetle. Reaching out, Johnny dipped his finger into the blood and traced several radiating lines away from the gathering pool.

Realizing suddenly what he was doing, Johnny recoiled in disgust. He tried desperately to wipe the blood off of his finger and onto the leg of his pants, but his finger was still red. Frantically, he began scraping his index finger against the coarse cement wall behind him. Very soon, droplets of his own blood began to show. The pain brought Johnny back into the present. Thoughts of blood borne viruses flashed briefly across his mind, but then he remembered that his chances of living long enough to die from AIDS were not looking good.

Johnny was further jolted back into the now by a panicked slamming and clawing against the locked door. Someone was screaming in Korean on the other side. Johnny could make out nothing but fear until the voice finally degenerated into repeating "Kim-Jae Kim-Jae" over and over again. Kim-Jae had been one of the more quiet and taciturn of Johnny's guards. Johnny unlocked the door more because he could empathize with Kim-Jae fleeing a gunfight than for any rational reason. Johnny pulled open the door just as a bullet forced the back of Kim-Jae's head out through the front. As Kim-Jae's body toppled forward into the room, Johnny tried to force the door closed again. Kim-Jae's right foot was stuck between the door and the frame. Johnny pulled the foot free and just as he was slamming the deadbolt back home, a bullet burst through the door mere centimetres from his hand.

Falling backwards in fear, Johnny found himself sitting on top of two dead men. Directly between his legs was Kim-Jae's lifeless hand. Tight in its dead grip was a hand grenade:

The End.

Johnny closed his eyes tight and waited for it, but it didn't come. When he opened them again, the grenade was still sitting there, M26 stenciled around its waist, unexploded in Kim-Jae's hand. It was then that Johnny noticed the pin, so similar to that of a fire extinguisher, still housed safely in the head of the grenade. Delicately, Johnny lifted the grenade from Kim-Jae's grasp.

The explosion knocked him clear across the room. Different pieces of him in different directions. He gasped deep for air and somehow his lungs still accepted it. I'm hallucinating, he told himself. If it was a hallucination, it was like no hallucination he had ever had before. Looking closely at the deadly package in his hand, Johnny found that it was no longer exploding, but rather radiating the potentiality of explosion.

And then it all clicked. The random and chaotic patterns of dust in the air remained chaotic, but no longer random. This speck tumbled twice and shot upwards because, behind the locked door, at the top of the stairs, an American soldier had coughed four seconds ago. That same soldier would now be sighting down the barrel of his rifle in case the door should open.

"They are here for me!" Johnny almost choked on the words. Just as they had come for him and Lyle before. They had followed him all the way to Korea seeking that chemical which was playing these tricks on his brain. They had followed him to somewhere near the ocean, an eddy of dust told him. Lyle! What had ever become of him? But the dust carried no news of that. Either he had gotten away or he was wherever Dr. Bronski was now. Heaven or hell.

Picking up the Custom 10 auto from where it had fallen, he could see tight discrete bullet paths extending from its muzzle. Here was one ricocheting off the door and here another shattering the leg of the table where Bop Ngo was once played. But Johnny's hands were shaking and no trajectory could be trusted or maintained. He dropped the gun back to the floor.

He was going to die alone in a basement cell in Korea. His body would drop on top of those of Thoc and Kim Jae. And there was nothing he could do about it. Defeated, Johnny touched his forehead to the pillar against which Thoc's corpse lay and closed his eyes.

Tiny vibrations in the pillar talked to Johnny of decades of strain from the unrelenting task of supporting the building. Johnny empathized as tears of horror and frustration and fear began to roll down his cheek.

"End it now," said the pillar.

"You want me to kill myself?" Johnny asked aloud. He was still holding the grenade in his left hand. His memory dredged up a remembered statistic from a Sidney Cohen LSD study: 1.2 attempted suicides per thousand acid trips. Somehow, he doubted the study encompassed many situations like this one.

"No," said the pillar, "not you. Me."

Johnny's eyes shot open again. The pillar continued to vibrate. Johnny placed both his hands flat against the pillar and listened carefully to everything the vibrations had to say.

"Lower," the vibrations quivered, "right against the floor. A little to the right. Perfect. Now you need something to shield and contain the blast."

He pulled the pin of the grenade and released the handle just as an American soldier shot the lock off the door.

Johnny said "sorry Kim" and rolled Kim Jae's body on top of the grenade as the timer emitted its first quiet "tick." That tick included the potential for three more ticks but entirely precluded the possibility of a fifth. As Johnny ran across the room, he could see drywall and concrete and wood collapsing all around him three seconds in the future, here crushing his leg, there collapsing his skull. Until, at the last second, he dove into the one spot where he could already feel the potentiality of an unlikely sanctuary: a small pocket of space against one wall where emptiness and air would be preserved beneath a mountain of debris. But he dove too hard and struck his head against the wall. Unconsciousness took him.

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