By Peter Haynes
'Take me down through the Tangles, James,' my Sarah said, before she went away forever. I was happy she asked. I took her hand, smiled down. Each time we touched I felt the power of the sickness in her. We walked slowly, wrapped up in each other against the cold.
To the Tangles: our name for where the city began to fray around its edges. In our first few weeks I had taken her a dozen times to deliver on-foot lectures on the topographic cut of our town, where it fell away to terraces, concrete-covered waterways and a deepening grey where foundations mingled.
There was a rise in the landscape first, where the roads tilted up toward the sky and the city loomed like a suburban cliff. A slight veer left and you'd fall off the route to where the centre of things is dressed in chrome and nothing echoes.
She liked it because it was an industrial relic. A dissolving relief: part carved-out and piled-up factory service land, part scrub playing host to ziggurats of mouldering pallets. She saw its levels, the sweep and the playful decay where invisible boundaries collided.
'It's a gift,' she called back as we crunched through the broken glass of a rail shed. Brick arches supported the raised platform. 'All things fashioned after life possess life,' she added, repeating for my benefit her treatise: 'If nature allows itself to be imitated, improved, then it allows itself to be replaced!'
I smiled at the consistency of her argument as she spiralled her arms through curtains of dislodged dust, scared away a dozen pigeons with her cat-calls. Even now I choose to think she saw because I showed her. I had not yet seen this world through her eyes.
You have visited this location eight times, my phone chimed as we began the shallow climb back. There we were on the map: a blue dot on a scrolling view. Like much of what was left here to rot, I knew this record of our passing served no future purpose.
The car was so cheap that we joked a terrible murder must have been committed within, checked for a child's tooth in the passenger foot well, cruised back with open windows blaring out the kind of music makes your head dart. On the flyover by the old canal basin, Sarah looked out across the sump of the Tangles until her hair got in the way.
'You'll catch a cold,' I warned. She pushed her nose up against the wound-up window instead.
Home was a box of walls in a concrete hive. The red light blinked on the tensor box in the hallway. Was it a week already? I threw my jacket across it but she'd already clocked.
'It doesn't have to be today, does it?' I asked.
'We're two away from a pay day,' she said. 'I've got time.'
'That's the one thing we don't have.'
But she had already clicked to download and I was defeated. When she rounded on me her eyes were heavy weapons. Later, forgiven, she passed to me a pill from the tip of her tongue and took me down to a place where we summoned music, summoned the young, summoned the dead to a trench of blood.
'How about “Build a cat”?' Sarah said. The tensor box now blinked at us from the windowsill.
That was her puzzle: Build a cat. Use the streets. Fill them with new life. May only behave in a cat-like way.
She was already typing out the script. I signed off and took out the dishes.
Build a cat. Build a city-sized accident of creation! May not sleep on the edge of your bed in a sliver of afternoon sun. May not play the cello on the dining table while you try to eat.
I shouted through that her work must be finished now: that for her, building the task was the task. Let the others pick up the slack. I had to go back to her. Sometimes she wept in empty rooms. 'Enough now. Time to rest.'
'No, no. We've got to keep on. The harder the work the more useful the result, remember?' The protest was accompanied by a prolonged coughing fit. No blood that time. She beamed. I could see the ridges of her eye sockets through sinking white skin. 'This packet is a real bitch! Watch us straighten it out, just watch.'
Any objection died as she took my hand in hers. I could always recognise the overture to a choir of earthquakes. At least she took her pills.
In the hour that followed, the air of the flat settled into tomb-like stillness. Southerlies brought up dark cords of rain. The tensor box light was solid red. Traversing those brick canyons with my own eyes would show me only phantoms. I launched my Additions for the first time in a year – ones we had spun together – and ran into the Tangles after her.
There was movement in the deep roots of the leftover factories and proof houses. There was life in the tilt of a broken weighbridge. Ruins are never truly still: they hum with the things they host, slide in your eye with the falling rain.
There could be no uncertain, fused beginning to my hunt. Only in movement is the game revealed. You can, after all, only mark your velocity against another’s.
We had rearranged the sky. That was my first reminder of our Additions: how we’d spent nights and nights shifting the stars, set them tumbling in singular spirals, named them and formed a second dark moon to occlude and reveal. We weren’t folding; those games had no purpose other than to create. They solved no puzzle but that which we took with us into the Tangles.
Sometimes, toward the end of those games, I had turned to see her face shuttered into gliding, half-smile segments. I still don't know if she had just gotten carried away with her creations or if, even then, she had begun to leave me behind.
And now she was back. I searched for a message in the sky but there would be no spoor of her there. The streets – spaces and the places of overlap – was where they would be folding most effectively.
I ran down alleys tucked behind lofty, tilting chantries with their walls of chain. There were roads filled by the clock-hand shadows of towering flare stacks. How had I forgotten we had dressed the world so much? Age had broken down our unprotected Additions. Murals had rendered into fragments: oxbow lakes of disconnected overlays, partial vistas and the limp, untended folds of once-beautiful alien plant life we had conjured.
Somewhere in the vertices of our creation would be caught the ember trail of their game, amongst artefacts – modern, visual, sonic. But she was being filtered out. I was looking for a cat in the decay of old scenarios. Her team ran on parallel rungs of the ladder, their game was off my grid. Disturbed puddles might reveal footfalls. You catch sight but the water was already settling. The player gone. You watch through the misted windows of a passing bus and see a haunting on the other side of the street.
New tensor: new rules, new layer. The trappings of many lives expressed in a cube and I did not have the eyes for any of them.
'Bloody hell!' I bawled, streaming out of the Tangles with the wind. It was only when I was about to power down and crawl home in the rain that I caught signs that surely marked her passing.
There was an abbreviated viaduct: the curving uprights of a dozen-span rail line marked by voids of dust and darkness. It terminated at a brick cliff – the route had once penetrated far further toward the city proper. Now it simply ended and hunkered down beneath skittering power lines.
It wasn't what I saw there that made me halt. Although the air was thick and still, from the second-last space the scent of hot olive oil, roasted red onions and herbs wafted out. I had no choice but to obey their instruction.
There it was: a word trail around the brick buttress corners of the viaduct. These were the words she had murmured to me after the first course of treatment, three months past, now written in foot-tall neon:
NO-ONE IS COMING TO CURE ME.
I disengaged my Additions, pinched the bridge of my nose, shook the rain from my hair. Across the street, through the shattered misted glass of an abandoned shop window, a pair of eyes blinked out of the darkness and vanished.
Lovingly, we dubbed the car 'Shitbox.' Shitbox took us around town. Shitbox got my Sarah to the hospital.
Angela was her favourite. Hands and eyes came pre-warmed. Sometimes she'd summon nurses from other medical bays and Sarah would teach them to play Skull & Roses on the ceiling while machines thrummed and hovered around her head. 'It's the game the Hell's Angels play to choose their new leader,' she told me.
When the room fell silent at last, her face was slick with moisture. The mesh mask that held her head so statue-still was lifted, pulling tear strands with it. The skin around her neck had begun to darken; the tiny black alignment circles tattooed there were being subsumed.
There were feedback forms stacked in the waiting room. Sometimes clients report experiencing smells or tastes during treatment. If this has happened to you, please tick all that apply from the list below and return this form to a nurse.
Below: lavender, cordite, burning plastic and so on. After the first visit, she'd filled in the Other (please specify) space with 'Mum's roast potatoes.' This recollection inspired a bucket list of lofty ambitions: fly on one of those windowless planes, cave trampolining, and then a final catch-all: other noble pursuits.
Our research partners seek augmented clients and their friends/families to undergo remunerated test-based folding outside the lab. Please tick here if you wish to participate. Terms and conditions apply.
And I saw lightning! She had scrawled through the acknowledgement space. The tensor box arrived two days later.
She was sleeping – out of it on one drug or another – when the phone rang. After a dozen rings it fell to voicemail. Samuel, one of Sarah’s team. A couple of false starts, then, 'Good to see you last night, Sarah. We nearly got there, huh? Where did you go? Well. Maybe finish up later? You looked well.' He laughed through the lie.
She did not look well. Her body was trying to build a liver where our child should be, was growing nothing but pain in the soft tissues of her throat. That she had not told me for so long made me want to hate her forever. That we had married contracted me to love her forever.
I closed my eyes and saw nothing but the twin red lights of an unprocessed payload and the glowing 1 on the answerphone: the eyes of a bloodhound. A hunter with a keener sense than my own for their layers. I saw its vast construction: flesh fused with the steel from some warehouse winch mechanism, teeth of a bucket excavator. It grew into a towering wolf: a hunter and a guardian.
Sarah was in the kitchen, holding on, manoeuvring to the sink hand-over-hand. A glass tumbler rolled in the crook of her arm. 'That’s gonna break,' I growled. The voice of my new playmate. This animal would chase them down. The embers of its eyes would dance trails in the rain. The mechanical angles of its haunches would ratchet in jerky forward motions. A brush against the first storey sends a brick dust cascade to the pavement. Creaking around the corner to pick up the scent, it works loose the grey stone lintel of a window. Cobblestones fragment beneath its weight.
And when it finds them, it becomes a monster. It takes their part-formed feline in its jaws and squeezes shut. Knows it’s too late for Sarah. Knows the game she made cannot serve her, that the process serves only those who come after. If she cannot win, no-one should. It shreds their Addition down to tiny parts before them and roars victory. It wins, but still she dies.
I opened my eyes. It was night again, so soon. Weeklong Atlantic storms still drenched the city. She had gone and all that was left were fragments of broken glass glinting like jewels in a still-running stream of cold water.
The street again, and Samuel. He spoke to me in hushed tones: a man who believed the lies he told. 'We lost her. We don’t know where she went. She had her own ways, you know.’
We were talking only because he wanted to be found, had left a breadcrumb trail in the old layers. I was there so he could bequeath to me her ghost.
Sarah had been dead for two days. True to form, Shitbox crapped out on the way to fetch her. I had slept too long and, while cascading down to the Tangles, she had already become the emergency. She died while I swore through an oily mess of amateur engineering.
When a voice on the phone tells you your wife is gone, you don’t think. When, at the hospital, that same voice – now connected to a face blurred to a smear by tears – tells you that it wasn’t the illness she carried that killed her but complications around it, you don’t know what to think.
She became cold, her body unable to cope with the weather. She ran confused - her team reported seeing her flitting from one layer to another, grasping the corners of alley walls, falling, vanishing. She tore off all her clothes, failed to generate heat. She had become a burrowing animal, pale and blind. Then she slipped away.
Samuel was sheltering in the broken-down walls of the old pool hall, on the long arterial street that ran through this brick sub-city. He was in mourning for some old dream that had clung on to the sides on that structure, now returned to the buzz of defunct layers spinning in flurries, invisible, around us. This pocket of land, like so much else, would find some new blank domestic purpose.
He was a wretched sight and I told him so, standing as he was in the poison rain of a shattered asbestos roof. He had that distant stereoscopic look of a man still travelling.
'We all but solved the tensor days ago,' he said, 'but without Sarah, it just doesn’t hang together. Can you help?’
'Help?' My fury drowned the storm. Voiceless calm settled soon after. Beams of the old hall sank under the weight of weather. I looked up and could see our stars: dragon’s tail arcs of clustered light, Coriolis swirls. They burned too bright. Why couldn't they have just let this whole job die? Murder, after all, is a function of the universe.
'Where does anyone get the strength?' I asked Samuel.
'Take a look,' he replied, offering his gloved hand.
There is much I must adjust to now. I took Sarah’s layers from him, added them to my own, read-only, immutable. They would not break down: only in change is there decay. I would forever see her Additions, even if the city was levelled.
Her world glowed. It danced. She had found a way to edit the rain. She had replaced ruin with dizzying towers, had guaranteed the sun, set doorways in bronze, turned bricks to tilted diamond scales.
The broken viaduct had become host to a lattice-work sky bridge. It reared upwards, never tracing the eventual downward fall of its originating structure. She had tethered it to bricks – needlessly, immaculately – so that the girders of her creation all were born from the strongest root. It sailed over the Tangles, over the hospital, out of the city. It shone even to its vanishing distance.
Further still, swathes of grey suburban warren received her mark: house fronts turned to mirrors, the approach to our nest now a quicksilver corridor.
The golden rule – no Additions at home – could not stand. I remember the fear that stalled my entering. I feel none of that fear now. For one who could edit the weather, to remove the tensor box from sight was simple. What she replaced it with was a thing of the most complex art.
While I am home, the double-lidded slits of its eyes perpetually monitor. The bulk of its body fills the living room. Fur like wire wool sings with its breathing. It rests its flanks across the oven. In the hallway I edge around its curled-up tabby rump. I open cupboards and wait for the claws on its paw to retract before taking my clothes.
I will return to her bridge today. Somewhere in the Tangles there are more of her words written in glowing tracery. She could be everywhere, and I must find her. Then home, to be with her creation. I must live around it now, allow for its size.
A yawn opens a fang-rimmed portal in the bedroom.
Peter Haynes lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared in Litro USA, Hypertext magazine, EveryDayFiction.com, and Change Seven magazine. @ManofZinc
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