The vitals monitor beeps the countdown of the heart. Lazur sits next to the bed reading an old Lispector paperback of his mother’s, The Passion According to G.H. She was never the type to underline, but her presence is still felt. Paper is delicate and fibrous as any tissue. His mother’s hands dog-eared this page, spilled tea on that corner, and in every place the oil of her fingers lead to permanent near invisible changes.
Oh, my unknown love, remember that I was imprisoned there in the collapsed mine, and that by then the room had taken on an unutterable familiarity, like the truthful familiarity of dreams. And, as in dreams, what I can’t reproduce for you is the essential color of its atmosphere.
It hurts to turn the pages. The pain is somewhere between his fingertips and his heart.
Standing at the window, sometimes my eyes rested on the blue lake that might have been no more than a piece of sky. But I soon grew tired, since the blue was made of much intensity of light. My bleary eyes then went to rest in the naked and burning desert, which at least didn’t have the hardness of a color. Three millennia later the secret oil would gush from those sands: the present was opening gigantic perspectives onto a new present.
The qatran. A substance activated by language. His lips move as if to echo these unknown words which are now burnt into this woman’s mouth, this mouth which reminds him of nothing less than the mouth of that boy transplanted onto her face. But the wounds are different. He knows the boy’s texture vividly. Even if it seems to change every time he looks, there is a pattern, or a pattern of patterns. The lip which promises beauty then erupts into petals of flesh, his matter blasted into itself as shrapnel, his lip in his cheek, his teeth in his palate, his soul in his—
The boy desires him, sometimes. But the boy’s desire is the worthless desire of the young, shallow and fickle. But all desires are equally worthless now. Lazur has been given a preview of the end. There is no future in death, and the season is death.
He looks at the woman on the hospital bed that is not in a hospital. Contained like a piece of contaminated material. He checks her file. Compartment syndrome. Malnutrition. Burns to the mouth.
His own chart probably reads something like, coolant burns, dehydration, hyperthermia, contusions, headaches, muscle strain, in short, he feels like shit and his body isn’t recovering as fast as it used to.
He checks the intake photos. The marker on her back is almost worn away by sweat and abrasion but he remembers what it said.
There is a cost to using the qatran. An inherent toxicity. The enemy is inventing ways of bypassing or minimizing those effects so they can grasp it like the handle of a sword, the stock of a gun.
He leaves the room, entering the empty office floor of XGILEAD where this began. He made sure they didn’t take her to a civilian hospital where Cal could easily kill her. But every countdown in the world is running right now. He gets one move and it ends him or it ends Cal. And his last piece might not survive the night.
Tick tick tick.
Lazur stares at the cardboard box in his apartment’s mail slot.
A small box. But not too small.
The sky explodes. People run past screaming. The box remains intact.
An explosion on every street, chaining to more explosions until they run together. Astigmatic stars rain past. He hates the 4th of July.
He could shut the panel and leave the box inside. But the problem would pass to someone else.
He flinches as one explodes much closer to him and a car alarm goes off. He feels the weight of his gun in the back of his pants.
He doesn’t know why he takes it. But he knows whatever is in the package will follow him wherever he goes, in new and inventive forms to the end of his life, and he might as well get it over with.
As he climbs the stairs back to his apartment, more fireworks go off. The world is so fucking dangerous and cruel.
Another volley. He hates this holiday. But like all holidays, he feels the absence of other people. The acute, deeply biological shame of this solitude.
Something shoots through a gap in the concrete staircase and smacks the wall above his head. It falls, smacking onto the step above him. The bird lays on the pocked floor, neck broken. Wings flutter, a struggle so fast it makes his heart hurt, then it goes still. His heart keeps beating.
Boom. That one didn’t even have pretty colors, it was just an explosion. He wants to shoot whoever did it.
The tremors follow him inside the apartment. You can’t keep the bombers out on a day like this. Even in a safe quiet city such as this, the citizens enshrine the echo of the bombs that go off in deserts and jungles and tundras across the sea. The peace and plenty purchased by great massacre and suffering is not enough for them. They pollute it with the shadow of that distant terror, in playful reenactment of bombed schools and homes.
Listen to them laugh. The smell of grilled meat and gunpowder. He’s smelled that before. But no one was laughing.
He could find a better place to live, away from the fireworks. But it takes a time investment. And when you spend time trying to better your life, it asks a certain question about that life. He rents a shitty apartment for the same reason he doesn’t buy a new car or a new anything.
He drinks half a beer. It tastes bad but everything does. He places the tips of his fingers on the sides of the cardboard box. The windows shake. His pulse vanishes, then returns.
He gets his box cutter. The blade click clicks and he slices the tape open, exposing a dark slit that seems to breathe under his palm.
His phone buzzes and he jumps, box cutter clattering to the floor. Unknown number. No shit. Nothing can be known. We live in darkness. He snaps the phone open.
A wet, slurred voice. “Happy PTSD day you fuck.”
Lazur leans back and cradles the phone under his chin, dark lashes sweeping over his heavy eyes. “What’s in the package?”
“If you’re fucking with me—”
Lazur spreads the flaps of the box and looks inside.
A ridged sphere. He knows when he sees it, that this is the compacted shape of a payload. He shifts the box into the light and the sphere turns red, dense granules glittering.
“I know today sucks for you so I got you something. I hope this present doesn’t cross workplace ethical boundaries.”
He’s in the bathroom now. Easy to pass between rooms in an apartment this small. He runs the bath and sips his beer.
“You’re actually doing it, wow.”
Like a curse, a ritual. It has to play out.
He drops the bath bomb in the water and the clear water explodes with vibrant hyper-concentrated red. A smell of almonds and something girly and sweet.
A liquid marble swirl of cyan, Brilliant Blue FCF through Allura Red AC. The core is dissolving, a crackling reflection of the fireworks, water mirrored in flame.
The phone says, “Can we video chat?”
Lazur is silent. Not even air escapes his nostrils, chest tight.
“Are you doing an ellipses? You should really say dtdtdt as a handicap accessible thing—”
“Come on. I just want to talk.”
Lazur clicks his phone shut and reaches into the bathwater, pulling on the plug. The water is warm on his skin and he sighs. He feels the buildup of a thousand deferred breaths aching to flow through his face and massage his chest.
Something rings in the living room. His old tablet, forgotten under the slow explosion of his apartment detritus. He picks it up with his red-stained arm and thinks of the mall. How exposed and insane he felt forced inside that bomb. Their first true collision. The unremarkable C4 of their former selves detonated to reveal two hungry explosions without form or limit.
The tablet vibrates in his hand, red power indicator flashing like a countdown. It’ll die soon anyways. It doesn’t matter. Just turn it off.
The fireworks keep exploding and he feels that confrontational PTSD adrenal magnet hum in his brain, that rage he can’t show anyone else, and he drains his beer and answers the call.
The crippled boy sits in a wheelchair in a dark room, lit only by the screen. Cold glow on angry flesh. Ragged red crop top hanging over a sunken chest, bony legs tapered by black pantyhose like an idealization of charred limbs.
“Look who it is. The blond bombshell.”
Rubicon flushes, unable to stop a smile from stretching his face. “Is that what you wear at home?”
Lazur picks at the frayed sleeve of his black tee, fading to gray. He never goes shopping anymore. It would be such a waste to pay 30.99 for a shirt and die the next day. “What’s wrong with it?”
“You need funny dad shirts. No shut up, you need like. I’M NOT THE STEPDAD. I’M THE DAD THAT BLEW UP.”
Lazur turns away to hide his silent laugh, this temporary deformity of the jaw. “I’m never having kids.”
“You getting your tubes tied?”
“I really should.” Lazur shuts off the faucet before the red water slops over.
“Are you seriously just going to stand there fully clothed watching a bath bomb?”
Lazur’s muscles ache for that warm water. He says, “You have to promise you’re not recording this.”
“Not my style.”
How should I know what style you’re wearing today? The aristocratic kid. The professional terrorist. The insane cartoon explosion. But you’re right. Subterfuge isn’t your thing.
Lazur sets the tablet down on the sill. He unstraps his watch. It leaves the faintest imprint around his wrist.
His shirt drops, then his pants, then his underwear. He sniffs his armpit. He hasn’t showered since he defused that bomb at the flower shop a couple days ago, fear dissolved on his skin like a suit of salt.
Sodium bicarbonate and citric acid fizz around his thighs. As he stares at Rubicon’s scarred flesh, he feels underdressed. Guilty. Slip into a nice shock wave, Laz. Loosen up. Loosen all your organs and teeth.
The window rattles. A car bomb. An M-80. His limbs hit the sides of the tub, squeaking, rubbing, sloshing. This apartment is too small, he never noticed it before. He feels embarrassed.
Rubicon leans forward, blond hair falling over spread teeth. “What’s a piece of ass like you doing home alone on the 4th of July?”
Lazur has to laugh at the way the young man talks to him. It flatters him. Even if it’s no more real than those fireworks, brilliant colors dissolving to the ash he’ll step across in the morning.
“Oh shit. You laughed at a known terrorist. You fucked up.”
“No one ever thinks about the unknown terrorists.”
Rubicon picks up his catheter bag and tips it. “Pour one out for the—”
“Shit!” Rubicon drops the bag offscreen and covers his face.
“You got some on your hand. I don’t know if you can feel it.”
Rubicon sniffs his hand, then says in a nasally voice, “It just started dripping into my sinuses.”
Lazur laughs, water rippling around his stomach. “You make me laugh when you’re not making me scream.”
A pinwheel spirals past and Lazur flinches. His features turn dark and serious, staring at the city which is blasting itself to death.
“He’s depressed about the bombs.”
“Yeah. The bombs are pretty bad.”
“Mmhm. It’s been kind of crazy lately, right? But you don’t give up. You’re the best most bravest hero in the whole world.” Rubicon’s lips gape with mangled wonder, then stretch into a blast-fanged smile. “You can accept anything as long as it’s trying to kill you. That’s the only thing that doesn’t surprise you.”
Lazur feels exposed under the dark eye of the tablet, under Rubicon’s grainy gaze that even on the best of days is hard to track, a mask of mutilated pixels.
Innocent schoolboy voice. “You look thirsty. But you’re surrounded by water.”
“Yumyum defuser dad bath water slurrrpp slurrrrpp.” Rubicon makes big wet sounds, very easy to do with his face, then laughs suddenly and his backed-up saliva sprays the webcam. He wipes it off, smearing the lens into soft focus.
“I mean it’s dirty with chemicals.”
“You could use a few chemicals. Straighten you out.”
Lazur reaches over the side of the tub, exposing the dyed swirl of his hip. His hand drips pastel blotches onto the can of beer, so that when he lifts it to drink the last lingering inch, he tastes the sour tang of citric acid.
When he looks up, Rubicon has a strange expression. Hard to tell through the screen or the scars, but the boy is hiding something. Maybe Cal told him to get rid of their mutual problem. The water turns cold.
“Did you poison the bath bomb?”
“Talk about a clean kill.”
As ironic as it would be to end him with the soft fizzy death of a bath bomb, Rubicon would wear something more dreadful and majestic for the final occasion. This is Casual Lounge Edition Rubicon.
And he keeps smiling. That’s what makes it so strange. It always looks so stupid when that incomplete mouth displays itself so completely. Not turned away to the most intact side of the face, exposing only the straightest teeth. A smile ripped to the bone, an innocent skull tattered in young flesh. The end and the beginning at the same time.
Lazur says, “I never thought I’d spend today talking to Lolita does 9/11 over here.”
Rubicon scratches the stump of an amputated finger. “Yeah, I didn’t think I’d spend my precious, nubile youth talking to a guy twice my age. Hey I didn’t mean it like that. A lot of older guys are intimidating. But I can talk to you.”
Lazur shrugs. “I don’t have my shit figured out either.”
“That’s why we get along so famously.”
“This age gap is like. I’m compensating for my fear of death with the guy who wants to kill me.”
“I think you need a napkin or handkerchief or something.”
“Did you know. This whole room smells like my spit.”
“I can smell it.”
Rubicon goes quiet. “When you’re around me. Do you ever smell anything weird?”
“I guess. But it’s not my main concern. In that situation.”
Blushing patches of intact skin like boss weak points. “I’m getting better at cleaning myself. I, um.”
Lazur stares out the window. All he sees are explosions in the dark. He knows hundreds of people are laughing and talking around each one, but he can’t see any of them. “Why are you hung up on that shit? It’s not like we’ll ever see each other again. If we do, the smell of death will be stronger than your BO.”
“I’ll roll myself in gunpowder just for you.”
“Like a breaded chicken.”
“I, I was literally going to say breaded chicken. S-sometimes I swear it’s like you can read my mind—”
“I can’t read your mind, Rubicon.”
“I know. Sure.”
Explosions rumble through the city. Just another reminder. Unstable, dark things. The day is a lie. Night is forever. The cracks always show, in flesh and concrete. People fall apart. They don’t mean to. But their minds and bodies have a bomb programmed into them. And no matter who you dance with it always ends up being a dance with death—
Rubicon is staring at him intently, in silence. He realizes, as he stares at himself in the reflection of the tablet, that he was washing himself, because that’s what you do in the bath. His arm is raised, a blood-stained opera glove, hand limp and dripping, useless as a Greek statue shielding itself from heaven’s light. Veins of blue bathwater run from the dark hair of his pit, bubbles prickling and popping in the soft hollow.
He drops the bar of soap. It floats across the water, smooth and pink, just enough worn away to keep from sinking into the red sea. His hand flows under the surface, hovering just below the soap like the shadow of a fish. He cups it without touching, liquid flowing through his palm.
Rubicon says, “Why did you save me?”
“You’re the only human piece of Cal’s machine.”
Rubicon hides his face behind a hosed knee, black nylon stretched by the broken plates of his patella. “You think I’m human?”
“On a technicality.”
“Haha. You’ll make an honest woman of me. All I have to do is kick these nasty bombs. Cold turkey but I’m playing chicken.” He scratches his leg until the dark hose tears open, a slit of scaly flesh, cracked and reptilian. “It’s not like I don’t think about what you said. I sit down and the spark is gone. These dead materials, cold wire and plastic.”
Lazur wants to say something but the ache is too strong. This is what I need you to do. I don’t think you can. I speak to death, I reason with death, is that an unfair projection on you—
“But if I could just show you this new terror. I think even you would understand.” The tortured surface of Rubicon’s body catches the shadows, tricking the eye. “The qatran is different. It’s alive. I could work with it forever. Swirling and burning. Like the thing I was on the surgery table. The slime of graft and molt. The living death.”
“You sound obsessed.”
“I am obsession.” Rubicon fans his hand, inspecting phantom nails. “Maybe that’s why my body was hollowed out. So it could be used for something.”
“It doesn’t have to be for violence.”
“Then what? The spirit of Christmas?”
“You’re so funny.” Rubicon fidgets in the silence. “I bet you hate Christmas. Hate presents.”
“You never know what’s inside them.”
The red bath colors Rubicon’s face through the screen. “I hope you enjoyed yours anyways.”
“Why a bath bomb?”
“Um. The bath can be a pretty scary place. And I thought maybe you needed to relax.”
Lazur doesn’t know why this makes him more upset than any of the terrible things Rubicon has said to him. But all he says is, “Thats very nice of you.”
“Yeah. I’m America’s sweetheart.”
“Everyone’s favorite arsonist.”
“Arson? I didn’t even know I was pregnant! But seriously. Don’t insult me. Arson is fun but I never felt like I was getting credit. All people do is stare at the flames.”
Lazur watches the red reflection of the bath dance on Rubicon’s scar landscape. Fireworks bubble and pop with the bath, chemical ASMR.
Rubicon says, “Don’t you usually jerk off when you see me?”
“I’m sorry. I was under a lot of stress.”
Rubicon plays with the torn edge of his crop top, ribs jutting underneath. He turns self-consciously, offering the least damaged side of his face. “You can. If you want.”
“Terrorism makes my dick soft.”
“That’s okay. It was always your heart I was interested in.”
Lazur looks up, flushed. “My heart?”
“Always erect. Fully engorged.”
“I really need to talk to HR about this.”
“Haha. Come on. Loosen up.”
A dark strand falls in Lazur’s face and he sweeps it back without thinking, slicking red through his black hair. “There was a bomb threat yesterday.”
“Wow. Sounds scary.”
“Someone rigged a florist to explode. You know, a flower shop. Who does that?”
“I thought it might be you. But the bomb was so easy. 101 shit. I took it apart in my sleep.”
Lazur sits up, knees bursting from the water. “Why are you yaying? You shouldn’t. Was that your bomb?”
“I wanted to boost your morale. Give you a win.”
“Come on, you post-traumatic freakazoid. I gave you a clinical dose of victory. I know it’s the only time you relax. Look at you. You’re relaxing.”
Lazur tries to stop relaxing. “I’m not.”
“It’s because you know where I am. You got me contained in this little screen.”
Lazur starts to drop the tablet in the water, iridescent bubbles submerging the glass.
Rubicon grabs the webcam, a shaky close-up of his shredded lips, the tip of his panicked tongue. “Wait no no no not the water—”
“You shouldn’t have done that. People could have died and it would have been my fault because I never should have been doing stupid shit like exactly what we’re doing right now.”
“No one was going to die.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t control every single factor. You’re not God.”
“The jury is still out. But it won’t stop me from playing dice with you.”
Lazur’s naked back presses against the wall, shoulder blades digging into the tile. “I thought God plays dice with the universe.”
The screen in Rubicon’s room reflects in his eyes, glowing cubes inside torn circles. “What do you think you are to me?”
The technician’s heart beats faster. “What are you saying?”
“Isn’t there a name for what we are?”
Just a series of anonymous hookups. The way it always was. With strangers in parks, or one-night stands. Empty-eyed, drunk transactions. People use each other, and you take what you can get.
Lazur says, “You’re just another rich kid having fun with something before you crush it.”
“Crush is the word, Laz.”
Lazur lifts the screen from the water. The glass is crusted with red dye, shaking in his hand. “I can’t tell if you’re serious, you’re too fucking ugly.”
Wounded voice, body curling like an echo in flesh, enough wounds to wrap around that entire sound. “I have to tell you something.”
“I love you.”
The screen drips in the silence, red stars bursting across the glass. Strontium fountains spill to earth with an incendiary gasp. Rubicon laughs nervously. His pupils are tiny, lost in the blackened swamp of his eyes. Lazur sees the IV tube going into the boy’s wrist. He understands now. It’s another stupid joke. “You’re just high on painkillers.”
Rubicon rips the IV out. The tube shakes in his hand, every second punctuated by a drop of morphine. The bath faucet drips.
“What are you doing?”
Tears swell in Rubicon’s eyes, but he grits his teeth. “The pain in my heart. Is bigger than this pain.”
“You sound different.”
“You’re the one who told me I had to be more serious. I’m being serious.”
A drop of water falls on the screen, blurring Rubicon’s face. Lazur wipes his eyes. This is the feeling he had when the teen driver almost ran him over. The recognition of a younger mind that still has a chance. The tremendous responsibility of his every action around such a mind, the fear of owning a pet or having kids. “You’re right,” he says. “I’ll listen.”
Rubicon tries to enunciate, to speak clearly over the suction of his deformed mouth. “You remember those anatomy pics of the heart in textbooks. And they always made them red and blue?”
“That’s how we are.” Rubicon touches the screen, mic rustling with his fingertip. Lazur’s spine sparks as if caressed, water filling the gap between his arched back and the tub. “Encircling each other. Beating blood into each other.”
Panic swells again, bath water surging with the outrageous torrent of his heart. “I can’t do this—”
“Listen you stupid peon. When I woke up from. You know. I was in so much pain I couldn’t scream. Every nerve in my body was firing. I was in hell. And I couldn’t turn it off. When they took the respirator out, I could breathe, but I was detached from my sense of breathing. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like if you couldn’t taste water. I couldn’t taste the air. Like all the hairs in my nose had been trimmed and the olfactory receptors had been stripped and the air was hot and blunted and I couldn’t get something from it that I needed. Something that I couldn’t explain. I thought I would feel that way forever.”
The IV tube trembles in his grip, stained with blood.
“Then someone turned on the morphine. And I started crying. Because it meant I wouldn’t always have to feel that way.
That’s what it’s like when I see you.”
Red water rises and falls around Lazur’s chest, sinking into the divot of his pulse. Rubicon wipes the snot from his nose. “Maybe I’m just a stupid kid. But if I’m wrong. If this is just my deluded fantasy. Then tell me. Tell me you don’t like me.”
Lazur licks his lips, the only dry part of his body.
“Just one word. No. Even a baby can do it. No. Cut the red wire. Just say no. Cross me. Cross me out.”
Lazur feels as if he is dying. Fireworks explode, painting his face. He can’t speak. But something comes out anyway. “It was always difficult for me to lie.”
“Haha. Hahaha. That’s the most Lazur way I can think of telling someone you like them”
“I didn’t. I didn’t say that.”
Lazur’s eyes blur with the deafening beat of his heart, which sounds the same as it always did whenever he’s around Rubicon.
Where better to hide such a feeling, than the dark red waters of terror. Perfect mimicry dripping crimson.
Lazur waves his hand through the water. The faster he sweeps it, the more pressure builds against the back of his hand, the gentle medium becoming heavy and constrictive. “It doesn’t matter how we feel. One of us will be forced to—”
“I don’t care. I have poor impulse control.”
“You think I mutilated you. Maybe I did. How can you—”
Rubicon traces the laceration running across his face like he’s leaning into a stringed instrument, eyes shut with agonized concentration. “I wake up to this every day. This body that is never going to change.” His finger skates the line to his lips. Tears drip through the holes of his mouth, speaking through the sting of salt. “I don’t want you to become just another scar.”
For a moment there are no fireworks anywhere, just a dark landscape. Lazur wipes his nose. “I understand.”
Rubicon slumps like a chewed-up doll, pain running wet from the sides of his eyes and mouth. His smile is peaceful and simple. Lazur doesn’t smile. Everything he feels is compressed into his hands around the screen. The act of holding tight, holding through confusion and dread, refusing to let go.
The low battery warning flashes. 1%. Rubicon coughs and reaches for something. Suck suck on a straw. The cup drops with a splash offscreen. His hand quavers. “I’m still. Recovering from the suit.”
“I never confused you for an athlete.”
“Haha.” Rubicon hangs over the side of the wheelchair, trying to keep his head up. “Sorry. I feel so bad—”
“It’s okay. I get tired early too.”
“Another thing we have in common.” He smiles childishly, then his eyelids flutter, losing focus.
“Put the IV back in.”
Rubicon brings the tube to his wrist, then stops. His smile widens, drooling with nerve pain. “Even if it hurts. I want to remember this a little longer.”
They sit quietly, fireworks flashing across the bath, so distant their sound seems removed, everything fading to leave only this warm pool and his face. The screen dims. The battery clings to life, red warning barely visible. Lazur gently says, “Go to bed.”
Rubicon is already asleep, curled up awkwardly in his wheelchair. His face is shot through with pain and exhaustion, the IV tube tight in his fist. Lazur feels the urge to slide it back inside that impossibly slender wrist. But he can’t. There is great relief at the distance between him and that wrist, and great pain.
He pulls the plug and the red dream runs through his fingers, draining into the sewer. The screen dies. Fireworks burst but they don’t hurt. None of the bells in Lazur’s brain are ringing. The weight is gone. He falls asleep.
Lazur wakes up. The sun streams across his chest, naked body stained red. It looks like someone died in this tub.
His phone buzzes somewhere on the floor. Under his shirt, pushing aside the blue watch and the dark gun. It’s a text from the agency.