The conclusion of the on-going story, 'Inside / Out.'
Kiko breathed out. Threw the vodka into the back of her throat. Felt it slide away, effortless, before sucking in oxygen as an afterthought. She didn’t feel drunk at all. The air was too cold. She was a vessel.
Jones watched her from across the table. He was in a suit, loosened now around his nerves.
“I’ve never fired my gun, you know that?” Jones asked.
They’d been at a Cabinet Hearing. Francis, the tactical officer with the hair trigger, wouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun for six months. All things considered, that was a pretty comfortable outcome.
Jones was pushing forty, and had something bottled up inside of him, just below the surface of his skin. But, he’d never fired his weapon. Maybe in another state of mind, Kiko would have been surprised. Now, though, she just sat back and savoured the moment, abstract and disjointed. She’d felt like this for weeks. She imagined what it would be like to climb onto the table and leap into the lights above.
Jones pressed further.
Kiko turned towards the bar. “This vodka is terrible.”
“Yes it is.” Jones, mirthless, took another shot.
Kiko pressed her palms into the table. Pushed down, hard. Felt the ground push back into her arms and knew that she wouldn’t ever be the same again.
“You never told me about Japan. Good trip?”
Kiko shook her head, forced a smile. “It was good. It was all things, I suppose.”
Jones nodded, confused. Kiko noted the beginnings of stubble on his chin, the easing of his hairline. The fog starting to creep through his eyes.
“I’m done for tonight.” Jones started to stand.
“What happened to the Flaggie? The one that got shot?”
Jones resumed his seat. Kiko spoke flatly, quietly. It grabbed his attention, which was what she wanted. Keep spinning.
“He alive?” Kiko spun and spun.
“What do you care?”
“I want to ask him something.”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Why do you think they do that to themselves? Those white tattoos? What do they mean?” Kiko leant forward.
“It’s a religious thing, I guess. Absolving themselves of humanity’s sins and all that bullshit…”
“Because of what we did to the Settlers.”
Jones shifted uncomfortably. Smiled, in his awkward way, trying to cut through the air. “Don’t think we should be talking about this, Keek.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Jones started folding up his jacket. Time to leap into the light.
“I don’t think it was murder.” Kiko leant forward, fierce.
“The kid we found. David. The one we scraped off the concrete.”
“You think he was a Flaggie? He did that to himself?” Jones started to laugh. Stopped himself. Kiko watched his hands pick at the cluttered fabric of his jacket. “That’s not how they operate, Kiko.”
“I got lost in Japan.”
“What do you mean?”
Kiko looked up at the roof of the bar. At moths, buzzing around the inviting fluorescent lights. Her eyes wavered, so she closed them and slowly started to speak.
“When I woke up, I was at the base of the mountain, covered in leaves. My body was warm, even though the ground was frozen.”
Jones moved to speak, confused, but Kiko cut him off. Abstract and disjointed as she was, eyes shut against the light.
“I couldn’t remember much, only a few… a few colours, or lights. My bag was with me, but it was empty. I’d emptied it out, somewhere, up at the top of the mountain.
“I wished I could’ve remembered what I saw. But I couldn’t, couldn’t quite grasp it; sitting on the edge of my mind like a bad dream. So I wandered down the road, fell into a train. Went back to Osaka. Surrounded by people, swarming. Became part of the metal hive. Escape, just an offworld ticket away. All those lights.
“I found a hotel. Inside it, everyone was sleeping. I don’t think I ever saw anyone awake, in there. But I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I just saw white and grey shapes, tumbling over my eyelids. Something I brought back with me from inside the mountain, I supposed.
“I just couldn’t sleep. For days, days I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I was on one of those rockets, pulling out of orbit. Something sat inside my gut and I couldn’t work out what it was. Just let it tumble around in there, slowly filling me up.
“And then I remembered – that’s where David went.”
She opened her eyes. Jones watched her, wide-eyed. Wide-eyed. A vessel.
Kiko leant forward, grabbed his arm. Jones flinched.
“I left something back there.”
Jones tried to pull away. Kiko could feel the warmth of his body through his shirt. Above her, the lights grew and grew and cascaded over all things. Electricity, cold and sharp, coursed through her.
Her brain straddled a great divide. The vodka had done nothing, bold and useless. She snatched desperately at something.
“Let’s go. To your apartment.”
Jones said nothing. Looked deep into Kiko’s unflinching gaze, and sucked in oxygen like an afterthought. He nodded.
As they stood, Kiko felt her stomach start to rumble.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.