lunchBreak Downtown

B.E. Nugent

Through the window the streets swarm with the afflicted. Blind and aimless, they stumble through the rubble of decaying buildings. Some lean on crutches or strips of wood. Others, fallen on their knees, raise their hands to the crimson sky. The horizon is close and it’s on fire. Still others crawl hand over hand with torn skin and sores that pulse an inglorious tricolour of red and yellow and green. Everywhere, they leave trails of blood and piss. They wallow in filth, too broken to vent their rage. Too lost to find their way.

I suppress a retch, turn from the window and resume counting numbers. I input and calculate and assemble and distribute. Numbers. Until I am numb. Number?

Am I dreaming? I pray to Christ no. Fuck no. Denis stands over me. He speaks to me about the numbers. This can’t be a dream. What is a dream? It’s not this. Denis does not belong in my dream.

He stutters. It’s affectation, a strategy. I’ve heard him speak fluently. He takes too long to say what he has to say, picking his words to stutter over, all the better to give him time. He’s the one in charge. He can take all the time he wants and he hesitates before every syllable as though he’s deep in doubt. So much time and so much choosing yet such an aptitude to say precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time.

He’s shy, Jennifer says. She counts numbers too and has been here longer than me and she knows. So much can be forgiven of those who are shy. “Oh, that’s not what he meant,” she tells me, “he struggles in social situations. He’s shy, you know.” 

It’s as though being shy was the only explanation for social ineptitude. It’s not and he’s not. He’s just a prick.

He’s still talking to me. Count more numbers. Bigger numbers. Better numbers. It’s not a dream, thank Christ. Or thank fuck. One of them, anyway.

I count 3,600 seconds, put them in my pocket, grab my bag and run through the door onto the street. Out amongst the afflicted, dense smoke billows from a burnt-out wreck blocking the road and I choke. Black smoke against a blood-red sky. I collapse to my knees and clench my eyes. Eighty-five seconds fall from my grasp and slip through cracks in the concrete. I mourn their loss but I must go on. I seek nourishment.

A beggar blocks my path. He stands before me, toothless, scarred and misshapen, tears smeared red beneath his eyes. He extends his cup. His mouth flaps but I cannot hear above the groans, the laboured breathing that inhabits this street, the tap-tapping of crutches on stone and the murmuring chorus of pain.

“What is it?” I ask.

“The virus,” he replies. “It’s the virus.”

“No,” I scream, “you’re wrong. It’s not the virus.”

I throw coins into his cup and stagger away, heartened by this moment of charity, my random act of kindness. Perhaps there is hope for us yet. He calls after me.

“Fuck you! I wasn’t finished drinking that.”

A man dressed in rags stands on an upturned crate. “The end was nigh but you wouldn’t listen!” he shouts to no one listening, the mass of people heaving this way and that. They stumble, on crutches and without; they knock the man from his perch. Then trample him. The horde crawls over his flailing limbs until the police drag him away. Through the bramble of legs and batons he calls out, “lift the veil, man. Lift the fucking veil.” The police beat him some more.

I buckle, tripping over an old woman who’s prostrate on the ground. Slowly, she extends her arm, her fingers close over the heel of my shoe and I kick myself free. I don’t look back. Push forward. Find refuge. There are trees ahead. I stumble towards them.

Shelter is an old broken tree with a rotted branch stooping low to the ground. I pull myself across patches of scorched grass and flaking mud, through the detritus of abandoned artifacts in this dead oasis, past a couple brazenly fucking on barren ground. He is behind and she is semi-prone, her lips swollen, her skin the colour of orange, her eyes dead ahead. Cosmetic surgery or exposure to radiation, I can’t tell. They make no sound other than rhythmic, synchronised grunts. “Uh,” he says. “Uh,” she says. “Uh,” he says again. And again. Her eyes line with mine and I wonder what it is she sees. I don’t ask.

I clear vermin from the base of the tree and ensconce myself within its overgrown roots, then check my pocket. Only 2911 seconds left. Where does the time go? 

A quick check on my bearings. The couple remains rooted in coitus. Further away, a group of three has discovered a water source and roils in mud. Closer, but the other direction, a large man with a shaven head stands tall with tight fists over another man, face down on the ground. Blood pools but no longer throbs from the fallen man’s body. Hunching lower, my knees pressing against my chest, I remove my food from the bag.

Fresh deli-style ham, not that plastic kind, with juicy tomatoes, crisp lettuce sprinkled with sweet country relish between buttered slices of today’s finest sourdough. Add the flask of finely brewed Arabica and I have a meal fit for the king of the shitheap.

“That’s mine.” The words come from the shaved head. He stands over me. Nonchalant. Thick arms rest on the branch.

“No it’s not,” I answer.

“You’ve taken what’s mine. That’s a declaration of war. It’s my right to retrieve it. This is a just war. Don’t you agree? That this is a just war?”

“You’re close,” I say. “Drop the indefinite article and we have no argument.”

“I’m within my rights. I’m fighting a just war. Ask him,” he says, pointing at the unmoving man a little distance away. 

“I think he won’t dispute,” I say. He grabs my sandwich.

“Exactly! As I…”

A loud shot disturbs our exchange, to which we are unlikely to return as a small red spot appears on his vest and seeps white to red. He drops to his knees, then topples, his head nestling against a gnarled root.

I am joined by another, crouched low and dressed in woodland camouflage gear. He searches the pockets of the shaved one. He looks at me and smiles broad with broken teeth.

“Weren’t you lucky I showed up!” he grins. “You had trouble here, no doubt about it.”

“Thank you…I think,” I say. “You’re carrying a gun?”

“Of course I’m carrying a gun. My parents have guns. My brothers and sisters have guns. My neighbours all have guns. Everyone I know has a gun. It’s statistics, you understand. Statistically, I’m much more likely to be shot by someone close to me and if my parents, my brothers, my sisters and my neighbours all have guns, then damn right I’m gonna have one. Anyways, it’s my conjugal right to sleep with my gun.”

“I’m too tired,” I say.

“Your sandwich got the worst of it,” he says, pulling the remnants of my meal from under the body that’s attached to the shaved head. The bread is moist and red. He offers it to me with a dirty hand, dripping blood.

“Keep it,” I say, and he grins wide and bites hard through the sourdough and butter, the deli-style ham, the juicy tomatoes and crisp lettuce, sprinkled with sweet blood relish.

I close my eyes, rest my head against the tree. I breathe. Slowly. Through my nose and out my mouth. I count. With each number a precious second evaporates from my pocket. I’m losing them. I reach 100, 200, 300 and on and on. I inhale and exhale and count seconds as they cease to exist.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“I’m me,” I reply.

“That’s odd,” he says, “I’m me too. Maybe we’re related?” He cackles.

“When did it happen?” I ask.

He swallows the last of the sandwich, then wipes his hands and mouth on the dead man’s vest. His face carries a curious expression, hard to read. He rises to leave, then leans in close. “There is no before,” he says and scuttles away with a sniper’s crawl.

483…482…481…480 is all I’ve left. The rest are gone, spent on things I’d prefer to forget. I launch from my refuge, keeping low, watchful. My new friend might find other uses for me now the sandwich has settled in his gut. I leave the couple still at it, still grunting, her eyes still, following me. I wonder what it is that she sees.

I reach the street, climb broken pavements and leap chasms. I shun the afflicted, pay them no heed, push past but quickly. Give them no time to draw a bead. Blood flows from the forehead of a man as he hits his head against a brick wall. He holds the hand of a child. A woman has a grip on the child’s other hand. She wails. The child between them, this way and that. In perpetuity. I remember them clearly, although I’ve never seen them before.

The upturned crate has redeemed itself. A woman in a tightly buttoned blouse and long skirt stands on it, wielding a megaphone. Behind her, there’s a group of women in chains and manacles. She points at them without looking at them. “Every life is sacred,” she hollers through the megaphone. “Every life has value.” 

“Prove it,” I shout back. “Where’s your evidence? Saying it doesn’t make it so.”

“I saved them,” she answers, again pointing at the women behind her, “I can save you too.” 

I’ve no time for this. I’m running late. Just 136 seconds left. Obstacles stand in my way. Squad cars and fire engines, sirens and flashing lights. The police baton charges the fire fighters, then the soldiers arrive, dividing their number equally between both sides and launch new offensives. Paramedics check the vitals of the injured for proof of insurance.

I duck from falling debris and my hamstring twitches. There is no time to delay and I clutch my thigh to pull it faster, to quicken my pace. It seems to be working.

At last, I’m back inside. Denis stands before me. Trembling, I empty my pockets. 35 seconds that I offer to him. He takes them and hesitates, momentarily, then throws them into the trash.

“G-g-g–get c-c-c-counting,” he says, too shy to look at me.

“How was lunch?” Jennifer asks.

I’m back at my desk. Just 10,800 seconds to go before I’ll be 1,200 from home where I can shut the door on bedlam. I won’t open the curtains, nor switch on the radio, too weary to work out which of the interminable broadcasts will eventually turn out to be the one that we’ll look back on as the one.  

Perhaps I might dream a bit. No. That’s not likely. I’ll probably sit on my sofa, turn on my TV and let the dreams of others carry me away. It’s easier. It’s quicker.

Every second counts, after all.


Gerry Griffin writes as B.E. Nugent. B.E. Nugent is Irish, aged 54 years and married for 25 of them. He is new to creative writing with three stories currently published and a further three accepted by publications later this year.