The first time I met my father he was nine years old. The train had thrown his body two hundred feet down the track, bones were toothpicks dropped on the floor, angles and spikes. Eyes the color of sliced grapes were imbued with burgundy. I got to sit with him for a full two minutes hearing him croon his final breaths as the cadence of death prodded each limb and hand. It was the happiest moment of my life.
Quint said he could get me into the Think Tank for only half of what everyone else was being charged. That he never told me what everyone else was charged didn’t fill me with confidence, but the prospect of never existing did. No one knew how the Think Tank worked. Some say it’s a chamber, a flotation device that allows the mind to enter an altered state. You don’t see or touch anything. It’s all in your head. Nothing changes. There was this rumor that a kid used it to go back in time. He bought a lottery ticket for the following week. When he left the Think Tank, he was no richer than when he got in it. Quint believes the rumor was started by the company who owns the Tank. Stop people from profiting from their science. They didn’t want the world to be full of gods and billionaires. If you were going into the Tank, it was just to observe the past, not influence it or alter the future. Stuff happens in history for a reason. Let it be. That’s why they limited how far back you could travel. At a push you could go back fifty years. The last major terrorist attack was 9/11. Maybe if you found the oldest person alive today, they could have been no younger than thirty years when those towers fell. To me, that date might as well have been scribed in the Bible, it was so long ago.
Digital prints still exist of her before the accident: two rattlesnake tails of plaited hair draped her face. Eyes the size of opals. On the hood of an old Cadillac she sat, legs crossed, ankle-length boots. The winds had spun the clouds into a web, diffusing the sunlight to make her skin flawless. If Quint heard me talk like this about my own mother, he’d think I was some weirdo. Probably beat me too, but I’ve seen the way he looks at those pictures. He gets lost in them too, measuring every part of her as though he’s putting together a jigsaw, matching tones and ambiguous features, comparing her youthful right eye with the one now hidden behind skin graft. He is estimating the thickness of her lips against those that have been thinned by erosion.
The company who owns the Think Tank worked out of a small industrial hangar on the outskirts of the city. It would take a full charge to get my car to travel that far. Quint knew a few of the old back roads that cut the time and distance down some. The place didn’t look like much from the outside, a box of corrugated steel with a small door. No signs. Quint knocked five times and we had to wait another five minutes before we were let in. The air was charged with the smell of chemicals and ground coffee. Quint told me to hang back. He walked over to a large black man fixing an old Goldwing motorcycle. They talked, and every once in a while, they would both to look over at me. The black guy guided us to another hangar, one that sat within the larger hangar. Within that was a room. Two men stood at its entrance. The black man held out his ID card and they let us in. There was nothing in this room save for a large tomb-like structure in the center. One light hung above it, cold and naked. A man wearing a lab coat came in and Quint handed him the electronic tablet that contained my birth details, fingerprints, blood group, and family medical history. The man downloaded it into a large computer. I was told to remove all my clothes and change into a dressing gown. Then I had to wait. Quint sat with me, said it would be okay and that it will all be done soon. To pass the time, Quint asked questions about my family. He knew the answers, heard me speak about my parents since we first met at school. Guess he was nervous too. To make things go quicker, I told him about rabbit dodging.
The main gas line between the east coast and the capital ran through the town where my father grew up. It was shut down after the gas shortage of 2030. The evacuated tunnel was used for the first Vactrain. It was a big deal back then. My grandfather was one of the local men hired to lay down the maglev lines from Yorkshire to the Midlands, and that’s about as much as I know about him. Quint knew about the tunnels. Knew they had no air in them because the lack of air resistance was the key to making those trains supersonic. A recreational pastime of bored children would be to open access latches that sealed off the outside from the vacuum beneath. If they timed it right, fresh air would enter the tunnel and the Vactrain would slow enough for one child to hang down from the access and wait there. At the last minute they’d hoist themselves back up, avoiding having their legs taken off by the Vactrain. Authorities got wise to this and sealed the access latches and that was the end of that. But my father was pretty good at it. To celebrate his ninth birthday, he went rabbit dodging and left it a little too late. The train caught his left foot, snapped it back at the ankle. My mother said she would have never noticed my father had he not had that limp. She was a sucker for a wounded animal.
The man in the lab coat threw policies and procedures at me like rice at a wedding. I wasn’t really listening. I checked out and that’s all that mattered. Before he led me to the Tank, Quint turned to me and shook my hand. It felt final, like that was the last moment he had with me. We didn’t say anything. Know someone long enough and you don’t need to talk. It’s all understood in a stare or gesture of hand.
My mother told me that after she was attacked, they placed her in a body bag. The paramedics on the scene zipped it up and talked about her beyond the plastic. She said it was like being dead, hearing voices from another world. The Think Tank is like that. There is no light. No sound, save for your breathing and the faint echo of a voice that seems to be in another dimension. Water surrounds you. Warm. High salt content keeps you afloat. There is no point in closing your eyes because the eyelid is just as dark as the space before you. A voice squeezes through a speaker: deep and Oz-like. I tapped my heels three times and whispered, There’s no place like home. Then came more instructions. Hypnosis was delivered under the cloak of relaxation. Count. One hundred to zero. In the darkness, I saw her face again beside that Cadillac. People in the town used to say my mother was too perfect. They assumed she had surgery to make herself that pretty, but the only thing unnatural about her was her taste in men.
I counted to fifty and the voice told me to picture the place I wanted to visit. Imagine it in every detail, the smell and the sounds. Before coming to the Tank, I found the first Google Earth pictures that had been archived before the earthquakes razed industrial buildings, houses and hillsides. Before the earth yawned and cracked the tunnel in two, I was able to see a moment from the past captured by a search engine: my father’s old town. Antique BMWs and the first of the hybrid vehicles. The houses brick, not the composition of fiberglass, silicon, and cinder aggregate used on modern houses. The smell of wild flowers and grass I gleaned from the botanic museum in the city: adder’s tongue, toothwort, hawksbeard, foxglove. Memorized all their scents from those fostered in labs or recreated from synthetic perfumes. I spoke with my mother about the clothes and detergents she used, soaps and hair-care products. I recalled the scent of lavender, almonds and citrus fruits. I inhaled the gentle breeze of a summer afternoon that carried upon it creosote and cut grass. I heard the laughter of children and felt the warm hand of the sun resting upon my head.
My father placed a gold band on her finger and put an embryo in her stomach before she reached the age of eighteen. He then spent the following five months furnishing her cheekbones, arms, and legs in varying shades of black and blue. Mozart and Vivaldi are the preferred sounds to play an unborn baby, but a rendition of harsh profanities became my beat, screams the harmonies, and the wailing and furious words that bled into the placenta the music which aided my fetal development.
Six months pregnant and scared that his fist might strike my tiny head, she packed her bags. He caught her leaving through the front door. Her parting sonnet to him was that she would become a successful model and find a man as beautiful as she remembered herself to be.
You don’t know it’s happened till you’re there. Like a dream, you charter the darkness till shadows are pushed to one side and before you is light, pure and brilliant. The volume of life is turned up again. This wasn’t lucid dreaming. The detail was too clear and rendered too perfectly. There was no pocket of empty space filled with anything surreal or out of place. The grass was warm to the touch, the air free of smog. My peripheral vision was untainted by ambiguity. If I turned my head left or right, the horizon remained punctuated by hills and rows of tiny roofs that looked like blackened teeth. Upon the zephyr came the shrill of emergent voices, and on occasion the faint drum of rushing feet. To walk in the past is to walk among an upturned graveyard. There is nothing but death brimming with life.
The landscape of my mother’s blistered skin is a terrain better matched to Death Valley. Mesh covered her face for three weeks after the first set of skin grafts. Donated skin from her leg wallpapered the empty socket where she lost her right eye. Further surgery helped reconstruct a nose around the tapered septum still remaining. More grafts. More mesh. The coffee skin turned the color of shrimp shell before settling into shades of mocha, rose petal, and cream. She didn’t smile for a year, and then when she did, no one could tell. Halfway through the painful skin graft operations, her waters broke. The doctors injected anesthetic into the potato peel that was her face to stop her from passing out during labor. Both north and south of her body she was in pain, and now she had a child to feed. Cops found my father hiding out at a hostel in Kendal. Charged him for giving my mother an acid face wash and he served three years. He got shanked in Strangeways after the first six months.
Three boys dressed in sports apparel stood around the aperture of the latch, staring down. They didn’t hear me approach, or observe me as I stopped before a wild dandelion, rapt in its simple beauty. As I reached down to stroke the yellow petals, the ground vibrated, earth shifted. The Vactrain was close. Neither boy resembled the pictures I had seen of my father. One of them shouted down the hole, the name of Kieran glued to the end of the sentence. I imagined him down there, hands gripping the safety rail, legs flailing, heart beating out a rate faster than the wheels of the Vactrain. A faint rumble like that of thunder burrowed through the soil. In one motion I ran toward the boys, foot crushing the dandelion. They saw me approach, a glaze of panic coating their eyes. I yelled something that should have been more inspired, brutal and deliberate, but the words were malformed, tumbling out of my mouth and peppering their tiny scared faces like hailstone. Feet began tingling, shins trembling. The Vactrain was a bullet travelling at a speed of 4000–5000 mph. The boys ran off when I raised my fists. I saw their willowy figures set against the rising heat.
My newborn fingers must have traversed the valleys and skin ridges of her rugged face many times. They must have felt the tears welling in the ravines and gullies that were once a cheek, a lip, an eye. But I have no recollection of this. All that remains of my infancy was the warmth I felt around my mother. In her one remaining eye that watched me warily as I ascended stairs and that pinched slightly whenever my paint splattered hands hovered too close to the wall, I noted only devotion.
The drama of expression is lost on a face deformed by chemical burns. The expression of shock, anger, unhappiness, or joy does not pull so freely on the muscles beneath the skin. I learnt that the slightest dip of an eyebrow implied sorrow in her, the curl of the lip accompanied by the narrowing of the eye was happiness. It got to be that I could read her face much more easily than had she never been burned, which is why I knew whenever she passed a shop window or noted the looks of disgust as she guided me along streets and pathways, that even I could never heal the sorrow that burned her heart.
With toes perched on the edge of the hole, I looked down and saw bone-white knuckles gripped around the bottom of a telescopic ladder. The power of that train was sucking the outside air in. I felt myself being forced into the hole and heard him shout to the boys that the rabbit was coming. The rabbit was coming. He was whooping and yelling. Adrenalin cries. I descended the first few rungs of the ladder and felt my body gain three times its mass. Skin blanched as my hands held tightly to the metal rungs. Bones trembled, organs convulsed. My heart was a clenched fist, banging upon the wall of a prison cell. The first time we touched was the last. My foot crushed his grip and he fell before the passing train. It took me all my strength not to follow him.
The first time I met my father he was nine years old. I extended the ladders down into the tunnel and sat upon steel rails with my heart bloated with happiness and lungs hungry for air. As first impressions go he appeared small and weak with his body lying bent into many angles. No risk to anyone. The bitterness I had inherited bled out of me just as life bled out of him. He was now no more than a dream. And as shadows united around me, muting the past and erasing me from the future, her face came to me once more. Before her the sun was again a spotlight and the heavens a web to diffuse the light. Once again she was beautiful and would remain that way until the end of time.
CRAIG WALLWORK is the twice-nominated Pushcart writer of the books The Sound of Loneliness, To Die Upon a Kiss, Quintessence of Dust, and Gory Hole. He is also the fiction editor of the journal Menacing Hedge. He lives in West Yorkshire, England.