CW: tobacco, war, hallucination, kidnapping, alcohol, firearms
Through the window speckled with water, Yelena watched a procession of anonymous cars. A speaker above her ear crackled like paper, struggling to be heard over the alarms and clattering metal. "I'm taking a break!" Yelena shouted to no-one in particular. To her manager, changing the music or even switching it off created too much instability within the organization; it was an invitation for mutiny, a disavowal of authority. Through the motorik haze of afternoon traffic, she still hears their lyrics: have a good time, fall in love, tonite's gonna be the night. Even as a child she knew it; they had always been commands set to sound. Rigid, barking orders repeated so often that even a drumbeat brought about a conditioned response. She opened up the package, tearing clumsily at the plastic... it's so obvious she's looking for the habit, puffing without the sincerity people used to have. Her thoughts splatter onto the window like rain.
"You can't smoke here," the manager sez. Yelena walks down the boulevard, grandiose in its emptiness. In every direction, parking lots extended into the horizon. A river of black sludge ran through the cracks and breaks, forming puddles that shimmered like pearls. She felt a certain grief, as if a cherished memory had faded from her mind. The asphalt steppes seemed something like freedom when you could dot its peaks with teenage excess. But as the bones set and fat gives way to taut skin, nada, nothing at all becomes a boundary more impenetrable than steel. Oh-- Yelena, you were always a bother, and a bore. She takes a reluctant drag, and lets most of the smoke leave through her nose. Nothing new. There's nothing new.
The inside of her car filled up with a haze of pizza fumes, stark and iconic yet nondescript like colored plastic. The cotton flaps of her uniform fluttered as the wind rushed through the window, and she gladly shivers along to the cold chill. Underneath the pained whistles of afternoon showers, thumping bass punched her stomach-- not much else could escape the speakers pounding within an inch of their life. One of her eyes is set on her phone, snug in its cradle above the center console. She records herself while driving; she shakes her head, the music so loud it sounds like ice breaking under her weight. Seven viewers. It's yet her greatest hour. "In the future, everyone will be gay for fifteen minutes."
Yelena stood outside the condo complex glowing in the haze of her phone; her reckless speeding had given her a few restful minutes before the thirty-minute guarantee. She hadn't heard from her. Bitch. No little pop-up hearts, tender rejoinders; sand-kissed lips or a setting sun. She felt like a limb was missing from her, burning with phantom pain. "Bitch, stop ignoring me." A little knife. Worry trembling at the end. A few minutes have passed. Yelena takes the pizzas and climbs up the stairs deeper into the condo complex, decorated with fossil palms and sand-dressed masonry. The glows of televisions pour into the misshapen snake path of a walkway, forming squirming noise. Through one of the windows, she sees bodies disfigured by a blocky filter. The marque below it reads "NATO ISOLATES AUTONOMOUS ZONE." The marque disappears, quickly replaced by a steaming bowl of cheese. Yelena's been plagued by contextless phrases her whole life, anonymous foods, her own memory a fragmented series of headlines and computerized vapor. The words "NATO" were like a gaping hole in her room-- it's always been there, but Yelena never wondered why. "23;" she takes a picture on delivery and awaits confirmation. NATO. Nay-toe. A meagre tip. She looks at the door of twenty-three, and fights every temptation surging into her body. "Fuck you, asshole;" said just loud enough to feel good.
Through the window, she sees images of children wearing camouflage, presenting their weapons with a grey veil behind them. Some of them carry proudly icons, of Godliness or material wealth. Others carry only their hungry eyes, animated by helicopter fuel rippling over jagged rocks. "Christine; bitch where are you?" A building is taken by a cloud of fire, made of the most beautiful gold she'd ever seen. Suddenly humans repopulate the screen-- a man dressed in camouflage sets his pistol to the temples of a child. Both of them are laughing. A cathedral is enveloped by fire. A faint impression of orange and red remains, then conquered by a glistening slab of beef.
"Yelena," she heard through as she walked up the stairs. She imagined her mother sitting at the door after seeing her off, resting comatose 'till the evening's return. "Yelena, privjet;" Yelena's mother opened the door with only slight trepidation, scanning every corner for foreign signals. "Yelena... hurry up, come eat." Ripping off her pizza-stained uniform didn't do away with the stench, it still festered in Yelena's nostrils where it dripped down to her aching belly. "I'm not hungry, mom." Yelena's mother poured a cabbage soup and set it beside a plate of something swimming in mayonnaise and garlic. "I'm not hungry." Yelena insisted, half-relenting as she sat by the table decorated beautifully with rose-tinted lace and a single rose in a vase. "Did you have a good day at work?" Yelena's mother asked as she filled a cup with juice. Yelena tried to swallow some of the soup, squirming as it burns her throat. A voice was screeching in the living-room, piercing to the ears in the way only the speaker of a phone could be. "Did you hear, Lena, about this?" Yelena stuck her fork into the mayonnaise and garlic, prodding its silvery shapes. "They have these, I guess children, going into a war zone. They take pictures, videos; they do shows in front of burning buildings and hostages." Yelena's face steadily melted into her upright hand; her spoon an oar in steaming waters. "No-one goes to school these days. They all want to be special entertainers, and they want to be number one." A mushroom floated peacefully. "They have all these rappers on the internet with guns. They say, 'kill police with guns, it's the best thing in the world.'" A piece of potato floated to the top before crumbling away. "I tell you, Lenochka; these times are for Satan, and only Satan. No man can fight the battle against hell. Even the strongest one." Yelena takes a spoonful of soup and lets it fall back into the bowl. Did her mother change? Or did she change? Yelena felt disappointed in herself for once thinking of her mother as wise and worldly. "And of course, NATO... nothing. They shake hands like they do with Mladic." There it was again, "NATO." Nay-toe. It felt like a primordial trickster God had suddenly revealed herself, stripped of the dark veil of anonymity. Who was NATO, to do something? Was NATO the hand of chance? "What will people do? How can anyone live with rappers pointing guns in their gardens for the cameras? Where are their parents?" The face of Yelena's mother had become red with fury, only barely constrained by the warm sweater she enveloped herself in. "Finish your soup, Lena."
The emptiness of her room felt welcoming. There was stillness here; the walls bare, unassuming, unmolesting to the senses. Yelena had gotten into the habit of cleansing herself every month, throwing away pictures and tchotchkees, scrubbing the dirt of luck. She sat on the frame of the open window, her feet pressed up against the metal rail. Beneath her, the city hungrily screeched with its alarms and sirens, engine rattles, screams-- the sound of metal folding like flesh. She looked at her last three, four messages to Christine; unseen, offline. Her mother's ranting, and the crimson blocks oozing with suggestion-- they seemed to mean nothing, unburdened everything carried on. The hum she heard in her phone charger suddenly grew louder, louder until it overwhelmed everything else. She walks to her desk, the yearbook open and his picture papery and vulnerable. Nirvana hung beneath his speckled face. "Elon Rao," she mumbles. "I'm so fucking bored;" his blog likewise was bare and full of banal observations. The size of the town insects. The smell of shit and piss, trickling in every alleyway. Weekends that disrupt the tedium only with drinking, and drinking. "Holy fuck! I've been staring out the window for days. Nothing! Nobody comes by. Bullshit! I want there to be something, something happening. Some action!" Burdensome blood in her legs, she put on her yellow raincoat and quietly tip-toed by her mother's door; cloaked in the noise of distorted folk song, she put on her heaviest boots and stepped out into the dark.
And now the city laid before her, bare-- there in its dark alleyways, its vomit and steam, your eyes shy away like nudity. She buried her face in the calming breadth of her raincoat, safe from the neon and halogen that turned the sky into a blank screen. She walked by an old church and was struck by visions of how it must have once been; their skins coarse, eyes feverishly set upward. Now it's a mall, cleansed. An endless corridor of identical stores, their oppressive icons hovering above like hungry dogs. A lonely factory flame burns for an instance on the horizon. Yelena harbors these fantasies of fire enveloping the streets. It washes away the automobiles, turns them liquid, back to malleable metal. She wishes she was the factory flame, brilliantly blue, lighting up the sky if only for an instance. A few drunkards share a bottle in the parking lot, two lovers kiss beneath the McDonald's sign. She wanted to turn everything she saw into that flame, to turn herself inside out and thus turn the world inwards. A boy tumbles to the ground, his face spurting blood as his skateboard rolls away. A few skyscrapers itch at the opening to heaven, long antenna fingers waving in the wind. A few girls only a little younger than her shout carefree, exchanging insults as their pale faces surround a single screen, lips red with ketchup, caked with salt; dirty, dirty empty alley the only refuge from the probing oppressive glows of the global mall. She searches for a piss trickle, her nose poised, anything that could tarnish those clear windows and dustless counters. There's no piss here-- it's been scrubbed of its humanity.
But there through a glittering haze of neon lights, Yelena sees the various shapes itch & jitter there in the strobo-hallways, 'tween the gaming machines and pornography. To her, every machine was like a pillar from a forgotten time, etched with the symbols of forgotten languages and worship. The revolting lights congealed like sugary cereal dissolving into the bright white milk. And the sounds, truncated 'till they were only shrill suggestions, wept like ghosts stuck in a cathode vacuum. Ah... well, a pool of blood fills the screen and solicits an angry shove before the inevitable surrender of quarters. These arcades, built from neglected refuse, now formed a monastery away from the ever-seeing eyes of phones & computers-- at least until you snap your high-scores. She looks for quarters on the floor; excitedly, she jabs the button of the machine a little too hard and a bright crimson can comes flying out. Even the sound of the tab crunching brings bliss. Its taste, an anonymous confederacy of flavors, suggesting nothing recognizable or real. A little congenital dagger in her brain shifted, waves of anger flooding her brittle wrists.
Yelena takes a hold of the joystick. A rainbow is born, then pours down a pixel drain. The screen becomes filled with disfigured hostiles, and a single tearful civilian squirming 'tween them. She knows all the tricks-- white hot dots turn the black flicker of the background into a bloodbath, and a distorted bell rattles the cabinet for every thousand weighed in gore. Two snakes surround her, their tongues wet with blood. Everything shook, like a nervous dream. A nightmare of shapes, too coarse to hold in your fingers as their definition so quickly slips away. When she closed her eyes, she could still see them fucking in an orgy of red. Memory and desire become identical. Once a body is chewed up by ROM, it's no longer living. In reverberation powered by DSP circuits, in the dismemberment of abstract shapes, ghosts blend together into nothing like inorganic sugary drinks. "Are you there?" She asks as her finger jitters, face sharpened by flickering sparks-- "are you really there?" They all fall dead, drowning and then dissolving into blood. The room shifts to reveal its facade, to reveal ten other rooms. A lone figure escapes her bullets, swaying 'tween the meat. She turns to Yelena, the polygons contort into a smile.
"What's your name?" Yelena asks of the figure there in the three-screened chamber. She wears latex, or leather; she makes a pose of violence, of vulnerability, a glance to the side. Thousands of little bones rattle along. "What's your name?" The figure doesn't respond. Behind her, a house is leveled by a single tank shell. With every clustering explosion, her eyes quivering more vigorously. "You know my name," a distorted voice calls. LIFE. BULLETS. TIME. "Christine?"
"I think you know who I am," the figure responds with a whisper that echoes through every speaker. "I'm the one you see in your dreams." Yelena reloaded by pointing the gun away from the screen, pulling the trigger; she takes aim at her face and fires. "I'm the figure that keeps showing up. I'm the bad habit. I'm the sleepless nights, given life through flat planes." A fighter jet comes howling through the forest, its engines ablaze. She passes from one game to another, changing only her mangled shape. Yelena takes aim and fires. The screen becomes riddled with fuzzy holes. "I'm a nightmare the world cannot wake up from." A field of green is leveled by brilliant flames; the birds twitch with burdensome broken bones. In the next game, her lips take on a brilliant sheen as if kissed by a pearl. Yelena takes aim and fires. The glass will not shatter, even though the foundation refuses to hold. "You're dead-- game over!" Her body collapses into a clump of jagged meat.
When the mask slipped off her face, Yelena's eyes throbbed with pain. The world was reborn in hot, white heat.
"Where am I!" she yelped. The light had brought life back to her tired body. She thrashed around, trying to free herself from her bondage. Her hands were tied to steel, her limbs brittle and light. She heard laughter, faint 'tween the grinding engine noises and the abrasive trance strings. She smelled iron. "Where am I!" she yelped again. The white heat slowly gave way to empty stretches of solitary green, in the shadow of icy mountains where white mists fell gently over secret valleys. The emptiness of the forests made her heart thump with anxiety. The ground turned to raw clay beneath her feet.
"Relax, shorty!" The man riding shotgun raised his head through the window, though covered by black cotton which constrained his shouting. "We taking you somewhere fun." Yelena tugged on her rope, trying to maintain her balance through the turbulent miles. She had a horrible headache, and could not remember how she'd come to such a wretched fate. Beneath her feet, the bed of the truck was black with dried blood. Vomit flooded her mouth.
One of the men pulled her from the truck by her arm, roughly but not without care. Yelena kicked her captor in the leg, bit him in his arm, soliciting a groan of pain and a giggle from the other man. "Agh, jobanoje atrodje blyad;" he muttered through pained teeth. She went slack, unsure of whether to reveal she'd understood what he'd said. "Ona sabatchka," the other said with a laugh before pinching Yelena's cheeks. Yelena was suddenly aware of her weak, underdeveloped body. "Let's go," they barked while carrying Yelena into a bunker covered in weeds and sticks. Suddenly the world disappeared again, and Yelena whimpered in fear. The two men opened a door, dropped her onto the carpeted floor, and undid the rope binding her wrists. "Please, do not leave;" one of them shouted before locking the door behind her.
Though her hands were free, they still throbbed with pain. Yelena felt at her arms, tracing with her fingertips the sore wounds left on her. She looked around. The room was full of books, covered with black dust. A small window at the ceiling provided a shaft of light. The walls were unadorned concrete, decorated only with electrical cables. She was not alone, as a few bodies laid on the floor with pillows and blankets. "Hello?" she whispered. She crouched down, unsure of what would pounce out of the dark. "Hello?" Someone groaned, another yawned: "you new here?" The voice was American, nasal and lilting. "Yeah," Yelena answered. "Where am I?" The voice didn't respond, she merely heard shifting and sudden snores. Was she dead? Stuck in the waiting room of purgatory? Yelena touched her own face, pressing into her bruises. She feels as if her entire life had been hurtling towards this dark tunnel. She recounted her last hours; the early morning flight, nerves rattled by turbulence. Looking for him in his face, honesty in its cruelty. The arguing, the bargaining. Hiding underneath a sheet that did away with the sky. Hearing the gears crank beneath her. She felt proud of her own hysterical strength. Her pride quickly drowned in self-loathing. Lemmings show bravery too. Yelena surprised herself by letting a giggle slip from her lips.
She laid down beside one of the blanketed figures. Anxious without a point of fixation, she stared at the patch of light illuminating the carpet. The figure beside her stirred, rising with a yawn. "Woah, what's up. What's your name? I'm Alec, what's your name." Yelena only saw faint glimmers of his eyes, still and hollow. "Lena. I'm Lena. I just got here. I don't know where I am." She heard a minor chuckle from Alec, who shook his head like a wet dog. "You're in daycare. Did you tell 'em your parents' phone number?" Yelena tried to smile back, keep up the facade of youthful cool. "My mom doesn't know I'm here. She thinks I'm at camp." Alec scratched his eyes, "cool. Good. Hey, just sit tight. Uh; try to keep your eyes away from the door." Yelena looked at the plywood door, quiet 'n still like it was just begging to burst. She stammered a little bit-- a few of the shadows in the room rose from their sleep, like corpses rising from a grave. Her thumping heart kept her from laying down. Yelena took out her phone, furiously scrolling for a picture. "Have you ever seen this girl?" Alec pressed his hands into his eyes, pained by the brightness. "She's a dime. Korean?" Yelena shook the phone. "Have you ever seen her? Christine. Her name's Christine Leung." Alec smiled, and scratched his face. "Yeah. Sure, I've seen her." A small smile broke across Yelena's face, its life cut short by horrible apprehension 'n doubt. "You're just saying that," Yelena murmured. She looked at Christine, an old impression of Christine. A grey beach lay behind her, shimmering with dead shells. A sharp little tooth showed itself from her mouth when she smiled. Yelena's concern had deformed into obsession. That sharp tooth yearned to stick itself into something huge and fleshy, to tear through its fragile collagen and upset its boundaries. To make an incision, from which salty white froth can leak out and trickle through cracks and rifts. A dribble of pearls, joyful haemolymph. Christine on a horse, Christine in her lacrosse jersey, Christine with soft moist lips holding a cup, Christine with the cowering look, the roving eye-- what use are these images when we all drown and dissolve in the same homogeneous gravy? Yea-- let the froth flow, an overwhelming torrent of love that sucks everything into it.
There was a froth in the bottle. Christine sucked for a few seconds, then wiped her mouth with her hand. "Gimmie that thing," Yelena handed her the miniature handle of rum. One burble, two; the rum glucks like a sore throat, pouring into the coke bottle. Yelena giggled, then yelped in concern. "That's way too much. Stop!" Christine whispered, her face glowing red hot like flaming coal. She indulged in dirty words, rap couplets; an old woman besides them rolled her eyes. Smudged flames came through the wet glass of the subway car. Christine sucked on the bottle again; one burble, two. A loud bellowing burp and a harsh cough. Yelena looks down the aisles of the car, twisting as they follow the curve of the rail, the horizon at its very beginning shifting and uncertain. Dark drops of coke spilled onto Christine's sweatshirt. "What should we do?" "'Bout what?" "No, like tonight." The phone buzzed. The crystaline fuzz of a distant mall appeared to Yelena like a slumbering creature. "Drink the rest of this-- hit the arcades." The metal beneath them groaned. Christine gave Yelena the bottle, she tried to fight the sensation rising up her throat as she sucked on the sickly-sweet mixture. They looked out the window, at each other reflected in the window, at opposite sides. Towers of steel rose into the sky, encrusted, rusted by blood. A man slept in a pool of spilt beer, his feet touching a metal pole. The tremor in her heart has grown, paralyzing her with deafening sound; demanding to be heard over everything else. She looked at their photo-booth pictures, arranged in a line of four... Christine's sharp teeth, puckering lips, crossing eyes; almost suffocating Yelena who beamed from the background. Her love was rooted in jealousy, it seemed to Christine that being alive was reason enough to keep living. Yelena takes another suckle, fighting the urge to vomit. "Bitch," Christine yelped with a smile while she undid a knot in her hair.
There was a knock at the door. Alec shouted back, "we ain't got no keys." There were a few moments of silence, and then an explosion of splinters erupted from the door. Frightened, Yelena tried to form herself into a ball. Two boys dressed in shiny red Adidas tracksuits strutted in, casually waving around their pistols. "Bro, let's go;" one of them shouted. "Moskies coming peligroso." Alec rose from his blankets, a gold tooth visible in his haggard smile. "Hold up, let's take her," Alec pointed at Yelena... she rose from her ball, unsure whether she was saved or damned by his sudden affection. "She's cool. Don't want her getting fucked up." The others rose from the shadows but the two boys stabbed the air with pistols poised like spears, pushing away the others. Yelena followed the boys back through the same dark path, this time hot and smelly with iron. The walls were stained with gunpowder. She heard the wetness beneath her feet, but she kept her eyes to the jagged ceiling. Did they have little ambitions? Were they ever burdened with complicated dreams, or intrusive thoughts? She could not imagine for them an interior, as much as she tried. The room was draped in black. She could not imagine anything; the mind atrophies in fear.
Outside, she saw her desolate surroundings. Reborn again these empty peaks, devoid of anything except rotting shrubbery. The heat spewed down into the canyon, filled with smoke. She took a deep breath, her throat pained by the chill; Nay-toe had spared her for a reason far beyond the troubles of her scale. Behind her, she saw others come out from the darkness of the bunker with pained eyes & shrieks like new born chicks. She looked away; she saw Alec pick up a bag of chips from a pile of food, tearing it open and pilfering a few before throwing it back onto the burnt soil. It was as if all of Yelena's old thoughts were just a teenage dream, pricked 'n gone when the alarm rang. She blew her nose into her sleeve; the snot was glistening with fresh blood.
A beat-up sports car sat further down the sandy trail, its brilliant red dulled by mud and dents. A plastic bag shook in the wind where there should have been glass. Smoke rose from the base of the mountain, down the road, hidden in the blue shadow. One of the boys grabbed onto Yelena, his breath heavy and cool on her neck. His hand reached for her breast, if only to rudely taunt, as his face remained taut and disinterested. He pulled off her heavy jacket and stripped her of her cash and phone. He pressed his gun into her stomach. "My bad... we just need it more than you." Alec smiled as he opened the door for Yelena; "that's fucked up," he said between hoarse chuckles. The boy pulled Yelena towards the car, and Alec gave her a reassuring pat on her shoulder as she entered the car. Little icons hung from the rear-view mirror, and dozens of scratched up CDs crunched under Yelena's feet. Alec sat beside her, and the two boys took the forward seats. A twist of the key, a purr comes from the troubled engine and a sudden assault of hi-hats fills Yelena's ears with pain. "Where are we going!" Yelena shouted, pulling herself between the two boys. The two boys didn't respond. She looked back at Alec, who merely smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Unsure of their fate, but horny and willing, they rode down a path of hot sand into a white, empty mist.
"So where you from, shanti?" Alec mumbled as he rolled a fine combination of tobacco and verde. "You Chinese or something?" The driver laughed hoarsely, spitting out the window as stones 'n sand churned underneath his wheels. Yelena pushed up against the roof of the car while the music degenerated into repetitive stutters, feeling her stomach sink deeper with every turbulent weeping bounce. "No. I'm from the Bay, the Bay Area." Alec nodded his head before licking on the paper. "Nice, Biscayne, love it there." Yelena swallowed her words... it didn't matter which bay, the meaning of names dissolved in the acid of the NATO Autonomous Zone and all that remains is little islands of liquid color. Alec stuck the joint into his mouth, then slowly pulled it free, soaked in spittle. "You know, they got their own speaking here," Alec mumbled as the flame of his lighter crackled at the tip of his joint. "I know, they got the Russian thing, but another one too... people speak all kinds of shit here. Right, Ruslan?" Alec knocked the sleeping boy in the passenger seat, his shoulder wet from collected saliva. "Speak a little for our friend here," he presented the joint to the boy with his fingers. "Say, brat; me searchin' na tuzlu truc." The boy stuck the joint in his mouth, fumes rising from his nose, then formed his hands into a gun. "Davai!" Yelena saw figures shimmer through the trees on the horizon. The rifle lying on the center console was inscribed with "Fabrique Nationale," its metal lizard green. The driver knocked the dashboard with a fist and pressed 'Next,' the stutters surrendering to high chirping vocals and sharpened brass. Even here, Nay-toe breaths.
They passed by a sign steeped in rust, scratched out and defaced with a new name: "TayGeneration," a name defaced by daggers and skulls, crossed out letters, other fragments of broken words, injured letters. Children run by with their feet tamping the hot mud, swampy waters girded by plastic and aluminum containers. Alongside the glowing river were encampments made of discarded Styrofoam and IKEA wood, wallpapered with food packaging and merch. See how 'tween the reeds, there's old tour t-shirts; "BabyGirl7 Alive!" hanging from the pole and they cross their hearts for the national anthem, underneath the canopy of the forest. They parked in a patch of hard grime, packaging cracklin' 'neath their feet. They left the car behind and travelled up the river of Coke on foot, exchanging glances with those living another child's teenage dream. "The dream never dies," she's smiling and a soda fizzles beneath her. Alec pressed into Yelena's ribs from behind; in the intimate space between them, he hands her back her phone. "You'll need this in the auto zone." They stopped at an energy drink spring, flowing downwards from the factory further up the mountain. Yelena brought her lips down to the effervescent purple; it tasted like raspberry. "Somehow it keep flowing," the boy said as he rinsed his mouth with the sticky-sweet liquid. "They say its Nay-toe, keepin' the drink flow." Alec giggled, spitting some of the drink out on the grass. "Auto zone's flooding with energy drink, guns, merch; only the essentials." "Nay-toe provide," the driver said, speaking for the first time in a lowly hum. Yelena hadn't even noticed the bedazzles on their weapons, shimmering there on the forest floor. "If Nay-toe provides you everything, what are you boys doing with those guns?" Alec giggled; one of the boys took out his cock and started pissing into the fizzy stream flowing down through the encampments.
The boys had left to sell the weapons they'd pilfered from the bunker: "a couple ay-kays, some 'nades, real coddy shit. I even jacked some knives." Yelena followed the piss-smelling stream and listened to the people speak as they ground up potato chips and beef jerky for soups and stews. They spoke in argot; if they'd talked in phrases before, it had disintegrated into brand names and buzzwords, a speak belonging not to a people, a race, a nation-- no, it was merely a device, a means. Like a discount store, the words of the world were thrown into a heap, packaged in dead plastic, and discarded when no longer of use. Each tribe had their own speak; borrowed Korean, half-remembered lyrics, vague metaphors for sex or drugs. Alec sez they're like passwords: "say the wrong shit in the wrong place and you're losing your phone," a form of exile. TayGeneration felt like a Korean colony, though the colonizers existed only on a tiny screen. The air smelled like red chili paste, and statues fashioned out of posters and clothing store mannequins marked their territory. "Stan BabyGirl!" a few boys sitting on a burnt chassis cried. The energy drinks had rotten away their teeth, and their smiles were blood red. A girl took selfies with each of them; her phone shone pristinely, without a single mark or blemish on its champagne skin.
She'd fallen asleep in a sea of packaging when the gunfire had awoken her. Alec had walked down to the base of the river to steal some food, but never returned. There had been gunfire before; it had been sporadic, cautious. Now the entire forest rattled with percussive sounds, sputtering across the moss-covered rocks and burnt wood. At first she'd felt it was a dream, each pop a piercing of her thoughts. The image slowly returned, fire burning in her retinas. The horizon, once covered in plastic towers and wooden huts, now itched with bright flames. It was so still, so silent; she heard a bird twitter beside her, a lone insect crawling on the branches. She scratched her eyes. A boom interrupted her daze; her eyes became rattled with terrible pain and she sprung into a frenzied run, tears streaming down her face as green sludge stuck to her ankles. Her back fizzled, fried; she felt heat on her ears and the deep, rumbling thunder did away with everything. Just as it was born, now the world dies in hot, white heat.