He sat in a restroom stall on the lower tier of the stadium complex, staring at an aluminum-plated door and gray tiled floor. Fluorescent lights flickered alien and erratic above him. He shivered, even though it wasn’t cold.
He was nineteen years old, six days shy of twenty. Usually, when with friends or at a party or with a girl he liked, he had a gentle, thoughtful look to him, dreamy and whimsical. The hair on his upper lip and cropped neatly and fashionably on his chin was soft, not quite a man’s moustache and beard, but his chin and jawline were sharp, confidently angular, and his lips were full. His eyes, dark and spirited, had a supercilious look. When he smiled or laughed, he seemed to turn inward and away from the world. His hair, brown and leonine, framed his face and prominent black eyebrows with soft sweeping curls.
Now he looked anxious. He was sweaty and smacked his lips. The skin under his eyes was dark, his face sallow. He hadn’t slept in days.
A shadow followed him. It was something unlike him; a thing that had left him a long time ago, but had returned. It came from another world and another time, from a place he could barely remember. When it returned it was stronger than before. And now it hated.
He listened to men coming and going. Doors squeaked open, piss and water drained lazily into urinals, taps gushed open and thudded shut, toilets flushed, hand dryers powered on and off.
He’d been there since half-past-one, when the stadium had been quiet like a ponderous skull. He’d gotten into the stadium working for a catering company that had started setting up in the VIP boxes. He’d worked until lunch and went for a walk until he was certain no one would see him. Then he slipped into the restroom. Once inside the stall, he’d taken his uniform off and stuffed it into his backpack. Now he was wearing old faded denim, a white shirt under an oddly taut brown jacket that blistered leather from dry patches on the elbows, and a blue cap, pulled down low over his forehead. The skull had started whimpering and then it started whispering and now it droned frenetically like an aggravated hive of bees. The crowds were gathering, getting ready for the match at three.
No one from the catering company, he thought, would now recognize him. He was, after all, nothing more than a pair of hired hands for a day’s work, an anonymous human machine, another bee in the hive. They’d probably assumed that he sneaked away to watch the match and that he only took the job to do so.
The sounds of the crowd rumbled through the steel and concrete above him. It reminded him of thunder, but unremitting, a harsh white noise. His forehead glistened with sweat that he wiped away intermittently. It was sweltering in the jacket. A nerve started twitching and made his lower lip quiver as though he wanted to cry. A frown pulled tensely across his forehead. He waited.
Someone had left a tap open. It dripped steadily, irksomely, like a crafty device of torture. His watch beeped three ‘o clock. The restroom was quiet now. He fought the urge to leave, but had promised himself he’d wait until the match had started and the crowds had settled down. The drone around him began to break into occasional cheers. Counting off the seconds, his eyes fixed on his watch, he got up and left the stall at fifteen-past-three.
A potbellied middle-aged man, standing stoutly at a urinal, turned to face him. The man’s corpulent face was twisted in a peculiar expression, as though he was in pain or feeling amorous. It made his skin crawl. He slammed the door purposely on his way out and ran up the stairs, leaping two steps at a time.
He felt drained as he emerged from the staircase. His heart pounded wildly in his chest, his breath was shallow. He leaned against the cool concrete slabs of the doorway, blinking at sunlight slanting through the high truss-supported roof covering the outer perimeter chamber of the stadium complex. The roof reminded him of a Roman aqueduct. An aqueduct running in a futile circle. The same coarse concrete slabs made up most of the stadium structure. It seemed unkind to him, rancorous and cynically economical. All along the outer chamber, concrete pillars supported concrete slabs that buttressed the bleachers on the lower tier of the stadium. He marveled at the multitudes now sitting or standing in those bleachers and at how people trust that things will stay put – that things won’t just crumble, crack, fall apart, crush and destroy them.
He waited there for a while, calming himself. In spite of the heat and the fact that sweat dripped cold from his armpits, he pulled fretfully on the jacket and made sure it was zipped all the way to his Adam’s apple. The crowd bellowed. The sound juxtaposed oddly with the space in front of him; paced and peaceful, filled with concession stands and idle staff waiting for the halftime rush. He walked toward the lobby.
As he passed a stand someone offered him beer. “It’s on promotion,” said a smiling young man, “It’s new and it’s free. Try it.”
“I don’t drink,” he answered.
“You should take off your jacket!” laughed the young man.
He turned and hastened away, startled, resisting an impulse to break into a sprint, to race through the lobby and the main entrance and all the way back home. The crowd thumped their feet in a slow anticipatory rhythm. The world swirled around him and he felt as though he might faint. He stopped, looked up, and drew slow deep breaths. Above him, the sky opened in a cloudless crystal blue. The sun clutched the globe with golden fingers. He took another swipe at his brow, looked down again.
He saw a young mother and a girl, buying fries at a stand. The girl was watching him and smiled as their eyes met. The smile held him where he stood, but he did not return it. The shadow brushed his forehead, and he turned and walked on.
For a brief moment, the girl saw the shadow. She didn’t understand it, except to know that it scared her. She saw it the way we sometimes see things moving in the corners of our eyes; things that disappear as we turn to face it – yet we know it’s there, in shadow, on the edge of the world. She pulled on her mother’s sleeve, but by the time the woman had turned to follow the girl’s pointed finger, he was gone, running up the stairs to the upper tier of the stadium and past the VIP boxes where security guards were posted at the doors.
There were no concession stands here. The guards made him nervous but ignored him.
He checked his watch. Ten minutes to halftime. Time to find a seat. He took the nearest entrance to the bleachers. There were many entrances to choose from, but anywhere would do.
Inside the narrow entryway, he leaned against the wall and pulled at his jacket. Here he could distinguish individual voices in the din. He listened. He no longer felt afraid. Fleetingly, he envied all of them and everyone in the world. He thought that he’d always hated them and that he still did. And he thought that things only appeared beautiful because of the lies of the world; because of the glasses we put on to protect ourselves from the truth; truth that’s like the beauty of an adorned corpse.
With his thumbs stuck under the straps of his backpack, he walked onto the bleachers, turned to his right and settled behind the uppermost row of seats next to the aisle. From here he could see the arch of the retracted dome and thousands of living colored dots of human life on the other side of the stadium. The seats that were open, and there were not many of them, showed like dirty brown scabs. The edge of the dome shimmered blindingly silver and white. The verdant pitch, in comparison, resting in a long lush shadow, seemed soothing and soft, like the felt on a new pool table, and drew his gaze.
He felt happy standing there, watching. The taut lines in the corners of his mouth and the tension playing his brow relaxed. The collar of his shirt was drenched from sweat streaming down his neck, but he no longer noticed.
He watched the players on the pitch. Near him, a young couple held hands and kissed. A man, wearing a t-shirt that pulled so tightly over his gut that his belly button showed, jumped up, beating the air with his fists. A woman with short dark hair glanced at him, then smiled coyly. There were two boys, running fitfully up and down the aisle, laughing, in a world of their own. A man with a thick brown beard stood up and shouted heatedly, the veins in his neck bulging from the effort. Above him, two crows hung languidly in the air, swerved, followed the circumference of the stadium, and settled on the trusses supporting the dome. The crowd boomed and the crows scattered upward, turned away and out of sight, and then circled back slowly. They were there, ominous and in plain sight, but no one would remember them afterward.
When the halftime whistle blew and the crowd started pushing toward the exit, he stepped into the narrow aisle and pressed himself against them. He extended his arms widely so they couldn’t pass, and threw all the strength of his young, healthy body against them. He grimaced against their confusion and smiled as they cursed and wagged their fingers, appalled by this spiteful boy.
And as they pressed madly against him, he slipped and fell and they started clambering wildly over him, stepping on his hands and on his face, on their eager way to peanuts and beer. It was then that he detonated the bomb.
The crows veered briskly, cawed.
AUTHOR BIO: André le Roux is a legal advisor at the provincial legislature in Cape Town, South Africa. He debuted in Prick of the Spindle in 2013, which piece was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.