Narrated by Bob Eccles
(translated by Michael Shreve)
Time is an invention or it is nothing at all. – Bergson
Milar Drogan was sweating badly. His coat weighed a ton. He felt like all his clothes were soaked—his underpants, socks and especially his undershirt. He snuck a peak between his legs, expecting to see a wet spot appear any minute on his beige pants, a nice sweat stain that the other passengers would certainly take for piss. He knew that it was not the kind of inner heat that would wring out his body like an old, wet mop, but the difference with the outside was disturbing. And of course he had just run through a maze of passageways, endless tunnels, for a few minutes. Minutes that always dragged on for sluggish hours. Milar Drogan hated the Metro. But he had no car and no bus went downtown from his house, so he was stuck with the subway. He had no choice—and for that matter he had never had a choice for anything in his life. His parents had chased him out of the house since they could not hide their incompetence when he became old enough. And right away Sylvette, a childhood friend, put her hooks in him. He had never lived on his own, if only for a day. He had never been strong enough to refuse anything either. Milar Drogan had always been scared. A quiet fear, almost pleasant. An underground fear, well hidden down in his guts, which he tenderly caressed inside his belly. And when things went wrong, when he got too hot or too cold, when a pimple popped out on his cheek or when someone looked at him the wrong way, the fear soaked his body in panic.
# # #
And now this damn Metro that could not make up its mind to start.
A crowd of men and women firing warm bursts of air at Milar were still climbing into the car, squeezing into the already crammed mass of bodies, maybe trying to verify some uncertain law about the resistance of matter.
There were policemen on the platform, armed to the hilt.
Milar Drogan felt like he was sunk in a tank of warm water. Something was happening. The train had already been stopped three times for long minutes. Maybe it was an attack. He was suffocating. It became harder and harder for him to keep breathing other people’s air. He felt like a void was swelling out from his heart and irradiating his chest, gnawing his ribs and lungs, leaving only a husk of slack skin that could not support his head. He could not move and wanted only one thing—to get out of there. But he was ashamed and did not want to publicly expose his uneasiness, his fear, his invasive anxiety.
Suddenly the bell sounded, the doors hissed, biting some rolls of fat in the doorway, and the Metro took off.
At the next station, the train was almost entirely emptied.
Milar took a deep breath. He had to get a grip on himself. He did not have time to go and get a little fresh air on the surface, he . . .
There were even more police at this station and they seemed particularly nervous.
Right away Milar felt a lump in his throat. A tumor named dread. No longer able to control anything at all, he headed for the door like the others.
The sudden intrusion of two uniformed men on the platform right in front of him stopped him in his tracks. For a second he thought it was another group of policemen, but the agitation of the other police proved him wrong.
What happened next was a nightmare, the kind that wakes you up bathed in sweat, feverish and icy, trembling and petrified.
The doors were closing. One of the men threw some gray thing at the group of policemen; another threw the same thing at Milar. A fraction of a second later one of the policemen drew his gun and opened fire.
At that moment, superimposed on the gun blast, Milar realized that the thing that was coming toward him at full speed was a hand grenade and that in less than a second he was going to be blown to bits.
He shut his eyes and screamed.
# # #
# # #
Just a far off noise like a drip. Air bubbles bursting. Wimpy pops! Yawning fish.
He did not dare open his eyes. He was stuck like a nail to the floor of the train. The grenade didn’t explode, he told himself. It’s jammed, but the slightest movement will blow everything up. It’s probably just an inch away from my feet and a simple bat of my eyelid can set it off. Don’t cry. Don’t scream. Whatever you do don’t piss in your pants. Don’t even breathe if that’s possible . . .
Milar was expecting to hear something. An order. “Don’t move an inch!” or rather “Come on, sir, it’s not going to explode now!” But no kindly individual called out to him. No clearing throats, no stifled cry, not the faintest noise of panicked movement. As if around his body, walled up in the night, nothing was happening. As if he were surrounded by these tight-lipped suburbanites, larva swaddled in their cocoons of tattered leatherette, detached from any external event, headed toward a funereal day of slow death.
His fear, still just as invasive, now had another catalyst: incomprehension. He felt like he was “outside” the entire situation. And the mastodontal, irrevocable fear of death transformed insidiously into a spinning, psychogenic anxiety, a dizzying degravitation of someone who feels reality slip through their hands like an elusive insect.
He quickly opened his eyes.
And he saw the grenade. It was there, a few inches away from his feet, just as he had imagined. And his skin was pissing fountains. He was dumbstruck, dripping, almost begging to pass out.
The grenade was there, motionless. As if poised in the air. Three inches above the ground.
# # #
No sound could be heard. Only a dull humming remained, barely audible, the breath of time, the omnipresent murmur of the Great Universal Mechanism.
Milar’s gaze was lost beyond the windows, near the group of police. There were seven of them. Five men and two women. Their frozen movements were those of mannequins perpetually off-balance. Their feet were sunk in a hemisphere of lead holding them up. A metal egg floated at chest level. Their faces were deformed by the sanction of an unavoidable death. A grenade was exploding in their faces. And Milar was observing the process as if life around him had reached the extreme limit of slow motion. Not a total halt. No. But absolute zero was not far off. He felt that things were moving unnoticeably. It was not visible, simply perceptible.
One of the uniformed men, the one who had attacked the group of police, had twisted his face into a sardonic grin. A small, shiny object one or two inches from his face was about to tear his lips apart, break his teeth and burst down his throat, leaving a black, blood-stained crater in the back of his neck, maybe decapitating him if it was an exploding bullet. Anyway, it was blurring that awful grin painted on the surrealistic canvas of the timeless scene.
Milar had not dared touch the grenade; he was scared that it might explode. He turned around slowly. The door had not had time to close completely after the murderous device had entered and the idea of escape immediately jumped into his mind. He understood nothing about the situation. The fear had thinned in the mesh of bewilderment. But a tiny voice in his head told him that the universe had not frozen like this in the blink of an eye. In some way or another, to escape death or fear, Milar was set apart from the world.
For the first time in his life, he made a decision.
Not to die stupidly with his body torn apart in an attack claimed by a second-rate gang of terrorists.
# # #
Milar slipped his hands in the opening between the two flaps of the sliding doors, pressing his fingers against the rubber runners. He tried to pull apart the iron jaws, but nothing happened. It was like they were welded. Milar was dripping with sweat. The fear had returned. Suddenly. The course of events had stopped on the image of the grenade about to explode. Milar was prisoner of this image, prisoner of the enclosed space of the train. At any moment the universe could restart and the grenade explode. He stepped back, gripped by panic . . .
And crashed into a woman in her forties who was holding onto the central pole. He turned around and mumbled an apology. Like all the other occupants of the train, the woman was stone. He could not hold back a smile that burst into uncontrollable laughter.
“It’s a nightmare . . . all this is just a nightmare!” he screamed, throwing himself at one of the windows and drumming on it like a prisoner.
And for all the men, women and children on the platform, Milar Drogan had become invisible, erased from their reality.
He rushed back to the woman whom he had bumped into before. She was looking at the group of policemen and her mouth was rounded in a rattle of astonishment, or maybe fear.
The other occupants of the train were almost all looking in the same direction, pressed against the windows or half-standing out of their seats.
Milar wiped his sweat-soaked forehead and approached the woman. He felt her warmth. He went closer, to touch her. Close to her nostrils, the air was warm. He did not notice her breath, but she was obviously breathing.
Time had slowed but not stopped. A reassuring hypothesis in spite of its insane nature: time was on the blink, but it stayed normal for him. Classic paranoid syndrome. When Milar Drogan realized this, he understood that this theory did not hold up. Space-time had not budged. The men and women who surrounded him were all ready to scream, to surrender to panic. Outside, the man who had thrown the grenade was about to get a bullet in his face and the grenade was about to explode . . . It was Milar Drogan who was living in another time. A parallel time in which he had found refuge from being blown to bits by the grenade. An accelerated time when seconds were transformed into years.
He went back to the window and pressed his forehead against the cold glass. A thermal shiver bristled the hair on his arms. He flopped into the ripped seat worn out by another time. He took a black notebook out of his coat pocket, opened it slowly, and began writing with a trembling hand:
Thursday, September 9th –Time Shattered
Then he closed the notebook and started to cry.
# # #
Milar Drogan had tried everything, but neither the metal nor the glass would break. He banged on the windows for hours on end, only to split open the skin on his fingers—perhaps it would bear fruit in a few weeks when external time caught up with the moment of impact, but for now the train was a prison of indestructible time, subtly decorated with hyper-realistic, colored statues destined to keep company with a sole, unpredictable prisoner. Milar Drogan was exhausted, but he dared not sleep. He was convinced of one thing – if he slept, the grenade would explode.
His anxiety became a pet. It disappeared for a little while, but always came back and cuddled up to his spine. He felt like he was in the middle of a river and he did not know how to swim and the banks were on fire . . .
On the platform, death gave its first kiss. The metal ball was touching the lips of the terrorist. Scalding, incendiary, detonating lipstick. He did not know who these individuals were. Nor what their motives were. All the while falling back into hypnagogic lands, Milar Drogan was thinking that the need to kill, the desire to administer death, must sometimes be inexplicable. Like a purulent boil that tickles your crotch and that you cannot by any means scratch if you do not want to unleash a furious septicaemia. A purulent boil that you have to put up with for days upon days but that you will end up scratching hard with your nails, finally relieved, freed. Murderers, assassins, executioners all have a huge boil that tickles the inside of their skull. They cannot stop themselves from killing until the purulent explosion of the disruptive boil . . .
Milar Drogan slept.
# # #
He slept for an hour and nothing happened. He concluded that his mind was controlling time, beyond sleep, beyond all hope, or, that he had gone crazy and everything happening around him was only a gigantic hallucination, the manifestation of a huge, delirious fit . . .
He observed the row of passengers. Nineteen men, fourteen women and two children. Not one of them was watching him, scrutinizing his pale, slightly blue skin, his sticky eyelids, his sagging lower lip. He was still scared of dying, but he did not fear the looks of others anymore. I have become a ghost, he told himself, and they feel me like a breath on their neck, a disturbance of air, a fleeting manifestation of the beyond.
Milar Drogan usually cursed his dull, predictable life, but now he missed it. He had become an extraordinary being, The Phantom of the Metro! An apparition of flesh and blood, jammed into a fold of time.
He knew nothing about firearms, but he knew that a bullet bore through space at a very high speed. If it took several days for one of them to go through the terrorist’s skull, the grenade that was slowly falling to the floor of the train would not explode for weeks, or even months.
# # #
Milar Drogan was a prisoner of time for three endless days without sun and without moon.
His watch appeared to have made the great leap with him, like his clothes, a perimeter of matter that he had dragged into his flight, but he could not be sure that the second hand really ticked off the seconds, perfectly, equal to one-sixtieth of a minute. Milar Drogan was no longer sure of anything. After three days of fasting he was neither hungry nor thirsty. As if his physiological functions had been working for only a few seconds. As if everything that was happening was just a vision of his mind.
Only one thing was he sure of – he was more and more fascinated by the gorgeous brunette with green eyes who was holding onto the central pole.
Her face, like all the other passengers’, was imperceptibly changing. Her lips were slightly parted and he could see the tip of her tongue, delicately resting on her lower incisors. He knew that the idea had taken seed in him, stronger than the anxiety, from that first moment when he had bumped into her.
Desire was still stronger than death and this parted mouth was an invitation that he could no longer resist. But the paranoid impulses that had regulated his life were still there and he told himself that a kiss might wake up the sleeping beauty. Then she would catch him stuck to her lips like a black, sweaty leech and she would peel him off with little shrieks of horror.
He fingered her skirt. A strange sensation. He fondled it. It was cold and stiff like ice.
Milar Drogan moved around between the seats and felt the other passengers’ clothes with his fingers. All of them were wearing stone clothes. Their life’s burden, Drogan told himself. Grayness and sadness, wall of silence and tunnel of ennui.
Matter no longer followed the same rules. And the flesh? Drogan asked himself. The flesh . . .
# # #
It started with him stroking her hair. He was expecting to clink the branches of a crystal forest, but his hand buried itself in a soft substance whose consistency reminded him of fiberglass insulation. It was a little creepy. The hair he touched stayed lumped together like cotton candy torn off and soaked in saliva. His mouth started to water.
From that first contact, the green-eyed brunette slowly transformed.
He was finally able to look at her up close. And it was the height of perversity for him. She could not escape, she could not even turn her head, and he scrutinized it. The roles were reversed. Not only did he not have to put up with the weight of other people’s eyes, but now the others were at the mercy of his own.
He quickly realized that he could go further. He did not have before him a blow-up doll or a prostitute or a chance encounter ready for anything at the moment. He had all this at the same time and much more.
Neither master nor slave.
She was beautiful and elsewhere.
Nothing here except him.
He brought his lips up to the young woman’s face, brushed up against her mouth and licked her cheek.
# # #
On the platform the wedding of flesh and metal had been definitively consummated.
The bullet had passed straight through the terrorist’s head and lodged in the wall ten feet farther on.
The grenade had exploded in the middle of the group of policemen. In a silent big bang, the metal fragments were slowly separating from one another, shaping a sphere of glistening shrapnel in space.
The terrorist’s head was a puzzle of flesh.
The whole scene could have been the last painting of a molecular Dali. A clever blend of Galacidallahcideoxyribonucleic and Tuna Fishing, of Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina and the Superposition of the Molecular Structures of Crick and Watson Corresponding to the Battle of Tétouan.
A horrible splendor fixed on the film of time.
# # #
Several months went by and Milar Drogan had become a different man. The fear had gone for good, and with it, the sweat. Depending on his mood, he conversed with one or another of the train’s occupants. With a homeless man of indeterminate age whom the outer turmoil had not shaken from his lethargy, so used to the indifference and contempt of others that he himself became indifferent to the world and its contents. He was a favorite partner whose religious tranquility was a source of calm and intense reflection for Drogan.
With a young couple, too, whom he imagined part of the in-crowd and out of touch. Careerist and confused. The woman had a bulging belly and was sticking it out, savagely gripping her husband, screaming, her mouth getting wider and wider: “Take it if you want! We don’t even know it! And then there are still so many stairs to climb before reaching the land of comfort and appearances. We’re not ready! Take it!”
“We don’t want to die . . . not yet,” the husband mumbled in shy counterpoint.
The throats were soundless, but the faces spoke. Milar Drogan had learned to decipher the language of the skin—the wrinkles, folds, ripples, textures, the beauty spots, blotches, secretions, excretions, scabs, blackheads, hair, veins that bulged, coiled, blue, gray or black, thin or round, normal or swollen by awful lumps into thrombosis. Genuine police of characters, which combined to form words and sentences that spoke of sadness, joy, worry, anxiety.
And little by little, with more or less spontaneity, they all introduced themselves. Despair, the homeless man; Jim and Marie G., the trendy couple; but also Lea, the obese florist who dreamed of going to the moon to jump weightlessly between the craters; Mr. Puisard, the French teacher who dreamed of writing the book that would revolutionize literature and not spoil his shelves sitting next to James Joyce, Louis Ferdinand Céline and Thomas Pynchon; and Nadine, the filthy rich young student who would have loved to have had an unhappy childhood and then, like Cinderella, bewitched a Prince Charming behind the wheel of a fiery red Lamborghini; and George the butcher who hated the smell of meat and wanted to spend his days fishing trout in the cool torrents of the High Alps.
And there was also Edmond, the white-haired old man who regretted nothing in his life and was rendered immortal by the love of his children and grandchildren; and Alice, the little girl with a goddess’s gaze capable at any moment of escaping reality to go through the looking glass and frolic in the time of dreams . . .
He had spoken to Lyse about it and she had agreed. These two would be the witnesses at their marriage.
# # #
The ceremony went by the book. Milar Drogan, after living almost naked for a few months, had put his old clothes back on for the occasion. They were wrinkled, of course, and not very suitable for a wedding, but he had to mark the occasion in some way. Edmond was Lyse’s witness and Alice was his. Milar and Lyse answered the traditional questions and then kissed each other for a long time.
Now Alice and Edmond went away to leave the two lovers to the intimacy of their wedding night. Milar looked at Lyse straight in the eyes and lost himself in the apple green of an endless forest.
The stone clothes, which Milar had scraped and scraped for hours, days, months, crumbled away like chalk, liberating Lyse’s sex from her sartorial coating.
When he penetrated this new flesh, the grenade exploded.
# # #
Milar Drogan felt like he was pulled out of a tunnel of night and shot into the light of day. His eyelids fluttered and he saw a white arch, tiled, cut into a circle of notched metal. A wet mass crushed against his chest. He pushed it back and the movement liberated the sounds.
A jungle of cries, screams and wails that he could not decipher. His ears had heard only a lulling hum for almost six months . . .
The grenade exploded again inside his head. He shot straight up as if prodded by a violent electric shock.
Two hands grabbed him by his shoulders. “Don’t move. We’re going to take care of you . . .”
Blood and scrap iron. In the gutted train and on the platform. The blood of silence stabbed by cries and hammered by moans.
Milar Drogan swayed, fell on his knees and howled.
In front of him was the wet mass that he had pushed back. A scattered heap of flesh and streaming blood. The body of Lyse. His shield of flesh against the exploding death.
The man still held him by his shoulders. “Lie down. Help will be here soon.”
Milar Drogan looked at the man for a second and then turned again to the body of Lyse.
The man seemed confused. “A friend of yours?”
Milar choked back a sob. “She’s my wife.”
AUTHOR BIO: Jacques Barbéri is a French author of more than fifteen novels and numerous short stories. Thrillers, science fiction, fantasy or the fringes of literature, nothing is off limits to his perpetually mutating imagination. A dozen or so of his stories in English have appeared in magazines and anthologies. He is also a musician (with the group Palo Alto), screenplay writer and translator. He can be found on the web at www.lewub.com/barberi.
TRANSLATOR BIO: Michael Shreve has published dozens of translations including works by Pierre Pelot, Catherine Dufour and John Antoine Nau among many others. He can be found on the web at www.michaelshreve.wordpress.com.
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com