Life Is Hell

“I didn’t end up quitting,” he said quietly, one hand curled around the stems of a slowly-wilting bouquet. He dragged hard on the cigarette; they didn’t stay lit like they used to, especially in the damp. The thick, sweet taste of clove clung to everything, and the blue exhalation from his lips mingled with the steady fog. “Hate that fucking job,” he said. He knew he’d told her that a hundred thousand times before. Didn’t matter. “They had another assignment,” he noted, frowning, “after.  Went overseas and dealt with a small cult in Zaraysk.  Used to be called Krasny, but when it was under Yury’s son’s rule, bunch of people came and laid siege. Fedor’s wife grabbed their baby son and threw herself out the window of her room in the tower.  That word — zarazit’sya — to throw yourself to your death from a tall place — so they renamed the town Zaraysk, in honor of Evpraksia, who did exactly that.” He paused again, his eyes narrowing, as though to rethink all he’d just said, to make sure that’s how it went, that’s the way the story went. “So the cultists were the kind who drew shit in blood and chalk on the floor,” he explained. “Slaughtered lambs, read entrails, all that. Wasn’t working, wasn’t bringing life back into the city fast enough, so they started picking tourists, snagging them from bars and shitty hotels. Reading their entrails. But that got hard and they almost got caught when one of the vics got away. They started picking ones that couldn’t fight back. Tourist’s kids.  They liked picking up babies out of prams while mothers were looking in shop windows.” He cleared his throat, his eyes falling shut for a moment. He could picture the place he’d found, stone floors, stone walls, stone ceilings with wooden joists. Hooks in the beams. Hooks in the walls. Meat hooks.

She said nothing. She couldn’t.

“After that, it was debriefing, then catch up on paperwork,” he murmured, blowing a smoke ring into the cold.  The ground around his feet was mostly frozen, still, but the odd warmth in the air made the snow on the ground sublimate into fog.  He didn’t bother to look around, to see if he was followed, to see if anyone watched him talking to her. He didn’t care anymore. “Then it was out to Metz. Standard Omega Class. Some stupid idiot who can set the world on fire if he gets pissed enough.  Gave him some haldol,” he said dully. “Paperwork. Debriefing. Paperwork.” He shifted how he was standing, uncomfortable, and tucked the flowers under one arm, moving to light a new cigarette off the old one.  He held the old one awkwardly for awhile, trying to figure out what to do with it. In the end, he pinched it out, burning his fingertips, and then put it in his overcoat pocket, smoking the new one almost defensively.   He looked around for awhile, closing his eyes, and let the cold and damp soak into his fingers, his face, his bones.  “Another one, after that, and then another one, and another one,” he sighed. “I hate that fucking job. I’m gonna quit.”

She said nothing. She couldn’t.

“Hurts,” he noted. “Still hurts,” he amended. For that, he looked around, as though to challenge anyone else who might have heard it. To dare them to say One. Fucking. Word.  “Still fucking hurts,” he said, amending a third time, and for a moment, the ghost of that agony shaded his pale, stark features. The too-blue of his eyes was a mask of anguish, the kind of a naked thing that clutches the heart with a cold hand and speaks only in the language of begging. He dropped the flowers atop the packed earth, (where the stone would be, if it were ever made) atop the withered pile that was already there, turned on his heel, and walked away.

She said nothing. She couldn’t.

* * *

Another of Wendig’s challenges: Life is Hell — this one’s 659 words.

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