A Mouthful of Ashes
By- Robert Goldsborough
My feet were killing me. I felt like I had walked halfway across Malaysia. I just wanted to sit down and drink a beer. Simone walked with me, hand in hand. We had spent the whole day racing around the KLCC shopping mall that surrounded the Petronas twin towers. She had to buy herself a new Louis Vuitton handbag. The KLCC was impressive and our mouths hung open at every sight. Lights shone everywhere displaying fashionable collections from every part of the globe. Names I had never heard of made Simone dance in place and rush into shop after shop. I stayed close to the railing staring up and down at the multileveled openness of the place trying to conquer my fear of heights. The chandeliers suspended on massive cables lit their intricate stained glass patterns at a dizzying height over the marble floor far below. The colored glass and its designs looked alien to me and reminded me that we were not in our own country. The radiance of the place began to burn my eyes. Simone, being the sweet woman she always was, noticed my discomfort and we left. The KLCC opened out to a park. We lay in the grass while I smoked a comforting cigarette and talked. She beamed while she showed me her purchases and I, being a gentleman, nodded and praised her in her ability to shop.
“We have to go somewhere else, real quick.” She said.
Simone pointed up at the twin towers. Their points disappeared into the clouds.
“Uh. I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” I said.
“Come on. I want to see the entire city from the skybridge. It’s supposed to be breathtaking.”
She tilted her head and smiled at me. I would just have to get over my fear of heights for a little while longer. I did not get a chance to finish saying ‘all right’ before she was on top of me kissing my face and neck. We tumbled in the grass holding each other.
The main lobby of the towers was polished and bright like the KLCC. We waited about half an hour to get the free yellow ticket and head up to 41st floor. I sweated through the long elevator ride. At the final tone that announced we had reached our floor Simone dragged me onto the deck of the glass-encased skybridge. She giggled as my head swam. After a few sickening moments, I came to terms with the altitude and looked over the city of Kuala Lumpur. I looked down and saw the park we had been laying in. Stretching beyond the small patch of green were the skyscrapers reaching back to the mountains. Simone dragged me to the other side of wide windows. I saw more towers of gray and cut glass.
“See there?” She said.
“Where am I looking?”
“Just to the south between those two buildings.” I followed her finger and nodded at a small patch of distant red.
“That’s Chinatown. We should go there and eat tonight.”
“I thought you wanted to go to Bukit Bintang and enjoy the nightlife?”
“Not tonight. Chinatown won’t be as busy and we can get a quiet meal before we head back to the hotel for some, you know.” She nudged me in my ribs and stroked my leg. I knew what she meant.
“That sounds great. We’ve been too busy today. I would love a quiet meal, just the two of us.”
She filled the camera with images and we descended back to ground level. My legs were still shaking as we ran to catch the light rail down to Chinatown. We switched to the Star line at Bandir station to reach the edge of Jalan Petaling, the street where Chinatown starts. We walked past the markets closing up as the shadows grew long from the surrounding buildings. Other shops were setting out chairs on the curb for people who liked to dine out late at the mamaks. All the walking through the KLCC was catching up to me and I was ready to eat anywhere.
“Here we go.” Simone said as she dragged me into a tiny restaurant with ornate golden calligraphy that neither of us could read. There were only four tables in the dining room and we were the only people in the place except a small Chinese man who appeared through a door hidden behind a painted screen. The small man greeted us with a smile, a quick bow, and two menus. We sat away from the windows and huddled close. The menus had no pictures. We laughed as we tried to pronounce the words and decided we would order whatever had the most letters in its name. The small man returned with a pad of paper and a pot of tea. I pointed at our orders not wanting to offend the man with my inability to say the names.
“Oh, and I’ll have a beer.” I said as the man disappeared behind the screen.
Simone poured the hot tea. We sat in the quiet and noticed the gold and dark reds of the ornate walls. We inhaled the incense that always burned at the Buddhist temple down the street. I took Simone’s hand and smiled.
“I’m so glad we’re here.” I said.
“Me too. Was it worth marrying me for?”
“I would have married you even if we couldn’t come here.”
We talked about the strangeness of this city. The city itself seemed to be alive by some unknown power, as if Kuala Lumpur was just visiting this planet from some distant world. We were not used to the Muslim and Buddhist architecture, the vivid colors of light and paint that were everywhere you looked. The city’s vibrant nature made our home seem old and faded and that is how we saw it now.
The small man returned with a large bowl filled with something he called otak and a ‘Tiger’ beer. I was tired of Tiger beer; it seemed to be the only beer in Kuala Lumpur. Simone winced at the slimy bits of food in the bowl as I opened the blue can and drank down a mouthful of the bland alcohol. We laughed as the tendrils, which looked like squid, slipped off our chopsticks and plopped back into the brown sauce. We ordered a round of aperitifs, making sure the man understood we only wanted liquor from Australia. We had tried the local fare of liquors and just could not stomach it. I touched the ring on my finger and smiled at her.
“I love you, you know.”
“I love you too Bastien.”
“Mrs. LaClaire. You know your stuck with that name now.”
“I think I am happier being stuck with it.” Simone grabbed my hand and moved it between her thighs.
“So, are you ready to go yet?” She said with a smile.
“My feet are almost ready for that walk. One more round?”
“Okay, but just one more I don’t want you too drunk. You won’t do me any good.”
We toasted ourselves with the sweet Australian liquor and picked at the otak.
I started to feel dizzy again, like I was back on the skybridge. Simone grabbed the table with both hands and looked past me. I followed her shocked expression over my shoulder to watch the scarlet fabrics and hanging lights sway back and forth. For a second I thought I was drunk. Then I felt the vibration. The floor was sending shivers up my body.
“What is this?” I said.
The ground pushed up against my legs. The restaurant went black. Simone screamed. I heard the tearing of metal and grinding of concrete. I reached for her in the dark, but could not find her. Then I was out.
I awoke in total darkness; it was quiet. I spat out dust and felt around on the ground. My head felt like a car had hit me. I reached into my pocket for my cell phone, opened it, there was no signal. I tried to see around in its dim green light. I was covered in a gray powder that looked like ash.
“Simone.” I said.
Nothing answered back. I tried to stand up, but the ceiling was a lot lower than I remembered it. I crawled around on my knees trying to find Simone, a door, anything. Torn concrete and broken glass cut my knees and hands. I was bleeding from my scalp and felt the warmth run into my eye. I wiped at the blood spoiling my vision with the pieces of grit.
I heard faint breathing from my left and crawled towards it. The phone’s light went out and I had to close and reopen it. There was a tangle of dark hair in the dim green light.
I pulled my cigarette lighter from my pocket and lit it. The flame hurt my eyes, but I could see. The dining room was less than half its size and the ceiling was as low as the backs of the chairs had been. Torn bits of red and gold were pulverized and unrecognizable mixed with the gray rock and black earth. I was in a cave of manmade material too small to stand in. I crawled closer to the tangled hair. The heat from the lighter burned my hand and I had to go back to the faint glow of the phone.
I brushed the dust out of her hair and stroked her head.
“Simone. Talk to me beautiful.”
I could hear her labored breathing and I felt the panic rise like bile from my stomach.
“Simone. It’s me, Bastien. Please, say something.”
Her head moved and then she coughed out the dust.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“I’ve got you.”
My hands felt along her body to prove what I thought I had seen in the brief flame of the lighter, Simone was pinned from the waist down by the debris. I could not tell how much was sitting on her with just my hands so I relit the lighter. I did not need to let it burn for long.
“It’s okay Baby. I’m with you.”
“Was it an earthquake?”
“Something like that. But we’re going to be okay. They’ve got to have people out digging away this mess. We can’t be buried too deep.”
“We’re buried? Oh Bastien, I’m scared. I can’t move. Hold me.”
I could hear the tears rolling down her cheeks as mine began to fall. She whimpered and hacked out a painful cough. I could only hold her and think about rescue. They would have to be coming soon; they must come soon.
“Yes, my love?”
“I want to see you and know that it’s really you.”
I relit the lighter and held it to my face. She smiled and I saw the dark red line coming from her mouth.
“See. It’s me. We’re going to be fine.”
She coughed again and I felt her blood hit my face. I closed the lighter and held her tighter.
“Tell me about when we get home.”
“When we get home?”
“Yes, our little home by the sea.”
I coughed out more dust and let the tears flow. I looked through the black for anything that looked like light breaking into our dark cave.
“Bastien. Tell me.”
“Okay. When we get home we’re going to buy that old house to the east, the one that no one’s lived in for years. You know the one. It’s faded to the palest of yellow, like wheat that’s drying in the fields. I’m going to carry you over the threshold and we’ll be home. It’s far enough outside of town so none of the tourists will be able to bother us and we’ll have our own quiet little beach for our front yard. And every morning we’ll sit and drink our espressos together and walk barefoot through our little pebble beach.”
“Our own beach.”
“That’s right. Of course we’ll still be able to see the blue harbor and count the ships that come back and forth.”
“I love to watch the ships.” Simone rattled out a cough and began to shake.
“Simone? What’s a matter?”
“I’m so cold. Keep talking about our little house.”
The night had been hot, but I was upset with myself for not having a coat to put around her trembling frame.
“The house. Well, you know what it looks like inside and out. You know that we have a lot of work ahead of us to fix it up so we can live in it. But at least it will be away from the main promenade and it will be ours and ours alone.”
I felt Simone smile. More tears streaked down my cheeks.
“We have to paint the whole house, put in new floors. Redo all the wiring and plumbing.”
“Can we paint it green? The color of the summer grass that grows in the foothills just north of town.”
“Of course we can paint it green. The whole house can be green.”
She sighed deep and I heard her throat scraping.
“Simone? Simone. Say something Baby. Green. The whole house, your wonderful shade of green.” She was quiet, but I could still feel her shaking, as if the earthquake had moved into her. I started to yell her name over and over gripping her tighter and tighter. I set her head in the dust and crawled over her body to dig at the rubble. My hands tore at the rock, but nothing moved. The rock bit at my hands tearing my flesh and nails away. I went back to cradle her head in my bloody hands. She had stopped trembling.
“No. No Baby. Don’t go. I need you. I need you to stay with me. Stay.” The tears poured from my eyes and ran down my throat gagging me. I set her back down and relit the lighter. I searched for any spot in the cave that looked weak enough to let me tear it loose. The tears blinded me so I closed the lighter and tore at everything. Every place I dug resisted me. My hands became slippery from my own blood. I went back to her limp form and held her. There was nothing left of her. Simone was gone.
I sat in the dark holding her head in my lap and stroked her hair. I thought about when we first met, at that hotel just off the Promenade des Anglais. Simone was working the front desk. It had been a hot day and I walked in to ask about the restaurant. She smiled and we talked in French so the English tourists could not understand. We both hated the English. That had been almost four years earlier. We started dating and became serious. Simone was sharing a flat with four other girls in the west near the airport, but she moved in with me soon after our third date. The software company that I worked for put me up in a flat near the Quai Cassini. It was on the fourth floor and we loved to stand on the narrow balcony and watch the ships come and go from the Lympia port. When the company found out I had a girlfriend living with me they took away the flat and we had to struggle to pay for a place farther away from the water. By that time it was too late for us, we knew that we would always be together. We saved as much money as we could in the first couple of years so we could move closer to the beach. Most people said that it was not much of a beach anyways, there was no sand, just pebbles everywhere. We did not listen. We loved our pebble beaches. Simone and I had grown up there; our whole lives were spent walking through those tiny rocks. We had learned how to walk barefoot without letting those little stones bother us.
We were happy. Of course we had our fights and then there was the pregnancy scare during our third year, but we always managed. The pregnancy is what changed how we looked at our relationship, I think. Afterwards, when Simone was recovering at Hospital Saint-Roch we talked about marriage. Two weeks after she was out I proposed to her on the pebbles of the beach in front of the hotel where we met. She cried as I put the ring on her finger, but she made me promise that we would be married right there, in that same spot. I agreed. A year later we had a civil marriage and set off on our honeymoon. We decided to visit the orient, starting with Malaysia. We had saved a good sum of money and had enough to visit all of the destinations we had decided on and even enough to buy that ruin of a house just outside of the old downtown. We did not care how much of a wreck the house was; it was something we had seen as we grew up. No one had lived there in our lifetime, but we decided that we could bring it back to life. Who needed a high-rise condominium in the tourist part of town? We wanted a place that was as much ours as it was a piece of history in the town we loved. I just wanted to be back home with Simone.
Thinking about our poor little ruin tore at my heart. Never would I be able to carry her across the threshold. Never would we work on making it our home and not just a house. We wouldn’t sleep there, make love there, or ever raise a family there. I wept into her hair until I fell asleep. I dreamed of the blue waters of home and Simone dancing in the water. I went to her. We embraced and let ourselves drift away from the shallows. Our bodies flowed together and entwined like the seaweed; we forgot where we ended or began. We made love like the sea creatures and only felt the great ships passing around us. I saw the beaches and the port drift farther away as we went out with the waves. We slept, tangled around each other, falling through the water.
When I woke Simone was stiff in my lap. I cried, not just for me, but also for her never returning to our beautiful home in the South of France.
I heard a noise passing over my head like the whirring of a big machine. I started to scream. The noise grew smaller. I was still in total darkness; I did not know if the night was over or not. My hands hurt from the wounds and the dried blood made it hard for me to use my fingers. I lit my lighter with difficulty and placed it on the ground in the middle of concrete chamber. I rechecked my cell phone and found that I still had no signal and the battery was running low. The room was the same; solid debris on all sides and Simone lying motionless under one wall. I coughed out more dust and leaned against a different wall. The stone was hot. I listened as close as I could to the stone. I heard a crackling sound. There was a fire burning on the other side; a gas main must have broken in the quake. I closed the lighter to save its flame and resigned myself to the dark.
In the black, sounds came easier to my ears. The flames behind the wall crackled and spit as they burned through the fuel and whatever debris they licked. The layers of gray above and around me groaned. Metal from a distance chimed like tiny bells, either from the stress or other heat. My breath sounded like winds blowing up into a gale. Then I heard the small clicks; they sounded like dust motes falling to the ground. The clicking became louder and filled my ears. My mind’s eye saw dull flashes of blues and greens. The colors swirled in my head. I felt myself rise to an unimaginable height. I stared blind into the dizzying darkness. Vertigo seized my heart and I tumbled through the nothingness. I relit the lighter to focus myself. The dark receded like smoke from the flame. The solidity of the black pulled away. I was still in that crushed room. The walls still creaked with their burdens, the fire still crackled through solid stone. The sounds of the dust disappeared. The darkness had its games to play with me.
I decided that I did not want to be immersed in total darkness again so I crawled around looking for bits of broken wood or cloth that I could build a small fire with. My lighter’s flame started to gutter by the time I piled some splinters and torn red fabric in the center of the room. I set the flame to the scraps and watched them jump across and dance on the new fuel. I closed the lighter and watched the wisps of black smoke crawl the still air and touch the low ceiling. The flames were small, but they kept the darkness away. The smoke smelled like burning hair. I coughed and stirred the dust. It was quiet again. I scavenged more scraps to keep the flame lit and listened in the light. I wondered where everyone else was. Did the small man duck out the back of the restaurant in time? Was I the only living thing left in this part of the city? I should have heard others screaming, but besides the whirring machine earlier nothing else sounded alive. Then I thought about the clicking’s; they had sounded almost alive. Maybe some of the rats had survived. I put more of the torn red fabric in the fire. More black smoke traced its way to the ceiling. I didn’t like rats.
I must have slept, sitting there watching the flames, because when I opened my eyes I could not see. I reached for my cell phone; it was dead, no light. I grabbed my lighter and spun the roller. The spark strobed. I thought I saw movement in the flashes. The flame took hold and I looked for more cloth to build another fire. I listened for the noises. The flames still burned beyond the rubble, wreckage still creaked. Just outside the small ring of light tiny clicks darted in the darkness. I took a glowing splinter of wood in my hand and went in search of the small sounds. They sounded metallic, but my mind put the sounds on the feet of scurrying rats. The clicks where coming from where Simone lay. As I lifted the splinter I could see Simone’s face. A fresh tear caught in my throat and I coughed. She was motionless. I crept closer to see her clearer.
“What the hell?”
There had been rats while I slept. Simone’s face bore the evidence. In the hollows of her cheeks, the thin flesh around her eyes, and even at her lips flesh was missing. Bloodless bite marks about the size of a rat’s spoiled her beauty. I dropped the burning splinter in shock. The falling wood alighted her dark hair and ate its way to her scalp. I hit away the flames and wrapped my body around her.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I said as I rocked her head on my lap. The fire faded while I attended to Simone. Before the last ember extinguished I saw movement in the encroaching darkness.
“No. No more rats.”
I would keep the furry beasts off her. Just seconds after the room went black I heard the clicks. I held Simone closer. The clicks surrounded me and I buried my face against her. The clicks crawled along the wall over Simone. They scurried on her uncovered flesh. One flew past my ear. I could feel dozens crawling around to taste her. Their feet were sharp like hypodermic needles as they climbed my back. They pierced the skin of my neck and dug at my scalp. I reached in my pocket for the lighter.
I could not take this anymore. The lighter sparked a weak flame, but I could see. I did not see rats. I saw things that could not be. They looked like oversized hands, or large sinewy spiders all colored in the darkest ebon. I saw dozens of them teaming and racing on their spindly legs across every corner of the room and across us. The creatures scooped thin strips of flesh from Simone’s face and darted away with their prize. The flame flickered higher. The things disappeared. Only traces of black smoke fading into the darkness showed were they had been. I stared at the nothingness until the lighter burned out.
The lighter would not relight. I was submerged in the darkness. The clicks came again, louder and faster. I crawled away from Simone’s body, away from the clicking creatures. I heard the tiny tears of her flesh; the metallic sounds of the pointed legs and tried to block them out. I did not want to hear those horrors. My mind showed them to me over and over in the dark. I think I screamed. I flicked the roller on my lighter hoping that the spark would drive the monsters away. The flashes only burned more images on my brain of the things tearing into Simone. They took turns digging out hunks of her pale face. Some consumed the morsels where they stood; others ran off with the meat. The spider-like things that consumed the flesh started to change. I did not notice at first because of the quick flashes from the lighter. Some of the creatures started to glow. An iridescence of muted blues and greens started appearing between the strobes. I could see them glowing in the dark. They looked like foxfire was radiating from them; as if when they consumed the flesh they became foxfire. I stopped flicking the lighter and watched them. They did not come near me or even acknowledge I was there. They were too busy peeling and consuming my wife’s flesh.
The sound of their feet was maddening, like ice picks hammering the stone. I watched them glow brighter knowing what they carried in their bellies. I was too afraid to fight the creatures off, there were just too many of them. I felt safe enough on my side of the room. With no light I could only observe the movements of the things that ate. I could only hear the others in the dark and feel them when they stumbled across me. One of the invisible ones climbed my shoulder and ran across my chest leaving punctures that leaked drops of blood. I must have sat there motionless for hours, letting the beasts have their way.
The end of the room where Simone’s body was became a bright glow of foxfire. I was almost able to see the darkest of the creatures in that light. I could not see Simone. The creatures had consumed all of her that was free from the debris and were now trying to pull out the meat that was crushed by the rock. The clicking became harried as a mob of glowing spiders tore at the fallen stone and the pink meat. I heard the debris groan under attack by hundreds of ice picks. Dust rained down from the ceiling. I was afraid the creatures were going to bring all the rubble down on top of me. The concrete buckled and snapped. A loud bang and the wall fell, crushing several of the creatures.
“That’ll teach you.” I said.
I coughed out the dust and tasted the crushed things in the air. It was like breathing in ashes. Without their meat the things’ foxfire glow began to fade. I felt them crawling, like scavengers in search of their next meal. The room grew darker and I felt the panic resurface in my stomach. The creatures were not leaving. I could hear them clicking on every surface. One of them that still had a faint glow crawled up my leg and settled on my groin. I had no choice but to watch him fade to black. When the entire room was dark the clicks slowed down. I knew they were still there with me in the dark. I could still feel the sharp legs of one resting on me. It became quiet again. I could hear the crackling of the buried fire, the groan of the over-stressed concrete. I reached for my lighter and started to spark the flint again. There they all were, gathered all around me with one sitting on me. I hoped if I sped up the sparks they would leave, but they did not. I understood what they were doing. They weren’t going to leave a meal behind. I might not be dead yet, but they knew I would be soon enough.
This small room was going to be my tomb and no one would ever know. When my life faded from me the spiders would start their feast, glowing more and more radiant with my dead flesh. No one was going to come and save me. No one would even think to look for me, buried under god-knows-how-much rubble. All I had to do was wait. The spiders seemed content to wait with me. My exhaustion got the better of me and I faded into a dark dream. I saw Simone standing before me on our beach. She was not substantial and flickered like flames. One of the beasts formed from her smoke and rested on her shoulder. I called to her, but she was silent. A low fog flowed in from the water and crept up the beach. The mist turned black over the pebbles. All the tiny rocks sprouted legs like the spiders. The beach was writhing with black legs. The horde moved towards me trailing the black mist behind them. I couldn’t run. The sharp legs pierced me as they climbed me. My body ran with blood, the creatures sucked on my fluid as they ascended. I screamed as they dragged the black mist down my throat.
I awoke sweating. The room was still dark. My left hand throbbed and wouldn’t move. I felt something poke my cheek and swatted at it with my right hand. The creature dug its pointed legs deeper into my face. I screamed with the pain. I grabbed the lighter to fill the room with sparks. The images in the flashes showed me that the creatures did not plan on waiting. They were stripping the flesh from my left hand and cutting their way through my jeans. I screamed and dislodged the one attached to my cheek. I screamed again and flung my arms around for protection. The pain in my left hand drove white-hot nails into my brain. I crawled to my knees. They were on me. Their legs drove into my back and my thighs. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to go, but I didn’t want to die like this. I wanted to see home again; at least for Simone’s sake. They scraped at my arms, pulled at my scalp. They were in my eyes. I felt their legs force open my mouth and tasted the ashes they carried. They were still stuffed by the remains of my wife and I tasted her burnt within them. I was forced down. The darkness embraced me one last time.
The hospital was white. The windows were open. I never remembered seeing so much light. I was wrapped in white. Everyone seemed to glow.
“Where am I?”
“You're in hospital.” A glowing Asian nurse said.
I had been rescued from my tomb. I was alive. There was no pain. The clear bag attached to my veins made sure of that.
“You, hurt very bad Mister LaClaire.” Her tongue tripped over my French name.
I was alive, but I was not without evidence of my horrors. As I healed I saw more and more of my tortured body. I had lost the last two fingers of my left hand, part of my right foot, my cheek was held together by metal staples, and was riddled with small holes. The doctors explained how lucky I was that I had survived. I told them nothing about what had happened. They offered condolences for my wife, but explained how earthquakes had ways of burying the dead so no one could ever find them. I was able to leave the hospital on crutches after three weeks. They put me on a plane and sent me home. When I arrived in Nice, France no one greeted me, I was only a survivor not a hero of the catastrophe. A taxi took me to a hotel. I slept through the next day. When I woke I walked down the promenade on my crutches. I stared over the blue Mediterranean and all the pebbles on the beach. I didn’t stay long. I needed my sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day. I had a house to buy and green paint.
Words - 5582