"A Distraction" is the first chapter of How To Unmake It In Anglia by Brandon O'Brien for for Eyedolon. (First chapter now free to read.)
by Brandon O'Brien
He could see it distending in the wine-dark, in the vacuum-ocean, a hoary thing that reached out with its tendrilous languages in every direction, urging every tongue to speak something into being. That was all it had: lips, tongues, the will to make the untrue true.
In the deep space between his closed eyelids and his mind, each word bubbled and burnt, every made-up dream scarring reality and begging something else of it. Some of them licked him, tickling the edges of his dark face, searching painfully in his mind for a story he'd like to tell about himself. What words would it use to lie? Was he to be "handsome"? "Eidetic," maybe?—he struggled to be that, worked hard at it with frustration. Maybe even, "Captain"?
The limbs kept touching him, scouring the lead-locked doors of his soul for a lie he would kill to turn truth. And these words even, the ones that fall out of this dead narrator's mouth, pained him like chattering teeth, like masonry nails dragged against the inner skull—
Stop using similes, you fool, the man screamed silently, don't you know what similes do?
The thing pulled him closer, wrapping its slick tongue-arms around his body, tightening, throbbing against his skin. It pressed for words, its desire—need—to tell a tall tale scraping the man's will for something to use.
When it found one, the pain stopped. And yet the man felt a different pain, the kind of unknowable pain of curiosity clashing against doubt or fear or both or many other things. The pain of an unrequited love—only not of a romance not yet sparked but one that had blown up in everyone's faces.
"Would you like me to tell you she loves you?" the thing bellowed, deep within his body, borborygmic, shattering. "Or would you like me to tell you that she loved you once at all?"
Ben woke up with enough velocity that his left hand pushed outward out of instinct and threw his entire bedside table clattering to the floor. He let out a sigh and straightened, observing the mess he had made. A shattered lamp, a broken alarm clock, scattered notes from the office. The clock bothered him the least—it wasn't as if Ben slept properly enough at all to need to be awoken in the day. He wished, in fact, he could find a sleep so sound that he would snooze an alarm. If the Word didn't come for him as it had tonight, then Vera always came. He feared those nights most. The nights when the nightmare felt sweet.
He knelt on the bedroom floor, a single small shard of glass barely nicking his kneecap, to collect his notes. All carefully, dutifully written, not a single idea out of place, for fear of what they would do. Simply misnaming a suspect could ruin not just his case but the world around him. His captain had suggested long ago to never write a thing at all—a mistaken fact in the mind wasn't the same as fabulism, didn't affect the world in the same ways. But once you wrote the wrong thing on paper, the world would try to make it right. She had insisted to Ben to always be as impeccable with his memory as he could manage. He was bad at it and didn't have the patience to admit it to her. But at least he had the good sense not to say anything out loud.
His cell phone rang, its buzz rattling against the wood floor. He had forgotten that it was on the table too. He tilted the table upward a bit to find it pressed against one corner, screen only narrowly avoiding a crack against the sturdy wood. He glanced at the name on the screen and furrowed his brow before answering. "Yes, Captain?"
The voice on the other end cleared her throat, waiting a beat before replying. "Agent Paragraph, when is a comma required?" she asked sternly.
"Whenever a comma is missing," he answered. Then, he added: "Captain, respectfully, it is after two in the morning—"
"And you are, as you often have been, quite awake. I just wanted to go over some duties you will have as soon as you come into the office next."
He knew already that she was wont to wake her trusted agents at odd hours, so they would hear their jobs before they got in; often it was hard to find a chance to talk to her face to face, and she abhorred texts because she knew how many of her officers refused to read them until the morning. "Alright, Captain."
"First, let me say that you did a good job on your report of the Slurs Revolt in Belfry. You and the other agents on that scene, as far as I can see . . ." She paused, weighing her words silently in her mind. It was what people did when under the law in Anglia—be careful that not a single one of their words were so hyperbolic, so metaphorical, so abstract, that the Word couldn't get to it. "As dutifully as I could have observed, all of the texts covered a wide enough description of the incident. I trust all of the culprits are in custody?"
"Yes, ma'am. Several of their mouths should already be clasped."
"Good. And I trust that you're already working on writing your next report?"
Captain Sophia Sentence was very good at asking charged questions, those on the very edge of breaking the law against fabulism but that compelled the person on the other side of her speech to be even more careful about what they were about to say. It was what made her a champion interrogator, and it was what made her an intensely compelling leader. It made Ben gulp nervously, weighing his own words in turn before settling for the curtest of truths.
"No? And why not?"
"I . . ." He paused just to ask himself if any part of this sentence was too large, driven by the poetry of sorrow or fear or weakness. It proved to be fine enough. "I do not want to talk about it. Or her—"
"Well, one of the things I fancy the most about being employed is that, when you are asked to fulfil a task, you don't have to want to do it in order to complete it."
Ben sighed. "Captain, I mean it. I am not going to tell a tale, but I definitely do not want to write that incident report—"
"Agent Paragraph, listen closely to me." He was only Agent Paragraph when she was incredibly concerned or incredibly stern. And in her tone of voice, concern struggled against sternness and lost. "Very few agents saw what happened, and none as clearly as you had. Your partner met you at your cubicle, and a scene ensued—that's all I know. If I were to write an incident report based solely on that, with no addition from you, then you will be stripped of rank. I am trying to prevent that."
"I know, Captain, and I'm grateful. But . . ." In the dark of his twilight bedroom, he could see it again: Vera, charging at his desk and cursing him, wishing him all manner of cruelties without a hint of punishment. She played the game well. The popping and shattering of glassbirds at everyone's desk—the grenades that the CCB used to dispel fabulisms—were the only thing that stopped him from turning into a piece of shit right there on his feet, but they didn't stop her from shouting. They didn't reveal anything about her, about her secret cruelty, only that she was angry and driven to language. And then she hit him, one solid fist in the right eye. That was what had her dragged away. At that point, outside of the earshot of the bureau's tools, she must have said anything she wanted. She wasn't against giving birth to a bruise for Ben's sake.
"But what, Ben? Are you still there?"
He blinked. "Yes, Captain."
"Will you write—"
"So you'd lose your badge because you don't want to talk about something that we all saw happen to you? Refusing to address it doesn't make it disappear."
Would that it could, he thought. If only the Word responded just as fiercely to silence as it did to a word said out of turn. "I know, ma'am. But . . . I don't want to talk about Vera."
"If you don't talk about Vera now, you're not going to have a badge for long enough to talk about Vera again."
He pressed his knuckles against his thigh hard, felt each of the joints crack in slow succession. "What if you were to give me a case to follow instead, Captain?"
"A moment of extra work, just for now." He paused, waiting for her to interject with anger, but she didn't. "Give me any other case you want, anything you don't have someone to follow just yet. Let me take care of that. Give me . . . time, something else to focus on. And then, perhaps I will have the energy to talk about . . ." He took a breath. "Please, Captain."
Unofficially, Ben had shared enough to Captain Sentence about Vera for her to have a clear picture. Her tantrums, her cruel imagination, her often unprovoked violence. He suspected that she didn’t believe most of his stories at first. It was hard for most people to see a man shaped like Ben bow to a woman shaped like Vera. But it was hard to find much of a reason for a man of the CCB to lie. Besides, in the presence of all of his office tools, not a single glassbird or metronome would trigger, save for the rare misremembrance that he would immediately redress. Plus, he had been seen, by more agents than just her. In still, seemingly undisturbed moments, shuddering or stiffening for nothing at all. He heard her admit before that she wasn't sure if stagecraft got the Word's attention, but even then, the effort to pretend to be uneasy in calm moments was a lot of work for fabulism.
"Anything? No matter how small?"
"Yes, Captai—" He sensed it immediately. Small.
"Good. A minor indulgence then—a bulletin for a Miss Salome Guerra. And we both know enough about your prowess as a detective that it may not take too long for you to find someone like this. Am I correct?"
He sighed. "Yes, ma'am."
"Alright. And then, immediately after clearing this case, you will make this report, if only so I can make sure that you do not lose your job. Do not think of it as a courtesy I am offering to you. Think of it as merely a duty you are practicing for my sake, to give yourself time enough to ensure this report is perfect and that your darling Captain does not lose her darling Agent. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am." A day or two of relief was still relief, he admitted. But knowing that the time drew only so much further still drew a despondent whimper from him. "So what about Salome Guerra?"
"I'll send you her photograph after this call. Has an address in the Little Antilles but hasn't been seen there in days after a report of high fabulism made by one of her neighbors. Spotted in a motel near Renttown about six hours ago. In fact, I figure we both can guess how long it would take for you to find Miss Guerra if you were to begin right now . . . but since this is about sparing you time, I shan’t harass you this twilight. You can even be patient with this afternoon. But then, I want Salome, and I want to know what happened at your desk."
"Yes . . . yes, ma'am."
"Alright. Sleep well then."
The line went dead. Ben sat on the edge of his bed and stared out the window into the still-neon-lit city night. Anglia, he knew, wasn't like other cities in other nations. Whereas the others boasted about sleeplessness, Anglia had no time for insomnia. Anglia always sleeps, but it puts on a good show of being a light sleeper of a city, enough to be roused for a drink at midnight or to see a show at one, even if the city truly wished to be left alone.
Somewhere in this groggy city, a woman was running around doing the worst of fabulism—tinkering with the Old Fables. The kind of thing that could take a loose thread at the edge of the universe and pull it until everything went spinning idly into oblivion. The kind of thing that crossed the line from felony dishonesty into language terrorism.
And Ben Paragraph lingered in the middle of his captain's last words: her silent acknowledgment that this was not a case to linger with, yet she had just given him permission to go back to sleep.
Ben awoke properly at noon after two other bouts of restless dreaming, unfortunately all about the Word trying to wheedle its way into the corners of his words. He glanced up at the tiled ceiling, at the ornate central light fixture like a dome held in place by golden clasps and loops, and took a long, deep breath. If one day was all he had in peace, a chance to not think about fists or foulness, he'd rather spend the day as his best self than his most cowardly.
One phone call to one of the runaway's neighbors turned into another to a motel manager and then another to a motel farther northeast. The file the captain sent barely put any finer points on her path—a note about a police report concerning a missing person last seen in Northeast Anglia with no further detail.
He drew out an atlas from the downstairs study, a massive thing with the wingspan of half a dining table, and he tried to line up each step in Salome's path. He knew how simply people moved—creatures of habit, of sentiment, always frequenting the things that were as familiar as sun upon the skin, only rushing toward the foreign when it offered them something they desperately needed. The little that Ben could glean revealed that the two motels were new to her, too far away from the district where she lived, but that higher northward were all manner of things that she had visited before and knew almost perfectly.
He made a leisurely guess at about five in the evening after a slow and drawn-out lunch and some reading. Near Aberline Plaza, there was an abandoned house, one the files said was her father's last place of residence before both it and he went up in a fire a little over ten years ago. He had seen the connection since two but was in no hurry. If she were the kind of person to be drawn restlessly to a childhood home, she'd be there when the sun set, revisiting some comfortable spot to find a kind of peace in. He wouldn't miss her.
So he set out at minutes past six to Aberline Plaza by taxi, stopping a little short of the house in question, and waited under the shade of a cherry tree at an outer edge of the plaza to observe.
Someone or something stirred there. In the dark, without much light cast anywhere, they shifted ruined furniture and shuffled for things in their backpack. Even when a drizzle set in, the body didn't seek shelter so much as something familiar in that room. A bedroom, maybe? The place was so destroyed that Ben could barely tell which wall once held the main entrance.
At one point, the figure finally sat on the edge of something inside, head down into something they drew from their bag. His initial assumption of Salome, leaning into a copy of some old fable written out by hand, seemed confirmed. The idea gave him the mildest of shudders. What would writing out a fable already have done to the city? he wondered. He had seen the smallest and most benign of hyperboles split the earth beneath people's feet or send apartment buildings hurtling into the heavens. A whole fable, he worried, could do things heretofore unfathomable by even the strictest observations of science or the loosest and deepest imaginations of art. And he definitely didn't want to wait to see what that would look like.
He walked briskly but calmly, keeping to the shadows, out of the dim reach of the street lamps, and leaned against the outer wall of the house, just out of her eyesight. Her face matched the photos in the file. Short, wavy brown hair around a light-brown, oval face, and a mole on the left side of her neck. The orange t-shirt she wore looked dirty, even old, and her jeans didn't seem torn in the fashionable way. She even looked like she had been in a couple scuffles as recently as that morning.
He carefully stepped closer, kneeling under the sill of a window totally erased by fire, just enough to hear her more clearly. She was whispering to herself, something familiar but still too far and too soft to recognize. His training wouldn't let him go back to the captain with an incomplete notion of the scene.
Salome sobbed through the words of a thing he had studied once, learned to know but never to recite. ". . . there was a kingdom, opulent and dazzling, where everyone had more than they needed, and no one wanted for the simple things, like love or family, when there was meat and gold aplenty."
Ben's eyes widened, and he held back a gasp. He didn't recall that part. Yes, the unnamed kingdom in that fable was rich, and yes, some struggled with greed, but that was never a big point of the thing. He wasn't even sure what such a thing was supposed to do to the story, let alone to the world of the listeners.
He drew his sidearm from his left-side holster and reached into his right pocket for two glassbirds, wings polished fine under his fingers. Then he stepped through and around the other cracks of the house to find a better place to approach in secrecy. Experience had told him that more daring fabulists were always adept at having an easy truth on the tip of the tongue, to quiet a Revealer if it fired in their direction or if a glassbird flew. A moment to catch the fable on its own was more effective.
When he came around, facing her back, he gently lifted the birds to the air, and they replied, maintaining a soft glide barely a foot away from his head. On another day, he'd marvel at the construction of them—one of the few technologies the bureau had at their disposal that were created by fabulism and left undisturbed. Living things with skin of glass, wills like their avian counterparts, but designed to do one thing. To find a lie in the middle of its telling and swoop in close enough to burst into shards of pain and light until the effects of the lie were dead around it. Obviously a good choice to keep an agent on duty from succumbing to a simple lie. But it never proved perfect against a story's many mingling parts of abstract truths and tiny little untruths. He could only hope, though.
"The Prince knelt before the Unmaker and cried out," Salome continued. "'If you can really do what you say, then you can even unmake me!' he exclaimed. 'I care not for gold or wine or cloth, like my brothers do. I can grant you every object I will ever own, just for the fortune of not being myself.'"
Ben pulled the hammer back on his Revealer, and the woman gasped. "The Unmaker fable, of all things?" he said softly.
Salome put her hands up slowly, a stack of mildly soggy notebooks falling to the stone floor with a wet sqsh. "Good evening, officer," Salome said, her tone a merger between a forced Anglian city accent and another twang he recognized. An island accent from the Caribbean proper just like his parents', just like his own before he was sent to study two decades ago and loved it too much to go back.
"And good evening to you, Miss Guerra." Ben let out a whistle, and the two glassbirds flew to Salome, hovering above her. "We had reports of you reciting one of the ancient fables several days ago, and now, here you are with one of the oldest of the old in the ruins of a house in the dark of the evening. Would you like to explain why? Or would you prefer to just be taken into the bureau office?"
Salome turned slowly, and Ben steadied his pistol. For the briefest of moments, her eyes widened, but she recovered from that shock just as quickly. "A dark-skinned man. Wasn't expecting an officer of the law to come in that shade, you know."
"Yes, Anglia may not be as progressive as it wishes, but it often puts brown people in suits." He paused, the woman's voice too familiar to ignore. "From Tres Cuernos?"
Salome nodded. "Moved here years ago with my brother and father. Thought . . ." She bit her lip and looked up at one glassbird, trying to imagine which of the many sentences that came easiest were all too much. "We thought we lives would improve. They did, in little ways."
He glanced back at the notebooks. "Are those all fables?"
Salome took a breath before she answered. "Yes. They're the only things I have left—"
"And why do you have handwritten fables on your person at all? Do you know possessing a fable is a breach of national security?"
Salome slowly closed her eyes, weighing her words again before settling on a distracting question. "Have you ever lost someone?"
Ben squinted. "Answer my question, Miss Guerra. Why do you—"
"They were my brother's." When her eyes reopened, they were glistening with tears.
He paused, judging her face as best he could. Even if the body could fool a glassbird, he was convinced she wasn't playing a role here. Not much consolation, but he wanted to stand by it at least. "And where is your brother?"
"I don't know. I haven't known for almost three weeks."
"Well, you're going to have to help us find him if he's willing to commit a crime as high as writing out the old fables, let alone editing them—"
"Why you think I'm here? Hmm? When the rest o' allyuh police clowns wouldn't—"
A bird hadn't taken well to the word clowns and shattered over her head in a tinny sound, falling over her hair like glittering dust. She jumped, shaking the remains of it out before it cut her eyes, her hands still up. She muttered some benign curse he couldn't make out before turning back to him.
"You and all the rest o' them so eager to stop me, but when I go to the police, I . . ." She searched for words again. "They offered so little help. One man just tell me to wait for Marcus to come back. Like all my worry don't matter."
The second glassbird shimmered and broke.
Salome groaned. "What I say wrong this time?"
Ben grinned. "That your worry doesn't matter." The habit of training told him not to drop his pistol. He wondered if he had heard anything wrong, if the edges of her sentences were still coated in avoidances. But the glassbirds at least confirmed the one thing that was noticeable: whoever Marcus was, Salome was willing to do something stupid to find him. "Tell me about him then."
"Why? So you could ignore me, too?"
"No. Really, tell me. It's not . . . my practice, of course. I'm with the CCB. But if there is something I can notice that others hadn't, then I can offer that information to the police on your behalf, ask them to revisit the investigation."
"And . . ." Salome gestured with one hand at his pistol. "You want me to answer you while staring down the barrel of a gun?"
Ben resisted putting it away. People liked charging at agents moments after their gun began to point downward. But Salome seemed genuine, and there wasn't much she could do in a broken house in the rain, so he holstered it. "Fine. Talk. But . . ." He put his right hand back into a pocket and pulled out a handful of birds, eight or nine or ten, and placed them on the ground, letting them roll around on their small, fat bellies and peck each other in the eye as she spoke.
Salome tried to shake off her nervousness, finally putting her hands down into the back pockets of her jeans. "Marcus Guerra. Sophomore History student at Crawford. We don't live together—I work as a live-in nurse farther west, around the Little Antilles; he was renting a place down Cannon Hill side, not far from campus. I used to visit, and—"
"And tell stories?"
Salome glanced at the birds, all of them looking up at her intensely now, even as they waddled or played. She nodded. "He did like to read fables to me. I did take care o' him when we was small, when the fire did happen. We stuck it out, and I got my nursing certificate, could make some better money to live. And then he did do his International Paper and get accepted to Crawford. But even when we couldn't see each other plenty, like we used to, I would come to his place, and we would be like little brother and big sister again. And I would ask him to read something, and he would say, 'which one, which one?', and I'd ask for The Unmaker . . ." A tear finally escaped from her lashes and tumbled down her cheek. "So three weeks ago, I come with groceries and things for him, wanting to just spend some time as usual. And he wasn't there. I did figure he was out, but he wouldn't answer he phone. Nobody knew where he went. So I told the police. And . . . no one looking for him, sir."
A glassbird rolled rapidly toward her feet and broke. Ben glared at the shards of it with confusion. "Well," he said, "that seems very, very worrisome, doesn't it?" He didn't notice, but the flock of still-living birds all nodded in agreement, returning to their idle play.
"What? What you mean?"
"If the police don't have a lead on your brother but someone does, and you have no idea what he could be involved in that could lose him a phone and not even have him call you back, then . . ." Ben was always careful here not to say something in a way that would bring harm to someone who was before that point unscathed. Some sentences were best opened in nonthreatening ways. "I think it would be ideal to look for him as soon as we can."
"So . . . you go help me find him?"
Ben took a moment to hold the question on his tongue. "I'm going to ask. As soon as we're done here even. I'm going to call my superior and ask if we can do this. And only because it involves these fables and because—I have to be honest—may end with your brother being interrogated for his own possession. But . . . if that is any comfort to you at all, I can ask to try to help you get your brother back." He folded his arms. "Does that comfort you?"
Neither of them can notice a single bird glancing up at Salome, eyes eager to learn the answer. It wiggled closer, swimming on the silt and concrete to reach her, waiting even gleefully to burst at the sound of her saying that she got any comfort from a bland effort when the truth was that too many officers had said "we'll look into it" and looked the other way. It got to her ankle when she answered.
"No. It doesn't." She took a tense, dragging breath. "But it's still better than nothing."
The remainder of the instructions was peculiar: Ben guided her to keep moving in whatever order she already planned, or an even more difficult one, and remain out of sight. They shared cell numbers and she fled, and he lingered a bit longer to make one call. "Captain Sentence? May I speak to you regarding the Guerra case?"
"Ah—so I take it you've already found her?"
"Yes, I found her only moments ago, but—"
"This is good news." Sentence wore a mother's voice here, the tone where their sweetness hid cruel control. "So how soon can I expect both of these reports from you?"
The answer felt sharp against his jaw. "Captain . . . I would like to keep you waiting for these reports a while longer."
Sentence huffed on the other end of the line. "Agent Paragraph, we made an arrangement—"
"—and I am only asking because . . . I believe that Salome Guerra's troubles offer us something more significant."
"A fugitive fabulist with a bag full of old stories, as far as I can observe, may not—"
"Captain, not only did Salome already testify of a link between the fables in her possession and her brother Marcus, but . . . she hasn't seen that brother in several weeks, and we have reason to suspect that he may be in danger. If I can lend my resources to discovering him, she understands that he will have to be taken in. But if that can potentially reveal some more significant relationship between the Guerras and the fables, I think it wise to pursue."
Another huff from the captain. "And how long, do you imagine, will this take?"
"I cannot guess. Perhaps another week of investigation would be prudent, but I can be as diligent with that time as you wish."
Before the captain replied, Ben noticed a shift in the shadow around him as if a figure had appeared behind. He made no tense motions, did not give away his awareness. But his eyes tended toward the right corner, waiting for the movement to give something away.
"Alright," Captain Sentence replied. "I cannot guarantee you a week. I cannot ask for CCB High Command to sanction such an operation without more to offer than a few handwritten stories. You must take as little time as you can muster to find Marcus—I can only offer you more if you can prove this . . . 'more significant' business. Beyond that, any other officer who finds Salome will arrest her, and any who find you in her company will take you into custody for abetting. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. I will work as quickly as I can."
"Good." The beat filled, Ben noticed, with less sternness and more concern this time around. "Ben. I imagine that this moment is tense for you. That the incident at the office must have you . . ." When even Captain Sentence, a woman who was keen on the dullest words to use to keep from breaking the edges of the world, paused to find a better way to hollow a statement, Ben worried. "What I would like to say is, if you want to talk to me about what's going on, you can do that. I can listen. I've already heard what you know about Vera before. But if you want to . . ." Ben could sense his superior’s thoughts of "dropped burdens" and "released tensions", but as Sentence sighed in frustration, he could also sense them evaporating from her mind in favor of lighter words. "If you want to be specific about your thoughts and feelings, I can make myself available within reason."
"I appreciate that, Captain."
She cleared her throat. "Are you . . . are you at least feeling a little better right now, Ben?"
Ben glanced again to the right, just in time for the shadow to flicker out of the street lamp's light, past the wall and out of view.
Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions and is published in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Reckoning, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Literary Magazine.
Broken Eye Books is an independent press, here to bring you the odd, strange, and offbeat side of speculative fiction. Our stories tend to blend genres, highlighting the weird and blurring its boundaries with horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Discover our books at brokeneyebooks.com.