Sep 1, 2023

In the shell

A short winter's day, one of those days when it never brightens up properly, neither light nor dark, from morning till night only gray.
I go to work in the dark and come back in the dark. I don't mind. In a month the sun will beat on my window and wake me up before the alarm does. In two months, I'll wake up every day in a puddle of sweat choking with the heat. I don't mind dreary weather, I prefer it, as it leaves me alone. 
I reach home but before I drag myself inside, I take a look at my plants on the windowsill. They are dark green and have no flowers, at this point they look more like weeds, but I don't care. My apartment has the only bit of color in all this gray. Hmm, well that's not true, a few floors above someone is drying their undies and a handful of socks. Decolored rags flapping in the humid evening air. Feeling queasy, I get inside.
I go upstairs and turn the stove on to warm my bones a bit with the evening meal. I catch someone with the corner of my eye. A man is standing outside looking like a gopher with his neck stretched out. He's studying something, I can't figure out what. He stands in the shadows and stares intently at something then scurries away. This insignificant event would have floated away from my attention never to bother me again, but the next day while having dinner I saw him again. And the next day after that.
The sight of the curious man has become routine. Day after day, I get home, I peek out and he's there, standing in the dark, in front of the apartment building, looking at my window. He comes, takes a look and leaves. I don't know what he wants, I don't know what he's looking for, what he's inspecting, but day after day he's there, he takes his fancy and leaves.
When I come back from work, I hang around a bit to see what's so damn fascinating. Nothing. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong place.
He can't see anything inside, with the blinds drawn there's nothing to see. I give up and spend a few minutes admiring the plants on the windowsill. It's easier to get the big picture from the outside. One needs to be turned and another moved a bit to the left, but it's mostly fine. There might be room for one more.
For a moment I think, maybe that's what he's doing, coming and looking at the flowers. He could be a neighbor. Maybe he's looking at the plants and he's thinking about getting his own. He probably hates them. These thoughts pass quickly. Lonely people make up stories to keep from getting bored.
I get in the apartment, pull the blinds. I stand behind them with the light turned off and watch him through the slits as he stands there looking up. He's standing next to a lamppost that hasn't worked in the 9 years I've lived here. I can only see his outline, but he's standing there in front of my apartment in the dark looking at me. We just sit like a pair of nitwits looking at each other without seeing each other.
What does this man want from me? Should I just go downstairs, and see what he wants, what he's looking at? 
Do I sound like a crazy person? Isn't he allowed to look? It's not my street, is it? It's not like I own the building. I bet that's what he'd say to me, "Get the hell out of my face! A man can't just sit in the street for two minutes, he must be watching you?!".
Writing scenarios in your head is the ballad of the bored man. I suffer from "scenarioitis" at work and now I'm having fun with it at home, great. No point in thinking about it, I wouldn't have anything to say to the bastard anyway.
I spend some money on thicker curtains, I used to just pull the blinds, but that is not enough anymore. I bought a curtain with thick fabric to hide behind.
A morbid idea creeps into my head: "What if he’s trying to steal from me... or worse?". What if he comes around every day and checks up on me? He checks when I am home and when I'm not. Making little notes: he's late today, this is his day off.
I go to bed with that thought in my head. I wake up groggy like I heard something. I grope in the dark, reach for the door, pull the knob, but it's locked. I go back to bed, but I gotta get up again, to check if I left the window open. It's the second floor, but I still think someone could climb in. Isn’t that ridiculous?
If he follows me, I can follow him. As soon as I get home, I sit at the window and wait for him to come around.
He usually doesn't stay long, there are days when he just pauses a bit by the lamppost and moves on. To me, it looks like he's going to the main entrance. He could also go around the building, in the back towards the canal.
There's an encased river with putrid water in the back. He would have to swim it if he wanted to get across, the footbridge is a damn long way. People don't walk there because of the smell, but what do I know, maybe he does canal work.
If he comes into the building, he’s my neighbor. Problem is, I don't know any of them. I don't bother them, and they leave me alone, that’s fine with me. 9 years in this building and I only know the name of that finicky old lady that makes sure we all pay up the maintenance fee. Hmm, she would know him.
If he has a problem with me, he should just come and tell me! What? Do I turn on the washing machine at 5 am? Do I bang the chairs in the kitchen? Do I spill water over his windows when I water my plants? Anything? Just tell me! Eh, it doesn't matter, if he's from the building and just likes to sneer at my window, screw him. 
Ahh! But why doesn't he just come and tell me what the problem is?
Another day goes by, and I buy some drapes. They're thick, almost as thick as a blanket, the darkest ones I could find, a dark brown.
- 1 -
I come home, turn on the TV and forget for a few minutes. I allow myself to think that he didn't even come today, that it's all in my head, that I've imagined it. For a moment I believe it. I come to decide, that the man can't be down there anymore, he just can't. I peek out just a little to check, a little check can't hurt.
I reach behind the curtain, gently pull it aside and lift the slat of a blind with one finger. Slowly, imperceptibly, I lift it. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness and finally, I see him. He's dirty but his eyes shine with the low light. As I begin to see better, I realize something is wrong. He's looking at me, but he's lying on the ground. He tries to get up but can’t. He gives me a little nod and opens his mouth, I think he's trying to say something. Why is he lying on the ground? Did he faint, is he drunk? Something's wrong, something's happened, clearly, something's happened to him. Shit, this is all I needed.
Maybe he got dizzy, fell, and hurt himself. I should just let him lie there. He deserves it. I spin, I squirm, and I finally decide to get down, what if he needs an ambulance? 
- 2 -
I dress in a hurry and go down the two flights of stairs to check on the man. I feel like the steps are slipping out from under my feet. My heart beats like a drum in my ears, but I try to calm down.
I need to make a plan. First, I’ll ask him if he needs an ambulance. Maybe he had a heart attack? Well, come on, not everything requires an ambulance. Maybe he just tripped in the bloody dark. Did he twist his ankle? Maybe he just needs someone to pick him up. I can see it now, he's just some old guy from the building and I end up helping him get back to his apartment. I might even get him a glass of water. Okay, that's fine, and then I'll ask him what’s with all the rubbernecking.
Shit, he won't be in the mood for that. The man's lying on the ground, and I come in with the 3rd degree.
I get downstairs, I don't see anything. He's disappeared without a trace. It's too dark to see anything. Maybe he crawled off somewhere. I'm groping around, he can't have gone far. This is so stupid! I can't search the whole neighborhood like this.
I trip over a brick, pick it up from the ground, and casually glance toward my apartment. I freeze. Someone's in my house. He's looking through the blinds at me. The light is on, and I can make out the outline, I can see his eyes. It's the dying man. He's climbed up to my apartment and now he's staring down at me in crowning glory. This must be a joke. The scumbag tricked me, he only wanted to get me out, and I like a moron, like a dimwit, like an absolute cretin, left the door open.
I'm an idiot. A thief stalks me day after day, and I just walk out of the house and leave the door open? "But please, come in."
I should have figured it out. He knew I could see him, of course he did, and instead of busting my door like some yobo, he tried his little maneuver. And what do you know he just ran into the last imbecile on earth, and it all worked out.
- 3 -
I make a run for the apartment; in the dim light of the entrance, I can see the brick I grabbed from the ground better. It's a full brick, baked, red, and wet. It's old, you can tell it's been sitting in a sunny wall for years. Yeah, they don't make bricks like this anymore, I bet I could smash rocks with one of these. I decide to take it with me, so I'll have something to defend myself when I get upstairs.
I run up with bated breath, climbing 2-3 steps at a time just to catch the bastard.
I open the door and yell, "Get out!". Can you believe the scumbag doesn't even answer? I go in and get ready to hit him with the brick. Who the hell does he think he is, coming into my home!?
I search everywhere and again nothing, no trace. I take turns looking in the kitchen, the balcony, and the bathroom, he's gone. I look dubiously at the closets where he might be hiding, I pull them open. I open the drawer where I keep my money, it's okay. I walk around the apartment and I don't think anything's missing. If he's taken anything, it's nothing conspicuous.
Is this lunatic playing with me? Why did he come into my house? To show me he can get in? Unless...
I approach the window cautiously. I poke my head through a corner of the drape, snake-like, and as lightly as I can, I push aside a patch of curtain and fit my eye between two blades of the blind. Is he there?!
The asshole is downstairs, safe and sound. How on earth?! He sees me and raises a hand out of the gloom. The bastard! He waves at me to come down. Is he fucking kidding me?! He comes in and out of my house, and now this? Is he playing with me? Does he think I can't catch him?
How did he get past me? He didn't come up the front, that's how I got down. Either he went around and up the back stairs or climbed up the building. Ohh, he just climbed the wall to the second floor? I must be losing my mind.
The apartments are aligned along a hallway flanked at the ends by stairs. One leads to the front entrance and the other to the rear exit. I came down on the front stairs, he came up the back, that's what happened. That's okay, I can do that too. I will take the back stairs, if I catch him there, I'll smack him in the head, if I catch him outside, I'll smack him in the head. A win-win scenario. The son of a bitch won't get away.
- 4 -
Almost no one takes the back stairs. If you get out that way, you'll just find the metal carpet beater and the canal, that's it.
I go out the back, around the building, and what do you know, our man is indeed downstairs. The stinking asshole stands guarding the main exit. I can't believe it; he's waiting for me. I approach him gingerly, feeling a rush of blood go to my head. He can't hear me, at least I don't think he can, and I can only hear my heartbeat thumping in my ears. I'm 20 paces away, I swallow dryly. To get closer, I step onto the grass. Creeping, 10 steps, he's almost motionless, looking up, offering me the top of his head on a platter. He wants me to hit him on that bald spot! There's a breeze blowing from his side, and I can smell something awful, this incredible stench coming from him. Something sappy seems to ooze down his body. I feel a vein pulsing frantically on my temple. This is the moment I've been waiting for. I squeeze the brick so hard that my fingers turn white. I'm so close I can see a muscle quivering on his throat. He's about to turn!
I can't get any closer. This is it! I throw the brick at my stalker's head, and that's enough. A terrible sound. He doesn't get to turn around. He falls face down. I take a step back and feel a sort of relaxation, a softness, pass over me. I did it. The angst I felt for days is gone.
The tightness has disappeared, it’s been replaced by torpor, I feel hot, I breathe heavily, I'm suffocating. I begin to realize the enormity of what I've done. Tension gives way to trembling, I get cold and hot. I can't sit still, I'm shivering. What's next?
What if someone saw me? I am so fucked. I can't stay here. Someone will definitely see me if I stay! I back up slowly and go back the way I came, after all, no one uses the back stairs.
- 5 -
I hide in the stairwell and listen. The whole city block is dead at this hour, it's perfectly quiet. It's so quiet I can hear my breath like a blizzard coming from inside my chest. I must calm down. Strange echoes come up the unlit stairs. Each breath sticks and multiplies on the walls. I cut my breath in half and listen. No, there's no one there, I only hear myself. 
It's stupid to wait any longer, I either run back to the apartment and pray some old hag doesn't notice me, or I go back and somehow deal with the body.
One plus one makes two, I can't leave him on the street. How stupid can you be, the cops will come, idiot! Did I leave a track? Fingerprints on the brick? Shoe prints in the grass? If I leave him there, they'll come, they'll interview all the tenants, they'll investigate. They'll see what state I'm in and they'll figure it out. Even if nobody saw me, even if they have no proof, they'll still sit with me, in a dark little room, until I tell them something, and then ... everything. But if I get him out of there, no one will come, no one will call the police.
I need to get rid of the body, at least move him from the front of the building; buy myself some time.
I gather up my courage and turn back. I go out the back, creep around the building, careful to stick to the shadows. I step timidly on the ground; I can’t leave a trace. Shit, they will find something no matter what I do. I can't give them any reason to look for evidence here.
I find him face up. I foolishly think maybe he's okay, maybe I didn't hit him so hard. He looks like he's sleeping, his eyes are closed, and his face is dirty. His nose is broken, and blood is coming out of it. It takes me a moment to recognize him. In the dark, lying on the ground is a man who looks exactly like me. If I get past his general dirtiness, he could be my brother, he could be my twin. Even the clothes on his back are identical to mine. What the hell?
I try to take his head in my hands, I feel it soft where it should be hard. I feel his hair wet and greasy. His skull is crushed. The twin, the clone, whatever he is, must be dead. I don't have time to think about all this. I must get him out of here before someone sees us. I grab him by the arm as I would a drunk friend and drag him to the back of the apartment complex.
The eminent danger has passed, no one walks next to this stinking canal, but I can't leave him here. The canal is the only solution. I'll dump him in the canal and the water will do the rest.
I take him down to the river and dump him. What a surprise! The corpse drops and sits neatly on the concrete bank, with no intention of rolling down to the water. I jump after him on the slanted concrete and carry him in my arms. I carry him into the stinking water, just to be sure. I drop him down into the sludge. I hope he finds another place to rot.
I can only pray for rain. If it rains the river will swell up and take him away, if it rains it will wash away any footprints. This miserable weather will help, the important thing is that I got rid of the body. If they don't find him here, they'll have no reason to look all the way to my building. The river runs through the whole town, who would figure it came from here?
I'm in the clear. My God, did I just kill a man and drop him in the canal? Was he even a man? What a night.
- 6 -
I use the back stairs. I'm careful not to let anyone see me. I try not to attract attention. If anyone sees me like this, they'll get suspicious. It's better if no one sees me. And there's not a soul in sight, not even someone casually taking out the garbage. What a life.
I get back inside the apartment and a curious feeling comes over me. I look at the drawn curtain and head toward it. I slowly pull it closed. But I also want to check. I want to make sure I haven't accidentally left something behind, that there isn't something on the ground that could get me in trouble.
I approach the window and... I see him down there. He's looking right at me. I recognize him immediately, he's another me, another copy, but this one is fine. He lifts his head and looks at me defiantly. I back away. Nothing surprises me anymore tonight.
Of course, there are more of them, if there was one, why not more? Every person on Earth is “me” and they're all coming for a visit tonight.
I take the stairs calmly. Try to sort out my thoughts. Formulate a plan. What do I say? What do I do? Fuck the plan, I'll just talk to him. I’ll ask him nicely: What the hell do you want from me?
- 7 -
I poke my head out the building's front door but stop before the rusty hinges start their song. I poke my head out a little expecting to see the third or fourth “me” around there, but he's evaporated. They come and go like flies.
I look left and right, I see nothing. I wonder if the copy in the river has vanished as well? They don't seem to last.
I look up, at my apartment window and I see the fourth, or whatever number he is. He looks at me fearfully. I move as slowly as I can, as not to startle him. I smile and wave him down. He suddenly disappears from the window.
Okay, well, I'll wait for him, maybe he'll come down.
- 8 -
I wait and wait, and he doesn't show up. He must have disappeared up the stairs. Or maybe he went back to whatever place he came from. Either way, I'm not leaving. If I stay put, one of them will show up next to me and all this will have an explanation.
Or maybe not, why would there be an explanation? Maybe he'll come snapping his fingers and then “I” will disappear. I must at least try and talk to one of them. They're probably just as confused as I am.
I thought it was some asshole who kept coming and looking at my apartment. Was it just one guy? Was it a different guy every night? Did he vanish after he got out of my sight?
I lift my head and scan the window. If I could only ... I hear footsteps behind me; something hits me in the back of the head.
- 9 -
I fall flat on my face. I think I broke my nose. The pain wakes me up. I try to get up, but it's impossible, I've lost all strength in my arms and legs. I manage to turn over on my back. Nothing hurts, but I have a sickening feeling of vertigo. When I raise my head, I lose my sight. With every inch of altitude, my vision narrows until it disappears altogether.
I give up trying to lift my head. I'll just sit here quietly. Someone will eventually come to help me. I turn my head, and lo and behold, the brick he hit me with is sitting right next to me.
I look at it stupidly. A nauseating impulse passes over me, I feel like vomiting. Is that the same brick I hit him with? What the hell is happening? I was perfectly content with my life, with my routine. All I wanted was to be left alone.
If it's the same brick… Did I somehow manage to hit myself in the head with it? What if there are no clones, aliens, or twins, what if there’s just me? What if all those people I've been chasing were me?
Up at the window, I see one of the blinds moving. That's how it started. That idiot will see me lying down and he'll try to help. I must move. If he doesn't see me everything will be all right, none of this will matter. I try to move my legs, but it's no use, my legs don't work anymore. A paralytic numbness runs through my body. If all of this is on repeat, then the guy that finds me... will find me dead...
Oh my God, what if he wasn't dead? What if he wasn't dead when I tossed him in the river? Did I drown him?
I look up again; I see myself peeking behind the blinds. He's definitely seen me now. There's only one chance to stop all this. I suck in a breath and try to yell, but something snaps in the back of my head. Only a whisper escapes my lips, "Don't come down". The lights go out.

This mystery takes place in a time loop. The story unfolds circularly as in a seashell. I have numbered the parts of the story to make it easier to follow. The story only has one character, and I will identify him by the part of the story he is in.
1 - the protagonist sees 9 lying on the ground in front of the building.
2 - the protagonist comes down the front stairs, the stranger has disappeared, but he sees 6 at the window.
3 - the protagonist finds the brick and climbs up the back stairs, he sees 7 downstairs. 7 beckons him to come down.
4 - the protagonist comes down and hits 8 in the head, then hides in the stairwell in the back.
5 - the protagonist is hiding in the stairwell at the back of the building (this is when 1 sees 9). He decides to grab 10 from in front of the building and throws him into the canal.
6 - the protagonist wet and dirty from the canal climbs back up using the back stairs. He sees 2 downstairs.
7 - the protagonist comes down the front stairs convinced he needs to talk to one of the copies. He sees 3 at the window and beckons him to come down.
8 - the protagonist waits for one of the clones to come out of the front entrance, but he is hit on the head from behind by 4. 
9 - the protagonist turns around facing upwards. He sees 1 at the window and tries to convince him not to come down.
10 - the protagonist has lost consciousness; he is carried by 5 and thrown into the canal.
PS: I adapted this mystery from an older story I wrote in high school called "The Scarlet Brick". That story ended without any explanation, so I came up with the most convoluted explanation possible for this one.

Photo by Jan Steiner
Versiunea în română: În cochilie
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În cochilie

O zi scurtă de iarnă, una din zilele alea în care nu se luminează ca lumea niciodată, nici lumină, nici întuneric, de dimineață până seară doar gri. Plec la muncă pe întuneric și mă întorc tot pe întuneric. Nu mă deranjează. Într-o lună o să-mi bată soarele în geam și o să mă trezească înainte să mă scoale ceasul. În două luni o să mă trezesc zi de zi într-un lac de apă sufocat de căldură. Vremea mohorâtă nu mă deranjează, o prefer pentru că mă lasă în pace. 
Ajung într-un final acasă, îmi privesc plăntuțele de pe pervaz. Sunt de un verde întunecat și nu au flori, seamănă mai degrabă cu niște buruieni, dar nu-mi pasă. Am singurul apartament care are ceva culoare în tot griul ăsta. Hmm, bine asta nu e adevărat, câteva etaje mai sus cineva își usucă chiloții și o mână de șosete. Zdrențe decolorate se bălăngăne în aerul umed de seară. Mi se face lehamite, intru în bloc.
Urc sus, aprind aragazul să-mi încălzesc un pic oasele în bucătărie cu masa de seară. Prind cu colțul ochiului un bărbat ce stă afară ca un popândău cu gâtul întins. Studiază ceva, nu îmi dau seama ce. Stă în umbră și se uită insistent la ceva apoi o tulește. Nu mi-ar fi rămas pe creier, dar a doua zi la masă ridic un pic capul și îl văd iar. A treia zi la fel.
Vederea curiosului devine rutină. Zi de zi, după ce ajung acasă arunc un ochi afară și el e acolo, stă pe întuneric în fața blocului și se uită la fereastra mea. Vine se uită și pleacă. Nu știu ce vrea, nu știu ce caută, ce inspectează, dar zi de zi e acolo, își face damblaua și pleacă.
Când vin de la muncă stau și eu să văd ce e atât de interesant. Nu e nimic. Poate că nu mă uit unde trebuie.
Nu poate să vadă nimic înăuntru, cu jaluzelele trase nu e nimic de văzut. Renunț și îmi petrec câteva minute admirând plăntuțele de pe pervaz. E mai ușor să-ți faci o idee de ansamblu de afară. Una trebuie învârtită și alta pusă mai la stânga, dar în mare pare în regulă. Poate ar mai fi loc de încă una.
Pentru o clipă mă gândesc că asta face și el, că vine și se uită la flori. Ar putea să fie un vecin. Poate se uită la flori și se gândește să-și pună și el. Cel mai probabil le urăște. Închipuirile astea trec repede, e ca o joacă a creierașelor plictisite. Oamenii singuri inventează povești să nu se plictisească.
Ajung în casă, trag jaluzelele. Mă așez în spatele lor cu lumina stinsă și îl urmăresc printre crăpături cum stă acolo și privește în sus. Stă lângă un stâlp de iluminat care nu a mers de 9 ani de zile, de când m-am mutat aici. Nu-i văd decât conturul, dar stă acolo, în fața blocului, în beznă și se uită la mine. Stăm ca doi proști și ne uităm unul la altul fără să ne vedem.
Ce vrea omul ăsta de la mine? Ar trebui să cobor pur și simplu, să văd ce vrea, la ce se uită?
Zici că sunt nebun. Nu are voie omul să se uite? E strada mea? Blocu’ lu’ mama? Pun pariu că asta mi-ar zice "Du-te, domne, de aici și lasă-mă în pace, nu mai poate omul să se odihnească două minute pe stradă că te urmărește pe tine?!".
Scenarita e balada omului plictisit. Sufăr de scenarită la muncă și acum mă distrez cu ea și acasă, minunat. Nu are rost să mă mai gândesc, oricum nu aș avea ce să-i zic nenorocitului.
Am dat bani și pe niște perdele mai groase, de obicei trăgeam jaluzelele și gata, dar acum nu mai e suficient. Am cumpărat o perdea cu țesătură deasă după care să mă ascund mai bine.
Mi se înfiripă în cap o idee bolnăvicioasă: „Dacă vrea să mă fure sau... mai rău?”. Dacă vine în fiecare zi să mă verifice? Se uită când sunt și când nu sunt. Își notează: azi a întârziat, ieri a fost liber de la muncă.
Mă culc cu gândul ăsta în cap. Mă trezesc buimac, parcă am auzit ceva. Bâjbâi pe întuneric, ajung la ușă, trag de clanță, dar e închisă. Mă întorc în pat, dar trebuie să mă ridic din nou să verific dacă am lăsat geamul deschis. Stau la etajul doi, dar cineva ar putea urca, nu? Nu e ridicol? 
Dacă el mă urmărește pot să-l urmăresc și eu. Cum ajung acasă mă pun la geam și îl aștept să vină. De obicei nu stă mult, sunt zile când doar se poticnește un pic lângă lampadar și pleacă mai departe. De la mine pare că se duce la intrarea principală. Ar putea să o ia și printre blocuri, să se ducă în spate la canal.
E un râu încastrat cu o apă puturoasă în spate. Ar trebui să o ia înot dacă vrea să treacă mai departe, podul pietonal e la mama naibii. Oamenii nu trec pe acolo din cauza mirosului, dar ce știu eu, poate omul are treabă la canal. 
Dacă intră în bloc mi-e vecin, numai că eu nu cunosc vreunul. Eu nu-i bag în seamă, ei mă lasă în pace, mie îmi convine. 9 ani în blocul ăsta și nu știu cum o cheamă decât pe sclifosita aia care are grijă să plătească toată lumea întreținerea. Hmm, ea l-ar ști.
Dacă are vreo problemă să vină să-mi spună! Să-mi spună că pornesc mașina de spălat la 5 dimineața, să-mi spună că trăncănesc scaunele în bucătărie, să-mi spună că-i zoiesc geamurile cu apa de la flori, orice, doar să-mi spună. Ehh, nu contează, dacă e din bloc și se zgâiește la mine, să se ducă dracu. Dar să vină să-mi spună care e problema.
Mai trece o zi și îmi iau și draperii. Sunt groase, aproape cât o pătură, cele mai întunecate din câte am găsit, un maroniu întunecat. 
- 1 -
Vin acasă, dau drumul la TV și uit pentru câteva minute de omul ce mă pândește. Îmi permit să cred că azi nu a venit, că e totul în capul meu, că mi-am imaginat. Pentru o clipă chiar cred că totul a fost în capul meu. Ajung să hotărăsc, de la mine putere, că omul nu mai poate să fie jos, nu are cum. Decid să scot un ochi câtuși de puțin ca să verific, nu are cum să strice o mică verificare.
Mă bag după draperie, dau ușor perdeaua la o parte și ridic cu un deget încet, milimetric, paleta unei jaluzele. Îmi las ochii să se obișnuiască cu întunericul și într-un sfârșit îl văd. E murdar și doar ochii îi strălucesc în întuneric. Cu cât încep să văd mai bine îmi dau seama că ceva e în neregulă. Mă privește, dar e întins pe jos. Încearcă să se ridice, dar renunță. Îmi face un mic semn cu capul, și-a deschis gura, cred că zice ceva. De ce stă întins pe jos? E bolnav, e beat? Ceva are, a pățit ceva, clar a pățit ceva. Rahat, numai asta nu-mi mai trebuia.
Poate i s-a făcut rău, a căzut și s-a lovit. Ar trebui să-l las să zacă acolo. Așa ar merita. Mă învârt, mă coiesc, mă ia mama dracu și mă hotărăsc într-un final să cobor, poate trebuie să chem o ambulanță.
- 2 -
Mă îmbrac în grabă și cobor cele două etaje să văd ce are omul. Am impresia că îmi fug treptele  de sub picioare. Îmi bate inima în urechi ca o tobă, dar încerc să mă calmez. 
Trebuie să-mi fac un plan. Mai întâi să-l întreb dacă vrea o ambulanță. Un infarct? Hai că nu sunt chiar toate de ambulanță. Poate s-o fi împiedicat în bezna asta nenorocită. Și-a sucit piciorul? Poate omu’ are doar nevoie să-l ridice cineva de jos. Parcă văd că e un moș oarecare din bloc și ajung să-l duc în casă și să-i dau un pahar cu apă. Bine, nu-i bai, o să am ocazia să-l întreb la ce tot se benoclează. 
Rahat, doar de asta nu o să aibă chef. Omu stă să moară și vin eu să-l trag de limbă.
Ajung jos, nu văd pe nimeni. A dispărut fără urmă. E prea întuneric să văd ceva. Poate s-a târât pe undeva. Orbecăiesc pe jos, nu poate să se fi dus prea departe. Cât de stupid!? Nu pot să iau la pipăit tot cartierul.
Mă împiedic de o cărămidă, o iau de jos și întâmplător arunc o privire spre apartamentul meu. Înlemnesc. Cineva e la mine în casă. Se uită printre jaluzele la mine. Lumina este aprinsă și reușesc să-i deslușesc conturul, îi văd ochii. E muribundul ce stătea întins pe jos. A urcat la mine în apartament și culmea căcării, stă cu ochii beliți la mine. Asta trebuie să fie o glumă proastă. Jegul s-a dat lovit doar ca să-mi intre în casă și eu ca un dobitoc, ca un bezmetic, ca un cretin, am lăsat ușa deschisă.
Sunt un idiot. Un hoț mă pândește zi de zi și eu cobor din casă și îi las ușa deschisă? „Dar te rog, poftim!”. 
Trebuia să mă prind. Și-a dat seama că îl văd, normal că și-a dat seama, și în loc să-mi spargă ușa ca ultimul hoț a încercat o manevră. A dat de ultimul bou de pe pământ și i-a ieșit.
- 3 -
Dau să fug în bloc, în lumina chioară de la intrare văd mai bine cărămida pe care am apucat-o de jos. E o cărămidă plină, coaptă, roșie și umedă. E veche, se vede că a stat mulți ani într-un perete însorit. Da, nu se mai fac cărămizi de felul ăsta, pun pariu că aș putea sfărâma și pietre cu așa ceva. Mă hotărăsc să o iau cu mine, să am cu ce să mă apăr când ajung sus.
Alerg sus cu suflarea tăiată, halesc câte 2-3 trepte odată numai și numai să-l prind pe nenorocit.
Deschid ușa și urlu "Ieși afară!". Jegul nu zice nimic. Intru și mă pregătesc să-i dau una în cap. Cine dracu se crede să-mi intre în casă!?
Caut peste tot și iar nimic, nicio urmă. Mă uit pe rând în bucătărie, în balcon și în baie, a dispărut. Privesc dubios dulapurile unde s-ar putea ascunde, le iau pe toate la rând. Deschid sertarul unde îmi țin banii, e în regulă. Dau o tură prin casă și nu cred că mi-a dispărut nimic. Dacă mi-a luat ceva, nu e nimic evident.
Nebunul se joacă cu mine? Mi-a arătat că poate să-mi intre în casă și s-a mulțumit cu atât. Dacă nu cumva...
Mă apropii precaut de geam. Îmi bag capul printr-un colț al draperiei, ca un șarpe, și dau cât de ușor pot un petic de perdea la o parte, îmi potrivesc ochiul printre două palete de jaluzea. E acolo?!
Jegul este acum jos, bine mersi. Cum pizda mă-sii?! Mă vede și ridică o mână din penumbră. Cârnatul, îmi face semn să cobor. Își bate joc de mine?! Intră și iese de la mine din casă după cum vrea mușchii lui? Se joacă cu mine. Crede că nu pot să-l prind.
Cum a trecut pe lângă mine? Nu a luat-o prin față, că pe acolo am coborât eu. Ori a luat-o pe lângă bloc și a urcat pe scările din spate, ori a escaladat blocul? Până la etajul doi? Cred că îmi pierd mințile.
Apartamentele din bloc sunt aliniate pe un hol lung flancat la capete de scări. Unele duc la ieșirea din față și celelalte la ieșirea din spate. Eu prin față el prin spate, aia s-a întâmplat. Nu-i bai, pot și eu să fac asta. O iau pe scările din spate, dacă dau de el pe scări e bine, îi dau în cap, dacă îl prind jos, e iarăși bine, îi dau în cap. Nenorocitul nu mai scapă.
- 4 -
De obicei nu e nimeni pe scările din spate. Nu ai unde să te duci dacă ieși pe acolo, e doar bătătorul de covoare și canalul.
Ies prin spate, ocolesc blocul și ce să vezi, omul nostru este într-adevăr jos. Soiosul împuțit stă și păzește ieșirea principală. Nici nu îmi vine să cred, mă așteaptă bine mersi. Mă apropii de el tiptil, simt cum îmi urcă un val de sânge în cap. Nu mă aude, nu cred că mă aude, eu îmi mai aud doar bătăile inimii în urechi. Sunt la 20 de pași distanță, înghit în sec. Ca să mă apropii mai mult, trec pe iarbă. Tiptil, 10 pași, e aproape nemișcat, se uită în sus, îmi oferă creștetul capului pe tavă, vrea să-l lovesc în chelie. Bate un vânt din partea lui și simt un miros groaznic, o putoare incredibilă ce vine din el. Ceva slinos pare să-i curgă pe tot corpul. Simt o venă pulsându-mi frenetic pe tâmplă. E momentul pe care îl așteptam. Strâng cărămida atât de tare că mi-au albit degetele. Sunt atât de aproape că văd cum îi tremură un mușchi pe gât, vrea să se întoarcă!
Nu mai pot să mă apropii. Acum e momentul! Arunc cărămida spre capul urmăritorului, nu mai apucă să se întoarcă. E suficient. Un sunet groaznic. Cade cu fața la pământ. Fac un pas în spate, mă retrag și simt cum trece peste mine un fel de relaxare, o moleșeală. Am scăpat. Angoasa pe care am simțit-o zile în șir a dispărut.
Încordarea ce tocmai a dispărut a fost înlocuită de o toropeală, îmi e cald, respir greu, mă sufoc. Realizez enormitatea a ceea ce am făcut. Din încordare o dau în tremurat, mă ia ba cu rece, ba cu cald. Nu mai pot să stau locului, tremur. Ce urmează?
Dacă m-a văzut cineva am dat de dracu. Nu mai pot să stau aici. Dacă mai stau cineva cu siguranță să mă vadă. Dau înapoi ușor, mă hotărăsc să o iau înapoi pe unde am venit, până la urmă nimeni nu folosește scările din spate.
- 5 -
Mă ascund în casa scării și ascult. Tot blocul e mort la ora asta, e perfect liniște. E atât de tăcut că îmi aud respirația ca o vijelie venită din piept. Trebuie să încerc să mă calmez. Vin ecouri bizare pe scările neumblate. Fiecare respirație se lipește și se multiplică pe pereți. Îmi tai respirația la jumate, ascult. Nu, nu e nimeni, aud doar zgomotele făcute de mine. 
Este o prostie să mai aștept, fie mă reped spre apartament și mă rog să nu mă bage în seamă vreo babă chioară, fie mă întorc și rezolv cumva cu mortul.
Unu și cu unu fac doi, nu pot să-l las în stradă. Cât de tâmpit poți fi, o să vină poliția, boule! Am lăsat vreo urmă? Amprente pe cărămidă? Urme de pantofi prin iarbă? Dacă îl las acolo, o să vină, o să discute cu noi, o să investigheze. O să vadă în ce stare mă aflu și o să-și dea seama. Chiar dacă nu m-a văzut nimeni, chiar dacă nu au nicio dovadă, tot o să stea cu mine, acolo, într-o cămăruță întunecată, până le spun ceva și apoi ... tot. Dacă îl iau de acolo nu o să vină nimeni, nu o să sune nimeni la poliție. 
Trebuie să scap de mort, măcar să-l iau din fața blocului, să câștig niște timp.
Îmi iau inima în dinți și mă întorc. Ies prin spate, mă strecor pe lângă bloc, am grijă să stau în cele mai întunecate umbre. Pășesc timid pe pământ, sunt conștient că nu trebuie să las urme. Rahat, de găsit urme o să găsească indiferent ce fac, trebuie să nu le dau motive să le caute.
Îl găsesc cu fața în sus. Mă gândesc prostește că poate nu a pățit nimic, poate nu l-am lovit atât de tare. Pare că doarme, are ochii închiși și e murdar pe față. Are nasul rupt și îi curge sânge din nas, din cauza asta îmi ia ceva timp să-l recunosc. În beznă, întins pe jos stă un om care îmi seamănă la perfecție. Dacă trec peste murdăria lui generală ar putea să-mi fie frate, ar putea să-mi fie geamăn. Până și hainele de pe el sunt identice cu ale mele. Cum dracu!?
Încerc să-i iau capul în mână, îl simt moale acolo unde ar trebui să fie tare. Îi simt părul ud și slinos. Craniul este zdrobit. Geamănul, clona, orice ar fi, trebuie să fie mort. Nu am timp să mă gândesc la tot ce înseamnă asta. Trebuie să-l iau de aici, până nu ne vede cineva. Îl iau ca pe un prieten beat și îl târăsc până în spatele blocului. 
Pericolul eminent a trecut, nu trece nici naiba pe lângă canalul ăsta împuțit, dar nu pot să-l las aici. Canalul, este singura soluție. Îl arunc în canal și de acolo are apa grijă de el.
Îl duc până la râul încastrat și-l arunc. Ce să vezi, surpriză! Mortul pică și stă bine mersi pe malul de beton, fără nici o intenție să se rostogolească până în apă. Sar după el pe betonul înclinat și îl port în brațe. Intru cu el în apa puturoasă ca să fiu sigur. Îl las jos în mâl, dar sper să-și găsească alt loc unde să putrezească.
Pot doar să mă rog la ploaie. Dacă plouă râul o să se umfle și o să-l ia de aici, dacă plouă să spele urmele de pe trotuar. Vremea asta mizerabilă o să mă ajute, important e că am scăpat de cadavru. Dacă nu-l găsesc aici nu o să aibă motive să se uite tocmai la blocul meu. Râul trece prin tot orașul, cine să-și dea seama de unde a venit.
Cred că am scăpat. O Doamne, chiar am ucis un om și l-am aruncat în canal? Oare chiar era om? Să se termine odată noaptea asta.
- 6 -
Urc pe scările din spate. Am grijă să nu mă vadă nimeni, să nu atrag atenția, dacă mă vede cineva în halul ăsta o să intre la bănuieli. Mai bine să nu mă vadă nimeni. Și nu e nimeni, nici măcar cineva să-și ducă gunoiul la gheenă. Ce viață.
Mă cuprinde un presentiment ciudat. Privesc perdeaua trasă și mă îndrept spre ea. Am grijă să o trag la loc încet. Dar vreau să și verific. Vreau să fiu sigur că nu am lăsat din greșeală ceva în spate, să nu fie ceva pe jos care să mă bage în belele.
Mă apropii de geam și... e acolo jos. Iar de data asta se uită fix la mine. Îl recunosc imediat, e încă un eu, încă o copie. Își ridică capul și se uită sfidător la mine. Mă retrag. Nu mă mai surprinde nimic în seara asta. 
Normal că sunt mai mulți, dacă a fost unul, de ce să nu fie mai mulți. Toți oamenii de pe Pământ sunt „eu” și au venit să mă vadă în seara asta.
O iau pe scări calm, încerc să-mi ordonez ideile în cap. Să-mi formulez un plan. Ce să-i zic? Mama naibii de plan, o să vorbesc cu el și atât. O să-l întreb frumușel ce dracu vrea de la mine.
- 7 -
Scot capul pe ușa blocului, dar mă opresc înainte ca balamalele alea ruginite să-și înceapă cântecul. Scot capul câtuși de puțin afară așteptându-mă să-l văd acolo pe al treilea sau al patrulea, dar s-a evaporat. Apar și dispar ăștia ca muștele.
Mă uit în stânga și în dreapta, nu văd nimic. Mă întreb dacă și copia din râu s-a evaporat? Nu par să stea locului.
Ridic privirea, la geamul apartamentului meu îl văd pe al patrulea, sau al oricâtelea o fi. Mă privește fricos. Mă mișc cât pot de încet să nu-l sperii. Îi zâmbesc și îi fac semn să coboare. Dispare dintr-odată de la geam. 
Ok, bun, îl aștept, poate coboară.
- 8 -
Stau aștept și aștept și nu mai apare. O fi dispărut pe scări. S-o fi reîntors de unde a venit. Indiferent, nu mai plec de aici. Dacă nu mă mișc o să apară unul din ei lângă mine și toate astea o să aibă o explicație. 
Sau poate că nu, de ce ar avea vreo explicație? Poate o să vină, o să pocnească din degete și atunci o să dispar eu. Trebuie măcar să încerc să vorbesc cu unul. Probabil și ei sunt la fel de confuzi ca mine.
Eu credeam că e un singur dobitoc care vine și se uită la mine la apartament. A fost doar unul sau a fost în fiecare noapte câte unul? Câți au venit s-au uitat și au dispărut până să dea colțul?
Ridic capul și mă uit iar la geam. Dacă reușesc ...  aud pași în spate, ceva mă lovește în ceafă.
- 9 -
Cad în nas. Cred că l-am rupt. Durerea asta mă trezește. Încerc să mă ridic, dar este imposibil mi-am pierdut toată puterea din mâini și din picioare. Reușesc să mă întorc pe spate. Nu mă doare nimic, dar am o senzație bolnăvicioasă de vertij. Când îmi ridic capul îmi pierd vederea. Cu fiecare centimetru de altitudine vederea mi se îngustează până dispare cu totul.
Renunț să-mi mai ridic capul. O să stau aici liniștit. O să vină până la urmă cineva să mă ajute. Îmi întorc capul și ce să vezi, lângă mine stă bine mersi cărămida cu care m-a lovit în cap.
O privesc tâmp. Un fior bolnăvicios trece peste mine, îmi vine să vomit. E aceeași cărămidă cu care l-am lovit eu pe ăla? Cum dracu mi se întâmplă mie asta. Eu voiam doar ca lucrurile să stea la locul lor, muncă, acasă, somn, muncă, acasă, somn, eram perfect mulțumit cu rutina.
Dacă e aceeași cărămidă ... cum necum, am reușit să-mi dau singur în cap cu ea. Dacă nu sunt clone, extratereștri sau gemeni? Dacă tot timpul am fost doar eu? Dacă toți ăștia pe care i-am urmărit am fost eu?
Sus la fereastră văd cum se mișcă o jaluzea. Așa început. Idiotul o să mă vadă întins aici și o să coboare să mă ajute. Trebuie să mă dau la o parte. Dacă nu mă vede totul o să fie bine. Încerc să-mi mișc picioarele, dar degeaba, picioarele nu-mi răspund la comenzi. O amorțeală paralitică îmi curge prin corp. Dacă lucrurile se repetă, o să crăp până vine idiotul ăla să mă... Era mort când l-am dus la canal? O Doamne, dacă nu era mort? Dacă l-am înecat?
Mă uit iar sus, văd cum se foiește în spatele jaluzelelor. Acum m-a văzut sigur. Nu am decât o singură șansă să mai opresc toate astea. Trag aer în piept și încerc să urlu, însă ceva îmi trosnește în ceafă. Pe gură îmi mai ies doar două șoapte ”Nu coborî”. Lumina se stinge.

Acest mister are loc într-o buclă temporală. Povestea se desfășoară circular ca într-o cochilie de melc. Am numerotat părțile poveștii pentru a fi mai ușor de urmărit. Povestea are un singur personaj și îl voi identifica după partea de poveste în care se află.
1 - personajul îl vede pe 9 întins pe jos în fața blocului.
2 - personajul coboară pe scările din față, străinul a dispărut, dar îl vede pe 6 la fereastră.
3 - personajul găsește cărămida și urcă sus pe scările din spate, ajuns sus îl vede pe 7 jos. 7 îi face semn să coboare.
4 - personajul coboară și îl lovește pe 8 în cap și se ascunde în casa scării din spatele blocului.
5 - personajul stă ascuns în casa scării din spatele blocului (acesta este momentul când 1 îl vede pe 9). Se hotărăște să-l ia pe 10 din fața blocului și îl aruncă în canal.
6 - personajul ud și murdar de la canal urcă sus pe scările din spate. Îl vede jos pe 2.
7 - personajul coboară jos convins că trebuie să vorbească cu una din copii. Îl vede pe 3 la geam și îi face semn să coboare.
8 - personajul așteaptă una din clone să iasă pe intrarea principală, dar este lovit în cap pe la spate de 4. 
9 - personajul se întoarce cu fața în sus. Îl vede pe 1 la geam și încearcă să-i spună să nu coboare.
10 - personajul și-a pierdut cunoștința, el este purtat de 5 și aruncat în canal.
PS: Am adaptat acest mister temporal dintr-o poveste mai veche pe care am scris-o în liceu „Cărămida stacojie”. Acea poveste se termina fără vreo explicație, așa că am găsit cea mai încurcată explicație posibilă.

Fotografie de Jan Steiner
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Rusty blood

At the end of a long hall stood a man in a gray jumpsuit with his dirty hands raised above his head, laboring on his machine, a sheet cutter. The iron machine shaped, pressed, folded, cut, and decapitated metal plates at will. Located in the rear of the factory hall, she was too heavy to move, so she lay forgotten there next to ever-increasing piles of junk. Stiff bearings, dull drive belts, rejected sheets, oil cans and wire brushes surrounded the machine from side to side.

The gray-haired man spread grease over the path of a worm wheel. He lovingly took Vaseline from the crook of his palm onto his fingers and stroked every place where the iron was to touch iron. The mechanic babied his machine like a mother would a child. Each piece had its faults, every position had its kink, nothing worked right the first time he tried it.

The mechanic pulled out the traction teeth and began brushing them with steel bristles. He went on brushing until his overalls were pouring with sweat. The mechanic wiped himself with the same cloth he polished the metal piece, and put the metallic teeth back together.

He took the lid of a can into his mouth and poured the oil lightly in the lubrication tank. The old hands moved the gears, waiting to see a shiny film of grease over the iron teeth. He checked with his hand where his eyes could not reach. The mechanic pulled out a slick hand, pleased with the result. The man worked carefully, tuning the machine like a piano. Any unusual noise would have betrayed a problem.

Satisfied with the work, he fastened the metal panel back into the chest of the machine. He closed up the panel with only two screws. The old man knew the next problem would come from behind the same panel.

He opened a beer and sipped proudly. With a brown bottle in one hand and a dirty rag in the other, the mechanic wiped the oil off the machine. "Better to have a bit on the outside than not enough on the inside," thought the old man. It wasn't going to be sufficient, the machine would always ask for more.

Hot air was passing through the old man's gray hair as he cursed it with clenched teeth. He looked irritated at the vent which could no longer cope with the heat.

From behind came, in a whirlwind, a man in an unironed shirt, from the other end of the hall. The unshaven man had a grimace on his face.

"Sir," the mechanic greeted his boss.

The engineer pretended not to see the beer and tapped him on the shoulder.

"What do you think, John, will it work?"

"It will," the mechanic answered confidently.

"We have work to do."

"Good, that's what we're paid for."

"No, it's not good, in fact it's pretty dire. I have commissions for every single cutter in the hall and the new ones fuck up so badly, you wouldn't believe it. I set them up, put on a couple of test sheets and within 5 minutes they are already decalibrated, I reset them, test again, and they work well for another 5 minutes, then they just stop."

"It's the heat, that's why they muck up."

"This antiquity is the only one that still works in this fever."

"Yes sir, I've been meaning to tell you, we aren't at the beach, maybe you should stop the hot air blower," the old man said pointing at the AC.

The engineer nodded thoughtfully and broke the bad news.

"This whole mess will fall on your head."


"You and the old hag need to get us out of this. It's a big order, John. I can stall for time, but I have to give them something. You'll have to ride her hard until these shitty new cutters recover."

"Yeah," the mechanic replied tersely.

"I'll get you a kid."

"For what?"

The bony engineer turned his back and repeated gruffly.

"I'll bring you someone, God damn it."

The mechanic pulled the control levers out completely. He inspected and fixed them in place with a measuring billet. He tossed a galvanized sheet onto the workbench and started the machine. The apparatus cracked mechanically over the metal sheet. The old man brood unhappy with the result, the machine had made a crease along the cutting line. He scratched the raised edge with his fingernail, then removed a screwdriver and scraped clean a clearing ditch. The metal sheets wouldn't even sit straight because of the heat. Another crack and the sheet was cut in two. The old man measured the cutting indication and contemplated the result.

He felt a look at the back of his neck and turned nervously. A young boy brought him an armful of cut plates.

"Good morning, I brought the models."

"Leave them."

The boy carefully placed the pile of molds next to the machine and waited for the mechanic to turn around.

The old man unscrewed a blade from its clamps and inspected a few grappling screws. He got out of the machines' belly with the guillotine and tried it with his fingernail.

"What do you want?" he asked the boy, seeing that he was not leaving.

"Well, the engineer told me ..."

"What did he tell you? Get on with your work, go."

The old man fixed the blade to the grinder and began to work it. After a few minutes, he put the blade back and glanced at the molds left by the boy. The new templates had strange, complicated shapes. The machine was not designed for them. The old man gritted his teeth and placed the first template on the work bed.

He measured and set the control levers to the new positions and then pushed two iron wedges to force the machine to work with the difficult format. He listened intently. The first sheet came out badly. He loosened the screws leaving a small play for the machine to choose its own path. The second sheet came out better.

There was a screaming question from the other end of the hall.

"What do you say, old-timer, will it work?"

"Yea sure bring me the crappies templates and expect everything to work out," thought the mechanic. He ignored the question and kept looking from the machine to the plate and from the plate to the machine, searching for a solution.

She was capable, she just needed to be tickled the right way. He knew what she liked. The machine once ate zinc plates like hotcakes, but not these types of patterns. The old man didn't know if she would manage the new frames. The work had become more and more difficult, he needed a work plan with several passes while the new machines did the job in one run. But what can you do? They wanted complicated designs. John and his machine had been abandoned in the back of the hall, and the rest of the factory was waiting for both of them to die. "The old hag" was still working but only small and unpretentious orders, whatever the newer cutters had missed or messed up.

John and his machine had worked hard enough, they had been pulling on zinc plates for decades. The machine had lost its accuracy, the clamps and the step teeth were spent. He was left working with the spare flywheel, but it didn't matter, John had to retire and his machine, old as the devil, had to be retired as well.

With his departure, it would become scrap metal. She had done her job well, but now she was a museum piece.

"They don't make them like they use to, but maybe that's for the best. No one else will have to suffer you," whispered the mechanic.

"John, I brought you a boy. Where is he?"

The man shrugged his shoulders.

"He's not a bad kid. He's young and wants to learn. He's a mechanic, I smelled it on him."

"What does that have to do with me?"

"Isn't she a two-man job," the engineer said staring at the old cutter.

"She is."

"Well, what other incentive do you need? Take him in."

The chief left and the silent young man appeared behind John once again. The mechanic felt a growing sweat stain envelop his back.

"Kid you better make some noise when you move around, you're going to give me a heart attack."

The boy stood silent while John looked him up and down. He was missing the first phalange on his right index finger.

"Sit down, I don't know why they brought you in."

"I'm just here to help, you might need another pair of hands."

"She was in need of two pairs of hands 10 years ago, but they only brought you in today. I don't want you, and I don't need you. I've managed on my own long enough."

"I also heard you've wrapped up your years. You could retire," the boy dared.

"You don't say, I'm glad you've told me, I had no idea."

John looked at the boy, the boy was speaking straight.

"Make some room next to the machine, clear away all this junk, we'll start tonight."


"Didn't the boss tell you? You listen to me now. We'll work at night, it's cooler."

The boy gathered the rubbish, making neat piles of all the rusty bits, and then swept the floor clean.

"What's your name kid? What do they call you?"

"Andrew, but they call me the piano man," said the boy, pointing up with what remained of his index finger.

The old man burst out laughing.

"Ha, those asses, they do know their nicknames. I'm not calling you that, but don't you be calling me sir either, John and that's it.

"Okay ... John."

"Feels a little too friendly? You'll get over it."

The old man took one of the models and placed it on the desk. He adjusted the rulers and turned a wheel with a handle. The crank passed the machine through all the working steps. The mechanic turned the lever tenderly, waiting for a final snap, and then hurried curiously to see the result. One by one, the mechanic took each sheet and studied the conclusion. After he went through the handful of plates, he turned to Andrew with a wry smile.

"Do you know what's the best part of sitting in the back of the plant? We're closer to the exit. Let's take a break. Do you smoke?"

"Not really."

"Even better, you can enjoy our fine industrial air"


It was a hot day outside, the air was coming at them in waves from every direction. The old man pressed the asphalt and felt it soften under his feet. On the street, the trucks were pulled to the right, waiting for the cool of the evening to continue on their way. John retreated into a shady corner and lit a cigarette.

"What do you think?" asked the gray-haired man.

"It's a little better outside, at least I can use my lungs."

"It's bone dry, that's why you can breathe. After the pricks go home, we'll roll out the big door. The air conditioning might work in the assembly line, but that air doesn't reach us."

The engineer came out from behind holding the test models made by the old man. He slammed the door and looked for the mechanic. Blinded by the light, he put his hand to his eyes trying to find him.

"John, I looked at the AC, it's pretty much baked, it can't handle the heat. I opened one up and the wires were melting inside it. I don't know what else we could do, maybe dig ourselves into the dirt like moles.

"All right, pick the ones that are urgent and leave it to me. My hag doesn't mind the heat. I and the kid will stay tonight and work on them."

The engineer looked at the test models.

"They'll be straighter tonight," John said, looking at the templates.

"It will take more than one night."

"However long it takes."

The engineer nodded without saying anything, the hand that was rubbing his chin ended up scratching the back of his neck. He was adding things up.

"Okay, free til' nightfall."


The mechanic and the apprentice returned to the hall. The air in the hall was filled with hot oil and diesel. Like a crab in a soup, the mechanic crawled up to a wooden bench and laid down. He crumpled his overalls in the shape of a pillow.

"You'd better take a nap, we'll be pulling an all-nighter."

The boy looked curiously at the old man, you couldn't pay him to sleep at this hour. He went on looking for work elsewhere.


When evening came, the two set to work. Andrew loaded the sheets on one side and John lifted them on the other, checking them against the model from time to time, adjusting as he went.

"We are ants in a great colony, Andrew," the old man said over the noise. "And when you are an ant, sacrifices have to be made. You have to break your back, for the good of the colony."

"So this is an ant's life?"

"Well, aren't we carrying stuff from left to right? That's ants' work. That is how we covered the earth."

"What if I don't want to break my back?"

"You could have been a cricket, but it wasn't meant to be. We here are ants, the ones above are crickets. They sit on branches of bone, and look at us with hunger in their eyes."

"And that's fair?"

"I didn't say it was fair, I was just saying we are ants."

"Any escape from this ant's life?"

"No, I don't think so, no escape. We have to endure, that's it. On the other hand, will rejoice when we croak, that's when all our suffering will pass."

The men worked all night occasionally taking cigarette breaks. With the arrival of the sun, the machine began to growl unhappily. The mechanic looked at the last stack of sheets as the light began to shoot down the hall.

"No more kid, that's enough. Take these up-front and go home. I'll finish up."

Andrew picked up the stack and hesitated as he left. The old man waived with his back turned.

"See that you get some sleep."

"I would sleep standing up after tonight."

The mechanic looked over the machine, rolled up his sleeves and untied the metal panel held up by two screws.


When he returned at dusk, Andrew found the old man lying on the bench with a hat on his face. He stared at the open panel and stretched his neck inside, inspecting the machinery's guts.

"She'll bite your nose off if you're not careful," the old man said from under his hat.

"I was just curious what you were working on."

"You should be happy that's not your concern, she's my migraine for now, but your time will come, don't you worry."

Work on the second night came at a familiar, lighter pace. The boy wanted to put on more plates, to speed up, but the old man tempered him. Every few plates the mechanic took out a ruler and measured the cuts, stopping Andrew from work as well.

"She is plowing along nicely, but you should be careful she doesn't slip right under you. In the end we might realize we did all that work for nothing.

The mechanic looked over the last plate and frowned.

"Look," and the old man pointed to the edge.


"Can you hear her?"

"I don't know."

"She wants to fumble."

Andrew pricked up his ears and listened, then put his hand on the machine, imitating the old man.

"You'll hear it after she chomps on your ear for a couple of months. Go get some oil from the big hall."

"All right," and the boy hurried off.

"You know what to get, right? I don't want you to come back with their kitchen oil."

"Oh come on..."

"Well it wouldn't surprise me, go on."

Halfway through the walk the boy decided to return and grab an empty canister as a model. He returned to the hall and saw the old man with his sleeveless hands deep inside the machine.

"What are you doing, I told you to leave."

"What happened?!"

"Go away!"

The boy approached and saw the old man's hand stretched rigidly into the machine's insides. Blood was dripping in between the old man's fingers over a pair of sprockets. He jumped trying to pull the mechanic out.

"Did she grab you?!"

The old man broke away and slapped him, knocking the boy to the ground. He picked up one of the dirty rags next to the cutter and tied off his hand.

The boy was speechless. Drops of blood were frozen on his face. The mechanic sat down on the bench, holding tight the rag being tinted with rosy hues.

"Don't you ever listen?"

"What were you doing, pops?"

The old man scratched his forehead with his fingernail, trying to find his words. He looked at the dirt on the fingernail and wiped it on his overalls.

"Well don't you just want to know everything. Very well. If you want to work with this machine, you should know. She doesn't want oil, she wants blood."

"Have you gone mad?"

John smiled and took a transmission chain in his hands. He began to count its rings like a string of rosaries.

"Look at her purr. She'll run fine for a while. She just needs a bit of human lubricant from time to time. I pinch a vein, and then she runs smoothly. She doesn't ask for much oil, but she does want a bit of your soul. Go on, have a look, see how she runs."

"She's going to stall."

The plates the machine was spitting out were once again perfect, but with a crimson film spread all over the cut edge. The machine finished all the raw plates, and Andrew got up and added a few more blanks to the work table. Every sheet she spat out was spotless.

The old man leaned back, leaving the boy to convince himself. Andrew, with his eyes peeled, was putting more and more blanks on the stack, but the machine was just going faster and faster.

"What the hell?" Andrew whispered as the machine picked up speed.

The boy approached the old man, and he motioned him to sit down. He fell beside the mechanic, puzzled by the cutter quietly chopping up molds.

"She'll be fine for now."


"Didn't you see, that's my blood inside her. It knows what to do."

"How long have you been doing this?" Andrew turned, looking warily at the old man.

"How long? Ever since I got her. The last geezer showed me, and I am showing you. She's been running on the blood of everyone that's worked on her. This machine has all of us inside her, all the way up to the last man."

Andrew stood up as if bitten and looked over the old man.

"I'm not doing that."

"Did I ask you too? She's my cutter, I'll take care of her. When you have one of your own, you can do whatever you want. You can shit in it for all I care."

The boy left furiously picking up the finished sheets as he went.

"I'm taking them up-front."

The work was easy that night, the machine was running non-stop. Andrew was feeding her and retreating waiting for the catastrophe. Smoke, fire, the machine coming apart in two, but nothing, nothing happened. It was impossible, the machine was running better than ever. As she was going now, completely reliable, she could be operated by a single man. Old man John didn't need anyone else as long as he had blood in his veins.

With the sunrise, the pile of sheets was double that of yesterday.

"She's working as fast as the new cutters," the young man said cautiously.

"She'll do better tomorrow. She's just limbering up, I'll show you what she can do."


The next day, after all the day laborers had gone home, the old man untied his bandage and dug deep into the clotted blood with a knife. He pressed hard into the crust until it split in two, and a few drops fell to the base of the machine. Meager offerings. He widened the wound by turning the knife and letting a string of cherry blood drip into the belly of the machine.


"Don't worry, it's not a big deal."

The blood was sprinkled inside the cutter, blessing it with movement and intelligence. A willow smell of hot oil mixed with blood filled the hall. Andrew turned his back, trying to control a pulse of vomit. He threw himself on the sectional door chain, tugging at it frantically. With the door wide open, new air managed to replace the old.

"That's it, I'm done," said the old man, wrapping a bandage over his wound. Tonight we're overtaking the new cutters.

Andrew got to work and the old man retreated to the bench, staring blankly through the walls, somewhere far away. The old man was smiling absently. She was hungry for work now, she would chew and spit out everything she got. The clunky mechanical movements from the start turned into a fluid flow and the work stacks melted one after the other. The machine was moving so fast that it needed, once again, two people just to keep up with her. The old man joined Andrew picking up the finished plates.

Andrew worked tirelessly. Sweaty and spent, the old man pulled him up on the bench to take a break.

"She's a beast," Andrew spat wearily.

The old man nodded, not wanting to talk bad about the machine.

"Why don't you tell me how you managed to get rid of that finger?"

The boy rubbed his shortened pointer on the scar as if it had been itching.

"A cutter in the big hall."

"She didn't like you at all."

"I just put my hand in when I shouldn't, that's all."

"Listen, all these machines have souls. They are like women, don't laugh, it's true, some are sane and some insane. If you want to make them work, you have to get along with them, give them what they want".

"Cut myself like you?"

"Learn to listen, pay attention to what they need, learn how to read them. It's not enough to have a mechanic's hand, you also have to have a mechanic's ear and eye. Understand?

The old man continued to a whisper as if to keep a secret.

"You can get rid of her if you want, you can tell everyone she's broken, no one knows how to work her anyway. You will find a place somewhere else, you're young, you can always find more work."

"Pops, I lost half my finger in the big hall, and they threw me here with you, do you think anyone else wants me around?"

"Work slowly. Do everything slow at first. Learn each step and understand why it's taken. They will forgive you if you move slowly but do the job well. You can gather speed in time," the old man muttered, taking his place next to the machine.


The week passed unnoticed, John splashing the guts of the machine night after night with Andrew keeping watch behind him.

When the time came for the old man to take his hand out of the machine for the last time, the boy took out a clean handkerchief and tied it over his wrist. Andrew bandaged the old man swallowing hard. John, too tired to protest, smiled at the boy.

"You're mothering me."

"That's enough, John. You're completely spent."

"Yea, but we finish tonight. We showed them all, didn't we?"

"Yes, John."

"Stop sighing like a midwife, we'll finish by morning. Imagine, the two of us better than the whole damn factory. They dilly-dally all day and we work all night.

John poured water from a bent plastic bottle into a kettle and put it over the engine.

"I'm making coffee. Want some?"

Andrew watched the old man in silence as he dragged his feet back and forth.

"I'll make you some," the old man concluded, looking for another sachet of coffee.

The water from the kettle began to splash on the walls, and the old man poured two envelopes inside. He spun the coffee around in the kettle, looking for two containers. He turned two cups out of a drawer and blew the dust out, then poured the coffee.

"It's hot, if we drink that we'll sweat like hogs."

"That's right, that's how the Bedouins used to cool down", and John handed him the cup.

With the coffee, the old man seemed revived and began to work side by side with Andrew. He checked the plates cheerfully and answered his questions with a smile.

Another night with record production. One machine covering the work of a whole division.

With the arrival of the morning, a thread of cold air reached the feet of the two.

"It's going to be cooler today. They might get the new cutters to work. What do you think?" Andrew asked John.


"What is it, John?

"It hit me all of a sudden. I'm ... I'm tired. Age, what can you do? I didn't think the day would come when I wouldn't ... man I'm dizzy. I can't stay up as I use to. I think I better go home now, haven't seen the old bed in a week.

"Let me help you, John."

"Leave me alone, go and finish up. You're a good lad. You did well."

"Okay, John, see you tomorrow."

The old man walked cautiously past the long hall up to the road. There he dragged his feet up to the bus station. John looked for the bus hiding in the sunlight. He closed his eyes only for a moment and the pains and aches finally forgave the old man. The bus passed on.

Andrew finished the plates, filled the oil tank, and began wiping the machine. With the end of work the tense metal began to relax. Black streaks made their way through the joints. Andrew took a cloth and passed it over the traces, spreading them in a layer of burgundy red. He rumpled the cloth and continued wiping until all the residue was gone.

The lanky, wavy-haired engineer appeared out of nowhere, behind Andrew.

"You did a great job, you pulled us out of quite a mess. I'll make sure some dough comes your way. I can't just leave you guys hanging. Where's the old man?"

"At home," Andrew answered dryly.

"Aha ... you two got along nicely. You'll get his cutter after he retires, and he has someone to pass the trade to. Everyone wants to leave something behind."

"Don't you want to scrap her anymore?"

"Scrap her after she saved our asses? No, but, it's not up to me, the boys on top have the last word. Go on, run home, if you keep loitering around I'll have to put you on spring assembly."

Photo by Werner Weisser - Avantrend
Versiunea în română: Sânge ruginiu

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