Dreams in Soft Focus

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I am thirty five years old.
            Two candle flames dance, reflected in Linda's pupils. I brush her hair. "It's all right, Jonas. You're right. We needed the money." She kisses me then, a long, slow kiss, her tongue tasting of summer flowers and hope, and puts her palms over my ears. The ruckus from behind the curtain of our two-by-four concrete space dissolves the moment her lips connect with mine.

            Our curtain flies open.

            A tall man in a grimy fedora and a pre-Collapse business suit towers over us, taking in the mattress, the two candles, the footlocker in the corner with a steady gaze, a smile on thin lips. Linda shivers. A silver pin, the self-cannibalizing symbol of the Deep Snakes, glimmers on his chest pocket. Two heavy-set men stand at his sides, low foreheads, arms bulging with veins under the patched leather vests, faces ugly like an elevator crash. The muscle, hired by the Deep Snakes for the dirty jobs even they don't feel like doing.
            "You're Linda, wife of Jonas?" asks the man in the suit.

            Linda looks at me and I close my eyes. My broken wrist burns with an ocean of pain. I ignore it, try to say something, but my shattered jaw hurts worse. If it'll come to violence, these three would overpower me in half a breath. My only hope is the screwdriver shank under the pillow. An unrealistic hope. We are at the Deep Snake's mercy.

            "I am," my wife says.
            "And you must be Jonas then. Fancy yourself a fighter, huh? You knew people had hopes for you? Made bets on you? Bets they lost when you went down like a bitch? You owe us, boy. You owe us big time."
            I clench my good hand into a fist. "I…" I start, pain shooting from my damaged jaw. "Don't … owe you … shit."
            "Sure you do. Who'd you think owns the roof? Who pays the fighters? Who runs the fights? We do, that's who. How are you planning to pay us? The Chief says you're barely making enough to rent this cockroach-hole of a space, let alone cover your debts. Your wife, on the other hand …"
            He removes his hat and presses it against his chest, bowing in mock salute. I wrap my fingers around Linda's wrist. She presses her back against the wall and I sit up, putting my body between her and the Snake.
            "Is this how it's going to be?" the Deep Snake asks, putting his fedora back on. "Serve yourself."
            "We'll pay it back," Linda says. "We'll pay it back, give us time."
            The man on my right grabs me by my bandaged limb and jerks me out of the living space. All senses dim but for the pain in my wrist as I tumble to the floor, moaning. He steps on me, pins me to the ground. I can't breathe. In the corner of my eye I see Linda, crawling away from the Snake, towards the pillow.
            "You come with us now, little lady," he says. "We've got work for you."
            The pillow is next to her, hiding the shank out of view. I try to scream, to warn her, to tell her not to try it, but the Deep Snake’s worn boot on my chest pushes the air out of me and I flap my mouth like a fish. No sound comes. Linda goes for the weapon.
            The other Snake tries to grab her hand, but Linda is quicker.
            The sharpened piece of metal pierces the thick flesh folds of his chin, and I watch with horror as five centimeters of bloodied screwdriver emerge in-between the teeth of his open mouth. The man grabs the handle and falls to the floor when the fancy suit Deep Snake's fist catches Linda in the temple.
            She jerks to the side and her head slams into the concrete wall. Blood sprays. Her body goes limp.
            Brown eyes turn to glass.
            I try to move, but the man on top of me puts his other foot on my wrist and I whimper as people peer from under their curtains to look.
            "Well, shitfuck, Bobby Beam," says the man standing on me. "You hit 'er too hard."
            "Fuck her," says Bobby Beam. "You." He points his finger at me. "You should've trained your bitch to stay put. You've got a day to get us our money. That was the deal: lose, and it's your ass, and this is me telling your ass belongs to us now. We're coming back tomorrow and you better be here, Jonas boy, because if you're not, you're going to be wishing you would've listened to me when we find you. Clear?"
            The muscle boy removes his stinking boot from me and I can breathe again.
            I'm not sure I want to.
            "Are we clear?" Bobby repeats.
            I say nothing, so they kick me in the ribs for good measure and leave.
            The closing of curtains. The smell of sweat and sex. A rat, scuttling across the corridor floor. Linda's warmth, leaving her body. My cheek pressed against hers, fingers in her hair. "I'm sorry," I say. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
            But it is too late

###

            I am thirty six years old.
            The ferry is made of old boat parts and rubber tires. The wooden deck vibrates as the electric motor propels us along the Danube, collapsed bridges submerged in murky water along the river banks. I adjust the oxygen mask on my face. A Russian model, the double filters good for ten hours use at a time. My ears itch.
            "Haven't seen your kind around much," the ferryman says, his voice muffled by a mask that looks like something out of a SWAT surplus store. He's the captain, the steersman, my ride at the highwayman's prices of seven hundred forints per hour.
            I don't want to talk. But we're stuck together for next three hours, and I want to be on his good side in case the ride somehow turns sour.
            I'm a packageman: survival is an instinct.
            "Nobody sends packages that low down the river anymore," I say.
            And it's true – the City Central stamp on my packageman's permit means nothing this far away from the blocks. Out here, the only laws are knife, gun, and reputation. I have all three.
            The sun pierces the dark clouds, painting stripes across the deck. I imagine the scent of Linda's hair and the smell of green water’s rot suddenly gives way to a memory of her lips, the ferryman's chatter – the sound of her voice …
            "Hey! Packageman! You hear me?"
            I snap back to the present, pissed off.
            "Why you're going to Crab Island if there's nobody there?" 
            "I will be there. That is enough. And if you want another money clip, bring your ferry over in two weeks, bring food and water. Now shut up and steer."
            He doesn't like that one bit, but gets the hint and starts drumming an uneven beat on the steering wheel. I try to conjure the image of Linda back in my mind's eye, but somehow she keeps morphing into Bobby Beam's grinning face. After a while, I give up trying.
            We spend the rest of the trip in silence. Hours pass. I rage. 
            The rusty pier of Crab Island crawls over the horizon and the tires on the side of the ferry bump against metal. The ride is over.
            "We're here, packageman. If you want me here again in two weeks, it'll be five hundred up front."
            "Wait here an hour," I tell him. "And you'll get your five hundred."
            "You’re crazy, man. Who knows what kinda critters live here. No way."
            "An hour. Not more."
            I jump on the pier and head up the ramp to island proper without waiting for the ferryman’s reply. 
            There used to be a park there. It still is a park, but the trees are sinister black, twisted in knots from the lack of oxygen. I put my backpack on the ground and assemble the three-piece portable metal detector. The next ten minutes are spent following a map I’d nearly paid for with my life, whatever that’s worth nowadays. The detector beeps in even intervals. The intervals shorten.

            I find a discarded food can. Ten more minutes. Nothing. My heart beat mirrors the metal detector’s beeping. The beeps begin to race when I approach a pile of ashes under a shriveled black tree. There’s a skeleton there, a manhole cover clutched in the dirty bones of its fingers. I curse.
            On the fortieth minute, I finally find what I'm looking for. The entrance hatch to Budapest's City Central Bomb Shelter is next to an unremarkable mud hid, exactly where the map said it'd be. I take out the key I borrowed from a dead man a long time ago and put it into the lock. The mechanism clicks, and I am inside.

            One hundred square meters of space to myself. Breathable air. A place to live. A place to train.
            I get back to the ferryman and hand him six hundred forints. "Be here in two weeks’ time," I tell him. "Bring fruit, the Southern city blocks should have some, and … beef jerky. Water. I'll pay for the goods, plus another six hundred for the trouble."
            It's impossible to tell behind his oxygen mask, but I think he is smiling. "If you say so, Chief. Anything you want me to tell the big city for you?"
            "Yeah. Tell Bobby Beam I challenge him to a fight."
            "That nasty Deep Snakes kid?"
            "You know him?"
            My hand goes for the pistol holster.
            "No, no, no, just heard about him, that's all. I'll … I'll tell a Snake about this if I see one."
            The ferry leaves. I am alone.

###

            I am thirty seven years old.
            I train like a man possessed. I am possessed, my only focus: the pushups, the sit-ups, the pull-ups, the burpees. I box against the wall until my fists are blood and bone, I carve stands out of twisted trees and kick them to splinters until my shins harden to rocks.

            I eat. I sleep. I dream of Linda.
            The ferryman comes regularly and every time I ask him if he'd met a Deep Snake, but he never seems to work near my home city block anymore. Says it's bad for business. I tell him to say I'll fight Bobby without weapons. He returns and only nods nay when I ask him if he'd heard anything back.

            I tell him I'll fight all the Deep Snakes at once.
            I tell him I'll fight them unarmed.
            The next time I see him, I know it before he says it. He sighs under his oxygen masks and says, "It's on." The words reverberate in my head, heavy like lead. It's on.
            From the moment Linda died I'd shaped my life around a singular goal: to gain a peace of mind by doing something about Bobby Beam for what he took from me. My one plan was as insane as the next, and having a ferryman spread rumors of a lone challenger training on Crab Island was apparently crazy enough to have worked. And now, it is on.
            I know I will die. There's no way I can take all Deep Snakes at once.
            But I'm not going to die easy.
            I spend three days resting. I think of the kind of a man I used to be when we lived in the two-by-four living space, how Linda laughed when I'd get a cramp in my leg, how I dreamed of moving to a higher floor, to change our living space to a real flat, a shared flat perhaps, but something where we could at least stand up without bruising ourselves. How I urged her to let me bet on myself. I remembered my last fight: a broken wrist. A shattered jaw. Linda's body, slumped against the wall.
            When the ferryman comes, I tell him I want to go upriver.

###

            Around me, the crowd screams in berserker frenzy, cheering for a gruesome show. This is going to get gruesome, I think, looking down from the rooftop on what was once the city of Budapest.
            Patches of light paint rare settlements across the darkness, roads running in serpentines between lines of flickering lamps. I know these roads intimately. There was a time I thought one of them would be the end of me. As it turns out, I was destined to die closer to the clouds. Lucky me.
            I turn.
            Tar barrels burn on each side of the improvised arena, flames an uneven, synthetic blue. The Soviet-era eight-story house’s roof is cut in two by a corridor of fire.

            Half the city block came to see the beat-down:  Jonas the Packageman returned home to go up against every member of the Deep Snakes at once.
            From all the forms of suicide I'd considered over the years, this one wasn’t so bad.
            A good distance across the fire corridor the first three Deep Snakes stand abreast, the shadowy crowd screaming encouragement. There are more heads behind them: batons, knives, chair legs grasped in steady hands. Their stillness contrasts the chaos behind the blue flames, the stillness of predators deadlocked on prey.
            How many of them are there? Twenty? Twenty five? The man in the middle takes a few casual steps forward and I no longer care. A spasm runs through my body and my hands clinch into fists. I recognize him. Bobby Beam.
            I start walking towards Bobby, his silhouette illuminated by the fire, the noise of the crowd just an afterthought, the entire world dimmed but for Bobby and his butterfly knife as he flips it open, a shit-eating grin never leaving his face.
            Bobby lunges out with the knife. I move to the side, try to knee him in the balls, but Bobby steps back and my knee catches air. Another lunge, but this time, he is too slow. I catch Bobby's wrist, and leverage it with both hands until I feel the pop of bone snapping.
            His hand bends the wrong way at the elbow. Bobby screams and falls, holding his arm. I pick up the knife and kick him in the broken elbow. He howls, and so I sit on top of him and stab him in the chest. I stab him again and again and again and again, warm blood on my lips. I stab him in the throat. In the face. In the eyes. He stops moving, and I force myself to look up.  
            The rest of the Deep Snakes shake off whatever trance my rage had put them in. They dart, shouting, cursing, hungry for blood. I get up from Bobby's body and scream as well, Bobby's bloodied knife in hand.
            Murderers! Hate! Kill!
            One of the Snakes tries to hit me with a bicycle chain. I duck under the blow and thrust the knife into the man's armpit. Another one kicks me, I slice his throat open in return.    Somebody stabs me in the thigh.
            I bite through an ear, stabbing, slicing, killing, being hit, stabbed and trampled on, but, somehow, I endure, I evade, my muscles reacting without intervention of thought. My vision turns red from the blood in my eyes.
            No pain. Only madness. Madness and hate.
            I fight through the Snakes, pushing through to their side of the roof as men fall around me. I make it to the edge before I fall to my knees.
            A dozen corpses lie behind me. Just as many bloodied men are writhing in agony from their wounds. I've been stabbed, cut, my left arm looks broken, a deep cut across my face had cost me an eye.
            Blood is trickling out of my mouth. Breathing is hard.
            The crowd is silent. Dying men scream.
            I fall to my side, closing my one good eye. Rest. Finally. Rest. In my dream, I see Linda, her face in soft focus from the light of the two candles that we can afford.

About the Author

Max Salnikov is a Russian-born, Hungary-based English-language writer of short stories, video advertisements, video games, and everything in-between.Enjoyed the story? Follow Max on Twitter, and check out his website

Max Salnikov