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MOUTH OF GOD
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I flag down a car; a mud splattered Prius fresh from the countryside. Using my broken language skills and copious hand gestures, the driver understands where to take me. He’s an old man; eyes cloudy with cataracts, a symptom of a life spent in the land of blue sky. Countryside music rings out through the open windows as the driver sings along. It’s a song I’ve heard before; a song I’ve heard on repeat during the twenty-hour bus rides to the capital, but then again, so many of the countryside songs sound the same to my untrained ear, it could be the latest hit.
The rocky surface jostles us back and forth, the beads hanging from the rear-view mirror swing, gaining momentum with each divot and stone in the earth. We drive up the hill as far as the Prius can manage. I pay five-hundred tugriks and step out into the blinding sun. The Monastery is perched half-way up the hill, an easy walk from the car. As I enter the darkness of the Monastery, I feel my pupils dilating, blinking flashes of white, readjusting to the lack of sunlight.
The pungent aroma of milk and mutton saturate the room, despite the copious amounts of burning juniper. White smoke from incense trays trails upward in delicate curls; a vain attempt to overpower the smell of meat. The sour sweat of my own body mixes and mingles with the rest of the hopeful people all of us crammed in together; waiting.
The monks dressed in saffron and gold robes spin wooden beads between their fingers. Scrolls of prayers written in Sanskrit are draped across their alters. Portraits of wrathful deities stare down at me. Fierce faces painted in blue with flaming hair are adorned with green and black snakes for necklaces. Columns of fabric hang from the ceiling like support beams, as if the entire structure could be supported by red and yellow silk instead of cement.
The rough cement walls do nothing to keep out the heat. Sweat gathers under my arms and makes my glasses slide down the bridge of my nose. My thighs stick to the wooden bench as I wait in anticipation. When I finally stand to pray, my legs peel off the seat like a band-aid stuck on too long. I gently dip my forehead until it touches every wooden alter as I bow in respect, moving along the conveyer belt of healing.
After completing the circle inside the monastery, the monk assigned to me calls me to him. He offers a tiny plastic bag full of juniper water and pours it into my palm. I sip out of my hands, tasting the saltiness of my skin mixed with the faintest essence of herbs and wonder to myself how clean this water is, and if I’ll be purified later tonight in the bathroom?
The monks begin to chant in unison. They swoop up and down together, rhythmically praying in a language no one here understands. My monk starts to ring a bell; the one next to him starts crashing large cymbals. The convoluted sounds of hope are far from peaceful. They grow in frequency and tempo, the climax of all our hopes approaches. Everyone in the tiny room is watching them with eager shining eyes. The clatter of metal stings my eardrums as the chimes ring out. A monk is moving towards the gong, the end is almost near but cutting through the ringing bells, chimes, and chanting is a familiar whistle. My monk reaches deep into his saffron robes and pulls out his iPhone to silence it.
A typhoon was coming.
Amelia could feel it in the air. The wind twisted the trees and sent chimeras flailing into the skyscrapers. Through the café’s open door, their hideous screeching mixed with the faint sounds of crumbling concrete.
Magda rode a powder blue moped made from recycled parts. She parked it in the middle of the road; vortices of brown leaves and debris swirled around her feet. Magda’s thick plastic heels had toy dinosaurs immobilized in the synthetic material, like fossils frozen in amber.
‘Typhoon’s coming,’ she said, sitting across from Amelia. ‘I’ve got a jump for you.’ Magda pulled a contract out of her pleather bag and slid it across the table. Catching the barista’s eye, she pointed at Amelia’s cup to signify her order.
Despite the wind whistling past the door, the café’s customers were stagnant and still. Water sputtered through the espresso machine’s corroded valves as the barista poured and delivered another weak shot to their table. Amelia sipped her own americano. Vapor fogged her goggles and she repositioned them on top of her leather aviator’s helmet. The coffee was bitter, gritty, and tasted of sawdust. Then again, it wasn’t truly coffee. It couldn’t be, but Amelia didn’t care to know what she was actually drinking. Nowhere was the place everything unwanted ended up: plastic, hardware, technology, old keys, lost loved ones, and the mythical creatures no one believed in anymore.
‘So,’ Magda said pulling a flask from her neon plastic trench. ‘Will you be taking the job then?’ Potent liquid gurgled into her coffee. Amelia watched this in the mirror reflection of Magda’s heart-shaped glasses, teal in color.
Amelia took the contract, relishing the feel. It was real paper, smooth and dry, not damp and made out of mulched trash.
‘When’s the jump?’
‘Less than an hour.’
‘The catch?’ Amelia said, placing a finger between the sealed pages. The scar on her left forearm was visible even in the low light of the café. A thick carved ‘A,’ its size and gruesome amount of scar tissue made it hard not to notice.
‘It’s not a catch. It’s a release. It’s already in your Cessna.’ Magda nodded her shaved head towards the window.
The café sat in the shadow of the airport. Dirigibles and zeppelins fought against the wind current, moving like migrating whales. Amelia could see her Cessna 150 parked on the runway through the window. It was her baby, jacked-up with a turboprop engine she had fitted in herself.
Amelia used storm currents to jump from Nowhere to Somewhere. Being a jumper was lucrative business; the residents of Nowhere would do anything to feel like they were home again. They paid outrageously for the taste of Cheerios, threw away point-coins for working cameras, and gave their souls for mirrors that weren’t cracked. She had gone and caught everything there was to catch and never missed a jump back.
But what was a release?
Amelia tugged against the wax seal and a photo fell onto the table.
Magda’s hand shot out like she was playing slapjack, hitting the table with her palm. Coffee rocked and sloshed, dripping over the lips of their mugs.
‘Careful,’ Magda said, flipping the photo face-side down.
Amelia scanned the contract. It was a release—a jumper was being hired to take someone from Nowhere and bring them to Somewhere. The payment was five-hundred point-coins and a years’ worth of fuel. It was the biggest payment Amelia had ever seen. With it, she could stop storm hunting, she could take a break from jumping… for a little while anyway.
‘Don’t you know what this means?’ Magda interrupted her thoughts. ‘You’ll have no need to come back once you’re out.’ She was leaning in, booze heavy on her breath. Magda had been scheming about leaving Nowhere ever since Amelia had met her, but this was the first plan that seemed plausible.
Amelia hesitated. She could feel a seed of hope being planted in her chest, but she couldn’t water it. Not yet. She’d been let down before.
Magda lifted her hand off the table. Amelia took the photo. She held it close to her chest, hiding it like a hand of cards. Chancing a glance, she peeped at the picture.
A man. Short. No more than 5’5. He was stocky in build with a clean-shaven face.
‘There are two photos.’
Tilting her head to one side, Amelia peeled at the corner of the worn photograph. She thought it had been printed on thick paper, but it peeled away, revealing another image.
It was the same man, she could tell from his stance and build, but this time, he was bruised, on a leash, and hooded, the leather mask concealing his face. He had a matching scar on his left forearm. An ‘A.’
Like a burst dam, dark memories came flooding in. Her mind was filled with cool, black water—dangerous and suffocating. Amelia’s breath caught in her chest. The leather harness she wore felt too tight, constricting her belly. She fidgeted with the brass buckles.
Had Ay set up the release? Was he trying to take her back? Amelia shook her head, a vain attempt to beat the memories away. Still, she remembered all too well how she had ended up in Nowhere. Amelia didn’t realize others were still arriving in the same brutal way.
‘I thought he went out of business.’
Magda was applying purple lipstick, smacking her lips together. ‘Guess not.’
Amelia’s mouth tasted bitter and she stole a sip of Magda’s drink to wash it out. She coughed as the liquor burned her throat.
‘Say I take the jump,’ Amelia said, ‘say I get to Somewhere and actually free him, as he deserves. Then what?’
‘You stay there. I’ll come find you.’
‘It’s not that easy.’
‘Why not?’ Magda handed over her purple lipstick.
Amelia scoffed, taking the plastic tube. She eyed the tacky cosmetic, ground up fish scales giving it a glittery hue. ‘Really, Magda?’
‘I chase up work, not ink. You know how hard that is to find. Still, one mustn’t let formalities slide. Signature please.’
Something bloomed inside Amelia’s chest. Whether it was her musings of escape or the shot of booze, she couldn’t tell, but the little cylinder of lipstick felt heavy in her hand. Amelia signed her name as tight as she could write with the chalky make-up.
‘Lovely.’ Magda snatched up the contract, tucking it inside her bag. Amelia slipped the two photos in her breast pocket and followed her out the door.
The wind hit them first. Rain and air had fused into one force, smacking Amelia in the face. She tugged her goggles down over her eyes. Magda straddled her moped, shouting, ‘See you in Somewhere!’ but Amelia could barely make it out.
‘How?’ she shouted back, feeling her own voice get swallowed up by the storm.
Magda never answered. She was already scooting away, leaving a trail of black fumes in her wake. Chimeras shrieked in the distance and the world felt like it was collapsing in around her.
Out of the languid café and away from the stupor of its customers, Amelia focused on the task at hand. The growing typhoon sent adrenaline through her legs. She ran to the runway and hopped into the familiar two-seater plane. The cargo was there, right where Magda had left it.
He was shirtless, dressed only in black jeans with a hood covering his head. Amelia remembered how dark the world was inside those hoods. She remembered the false sense of security they brought, only after fear was beaten out of them.
Stitched together with patchwork leather, it was designed like a falconry hood. Apart from a small hole at the mouth, the nose and eyes were covered. Amelia reached out to him, placing a palm on either side of his head, preparing to unveil the man.
He lashed out, slapping her hands away from him. ‘Leave the hood on.’ His voice was gravel, harsh, like the early morning.
Twice as wide as her, and probably twice as heavy, his arms were coated in dark hair. A map of thick pink scars crisscrossed his short torso. Amelia reflexively touched her own stomach, feeling her harness that acted as her protection, her armor. She breathed in deep, taking pleasure in its tight restraint.
‘Don’t worry. You’re safe now. Don’t you want to see?’
He shook his head and leaned away from her; every muscle remained tense. Amelia consoled herself that it would take him time to trust again—it had for her.
She powered up the plane. The propeller fought against the wind before gaining enough momentum to whirl into a blur. They crept down the runway, picking up speed, moving into a direct headwind. As she pulled the yoke towards herself, the Cessna shuddered into the air.
Once airborne, the wind lashed against the plane, pushing them side to side, dropping and then lifting them again. Amelia would have to make the jump quick or risk crashing.
Making the jump was like swimming into a whirlpool. Amelia couldn’t directly enter the typhoon. She had to follow its current, getting closer and closer until the heart of the storm consumed and shot them out into Somewhere, like a sling shot being let loose.
Amelia looked at the man. He was gripping his seat, his body was shaking, the hair on his arms was raised.
‘You’re being released.’ She had found the current and was guiding the plane into it. This was the terrifying moment when she could lose control. The moment where the storm felt like a death trap of wind and rain. Each time she started a jump, terror blossomed in her heart, but then something magical happened—the current took her up. She synced with the typhoon.
They were going to make it.
It was addictive really, an intoxicating rush of power and risk. What made it even sweeter this time, was that it was her last jump. She was finally getting out.
‘Released?’ He jarred Amelia out of her revere.
‘Someone’s paid to take you back. You’ll be an un-lost now. We’ll both be—’
‘No!’ His hooded face was shaking violently.
Something akin to sympathy made her look at him. Of course he didn’t want to go. She knew how conditioned he was. Stockholm syndrome was something she had known too well—the tangy smell of A’s sweat, the timbre of his voice through the hood, his beatings and caresses, it had all once been too comfortable.
‘Look, I didn’t pick this for you. I’m just a jumper and right now we’ve got to get out of here!’
‘No, no, no! It’s not safe. The people. They’re not safe! NO!’ He was rocking back and forth. His hands were feeling blindly for the door.
‘Don’t open that!’ Amelia shouted. Her hands were still on the yoke, eyes on him. ‘Don’t you understand, we’re in the middle of a typhoon—’
That was when it hit.
Part-lion, part-goat, part-fire-breathing-dragon, a three-headed chimera slammed into the passenger side. Air whistled in through a fresh split in the door frame as the beast rebounded. A bleating cry from the goat head preceded the lion’s earsplitting roar. Amelia nearly let go of the controls to cover her ears, but the three serpentine necks wavered too close, seemingly without control against the gale. The chimera was trying to steady itself, beating leathery wings in a fierce attempt to keep its lion body airborne. In the seething tempest, Amelia’s Cessna rattled and shook. Logic told her she needed to get out of danger, but Amelia was so close to the jump, she couldn’t abandon it now—not when she was about to escape for herself.
The dragon head swung towards them, bellowing out a mouth full of fire. Orange flames licked the plane. Amelia could feel the heat through the Cessna’s metal frame. To avoid further damage, she rammed the yoke to the left, banking the plane. The attitude indicator registered a sixty-degree bank as a wing shot up. Amelia pushed her baby to its limits and rolled the plane over. Once, twice, Nowhere spun out beneath them as the plane cartwheeled. Amelia righted the plane when the fire ceased, but the chimera was still there. Its girth made it impossible to avoid and it knocked the Cessna 150 out of the center of the typhoon.
The jump was lost.
Torrential rain and typhoon winds sent them skirting across the sky. Amelia’s stomach plummeted with every drop. Her attention was consumed with recovering control to avoid crashing. She needed to get back to the center, but caught in a direct crosswind, she was flying into the wind and barely moving.
This had been her chance to jump. This had been her ticket out. She could hear A laughing in her mind. Amelia was cursing the chimera when air from the storm churned inside the cockpit.
The cargo had opened the door, slammed his body against the crack and forced it open. The door was ripped off with a gust of wind and fell away, disappearing in the clouds.
‘Stop!’ she yelled but it was too late. He was falling through the air, plummeting towards Nowhere.
He had jumped without her.
Back on the ground, Amelia surveyed the damage done to her plane. A trip to the junkyard and a few hours of work would put her Frankenstein craft back in working order. She looked up at the sky.
A blimp was spinning out in the last life of the typhoon. With just enough pull left in the storm, it made the jump. She watched it disappear, like a shooting star, and wondered if Magda was there.
Leaning against her Cessna, Amelia adjusted her goggles and took the photos out of her breast pocket. She whistled through her teeth and traced the scar on his arm. If she couldn’t get the cargo to Somewhere, she could at least give him a name.
‘Adam,’ she whispered.
Amelia kissed the photo of Adam, clean shaven and healthy, and put it in her pocket. Then, taking Adam’s trader photo, she folded it into a rudimentary paper airplane, hiding his hooded face and scarred body.
Lifting her arm behind her head, she released the origami photo free.