FICTION: Strings by Tomas Marcantonio

Independence Day. Remembering the day we cut those strings that Japan held us up with. Nobody knew then that without strings we’d just be a rotting, lifeless doll. Woodworm destroying the whole thing from the inside. Self-destruction like nothing the world’s ever seen. So here it is: raise your glasses everyone, clink them together and then slit your wrists. Cheers to us.

There’ll be parades through the streets of Sonaya tonight, and parades mean the police will be busy. I guess parades is a big word. Protests, fires and drink is what it usually means. I’m fine with all three as long as the drink’s good and the dogs in blue have their heads turned.

It’s eight now and I could do with that drink but all my regulars are being watched. Kosuke’s having a roof party for the elites but I won’t get near his place, and Stones has got his own problems. Sara’s more wanted than I am and Fairchild’s dead. The love of my life is dead too because I killed her twelve years ago. Killed her sergeant husband for good measure. I made an orphan of their little girl but she’s been missing for weeks. No one to turn to and hiding places aren’t what they used to be. Solo Dag on Death Row. Might as well try to find some action.

There’s a big ride on tonight. Bosozoku, the government calls them. Last of the biker gangs. Just kids really, rebelling against nothing and everything, tearing streets up and making a nuisance of themselves. I find Jiko before they get started. Down her usual alley behind the wine bars. She’s got her two followers behind her and a Rising Sun flag on the front of her bike. Hair dyed red, eighteen years old; angry, impulsive and nothing but trouble. She’s not my type at all, and that’s exactly why I’m drawn to her.

‘How’s the apartment?’ she asks.

I’ve been laying low at hers. She’s been out burning tyre stains onto the streets all night. Leaving me alone with her bras and leather on the floor and an open window over the sewers.

‘A palace,’ I say. Dag, The Grateful Lodger. ‘What’s the deal tonight?’

She spits and smiles because she’s just a kid.

‘Independence, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘Time to show the hyenas in office what idiots they are.’

It’s sweet when kids take an interest in politics.

‘How many you expecting?’ I ask. Biker numbers are back up since the city went to the rats.

‘Couple of hundred,’ she says. ‘You in?’

I adjust my new fedora and look at the other two. They look even younger than Jiko and hardly as brave.

‘I’m on the run,’ I say. Feel like an old man. Wrong side of forty and can’t join the party. ‘Last thing I need is to join a bloody ride. You’re cop bait, you girls.’

All of them smile like I’ve just given them a compliment. Stupid kids.

‘Stay at mine as long as you want,’ Jiko says. ‘We won’t be home before dawn.’

‘That’s my girl.’

She winks and straddles her bike. I’m surprised those skinny jeans don’t just rip right through the middle. The girls shoot up their engines and I’m left in their smoke. Alone again. Lean up against the alley wall and watch the bikes from the shadows. Drones are out in force tonight and the cops won’t be far behind them. Like kids with stringless kites. Now it’s just me with the backstreets of Sonaya and the darkness. My two best friends.

I skulk back to Jiko’s apartment block. There’s an old man in the basement who sometimes has bottles of wine to shift. A blind old mouse. I think about splitting a bottle with him before I head out, but Shinji’s waiting there in front of the graffitied doors. Blasted kid. Thirteen, with a gang tattoo on his neck and a mouth full of bloody gums and swear words you’ve never heard before. Owes me his life but I don’t want it.

‘What you doing here?’ I ask. Don’t like people knowing where to find me.

‘Bernd,’ he says. ‘Sent for me to get you.’

I look the kid up and down. Like a newborn lamb without its wool.

‘Delivery boys are the first to get it, you know,’ I say. ‘You better hope Bernd has got something for me to drink.’

We take off towards The Rivers. Spiderweb of alleys for the poor and the drunk. Best part of the city to hide in if you’ve got blood on your hands. I wish I just had it on my hands; I’m up to my knees in the stuff.

‘You look like a fucking cowboy,’ Shinji says.

Damn kid. I am a cowboy. A pirate and a criminal too, if you want. Take your pick, as long as he’s the villain. Gone for a new look since the rooftop killings. This time it’s the brown fedora, wide brim and all, tilted down over my eyes. Gotta keep playing the game.

‘You better watch out it doesn’t fall off,’ the kid says. ‘Hats are meant for people with two ears, aren’t they?’

I grab him by the back of the neck like a runt puppy. Shut it, boy.

‘What you doing creeping around tonight?’ I ask. ‘Cops aren’t after you, little punk. Best stay away from me if you wanna keep it that way.’

‘I was an August Fifth, wasn’t I?’ Shinji says. ‘Wanna drink to celebrate.’

News to me. I don’t look up at him, though.

‘I don’t do birthday parties,’ I say. ‘I’m not your father, boy. And I wouldn’t give you a drink if I was.’

The kid’s quiet. Damn August Fifths. One of the government’s incentives to get the population back up. Damn stupid one if you ask me. Give everyone the day off once a year. November fifth, Family Day. ‘Let your patriotism explode,’ they say. Want everyone to go home and fuck. Bonuses paid to mums who give birth nine months later. Births on Independence Day get a fortune. Bad news all round.

‘What happened to your parents’ money, then?’ I ask. Like I need to. ‘Money shot straight into their veins?’

‘Damn right,’ Shinji says. He spits on the floor. ‘Been on the streets since I was six.’

Nice sob story kid, but I’m no nun. The kid wants to say more but he doesn’t. Fine by me. We take the shadow alleys with their swinging signs and blinking neon. Whorehouses on corners and basement bars starting to wake up. Drones don’t see much down here. Half of them that get sent in don’t come back out. My kind of community spirit.

‘There’s been a lot of births this week, you know?’ the kid says.

‘Course there has. Still druggie parents like yours trying to make an easy buck.’

Maybe I’m being too harsh.

‘Go fuck yourself,’ the kid says.

Maybe not.

Bernd is the old German living in The Rivers. Big guy, wrinkles round his eyes, beard black and grey in wild patches. Used to be a real writer when the city was young and in its prime. One of the first expats on the scene. Gave it all up when Sonaya went rotten, but he’s been here too long to leave. Has a little attic room with a skylight above a whisky house, and keeps himself busy writing whatever the government tells him to.

‘You wait outside,’ I say.

‘Why?’ Shinji asks.

I clap him round the ear. That’s why.

I head on upstairs. It’s nine and the whisky house has a bit of life to it. I’d stop in for a quick one but Sara will be waiting. I guess I’ve only killed two people in my life. She’s a serial killer compared to me, but she hasn’t got the heart that I have. I follow the stairs up to the attic and knock on the door. Manners cost nothing, after all.

‘Who’s there?’ comes the call from inside. Groggy, sore, probably drunk.

‘It’s Death,’ I say. ‘Sorry I’m late, but it’s your time.’

There’s silence on the other side of the door. Then the sound of two old feet and a walking stick on the wooden boards. The door swings open and Bernd has a shotgun in my face before I even feel the draft.

‘I thought Death would look better than this,’ Bernd says, curling a lip and lowering the gun. I pull the fedora down and hold out my hands.

‘I’m new on the job,’ I say. ‘Give me time.’

Bernd turns back inside and leaves the door open behind him. I stroll in, smell the dust and the whisky. Sara’s sitting in a corner, pouting. I’ve left her here for over a week. Just until things quieten down. I nod at her and that only seems to make things worse. She looks away to the other corner. Two lamps are lit and there are candles on a desk with papers.

‘You writing again, old man?’ I ask.

‘None of your damn business,’ he says. ‘Don’t waste your time with this one,’ he adds to Sara. ‘He’ll kill your talent and probably break your heart with it. Your first book was damn good, Barnes, I tell you. Everyone’s waiting for the follow up.’

Sara shoots a sideways look at me. Like I invented writer’s block.

‘I’m on a break,’ she says.

Bernd sits in his beaten armchair. He’s in candlelight and he looks damn impressive. I lean up against a wall and take in the dust. I could do with a little place like this. A bloodhound in the corner and a whisky in my hand.

‘What’s the news, then?’ I ask. Let’s not waste any more time.

Bernd smiles as he pours himself another drink.

‘What news do you want first, Dag?’ he asks. ‘You’ve been calling in a lot of favours recently. You haven’t given up on finding that little orphan, have you?’

I pull the brim down again and feel Sara’s eyes on me. Can’t anyone keep their mouth shut in this city?

‘What can you do?’ I ask.

‘Good question. What can I do? The port hasn’t moved, has it? Get Barnes on that ferry, and smuggle yourself on if you’ve got any guts left. Don’t suppose you have, though, eh?’

I’d kick the chair from underneath him but I’ve got too much respect for the old man. Call it a weakness of mine. Sara looks between us.

‘Listen,’ Bernd says, leaning back. ‘They’re not interested in Barnes. Getting the famous expats involved with gangs and murders doesn’t make the hyenas up in office look too good. But someone has to take the blame. They’re already pinning those deaths on you, Dag. Not surprised, are you?’

Surprised? Yeah, right. Nothing but sweet relief. Can’t show it, though.

‘Those bastards have it in for me,’ I say, walking to the window. I look down at the alley below. The kid’s already gone.

‘But it’s still best for you to get out, Barnes,’ Bernd says. ‘Go back home and write something good.’

Sara keeps her jaw strong but I can see she’s relieved. She won’t want me to take the rap for it but what difference does it make? I’m already headed for a lifetime in The Heights once the hyenas have got me.

‘We best be going, then,’ I say. Just another day at the office.

‘Hold on,’ Bernd says. ‘That little girl you made an orphan of.’

‘What about her?’

Bernd looks at me and then I look at Sara. Give us a minute, my eyes tell her. She steps outside, moody as hell. Pour me a drink, old man. Let’s hear it.

#

Shinji’s nowhere in sight when we get outside. He’s up to something, but I’ve got bigger things going on tonight. Sara’s striding on ahead of me. Twenty five, five foot nine, black skin shining under the moon. Hair short, lips full, eyes much too good to waste on me. Michigan girl in the wrong place. Dag’s Dream, we might as well call her. But I don’t always like to get what I want.

‘Get back to the States,’ I call after her.

She turns and looks at me like I’ve just called her a whore.

‘I killed four men,’ she says. If looks could kill, better make it five. ‘Just to keep your worthless heart beating.’

Don’t I know it.

‘You heard Bernd,’ I say. ‘They’ll put it on me. I’ll take the rap. Just get out of here.’

Worthless heart? This city’s got me all wrong. Big Heart Dag, that’s me.

Sara shakes her head. ‘This is Sonaya,’ she says. ‘Cameras in the mirror and drones on every shoulder. There’s no getting away with anything.’

‘I live to get away with things,’ I say. Tilt the brim further down over my eyes. I should have been in the movies.

Sara just strides on, beautiful and angry. I don’t get women. I don’t get children or men, either, but I know myself. And I’ve got a plan. Dag’s always got a plan.

#

The streets are waking up but we’re not invited to the party. Businessmen are drunk, punk kids are drunk, bars are overflowing. No fights yet. Could be any night in Sonaya, but I’m too damn sober and Sara’s not talking. I want us to slide into a basement bar and come up for breath at dawn. Not tonight, though. I’ve thrown too many grenades in my life and tonight’s the night to clean away the bodies. Woe is me.

Shinji finds us at the mouth of The Rivers. Bundle in his hands and white fear in his eyes. What’s the kid done now? Sara’s on him in an instant and she puts her hands on his shoulders. Like the little limpet needs any encouragement.

‘Dag,’ she says. I don’t like the tone of her voice. ‘Shinji, where on earth did you get a baby?’

Damn it. Somebody wake me up.

Sara takes the bundle out of the kid’s arms. Shinji’s eyes are red and I don’t like the way they’re looking at me. I don’t need this. Not tonight. Sara’s rocking the bundle in her arms like we’re in a fucking nursery rhyme. This is Sonaya, damn it.

‘My mum,’ Shinji says.

Didn’t know the kid still had a mum.

‘She tried for the August fifth again, Dag,’ he says. ‘Born last week. It’s a little girl.’

Born within the week of Independence? She’ll probably still get a nice bonus for that. The kid should have swiped the money and left the baby. Then I might’ve understood him. The kid’s full-on shaking now and everyone’s looking at me like I’m Mother Teresa. What the hell do they want me to do? I need to get Sara to that ferry.

‘I saw her, Dag. My mum. Coked half to death. The baby’s nearly starved, look.’

Christ. Who knew this little skunk had a heart? Not as similar to me as I thought.

‘Dag,’ Sara says, holding it out. ‘Look.’

I look at the baby’s face. Wrinkled like Bernd and just as ugly. The thing needs a doctor, not a criminal.

‘So take it to the hospital,’ I say. ‘We don’t need you and your drama tonight.’

Sara shoots me those sharp eyes. What does she want? I’m not running a damn orphanage.

I move on and feel their eyes on the back of my head. Deep breath. ‘Come on, then,’ I say. Damn softies. They’ll be the death of me.

We’re out of The Rivers and headed for the train graveyard. Jiko and her biker friends are tearing through the streets. Flags and crowds and noise everywhere. Police have their shields and tasers out. Happy Independence Day, Sonaya. Thanks for the cover.

We work our way through. A man, a woman, a kid and a newborn baby. Happy fucking families. The woman’s got the blood of four men on her hands. The kid’s got too many morals and dried tears on his cheek. The baby’s half-dead and I don’t give it much of a chance. The man’s me, and I’m hardly a princess. We’re passing through the protests and fires like it’s a family picnic gone wrong. Story of my life.

Down at the train graveyard, finally. Dark and quiet and no one around but the rats. I put my good ear to the rails and feel the vibration. The distant chug of iron. There’s a live one on the way.

‘Leave us, kid,’ I say to Shinji.

Sara’s staring at the kid and the baby in his arms but I keep my eyes on the target. I can hear it now.

‘Go back to your hole and find some suit with heavy pockets,’ I say. I can only sort out one mess at a time, and that baby’s going nowhere without its papers. ‘Get that mite some food and if she survives the night I’ll be back for her.’

Sara’s eyes have a fire in them. Sorry girl, but it has to be tonight.

‘Get down,’ I command.

The old freight’s coming and it won’t stop to pick up rats off the road. We’re down behind one of the great iron skeletons next to the tracks. Graveyard’s littered with these old boys, the last of Japan’s heavy industry push. The birth and death of Sonaya, right there. I count us down from three as the front carriage passes us. Two. Wait for an open door. One. There it is. Now. Me and the girl are up and aboard with the dark and the cockroaches. Sara leans up against the back of the carriage, breathing hard. I look out at the graveyard behind us. The kid’s still standing there next to the tracks, babe in arms, watching us pull away into the night.

I keep my eye on the passing darkness. I know this city better than anyone, especially in the dark. The train’s chugging on and the lights of the city are disappearing. Sara’s looking hard and beautiful and scared. Yes. Much too young and good for me.

‘Once you get to the port you take the midnight ferry to Hokkaido,’ I say. ‘You get to Sapporo and fly home, you hear me?’

All I get in reply are those hard, scared eyes.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘Bernd says they don’t want you. They’ll let you go.’

‘You’re not coming with me?’ Sara asks.

‘Sonaya’s most wanted? I’ll have ten bullets in my chest before I get near the place. You’re on your own.’

Sara sits up. She knows what I’m about to do. I glance outside. The crossroads. This is my stop.

‘Where are you going?’ she asks. Poor thing. As if anyone needs to worry about me.

‘Write something good,’ I say, and I’m rolling in the dust before she can stop me. I watch her face disappear with the iron freight. On my knees, where I belong.

#

I find the tracks that lead out to the farms. Damn mozzies are out and I’m getting bitten to death. Hate the countryside. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the lights of the city. That scum city. My home. Couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, and damn it I don’t want to. I walk the wooden boards of the tracks. Slow, like the night country air. One man, one ear, one broken nose, alone in the dark. Don’t often get time to think like this. Don’t like it. Men like me shouldn’t be left alone with their thoughts, it only means trouble.

I picture myself as a young man. Hard to think of that now. A ten, I was. Cushty job, beautiful girl, city alive. Nothing stays a ten for long, though. Not in Sonaya. Girls were made to break men’s hearts, governments to break their minds; men were made to cut off their own ears, break their noses, watch their friends get killed before their eyes. Men were made to lose everything they had; to kill the woman they loved, to kill any man better than them, to watch their own city pass eternal days and sleepless nights from prison cells. Men were made to be frightened of anyone who came close; to bully orphan kids and send away beautiful women who cared about them too much.

Fuck it, this isn’t me. Give me action and give it to me fast. Carry on like this and I might learn something. Heaven forbid. I step things up. Take the wooden boards at a run now. The old man’s cabin isn’t far and I’d prefer to keep all of this between me and the darkness.

I see it. The cabin lights still lit. Handsome little place, lots of space to run. The stream’s not far from here if I remember right, the forest close by. Good place for a kid to grow up. I’d prefer to get her off the island altogether, but I don’t always like to get what I want.

I stroll up to the front door. Dag’s always got a plan, but the lone wolf stroll has left me muddled. Break down the door and steal the kid? Break down the door and kill the old man? Break down the door and ask for forgiveness? Damn it, got to stop. Country air’s doing me no good.

I steal around to one of the windows. The curtains aren’t curtains at all, just grey rags, and there’s enough space between them to see inside without drawing attention to myself. It’s dark out here and my fedora’s down over my eyes. I see the old man in his chair, cup of something in his hand. The bear skin blanket, the wooden table, the long bed. Then the smaller, makeshift bed on the floor. Then the girl.

Then the girl. She might as well be a ghost. Grey hair. I suppose that’s my fault, too. Eyes like her mother’s, nose like her mother’s, mouth like her mother’s. Her father’s somewhere in there, too. Surprised no one’s noticed it. Guess I’m the only one who knows that the kid’s really mine. One night of rekindled love before she changed her mind and went back to that damn cop. All dead now. Woman, man, and dreams of a happy family. And now I’m looking at this child through the window, and suddenly my hands feel dirty. Dirty and bloody and nowhere near good enough.

I recognise the old man, but it’s been twelve years and it shows. Less hair, more wrinkles, less of his chest and shoulders. Less of that look of me not being good enough for his daughter. He turns suddenly and sees my face at the window. Like he’s been expecting me the whole time. The girl still hasn’t noticed, her face in a book. I don’t move. The old man stares at me and shakes his head slowly. The scared fool. He stands up, makes an excuse to the girl, picks up his shotgun. He opens the door and heads out, following the path towards the train tracks. I follow him in the shadows. The girl won’t hear us out here.

‘That you, Kawasaki?’ he asks. Tired, old voice.

I step out of the shadows and face him. No gun, no plan. New Dag. Dead Dag, if my instincts are wrong. I take off my hat. Let him see the tattoos, the missing ear, the broken nose in the light of the moon.

‘You look like shit,’ he says, raising his gun up to his shoulder and pointing it at me.

‘You were always behind the times,’ I say. ‘Fashion’s change.’

There’s a buzzing overhead. A drone. About time. Hovering there, its red light blinking at me. Just a scout. There’ll be more on the way once they confirm it’s me.

‘A murderer always looks like shit,’ the old man says. ‘It’s in the eyes.’

‘You should know,’ I say. Old man did his time in The Heights. Not exactly an angel himself.

‘I’m an old man,’ he says.

‘So I see. Too old to take care of my girl.’

‘This is where she needs to be. I see her, Daganae. That cop might’ve been too dumb to know, but I sure as hell see your face in her. She’s yours, yes, but she needs a man to take care of her. Not a murdering pig. Not a coward. Not a worm like you.’

Everything I expected to hear. Maybe everything I wanted to hear. The other drones are coming. I can hear them over the fields.

‘Pull the trigger already,’ I say. ‘I killed your daughter. Kill me.’

The old man bites his bottom lip. Furious eyes, and don’t I just want him to do it. Make everything much simpler. No. Hands shaking, he lowers his gun.

‘I won’t give you the satisfaction,’ he says.

Soft fool. Soft old man.

‘Stay away from her, Kawasaki. She doesn’t need you. Never has.’

I laugh to myself. Turn around and see the shadows of the drones coming closer. Look at the city lights and the dark track. It’s a long way back. The old man drops his gun to the floor. Tries to look strong but he’s fading. Still stronger than me. I step back onto the wooden boards of the track. The old man’s watching me. I glance back at him. Can barely bring myself to say it. Men like me can’t afford to look weak. But I suppose I’ve got to start somewhere.

‘She happy?’

The old man’s face is lost in the darkness now. What kind of question am I asking? I killed her mum. Killed the man who brought her up, too, who she called her father. Course she isn’t happy.

‘She’s a strong one,’ the old man says. Starts back towards the cabin. ‘Gets it from her mother.’

I take one last look back at the cabin. This country air’s no good for me.

#

Drones are swarming over the fields. Same as the mozzies but much more dangerous. Suppose Bernd had to fess me up. Won’t hold it against him, the fool. No such thing as friends in Sonaya. I’m running through the darkness, the drones on my shoulder. I can hear them buzzing, ready to sting. But I’ve got the dark and my legs, and my legs have got some life left in them. Dag The Runner. That’s the way it’s been for weeks now, and that’s how it’ll always be.

The drones are talking to me. Radio voices above the buzzing. Hand yourself over, Dag, we have you. The usual trite. Like they’re reading from a script. Give yourself up. Make things easier for yourself. Nice of them to be so concerned, but I’m not going back to The Heights. Then the last warning, then the gunshots. Earth around me starts exploding. Throwing dust up at my heels and over my shoulder. Damn drones can do everything now. Everything but shoot straight, anyway. My legs are still good and I know this city in the dark. I lose them at the train graveyard, hide out inside one of the old skeletons. Wait for the drones to split and scan the perimeter from above. I choose my path carefully and then I’m back at the edge of The Rivers before they even notice I’m gone.

Back in the old quarter. Much better. Piss on the floor and blinking neon above me, black alleys to slide through. Home. It must be past one now and I could still do with that drink. Not yet. I find Shinji in that squat he sleeps in. He’s asleep and the bundle’s there in his arms, its eyes open and squinting at me. The motorbikes are still screeching away outside and there’s a march somewhere nearby. I shake the kid awake.

‘Let’s go,’ I command.

Bleary eyes. ‘Where?’

Good question.

‘We can crash at Jiko’s tonight.’

Shinji starts packing up his bag and suddenly I’ve got a baby in my arms. Don’t wanna think what Jiko will say when she gets home, but I’ve let two girls go tonight already and that’s about all I can handle. I’ve cut my strings and now let’s see if I can stand.

My mind’s on overtime. Just think of it. A man, a woman, a kid and a newborn. Happy fucking families. The woman’s half my age and heads up a biker gang. The kid’s reckless and throwing trouble at me every turn. The baby’s too small and she’s gonna be awake through the night. The man’s me, and I’m hardly a princess. New plan starts tomorrow. New face. There’s always a way to clear your name in Sonaya. Always someone who owes you a favour. Always the backstreets and the basements if things go wrong. I know the quiet life isn’t for me. I want a drink and a change and some new wild goose to chase. And sometimes I like to get what I want.

Tomas Marcantonio

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Tomas Marcantonio is a Brighton-born writer and English teacher. He graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English Language and Film, and has since been travelling widely. His travels have influenced much of his writing, which includes travelogue Gift of the Gap, and his first novel The Leap of Grebes. He is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.

Tomas was also selected as a finalist in STORGY’s EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, and his story ‘The Superhero’ will be published in STORGY BOOKS debut print publication; EXIT EARTH.

Read Tomas Marcantonio’s previously published stories below:

Earth Hour

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It’s Not A Party Until Someone’s Dead

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