September had been a red month. The leaves were red, the sunsets. People were being systematically hacked down, blood ran in the streets. When they—the authorities, the media, the gossips—said the centre would not hold, they meant it. When they said things would never be the same, they were not kidding. When they said prepare for the worst, no one could have imagined what the worst could be.
Dr. Ram, living in an iron-barred flat in the middle of the troubles, had taken to wearing sunglasses even indoors. Seeing everything in the glare of daylight without prophylactic measures threatened what remained of one’s sanity. Dr. Ram, a chiropractor in his old life, got by scavenging these days. A dangerous living, of course. That said, his choices, naturally reduced by the atrophy of the state, were constrained.
He stepped out at dusk and faced the flaming skies. Unusual, yes. Post-nuclear, let it be said. The east existed only as a distant memory, tinted red. People joked about warming their hands to it on cold evenings, like the embers of a giant fireplace. But nothing was funny anymore. Laughter was the first thing to go. Dr. Ram couldn’t remember the last time he had heard laughter. He smelled rotting meat and excrement, all too familiar. He closed his eyes and tried to recall a time when the city smelled like orange blossoms and black pepper. The past returned briefly. His nostrils flared. But what was the point of this exercise? It only anguished him, the thought of that irrecoverable past. He opened his eyes and, suddenly, the red dusk bled away, replaced by the black effulgence of night.
He turned down an alley illuminated dimly by a station lantern mounted on a garage. Green garbage bags, bursting with old clothes, and blood-soaked, corrugated boxes lined the sides of the alley. Some men had stayed here a few weeks back. Dr. Ram had run into them one evening while scavenging. They took his shoes and threatened to kill him if he returned. But then one evening they were gone and in their wake had left all these clothes and the boxes in which they slept at night. Dr. Ram often wondered what had happened to that crew. Whatever had become of them, they probably deserved it.
At the end of the alley stood a large steel bin where they emptied the refuse of the physicists working in the adjacent modular building. Often, among sheafs of paper, plastic bottles and other office debris, Dr. Ram found foodstuffs. The other day, a half-eaten loaf of black bread, covered with green mould, proved edible and sustaining once scraped clean, though Dr. Ram experienced extreme vertigo for several days after eating it. He glanced around, but saw no one. Security was lax in this quarter. Nevertheless Dr. Ram had to be careful. Dogs barked in the distance; feral dogs ran wild these days. You had to watch out for them. Some had taken a liking to human flesh.
“You don’t want to get jammed up tonight,” he said to himself.
“Not tonight,” the voice in his head responded. “And you don’t want to get eaten by dogs. That would be horrific.”
“Hush,” Dr. Ram said aloud.
“I have an opinion.”
“You always have an opinion.”
“Without me you would be stumbling around like a blind man.”
This wasn’t altogether true. Seemingly independent of Dr. Ram’s consciousness and will, the voice provided him with conversation, advice, and most importantly served as a sounding board for his ideas. The terrible loneliness of the past few years—everyone he had known was either dead or disappeared—had been mitigated by the emergence and evolution of this voice. Sometimes soothing, sometimes puckish or shrill, the voice always had something to say. But sometimes Dr. Ram wished it would be quiet. Sometimes he wished it would keep its counsel to itself. He had never properly named it, nor had it offered a name. Maybe one day he would christen this voice. He thought of several names he might use. Paul was a nice name—he used to know several, all upstanding men—but the voice didn’t really sound like a Paul. It sounded more like a Jeffery or Reginald, two names that Dr. Ram did not like, though he couldn’t really say why that was so.
He advanced to the refuse bin. A rancid gust blowing down the alley rattled its lid and startled Dr. Ram.
“You flinched,” said his voice.
“I didn’t flinch.”
“Just be quiet.”
“I said be quiet!” Dr. Ram’s own voice resounded in his ears. This was ridiculous, addressing a voice in his head. Of course he had questioned his sanity, who wouldn’t have, given the circumstances? But as he was able to survive an environment that tested the mettle of any living being, he figured sane or not, he was alive, and that was all that mattered.
The sky featured a few faint stars; the moon, although full, was barely visible, fading in and out of perception. Since the conflagration, the sky was not the same as Dr. Ram remembered it as a young man. Indeed, he had gotten so used to the current situation he had a hard time summoning his old life and the old sky. Constellations were something he recalled: Sagittarius, the Big and Little Dippers, and so forth. The glowing moon of the old sky used to fill him with wonder. His stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten in three days.
As he neared the garbage bin a foul smell—fouler than rotting meat and excrement—caused him to pause and hold his hand over his nose. What the devil could it be? He had smelled some bad things these past few years but nothing quite as vile as this. His eyes watered. He fought back a wave of nausea. The physicists had likely been experimenting with something unspeakable. Dr. Ram could not imagine what that involved, and didn’t want to think about it at length. “That’s awful,” said his inner voice. “That’s absolutely awful. Be careful, man.” Dr. Ram hesitated lifting the hinged lid of the garbage bin. What horrible thing awaited him? Despite his compunction, hunger ordered him to look.
“Hey you!” someone cried from the top of the alley.
Dr. Ram released the lid. “Be careful,” cautioned the voice in his head.
“I will,” he reassured it.
“You find any grub?” asked the approaching intruder, a coarse burnous covering his face and shoulders.
“No,” said Dr. Ram.
“Are you tired?” asked the man.
“Am I tired?”
“You can’t be here now,” said the man. “You should go.”
Dr. Ram thought the statement peculiar. The voice in his head said, “Watch out for this customer, he looks tricky.” Dr. Ram stepped back from the garbage bin. The foul smell overpowered him. He thought he would retch. A burnous would have come in handy at that moment. This man must have been from the north side, where the minarets stood. He moved closer and Dr. Ram felt his bowels twitch. Standing with the garbage bin at his back and the intruder moving closer, Dr. Ram thought of sprinting straight at him and taking him out. “Don’t do it,” said the voice.
“Don’t move,” said the man. “I need to tell you something.”
Wind whistled down the alley, violently whipping about a few dead leaves and paper scraps. Dr. Ram shivered.
“That is a terrible smell,” said the man, drawing closer by the moment. Framed by the burnous, his eyes shone like wet black plums in the light of the station lantern.
Dr. Ram was in a state of nerves. He clenched his fists and held them tight to his sides. He wanted to bolt but his body remained still. He wanted to shout at the man not to move any closer but his lips, trembling automatically, could not shape words. “Get a grip,” urged the voice.
“Now look here,” said the approaching man, his sandals clicking as he walked. He was squat and sloop-shouldered. “I need to have a word with you.”
“I was just leaving,” Dr. Ram managed.
“No, you were not,” the man said. He pulled up in full body, a full head and shoulders shorter than Dr. Ram. “I know you’re hungry. I am hungry, too. Everyone is hungry. You know there are no cats left in the city? That is right, man. By the way, my name is Qaouaji.”
Dr. Ram winced.
“What is the matter?”
Indeed, the name had caused him physical pain when he heard it. Strangest thing. “How is that possible?” asked the voice. Dr. Ram shrugged. How was it possible for the sound of someone’s name to cause such discomfort? Prudently, Dr. Ram did not look the man in the eyes, which was all he could see of his face—those black, gleaming eyes.
“What do you think goes on in that building?” Qaouaji asked with a nod to it, though his tone suggested he knew the answer to the question.
“I have no idea,” Dr. Ram said. “Physics experiments?”
Qaouaji laughed into the foetid wind blowing down the alley.
It occurred to Dr. Ram that he ought to ask the man what he was doing there. “Ask him,” seconded the voice in his head. “But be careful, he may have a knife.”
“Did you come for grub?” asked Dr. Ram.
“Grub?” said Qaouaji, snorting under his burnous. “Do you smell that? I know you came for grub. You have been spotted here before. Oh yes. Do you not think this entire alley is being surveilled? As for my mission, it is not important to probe for explanations at the moment. Do you understand me?”
“Tell him to show his face,” said the voice. Dr. Ram shook his head. The voice annoyed him at this moment.
“What is it?” asked Qaouaji. “Do you have a djinn?”
“Yes, in your head. A djinn. Haha. This has become a commonplace.”
Dr. Ram felt the asphalt shifting underneath him. The garbage bin groaned as the wind raise its lid slightly.
“Ah, the foul scirocco,” Qaouaji said. “It could carry a man away if he does not have his feet planted firmly beneath him. What is your name, man? You must have a name, haha.”
“Punchy, yes—Dr. Ram. And what do you practice, Dr. Ram, medicine?”
“I am—I mean, I was a chiropractor.”
Qaouaji clapped his knee and laughed.
“He’s laughing at you,” said the voice. “I’m not happy with that, are you?”
“Shut up,” Dr. Ram said under his breath.
“I will not shut up.”
“I feel your anguish,” Qaouaji said. “It can get a little unnerving.”
Dr. Ram nodded. He didn’t want to get the voice worked up. When that happened he felt like plunging sewing needles into his ears to silence it.
“So how about an adjustment,” Qaouaji quipped. “My back has been totally killing me since the conflagration.”
“I don’t do adjustments any more.”
“A pity. You have forgotten your craft?”
“I’ve not forgotten it. I just don’t practice it anymore.”
“It’s a sketchy business, admit it.”
Dr. Ram smiled and slapped himself in the ear hard enough for it to smart.
“I protest! Do you hear me? I protest!”
Something moved at the top of the alley. Qaouaji, with his back to it, continued laughing. Before Dr. Ram knew what had happened a large black dog was upon them, a heavy mass of reeking fur and fangs. The dog lunged at Qaouaji and knocked him face first to the asphalt. The dog continued his assault, clamping his teeth down on the back of Qaouaji’s neck, shredding the burnous. Qaouaji shrieked. Dr. Ram froze in terror as the dog ripped away.
“Help me!” cried Qaouaji. “Help me!”
Too afraid to manually detach the dog, Dr. Ram searched the alley for a stick or some sort of object. He found a broken broom-handle with a sharpened end and picked it up. “Don’t do it!” cried the voice. “Don’t help this guy! He was going to kill you!”
Dr. Ram ignored the voice and neared the snarling melee. He jabbed the broom-handle at the dog’s spine, but it barely took notice and continued mauling Qaouaji. Blood now reddened the back of his burnous. Dr. Ram jabbed harder and caught the dog on the flank, piercing its hide. The dog turned to him with gaping jaws and dripping fangs. As it was about to spring, Dr. Ram jabbed the stick again and caught its eye. This only further enraged it. The dog heaved its black mass at Dr. Ram. A confusion of pain and harsh sounds ensued—clicking, growling, screaming.
“I don’t want to die this way!” cried the voice.
Dr. Ram struggled with the beast, grabbing fistfuls of fur and holding it at arm’s length as it snapped its teeth near his face. From the corner of his eye he could see Qaouaji rising in silhouette and stumbling toward them. Dr. Ram heard a sharp whistling and suddenly the dog yelped and leaped off him, scurrying down the alley with its head bowed.
“Are you injured?” Qaouaji asked, extending a blood-covered hand.
Shaken, but not injured as far as he could tell, Dr. Ram accepted Qaouaji’s hand and rose to his feet. He brushed off his clothes and tried to discern Qaouaji’s physical state. He thought that the dog had badly injured him. Indeed, blood darkened his burnous; but he stood there softly rocking from side to side, his black eyes staring on dispassionately from the fold of the burnous.
“Show your face,” Dr. Ram said. “That’s it,” said the voice. “Get him to show it.”
“I show my face to no one,” he said. “I am Qaouaji.”
Once again, the utterance of the name caused Dr. Ram incredible discomfort. It wasn’t just a question of discordance or intolerance. There was something more to it. Was it the man’s voice, perhaps? Its timbre, its pitch?
“I am Qaouaji,” the man repeated.
This time Dr. Ram felt like he’d been hit with a liver punch. He bent over holding his stomach and groaning.
“It hurts?” Qaouaji said. “Yes, I know. The physicists—and many of them call themselves ‘doctor’ like yourself—came up with a radical new weapon. This is a test, and dare I say a very successful one. See, if I utter the name again, you will succumb. And not just that. My voice has been altered. And it is not just any name. That name spoken by this voice is lethal.”
“What is he talking about?” asked the djinn. “I bloody well told you this guy was no good. I told you.”
“Shut up for one second!” cried Dr. Ram, struggling to wrap his head around Qaouaji’s disclosure.
“I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up I will not shut up …”
“Ah, ha. The djinn. I used to have one before I joined the agency. Damn annoying. Always chirping. Did you know that voice, that inner voice of yours, is actually dictated to you from without? Yes. From the mainframe at headquarters. A direct interface, no implant needed. It is not really mind control. But it is meant to unbalance you and keep you continuously guessing, and eventually drive you mad. You have to be mad to continue living in this world. Yes.” Qaouaji touched the back of his head. “I am badly hurt. Ha. I am bleeding out. That dog—believe me that dog was a freak accident. A random thing. I had no idea it would show up so soon. Then again, they are all about, these feral dogs. The authorities had decided to exterminate them but gave up on that idea when they figured the dogs would keep the streets quiet at night, and also take care of any corpses. That son of a cur messed me up good. Look.”
Dr. Ram gasped as Qaouaji turned and showed him his gaping neck wound. Blood oozed out of it. The back of his burnous glistened with blood.
“I guess you can say it goes with my face,” Qaouaji said almost cheerfully. He pulled the burnous away from his face. His lower jaw was missing. In its place was a metallic piston of sorts, with black wiring.
Dr. Ram was so taken aback by this he collapsed to the asphalt, his limbs slack and powerless.
“Get up!” cried the djinn. “Get up!”
But Dr. Ram wasn’t paying attention to it. Conscious but in a stupor, he could hear dogs barking in the distance. They were drawing closer.
Qaouaji nodded his head a few times. Then he said: “Your journey ends here, Dr. Ram. You had no idea it would. A man never really knows when his journey will end. My, it is late.”
“Get up!” cried the djinn. “You must get up!”
But Dr. Ram was now well down the cliff of the existential abyss he had stumbled upon. How could this man kill him with one word? How could any man kill another by repeating a word? What a fiendish conception. Repeating a mere word to kill a man, to extinguish his light. It seemed too monstrous to be real.
“Don’t believe him!”
“And now,” Qaouaji said, closing and opening his eyes, “it is time to kiss the djinn goodbye. Such a curious phenomenon. People will write about it one day. Or not. I know that it is the least of your concerns now.”
“Don’t believe a word he says! Don’t do it!”
“Please . . .”
“My name is Qaouaji,” he said with finality.
Dust swirled. Dr. Ram shut his eyes.
Time passed. Dr. Ram went on being aware of voices he could not understand speaking over him and of being weighed down as if by stones or rocks. A throbbing black silence opened like a hole from time to time, letting in the barking of dogs. So you remain conscious after all, even as they tear you to pieces, even as they devour you, you remain present in some fashion. And this presence—this presence is a direct continuation of all that has gone on before, something that should give you comfort. Suddenly Dr. Ram felt pain—pain and cold. Such cold. His inner voice fell silent—the last thing he heard was someone, in the immediate distance, whistling.
Salvatore Difalco’s work has appeared in print and online. He is the author of 4 books. He splits time between Toronto and Sicily. For more: saldifalco.weebly.com