THE SEVENTEEN DAYS – A SHORT STORY BY DARRYL PEERS
These are the seventeen days and we have been told to count them. I bow my head and notice only the steady drone of engines. I clasp my hands together in front of me and screw my eyes shut. I will not let them see my eyes.
Screens. Screens in hands and on walls and in the sides of buildings. Everywhere screens showing men shaking hands with solemn faces and nodding heads. I walked home from work past green lawns and laughing children. The sunset was orange and the light washed over the pavement. I stopped and spoke to people I knew, faces I recognised. I can see them smiling still.
The morning was grey. I knew this too soon – I woke up and the morning was grey. The curtains were open and the bed was empty but for me. I got up and had breakfast and listened to the cold voices on the radio. I couldn’t watch it anymore. I spread a thin layer of butter on toast. You left because you knew I would tell you not to leave anymore. Never to leave anymore. I stared through the glass doors into the garden until I had to go to work.
My phone was ringing. I don’t know why I didn’t turn it off. Why I didn’t turn the sound off. The sound just played again and again. My mum left a voicemail asking me to get on the next plane to see her. But I wouldn’t go without you. I went to work. The automatic doors were stuck and I had to go in the side entrance. My boss shook his head. All of the carpets in there are blue and thin and they were coarse against my skin. I grazed my cheek.
Happy music. I played happy music, ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, because I thought that I would dance. I poured myself a glass of wine. Good wine from Italy. I thought that would make me happy. I read that dancing makes you happy. But it was night-time and cars were driving past. The curtains were drawn. They were light brown, cosy, on the inside, the curtains, but from the outside they were white. I went outside, on to the pavement, and that’s when I saw the curtains were white. But they weren’t white. I pressed myself to the panes and I could see they were not white at all. Off-white. Not white. Pretending to be white. Pretending to be clean.
They said that truth is not truth. I am what they say I am. You didn’t come home, so I turned on the TV. A man with neat hair sat behind a desk and told us it was wrong. He interviewed a man who said it was right. Truth is not truth. Equal is not equal. Man is not man – if he makes certain choices. If he walks a certain path. If he bends from the straight and true. But they write what is true. I was sitting on the edge of the couch and it made my thighs tense. There was a ring on the coffee table. I put a coaster over it.
You came home. You were always going to go away, you said. You needed to feel normal, you said. ‘Did it work?’ I asked. You didn’t answer. Then you said we should run. A man coming home to another man – they would know, you said. They know already, I said. Two men in a house in the suburbs, I said. I wondered why you hadn’t just stayed out there and never come back. I don’t know. I didn’t want to ask. I held you and you felt as good as always. It was enough. I thought maybe that was enough. I wanted to be angry. You were wearing a checkered shirt and the way you tucked it in. It called my eyes to your waist and to hold it and to tell you how beautiful you were. I just wanted to hold you.
I woke and I was warm. Warm from you. Warmth that I felt on the outside and the inside. For a moment I didn’t remember what day it was or where I was and I smiled. I put my lips to your shoulder and let myself feel the flutter in my chest as your attention turned to me. You smiled too. Then the moment was gone. And the day was long. The house was small and the day was long. The voice on the TV, it was all we had, and I hated it. I wanted it silent. Crowds on the streets, surrounded by police officers. Faces like stone. People are free to protest. But the men in the suits, shaking hands and nodding heads. The family cannot be tainted.
I couldn’t sit and wait. I refused to run but I couldn’t wait. I said we should go for a walk. The air dusted my skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake. The wind was brisk. We always went for walks when it was like that. We liked to huddle together against the breeze. You zipped up your jacket and looked up at me with those blue eyes. So blue. So blue and full. So blue I wished I could paint that colour all over my body and never wash it off. I had to look away. To find my boots. Where were my boots? They weren’t where I left them. You found my boots by the front door. I never left them there. We went out the back door and took the path that leads out to the woods from the bottom of the garden. Our neighbours were all indoors or out somewhere.
Cold. We were shivering under a tree. We had fallen asleep in the woods. The brown trunk and the brown earth were around and above us. My arm was dead from having held you all night. My head rested on your chest, your waterproof jacket. We talked a little while before we moved. I was thinking of things to tell you that I’d never told you before – I don’t know if I said anything new. We climbed to sit in the crook of a tree and share stories. We laughed and cried a little too. I remember seeing your breath swirl in the air and wanting it on my face, letting the beads of steam, your steam, settle on my skin. I climbed higher, to the highest branch I could reach. I let the wind batter my face with its relentless blows. You pulled at my ankle and said to come down. So I did.
The sounds of the house – I remember the sounds of the house. The radiator’s creak, the clock’s beat, the fridge’s gentle stir. We turned on the TV. The man behind the desk was back. He was righteously angry. ‘Madness,’ he said. ‘History will not look kindly.’ But then it was six-thirty and time for something else – someone else. Our time was short. Alright, I said. We should run, I said. You kissed me. Before sunrise tomorrow, you said. We packed bags and left them by the door. Next to my boots.
I never thought much of turning out of the street. It’s a quiet junction and you don’t even need to indicate. We were turning out of the street when a van swerved in front of us. You braked as soon as you could. Four men with guns came out of the van, visors over their eyes. They pulled the doors open so hard they must have come off the hinges. They pointed the guns at us. What were we? I screamed. I hated myself. I hated myself but I screamed. I reached for you. They said put your hands in the air but I just wanted to touch you. Once more. Once more. But they had pulled you out of the car. You tried to punch one of them. You aimed for his face, the only skin on show. But they grabbed you and threw you down. The street was empty. It was barely light – no-one saw what they did. But I did – I saw it. They kicked you and they kicked you. They were wearing leather boots. They kicked you until you coughed up blood. Your blood was pooling around you on the street. The street we lived on. The houses stretched away sleepily behind you. You weren’t even moving anymore. They were kicking you and you weren’t even moving anymore. I screamed more. I screamed your name. I screamed stop. I climbed out of the car and I pulled at them. I screamed in their ears. I tried to haul a helmet off one of their heads. To see a face. Eyes. It lifted enough for me to see him. For him to see me. Green. Then he elbowed my jaw and I fell back against the car. The metal was cold.
I was there once before. Your cousin got into a fight with some of the other kids on his street and you came to pick him up. I was alone this time. The room was small and dark and a bare bulb hung on a wire – it didn’t work. The walls were stone and so was the floor. I cried, but quietly so no-one could hear. Shadows sometimes passed the door and I could hear the echoes of voices. But not yours.
I didn’t sleep. How could I rest? Without you. I found a notch out of the stone in the wall. The rest of the wall was smooth, flat. I wondered what power it was that chipped the stone. I put my finger into it and felt the edges of the groove. I pressed my finger against a jagged corner. I pushed my finger against it until it hurt. Until it bled. Until I felt my blood trickle down my finger. It was warm. Warm inside and out. I dragged my finger along the edge until I had to bite back a cry. I turned and sat with my back against the wall. I ran my hand through my hair because I miss you when I realised my blood was all over my finger. It was all over my hair. All over me.
A basketball cage. Court. Brick walls higher than your head and wire criss-crossing way higher. To stop the ball going out. Gritty tarmac underfoot. There were many of us in a line. My hands were cuffed behind my back. Men with guns looked on. At the front of the line they were asking all of us a question. I couldn’t see you. I couldn’t see how you answered the question. I hated what I am long before this day. Before the law hated me. I have accepted it, been honest about it, and lived with it, but I have always hated it. You made it alright. You made me forget the hate. But the man in the Army cap asked me for my answer and the hate came out then. The hate was my answer. I had only a moment and it was all I could find in myself. It was my instinct. He said walk to the right. I walked to the right – to the other men who answered like me.
I thought only of you. Of where you were. I didn’t know where you were. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t even know if you were alive. They gave me a dish with stew in it. I hurled it against the wall. The china smashed everywhere and the shards scattered all over the floor. The man who had brought it stared at me. He looked at me like I was a child who had acted out. A child who didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand why. He was crouching in front of me because I was spread on the floor like a teddy bear. I pushed him with all the force I had and he fell on to his back because he couldn’t keep himself upright. It happened slowly but his weight carried him over. When he was back on his feet he shook his head. He could do what he liked with me. What did it matter? All he did was tell me I chose right and that I’d be better soon.
Back to the cage. The court. There were more men lined up. They put me and a crowd of others over to the right of the queue. Cuffed again. Maybe there were faces I recognised from the day before – I don’t know. I looked only for you. They had given us all synthetic trousers and tops to wear. We looked like school janitors. We were told to watch so I watched the queue. The Army man stood at its head. Then I saw you – there in the queue. You didn’t look at me – but you must have seen me. I almost waved at you. Anything for your attention. But noses of guns were dangling about my ears and I didn’t dare. You hobbled every step, grimaced with every move. Your right eye was half-shut and swollen. My gaze was fixed to your face. They say you can feel someone staring at you, that it burns on your skin. Why did it not burn yours? You know me. You know what I think of myself, of what I am. You would know to turn right. I was sure you would turn right. You got to the head of the queue. Right or left, he said. You did not move. You stayed right there and you stared at him. Your face – beautiful – was defiance: constant gaze, taut jaw. ‘Fuck you,’ you said, and you spat in his face. Then a single gunshot.
‘ – from the bill being passed, to the completion of the purge of this disease which has plagued our streets. Count them.’ He speaks like a teacher addressing his class. ‘This is what is achieved with providence on your side.’
I am a man and I do not feel. I must not feel. To feel is to be weak.
We are lined up on a large tarmac platform – none of us close enough to touch the others. Hands clasped in front of us because they told us to pray. The Army man observes us. My eyes are shut. In the darkness before me I see your face. Before they did what they did to it. I see you smiling.
‘You have all sinned, gravely. But you have chosen the path to repentance. I commend you all for your courage in making this righteous choice. Life will be better now. You can forget your lifestyles of the past and embrace the right way.’
His voice and his steps are even. Steady. He paces up and down the lines of us. We are his to inspect. My left eye blinks open for a brief moment and I see his leather boots in the corner of my vision. Only his boots.
‘Our brave leaders are wiser than I am. They have devised a program which will help you find your way forward.’ Pacing. ‘You will be taken to a Correctional Facility. It will be a shock at first. Many of you may feel the measures are extreme.’ I hear the smile in his voice. ‘But, I believe, in a time yet to come, when we are all judged as equals, you will thank our leaders for plucking you from the damnation for which you were bound.’
I feel his shadow fall over me. I can hear him breathe. I see the gun against your temple.
‘You gonna look at me, son?’
I am not going to look at him. I see you staring at him. None of your hate is inside – it’s all outside. You don’t move. Why don’t you move? You stay where you are and then your lips move. Only your lips. I will not let him see.
‘Open your eyes.’
I see your body go limp. I see it slump to the ground. It.
A mound on the grit. He will not see.
‘I’m not asking.’ His voice was empty. Hard. The drone of engines.
I will not open my eyes. I can see you if I don’t open my eyes. Before they did what they did. You’re smiling. I feel his grip clench on my shoulder. Thick fingers tighten and my shoulder hurts with the pressure. I will not open my eyes. I will not let him see.
‘Open your eyes, faggot.’
I slip to my knees and my shoulder slips from his grasp. I yell out because you’re falling – I’m falling. The noise rises from my stomach and spills out of my mouth like vomit. Hurt out loud. But I do not open my eyes. Not even as the boots set in.