The Edge

Mathias stood at the edge of the mesa, looking down its steep drop. The slight breeze pushed passed his face, the last chill of night before warm morning. It sent his coat waving lightly behind him. The cliff had drawn his faded blue eyes toward the darkness that lay below, still obscured and endless in what was left of the night. A void of shadow that waited far below.

Mathias took a steady breath; his eyes closed to the desert morning. The sun had yet to rise. It lingered below the horizon, injecting a warm purple hue out into the dark starry heavens. Pinpricks of distant stars faded to the ever-lightening sky, doomed to soon hide behind the sun.

His hands ached. The arthritic hum and pulse in his knuckles, knees, and arms never seemed to rest. It plagued him awake and throbbed with every slight movement.

An owl fluttered through the night sky, gliding silently over western sands and hiding prey. The diner’s neon pink sign illuminated the flat-top mesa. The quaint building stood behind him, beyond the single runway that ended at the shabby airplane hangar. For miles there existed nothing else that man had touched. Nature stood supreme around Louie’s diner, the speck of an airfield, and the secrets that lie beneath the mesa.

Two pilots loaded supplies on the twin-engine jet. He could hear the older of the two men, McTavish, trying to hurry his still groggy associate. They were on a tight schedule.

In the silence of the encroaching day, he felt it drift near to him, as unavoidable as the rising sun itself. The past. The mist of memory encircled the old man, and he no longer stood atop the mesa. He learned not to resist, what came next would only be worse, should he.

The air around him grew thin, it now stung his skin with a still cold. He’d been here so many times before. He was prepared, as much as he could have been.

His breath fogged, and cold air filled his lungs. He stood ankle deep in fluffy snow. Pine trees loomed in front of him, hiding the unknown in their shaded borders. Rising above their snow-laden tops, the crest of white-capped mountains rested in the distance.

The memory’s sun had risen, half obscured by the mountain peak. Large flakes drifted all around. In the silence of his mind, he heard them landing in the snow with soft impacts. This wasn’t real, he knew, but it had been before.

He waited, letting hope erode practiced defenses. His eyes watered from the chill. The slow wavering snowflakes drifted peacefully. The silence was all he desired while trapped here. It was the best he could hope for.

Footsteps in the snow approached from behind him. Small, timid crunches. He fought the need to look back, he knew what waited.

“Mama?” A small voice asked. It was weak, a strained rasp that didn’t quite possess the strength to speak.

His heart sank. Losing its stoic resilience in the quiet that permeated this place, he turned.

The fence stood tall as ever, barbed wire lined the apex of the barrier. The watchtowers along the fence gazed inward at the camp. Within the towers, soldiers in warm coats stood alert and ever watchful. Rifles were slung over their shoulders, and their bellies were full of food. So unlike those they guarded. Sentinels over the beaten and weak.

His eyes began to tear, the cold playing little part now.

“Mama?” asked the frail voice again.

Mathias’ gaze inevitably found the boy, no older than five years old. He was nearly a skeleton, malnourished and gaunt from starvation, his eyes were sunken and lost. Blue eyes, familiar eyes. He stood in oversized striped prisoner’s clothing, hair shaved short to his scalp. The boy didn’t look at Mathias, instead, through him, at the trees.

Beyond the boy, lay the camp. Rows of longhouses stood, all numbered, and perfectly even with one another. The boy’s trail led back toward a house with the number thirteen painted above the door. Beyond the houses, he saw the other buildings, those with locks and bars and men in uniform roaming their exteriors. Rising out of the tallest building was the great chimney still billowing smoke.

The stench hit him then; a smell he couldn’t forget. The fires within the furnace never ceased burning, not here, not within.

“Mama!?” the boy attempted a hoarse scream and turned from the fence back toward the house marked thirteen. Home.

“Don’t,” Mathias told the boy. His throat clenched and refused to let any other words through.

The boy searching for the owner of the command. He shivered fear stricken in the snow.

“She’s gone,” Mathias managed through his ragged throat. The words came out harsher than he’d intended. His hand found the fence, and he leaned on it before letting his head dip low in old despair.

The boy backed away from the voice he couldn’t find then trudged back toward the camp. With each step his pace quickened, desperate to get back to his mother.

Mathias knew he’d fall. The old man wept.

With a heavy thud and a plume of snow, the boy tripped. He scrambled back onto his bare feet and managed halfway up the wooden steps before falling a second time. He let out a moan of pain, his arms trembled as they picked his frame off the steps and tried to continue further. He faltered but eventually picked himself up and made his way through the door. The shadows enveloped him, and he was gone.

“Mama,” Mathias whispered.

Tears traversed the wrinkles of his face, meandering down the age lines onto his lips. The longhouse sat as quietly as the others. All was again still, and agony washed over him.

He turned from the camp and made his way to the edge of the forest. Thick snowflakes hung motionless in the air, the memory now coming to its close. He stopped short of the tree line and let the sun warm his face.

One more step, he heard from the back of his brain. The boy’s voice. One more and you’re free, free from all of it.

He gazed through the trees, at the endless lines that extended away from him. Once the void provided freedom, but now only offered a calm ceaseless end.

“One more,” he said to himself. He took a deep breath, his lungs filling with the scent of this place, the trees, the cold, the furnace. All of it was home. A wave of peace drifted over him, wiping the agony away, with measured strokes of finality. The world would still turn, whether or not he was here to see it.

They can’t get you in there, said the boy. One more step and they’ll never get you ever again.

Every muscle in his body pleaded for the step, accepting it. His very soul called for it. What lies in the void may not be peace, but it would be as close to it as any man would ever find.

“Not yet,” he told the desert. He opened his eyes to find the sun half risen, it painted the red rocks and sand in golden light. Mathias looked at the edge of the cliff, the toes of his shoes hung over it.  Boulders waited below, now visible in the morning rays. The darkness illuminated and all but endless.

One more echoed the boy from the distant reaches of his mind. He wiped the tears from his cheeks and let the sunrise bathe him in its warmth.

“Sir?” McTavish’s voice turned him around. The pilot waited several feet away, wary of interrupting his superior’s thoughts.

“Jet’s ready Cohen, we better be gone before President Megalos knows where we’re headed.” The man’s voice wavered nervously on the IHA president’s name.

“Don’t worry about Hektor, son. ROAR isn’t going to South America, I promise you that.” Mathias walked from the edge of the cliff, leaving the echo behind. The boy would find him again. When it was time.

“We can hope,” sighed McTavish.

“If I’m wrong, Megalos can kiss my ass then boot me right into an old folk’s home.” He patted the other man’s shoulder, “I’m not in the habit of taking people down with me.”

“Yes sir,” McTavish nodded at ease.

“Lead the way.” He smiled at McTavish somewhat solemnly as they walked toward the jet.

Mathias did not look back.

by:James Romansky