Aleks had told me about the dreams. About lying awake late at night only to realize he wasn’t.
Awake, that is.
He’d asked about mine next. I remember telling about a recent one, where everything is dark except for a single lamp lighting up the yellow dead-end sign below it. I’m hiding behind a spit-green car with a lighter in one hand and what looks to be a wine bottle in the other. At the count of three, in a language that’s certainly not English, I throw the Molotov Cocktail over the car and wait a long time for a bang that never comes.
“Are they always the same for you?”
Lights off, we’d crashed on his couch, still spinning after the longest night yet. Through our usual fog of comfortable darkness, he told me that none seemed the same except for the feeling of them, like knowing for certain when you’re going to die.
“Oh, and there’s this sound,” he’d mentioned next, “like breaking. Like the sound of shattering glass on repeat.”
I should have listened closer, but exhaustion took me. We’d been too busy at Skip’s. Can’t be blamed of course, in a small town there aren’t a lot of spaces kids like us can go to feel safe. We’re forced to hide in the crevices of houses or otherwise, wearing down floorboard after floorboard with our boredom.
But Skip’s? The place was an open-sky junkyard full of broken inventions, and admission was nothing short of a six-pack. It being late in November, we’d begun to bring more so Skip would let us build pyres out of the yard’s endless supply of rotting mattresses. Towers of cars made faces down on us by the light of each fire, the still-whole ones becoming like hotel rooms, or latrines, depending. And of course, there was the crane.
We’d all taken more than one turn standing under the cement blocks weighted on one end, some nights drunk and hysterical, fearing it was our own name carved in rock between the plates. Some of the braver ones, me and Aleks included, climbed all 45 feet of it one night just to hear the wind howl. Aleks had stayed up there long after the rest, leaving behind a torn piece of his favourite t-shirt dangling from the highest beam, its redness bright against the foggy yellow-grey of the light-polluted sky.
Linds was the one who suggested we start saluting it every night at fire-out.
Still, it wasn’t until two weeks later that some of us went out there again, all arriving at almost the exact same time – me, Lindsay, Aleks, Milo and Doug – our electronic calendars blaring the event’s signal into the evening.
“Did you bring Skip’s beer?”
Doug raises his right hand, twelve cans hanging from his knuckles.
“Skip’s out,” he mumbles, piling our offering neatly on the stoop anyway. With almost no effort he catches his foot half-way up the chain-link fence and basically vaults over. One by one, each of us follow with much more struggle, trying to avoid the clipped barbed wire near the top.
From the looks of it, the pit hasn’t been used since we’d last been there, the remnants of Alek’s old journals – ceremoniously burned – still lying charred along the outer edges.
“Give me a beer before we start the heavy lifting, huh?” pants Lindsay, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her old man’s army jacket. Aleks, nursing a papercut from the brown paper bag, pops the tab before handing one over.
“Really? Guinness? Who the hell veto’d this?”
“Doug’s call this week,” this time it’s Milo, laughing and rubbing his hands together. “Either way, drink it fast, I’m freezing!” he says, fog rising from the heat of his breath.
Once the fire’s going, we stand around idly watching Lindsay fidget with her speaker.
“Can’t it go any louder?” asks Doug. Strangely, the night seems to swallow the sound no matter how high she pushes the volume.
“Didn’t this happen last time?”
Through the first few beers, though, having a muted night seems like a fun idea. Milo gets everyone to pitch for a game of Spit, and things get rowdy. Doug and Linds disappear for their usual, and come back giggling. Still, I can’t help noticing how quiet Aleks is being. He has on his favourite trench of course, the one his Dad had given him the summer before he got killed overseas, but tonight it seems to shroud him; to hide him from the light of the fire.
“Look,” says Milo, pointing up with his pocket knife at the first of the season’s fine snowflakes. Mesmerized, all of us fill with a similar sense of drunken wonder, tracing their patterns through the air and watching them disappear into the flames.
A sound. Like breaking glass. Or many breaking glasses. The trance erased, everyone begins patting themselves down like they’d forgotten what they were supposed to remember.
“You hear that?” asks Doug of Linds, who shakes her head and takes his hand.
“Wait, where’s Aleks?” I ask. All of us look from one to the other, realizing his spot in the circle is empty. As if on purpose, a resounding creak sends shivers down our spines, a million goosebumps covering the napes of our necks.
“The Crane,” I whisper, running toward it. With every footfall, more and more of our lost conversation comes back to me, each word pulsing worry through my veins.
“They’re like murder,” Aleks had said, long after we’d stopped talking.
“Or about it. Like seeing it, and doing it, and being killed all at the same time. It could be a girl with her mother, walking along only to have another kid’s carcass drop from the trees. A carcass I put there. Or it’s some man, shot and drowned and bloated, pushed to the bottom of the sea. One moment I’m him, then I’ll wake up, only to be in another dream filled with heads pitched on stakes, burning flesh, rotting eyeballs. Once the sound comes, snap! I’m out of it. That’s the only time….”
“What?” I’d asked after a too-long pause.
“The only time I know I’m really awake.”
I’m the first to arrive.
Aleks is there standing below the cement blocks, their shadow cast in a tight square around him turning his usually sandy hair pitch black. With every passing second, his coat seems to get bigger on his frame, swaying back and forth in stark contrast to the stillness in his limbs. The chains and screws holding the cement high above suddenly seem as thick as sewing thread, and about as strong. There, waving from the tallest beam is a long strip of red fabric.
“Aleks, can you hear me? What are you doing?” I yell, getting as close as I can without being enveloped by the shadow on the ground. Slowly – our eyes unblinking and fixed on each other’s – he lifts his right hand in salute.
“Did you hear it?”
He says it in a soft voice, one that carries easily on the stillness in the air. And then again:
“Did you hear it?”
Doug and the rest arrive, blatantly pale in the light of the night’s half-moon, their feet pounding hard against the pavement, so loudly that only I hear Aleks whisper:
“Time to wake up.”