Two Step Program

The lock was busted, so Salguero pressed the sole of his bare foot against the stall door to prevent interruption. The polished aluminum sent chills running up his leg and he was fuzzy on just what had happened to his shoes, but that could wait. Everything could wait. Seven. He hadn’t made a report to his superiors for days and his body ached for it. Three. Numbers kept interrupting his thoughts, but he couldn’t pin down their meaning so he swatted them aside to focus on the only thing that mattered right now.

He cinched the belt tighter. Pressure built in the arm, and to aid it along he pumped his fist. Eager. He didn’t like the way it looked on his blurred reflection, or the shake in his hands as he fumbled with the black clamshell box.

One far-traveler’s kit, taped inside the TP roller in the second stall, just like always. The uninitiated would dismiss what he held as a jewelry box. Ho hum. They’d take one look and assume there was a ring or maybe a pair of earrings inside to compensate for some fuckup, the severity of which would be directly proportional to the number of carats involved.

The air holes were almost invisible if you weren’t looking for them.

He thumbed the box open and when its spring-loaded hinge snapped into place a desire somewhere between love and hunger percolated through him. The cicada lay on its velvet bed, twitch of antennae its only movement until Salguero pinched its plump body between the tingling fingers of his tied-off hand. He felt an uncomfortable kinship watching its upturned legs swim in the air. The same search for some good firm ground under his feet had drawn Salguero through a world increasingly lost to confusion back to this convenience store restroom. He picked up the hypo that’d been taped next to the bug box and gripped the cap between his teeth, slid the needle free. Principal tool of the trade, a custom piece with filigreed silver and the Syndicate’s logo etched into the glass barrel. That symbol, a vertical sprig of ash with seven ovoid leaflets, was a promise– here comes that beautiful feeling.

Steady.

Salguero slipped the needle between the cicada’s curved abdominal plates with expert care. He felt a flash of pride, finding that sweet spot with the bevel even through the ache and the haze of withdrawal. He hooked his thumb through the ring on the plunger and pulled slow, drawing the lovely amber fluid into the barrel until it met the insignia. He could hit that mark with his eyes closed, just by the movement in his thumb. When all else fails, count on muscle memory. The six legs swam faster.

“Nothing personal,” Salguero said, teeth still clamped on the cap.

He moved the needle to his arm, veins now risen to the surface like earthworms under rain. The sting of the bevel brought goosebumps. Salguero pushed the plunger and drained the contents all icy hot into the arm.

As soon as he loosened the belt, the cozy feeling he needed flooded through, the warm friendly rush heralding his immediate departure. Right on cue, the swirling phosphorescent tunnel swallowed up his vision. The world burst. The sensations of plummeting and shrinking took hold in tandem, falling faster and faster into himself. The body was no longer his own but a space he occupied, an expanse growing increasingly vast and foreign as one hundred milligrams of the sweet amber dragged him through a roaring aperture of light.

As Salguero crossed the luminous bridge, his foot slid down the door with a squeal. The cicada fell from his fingers to wriggle its final seconds on the tile, emptied of its prize.

• • •

Salguero arrived in the conference room with the usual sensation of being poured into himself from the feet up. The glow was going strong, pain filed down to nothing already. Free again. He could finally think about something else, something apart from his own ache and soothing it away. Senses afire, he filled with the invigorating scent of wood pulp and the rejuvenating warmth of sunlight, impressions so different from the cramped men’s room he’d just been in that he imagined himself thawing out. He heard in the room with him a familiar hum, a sweet, impossibly three-toned voice weaving a melody he’d come to think of as a lament. The mournful hum twirled over a dense collage of creaks, clicks, and chirps transmitted through the walls from unknown sources. At intervals he heard passages of an enormous birdsong, slow and intricate, that reminded him of the measured announcements of a public address system. Salguero had re-entered a crystalline world and wished he could settle into this moment forever. He knew this place didn’t exist as he saw it, that it was a meeting ground designed by consciousnesses vastly different from his own, but if he had maintained one conviction for himself it was that this was the truest place he’d ever known.

He turned to face his superiors.

They sat in their crude masks and crisp tailored suits behind the length of a shared desk, fashioned from a tangle of twigs and grasses packed with dried gray mud. Behind them, the sevenfold insignia clawed into the wall, along with the words “Ashwood Syndicate.” The entire room had seemingly been carved from one immense slab of wood, its floor a dense carpet of tufts of fur and feathers and leaves. Naked sunlight poured through an immense opening in a side wall, too bright to give Salguero a view of the outside. Owl Sigma sat in the center, Opossum Mu to their right, who endlessly supplied the mournful hum. Milksnake Zeta sat to the left, impossibly still.

“Finally reporting in, Agent Salguero?”

Owl’s voice always had the strange quality of arriving from some great distance. Salguero kept still in their attention, pinned in place by the black holes of their eyes. He’d never seen true faces, only these clay masks that gave the impression of being both empty and alive.

“Totally, reporting in,” said Salguero. The injection took the edge off, but his nerves still jittered around one tiny detail: He’d completely forgotten his assignment.

“It’s been three days,” Owl said, leaning forward with tented hands. Opossum matched the posture in perfect sync. Their understated ties swung like pendulums. Only Milksnake’s head moved, a slight and slow incline.

“Yeah. Three days.” Salguero wished this wasn’t part of the deal, that he could take the trip and not face the bureaucracy waiting on the other side. When after a moment neither of them responded he tried adding, “Correct.”

Owl made a “go on” gesture.

“Well, I got locked up. Nothing I could do about it.”

He explained about resting on a bench downtown, how a squad car rolled up on him tossing the word “loitering” his way. The previous report was still whistling pretty in his veins at the time so he couldn’t do much to disguise the fact he felt damn good, which got him drunktanked. When the processing officer found the needle tracks on his arms they tested him for every drug known to man, which is where they’d gone wrong, right? He headed straight to the convenience store on Virginia Avenue upon release, second stall of the men’s room, like always. What he didn’t tell about was sometime between the last report and now he’d lost the details of his mission in a mental fog growing thicker all the time.

“So what you’re coming just shy of saying, Agent Salguero, is that you have nothing to report?”

Now, why hadn’t he thought of that from the start? “Totally, nothing to report.”

Owl and Opossum swiveled heads to one another then back to Salguero.

“Is this a game to you, Agent?”

“What, no. Of course—”

“Lives are on the line. Old lives.”

“Well, yeah—”

“Viability sequence,” Owl said, curling their fingers like they were asking for a payment of some kind.

“Huh?”

“Recite your viability sequence, please.”

Viability sequence? Salguero tried to dredge up what that might mean, but the term was unfamiliar. With every second he searched for the answer they wanted, his embarrassment and panic dialed higher. He started to speak several times, stopping himself at the first syllable.

After an excruciating silence Opossum touched Owl’s shoulder. Owl nodded and asked, “Agent Salguero, kindly remind us what your orders were when we spoke last?”

Damn. He tried one last time to peer into those holes in his memory. He only found the mounting need he’d felt for the shot. Lives on the line? Rescue didn’t seem like a natural fit for him. Either way, he didn’t have much choice but to admit the truth.

“I don’t … exactly … remember the orders?”

When Owl sighed it reminded Salguero of dry leaves skittering in a breeze. They turned to Opossum. “You were right. This development is poorly timed.”

“What development?”

Milksnake lifted a pointer finger from the desk.

“True, other assets are in play, but resources are dwindling. Not much time left,” said Owl.

“Um, excuse me? What’s poorly timed?”

“Actions and consequences, Agent Salguero. When you signed on we discussed each, and now consequence is claiming its due. The only thing to concern yourself with,” said Owl, “is the task entrusted to you a week ago: Find and eliminate the raider, Edward Faro. If nothing else, remember those words. Say them now, before you slip away.”

Simple enough. “Find and eliminate Edward Faro.”

Salguero felt the tingling upward tug of the return trip coming on.

“Okay, so I’m totally with you. One hundred percent down for it. But who’s Faro? And what do you mean, “eliminate?’”

He had just enough time to see Owl shaking her head before rocketing back to the other side.

• • •

As Salguero’s body and the bathroom around it settled into place, he registered the sound of water spattering against tile. Then, wetness on his skin. He blinked into the harsh glare of the fluorescent light. He saw a figure standing in the doorway of the stall, a balding man wearing a shirt embroidered with the convenience store’s logo. The man pinched his little red dick between two fingers as he pissed all over Salguero.

“The fuck, dude?” Salguero slurred. He tried to jump up from the seat, but hadn’t regained full motor control and lurched off its side.

“Fixing in my bathroom? Get up, out of my store. Out!” the man yelled, zipping up.

He grabbed Salguero by the ankle and dragged him from the stall. The barrel of the hypo still planted in his arm shattered against a support beam. Salguero pawed with his numbed hand until he yanked it free.

“Alright man, get offa me. I’m leaving.” He gripped the sink and hoisted himself more or less upright. Store Guy kept yelling ‘out, out, out.’ Salguero waved him off. He couldn’t exactly feel where his feet met the ground, so walking was more a process of throwing his legs out in front, trusting they’d connect to carry him forward. He cut a mostly straight path through the aisles, only knocking over a couple bags of corn chips. He tugged at his piss-soaked T-shirt, at first just trying to keep it off the skin, but Store Guy on his heels calling him all kinds of names got the better of him, so he peeled it off and threw it to the ground in front of the registers.

“I’m not a junky,” he yelled over his shoulder as he stepped through the hissing automatic door. “I’m a field agent.”

What a way to treat a person, he thought. What’s wrong with people? Luckily, the day was bright and warm. He probably didn’t look so strange walking around shirtless and barefoot. Probably no one would glance twice. Find and eliminate Edward Faro. Some point soon he’d need to figure out what that actually meant. He oriented himself and headed toward home, the single-story squat on Industrial Boulevard. He crossed his arms tightly, to avoid looking suspicious with his tracks and all.

That business in the store was unpleasant but lasted only a moment, the shadow of a passing cloud. Right now, heart pumping under this blue sky, breathing in all this daylight, this was it, the state of being Salguero craved. This gorgeous moment.

Right, now.

He lived for the present in general, though not as any kind of lofty principle. He only ever had “now” and it came in two flavors– this feeling or chasing this feeling. He thought of himself as an edited piece of film, living a few frames at a time, the rest trimmed at the edges. A phantom life tingled at the site of the cut, but every time he reached for it he came up empty and empty was a no-good feeling to be filled at every opportunity.

Still, he sensed people on the other side of those edits, vague impressions of people who’d moved through his life before enlisting. He thought he must have loved them. This because though he couldn’t see them or name them he felt the connections, sturdy threads of guilt, even when he wished he couldn’t. Especially then. Each little tug screamed of fucking up, so he gratefully floated through the one and only now.

When he reached the squat, he found Lindsay leaning against the questionable railing of the back porch, smoking one of the expensive slim black cigarettes he never asked how she could afford. She was his only housemate at the moment and they’d gotten along pretty all right in the couple weeks she’d been there. As squats go, the house was ideal: well off the road, covered by a decade of overgrowth from the front and only a short walk from the rail line in back, which made the spot popular with the younger train-hopping crowd coming off the CSX. Not a questioning bunch, which made it easier. He couldn’t precisely recall what kind of classified info he’d picked up in the field, but better safe than sorry.

“You piss yourself, or what?” Lindsay said as he walked by.

“Not mine,” he said.

“And here I’ve been thinking you don’t know how to party.”

He went inside and dug through his shabby duffel. His possessions were few and he wasn’t attached to the little he had. Everything he owned came by way of the Mission on Center Street– nothing from before, no relics from a past life. Sometimes he wished a clue remained, but only when the amber in his veins dried up, the really low times. He found a clean shirt, a change of pants, but still no sign of his shoes. He had the cheap rubber flip-flops he wore around the house, though.

When he rejoined Lindsay, the amber’s amplifying effect on his senses enriched the plume of smoke she emitted with a hundred variations of scent. The dry cloth and light breeze on his skin filled him with a pervasive sense of contentment.

“Been a minute. Thought you might have finally moved on, one way or another,” Lindsay said, sitting on the top step now.

“Got picked up. Spent a few nights at the Five O Hotel.”

“Fancy. They’ve got a Michelin star, right?”

He nodded, smiled.

“S’what you get though. Gotta stop going on those Sunday strolls after you load up. Discreet’s not exactly your thing, you know?”

Salguero squinted at her.

“Whoa, relax. The fuck do I care?” She blew a thin blue stream between her lips. “Just saying, the way you get it’s no surprise. Need to establish a relationship with your inner secret agent. For your own good.”

Did she know? What were the odds of a coincidence, of choosing just those words? Maybe he’d said something before. Maybe. Not voluntarily, right, because he was a professional. But in his sleep, that was a possibility. Maybe she crept over close to him asleep just to listen to him whispering about his fieldwork? Or, just a coincidence, a figure of speech. Wait, was she in on it? Was she working for the Syndicate, too? Maybe he already knew the answer and it was an openly traded fact between them. He couldn’t remember.

“Inner secret agent?”

“Yeah, you know, Secret Squirrel,” she said.

“Secret Squirrel.” He tried to say the words with confidence, in case they were some kind of code or passphrase. Seemed to work because she just sat on the top step, inhale, exhale.

“What you got going today?” she asked.

“Thinking of going on a stroll,” he said.

She laughed. Full on, lying back on the porch holding her stomach, her smoke coming out in quick jets like a steam engine. When it subsided she called him an asshole and asked if he minded company. He shrugged.

They ambled through the surrounding neighborhood of beige eight-story housing projects that hadn’t changed noticeably since the Reagan administration. Past the electric company with its litter of oversized spools that often disappeared overnight only to manifest the next morning as outdoor furniture in someone’s yard. Salguero said maybe they needed a spool for the squat. Lindsay said knock yourself out, but she wasn’t hauling anything back all that way. Besides, she wanted to keep her hands clean. Salguero took that literally, then, on second thought, figuratively, wondering just what the hell she was getting at. Then, eyeing her loose-bodied shuffle, he settled on literally. For now.

Salguero was really loving the way he could hear every inch of the rubber on the wheels of passing cars sticking to the road and feel the coordination of the muscles involved in his movement as a continuous convulsive wave. There was living and there was being alive. It was so good before the sick came creeping in, worth it. He suggested they head over to Constitution Park and maybe walk the nature trails. She didn’t call it a lame idea.

When they arrived, his notion of a tranquil afternoon in the park met with local TV crews canvassing a group of protesters gathered at the edge of the woods, right where the footpaths started. The protesters scowled into the cameras pointing to their printed shirts and signs that said “Hands Off My Ash.”

“Guess Plan A is out,” Lindsay said.

“Guess so. Head to the overlook?”

Lindsay whatevered with her shoulders. They passed a disinterested reporter holding a microphone out to one of the protesters.

“…certain developing this land will further endanger the park’s population of Hurlicher’s Ash, an already scarce species native only to this region of Western Maryland. An entire niche of our regional ecosphere is on the line. Research shows that the century cicada subsists exclusively off Hurlicher resin, and the cicadas in turn …”

Salguero and Lindsay found their way to the graveyard of decommissioned vehicles the park service labeled as the “museum area”– an exhausted Chevy fire engine, a train caboose, the shell of a P-80 jet, and a stripped down M56 tank, all set on a hill overlooking a broad swathe of used-up town. They climbed onto the P-80’s wing and stared at clouds. The wing’s surface was pleasantly warm and Salguero closed his eyes.

“You know what all that was back there?” he asked.

The sound of Lindsay rolling her thumb three times over the flint of her lighter, then a small crackle and the slight kiss of the cigarette being pulled away from her mouth. “Dunno. Save the trees, sounded like.”

“Yeah. Save the trees.”

“Oh shit!” Lindsay said. “Check out those chemtrails, man. Straight up chemtrails.”

Salguero peeked an eye open and saw two fluffy vapor trails intersecting overhead. “Come on, you don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?”

“Uh, hell yes I do?”

“What, like somebody’s gassing us all into obedience or something?”

He felt her shift, could feel her looking directly at him. “Do you really feel in control of your own life?” she said.

He opened his mouth to say “yes” or “of course” but the words caught in his throat. Again, he wasn’t sure whether she was playing a game or not. The longer the silence lasted, the more he understood that his most honest answer was no. He decided to change the subject.

“Hey, you know anybody named Pharaoh?”

“Pfffft,” was Lindsay’s answer.

• • •

The next day, when Salguero put his hands to the window, Store Guy spotted him right away, came charging around the counter saying “no” and “call the cops.” Salguero took off, hating the slap, slap, slap underneath him. There was no dignity to be found running in flip-flops.

All right, so he’d have to watch and wait. Store Guy couldn’t always be there from open to close. The urge to report itched a little, but not so bad he had to scratch. In the meantime he could see to his orders, do something with a pharaoh. Yeah? Pretty sure.

• • •

Another day.

Okay, so Store Guy basically lived there. Funny how he’d never noticed before. Bottom line, Salguero wouldn’t be waltzing into the bathroom anytime soon. The thought made his stomach cramp up. Or maybe he’d been having cramps and this just made it worse. He sat on the sidewalk a block down from the store. Streaming with sweat, constant bounce in his legs, but he couldn’t stop, like his body wanted anything else but to sit still.

He doubted disguise would work. Store Guy would likely be on his guard after seeing Salguero return so soon. At least for a couple days, and Salguero couldn’t wait a couple days; he’d go certified batshit by then, with the pins and needles already creeping into his arms and legs. So that left breaking in. Fine, whatever. He just needed that feeling back, the amber making the world more true and alive around him. He’d wait until nightfall and when the store was locked up he’d report in. Maybe find out what he was supposed to be doing, if he could get the info without giving away that he’d forgotten. He kept fixating on the number three, but it only floated loose in his thoughts, disconnected from any significance.

Hours later, Salguero crouched behind a newspaper bin, watching Store Guy lock up and leave. All his joints felt like they’d been torn off and reattached with hot glue. He counted out fifteen minutes a second at a time, an agony of impatience. He’d been rolling a chunk of concrete around in his hands for a couple of hours. By the time he launched it through the plate glass he thought of it as an object he knew intimately well– its shape, its heft, the arrangement of the pores on its surface. In the narrow space between letting go of the rock and its contact with the door, Salguero felt a twinge of recognition in watching it tumble out of his hand toward a crash. The screech of the store’s alarm came right behind the falling glass. Not much time. Salguero bolted for the bathroom.

The door boomed against the wall when he shouldered it. In the second stall he pulled the metal cover of the TP roller off, flipped it over. Clamshell box taped to the inside, just like always. No hypo, but he’d figure that out later. He tore the box free and booked it for the hole he’d made at the front of the store. Just having the bug box in his hand warded off some of the discomfort.

Salguero knew that when Store Guy showed up and the cops walked him through what they found- registers untouched, no missing inventory, only the second stall ransacked- he’d figure who to blame. Something else for later. All of it for later. After.

Step one: Get right again. Step two: Figure out the rest.

He ran six blocks, ducked into an alley, then scrunched small as he could against a wall on the far side of a dumpster. He held the box up in the faint yellow streetlight, flicked it open just to check, just to make sure. Seeing the cicada sit fat and heavy on its tiny cushion got his arm shaking, so he held the box cupped in both hands like the offering of a prayer, as he’d seen one saint or another doing in a painting. He re-imagined the streetlight as rays of blessing upon the last living shred of beauty in the world.

But no hypo. No hypo. No hypo. Shit, he wanted it though. Okay. Get right. Now.

He gave the little guy a careful pinch. “Sorry,” he said.

The feeling spread slower from his stomach than it did when he shot, but he was tumbling into himself within half a minute, ready to report.

• • •

There, finally, the distillation. The calm.

Beautiful zero, baseline, just total honest being, waiting for him like always.

The very first taste was lost to him, the first trip, the first meeting here in this impossible place, even the first mission. But goddamn, he remembered this feeling, this homegoing. He really only had this mission.

The first difference he noticed was the quiet. No birdsong, no forest chatter, no humming. Then he saw his superiors gathered together. Owl rested a hand between the bulbous red eyes of an enormous cicada perched on the desk. Opossum held Milksnake’s head in their palms, whose body curled around Opossum’s like a bandolier.

“Agent Salguero. Here to deliver a final report.” Owl’s attention remained on the insect.

“Final?” A heavy word, dimming his glow.

“Afraid so,” Owl said. The cicada chittered and Owl gave a reassuring pat. Its short antennae brushed against their hand in a way that reminded Salguero of a cat leaning into a leg.

A final report sounded important, something he should be prepared for. In the quiet he noticed a low rumble, not only under his feet but throughout the entire room.

“Trouble remembering your orders?”

He tried to laugh casually. “What? No way, I-”

“You’re not to blame,” said Owl.

“I-I’m sorry, not following?”

“It’s a side effect. Tragic. And universal, unfortunately, to every human asset we’ve employed.”

Was the shaking of the room getting worse? The leaves and feathers strewn across the floor jittered.

“Memory loss, progressively worse over time. All the more regrettable since as a species your memory is already markedly deficient. Do you recall your viability sequence?”

Viability sequence? Salguero tried to think what that might mean, but the term was unfamiliar. With every second he searched for the answer panic dialed higher.

“It’s a seven-digit passcode you memorized when you signed on, a measurement of consequence. It’s why we run a piecemeal operation, small tasks completed by individual agents– extraction, production, runners, field agents. Specialization, Agent Salguero. Maybe that’s where we’re destined to go wrong, sticking to niches while your kind spills across every boundary.”

“You’re saying it’s the amber made me this way?”

“Funny, the names you come up with. For the longest time we were convinced it was an illness, a naming disease. But yes, the particular way the resin is metabolized by our dear kin here. Refined and then passed on. Remarkable, but something of a mixed blessing as you can now see.”

The truth landed hard, confirmation of his itching suspicion of being partial, of being less than he’d once been.

“Far from perfect, but the only method of contact we’ve managed to find, and outreach has been a priority for quite some time. The first connection was accidental, if you can imagine. A child. He found one of our dear kin clinging to low bark and popped it straight into his curious red mouth. After watching for so long, finally being seen in return came as a shock to us. Though we fared better than the child. Poor thing.”

The cicada on the desk fluttered its wings and chirped meaningfully. Salguero found it hard not to imagine the deep reservoir of fluid held within its plump body.

“And we are grateful and honored by your sacrifice. All of it,” Owl said. Then they and Opossum both bowed to the cicada. The insect bent its forelegs and then rattled into the air to disappear through the room’s bright opening.

Their words and the ceremony of their actions disturbed Salguero. Everything different this time and his precious peace was nowhere to be found in the rearrangement. Six empty eyes fell on him.

“That leaves you, our last active agent.”

He really didn’t care for those words “final” and “last” getting tossed around. A knot settled in the pit of his stomach. If it were true it meant no more amber, no more traveling, no more feeling things as immediate and beautiful and real. No more being alive.

“It can’t be over,” he said.

“For what it’s worth, your dedication honored us.”

Another familiar feeling seeped in from beyond the fog. “I fucked it up, didn’t I?”

The room trembled. Owl stepped carefully around the desk and grasped his arms. The physical effect of their touch was a shivering exhilaration, running through rain.

“We know you did everything you could. We thank you.”

Whether it was the contact between them, or the words, or his belief Owl meant them, Salguero cried.

“I can still do…something. Stop whatever this is.”

“All our efforts have failed. We’ve tried to adapt, to pick up the tools of our enemies, but too late. Your kind can do so much so quickly.”

The room rattled their voice.

“It can’t end. I need this.”

“This station is compromised. They’re already upon us.”

“There has to be something we can do. Anything. I need it.”

One of Milksnake’s arms peeled out of its coil.

Owl shook their head. “No. He’s not strong enough for it.”

“For what?” Salguero asked.

Opossum reached their hand out toward Owl.

“We can’t. We’ve asked enough of him already,” Owl said.

“What? What is it? I’ll do it.” He didn’t care what the others had suggested. Anything it took for just the chance to keep going.

He heard Owl’s leaf-skittering sigh as Opossum came around the desk.

“Whatever it is, I’ll do it. I can do it. Come on,” he begged.

Opossum grasped his other arm. Milksnake slithered free of Opossum’s body and wound around them all, tighter and tighter.

“Very well, Agent Salguero,” Owl said against Salguero’s ear. “Carry us a while.”

A series of cracks split the air. First came a slow tilt Salguero tried to lean against until all four of them slid across the ground. Then the weightlessness of falling. He braced for an impact that never came. By the time the conference room splintered to pieces he’d disappeared.

• • •

Lindsay stamped across the room after Salguero, truly pissed. Doesn’t matter, he thought. Nothing matters except the mission. Everything was different, looked different, sounded different. Smelled. Tasted. Felt all through his body, different. More. So many colors he’d never seen, light doing new things to the world around him, or old things he’d never been equipped to discover. He held Lindsay’s handbag tight under his arm while he clawed through her things.

“Drop it. I swear to god, Sal.”

He flicked his tongue against handfuls of clothes then tossed them aside, mining the layers of stuff. Hunt. Find. He didn’t know what he sought but counted on knowing in the moment. He scurried into the next room hoping to get enough distance between them to get to the bottom of the bag. All Salguero knew for sure was the urgency screeching growling hissing under his thoughts, his body telling him something big was on the line. Listen to the body. Instinct speaks in movement. Listen.

“You know I’m not fucking around,” Lindsay yelled. She grabbed his shoulder. Instinct screamed, swung his arm back at her full force, knocking her flat to the hard wood floor. The wind left her lungs in a clipped groan.

Salguero found the bottom. When his fingers brushed against the bag’s nylon he felt both relieved and further panicked. On one hand, she wasn’t holding out, on the other, she didn’t have what he needed. Had to keep hunting. Where? Everywhere.

Something shattered against the back of his head. He fell immediately, clapped his hands down on the pain.

“Warned you, man. What. Is. Your. Deal?” She shoved fistfuls of her belongings back into the bag. “You’re a trash-ass person right about now. Outta your head, wigging all the way the fuck out. Don’t know what you’re on but I know where it’s headed, and I’m not sticking around for that.”

He heard her walk away, stop, come back. “And if you ever put your hands on me again I’ll fucking end you,” she said above him.

Then her footsteps got softer again. “Clean up, man. Before you can’t.”

She was out of sight by the time Salguero opened his eyes again.

• • •

Another day.

Salguero wandered through the park, rubbing his arms. Too cold, no fur no feathers. Too warm, no shadows. Hurt to move, but he just couldn’t keep still. Streaming cold sweat. He thought the way his body felt was maybe how landscape felt in a drought, his veins like dried up creek beds. A desiccated and cracked and brittle way of being.

Hunt.

Constellations of a new kind of brightness glowed around him, in the branches, in the grass. Every breathing thing called to him with light. He needed a certain kind of light. Urges to leap free of the ground, perch up high, crawl under everything and dig for light. Urges to get high and get low. A web of sounds pricked his ears. Find. He followed.

He entered a crowd spilling from the entrance of the park’s nature trails. He scented them, he searched their light. One of them drew back as he passed.

“Ugh, dude, what is on your mouth?”

Salguero wiped at his lips. A translucent wing glittered on the back of his hand. He’d been trying everything.

Step one: Get right. Step two: Figure out the rest.

Get right, get clean. Get, get, get.

He’d rather be right than clean any day.

He sensed tension in the bodies around him. Most stood facing the edge of the woods. Or, where the edge of the woods used to be. Now just an absence, clear cut negative space. The green he’d known was now a patch of dusty brown acrawl with hulking yellow machines behind a shining chain link fence. Urges to scream, to mourn. Salguero heard one man’s voice over the web of others, carried by microphone. A mixture of applause and jeers filled every break in his speech.

“What’s this?” Salguero asked a sign holder. His voice was slippery, hard to control.

“That asshole Faro’s taking a victory lap,” they answered.

The word rang like and alarm. “Who’d you say?”

“Faro. As in Ed Faro, the guy whose bougie condos are apparently more important than protected species and parkland.” The sign holder gave Salguero an up-down. “You know, it’s apathy like yours that allows this kind of thing to happen. Hope you’re happy.”

That word, a name, a man not far away. Hunt, instinct growled, hunt.

Salguero pushed his way to the front. He saw the name everywhere around him now, on metal signs along the fence, on the earthmoving machines. A brand. A stamp of ownership. Instinct said faster, eyes open. When he finally saw Faro he filled with something like a hit of the amber, a trace of the excitement of senses he’d been craving. The light he’d been looking for. The man talked about the economic boon his development would provide the struggling community and Salguero stood mesmerized by the long strands of his silver comb-over lifted by the wind every few seconds as he spoke, like a gauge.

Behind Faro he saw the scar of upturned earth through the fence. Excised stumps of old growth trees were piled nearby and through the fog of forgetfulness he connected this feeling with the misery of his body. Faro. Everything else missing, but he recognized that one word blaring all around him. The tree stumps, the pain, the man– a thread ran through these, bound them together.

Instinct said talons out. He charged the stage and had Faro on the ground quickly. Prey. Faro’s soft papery throat strained under his hands. The grind of the man’s larynx as he tried to scream reminded Salguero of a shaking he’d felt before. Instinct said constrict, and Salguero squeezed tighter. Under his thumbs a snap like a crisp piece of celery breaking. Other hands on him, trying to pull him off, but his body had never been surer.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to get right. He’d rather be right than clean.


Jason Baltazar is a proud Salvadoran American. He received his MFA from the University of Kansas, where he is currently pursuing a PhD focused on speculative fiction and postcolonial studies. His work has appeared in Boston Review, F(r)iction Magazine, and other venues. For more info, please check out his website: www.jasonbaltazar.com.