Fiction by Redfern Jon Barrett
His name is Mr. Beard. It’s a name he gave himself, as good as any other. There was another name, before, but that was for someone else. Someone with a mortgage; someone with a real, living partner.
Then he became Mr. Beard. Not very inventive, he knows, but he’s not trying to impress. Yes, yes, there had been a beard before: short and neat, the kind of beard for someone with co-workers, someone with neighbours. A beard for when Florida was a state, rather than this untamed territory with all its wild creatures. Now wild tangles sprout from his chin and cheeks, curly and splayed.
But! Mr. Beard tells himself. You’re moving to a princess’s castle, and this wild scraggle is no beard for a princess.
An idea! He jigs with excitement. His knife still sharp, the blade glints his reflection as he lifts it to his face. Roots tug his skin as he slices through the knots.
Tangled hair swirls about in the breeze, the dance of soft birds. Tufts flutter all over: to the broken tarmac, to the muddy slopes that line the ruined highway. The tufts swirl all around his body, like an enchantment.
Finished: his beard is short once more. Short and neat. Neat enough for royalty. He gathers up his things and continues his lonely hike, on along the highway.
On toward the theme park.
On toward his castle.
There it is! But it doesn’t look the same. Even from so far afar, even through the afternoon’s murk. Mr. Beard remembers it from his childhood, from the television. He knows the windows didn’t used to be broken. He knows the walls weren’t a mess of crumbled concrete and torn fibreglass.
He doesn’t know whether to shriek with giggles or start weeping, so he giggles. As he walks, his legs tremble. He’s walked halfway over Florida.
Mr. Beard stops at the theme park’s gate. Tall bars deny entry. No giggling now; now he sets the stolen decomp, now it whirs to life. He watches it disassemble the bars, bars that shrink like slurped spaghetti as they dissolve to base components—iron, trace materials—leaving a small red-black brick in their place.
He leaves the brick behind; he enters the park. Once, guards (angry men) would have stopped him, protecting this ruined kingdom. But they’re gone, long gone. They don’t like storms, see; they don’t like the ground sinking.
Now the broken castle will be his home; now the theme park kingdom is his. His to take down, bit by bit by bit-bit-bit. The whole walk there he hadn’t seen anyone at all. No one. So it’s his.
Now he weeps.
When you grieve, you grieve for yourself. He knows that now. Why didn’t anyone talk about it? Why had no one prepared him? You’re not you, not really. Who you are is who surrounds you; who you are is other people. If they go away, so does that part of you. If they go away forever, that part of you goes away, and it’s forever. Why had no one told him? No one had told him how much would be gone.
Mr. Beard surveys his kingdom through shattered glass, from the castle’s high perch. The sky swirls yellow-yellow-grey above the stalks of storm-strewn trees. Ruins stretch toward the gates. He spies the twisted metal rides; torn marquees wave to him through the swampy floods.
Turning from the window, he regards his things spread over a stinking mattress. It was clearly fancy, once, the Cinderella suite, high up in the castle. Now it’s all broken mirrors and rotted roof beams. The storms have swept the suite for years, marking walls with mold and gnarling wooden furniture—a schmaltzy medieval fiction now weathered real, gales and rains beating it back to the Middle Ages.
Carefully, he places a multi-coloured bricklet atop an old dresser. The little brick is white and red, brown and black: bands of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, calcium, phosphorus.
He kisses Mr. Bricklet, gently. He welcomes Mr. Bricklet to their new home.
“Do you like it?” he asks.
Mr. Bricklet replies (in his head, only in his head):
The long truth is, he doesn’t know. It isn’t about like or dislike, not any more. It’s about what is, and what isn’t.
They’d been drowning, all those years ago. In a lot of different ways, they’d been drowning. So sure and so slow, they hadn’t even realised. How could they, with how nice it all was?
Only it hadn’t seemed so nice, not back then. All they’d been able to afford was a one-bed, one-storey prefab on the suburb’s edge. They’d had long hours and long commutes and stress headaches. Debted up to bloodshot eyeballs. But, oh, there’d been coffee, hot and sweet. Coffee and bacon and sausages that flooded his mouth with spit. There’d been central heating and air conditioning and unbroken windows. There’d been a car. There’d been two of them, him and husband.
The husband’s name? Old names are for old worlds. But in the years since he’s called him Mr. Bricklet.
Mr. Bricklet had worked nights, Mr. Beard days. But in the precious gaps between shifts they’d had each other. Whole hours of touching and talking and arguing over bills, eating fast food. They’d kept afloat, just about; they hadn’t realised they were drowning—that they were all drowning, in stress and car exhaust and meat.
Sometimes the thing least visible is the thing most around. A house so flimsy the wind could knock it down.
The sun rises, spreading its golden glow over the park. It’s time to work, because even a lonely princess must work. The decomp has wheels; Mr. Beard carries it down the concrete stairs and takes it through the non-stop wind, drags it across rutted tracks.
Salvageables lie all around, but he has time in plenty. What to take down, break down first? It’s a symbolic choice, and he’s been alone long enough to know the power of symbolism.
He finds it! A battered building boasts tattered words. A WHOLE NEW WORLD. It’s a little obvious, but it will do. Outside is a fibreglass man. Tanned skin, brown eyes. The fibreglass man is stood atop a magic carpet.
The man is painful to look at. The man makes a cramp in Mr. Beard’s stomach.
So he sets the decomp whirring. Teeny-tiny machines begin their harvest, attacking the handsome man’s lifeless skin, unravelling the weaves of plastic resin.
The cramp is like a stab wound; tears stream down Mr. Beard’s face as the handsome man unwinds.
He watches the face decompile: wide eyes sink without smearing; the mouth melts without weeping. It simply becomes less, and he cannot keep from watching.
Gone are the fibreglass shoulders; gone is the fibreglass chest. The decomp breaks the plastic hands into compounds, into base elements. When there are enough, he’ll drone-deliver the recycled materials, and they’ll sail away across the sky. Drips of money will trickle back, but what would he spend it on, with no shops, no people? Money is just a high score. Numbers for points.
The legs go last.
And so the stolen decomp bleeps. The handsome man is gone, packed away into another neat bricklet.
You can’t know yourself when you’re alone. There’s no you.
Mr. Beard had loved Mr. Bricklet, all those years ago. Not at first, though, not right away: it was a love that had built, bit by bit by bit-bit-bit. With every snatch of eye contact, with every lingered touch. The love gave Mr. Beard a sense of shelter, a stability he’d never known. Mr. Bricklet loved Mr. Beard without condition.
None of their parents had come to the wedding, but Mr. Beard and Mr. Bricklet didn’t care. There were friends, there was laughter, and they’d been happy with that. There were no children—they could never afford to raise children—but they’d found all the family they needed. Even with the stressful days and long hours, the commutes and headaches. They’d scrimped and saved and bought a house together.
It had been their castle, that one-bed, one-storey prefab along the suburb’s edge. They’d paid for it in backaches and sweat, yet within its walls were soft touches and quiet joy. The promise of the day’s end.
But then the storms got worse, swamping Miami and submerging the shores. People started to leave, in boats and buses, abandoning kitchenware and sofas. It was for the best, they’d said, the neighbours and friends who were going-going-gone.
Mr. Beard had bought storm shutters; Mr. Bricklet had drilled them to the windows. How could they leave, when their home was all they had? It was their sweat and tears; it was their love. They’d collected sandbags, kept them by the door. Sandbags, just in case.
When Mr. Beard shifts in sleep, the stinking mattress spills spores into the air. When a bad dream jolts Mr. Beard upright, the spores rise about in mystic clouds. They settle on his skin.
It’s dark, but not dark enough. Mr. Beard stands, charcoal feet on broken tiles. He walks to the window and squints past glass shards; beyond the ruined rides a red glimmer glares, over from the south.
The light promises anger. Anger that takes over if even a little gets in: anger that flows from the heart to right down your legs. Up into your skull. Your eyes. The wind howls this anger, carries it to the castle. Mr. Beard draws the mouldy blanket about his skinny shoulders and lanky limbs. He shivers.
Anger comes from inside, he reminds. Inside. He often forgets: it feels like anger flies in from far away, blown by a terrible breeze. It’s hard to believe it comes from himself.
If the red glow isn’t anger, what is it?
Light means people, but there are no people here. There can’t be. All the people have gone.
Mr. Beard jumps onto the bed, pulls the blanket up over his face. He waits until the daylight, shivering all the while.
You weren’t always so scared, Mr. Bricklet says.
“You weren’t always so dead,” Mr. Beard replies.
Mr. Beard spends the day with the decomp, with its whirr. It’s a rare cloudless time, and the hot sun beams. He drags the device with one hand and an umbrella with the other, shading his skin. Sunlight sparks against lakes and rivers, water that winds around the theme-park kingdom. Rotten rooftops peek through.
Mr. Beard sticks to the shadows and decomps from dry land; the tiny machines do their work. A lamppost shrivels shorter and shorter. Then another. All replaced by neat bricklets.
Splintered benches, rusty hot-dog stands. A medieval cottage, concrete as the castle. Flowerpots, candy kiosks, garbage cans—all are harvested to base materials. He trundles and trudges until his legs are sore, until the clouds gather and the sun sinks beneath mud-fuggy sky.
At night the distant red glow glares once more. Mr. Beard sleeps in fits and starts, but the glow is there each time he drifts, each time he wakes. The light must be deliberate; it must mean strangers.
Hurricanes swept the state, one after the other. People left in planes and suitcase-stuffed cars. Co-workers dwindled until the offices closed. So Mr. Beard and Mr. Bricklet ate canned food and watched the reports: the crowded tent cities in Tennessee and Arkansas, the arson attacks by angry locals. Where could they go? What would they do? They weren’t refugees; they had a home. They had shelter in each other.
But then the canned food ran low; then their stomachs growled. There had to be somewhere open, some out-of-the-way store. One last time they left the house. Mr. Beard locked the door. They drove the silent streets, glanced away from boarded-up windows as rain spotted the windshield.
Surely someone was left.
(When had everyone gone?)
They peered through the darting wipers, but there was no store. Not anywhere. Together they drove around their ghost town, then the next, then the next, swerving around fallen trees and overflowing drains. They drove through the dark, spoke only in snatches of eye contact, until they finally saw the truth: it was over. Everywhere had been abandoned.
Rain pounded the roof, the windshield. Mr. Bricklet placed his hand on Mr. Beard’s shoulder as he turned the car homeward.
The next day is a howl of rain. Mr. Beard spends it indoors, inside an old house haunted with ghosts and goblins. The haunted house ride is big, and he spends all day salvaging; plastic zombies and fibreglass witches vanish before his eyes. Dusty dining tables and shattered chandeliers. Again he has his umbrella, to shield him from the rooftop holes, from the day’s insistent deluge.
Portraits, candelabras, pianos, clocks.
The rain still pours as he exits the haunted house—blank grey sheets of rain, coating his eyes, blurring all the world.
Mr. Beard goes to his musty bed exhausted, but still the distant light remains. It’s growing, up from the south horizon. Who is it? Who could be intruding?
Sleep comes in snatches, broken by the red glare. It stabs through his eyelids.
He wakes early, hugs his skinny self and glances all around, around and around, vigilant in the dark. The far-off glow is menacing, a threat from foreign lands. He cradles Mr. Bricklet, his bar of white and red, brown and black: bands of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, calcium, phosphorus—the base parts he’d so loved.
Isn’t it obvious?
“Isn’t what obvious?”
Mr. Beard, dear thing. They’re here to take your kingdom.
“But it’s mine! You said there’s no one else. No one.”
Mr. Beard, are you frightened?
“Honest? Full honest? More than ever.”
I know, baby, I know. You weren’t always so scared.
“Stop that. Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
Mr. Beard, you have to meet them. You have to see what’s there.
“But I’m scared.”
I know, baby. I know.
“Not just for myself.”
Home wasn’t far. They drove along the empty highway, through ghost town after ghost town, wheels churning water. As they drove, they talked; they agreed. When they got back to the house, they’d pack up their things, find some new life. Even if it was just a tent in a refugee camp, it didn’t matter, not really, not if they had each other.
The car swerved with growing winds. But there was nowhere to stop.
There was no shelter.
Mr. Beard cannot recall the next moments. He just remembers loud noise and mangled steel.
The way the crumpled car cradled the man he loved, the way it crushed his chest.
He remembers how he held Mr. Bricklet’s hand when he couldn’t breathe, how he still held it long after it had gone cold.
Old names are for old worlds. But the truth is, Mr. Beard can’t remember his husband’s name, not anymore. He can’t remember his own.
The red light has grown overnight, and now the slow dawn spreads and he can see them: distant ants, beyond the twisted rides, massing by the park’s entrance.
Mr. Beard has not slept. His hands shake; he cannot keep his hands from shaking.
He looks toward the bricklet he so loves. Calls Mr. Bricklet’s name. No response.
(There isn’t always a response.)
Mr. Beard shouts. No words in particular. He steps to the broken window, hollers at the horizon. It’s his! It’s his! This is his castle, and the strangers want to take it. He screams and yells as he drags the decomp down the concrete stairs. The strangers are a threat, a threat he will answer.
He pays no attention to the ruined rides as he stomps onward; the day is still, and the careless bushes rustle.
A dark shadow spreads over his path—an alligator’s shape, he’s seen it plenty. Before, yes, before he would have skirted right around it, quick and out of sight. Not now.
Mr. Beard sets the decomp.
The creature growls and roars, shrieks like a drain as its scales dissolve. It rears a hideous head as its eyes melt without melting, as exposed muscle meets the cool morning air. The long body writhes as its dance of agony slumps into death twitches, as hot white bone shimmers. Silence returns.
Mr. Beard marches on toward the intruders, decomping old benches and small birds, leaving nothing but bricklets behind.
He can see them now, over by the park entrance, a stone’s throw away. They are guards. Soldiers. Their silhouettes are all the same shape. They have weapons.
They don’t see Mr. Beard. He hides behind a battered sign, a weathered old map of the park, and he watches. The rising sun stings his eyes.
The soldiers’ voices carry on the morning breeze, each solid and heavy, firm and sure. Mr. Beard listens.
And he’s still angry. He can’t help it. Burning tears fall down his face, blurring into dark smudges. He sniffles and rubs his wrist against his nose.
One of them laughs at some silly joke; the breeze carries it straight to Mr. Beard. They are laughing. His world has ended and yet these strangers chuckle, mean blurry shapes against the sun.
Mr. Beard runs his fingers along the decomp.
He can make them vanish. He can be alone.
Mr. Beard. You said who we are is who surrounds us; who we are is other people. You said that if they go away, so does that part of you. You said that if they go away forever, that part of you goes away, and it’s forever.
Mr. Beard runs his fingers along the decomp.
Did you ever ask what I would want, Mr. Beard? Did you ever stop to think about me?
Mr. Beard had squatted by the wreckage of the car, all those years ago, holding Mr. Bricklet’s cold hand. He’d whispered his name as he stumbled from the scene, first sheltering in a ditch and then scouring the streets for scavenge. He’d talked to the dead man as he kicked old doors and raided houses, as he broke into a construction yard and grabbed a dusty decomp. He’d still been talking as he’d returned to the crumpled car.
There’d been no other way of freeing Mr. Bricklet’s body, not with the wreckage wrapped around him. There’d been no other way to bury him. Mr. Bricklet was trapped.
So Mr. Beard had set the decomp. He’d watched the handsome man dissolve, he’d collected the bricklet of his husband’s body, and still he’d talked to the man he loved, the man who’d given him shelter.
Mr. Beard slinks away from the strangers. He returns to his castle, to the Cinderella suite, and spreads his possessions on the musty bed. He arranges them, heavy to light.
At the centre of it all, he places the bricklet, the thing he most prizes. A block of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, calcium, phosphorus. The components he’s so loved.
He weeps because he cannot remember his name. He weeps for hours, until the hot sun sinks and the room deepens dark. Until there are voices beyond the shattered window.
The soldiers are outside his castle.
Perhaps they’d help him: give him fresh clothes and a hot meal. Perhaps they’d kill him. Mr. Beard won’t know. But they have given him one thing: courage. Courage to do what needs to be done.
He feels nothing as he sets the decomp. No sadness, no fear, no anger. It’s a relief, this nothing. He’s carried too much for too long. Lying beside the bricklet, he strokes it with one finger.
The decomp whirs as it dissolves Mr. Beard’s feet, searing his nerves to agony. He shakes and shudders and writhes, but his eyes are on the bricklet.
“I’m sorry,” he groans.
But Mr. Beard isn’t sorry. Not at all. Not as his legs unwind and his knees dissolve without dissolving. This isn’t what Mr. Bricklet would want, but what Mr. Bricklet wants no longer matters. He knows that now.
His waist shrinks to nothing, then his belly, and all he sees is the brick. Bands of white and red, brown and black.
“I love you,” he gasps.
And that much is true. He kisses Mr. Bricklet, gently. The pain goes away as his final fragments unravel, and in his very last moments that’s all he can feel:
That love. That shelter. A house so flimsy the wind could knock it down.