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Midnight at High Noon

by Melissa Wozniak 4 months ago in Adventure · updated 4 months ago
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Greg Rosenke

In the beginning was the word, and in the end there is the sound: a mechanical roar, the mawing shred of matter. Atoms compress and the great wheel turns. The train picks up speed as it leaves the station.

The man on the train comes to in a panic. The carriage is dark. He is indistinguishable from the dark, a drop of awareness that bleeds uncontained. The sound is coming from beyond him and within him, metal on metal. There is a caustic taste in his mouth and a steely chill where his body should be and he falls and falls, awakening with a start into a fresh sense of dissociation.

The man on the train pulls wildly at the place in his mind that contains the catalogue of his identity but finds it empty. It is a decaying library in a forgotten town, dead-still and quiet. One of the books opens and a blank page floats to the floor. Another one floats by, and this time he can make out a faint line of writing:

Arno De Villiers.

He clings to it like a buoy, that tie to existence, the words that give him a name.

The roar is deafening in this unfamiliar place, and there are no words for anything else. Time black grimace yawn breath gut motion crawl. Flesh wake tunnel nod. Here, there. Me. I am.

Arno becomes aware of the sensation of movement. You know this, his mind prods him. It reaches for another book and a page falls out, clearer this time.

He watches the gate swing shut in front of a suburban house surrounded by trees, two levels topped with vermilion crests of a Spanish tile roof. He notices the razor wire lining the perimeter wall, the three neat rows of electrified cables.

He watches as signs appear on a highway leading to a large African city. Highveld, Krugersdorp. There is a bakkie in front of him puffing smoke into the mid-morning haze; three construction workers stare with sullen eyes while sweat beads form on obsidian skin. The bakkie pulls left onto the exit for Witkoppen Road. One of the men spits.

He watches himself step out of a Land Rover in a parking lot overgrown with unpruned bougainvillea. Sun-bleached hair mottled with gray. Wide gristled thighs pushing the seams of pressed khaki shorts. He watches himself rest his hand on his back pocket.

As the books open, Arno solidifies. He feels his spine, his clavicle. He feels the cracked pleather of the seat beneath him. He has been here before, yes, on this seat, going forward. The sound begins to tame into something recognizable. Train tracks, rhythmic clack; the screech of a vessel barreling into the night. An image of his surroundings emerges from memory: purple benches in a four-person berth, a scratched sliding door, cloudy plexiglass revealing vast plainfields beyond. The Shosholoza Meyl leaves Johannesburg at 10:40 a.m., Arno recalls. If it is this dark it must be midnight, which means we must be somewhere in the Karoo.

But why?

Retracing steps. The parking lot. The ibis pecking centipedes out of a crack in the asphalt. Shimmering heat from the January sun. One hundred thousand rand in his back pocket in a crinkled envelope addressed to the specialist, a fractured lighter, dust from the remnants of herbs.

Arno realizes the money is gone, and so is any rational explanation for what happened next. Was there a gun? They could have taken an organ, put it in a cooler of ice on a plane bound for China. Maybe they took his sight: The darkness is impenetrable, the bottom of a ten-mile well; no shadowy outlines of doorways, no hint of a star. Arno claws at his eyes and breathes through his mouth to avoid the stench of his fear. Even his face feels like it is no longer a part of him. His legs are a mile away. He feels a sharp ache under his right rib cage, a bulging of the skin. The lump has generated dread for many months, but here, now, the familiarity of it is comforting.

Another vision. Waiting room chairs. A bearded man in a disheveled white coat, a handful of manila folders. Fluorescent lights garish over a fake potted palm. Lysol on linoleum, the teacup clink of morning’s first break. A twitch in the man’s downturned lips. A verdict: Onwerkbaar.

A flash of lightning sends reverberations through the void.

In the moment of light, Arno sees the figure sitting by the window. It is fluid, quicksilver gray, a luminescent being translucent like smoke. Silvery hair tumbles in oil-slick swirls. Arno tries to speak but his voice is no longer part of him, his mouth a vacant cave.

There’s no need, he hears from a place unconnected to ears.

Where are we going?

It’s up to you.

But who is driving?

You are.

The figure turns to him and reveals a face without features, a clear pool of unconditional love.

He is gone again, sinking fast into the void. He closes his eyes and pulls away: away from his name, away from who he is, away from all that he thinks he knows. This time he is not afraid. He feels the momentum build until the pressure of holding on becomes too much, and so he lets go, and the boundaries of his skin dissolve into the air around him. Warmth pours into his chest. It pulses there until it breaks open, a stream of euphoria, a river leading to the sea. There is a flickering light at the center of Arno’s forehead that grows brighter as he releases the pages he collected from the falling books. The grinding metal beneath his feet shifts into an oceanic roar and he is traveling across the sea, a vessel indivisible from the water.

Within the roar are voices of his ancestors. Dawn breaks in the carriage, and there in front of Arno sits a man he does not recognize but has hated his entire life.

The man is drinking a Black Label. He has Arno’s crooked jaw, the faltering eyes of a bachelor aware of his middle age. He sits astraddle a small canvas suitcase with frayed ribbon on the handles.

I couldn’t even look at you, the man tells Arno silently. You were the spitting image of her. I couldn’t look at you without remembering every day that she was gone.

And suddenly Arno is four. The sun is piercing through the windows of the Shosholoza Meyl as it pulls out of the station with a shuddered heave, and Arno is giddy with excitement. He is sitting on the lap of an almost-young woman who used to be pretty. She holds him close but doesn’t speak, absently caresses the curls on the back of his head. Auntie, Arlo cries, Auntie, look! The wind, it’s pushing us toward the ocean. Look at the houses flying by!

The twenty-seven hour journey is an adventure beyond Arno’s imagination. Johannesburg's grimy suburbs roll into lush hills, then scrubby bush land dotted with mountains. He mashes his nose against the window looking for wildlife, turns rocky outcrops into zebras and elephants. They reach the country’s midpoint as dusk paints the sky purple and sends shadows across fire-singed plains. The porter makes his rounds after dinner to unlatch the top berths. They make their beds. Arno wants to sleep up top, but he crawls under the fleece blankets with his auntie instead. He presses his ear to her chest and lulls himself to its murmur as the train forges ahead.

In the morning they arrive in Cape Town. They take a cab up High Level Road, snaking around the base of Signal Hill as they gain elevation. The ocean glitters below. The houses get bigger and bigger. They stop in Bantry Bay in front of a mansion, understated and white, and Arlo and his auntie clamber up to the door.

Gerard, his auntie yells when her knocks go unanswered. You’re a kak father. Open the door.

There is a muffled reply on the other side.

I brought him here, she yells. He’s yours. It’s been four years. You can’t just run away and pretend it didn’t happen. I’m sorry she died. But it’s been four years, broer, you have to raise your son.

Time begins to pass very slowly for Arno.

I’m leaving him here, his auntie yells. Here. With you.

She kisses Arno’s head and places his canvas suitcase down on the porch. She tells him to be a good boy, and she leaves. But not far—across the street, to the left, there is Volkswagen in the driveway and she sits behind it, picking at her fingernails while keeping an eye on Arno.

Two hours pass. The door does not open.

Arno’s auntie finally stands up. She grabs Arno by the hand and pulls him down the road. The suitcase remains on the porch forgotten.

They take a flight back to Johannesburg.

Inside of Arno something begins to grow. It is small and black, with tentacles. It sprouts from the hard tears swallowed on the porch when Arno decided, at age four, he couldn’t let them fall. For decades it feeds on stories that circulate in his head about that day, about his worth, about the man on the other side of the door who didn’t want his son.

And now Arno is sitting face-to-face with him and the lump under his rib cage is throbbing.

You have to understand, the man tells Arno. The life you would have had with me. The person I was. You wouldn’t hold onto it if you understood.

Part of Arno doesn’t want to understand. One drop and the dam breaks, one wrong move and the blackness bursts forth.

But he sees anyway. He is back on the porch, forty-six this time, formless and floating through the wrought iron door. He is standing beside his father, who is crumpled on the floor with two empty bottles of brandy. There are cigarette burns on his arms and a heaviness in the room that feels like a compression chamber. The black mass inside Gerard is centered in his heart, a tar pit of grief. It started as a seed, too: Arno sees another man, his grandfather, slip into the night with suitcase in hand as seven-year-old Gerard lies asleep in his bed.

You can let it go, the silvery being beside him on the train tells him.

But how? The train is picking up speed. Outside, pricks of light emerge, blistering, supernatural.

Lean into the light, the being tells him.

The warmth returns, the euphoric stream. Arno’s father glows. Light seeps from his body until it splits—two, three—and now a pair of women sit beside Gerard, arms intertwined. Arno’s mother is thirty-eight. She has Arno’s flushed cheeks and a middle part through flaxen hair. His auntie squeezes the top of her brother’s shoulder.

The train is as bright as a thousand suns. And it splits again: From Arno comes a flame that hovers in the center of the carriage. The flame becomes a speck with a beating heart. It writhes into the body of an infant, uncurls tiny fingers, contorts into a little boy with Arno’s stubborn chin. The child smiles at Arno and his father loves him, this son not yet conceived, he loves him with the force of existence, a love purer than the twisted ways it appears in human form.

I have to go back, Arno pleads to the silvery being.

I have to go back, he repeats, and the train begins to slow. The sound returns to a roar, steady and constant, tires on asphalt. Wind whips through open windows. A siren emerges from underwater. Arno’s ears pop.

He watches his body lie motionless on a gurney, the frantic movements of paramedics in reflective vests. An oxygen mask goes over his mouth. His shirt is ripped open. On the floor of the ambulance is a crumpled envelope and the keys to his Land Rover. One of the paramedics is on the phone. It’s inoperable, another one says. They gave him six months.

He watches them pull out the crash cart. They charge the paddles. The woman on the phone pushes them away.

Arno lingers over his body. The train stops. He floats down.

He opens his eyes.

There is blinding pain where his hip hit the asphalt. His head is molasses, a dull throb. There is the sensation of squeezing into last year’s swimsuit after a season of indulgence, matter crammed into a container much too small.

Arno sips the air, feels his rib cage expand without pain.

And he knows the tumor is gone.


About the author

Melissa Wozniak

I spent my life looking for the map until I realized I had to draw my own.


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