by GJ Hart

Sick of the petty intrigues, the incessant squabbles over coffee rotas and the obsession with any gossip regarding the Lumpy Bumpy Boys – Modaline spent enough time in the office to guarantee her continued employment and not a second more. She grabbed her sack, unchained her bike and whistling with the freedom of it, glided out of town.

As the hill dipped and she gathered speed, she searched out signs not pitched by any council: fallen trees and bees; river stones and the birling tail of a failing Piper Cub. She drifted with wood smoke toward a vagrant’s petition and finding herself lost, knew she was close. Finally, after two days and nights, she tracked a Bentley’s last testament, down a clough slick as exudate, to the ledge where Dunstan lay.

‘You have a letter, Mr Dunstan’ said Modaline, planting her feet and flipping open her sack.

Dunstan did not move.

‘Mr Dunstan, a LETTER.’

Dunstan remained prone upon the granite ledge. His eyes wide, one leg folded beneath his hip.

‘Are your glasses broken, Mr Dunstan? said Modaline, arching her eyebrows.

Again Dunstan did not answer and Modaline tore open the envelope in frustration.

‘It’s an offer, Mr Dunstan. 29% off gym membership. It includes use of the swimming pool and half price at the juice bar. Apparently, they have branches all over the country.’

Modaline stepped over the crossbar and knelt at Dunstan’s side. She sighed and placed a hand on his head.

‘I’m sorry – it’s wonderful news, I’m happy for you.’

She tucked the letter into Dunstan’s jacket pocket.

‘I must also tell you,’ she said, stroking his hair, ‘the offer expires today.’

Modaline closed Dunstan’s lids and set off – her legs rigid and drenched in pain until the gradient relented and she swept down toward the flats. She smelt sea salt and swung toward the city’s sulphur lines. The city had changed; she trusted nothing: She disregarded her GPS until it shut down in disgust; she asked directions from workers hurrying home – and ignored them all. Eventually by chance alone, she reached a village strange but for the clouds that crept overhead.

The only inhabitants were the Grotesques leering from every wall and Modaline wandered for many hours before encountering actual living souls – villagers, marching on some inequity, with placards and weapons held high. Having no better strategy, she followed them, along an imbroglio of passages to a grand house nestled at the village limits. Keeping low, she pushed through the mob and approached its carved and gilded doors.

Sensing the crowd’s agitation beginning to intensify, Modaline knew she had little time. Finding the letter, she thrust it into the box, but no matter how she poked and prodded, the flap remained tight shut. Desperate to flee, but compelled to stay, she placed the envelope between her teeth and pounded on the door.

The door did not open. From behind it, she heard a slight, low voice.

‘Yes?’

‘Is that Mr Dunstan?’

‘Yes.’

‘I have a letter for you,’ she said, barely able to disguise her anger.

‘Are you from the union. Did McGregor send you?’ He said, ‘I’ve nothing more to say. You’ll have to talk to the board members.’

‘I’m just here to deliver a letter. If your letter box wasn’t jammed, I’d be gone by now.’

‘I can’t open the door – too dangerous. Will you read it for me?’

‘Your glasses?’

‘For the sake of us all, just read the thing!’

Etiquette and the snarling, rattling crowd suggested she shouldn’t. But both were timid and trifling things compared to the retribution she faced if she failed to complete her round. She opened the envelope and scanned the letter within.

‘It’s from Edgar, Smithe and Bucket: a relative – Aunt Gunt has died; as sole beneficiary, you will inherit her entire estate. You must send bank details and a processing fee immediately. Once received, the funds will be released forthwith. Millions Mr Dunstan. Millions!’

Modaline heard sobbing behind the door.

‘I’m very sorry for your loss,’ she added.

‘Terrible news, I must dress and have breakfast – sausages and butter beans I think. Will you leave it on the doorstep, please?’

Wishing Dunstan good luck, Modaline placed the letter upon the mat, retrieved her ride and headed away from the developing upheaval to a ferry waiting at the river’s mouth. The crossing was difficult and as she descended the gangplank, the sky flamed with munitions. Seeking safety and time to think, she refused her usual route and headed south.

Finding herself quickly immersed in the most horrifying devastation, Modaline cursed her poor judgement. She passed lines of starving refugees and soldiers no better nourished. She wobbled between bodies, both dead and dying and kicked on, past checkpoints and fatal pleas for calm. She came upon whole towns razed and fields black as winter beneath the muggy summer heat. Finally, after three crippling days, she arrived at the entrance to a tunnel. Chaining her bike, she brushed herself down and crawled inside.

Modaline found Dunstan so smothered in mud, he appeared no different than the dripping walls or the filth upon which he knelt.

‘Mr Dunstan, I have a letter.’

‘Who sent you?’ He said, pressing down on his helmet.

‘I’m from the office, Mr Dunstan,’ she shouted over thundering boots.

‘I can’t read,’ said Dunstan, ‘my glasses were smashed. They came without warning. Will you read it for me?’

‘I’m sorry, I’m not allowed’

‘You must,’ said Dunstan, pounding the earth.

Cornered by his desperation, Modaline opened the envelope and shook out its content.

‘It’s from Dr. Wollo – a miracle cure Mr Dunstan – for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis…’

‘Is there word from my wife? My daughter is very sick. I’ve heard nothing.’

‘No, but there is a fantastic deal – a free shower radio with every purchase!’

‘I can’t get any messages out. And nothing back. The power’s down; the lines have fallen.’

Dunstan curled into a ball and emitting a long low moan, began to rock back and forth.

Modaline placed a hand on his arm, but Dunstan did not respond and so, saying no more, she speared the letter on the tip of a bayonet and crawled away, emerged from the tunnel into a morning misted and glittering with poison.

As she fumbled with the key, she rubbed hard at her chest, endeavouring to extinguish the pain roaring behind her sternum. As the chain fell from her fingers, she dragged herself over the crossbar and with hardly the energy to lift her head, pushed off. Finally, as her feet folded and her vision flickered and dimmed, the gradient spun her wheels and swept her away: towards the riots and ruin, towards her office; towards a Bentley’s last testament and a clough slick as exudate.

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GJ Hart currently lives and works in London and has had stories published in  The Molotov Cocktail, The Airgonaut, Jersey Devil Press, The Harpoon Review, 99 Pine Street, The Jellyfish Review, Foliate Oak, The Eunoia Review  and others. He can be found arguing with himself over @gj_hart.