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Neal and I were among the first people who got off the train. The station was grand in its own ways: the Neo-gothic chiming clock from the eighteenth century in the lobby, fading shoe prints of the crown prince's suede Oxfords along the end of the platform. None of these things I observed when Neal was in the washroom (he said he was) were consistent with the silver maglev train we traveled on.
Neal and I had a drink at the station bar before we went outside. The heaviness could no longer be ignored when I could feel the fluid welling from one side of my head to the other and back again. I dug my nails deeper into Neal's arm. He did not seem to notice; perhaps his head was heavy too.
Neal and I walked back and forth from one end of the town to the other. Maybe we just circled the ghost town until dusk. Buildings, block after block, were Soviet apartments; their plastic walls all coated in Barbie pink or light mint or simply transparent, all in a ghostly and fragile state.
I looked down at my skirt and I saw a skirt of terra cotta. Neal once told me terra cotta means "baked earth" in Italian. Terra cotta, terra cotta, terra cotta; skipping pebbles once to the left, once to the right, once to the left, once... A makeshift dockland (which looked like it deported more people than freight) bordered three sides of the land (I guess that made where Neal and I were a peninsula.) It was so lousily built that one could easily fall into the water if one was careless as to where the concrete block ended. While I was calculating my chances of falling, Neal returned with two rusty bikes.
I almost out-biked Neal. He was not a very good cyclist, but he always managed to keep me behind him. He mentioned something about the way Soviet apartments were built, workers and all. I thought he thought I was interested. Frankly I was just looking for things to listen to other than the silence. Neal's went on and on and my wheels went on and on, on and on, on and on, like a cassette tape playing on a deck.
I was reminded of baked earth again. Perhaps because the ground was heating up. I wondered if I would to become a piece of baked earth like the doll face my mother brought from Turkey. Or maybe not. I still suspected the doll face actually came from a souvenir shop because, despite of my limited knowledge of the earth, I knew that real baked earth would at least smell like the earth instead of cheap polyester kaftan. The ground was becoming hotter and hotter, as if someone wanted to blow up the place from beneath. Neal said we should get as far away from the dock as possible.
Neal and I stopped in front of a building with transparent plastic which, I thought, constructed an exterior resembling a kindergarten. I followed Neal into the kindergarten (I verified it to be really a kindergarten); the ground was heating up again, wherever we stepped on felt soft and hot like lava.
"We might die here," I said.
My declaration was a jejune effort in communicating my fear. Neal climbed up the stairs and had a look of an aging sultan on his face (what I imagined his face to be because I was behind him), weary of reality and weary of the next step. The staircase melted beneath my feet like toffee slumping into a blob –slowly, gently, releasing the piercing sweetness on one tastebud at a time –hanging my life (which sounded like the only thing at stake here) by the gravel one tread at a time.
I –it seemed –could end here. The stairway extended upward in one flight and Neal and I followed its end without stopping. I was convinced that I would not miss anything by fast-forwarding to my death.
Of course Neal killed me; there was nobody else here who could have done it. He killed me, with the heat and with his patience, with the tired gray of asphalt and suffocating cage of plastic, with knowing how close I was to leaving the jungle behind.
Of course the police would not find Neal, there was no motive, save for the nail mark on his arm. But that, I supposed, too, like the buildings and the dock and the staircase, had melted away, along with the disappearance of faubourg and my life.