Feature James Grant

Math by James Grant 0

As he had done for twenty-three years, nine months, six days, eleven hours and seven minutes of his life, Nevin let the rage out. The first one he grabbed was a woman, as naked as he was. She did not scream. In fact, she barely struggled. Nevin broke her neck and tossed her aside.

The man in front of them didn’t even turn around. Nevin punched him in the spine, hard, and felt vertebrae crunch like glass. Down the stranger went without so much as a cry.

Others around him stopped marching. Eleven of them, staring with unblinking eyes, each wearing an expression that was completely out of place. Not shock, not horror, not fear. They looked at him with curiosity at the most. The querying gazes of passers-by that had just seen a man juggling live chickens.

Nevin attacked each and every one of them with his bare hands. More people flowed past, occasionally shooting him annoyed looks. When his fingers tired, he found a pear-shaped rock on the cavern floor and made it his cudgel.

He was almost knee-deep in bodies before he realized that the victims weren’t bleeding. They weren’t even dead. No, he’d broken and smashed them, but they lived on – flopping and whispering at his feet, fish on a dry shore. This fact angered him even further.

“If this is the way it’s gonna be,” he growled, “I got nae problem. Ya lookin’ at me eye?” Then he continued through the sea of naked folks, smashing skulls and shattering spines. When the pile of mutilated people got too deep, he climbed over them and continued. All of them kept trying to continue the journey. A man with a crushed back pulled himself along by his fingertips. The woman with the broken neck used her mouth, pulling herself along the cavern floor with her tongue and teeth.

She didn’t even cry out when Nevin stomped on the back of her head.

Eventually his arms grew tired, and he stood in the stream of humanity, panting. The rock in his hand wore a mottled patina of skin and bone chips. Hundreds more walked by, giving him only cursory glances. They were on their way to somewhere. Torches lit the area, their dim glow only showing a long, gargantuan cave tunnel. Regardless of their facial features, regardless of race, everyone was naked and pale. Not white, no – gray. Gray like old meat.

Nevin hadn’t received the memo, but he decided to check out where everyone else was off to. The bullet hole in his chest itched as he walked. He thought about reaching back and exploring the exit wound, but then decided not to. Likely a big old crater there. He’d seen it many times in his life. Hell, he’d dealt the very same damage again and again at the behest of his employers. Sometimes in dark alleyways, sometimes in brightly lit cafes, and all too often in the privacy of his victims’ homes.

So he finally marched with them, pausing only to stave in the skull of those who got in his way. The cavern stretched for miles, miles and miles, wider than a football field and so terribly full of people.

About an hour – or maybe two? Three? A day? He didn’t have his watch anymore, and found himself unable to keep time – into the journey, one of the men he smashed over the head fell down with a tinkling sound. Nevin stopped and scanned the ground, trying to find the source of the noise. Two pennies shone from the rocky floor. Obviously, the man had been carrying them in his hand. They were cool against Nevin’s skin. He held them, cupped like baby birds, as old memories swam up through his brain. Hadn’t he heard of something like this? Long, long before? Indeed, he had.

When he looked up, it was into the face of a monstrosity.

“Impede not the flow,” said a vaguely human-shaped creature with wings, too many fangs, and weeping holes in its body. Its eyes were glowing shards of cobalt glass. “Cease thy activities, sleeper.” The voice resembled the sound of bubbling tar.

So Nevin killed it. This one fought a lot harder, harder than almost anyone Nevin had ever murdered. Several times he wished for his regular tools of the trade: a crowbar, a ball-peen hammer, a baseball bat, anything. All he had was a rock, his fists, his feet, his forehead, his teeth.

But this one did bleed, and rather copiously after the thirtieth or fortieth good strike. It screamed. It even paused, begging for mercy in those thick syllables. It called itself Hramaleshkisa or something along those lines, as if the name would mean something. And once he’d broken most of its body, a bright idea occurred to Nevin. He slaughtered his way to the wall of the tunnel, climbed up and retrieved one of the torches. It was about five feet long, thick around as his forearm, and seemed to be made of some beast’s gigantic legbone. Damned thing weighed at least four stone. Still, he hauled the torch over his shoulders, returned to the creature on the cavern floor, and set it alight. It screamed again, several times, but eventually its noises wound down into whimpers, and finally nothing at all. The flames set several strangers on fire too as they passed, which pleased Nevin a bit. Sadly, these victims just kept walking, walking until the fire ate up too much of them and they fell over. None of them made a sound.

He tried to work up some saliva to spit on the thing he’d killed, but strangely found that his mouth was as dry as a brick wall in the Sahara.

“Don’ fookin’ look at me eye,” he growled instead, and continued. He hadn’t dropped the pennies, and now he had a club. A big, heavy club. And it was on fire.

Excellent.

He’d lost track of how many people had fallen under his wrath. At least six hundred, but his thoughts were slippery. Trying to concentrate was hard. Not that he had been a mathematical type before, no. Nevin had always been part of the brawn of Gilfrey’s operations. Still, he found himself unable to figure out how long he’d been in this endless tunnel.

Just to see, he started counting seconds out loud. After he’d killed ten more (including a girl who was maybe nine years old and a figure with womanlike breasts and a penis), he tried doing some simple math. It took him about ten seconds to dispatch each person. Between kills, another fifteen. If he’d killed at least six hundred people since the flying monster back there…

The formula in his head was hijacked by the realization that he wasn’t exhausted. Sure, his arms felt like he’d just lifted weights for half an hour, but after killing six hundred people with this terrible club? The most he’d offed in one go before had been at that Chinese card parlor in San Francisco, five men with a sledgehammer. That experience had left him sore for days.

A glance over his shoulder showed a river of burning bodies. Some of the ones closest to him were still moving, albeit weakly. The flames snaked off into the distance, at least for a mile.

“Interestin’,” he grunted, and went back to what he did best.

Just when he’d accepted that this was it, that he would eternally be walking down a damn tunnel and setting strangers on fire, the procession halted. Nevin was taller than most. He could see the crowd stretching before him, queued up for something in the distance.

“Oi, move,” he snarled, and jammed the torch into a man’s back. The stranger turned around and stared.

“Patience,” he said, so Nevin jammed the torch in the blighter’s mouth and spent half a minute beating and stomping. Then he reached out and shoved the next man in line.

“Move it, mate.”

The man turned and also stared. Nevin jigged a thumb down at the twitching mess near their feet.

“I said move.”

“We wait for our time,” the stranger replied evenly, without even looking downward.

“Ya fookin’ lookin at me eye?” He reached up and pointed at the empty socket. “Yeh? Yeh like that? Want to see wha’ it’s like? Havin’ yer eye popped out in a back alley by two Russians?”

The stranger said nothing. He just stared.

“Fook you, then!” Nevin said, and shattered his torch over the man’s head. Flames lit up on the shoulders of everyone around him. They writhed and burned as Nevin examined the splintered bone shaft. He hadn’t realized it could break. Still, the end had turned into a jagged bunch of splinters, each as long and sharp as a switchblade knife.

When he looked up, the people on fire around him had not yet fallen over. That was when Nevin started stabbing.

Even armed thusly, it took him a while. The crowd was as thick as that of a rock concert. He soon picked up a rhythm to his activity: Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp. Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp. A few of the bone shards snapped off at the tip of his makeshift lance, but in doing so just created new ones.

Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp.

Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp.

Over and over. The strangers on each side of his felled victims had a bad habit of closing the gap with their shoulders if he didn’t move quickly enough. So he’d knock down one or two at a time, then step forward to stomp very quickly. In this manner, after an unknown passage of time, made his way to the front of the queue, and onto the shore.

A great river lay before him. Its waters were as black as freshly laid asphalt, and the flow was wider than the Asda car park. The waters weren’t moving at a terribly swift speed. Still, nobody at the edge of the shore moved to start swimming.

“Fook is this?” He prodded the water with what was left of his bone weapon. It was just water, as far as he could tell. Evil smelling, to be sure, like a swamp in Louisiana, but just water.

Nevin turned to a fat woman next to him and elbowed her roughly. She turned her head to face him.

“What’s this bollocks, then? Why ain’t nobody swimmin’?”

“We mustn’t,” she said softly.

“Oi? Why the bloody hell not?”

“We must wait,” she said, and turned back to face the river.

“Wait? For what, Father Christmas?”

“We must wait for the ferryman.” She said it simply, as if describing the kind of car she drove. Nevin had an inkling that he knew what she meant, but his ox-like form of logic won out.

“Wha’ happens if we swim?”

“No. We must wait for the ferryman,” she repeated.

“Is it poison?”

The woman didn’t say anything. Nevin waited to see if she would, but she simply gazed out across the water.

“I can see the other shore,” he noted, pointing. “S’right there. A bloke could swim that.”

“We must wait.”

“Can ye swim, lass?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Oi, bitch, I asked ye a question. Can ye swim?” He grabbed her by the back of the neck and put his face next to hers. “Can ye fookin’ well swim?”

“I learned when I was seven years old,” she said evenly.

“Then fookin’ show me!” And with that, Nevin tossed her in. There was a tremendous splash as her fat body hit the surface of the river, which closed up over her.

She never came back up.

“Bloody ‘ell,” he muttered after it was obvious that she’d gone completely under. “Must be somethin’ magical, tha’s it. Somethin’ makes it so ye’s can’t swim it.”

But he tossed in another nineteen people to be sure. All with the same result. After that he just started throwing people in to thin out some of the crowd. Eventually he fell into another rhythm. Wait, wait, wait. Toss, toss, toss. A game to pass the time.

After another ungodly age, movement on the edge of his vision.

What he’d taken for a rock on the far side of the river turned out to be a raft. It was terribly large, big enough to park a few dozen cars on, which made no sense at all considering its source of locomotion: an old man in a cloak, with a simple push-pole.

The crowd around him didn’t seem excited as the raft approached. Nevin tapped his fingers on the bone weapon, anxiety burning up his spine like a bad fever.

When the raft touched the shore, nobody moved. The old man walked toward them, his face mostly hidden by the hood, and held up his arms as if commanding for silence.

“Let those who carry the payment come,” he said in a voice made of rusted hinges. Nevin grinned and stepped forward.

And then Nevin received a backhand smack from the old man that sent him flying through the air like a thrown discus. It hurt, rather a lot, and he felt his ribs stabbing into his softer insides as he landed. It was the first real pain Nevin had felt since his arrival in the cavernous tunnel.

By the time he’d risen to his feet, the old man had divided the crowd into two groups. One group was much, much smaller than the other. As Nevin watched, the old man accepted payment from each member of the smaller group, and allowed them onto the raft. The others he said nothing further to, and they began walking into the river. They marched forward, two steps per second, and didn’t even try swimming. Once the tops of their heads went under they were gone.

Nevin walked back carefully, holding his side where the ribs had been crushed. The old man waited.

“Hey,” he finally said. “I got the pennies. The fare. Here.” He held out the coins that had been resting in his palm. “Take it.”

The old man didn’t move. Behind him stood thirty people, facing the far shore. They didn’t move either.

“Didja hear me, mate? Them’s the pennies you need, right? Payment for the ferry.”

“Pennies placed upon the eyes of the dead,” the ferryman said in his awful, rusted voice. “Two pence, each eye covered, yes?”

“Erm.”

“Thou’rt missing half of what should be, and half again,” the cloaked figure said. Nevin wasn’t sure, but the ferryman seemed to smirk under his hood. “Speak again once thou hast the fare. If thy palms lie bare, the waters of Nothing await.”

“Come again?”

“Brute, thou comest after much continued destruction. Thou hast but a single eye, and two coins. This be not acceptable.”

And then he walked away, grabbed the pole and took the raft across the river. Nevin sat on the shore and watched.

At some point after that, people began piling up on his side of the river again. He lashed out, angry as a wet cat, and created a veritable hill of bodies. Once the pile got too large, he walked back and retrieved another torch. They burned with cold, blue flame.

The ferry did not return.

He made up new games of throwing them into the river. Thousands perished. It wasn’t terribly difficult. Sometimes they dropped pennies. Most didn’t. The others did not fight back, didn’t struggle or argue. The whole time, Nevin repeated a mantra that he’d used all of his life:

“Ye lookin’ at me eye? Impolite! I’ll teach ye!”

And into the river they sank, to never come up again.

Still, the ferry did not return.

After more time, he tried fashioning the undying bodies into a raft of his own. With a few creative snapped bones, he wove a pad of bodies together. They squirmed and twitched beneath his fingers. Finally, using a torch as his push-pole, he shoved off.

As it turned out, their bodies were shit for floating. He barely made it back to the shore as they all sank to the bottom.

The ferry returned. He tried arguing more strenuously with the ferryman. All he got was slapped halfway to kingdom come and a terrible kink in his neck. By the time he crawled back to the shore, the ferry was gone.

Thousands of souls came and went. All nationalities, all races, all ages, there were no boundaries. Some were incredibly old. Some were babies, carried in the arms of others.

Nevin made up fresh games.

The ferry also came and went, every so often. He stopped arguing after the third time the ferryman slapped him a good one. Mostly he stood to the side of the shore, watching, ever watching as others were allowed on the raft after their pennies were accepted. And the ones without fare marched down into the water and vanished.

One day he realized that he’d grown some new teeth. They were long, pointy, and jutted from his lower jaw like a pig’s tusks. Like the teeth of the thing he’d killed in the tunnel, ages before.

“You may become,” the ferryman said when Nevin questioned him (from a safe distance). “And then you will have found your worth.” Then he poled the raft off away into darkness.

His ribs grew back together. This was small comfort.

Then one day, as he slaughtered the latest crowd, something new happened.

“Oi, get orff me, fucka!”

Nevin lifted his victim by the neck, as a rabbit breeder would lift a hare, and stared him in the face.

“Wot?”

“I said get orff me!” The teenaged boy in his grasp squirmed, fought back. “You the devil?”

“Wot?”

“What are ye, stupid?” And with that, the boy twisted hard enough and bit down on the meat of Nevin’s thumb.

Nevin let go. Not so much from pain, but from the shock of difference. He hadn’t met anyone since his arrival who’d shown any emotion whatsoever. The boy flopped to the stone shore and scrambled back to his feet, edging away carefully.

“Right bunch of bollocks, this!” he said, giving Nevin the once-over. “I was just out ridin’ with me mates!”

“Wot?”

“Me mates! Just drivin’ to London! I tol’ J-man not to drink so much in the car! Next thing I know, we wrecked an’ I’m bleedin’!” He looked down at his left hand, shaking like a leaf. “Woke up here, an’ me mum done it!”

Inside his palm lay two large copper coins.

“She always said,” the teenager continued. “Troof, she always said if’n I died, she’d place a two-pee on each of me eyes! Said ‘if the ferryman wants one penny on each eye, two for each will guarantee.’ An’ I wake up here, an’… an’…”

A brilliant idea exploded behind Nevin’s one good eye.

When the ferryman returned, he accepted the teenager’s payment – two pennies.

Nevin let the rest get on before he came forward.

“Look,” he said, and held out his hand. “I think I got this right. Ye need two pence?”

The ferryman nodded.

“But you need a coin fer each eye?”

The ferryman nodded again.

“So here it is. Traded with that cunt over there.” He motioned toward the teen, who sulked at the front of the raft.

The ferryman said nothing.

“For the love of…” Nevin clenched his teeth, then put the two-pence coin over his single eye like a monocle. “See? Two pence, me eye is covered. Now will ye let me on or not, ye fookin’ daft imbecile?”

The ferryman cocked his head under the hood.

“Where be the other coin in the pair?” he asked.

“Threw’t in the fookin’ river,” Nevin replied, dropping the two-pence piece into his hand. “Made two wishes on’t, as well.”

The ferryman chuckled. It was a horrible noise. He held out his palm until Nevin put the coin in it.

“Get on,” he said, and Nevin did. The raft poled away from the shore. And as for what happened after that, your guess is as good as mine.