Gray Zone Kidz; or, the House that Dripped Blood!


Let no more be heard of confidence in man…but bind him down from mischief!

        -- old Western proverb


“I’m feeling better now,” he said, and thrust out his tongue, a crazy quilt of black stitches, cuffing me already, even as I hauled myself, my hands and feet, my oxblood masher! up through the cedar panel – then, pausing to be sure I was clear, he kicked it shut. Of course I recognized him – the boy with the razors in his food – and while you might have posed a better one (what were we doing in this narrow room packed with luggage, for instance, swhy had he cuffed me, how had he got free when he looked like a goner for sure? and what could be learned about this seemingly natural light which slanted through a smudged window so high that even a tall man leaping from the tallest of the mismatched cases could never have reached it, natural light, perhaps, or so I thought, these dribs of lumine – weaker by the second – perhaps even a harbinger of roof access, at which thought the boy merely winked, as if to say, as I say to you now, that in these corrupted times we dream of roof access and nothing else, pitched roofs, metal chimneys and somewhere below a courtyard rolling down to a bourgeois gothic structure of breathtaking utility, but it’s not here, it’s always somewhere else, those sun- and bird-struck days …) my question was this: “So when do you get them out?” meaning the stitches.


Luggage Room – a) insurgent and boy, cuffed b) a marble nearly swiped! c) diagrams in the trunk d) little monkeys climbing luggage

Unrecounted a) through “n”): unrecounted

Knife Room a) entry through ceiling chute [which closes seamlessly behind them – no escape there…] b) The Bull c) accusations d) stabbed! e) memories of a trunk f) death


“Just checking. We’re like brothers now? They can’t separate us no more.”


The boy draws out his tongue for with thumb and forefinger, releasing it with an audible snap. “See they put in these here non-soluble sutures and I got to be careful eating with them, a fish bone or whatever could rip em right out but soon as we find our way out of here to a doctor or nurse or something, well then hey then, and geez I gotta say, feels like I’ve been waiting for you what feels like for years now hey what’s that in your pocket?”


With a cry between jest and rage he wrestled me to the ground, hauling furiously at the stitching of my pocket, our shackled hands a disabled third being, third animal, wrenching and tripping dementedly, until I cried uncle and showed him – my oxblood masher, my finest ever! He held it from his body almost reverentially, inspecting it, then – eyes gleaming – returned my prize.


Tipped up on its side, the steamer trunk blocks the narrow aisle that snakes through the luggage piled against both walls. They haul it back in place, a near-perfect fit for the empty slot against the wall, cedar panel again almost hidden – until the hasp gives way, and the lid, as though spring-loaded, knocks them on their asses.


“I heard you kicking. Down below. That’s how I knew you were coming for me, I heard it perfect how you’d place a marble with your right hand and kick it with your right foot catch it in your left hand and place it and kick it back to your right hand and so I heard your crawling around through the ducts down there kicking your marble – an that’s how I knew that those ducts you were in were on the level, and I didn’t have to worry about you falling deep down cos see I could hear that marble only ever rolled in the kicking and not the placing is what I think I heard.”


We heaped luggage beneath the window and made our way up, hand over hand. If I had the time now to set down for you our vaudeville – two chained chimps stacking their banana crates higher in the dark…


… always somewhere else, those sun- and bird-struck days long past or just round the corner…


I told him we needed to get a few things straight – whatever was coming, we had to be in it together, 100 percent. No more secrets. And if the guards caught up with us, we’d need a code – two quick tugs at the cuff meant attack – then, no matter the odds, we’d jump ‘em, we’d rip ‘em apart, dispatch them by hook or by crook, but scrambling over my shoulders the boy was already squeezing out feet-first through the window.

Regarding the next weeks or months of THEIR journey

We (the authors) are sworn to silence.


Bread knives and boning knives, scalpels and switchblades and razors of all description carpet the floor in a jangling mass. The ceiling is too low for the insurgent to stand, but not the boy. The boy can stand.


The Bull (AKA the conductor, the brigadier general, the specialist, the deceiver, the one last hope of salvation always already foreclosed – but my secret name for him was the Bull, and in my imagination his meaty globed shoulders dragged him down on all fours, and I threaded the ring through his snout so that we might be friends) tore open the door and muscled in, and our closet, our knife room, somehow expanding to hold him. He slapped the boy. “Why didn’t you stop him? Do you want your heart and your liver eaten up?” “I told him not to touch them thar knives,” the boy lied, “I told him to stop stacking them.” The Bull went right on, “Don’t you understand that this will happen to you? Your heart and liver – that they will be eaten up? That the chest will be opened and in no time, your heart and liver will be eaten up?”


This talk of “eating up” – was it, could it be, a joke between them? Perhaps one that the boy had not initially been in on, but had caught onto? Or it had not even been a joke to begin with, but had evolved into a joke... such are the conjectures that preoccupy your authors, even to this day.


“There are certain documents in a trunk in this very fortress which bear on my case. As a conductor, you may not have an official position in the hierarchy, but –” “As a what?” “You’re a conductor. Aren’t you? There are the seniority bars on your sack coat, side buttons on your hat – why, there’s even a ticket punch on your belt.” “Son, I’m a brigadier general.”


With an approximation of patience (the Bull took the cigar from his mouth, he braced his hands on his knees and leaned in close, and I understood for the first time how harried he must be, how many burdens he must labor under, how very often he must be forced to precisely this explanation) he said that even as I was pulling myself up through the secret door, another man, below me, was pulling himself up through his secret door – a door my knees would have held down, had they not already been lifting, as it were, up and away. “And look at you,” he said. “The two of you together. Don’t you find something” – he pushed his face into mine – “familiar here?” “Yes.” I said without hesitation, “we grew up together.”


The signal!!!


What I’d taken as a signal tug had been a tug of disgust, an involuntary and absolute rejection of my words. The conductor laughed. “But how is that possible? He’s just a boy. And look at you – why, you’re a grown man!” “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “It’s just, you see, I thought…” “Good lord, sir! You thought! You should take yourself in for a checkup if that’s what you thought!”


“There was another boy – a friend of mine, my very best friend, you see, and he died.” The mocking twist does not vanished from the boy’s lips, though his eyes widen, if only slightly. “How?” the boy asks at last – the voice, here forward, thicker, words increasingly clumsy, as though his tongue was precipitously swelling; you will simply have to imagine this. “I can’t remember.” “Hit by a bus, maybe?” “No.” “Cancer, then. Leukemia. I’ll bet that’s it – must have been leukemia.” “I don’t think so.” The Bull spins the ticket punch on its lanyard. “Did he drown?” the Bull asks. “Well, no, that’s impossible.” The boy snaps his fingers. “Yeah, but probably he did. Think hard. He did, right? One day he just up and drowned.”


I had the feeling that this was another old routine of theirs, one they’d rehearsed many times – that perhaps I had even been present during these rehearsals, perhaps even, in some distant past, I leaned in close (though only once or twice) to offer notes on their performance – but it was all so perfectly played; what notes could I have offered?


“Neither of you have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. He was an excellent swimmer. You hear me? A great swimmer. Certified at the highest possible levels! A swimmer like that deserves your respect, even your devotion! No, no, it’s not out of line for me to say: neither of you have ever in your lives stopped to notice the beauty and perfection of our top-order swimmers. And it’s precisely because of ignorant characters such as yourselves that these swimmers are increasingly rare, a nearly extinct species.”


I saw the flash, then I felt the pain – after the pain I understood what the flash was. A knife. But even then – and for how long? – I didn’t think he’d stabbed me, not the boy with razors in his food….


“But it’s quite common,” says the Bull. “Yes, it’s the most common thing in the world. He must have drowned in the Euphrates. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced – certainly the Euphrates.” He sucks on his cigar thoughtfully. “Even the strongest swimmers – and I have no doubt that your friend was certified at a very high level – well, even the very greatest of our swimmers sooner or later, when it comes to the Euphrates, find themselves overfaced – it’s there that they meet their match.” “And the Tigris,” the boy says, “I’ve heard the Tigris is deadly, too.” “Every bit as deadly as the Euphrates. In fact, I think that you may be on to something – the river in question most likely was the Tigris. And you” – the Bull pokes his cigar at the insurgent – “you were up on the bank, weren’t you? Perhaps you timed him. Yes, I think that’s it. You timed your friend, because the two of you – not just one or the other, but both of you – were curious: how long for him to swim bank to bank. You wondered if he might not even have a record in him – a world record. And perhaps he did! The fact is, though, that it was you who wanted this record – not him. Or anyhow, you who wanted it more, with a mad desire – you who drove the whole enterprise. Using all the art of persuasion you had as a 9-year-old boy, you wore him down, day by day, week by week, until at last, perched high above the river, your watched your friend peel off his trousers and drop them in the sand. You were there, you thought, to time a river-crossing. You perched on your embankment and ate – from a picnic basket. Hummus and bread, hummus and bread, hand moving mechanically, no longer a boy so much as a food disposal machine, as you timed your friend. But you didn’t time a river-crossing, did you? The setting sun bathed the river, and for whole minutes that’s all you thought of and all you knew – the food in your mouth and the light bathing the river. And the one thing I’d like to ask you now is this: how much did you enjoy – this bath of light on water? was it a true pleasure? a life pleasure? You checked your watch at last, but it made no difference. This was the Tigris, after all. You timed a death, and nothing more.”


The pain no longer all-consuming, or nearly all-consuming, as the first pain had been. The first pain nothing but the crashing enormity of itself, and the memory of a flash, and a recognition of what had happened. The second at once sharper and more generalized. Anyhow, less.

The bull pockets oxblood masher, checks watch

The watch dangled off its chain between index and third finger, his hand frozen with what seemed to me no small measure of theatricality, watch rotating more and more slowly (soon, very soon, it would stop altogether, pause, unwind itself in the opposite direction, but it continued to rotate – with an impossible lethargy it turned in the same direction, more slowly even than the second hand sweeping its face, a second hand that was itself possessed of a radical torpor), his gaze fixed beside and behind me, on the knife that was still in me, and the boy holding it.


There is a natural affinity between the duplex escapement of the Bull’s watch and the locking teeth and escape wheels within the Bull’s own head – thus does he control the rotation of the watch, with an almost negligible increase in the friction of his innermost gearworks.


“But you were supposed to take me out of here! You promised if I brought him here you’d let me go!” “Even if I wanted a boy at my side, a little helper in my work – and I’ll tell you now, the responsibilities are too much for me – for anyone – they are killing me by the day – well, even if I did, never, ever would I take under my wing a filthy boy like you. And I don’t have the keys for those cuffs – and no, I certainly don’t plan to drag a boy and a corpse with me day and night. This world is hard enough for a man on his own.”


Impossible to know with any certainty the size of the knife – of the knife’s blade – but judging from the handle it is neither unduly large nor especially small. The insurgent has been stuck with an average blade.


“A boy and a corpse! Can you imagine? That would show them, I admit – think of it! It would most certainly show them all. But no. Not possible. Not possible.”


When the terrible man is gone, the boy sets to work stacking the knives one-handed, clearing a perimeter around himself and the insurgent. He doesn’t dare so much as twitch his torso, pressed up against the insurgent, or his left hand, still gripping the knife, for fear that any change of pressure, body to body, or the slightest alteration of the angle of the blade, could precipitate a fatal bleed. Once his right arm has cleared the broadest semicircle possible, he gently kicks off his shoes and with his feet clears a still broader perimeter, just as competently as he might have with his hands. It is the boy’s idea that if he (the insurgent) can just lay down for a few minutes, he might live.


“Just like a little monkey,” I said.


The boy picks his teeth with a filet knife he clutches between his toes, mugging and showing off for the insurgent. The insurgent is taken with the performance – this boy’s feet every bit as dexterous as most boys’ hands! – until the poor child hooks a stitch. The burgeoning pressure within the infected tongue pops the other stitches, and fluid and solid waste spray the walls of the knife room in quantities and classifications difficult to credit.


Blood, pus, bacterial and eukaryotic cells, silica, pollen grains, fungal hyphae, all this gushing; marine snow aggregates, caddis larvae, fecal pellets, fish hooks, organically coated mineral grains, spray cans, Styrofoam cups, bicycle tires, along with a general quantity of living and nonliving particulate organic matter, showering the walls and floor, rolling and sloshing in slow ponderous brownish-gray waves from one side of the room to the other – and even at last a needle and thread.


After I sewed him up, after he could speak again, he offered to follow me forever, gripping the knife, holding it in place – and since he had not yet let it go, nor budged an inch from the spot he’d anchored himself, even during his terrible ordeal, I took him seriously. And I tried very hard not to consider his face – to only consider the offer. Impossible, though, to consider an offer without also taking into account a face. And so I held the offer, as it were, in hand while I analyzed his face, the genuine eyes and twisted lips. No longer the old mocking twist but something new, more subtle, a pulling back, perhaps even a wish – a wish that I’d reject his offer. And I would have – would have rejected it instantly – if not for the genuine eyes. But perhaps I’m wrong in that, perhaps it wasn’t they eyes – it was the lips that held me back. I wanted to see how far I could twist them. I wanted to bring the twisted lip to the genuine eye, to extinguish that genuine energy that I might hurl my refusal at a pair of eyes every bit as twisted as the lips. The eyes, however, became not less but more genuine, even as the lips became not less but more twisted. This severing of eyes and mouth, the assignment to mouth and eyes of different emotions, or rather, different trains of thought – the lips twisting further, the eyes going wide – I couldn’t take it, could no longer keep hold of the offer, and with a wave of my hand I demurred.


the knife out.


The hasp broke and knocked us on our asses. The trunk wasn’t on its side, strictly speaking, or it had been designed from the first to be used in this fashion, a steamer trunk set the tall way, the body a chest of drawers and in the lid’s hollow a tidy jangle of hangers to keep your jackets wrinkle-free. I reached for a drawer-pull. The compartments were stuffed and over-stufffed with papers, anyone could see. But the boy hauled me back by the cuff. “We don’t need what’s in there!” he said. “Can’t we just forget about all that?” That wasn’t possible. And so I beat him and stomped at him until with a squeal of frustration he rushed – rushed us both – back to the trunk and ripped a drawer out. He made random grabs for the flurried paper, jerking me about madly, then collected scraps from beneath the nearest garment bags and wheeled uprights. He insisted that only he could touch these papers. He said that this had been our deal. We’d made no such deal, but I let it be. It seemed to me that he might very well kill me if I disagreed. The bulk of the papers he allowed me to see were etched with diagrams – Colts, LeMats, even a revolving harquebus, a whole historical survey of revolvers – but also there were stiff rolled oil paintings depicting 19th century rifles, and a few crumbling illustrations still more specialized (had they not been clearly labeled, I wouldn’t have known them): the skeletal formulas of Nitrocellulose and Nitroguanidine, and blueprints for low stone structure in which cordite and black powder could be stashed away for decades with no fear of dampness. The boy let me inspect these diagrams and paintings at my leisure, but documents given over in the main part to written text were treated altogether differently. Many of these cast aside, even tearing them in two if I tried to stay his hand, or in any other way persisted in my inspection. In a few cases, after I’d been “trained” to ignore all such documents, he would leave one (a printed document) atop the trunk just to tease me, and only when I had read enough to show a flicker of interest – wishing and then, in my foolishness, believing that this one had been left there as an object for my intellection – well, then my wish to believe and his boyish trickery would meet, and he’d violently deprive me of them, leaving bruises. And here I speak of typescript: when it came to handwritten notes he was even more preemptory; the few times I leaned in close enough to a crabbed hand to see my own name, he snarled, shredding the document and cramming his mouth with the scraps. The boy was illiterate – this I know for a fact. But it is equally a fact that he knew – without fail – which documents were of the greatest interest to me. Thus I was forced to my own stategems. For an hour or more, as the procession of front loading and fixed cylinder revolvers, and the famous Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver, passed before us, I maneuvered around behind him, my chin at last nearly resting atop his head, my right arm, handcuffed to his left, wrapping his chest without touching it, the movements of my taller hunched form matching those of his lithe young body, so that he could not see my face. And then I went to work on myself, eliminating any unconscious “tells” – little tugs at the cuff, say – that might give away my interest at a given document. I even feigned clumsiness: I affected a slight yank at the handcuffs, not wishing to clue him in to how sleek my instincts had become. But in spite of all of this – the movements of my eyes now in theory now invisible behind him – he still sensed when a written page held my interest. And, without turning, he would rip it apart almost gleefully. While in the case of documents that had no bearing on my case he would leave these out for maddening lengths of time. At last I diagnosed myself: in spite of my best efforts, I was an unconscious tugger, the instant a document held any fascination for me I would imperceptibly (to me, not to him, and finally not to me, either) tug-out my interest. So, then: for hours I bent all of my will on eliminating these last giveaways. And then it happened: I had perfected myself, and he left trunk-top a sheet of typescript. But even as he did so the last light faded to nothing, the room was black like new black leather, and I was out of luck.


“We’ll try harder next time.” “Promise?” “Yes, yes, yes,” the boy says, and yanks out the knife.


Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling of revenge has its rights.

-- old Eastern proverb

He has made his escape – he is in these walls.

He (the insurgent) could change the pattern, but he doesn’t do this, not yet.

And why not say he’s already made the change, made it many times? Simply to advance the pattern, he thinks, where others might have chosen to deviate – that itself could rightly be considered change – continuous, near infinite change.

The pattern, then: twelve-count, and left, twelve more, and right, another twelve then straight. And again.

Somewhere back there they killed a boy, maybe.

In these walls: this cannot be accurate at all times. He knows this from the registers. A 14” by 6” wrought iron register every 12 tunnel segments. Sometimes a wall register (midroom, at the floor), sometimes a ceiling or floor register (midroom, at the wall).

Thus: in these walls, but also between floor and ceiling or between ceiling and roof or between floor and solid ground – if indeed the fortress is built on solid ground.

And what else would the fortress be built on, but solid ground?

There is the tank and the man underwater – the boy they killed, but also the submerged man, every 1,416 segments he sees the submerged man.

These tunnels can’t be level, in spite of the evidence of his admittedly attenuated senses.

He (the insurgent) is a young man, he came here a young man.

He is traveling up and down, or up and up, or down and down.

Or the fortress itself – the rooms, the floor – the fortress isn’t level, his tunnels are on the level, but the rooms are not, and he cuts through them on the bias.

Or neither fortress nor tunnels are on the level. There’s no way of knowing, it’s very hard to know.

708 segments before he sees the boy being killed, and again, 708 segments after – the submerged man.

He (the insurgent) is not the only one, there are others (other insurgents), of course.

He thinks tunnel, though this is ductwork. He knows this. Still he thinks tunnel.

It must be razorblades into the dead boy’s food – razorblades the only explanation for the blood that drips or sprays or leaks down the dead boy’s chin.

A figure before him blocks the light of the upcoming register until it (the figure) advances past this register.

Not only wrought-iron 14” by 6” registers, also 14” by 2” toe kick registers. Through these toe kick registers (midroom) he has learned:

The tank is a clawfoot tub.

A green bird peers out from behind these clawed feet, first one, then the next (the green bird advances clockwise from one foot to the next).

Almost wholly submerged in ice water, he (the submerged man) breathes through a straw.

On that straw (the submerged man’s straw) a green bird perches.

So two green birds, one above, one below.

Perching and peering.

As surely as we are alive, that boy is dead, blood spraying or jetting from his mouth, from the shattered teeth and slashed lips.

Still chewing, still upright in his chair, he shovels food into his mouth, but I am telling you, that’s a dead boy.

He (the insurgent) is moving too fast or too slow, he (the insurgent) thinks.

Yet he never loses sight of the figure before him, or draws closer to it.

He (the dead boy) eats like he’s famished, like blood isn’t gushing from his oral cavity.

He (the submerged man) is held in place by an elaborate system of harnesses – steel and brass and plastic fasteners of varying description bolted into the walls of the tub, and ½ inch cowhide straps bind his extremities.

They (the cowhide straps) tighten in the freezing water.

He breathes through a straw, one hand fixed above the water line.

A perch lashed to the straw with kite string.

The birds, when they trade off (claw foot bird flapping up to perch, perch bird sailing down), tear strips of flesh from the exposed hand, he (the insurgent) surmises.

But he has not witnessed their switching-off, the birds always fixed in their respective roles when he sees them (these thousands, these tens of thousands of sightings), and yet they do switch, there is no mistaking.

He could change the pattern at any moment.

The figure before him, but also a figure behind, and if there is a figure behind, there are in fact many of them (many insurgents) in these walls, he surmises.

Many before and many behind, so many insurgents crawling.

The tunnel (or ductwork) is well maintained – because it houses so many.

The tunnel in admirable condition, any leaks – if there ever were leaks – plugged with aerosol particles blasted through at high velocity before he (the insurgent) ever even got here.

He does not know if he sleeps.

If he does, it must be that they all (all the insurgents) sleep at once.

Or the other wait from him, watch him dispassionately, or with gathering rage, as he slumbers.

Or he keeps crawling, hands and knees, in his sleep.

What he fears most of all is contact.

Always one or the other green bird perches, jamming its beak into the straw’s aperture, blocking the air, while the other peers up from below.

He (the submerged man) puffs through the straw when a bird attempt to beak off his air, at which blast the perching bird shakes itself and blinks.

(Below, the peering bird likewise blinks and shakes.)

Thus does the submerged man stay alive – with little puffs.

Both green, the smaller specimen a mild grass-green, the larger a monstrous thing, oily black plumage besprent with a green pus that oozes everywhere as its throat pulses and throbs grotesquely.

But the larger bird no more proficient at straw-plugging than the other, and so regardless of which is perching above, which peering below, the prisoner is able to puff away the beaks.

In ice water, your needs are less, metabolically-speaking.

In tunnels distance must be maintained – a necessary distance.

He (the insurgent) is crawling in a column – one of many.

The submerged man’s hand bolted to the rim of the tub, finger bones picked clean – even the cartilage hangs in threads, most of the hand-gristle bobbing on the water’s surface, a few stray fingernails braceleting the half-devoured wrist.

The bones black, as though scorched by embers, as if noxious fluids were released from the beaks of the tormenting birds.

He (the insurgent) is glad for the ice that seemed to have cooled the brain of the submerged man.

Surface heat loss plus ice water sucked into the body at the torn wrist might render him insensate to his tortures, and even engender cerebral protection from anoxia, should the puffing fail at last.

But observe the eye of the submerged man, the dilation of a pupil which only grows, never shrinks, never stops growing: does this reveal a man more present in body and mind than the insurgent cares to guess?

There are many others (many other insurgents), perhaps.

These others organized in columns. His (the insurgent’s) column, but others, too.

Columns (of insurgents) both parallel and perpendicular.

He is the middleman in a long column, and he must maintain the necessary distance.

A necessary distance – when another (perpendicular) column comes crawling, then at the intersection of the two columns (the intersection of perpendicular ducts) the insurgents interleave without touching, speed precise, so many thousands of insurgents – everyone holds their breath.

This of course cannot be verified, at intersections there are no registers, no light to be obscured by the figure which is, which must be (he surmises) passing before his (the insurgent’s) nose.

The fat, septic bird bends the straw perilously with his weight – and if it were to crease, the submerged man would stop breathing, or would stop breathing air and start breathing ice water.

(Which might lower his core temperature and head off cerebral anoxia.)

Twelve-count, then left, etc.

He (the dead boy) still chews, but he’s dead, he sits in a wooden chair at a small wooden table, and there he chews. But this is a dead boy’s chewing and nothing more, he (the insurgent) can see this, he (the insurgent) is not blind.

We are all constantly changing, I believe it so much.

The birds gather their sustenance from the flesh of his (the submerged man’s) fingers.

The ice, the ice chips melting, the dilation of the submerged man’s eye (the aqueous humour thickens by degree), there must be a land beyond this.

Above, a cedar panel.

The boy is dead.

The lines of insurgents expand and contract – in precise order.

Pull yourself up, out of the tunnel, into the room above.

Yes yes I can see now a natural light.

Mark Edmund Doten is the managing editor of Soho Press. His fiction has appeared in Guernica, Exquisite Corpse, Word Riot and Elimae.