Meat and Vapor
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Zoki was still laughing at the stupid joke when the oversized, scale-covered limb grabbed him and lifted him like a child's toy, a lead soldier with a face too cheerful for the front. When his body burst and his insides poured out in a stream, Marija could no longer see his face from the fog of many screams.

A month later, the fog still isn't lifting. It comes out of Marija's heart, out of her pores, while she herself is deflating day by day. Every morning, she wonders at her muscles still allowing her to stand.

The creature in the mirror looks at her with apprehension, looking skewed and bizarre, like a friend she hasn't seen for so long that she's forgotten the color of her hair. Or her eyes. The silver that comes to memory through the fog now more closely resembles the sterile gray of a morgue. The mirror Marija reaches for a toothbrush, but stops with an open mouth, staring at her copy. The redness of her gums frightens her. Meat. Grotesque bone growths in it. For chewing meat.

Her skin seems too pale and thin. Doesn't hide the redness inside well enough.

blood screams why meat no meat no laughter

Last night's dinner leaves Marija's body without hesitation.

It's okay to skip breakfast today… for the fifth time in a row.

The work day passes sluggishly, limping. A poisonous thorn is lodged in its leg. The pain is infected, pus-filled. Its sharp waves are always there. One passes and another soon gets under the skin, cutting through flesh and bone. Between them is a calm, blunt and uncomfortable as a lead ball in your stomach. Throughout the whole day Marija struggles not to rip her own head apart looking for the poisonous thoughts watching her from the back of her skull, knowing she couldn't handle them.


Glasses finds her in the cafeteria. He's in full battle gear, minus the helmet and weapons, and his superior feels naked in a simple shirt and black pants.

"I just wanted to check in. We just got back from a mission."

Marija just stares, not knowing what to say, fighting the urge to run away. She stays sitting regardless, looking her deputy in the eyes.

But he's not your deputy now.

He's your replacement.

Glasses is a vital, strong lad, slender and tall. He's four years younger than Marija, but is on a similar level in skill and experience. He's resourceful and has always been invaluable to Marija in the field. You could almost see the smooth cogs turning in his eyes at any moment.

But now he's confused. The cogs creak and push painfully on over one another as the young man tries to tell her something.

His eyes contract slightly and the words fall out of his mouth, hitching on his tongue.

"So… you know that… well, everything is…"

He breathes in deeply but discreetly, brushes a strand of blonde hair out of his face and gets back in the game.

"We're okay. And I hope you're alright too. Or you're at least… better. The team misses you, but you don't have to rush yourself on our account, we can manage."
"If you want to talk… you know…"

Marija knows.

A head nod and a hoarse whisper of "thanks" are permission enough for Glasses to withdraw with a few mumbled goodbyes.

Not long after, Marija finishes her shift filling out paperwork and comes home. The calendar says the next session with the therapist is on Wednesday, in two days.

Those sessions help. But after each one the same intruder finds itself in her head, the same whisper from the back of her skull.

It's already been half an hour since she put the squishy macaroni and cheese on her plate, and she hasn't even taken a bite of it. Its squishing when she pokes it with a fork is no longer warm, promising, but nervous and full of pity. Squish, squish…

There's blood all over the floor. It makes a squishy noise as Marija's boots move through it. She crouches to the floor, by her best friend. Clumsily, she attempts to plant her fingers into his face and head and body, trying to press the evaporating heat back into him.

"Zoran? Zoran, what… Don't, get up now, c'mon, what happened? What is… Why?…"

The shock slowly disperses along with the blood vapors and Marija manages to gather the stupidity to look down Zoki's body. It's in two pieces. Blood runs out of the severed veins and arteries in little streams. Long and stubby pieces of red and pink things are scattered around like mushrooms in a slaughterhouse, and two legs stare at her, lying a safe distance from their torso.

It's only now that she notices the large meaty wreck, almost amorphous, of the inharmonious half-lizard creation that had caught Zoki. It took three bullets to smash the creature's skull and nine more for Marija to empty the magazine. Now, lying by the legs of its victim, the thing is just another pointless bunch of meat, taken apart and pulverized as soon as it appeared.

A bad joke without a punchline.

In the absence of laughter, another scream breaks out.

Cold in her right hand. Marija turns her head and her eyes bulge. At her are staring a barrel, a trigger and her fingers. When did she get the gun?

She stares. She glares. She does everything she can not to SEE what's in front of her eyes and behind her brain.

Nobody blinks. The barrel is as calm as ever. It's prettied itself up nicely for this date. Marija would be ashamed if she let herself think about anything.

There's no crack in the tension to grab onto and Marija feels her fingers sliding, feels herself falling into the abyss. It seems like every capillary in her body is going to break. She can't take any more. Her head is heavy, at the edge of bursting. Every attempt to move feels like lifting a mountain. Teary eyes close from exhaustion.

There is a dream.

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