Evening came. Dante painted signs. He went online looking for information about more protests, for articles and opinion pieces. A few journalists praised the non-violent demonstration they had participated in last night, calling the tunnel of silence the Chancellor had been made to walk through a chilling condemnation of how out of touch the administration of the university was with its students. Dante smiled. It seemed like he’d been smiling ever since he’d spoken with the Chancellor.
“Alright, it’s eating me up,” Dympna said. Dante turned to look at her, eyebrows raised expectantly.
“What in the Hell did you and the Chancellor talk about for so long?”
“The demonstration, obviously.”
Dympna snorted. “Obviously. Come on, don’t be an ass.”
“You saw that look she gave us, right? When she was walking past the three of us and she looked like all of a sudden she’d seen a ghost or something?”
“So I asked her what she saw.”
“ And? What’d she see?”
Dante hesitated. He’d have to choose his words very carefully. If Dympna pushed him, he’d have no choice but to reveal his visions to her. Or worse, she might dismiss his thoughts as the rantings of some effete would-be intellectual. “She saw,” Dante began. He ran his tongue over his lips. Smiled. “She saw the spirit of the times, cold and dispassionate and faceless. She saw the zeitgeist looking down in judgment on her and everyone like her, every cop beating a student, every suit walking past someone holding a sign that says, ‘Homeless and hungry, please help.’” Dante’s smile became a grin. “In her own words, she saw ‘the end of things. The end of them.’”
“And that’s got you so happy? That’s what’s had you smiling all day?”
Dante nodded. “It’s like I said earlier. I knew I should be feeling something, but I didn’t know what. Well, now I do.” He smiled. “I feel… right. Like I’m doing the right thing. For a while, I lost that. I had a taste of it, and then I didn’t know what to think. But we’re doing the right thing, Dympna. We’re standing up for what’s right, and we’re winning.”
Dympna was silent. She studied Dante carefully, her face betraying no sign of any emotion but a cold detached curiosity.
She leaned in and hugged him. “It’s good to have you back,” she said. “I’m glad.”
Dante stood there, his arms hanging at his side. Slowly, he brought them up and returned the hug. “Me too,” he said.
“You’re still a scumbag,” she said with a smile.
Dante smiled back. “Well, of course.”
The door opened. The two of them turned to find Tweak standing in the doorway, a smirk on his face and a messenger bag slung across his shoulder. “If this is what it looks like, I just want you both to know that I’m not paying for another room.”
“It’s not,” Dympna said.
“Where have you been, man?” Dante asked.
“I went to go see Simon again, then I went to go see Frank. Nothing big.” Tweak walked past his two friends and examined the signs they had been working on. “Word on the street is there’s another demonstration planned on campus tomorrow. Supposed to be big.” He turned to face them. “It’s nice to see you guys getting ready.”
Dante blinked. “Oh. We didn’t know.”
Tweak shrugged. “Now you do.”
“So what’s the deal?” Dympna asked. “Another silent protest?”
Tweak shook his head. “Think loud. Bring your gas masks. Just in case.”
“You really think the police are going to bust out the pepper spray again? It’s turned into such a mess, I can’t see them risking the backlash.”
Tweak frowned. “If they feel cornered, they will. They don’t care. All they think is they’ve got the armor, the weapons, and the badge, and anything they do is justified.” He picked up one of the signs, turned it over in his hands. “You should put these on sticks or something. Makes it easier to keep one hand free.”
“Free for what?” Dante asked.
“Free for whatever.”
“Are you okay? You seem a little more intense than usual.”
Tweak took a deep breath. “I’m fine,” he said. He smiled, his eyes decidedly unhappy despite the expression on his face. “All things considered, I’m fine. Now, who wants to go get some dinner?”
* * *
That evening, Dympna was the first to go to sleep. Tweak and Dante were outside, Dante spraypainting signs and Tweak smoking a cigarette. The two men were silent for some time until finally Dante asked, “Do you believe in omens?”
Tweak turned to look at him, his eyebrows arched in confusion. “What?”
“I found a newspaper last night after the Chancellor drove off. Made me think of that guy we saw in the photos. And then Dympna and I ran into her earlier today. I talked to her.”
Tweak took a long pull from his cigarette. “What’d the bitch have to say for herself?” His voice seethed with hatred.
Dante stared at his friend in silence, deciding whether or not to continue. “In a nutshell, she’s scared. We’re doing good, man. We’re doing good.”
Another pull from the cigarette. “That so?”
Dante shrugged. “That’s the way I see it.”
Tweak was silent. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his cigarettes, lit another one. “The way I see it, they drew first blood. They hit us, and we didn’t hit them back.”
Dante frowned. Tweak looked at him, shrugged, looked away. The night was silent.
* * *
By the time Dante, Dympna, and Tweak arrived back on campus the next day, there was a crowd of police gathered around the protestors. Unlike the ones that had been at the administration building, these officers were in full riot gear with heavy armor and gas masks of their own. Tweak smiled bitterly as he, Dante, and Dympna got close enough to see gathered police forces. “Looks like they’re expecting some action.” Tweak had his messenger bag at his side, his gas mask atop his head. Dante and Dympna had their gas masks equally accessible, but they carried only the signs they had made, signs they had affixed with wooden rods to serve as handles, per Tweak’s suggestion.
“For the same reason we have the gas masks. Because if shit goes down, you don’t want to be caught helpless while some asshole kicks your ribs in.” Tweak surveyed the area like a general surveying a battlefield, and he pointed at the police, arranged in neat orderly lines like soldiers. “You see those guys behind the first row of cops? The ones without shields?” Tweak asked.
“Snatch squads. The shields aren’t just for protection. They’re a moving wall. The shield cops use them to pin people against anything solid, cars and walls and trees and shit. Once you’re helpless, the snatch squad moves in, clubs you good, and arrests your ass.” He snorted. “Watch out for them unless you want to find yourself with a knee in your back and your hands ziptied at the wrist.”
Dante looked at his friend uncertainly. “Why do you know this?”
Tweak turned to look at Dante, his face blank. “Frank told me.” A smile slowly crept across his face and Dante watched as his friend’s hand came to rest against the messenger bag at his side. “Why not know this?”
Dante had nothing to say to this. “Fair enough,” he muttered as he looked away.
It was there.
The newspaper man stood off to the side of the crowd, a mere twenty feet away from the nearest protestor. It was motionless. Not even the pages of the newspaper it held rustled in the gentle breeze of the fall day.
Dante frowned. The newspaper man looked so much different seeing it in person. It was preternaturally thin, as if there were little underneath the suit by bones. The suit itself was simply black, but with a luster that spoke of expensive construction.
Dante looked at the gathered crowd. The students were wearing everything from black bloc attire to everyday clothing. Those who had come from the surrounding neighborhoods were dressed similarly. The police were dressed in their armor. And there stood the newspaper man, so unlike everyone else.
But the newspaper man was there. It had always been there. In the city. On the campus. In the streets of Europe, of Asia. Dante had seen photos of this figure in every country of the world where the people stood up to the forces of oppression. If it wasn’t a symbol of the everyman, of the world that watched petty dictators and passed a cold judgment on them, Dante couldn’t even begin to guess what it was.
He nodded to the figure, and to his shock, the figure folded the newspaper and tucked it under one arm.
Its face was featureless, its skin the color of polished marble. It had no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no features at all. Other than the one brief motion, the newspaper man was as still as he had ever been.
Dante nudged Tweak with his elbow. “Man. Man, look. Do you see that?”
“Yeah,” Tweak said. “I see it.”
Dante looked at his friend and saw that he wasn’t looking at the motionless figure off to the side, but instead at the beginnings of a fight breaking out between an officer and a protestor who had gotten too close. An officer with a shield was keeping the protestor at bay, but one of the officers Tweak had pointed out as part of the snatch squad was loosing his baton. The protestor, a thin boy in a plain white t-shirt and faded jeans didn’t seem to notice the second officer at all.
Dante shivered. Something told him to turn around, and he looked over his shoulder to find that the newspaper man was much closer now, on the very edge of the crowd, and it was grinning. Where before its face had been smooth and featureless, now Dante could see lips pulled back in a snarl, a mouth full of sharp and irregular teeth.
Tweak shouted into Dante’s ears. “This is for Simon, you cocksuckers!” He threw something, something that caught the light and glinted like a shattered mirror. There was the sound of glass breaking, the soft thump of fire catching, and screams. In an instant, everyone was screaming.
Dante dropped to a knee, trying to get out of the view of the police who would be reacting at any moment. He looked for Dympna and couldn’t find her. Above him, Tweak threw another bomb, shouted another curse. There was the sound of a gun being fired, and a metal canister slid by Dante. Someone screamed, “Gas! Gas! Gas!”
Dante pushed himself to his feet, tried to run, but the crowd pushed and pulled in all directions. Police rushed in to subdue the more violent in the crowd, and even as they did so, more of the protestors picked up rocks and makeshift clubs, armed themselves with whatever they could. Dympna and Tweak were lost in the crowd, but Dante’s eyes found the newspaper man once more.
As the chaos mounted, the newspaper man’s grin spread wider, revealing still more teeth nestled unevenly in gums the color of an infected wound. This spirit, this person, this thing was no symbol. It was alive. It hungered, it hungered, it hungered for anything, for anyone.
All around screams and shouts rang out, curses and wails of pain. The air was turning thick with smoke from the weapons they were all using against each other.
“We’re going to kill each other,” he said softly. “This is it. This is the end of us.”
Dante’s vision began to blur. Tears ran from his eyes. There was no other choice. He saw no other choice. He pulled down the gas mask and broke the sign he had spent so long making off of its pole. He tightened his grip, holding it like he would hold a baseball bat, and he waited for the tear gas, the fire bombs, the fists, the clubs, waited for the chaos and the violence to devour him.
The end! Be here on Monday (or Tuesday, most likely) for the next story, “The Milkman’s Eyes!”