Chapter 4 of The Imagined Ones – The World Upside Down is now up ! 🙂
I relived the same nightmare at sixty-one.
I didn’t know right away. I only realized it afterwards, but the premise of what would be the most grueling year of my life began on March 10th, 2015, nine years to the day after the death of my eldest daughter. Nine years that had been necessary to completely rebuild the Volques Bridge, nine years I’d needed to mourn, accept that my flesh and blood could never be brought back.
This March the 10th was a Tuesday, and in the early hours, winter was still making itself known. Well after nine o’clock, the fog still permeated the area, and the few hundred people who’d came shivered under a cold, veiled sun. The Volques Bridge stood proudly before us, new, large and gigantic, still void of people. Access was blocked by a large red ribbon that would be cut by the mayor once the ceremony ended. And speaking of the mayor, there he was up on the stage, in a dark suit, serious looking, giving his speech under the watchful eye of the victims’ families, the city officials and well-wishers, the journalists.
Losses, new beginnings, moving forward, for us and for them too. I’d heard this speech before. It wasn’t very different from the one I would give afterwards, the one I had to give in order to finally make peace the situation, for my sake, the sake of my family, and then for Saskia.
From my position next to the stage, where I would get up on come my turn, I looked for my wife and daughter, standing in the front among other relatives of the victims, people we had met over the years. My youngest had turned sixteen two weeks earlier, and looked more and more like her eldest. The same black curls raised in a long ponytail, the same big blue eyes, the same pale skin, regardless of the season, the same slender figure. She was shorter, 1.60 meters tall, disappearing under the weight of the arm her mother had draped over her shoulders, but Saskia had never been excessively tall herself.
I was pulled from my thoughts by a hand on my shoulder. I turned to find the Police Commissioner of Montpellier, serious and proud in his uniform, not a crease in sight. I smirked:
“You finally cracked and let your wife iron your uniform?”
“Don’t talk about it in front of her or you won’t hear the end of it,” he warned, resigned.
“She was right, you were doing it wrong,” I replied, thrusting my hands into the pockets of my three-piece suit.
He smiled faintly before asking, all serious:
“How’re you feeling?”
“I’d feel better if a schizophrenic bastard hadn’t blown up a bridge with my daughter on it, but considering, I’m taking it better than I expected.”
Six years. We had to wait six long years to finally know how the story ends, an end that remained bittersweet still to this day. Eryk Varga was a Hungarian immigrant arrived in France in the late 1990s with military training in explosives, and already at the time was beginning to display serious psychological problems. His mental health issues had been ignored and had grown until one fateful day of March 2006, he decided to blow up a bridge, and in doing so killed my daughter and a hundred and fifty-six other people.
Not one thing had led us to Varga. Not a word had transpired about him, for years, not a clue had given away his involvement. We had to wait ‘til he killed two hundred and seventy-six more people to see his name finally appear in the investigation. It was the 19th of April when, in 2011, the right-side pillars of a bridge in Paris gave way under the explosives set up by Eryk Varga. It had taken six more months to catch him, his trial had been expedited in half that, and he was now spending the rest of his days locked up in a mental institution, back in the capital.
Some members of the victims’ families went to attend the trial, but neither my wife nor I had the courage to go and see our daughter’s murderer face-to-face. The truth was that knowing Eryk Varga behind bars did not appease me, not with all the questions that surfaced after April 2011. Not with this fucking bee, whose omnipresence had been weighting on Paris and the entire country for nearly four years, without anybody doing anything about it.
“What are you thinking about?”
I was startled from my thoughts and turned to face Joel. He knew what I was thinking about; I’d talked his ear off about it, and it was him who’d given me information I was not supposed to have on the ongoing investigation and its appalling stagnation, taking place in Paris on this more than obscure group. Those who called themselves the Imagined Collective.
“You know what.”
He sighed loudly.
“Drop it. Seriously. You’re just hurting yourself.”
“You do realize that we wouldn’t even know their name if Varga hadn’t spit it out? They’ve been making the front page at least once a month for four years, and we still have nothing on them! Varga was one of them, Joel! And you want me to let that go?”
“You’re right,” he conceded. “We know almost nothing about the Imagined Ones. But I can tell you one thing: for all the laws they’ve broken, they’ve never killed anyone. Eryk Varga has a four hundred and thirty-three deaths count to his name. The message on the wall can hardly be interpreted any differently: what Varga did, they dissociated themselves from it.”
I stayed silent and pretended to refocus on the mayor’s speech, which was coming to an end.
“Let it go. If they thought, up in the capital, that the Collective was involved in the explosions, the investigation would progress a lot faster. They would have chosen someone better than the imbecile they put in charge because they needed to put him somewhere.”
I knew his reasoning was perfectly logical, but I couldn’t put the Imagined Collective out of my mind. I knew I had to let the whole thing rest, for my wife and my daughter at least, but I simply couldn’t.
“You’ll feel better after the ceremony. It’s a page to turn, think about Willa and Ophélia.”
I simply nodded just as the mayor called my name and the journalists raised their cameras again:
“And now, I leave you to the one whose name you already know, who actively participated in this project to rebuild the Volques Bridge, and in all that came before that! Elias Moriarty!”
“Saskia wouldn’t want you to torment yourself like that,” Joel told me as I climbed onto the stage.
I took place, stoic, behind the podium the mayor had vacated, and looked for my wife. Willa gave me a brief nod, bringing our daughter closer to her, and I began my speech.
I talked about all that I’d already said, all that I’d already done, that I didn’t want to talk about again, that I didn’t want to have to do again. The loss of my eldest daughter, the impact on our family, the need to do something. The creation of an association for the victims’ families, carried almost entirely by my wife (my wife, ladies and gentlemen, Willa Moriarty!). The appeals I’d made, as a lawyer, to the authorities, the harassment (again, a thousand excuses to the Commissioner Joel Lorandi) of Montpellier’s police force, then those of Paris. The arrest (finally!) of Eryk Varga, the justice served at last and the conclusion that we had all been waiting for too long. Our children, our parents and our friends wouldn’t come back to us, but we could finally give them the farewell they deserved, and the reopening of the Volques Bridge was a step in this direction, to prove to the rest of the world, and then to us, that we would not be destroyed by the atrocity and horror that afflicted our world daily. We were stronger than that.
I talked about everything, except for one thing, the only thing I had in mind the entire time: the Imagined Collective. I was burning to say more, to get the words out, but the cold blue eyes my wife was fixing me with, a silent threat, stopped me from doing so. I glanced at her, she shook her head imperceptibly, pale pink lips clasped in an almost invisible line, telling me not to go there, and I concluded my speech with the customary thanks.
The crowd was still clapping when the first echo rose from the confines of the river, a low lamentation, still far enough for us to think it was the wind. I was putting my cards away when the second echo, more pronounced, resonated in the persistent fog, causing frowns to appear and heads to turn. The third, surprising everyone by its intensity, filled the air around us just as I was about to get off the stage, which shook like the rest of the bridge under the shockwave we were at the epicenter of.
The murmurs began immediately afterwards, first those of the increasingly anxious crowd, then those, plaintive, torn, of the high silhouettes appearing on the horizon, vague forms in the blue haze.
I ran towards my wife and daughter as muttered interrogations turned into panicked words and terrified screams. Up on the stage, the mayor called for calm, in vain, unheard over the tumult and the cries. The police officers, led by Joel, put themselves in front of the fleeing public, gun in hand, ready to protect the civilians. The cameras, always at the ready, were turned towards the incoming threat.
I reached them and pulled Ophélia to me just when the bridge shook again violently, sending everyone to the ground. More of these creatures were coming from both sides of the bridge, rising from the riverbed. Ophélia still in my arms, Willa had fallen on us, and I drew her in as I raised my head to see the mist finally dissipate.
There were dozens of them, those giants of clay and tears, walking towards us in a slow and deafening step, making the road vibrate under our feet. Hunched, thin and bony back reaching towards the sky to graze the dark clouds, they marched with difficulty on the four skeletal stilts they had for limbs, all broken angles and atrophied muscles protruding under a clayed skin, morbidly translucent. Tentacular hands formed on the concrete a squalid mass of metacarpals, rotten by arthritis and rheumatism, their sharp nails screeching against the asphalt in a chalkboard sound. Instead of feet were swollen and infected stumps, the smallest of their wounds filled with pus. Old rags, all worn cloth and loose thread, covered a drawn in and emaciated body, a large hood hiding the entirety of their faces.
The gunshots rang out, but turned out to be useless. The screams and the running stopped, but the fear remained. I was paralyzed, staring at these huge creatures and their cries, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. They kept marching, blind to our presence, their heart-wrenching wailing more distinct by the minute.
They’d stepped over the first row of policemen when their complaints became clearer, bits of deconstructed sentences, murmured in a deep, feminine voice. Melancholic whispers that didn’t make any sense.
‘They tried to take her from us.’ ‘A sacrifice has been made.’ ‘We are unhappy.’ ‘Vengeance is coming.’ ‘We miss him, we are unhappy.’ ‘We are angry.’ ‘The thread has been cut.’ ‘They took one of ours.’ ‘We are furious.’
I felt Ophélia tense and Willa tighten her hold on her as the giants passed over us. I raised my head and I saw. Those emaciated faces pointed to the ground, looking without seeing, shadowed by the cloth covering their heads, were an accumulation of dirty wrinkles formed by a grayish skin around gaping orifices. A toothless grimacing mouth, crackled lips and gangrenous gums. Empty bloody orbits of putrefied flesh.
‘They tried to take her from us.’ ‘We are ready.’ ‘Their laws are not ours.’ ‘We are the Imagined Ones.’
A cutting nail passed right by us, my daughter grabbing my shirt, almost tearing it, before the resonant steps finally moved away. The bridge was lined on either side with large white metal bars, erected, proud and straight, over six meters high. We saw the giants slowly move towards the pillars to climb with difficulty, their cries pervading the air with a renewed intensity before fading gradually, ceasing as the creatures froze definitively, statues.
An eternity seemed to pass before someone dared to move. I saw Joel rise cautiously from his squatting position, his weapon still drawn, soon followed by his men. The mayor, who had fallen against the stage, did the same, and that’s all it took for the media to go wild. What ensued was an awful cacophony of raging and furious whispers. Others, haggard, were staring at the morbid spectacle those giant creatures made, suspended and motionless carcasses, their menacing shadow darkening the ground around us.
I finally got up, helping my wife and daughter up as well, and turned to look for Joel while Willa was fussing over Ophélia, refusing to let go of our daughter, asking her again and again if she was okay. Joel found me first and yelled some orders to his men before walking briskly towards us.
“Your girl’s okay?”, he asked, pointing his chin towards Ophélia, still locked in her mother’s arms.
“More fear than harm, I think,” I replied, gently stroking my daughter’s hair. “Thank god your boys were sick or your wife would have been here with them.”
Joel nodded gravely as he watched the mayor attempt to regain control of the situation from the stage. We turned to the giants, taking a few steps closer to look at the disturbing picture they made.
“Statues,” mumbled Joel, lost in thought. “Fucking statues.”
“I think it’s clay.”
I was almost sure now, the texture of these creatures reminded me of those horrible pottery classes Willa loved to sign us up for at the beginning of our relationship. These memories were stuck in my head like a persistent nightmare, they were hard to forget. Joel merely nodded, not inclined to give an opinion.
“You’re going to tell me that you have a perfectly logical explanation for what just happened, Joel,” I guessed, raising an eyebrow.
He sighed heavily as the mayor hailed him from a distance, hoping to get a handle on the situation and regain some semblance of order.
“I don’t know what happened, Elias,” he replied, tense. “For now, it doesn’t make any more sense to me than it does to you, but I’m not going to jump to conclusions before getting all the facts.”
“The facts are simple: you won’t find anything, then sprout out a half-assed scientific explanation to rationalize all this mess!”
“Yes, because those crazy theories about witches bringing back black magic swarming the Internet are so much more credible,” Joel snapped, impossibly sarcastic. “I didn’t think you were one of those people. As long as we don’t know who did it…”
Because he really had to ask?
“Are you shitting me?”
The cautious tone Willa’d used made us turn back. She pointed to the marks the blade-like nails had left on the ground: it didn’t take us long to recognize the shape engraved in the concrete across the width of the bridge. That fucking bee.
I turned to Joel, somber.
“I know. Don’t start.”
He observed thoughtfully the different lines, sighing.
“They’ve done discreet before. That’s not discreet.”
I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my suit, inhaling deeply.
“What were you saying, again? They dissociated themselves from Varga, is that it?”
He glared at me and I just shrugged, not sorry in the least. It was time we really started wondering why the Imagined Collective was so against the world.
Here are the links to the other chapters :