Reversal of Fortune

appeared in After Hours #14, Spring 1992

copyright (c) 1992 Kenneth Kittlitz

I've come to hate the city lights. Not the street lights or the house lights, but the lights of the skyscrapers, arrogantly shining in offices that sit empty and still. Have you noticed? There's no reason for them to be on, not this late, but they are. They anger me, wherever I may go... even here.

Especially here.

Riding out tonight, I passed a beach party. Smooth faces lit by the fires, soft, scornfi laughter, a casually thrown beer bottle. My face burned, I pedaled faster. Only when I'd done the last half-mile, up the mild slope to the left edge, did I start to relax. I sat on a rock, a lit joint in my hand, and listened. To the waves, foaming on the rocks that dot the entrance to the bay. To the wind, blowing mournfully through the rusted ventilation slots of the gun turret. They do things, the wind and the waves. Once, after a bad storm, a British half-sovereign lay here glittering and golden. I picked it up, Queen Victoria's ugly old face outlined by the flame of my lighter, then threw it far, back into the ocean. It was worth money, a lot of money, but it came from a shipwreck. From someone who is dead.

A high peal of laughter sounds faintly behind me. I turn and look back, see only dim figures around the fires. They never come up here, the people who live in the fine houses of the bay. To see the gun, which sits ugly and alone. To see the gun, which is theirs.

In World War II, the bay people decided they were in danger. The Japanese would come, land an invasion force. Because these people were rich, so very rich, the government listened, and the navy built their defence, an armored turret with an old 15-inch battleship gun in it. A rail siding was laid to provide the gun with shells, sailors and officers were stationed in the turret, and the whole idea was ridiculous. The bay was and is small, too small for an invasion, and besides, those rocks can be deadly. But that didn't matter; the bay people were happy, comforted by the gun's long dark barrel jutting out over the rocks, and could live as they had always lived: days spent in the city, working in top-floor offices, nights spent at the bay, sipping cocktails and listening to the waves. No blackouts, not for them.

The sea's getting rough -- a strong wave kicks spray into my face. I lean back, eyes closed, licking salt from my lips.

In 1944, when it was long obvious the Japanese were never going to come, an accident happened. The navy was training gunners, using old shells from World War I, when one exploded in the breech. A three-inch thick steel hatch that should have been closed, wasn't; the blast travelled down to the gun's fully-stocked magazine. Twenty-nine men died, but I very much doubt that more than a handfi were ever identified. The turret was blown slightly to the left, one side rising nearly six inches off the ground.

The government put a wrought iron fence around the turret, and erected a small plaque. It is now illegible. The gun barrel juts up, at maximum elevation, pointing quixotically at the sky. No one comes up here at all these days, I don't think, except me.

I toss aside the remains of my last joint and look at my watch. Midnight. I've got a 9 o'clock class, and it's a half-hour ride back to the city. I stand up, stretching, and think I see something move. Brief, just a flash, over by the turret.

Hey Keith, we should go after that freak... ever trashed a bike?

Tom, your imagination never ceases... C'mon girls, this could be fun.

My heart pounds. I run down the slope and see my bike, untouched. I go to it, unhook the pump and flashlight. The pump is heavy, usefi against dogs, and as good a weapon as I'm likely to find. I stand, squinting. Just nerves, I think, or the pot. No! Something moving, inside the fence! I run, not fast, trying to be quiet, and grasp one of the cold, iron spikes. I pull myself up, one-handed, trying to use my legs, trying not to drop anything. Almost on top, get a foot over, one more inch... I'm tilting, losing my balance! The bike pumps falls to the other side as I clutch frantically at a spike. I hang for a moment, feeling horribly exposed, then jump. Where's the pump? I fumble at the flashlight, then realize that the beam would make me a perfect target. If someone tackles me now...

No one does. My foot brushes against the pump, I grab it gratefully. Easy now... I walk slowly to the turret, ears and eyes straining. Nothing. Continue along the side, turn the corner...

The government welded a huge steel bolt across the turret doors, in 1945. They've been welded shut every time I've come up here. Until now.

The left door looks slightly open. I stare vacantly, at first not believing, then beginning to wonder. It's been two weeks since I've been here, and acetylene torches aren't hard to come by.

You mean people died here???

Yeah, babe. Not our people, of course. Immigrants. Micks, Italians, Chinks. Actually no, I think the Chinks were put in internment camps. Whoever they were, you couldn't tell afterwards. The explosion tore them right apart. Right fucking apart.

Oh Larry, you're getting hard!

Mmm, yeah babe, I guess I am. Can you fix me?

A dull rage starts. I walk to the door and stop. It's open, all right -- the bolt's been cut. In the darkness I can't tell how. I hesitate, wondering again about the flashlight. No. Whoever's done this, I want to surprise them. As I wiggle through the opening, gripping my bike pump, a small clear voice tells me I'm being very stupid.

Then I'm in. It's pitch black, no moonlight to shine through the viewports. I take a step forward, hearing metal creak uneasily under my feet. The voice was right. I see myself, falling down the hatch into the blackened ruins of the magazine, lying there with a broken leg, hearing laughter and the sounds of the turret's doors being shut, this time forever.

The darkness seems to rub against me. I click on the flashlight.

It is bad, worse than I'd ever imagined. At first I can't decipher the heap of metal in front of me, then I realize it must be the breech assembly of the gun, mangled beyond all recognition. The work of one shell... I shiver, playing the light in a slow arc across the inside of the turret. Blackened walls, rusted hunks of steel, skeletal catwalks, twisted and broken. There's the hatch door, frozen open for all time, beside it something that might have been a hoist, used to hai shells and cordite charges level with the gun. It starts crumbling as I run a finger along it, flakes of rust settling on the flashlight. I step back, fascinated by how they affect the beam. In a way, this place has a terrible beauty, like pictures of the sunken Titanic, and I'm alone here, quite alone. I'll come back tomorrow with a camera -- no telling when someone will notice that door.


I stiffen, pointing the flashlight, feeling my upper lip curl. Someone is standing with his back to me, looking out one of the viewports. He doesn't seem to notice me, and I can't quite focus on him. The bike pump is heavy in my hand.

"Hey!" I say, and the figure turns.

He might be an officer, something in the stance... I can't tell from the tatters of clothing. I can't read his expression, either, because his face is burned away.

It is suddenly very cold.

I swing the flashlight, slowly, some lower part of my brain issuing the commands. There are more of them. Slumped against the breech, one leg, no arms. Leaning over a railing, intact from the lower jaw down. A bloody torso, opened, close enough to touch.

The bicycle pump falls to the floor, rolls into the hatch. I do not hear it hit bottom.

The officer-thing starts walking towards me, not slowly. He makes no sound. The small clear voice is back, telling me to hurl myself into the hatch.

A charred mass of flesh and bone stretches out, almost reaching my face. It has a ring finger. I try to move, my legs are numb. The flashlight shines on the officer-thing's blackened teeth, grinning fixedly. Don't touch me, I want to say. Don't touch me, don't touch me.

A drill bit tipped with agony bites my cheek. Cold, cold, so cold it burns. Spreading, constricting. Can't move. The flashlight drops and goes out, leaving me in darkness, in darkness with the dead. They're coming for me now, I know it. All of them. Lurching across the floor, boiled eyes fixed on me, broken hands reaching for me. A scream freezes in my throat, in my mind, I can't breathe, I'm falling...

And the cold is gone, as if it had never been there at all. I'm slumped onto my knees, still shivering, gasping for air. I force myself to look up.

He wears the shoulder strap of a lieutenant. About thirty, vaguely handsome. Smiling. Behind him, two sailors, kids really, stripped to the waist. Honest, open faces, wanting only a decent chance, willing to serve their country.

Then I notice the flashlight, lying broken in front of me, and stand up in confusion. Strong high wattage bulbs hang from the ceiling. They light the scene well: sailors at their posts, waiting for orders; the hoist, its pulleys and gears gleaming with oil, supporting a shell; the breech of the gun, open and ready.

I look at the lieutenant. The lieutenant looks at me. He points to a chair on a small raised platform. I go to it and sit. Eyes watch me from all sides. I say the words.

The turret trembles as it begins to rotate, the vibrations louder than I would have expected. I put my eye against the sighting lens, wondering if the barrel can depress far enough, and catch a flicker of light. The city lights, staining the night sky, shining with their arrogant brilliance. My muscles tense, but only for the barest of moments. Then I smile. As the beach fires come into view, people beside them standing and pointing, I realize that the city lights do not bother me now. No, not at all.

They'll be going out soon enough.