Lazlo the Bear was kicked to death one night by three men half his age, but he didn’t let that define him. Instead he swallowed the unfortunate incident whole and washed it down with cider and thick fingers the next morning.
It was unfair, of course: he owed no one. None of that shit, he would tell them, everywhere. But nothing is fair, his grandmother whispered, and he knew she spoke the truth. For she was sly and strong like him, and hung neatly around his neck.
He didn’t go to the funeral, but he watched. Little robin Lazlo in the bushes: what a joke. Only the strangers came – skulls bared, eyeing him carefully where he hid. The priest spoke tight English sadnesses and knew nothing of him, but his kind heart beat so loudly that it was enough for Lazlo. He left his last tall tale on a hook by the chapel door and slipped out.
So, Lazlo is dead. Those faces at the centre would be so surprised now by his liberties, his open plans, his hollow bones. He should slide through the secure doors and peck at their papers, just so, just to show them. Sign here, sigh there, Lazlo the Swift.
He still longs to go home, but the wind is brisk and even now he can’t fly that far. So, he sticks to his old haunts: corners, bridges, anywhere he can see all the exits. Crossed legs in the tunnel again, holding his jacket closed. It is green and smells of the old trains, his father’s oiled knuckles and his sweat. Here, his local connection. The stepping echoes lap at his sleeping bag and wash his feet. These are the ordinary souls who slide along and think of the evening and do not notice they are passing. He sees their fears drip sidelong over their lips and onto upturned collars, splashing with the rain into the cracks around his knees.
Sitting and flitting from pitch to pitch, he hasn’t changed much yet. Sweet tea shakes his hands, the mornings freeze his blood. All those little cuts. No one meets his eye or his questions in the pit, only these days at least he knows why. Unobligated, outreach pass by, ticking him off with padded jackets and sympathetic shrugs. Struck through, Lazlo has moved on to a different list. That’s how it is, after: you look just the same but your reasons are different.
But some things unsettle him. He is surprisingly hungry for a dead man. Unlooked for, his thoughts are fleshy and hot. He still sucks on the dregs and the ends dug out of the earth, but they do not nourish him. For there’s mud in his lungs now – a slow burning peat. He coughs out flames and beats his chest for emphasis, one handed as if about to clear his throat and sing. A baritone, like his grandfathers. The lighter fire licks his face clean and blackens his eyes.
Now, for the first time, Lazlo fears the daylight. This is when the strangers come, stepping out of fine lines in the walls, watching him even when he flies away. The strangers are still. He cannot see their hearts. They stand out like oil on canvas and he would not want to have to beg from them, it is certain. As each dawn approaches he sows his oaths among the concrete and feels his grandmother hiss, sliding a little tighter. He tries to spit, for luck, but his tongue is stopped with river water. More than ever now, he needs to speak to those bastards, his friends. He can hear their good teeth clacking when they laugh about him and tip back their necks. Their cold arses on the steps of the empty shelter, their pulse in fingers wrapped tight around dog rope. He used to pat their backs when he said goodbye. He cried easily then, but he needs to drink, he thinks. Someone should warn them.
Hungrier still in the dark, Lazlo waits. Who like him doesn’t know how to wait, after all? All those hours at the station. Strip lit in corners under the heater – giving no warmth, eternally delayed. No point in patting himself down or trying to sit up straight to look busy. Best to hold his breath and hope he smells like he belongs. He can’t turn sharp corners to run as he used to. He can’t scare them off, push his head against theirs to breathe bricked up curses: Lazlo the Bull. The strangers are coming for him.
Naturally cheerful, he knows that at least when they do, he will eat: they will show him how. All those little bites. For him, the three men first. Half men now and they do not know it. Short sleeved muscles, unsparing sinew, orange skin curled in the gravel. Go back to where you came from! He will squeeze their chests and tumble them under his lips, what a joke. Lazlo the Bear.
He laughs. A blanket of soil pours over him, tasting, finally, of home.
Emma Kernahan lives in Gloucestershire in the UK. Now in her thirties, she is a newcomer to poetry, short fiction and existential crisis because she doesn’t know what the hell she was up to in her twenties. She writes in supermarket car parks while the kids are asleep or in front of Paw Patrol, because she heard that’s how Hemingway worked.
For light relief, she is a support worker for homeless and vulnerably housed people. She’s a member of Stroud Writer’s Circle and was a recent winner of Stroud Short Stories, and has recently had some limited success blogging about feminism as Crappy Living. She curates a library of images called Where Women Write, with a woman from New Zealand who lives in Denmark who she hasn’t met yet. It’s open for submissions.