Nicholas Alexander Hayes
The Illusive Companion

As I put a tin of beans on the hot plate in the sink, the air raid sirens silenced.

"No meat?" Auntie said from the john.

I shook my head and glanced in the mirror, cringing at how my five o'clock shadow pushed through my last coat of foundation. We expected guests since there was no longer an imminent threat of death or dismemberment. Luckily, the civil defense patrols would thin our guests' numbers by returning many to their registered homes.

I fished in the pockets of my once fitted coat that now swamped me. I rifled through my gray and green ration coupons until I found my snapshot-my face chubby from pre-police action chocolate and liquor was obscured by a smoky haze. The thick brown liquid around the beans started to boil and I thrust the picture back in my jacket.

I poured a mouthful of steaming beans into my mouth. An errant bean fell on one of my navy suede pumps. No use in cleaning it, the pair was worn to shreds. After unplugging the hot plate, I thrust our spoon into the can and brought it to Auntie who was plucking his scraggly chest hair from his sagging pecs.

"Where do you think I'll find my stranger?" I asked for perhaps the hundred-thousandth time, returning to the mirror to finish my primping. From my green-stained jewelry box, I took a pink broach with lavender rhinestones on the cardinal points and fastened my shimmering purple scarf around my neck.

He took a dainty bite, guiding the beans through the scarlet caked on his lips. "Here. Where else?" he said. He most likely meant don't leave the cottage, don't leave the blocks of toilets and rows of urinals we call home.

With a gentle smile, I pulled his soft sky-blue dressing gown over the marbling of varicose veins in his calves.

I left.

Outside torrents of water from the cottage roof caught the last white light of day before splashing into the crowd of unknown shadows. My jacket was spangled with beads of water before I made it to the street. The shadows trailed behind me only for a moment before surrounding me. I said that I wanted to see where the shadows who used to visit were and they insisted on leading me. We scurried down the street hoping to avoid any Civil Defense patrols.

The shadows's broad synchronized gestures and jerking bravado made them seem like the supporting cast of a Bollywood feature. The cast was constantly losing integrity as light from between rubble, plagued elms and the occasional boutique caused some individuals to dissipate and merge with others who would double or lengthen or shorten depending on the amount and direction of light refracting and reflecting from the boutique windows filled with deviled ham and rainbows of suede shoes.

We came to a manhole cover and as many of us as could put our hands around the rim to force it open while the others pressed against our shoulders and backs to witness our progress. We finally threw the heavy disc aside and scurried down the rusty ladder.

The sewer was a vast boulevard lined with red brick and lead pipes. A fetid yet fecund trickle of human water, sick and bobbing ordure ran well below the high-water mark. The difference between above and beneath, which before the current police action was demarked by harsh taboos, had been inverted and the tunnel's solid structure seemed a citadel the shadows might share for trade.

My guides showed me the pipes that lead to a famous playwright's lavatory. They explained that he also had a predilection for their company and lamented his trial and execution by dismemberment after he was caught in a compromising position with his shadow.

I expressed reasonable sorrow, caressing the cold pipe as they ushered me along.

One seized me and kissed the condensation from my hand. His translucent smoky fingers interlaced with mine and I wondered if he was my stranger. I turned to look at his face but he receded into another who came forward and held my hand to his barely corporeal chest. Others put their hands on me, patting out reassurance, stroking my neck and thighs to coax a more than chaste excitement.

Footsteps clamored down the ladder and a bright torch swept my guides away. I struggled to see past the light. A man in a gray helmet, which read in a clumsy scarlet lettering Civil Defense approached and studied his clipboard. He purred: "Son, is this your registered home?"