Cauled Home

Short days and long nights: you grow even pastier than usual in a light filtered almost entirely through a thin film of water. “You must love it here,” chuckles one of the others, digging an over-familiar elbow into your ribs for the last time.

True enough, you suppose (pause to wipe your lips clean, your chin, your jaw, your neck—you’ll need to replace that shirt now); there’s definitely more room here, more time, more empty corners waiting to be filled, but you find yourself missing the sun somehow more here, rather than less. At least elsewhere you could fret about what you couldn’t have. Here you can stare directly up at the sky at noon and see only a vaguely brighter patch of indifferent sky. It’s all so unsatisfying.

Then too is the cold. You’re always cold, regardless of the weather, but there’s something about the insistent watery chill here that plagues your dreams with images of decay: the eye of a possum misting over, a mouse mildewed into the upholstery of a car seat, mushrooms growing from the corpse of a fallen tree. You pick at your skin obsessively, terrified of moss taking root, of lichen blooming out of some disregarded crack.

Empress Josephine

She woke up in the morgue, the mark of the cannula still worn into her upper lip, more clear-headed than she’d been in years. She sat up, just like that, without thinking about it, without having to plan every step carefully. Standing was an equal joy, no shifting her weight out past her knees, no rocking back and forth, no hoping she’d catch the handles of the walker and not fall on her forearms again. Standing! She laughed, the loudest sound she’d made since they moved up from Olympia, the same clear voice she’d heard in her head, then kept laughing, a minute, two, five, just to see how long she could go. She got bored before she had to stop.

There was someone else in the building with her, she could tell, someone warm, so she went looking, luxuriating just to be moving again.

“Oh, shit, you’re alive!” He was young, 22, maybe. College-aged; he looked like her grandson. He made his face look sympathetic. “Come sit down. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Do you remember your name? We’ll find your family. Let me look at your tag.”

She broke his neck easy as standing, then settled down to eat, still laughing. She’d never felt so alive.

Mycology

You swing between poles: one century you are self-effacing, invisible, a nondescript face in the crowd, forgotten even while they look at you. Other centuries you are a wildfire, the cynosure of civilization, a glorious polar star at the center of your own personal empire. Two sides of one door, you are never completely either, unknowable as deep water.

This decade you are deep-rooted and widespread as a fairy ring. They pass, like this one, this man brilliant as an arc light, into your circle not even recognizing your border. You seep into his lungs, into his soft tissues, and feast small feasts upon his life. He dims, just slightly. They say, who know him, that he has settled into his community: you smile inside their cells.

Death is wasteful, this century. You delight in populations, in aggregate. Porous bones, thickened skin, intermittent fevers. The water is fine, but they take you in with every swallow, every breath of heavy, humid air.

For This Meal We Give Thanks

You never do get used to waking up in the dark. Bleary-eyed, you shower, dress, poke listlessly at a piece of toast slowly going soggy and limp on your plate. The butter is rancid: you gag at the smell when you lift the lid on the plate but can’t muster the energy to throw it out.

It’s a windowless hole you live in, with a flight of narrow stairs leading from the peeling door down to the concrete floor. The whole room floods when the rain comes from the east; you clean and clean but there’s always the faint smell of mildew coming from somewhere.

The rest of the line is mostly all zombies, haggard and colorless in the bleach of the halogen lights, muffled out and alien with face masks and ear guards. You approach soundlessly from behind, exert steady slow pressure to gain attention; nothing fast, nothing startling. Cartoon gravestones posted on the break room walls memorialize fallen workers like HASTE MAKES WASTE and SHOULDA GONE SLOW. You can’t remember the last time you saw the sun, can’t remember what an unfiltered human voice sounds like. Everything is concrete, aluminum, moving lines, sparks.

It’s a nothing night in the middle of November when you find the body. You’re shocked, at first, more by the offensive red of the blood than by anything else. You don’t know the man, though his name tag says he was S. Patrick: it doesn’t mean anything to you. You recognize the marks on his throat, though, and on his wrists and elbows. Sloppy work. You cluck to yourself, and bend down to finish what’s left, shuddering with rare pleasure, before feeding S. Patrick back to the machine.

The next day they’ve reset the accident counter and there’s a mandatory staff meeting. You scan the crowd, looking for a brighter eye, rosier cheeks, a knowing twist to the cheek. It’s been ages since you’ve had a trainee, but everyone is safer when each person follows the rules. This, at least, you’ve taken to heart.

Rossum’s Universal Romance

You have fallen in love, as much as you can, and spend your endless nights hanging outside his apartment, looking down at his dark windows. He stands motionless behind the glass until morning throws the stone that puts the night to flight. He could see you, invisible though you are, if he but turned his head, but he doesn’t. You are two statues, together, and you incline toward him, like a magnet toward the poles.

He is perfectly built for mediocrity. He might be from any of a dozen races, might be an old 25 or a young 60, might, in this light or that, be male or female. He blends perfectly into any crowd, a half-familiar face in a hundred neighborhoods. You have never seen such impossible perfection, and sawdust leaks from your every empty pore for him.

You edge closer and closer until you are his shadow, stretched two steps behind as he moves through the city, one seat back on the train, one breath away in the bars, if you breathed, or he did. Neither of you drink, or eat, but sit pallidly apart in restaurants, picking at your waters and your steaks.

You urge promises through his windows, blandishments through his walls. One night he opens the window for you and you ooze inside, curl like fog around his unheated flesh as he stands, recharging, staring unblinking at the red glow of the city. He could see you if he but turned his head, but he doesn’t.