[prologue]

One candle remained lit, its feeble glow casting uncertain shadows along the earthen walls. The rest had burned out long ago, weary with the effort of bringing light into the world. Wax dripped slowly round their bases, cementing the tallow pillars in place and creating a makeshift altar to the only god that mattered here.

The bottle was heavy, the glass warped and cracked. The last candle was brought carefully to its lip, the wax forming an angry red seal atop the cork as the room plunged into darkness.

A low moan crawled from the corner, seeking both mercy and shelter.

“Hush now. You know what comes next.”

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Weight

It was weeks later when he saw her again. They were in a bar. He was with someone else.

She had waved briefly before returning to her conversation, wrapping herself in the protection of distraction.

At some point in the evening, they found themselves near enough to speak, alone enough to try.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Even these words feel uncomfortable now.

“How’s life,” trails into a noncommittal sound at the look on her face.

“It was good to see you.”

After a brief hesitation, they embrace, letting go quickly because even their bodies are strangers now.

And after she is gone, the weight of their last conversation still seems heavy in the air.

“But I love you.”

“…I know.”

Still

It’s okay that it’s over.

She pauses. It is painful to continue. He takes her hand gently, timidly, as though he would rather leave it resting by her side. But the warmth of this small connection, this thing that has not yet been stolen gives her courage.

It has been difficult to love you this way.

She is embarrassed when the tears slip freely over her face. She wishes she could be stronger.

It doesn’t seem fair to love so passionately, but be so confined…I wish there were more ways that I was able to tell you what you mean to me.

His silence is agonizing, but it hurts even worse when he breaks it.

“Goodbye.”

Please, she begs, please let me love you in my limited way.

He slowly lets her hand go and stands to leave.

But before he reaches the door, he looks back to her propped up in the hospital bed and scans her searching eyes – so desperately alive, they seem nearly to scream.

Ten Days

You texted me on your way home from work:

“store first. want anything?”

And I responded with a lengthy, but succinct list of specific organic goods I knew you would never spend your money on.  And I was already planning my own trip to correct your oversights, working on the one-line cut as I passed by you on my way out the door.

“No, don’t worry. Dinner wasn’t waiting on you.”

I did not answer the phone when it rang – you have this way of easing my tension, even when I have every right to be mad that you are forty minutes late.  And I was not ready to let go just yet.  I kept the message.

I have wondered more than a few times if it was scripted – it sounds so clinical, as though it is not a person on the other end but a machine.

“There’s been an accident.”

Ten days ago, the world ended over low-fat yogurt and granola, while I worried that you were late for dinner.

Dissolution

It starts with a fence.  Pieces of bloodied rabbit pulled and ripped through it; as if whatever ravenous force that visited during the night had not the patience to bother with gates and chose instead to strain its meal, live and squealing, through the chain link.  The noise it must have made, as it struggled to resist dismemberment by unrelenting metal and hungry jaws.  If the wind quieted, surely there would be something of a whisper of those panicked cries for mercy left over to caress the ear and invade the mind.  But the sound of feet drowns out any plaintive echoes with their crunch of winter grass.

Stench, however, does not passively wait to be noticed but embraces the nose and throat, stroking affectionately until it is recognized.  The fetid wall of warmth reaches out to her, tenderly leaving traces of eviscerated entrails on the tongue.  The grey-orange glow of the shrouded sun illuminates the frantic mess of fur and claret stained dirt.  She stands, locked frozen in that moment, as death leers merrily in her face.  One does not expect to trip over mortality this soon in the day, when the darkness is just starting its reluctant retreat, and the sudden revelation of demise seems to stop the very breath in her lungs.  As death looks at her, she looks back, cold and unbreathing and stiff; a caricature of her own end.

She lurches forward a few steps, more than a little spellbound by annihilation.  Then just as suddenly, she pivots away until she faces the house again.  She leaves the broken bits of beast strewn and tangled in and around the fence and returns silently to the warmth of the indoors.  Innocence casts a distinctive pattern as it hurries across the yard, almost skimming the ground, buoyed by a purity of soul uncommon in adults.  It makes the darkness so deep.

The Keeper of Lost Memories

The room was mostly quiet, except for a low and constant hum; sometimes discernible as the purring of a swarm of cicadas on a warm night, others one would swear it was the howl of wind through the fir trees.  The room was mostly dark, except for a dim and shifting glow emanating from the walls; reminiscent sometimes of a fire just about to die out, others it called to mind the light of distant fireflies blinking in unison as they attempted to mate.  If curiosity was strong enough, and the atmosphere ensnared desire, imagination, it was possible to make out the barest scent of ocean spray breaking on the eastern shore, or perhaps the delicious musk of well read books, their pages thick with the promise of more than words.  The very moment sensory stimulation found identification on the tongue, in the mind, it was lost and replaced with something equally transient; allowed to linger only as long as it was unknown.

It was in this room of entropy where she could be found, if she could be found at all.

She was the slightest motion in the corner of the eye on a still night, the chill of winter in a fastened room.  She was fleeting, temporary, and yet, more enduring than most.  She was the keeper of lost memories.

Upon closer inspection, the light did not originate from the walls themselves, but from an array of glass bottles that lined the shelves and filled the entirety of the space.  Although their number was vast, no two were alike in either shape or color, though each was carefully stoppered with a rough hewn wooden cork.  If the shadows fell just right, it was possible to see her, drifting through the room, pondering the bottles.  The glass was unique, wondrous, made of the sand collected from a thousand shores.  Some were deep in color, ambers, plums, burgundies, while others were so translucent they seemed almost to disappear as soon as the eye had passed.  Each design mirrored the singular memory it held within its void.

She knew, of course, what each one contained; but knowledge seemed so inadequate when compared to original experience.  What did the bite of cold rain on bare skin really feel like, was it at all similar to plunging into the lake in early spring.

Sometimes, when she was feeling especially vacant, transparent, she would close her eyes and thrust her hand amongst the glass, clasping tight to whichever memory felt right and open it.  It was a reckless act, one of pure abandon, a momentary loss of control; the freeing of the past.

And there it was: the soft pressure of his fingertips on her skin.  She tilts her head into the sensation, feeling the smooth surface of his knuckles move gently from her nose to her ear.  Turning into his touch, she runs her lips over each one of his fingers, savoring the salty sweet taste of him.  She breaths him in.  His lips feather so lightly across her neck, her shoulders.  She counts the times he kisses her in the dark.  She longs to turn and kiss him, but she is held firm by the softness of his touch, it seems so easily lost.  But soon the heat of his breath on her neck, the slick of where his skin meets hers, is just too much.

She opened her eyes.

And it was gone.  She was left holding an empty bottle that once housed the memory of someone else’s love.  She tried, futilely, closing her eyes again, but there was nothing left; once opened and  relived, the memory was lost, and not even she could retrieve it again.

Prologue: An Awakening

She awoke in the same terrifying darkness.  The emptiness that was now so familiar, but never less oppressive.  She had been wandering in the crushing blackness for as long as she could remember; it was all she remembered, like recollection and time had been stripped from her awareness. She could touch it, smell it, even taste the dark.  It was her entire existence or all of existence.  If it could be called that.  If it could be called anything at all.  She longed to perceive anything except the nothingness as it swallowed her.  If she could think of something, imagine anything beyond the empty suffocating dark, perhaps she could find what was missing, what was lost, remember what she was.

Words were beginning to fold together and lose both shape and intention.  She could feel them twisting and writhing around her in the abyss.  It was as though they were an extension of her body – searching as desperately as she to find a way out, to define obscurity.  But instead they crowded upon her, causing the darkness to press in further.  If she could quiet the black, stifle the movement of her thoughts, it might be peace.  In the midst of the terrible chasm of nothing, she craved silence, begged for the words to release her.

The dark pressed harder as she strained to resist, demanded to know what she was, who she was.  She refused to accept this reality.  It was there.  Just out of reach of her comprehension she could almost sense the hole like a bottle or glass drained and then obliterated. The nothingness smothered her, enveloped her.  With the last of her conscious she defied and felt it beading on her like droplets.  Wet.  She felt the wetness, the first recognition of anything and with hope-filled panic she grasped for it and demanded it.  Quickly it spread and continued to devour her but now she could feel; she could feel it soak her.

Liquid rolled over fingers and found slick sensation on what must be her arms and down her back between legs thrashing against the tension of the pressure.  Wetness touched and made real the parts of her naked body as it squirmed in the dark made corporal.  It now stung open eyes and filled burning nostrils, pain greeted her as water poured down her throat and constricted her lungs.  She cried out as she found reality.  Dark black flowed around her and pushed her body as limbs flailed and she choked and began to drown as she took her first breath of existence.

She fought against the current and kicked as she clung to life.  Her chest and mind blurred and burned, deprived of air and reason.  She could almost see her own form struggling through the thinning dark of the water.  The distance called to her, pushing her forward.  Then her fingers found light.

Her head erupted from the water.  Cold and sound and air all hit her.  She gasped and coughed as she slipped in and out of the sea.  Bobbing weakly, her limp body vomited water and clung frantically to the bits of air she could.  She was out of the nothing, out of the darkness, she would cry if she wasn’t dying.  For countless waves, she faded in and out of consciousness, until finally she moaned and felt coarse sand on her back.

It was light when she woke.  The move to stand was slow, instinctual.  Feeling every bone, every muscle stretch and extend to unfurl her to her full height.  Arms reached out above her head, fingers searching the air for the electricity she sensed coursing somewhere nearby, the coming storm.  It suddenly seemed important to delight in the ability to command her body, to live.  Though she could not have said why. 

In fact, she could not have said much of anything at all.  She opened her mouth wide, running tongue over teeth, experimenting with lips.  Satisfied that things were as it seemed they should be, she set about choosing a word to release.  She could feel it bubbling up in her throat, like the last bit of ocean salt being expelled from her lungs.

Her mind was full of twisted hallways, packed with gilded cages, each containing a single word.  It was silent here, while they remained entrapped.  She considered allowing it to remain, for she felt that she had desired this stillness but could no longer recall the reason.  The crowded hush seemed wrong, out of place here where the waves roared softly in and the sand cut gently at her feet.  This is a place that called for sound.

She chose a word roiling and undulating, barely contained within its bars.  It burned her as it rushed past, filling her ears with a sorrowful ecstasy.  It consumed her before she set it free.

“A—.  Alive.”

She laughed joyously, effervescently at the texture of letters on her tongue and quickly sought another to fill the void.

“Delicious. Crystalline. Sonorous.”

She pulled them out and tried them on, reveling in their weight, consistency.  It was addicting.  Each one tasted unique in her mouth; from the velvet sensuality of “susurration” to the bitter tang of “cacophony”.  She felt ravenous.

“Amorphous. Dulcet. Felicity. Resplendent. Somnolent.”

Their golden cages crushed beneath the force of her voice; she ripped them apart, one by one, tearing down bars and twisting open the doors.  She flung the words from her as rapidly as possible; relishing the righteous noise they made as their consonants crashed together and fell around her.  She could almost feel the sharp sting on her skin as they made contact.  She paused before a single cage, smaller than the others and shrouded in shadow, almost as though it was trying to hide.

“Elena.”

This word.  There was a hush, momentarily, as this word settled down around her, enveloped her completely, became her.

“Elena.”

It slipped over her shoulders and hung comfortably around her neck as though it belonged there.  A name, her name, a definition of self.  It grounded her, sunk her toes further into the cold sand.  She rolled it over her teeth and back around between her ears.  She pulled it tight and let it warm her.  How could she have forgotten?

Writer’s Block

            It was a sharp, unfamiliar pain.  Not unbearable, but enough to make her twist in her seat.  It felt a little like being stabbed in her left kidney.  Not that she had personally experienced that particular sensation before now, but she imagined this was fairly on point.  As it were.

            She eased her foot off the break and prepared to turn.  Blinker.  Look.  Routine.  The gnawing pain in her back returned and she closed her eyes to it. 

            “Fuck.”

            A horn blared as a Honda swerved to avoid her.  She jerked her jeep into the center lane.  Her hands gripped the wheel tight at ten and two.  Her back spasmed.

            “Fuck.”

 

            She was exhausted.  It took all her energy to let the dog out before collapsing on the couch.  That was where he found her, staring nearly comatose at reruns of a 90s sitcom.  She hated sitcoms. 

            “How was your day?”  He tried to reach out but her leg was withdrawn before he made contact.

            “Okay.  I’m tired.  My head still hurts.”

            He looked at her, almost sadly, for a moment.

            “Did you take the medicine I picked up for you?”

            “Yes. No. Well, yes, once, but it didn’t help so no, not anymore.  I’m so tired.”

            She laid back down, curling even closer in on herself.  When he looked at her, he had trouble finding the woman he loved.  He wasn’t sure if she had ever even been there.  So he just sighed and tried again.

            “So go to sleep.”

            “I can’t.  My head hurts.  I could sleep if my head didn’t hurt so much.  And my back.  Now my back hurts.”

            He ran his fingers through his hair.  It was starting to fall out he noticed.  Was it stress, or was he just that old now?

            “Why don’t you do something to take your mind off of it? We could go for a walk, see a movie…”

            He drifted off when he took in her withering look.

“What about writing? You used to love to write.  You wrote all the time.  And you wouldn’t even have to leave the couch.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“The words are stuck.”

 

She lined the asparagus neatly along the edge of her plate.  She ran the rice around in extensive mosaics.  She ate nothing.

“Don’t you like it?”

“Not hungry.”

“Are you okay?”

She slowly set her fork down on the table and let her eyes rise to meet his.  Then she screamed.

“MY HEAD HURTS. My head always hurts.  So no.  I am not fucking okay.  I can’t sleep.  I almost ran someone off the road today.  Now my back is killing me.  And my head.  Still.  Hurts.”

She punctuated her speech by flinging her plate across the room.  The asparagus she had so neatly lined up now clung to the wall. 

She left the kitchen without looking at him again and went to bed.  She was asleep in a dark room when he finally came upstairs.  He did not speak.  He did not reach out.  He closed his eyes to her.

 

In the morning, he awoke wet and sticky.  His arms and chest were covered in a slick, glistening black liquid.  Confused, he threw the sheets back. 

Ink.

It ran out of her in rivers.  From her eyes, ears, nose and mouth.  Perhaps from other places too.  It pooled beneath her, dark and reproachful.

“Anna?”

She made no reply.

When he looked closer, he realized that there were words, sentences flowing from her.  Things he had never read before.  Things she had talked of writing but never gotten around to.  Words that had been kept caged too long and had now burst unbidden from her.

He wiped susurration from her neck, musing at its black mark on his hand.  Then he got up, gently, to get a pen and some paper. 

Rabid

    It’s almost funny.  You could almost say I’d been preparing for this my whole life.  I had seen every movie.  Read every book, every comic.  I had video games.  I even recorded mini-series. My costume was a staple at every Halloween party and Comic-Con event.  People expected to see me in my best gaping wounds and shuffle step, they talked about it afterwards.  Who could blame them?  I really committed when I was in character.  So when I came home to find one in my kitchen, I suppose I wasn’t entirely surprised, not really.  I suppose I’d been waiting for it for a long time.

    What did shock me was to see my wife sprawled on the floor, hands pushing feebly against its back, mouth gaping noiselessly, as it ate at her. Her eyes met mine for a moment and there I saw the fear, the panic.  The floor was wet, sticky, slick.  The smell was grotesque.  I found her eyes again.  Silent, pleading, tears streaming.

    I never questioned my next move.  Most days I still don’t.

    I reached for a knife from the counter and lurched unsteadily towards the grotesque pair.  I could not take my eyes from her.  She made a sound then, I think she was trying to scream, maybe call out to me.  But fear caught the noise in her throat and it trailed off helplessly.  It never even noticed me.  It just kept eating at her, its teeth and jaws working away as she struggled to push it from her.  My arm seemed to move on its own accord, plunging again and again into the base of its skull.  For the first time it turned its attention on me, arms flailing as I hacked indiscriminately.  My wife screamed then, harsh and hard in my ear as I brought myself close to finish it.  

    Once it lay still on the ground beside us, I took her hand in mine.  I wiped tears, snot and blood from my face, tried to make myself a little more presentable.  I even tried to smooth my hair down.  I pulled her in close to me, to calm her harried breathing.  Many of my haphazard strokes had cut her as well.  Across her face, arms, hands, neck.  But the damage had been done long before I arrived.

    She blinked at me.  She tried to speak but only managed to spill blood from her lips and her ruined throat.  Her hair was plastered to her skin, red and wet, clinging to her face.  It hurt me more than it hurt her, I am sure of it.    I think I whispered something to her, there at the end, but all I could concentrate on was what had to be done.

    I retched when it was over.  Doubling into the sink and emptying myself.  I sat on the floor then and held what was left of her, sobbing until my throat hurt and I was dizzy.  That was when they came for me.  Or maybe it was later, it became hard to keep things straight.  I may have gone outside to breath.  They must have been attracted by the blood.  Or maybe I didn’t, I honestly don’t know.

    They came for me all the same.  So I ran.  I ran until my lungs burned and my head was swimming.  I can’t even remember how I ended up here.  But here I am and I have sat in this room, alone, for weeks now.  Or maybe it’s been months.  I can’t keep track anymore.

    And they are outside.  Still, after all this time.  I can hear them.  Maybe they can smell me.  I tried to wash the blood away, but somehow they can still smell it, they still know I am here.  They are always there.  They never leave.  There are more of them every day.  They know I am here.

    When I first found this place, before I had the sense to barricade the door, one of them almost made it inside.  I had been sitting, staring blankly at the wall for what felt like days when it came.  

    Its arm, shoulder and head were through before I could throw my weight against the door.  I slammed myself into the metal, heard the crunch of what must have been bone.  I pushed as hard as I could, only letting up to slam down again.  I struggled to keep my feet, slipping on the suddenly slick floor.  The air smelled strongly of iron and it made me think of my wife.  

    I reared back, for one final crushing blow, when just as suddenly as it appeared it retreated.  Howling and writhing, pieces left behind.  This time I made sure the door was locked.  I pushed the bed against it too, just in case.  And that was the last one I saw.  But I hear them all the time.  Just outside the door.  The low murmur of their moaning.  Sometimes pieces of them make it through the break in the door as they try to get to me.  Rotting flesh that lies piled and untouched on the mattress.  It taunts me.  

    I haven’t eaten in so long.  Some days that growing heap of putrid parts looks almost appetizing.  Once or twice I have reached my hand out to take a bite, just one bite, but I know what I would become.  So I sit in this corner, as far from the door as I can, and I wait for them.  I know they are coming.  Just like I always imagined they might. It’s only a matter of time.  It’s almost funny…

April 18, 2010

    Patient was admitted upon mental break following the murder of his wife and her lover.

    Patient is considered extremely dangerous and attacked an orderly soon after admittance.  Since that time, no staff has been able to enter the room.  Attempts have been made to introduce sedatives through food but patient is currently refusing all food.

    Patient has developed a disturbing new habit.  He has not ceased laughing for three (3) straight days.  

    At this time, due to the extreme violent nature of the situation, it is the recommendation of this doctor to wait and allow the patient to drop himself into a sedative state – a natural result of mental exhaustion, dehydration, and starvation.  Then we will be able to safely transport the patient to a more secure environment where his needs will be better met.

    I will revisit this issue if it does not resolve itself soon.

                   Daniel Watkins M.D., M.M.M

[scrawled in pencil at the bottom: “If I knew what the hell was so funny, maybe I could help him.”]