My door sticks. I try to force it, shambling my crooked body hard against it twice.
“Who thought it would be a good idea to have this made of brain?” I say. “It’s too dense and sticking.”
Mr. Reno makes an attempt at opening it and fails. “The farmhouse’s—the Astral Plane’s. I’m afraid you too had a subconscious hand in the choice.”
Survival steps up and touches the door, trying to burn it open at the handle protruding from the matter. Still too weak for that, I guess. He shrugs and walks away, defeated, his corn friend appearing to pity him over his shoulder. I commiserate.
Vlerd can do it, I think. He said he was fine when he returned from inside his door, but we all knew that was a lie. His eyes tell me he’s harboring something. Guilt, probably. He puts a finger against his bleeding door and feeds. We saw everything through his door, which was following him around and hiding in the bushes: his father, Vespertil, the fires. He must be hungry.
“Not to interrupt, Vlerd,” I say. “But could you open this?”
He turns to me, smacking his lips. “Is that vat you really want? If your subconscious is keeping it closed, you must not vant us to see vat is in there.”
“Well, do any of us want to see these memories? These hard secrets?”
Mr. Reno raises his furred paw, his thick nails catching the light.
I continue, giving Mr. Reno a sideways glare, “Besides the god-bear forcing us into this.” The bear lowers his hand with a small, understanding nod.
Vlerd and Survival shake their heads—the corn friend, too. What an unsettling thing that husk is. It just stares and moves with Survival. It looks like it has gotten tighter around his body. I wonder.
The vampyr finishes his feast and takes a couple steps towards my door. He clenches his fists and readies his feet, and then rams the brain matter, knocking it in and open with a bouncy sound.
“Ready for you, Mara,” he says, slumping down against the hallway wall beside my door.
Just inside is old, blue, and marble-patterned carpet. Of course it’s this memory. What else of interest has happened in my life before it?
Survival speaks, eyeing the open door. “I have to say I’m most curious about you, Mara.”
“Nothing curious about me,” I say, stepping inside and adjusting my jaw. My door can’t run off anywhere in a small, one-bedroom apartment, so it just keeps away from me, milling around the room. It stays open a crack so the bear, Survival, Vlerd and the corn friend can peek into my memory.
There I am, sitting on that couch at that ghost house party with that expression: listless, crumby, and altogether bored. I’m not even drinking tonight like everyone else is, be they living, dead, or living dead. Imbibing had lost its luster for me some time before the party. Spirits no longer lowered my inhibitions or affected me in any substantial way, by that point. Then what was I doing there? I didn’t care for the music or the people in attendance. I would rather have been back at my apartment, where I had a dog and a television.
I was trying. Friends told me I needed to get out more, and I believed them. After graduation, I took part in the standard job search, because that’s what I was supposed to do. I went through the motions of interviews, rejections and eventual acceptance and gainful employment at a firm—a corporation, or maybe a foundation? I forget. It was some skyscraper with cubicles, walls and computers. That’s what matters.
I posted across all seventeen of my social media accounts about how excited I was to join the working world and use the skills I lied about having on my résumé—to start my adult life. Likes and upvotes and favorites and shares poured in, as they were supposed to, giving me the sense that this was my correct path. Almost a thousand friends, strangers, and followers wouldn’t lie to me with their mouse clicks and finger taps, would they? Just as they wouldn’t lie to me about my needing to get out more. So there I was, at that party, staying later than every so-over sparkling vampyr and most of the chain-rattling ghosts. Just me and the zombies, who were always last to arrive and last to leave.
It’s the shuffling. They take so long to get anywhere.
I shamble over to the couch. I trip over my own feet and land on my face behind my past self’s seat.
“Are you alright?” she says, not moving from her spot.
“No,” I say. “Look at me.” I pull myself up using the back of the couch. Still no sensation in either of my arms. Touch, the farmer told me, will be the last sense to return. If it returns at all, that is. She said blood magic—the only magic, unfortunately—is ever unpredictable. I could stop recovering at any moment and be stuck in this shambling, half-skeletal form. The only promise she could make was that I would be more complete. That’s it. More complete than I was as a skull and some scattered bones, hitching rides across lakes on whales, barely able to move on my own.
“Oh,” says my past self, craning her neck to see me. “You look awful.”
“You know what?” I say. “So do you.” She turns away, and I poke her in the cheek with my right index finger. Although I can’t feel the skin, its feather softness and taut bounce is evident. And I never even took care of it. What a waste. “So will you.”
“When?” She yawns.
“Later tonight. Oh, there he is.” I point to one of the four remaining re-animated corpses in attendance. The cute one with the missing eye and bleeding gums.
“I won’t go for that. Nothing against girls who would, but I won’t.” True.
“Romantically? You’re right. But you’ll go for what he’s selling.” I flick the straw in the back of my head like I do when I’m in deep thought, and it rattles around in its lid. The sound catches my past self’s attention. The cute one has the same lid in his skull. My past self’s eyes draw a line from my lid to his.
“Zonbification? Am I really so far gone?” She sinks farther into the couch.
“Not zombification, Mara. He’ll come over here, sit down and offer you change. Just enough to pique your interest. He’ll say it’s not just mindless, dead-eyed brain eating like the media always says, which it isn’t. He’ll say you don’t have much going on in life—which you don’t—so why not try unlife? And not the posh vampyr’s ‘eternal, pure bliss’ bullshit, but the high-risk and stakes of the ‘real un-life.’ Some kid or band of post-apocalyptic cosplayers could bash your weakened head in at any moment, and you’d be gone. You don’t get speed or looks or transformation abilities. Quite the opposite, in fact. You play unlife with a handicap. An exhilarating, adrenaline rush of a handicap.”
The cute one shambles over to my past self. He introduces himself as Greco and takes his seat; he begins his pitch as I said he would; he continues as I said he would, and he finishes as I said he would. My past self hesitates to answer. She turns back to me, her eyes down.
“I’m sorry, Mara,” she says, pressing her hands to her eyes and sniffling in some air. “I’m such a mess.”
Is this what I’m like to people? “Stop apologizing so much. It’s not so bad. You refuse to eat brains, so you decompose into a living skeleton, and then to living bones. You take that trip you’ve always wanted to take to one of those far-off restricted lands.” I pause and chuckle. “You find gods, demons, the grand history of the universe, and deep humanity in anthropomorphic animals and trees. This—hell, actually—this is the best decision we make in life.”
My past self wipes her eyes and holds my skeletal hand. It’s a moment, and if I had working tear ducts there might be some moisture in my eye.
“Yes,” says my past self to Greco. He isn’t surprised by the answer and has the plastic lid and straw ready in seconds.
And it happens, just as it did. The infecting, the expert precision jamming of the straw into my head, and the feeding. The science of the process eludes not only me but actual men and women of science, though they were looking into it when I left.
But the farmer said there can be a thin—indiscernible—line between an infection of the blood and blood magic. There are elements of the zombied—the lid, the straw, the ongoing and seemingly complete brain activity and emotions despite the lack of the majority of a brain—that make no sense without the reasoning of blood magic. Just as there are elements that make little sense without the reasoning of an infection: the fever, the decomp.
Blood and fire. Fire and blood.
The brain matter door sneaks up behind me and swallows me back into the hallway. Survival helps me to my feet. Vlerd still sits against the wall. He appears to have collected a coat of dust on his person.
“I guess ve have some things in common, Ms. Mara,” he says.
“No,” I say, looking at my skeletal hand. I imagine the little bits of recovered skin falling away and turning me back into walking bones. “I wanted this.”
“Still?” says Mr. Reno.
“Yes,” I say. “Always. Look at me now, in the company of gods, learning truths about everything.” I kneel down to meet Vlerd’s eyes. “Don’t you feel the same way, Vlerd? Haven’t you regretted your decisions enough? Look where they’ve led you.”
“To heartache and pain.”
Survival says, in a graceful and self-assured way, “Akil and I inflicted that pain, let’s not forget. Credit where it’s due.”
We all look at him for a moment, then turn our attention back to Vlerd.
I say, “Into a wild narrative of a life no other human—vampyr, vanilla or otherwise—will ever get to experience. How long had you been among the chewing trees?”
“And that mad forest—the creatures and plants—you never would have seen the likes of it outside of fantasy if you hadn’t become this, or if your protest hadn’t failed. ”
Mr. Reno puts his hands together and up to his mouth like a giddy child.
A winsome smile sweeps onto Vlerd’s face. He stands, blue dust tumbling off him to the floor. “There is a spring, I suppose—do you know it? Vhere the gargoylosaurs, the trees, fireflies—much of the biota—gather to drink before the sun sets. No more fighting or flighting for the day, just a peaceful gathering to slake their thirsts. And I vould sit and vatch. I could almost sleep again.”
I know the spring. It’s kind of a dump by spring standards.
Vlerd hugs me. Human contact. Humanoid contact. I squeeze him back as hard as I can. My left shoulder pops out of its socket from the strain, but I don’t feel it.
Mr. Reno puts his hand on Survival’s shoulder and smiles at him, looking to share in a moment. Survival takes two steps to his left, out of Mr. Reno’s grasp. The bear glowers.
“Kafele’s turn,” says Mr. Reno, hustling over to the hairy door. He knocks against the door’s tufts, and it swings open to a veiny and dark chasm exuding the smell of blood and—what else?—fire. A sucking wind pulls the perpetual flames covering Survival’s door into Kafele’s, connecting the two with a waving and searing bridge of orange and yellow.
I say, letting go of Vlerd, “Could you have just knocked on my door to open it, Reno?”
“Of course,” he says, “but Vlerd opening it for you helped bookend your experience in such a satisfying way. Don’t you agree?”
He’s right, from a narrative standpoint—from the only point where he can stand, I figure. I leave it.
Survival walks over to the rushing fire bridge and touches it. Four glowing waves of purple and red climb the walls of the chasm, giving us the fleshy sight of the vast internal workings of Kafele, burnt and bleeding. Are those spears sticking into the walls?
“That’s reality,” says Survival. “Now.” He’s excited.
The bear nods, showing his teeth with the widest smile and presenting the doorway to Survival. “Can’t do everything in flashback.”
Survival agrees and takes a running leap inside. Just as he crosses the threshold, in mid-air, Kafele’s—Survival’s?—inhabited, one winged, and tragic body becomes a heavy fire. It still maintaining the overall shape of the ape body, though, that damn corn friend and all. How connected are he and the corn friend now that it too can become fire in what I gather to be some metaphysical transformation?
The door follows Survival down. The six eyes on the other side of the door, too.
“Kafele!” says the fiery Survival. His voice echoes off Kafele’s
organs and bones. Is that a crumbling stone bridge on the
heart? Survival weaves through the bars of the grand rib
cage like he’s hang gliding through mountains. He lands at
the opening of a cave, of sorts—the opening to the left arm.
To the wing and the infection. “Kafele?”
Aside from the beating heart, the body is quiet.
-Nicholas Perilli, insightfulape.com
Copyright and everything. Meh.