The world has ended. That is the common expression. Except the world is still here. It is humanity that has flown, cremated by fire and pounded to loam by water, returned to dust and hurled from existence by the furious Mother who housed it and was requited with brutality.
A boy begins as the world ends. A blooming consciousness on the precipice of maturity, he comes of age in the age of ash. He wanders through the shell-cities and roams the wasted wilderness, searching for a new beginning but finding only old ends. He believes that he can escape if he walks far enough and for long enough. He forgets that nightmares are not bound in fringes.
Days go by, then months, then years. The old world grows more distant while the new offers no possibilities. The farther the boy walks, the further he sinks into the past, finding refuge in that Palace of Lost Things, growing into a man who is a boy made of memories.
We are living until we are dying,
We are dying until we are dead,
And live again.
He’d been walking a long time. He could not remember from which way he’d come. It might well be the way he was going. He had forgotten much.
In forgetting, he knew little. He knew the gray road and the gray sky; he knew the brown and the barren; he knew his feet and his footsteps, and the rhythm of his thoughts. He knew what was in front of him.
The sooty air depressed the sun and cast an earth-wide shadow over the highway and the fallow fields on either side. He used to try not to think about that maybe the ash particulates floating by were bits of people or small animals, but no longer trifled with such unknowable possibilities. He swept dog off his shoulder, brushed secretary out of his hair. He kicked a pebble and wondered what his name was.
The wind was cold on his hand. The little heart in his wrist jumped. He rubbed the spot. There was a lump growing there, on the inside, near the veins. It had appeared some weeks ago, distinct and firm to the touch. He thought it might be a cyst, or an abscess. He pressed his thumb into it and didn’t stop for some time.
He came to a stream. He knelt and drank and let the water roll against his fingertips as a two-headed frog tried to swim away from itself. He thought about catching it and roasting its legs over a fire, pretend he was dining fine in Baton Rouge. But the two-headed frog was alive. It should not have been, but it was. He brushed his wet fingertips against his neck and shouldered his pack.
He came to a farmhouse. In the hallway were embroidered proverbs and pictures of grandchildren. In the living room was a skeleton in a chair hunched over with its face impaled on a shotgun barrel.
In the backyard he found a deer carcass bored half-hollow by maggots wriggling in their little red houses. The head came away easily but for a few persistent tendons that stretched like rubber bands. The man split them with his hunting knife and held the head by one ear and looked into the glazed eyes. They had holes in the corners where it looked like tiny flesh-miners had tunneled straight through to the brain. The tongue lolled sickly and blue. Black blood caked the corners of the mouth; some still red and wet dripped from the dangling throat-ribbons.
The man asked himself if deer had names, and if this doe had had one, and what it was, and if anyone grieved for the loss of her. He asked himself because there was no one else. He asked himself questions and gave himself answers.
He passed the night in dreams. A hand held his and another ran through his hair. A soft voice whispered in his ear, warming his whole insides. Flowers blossomed at its intonation and imperfect chimeras were woven into being, and always there was room in reality to accommodate them.
In his dreams he smiled, in his dreams he cried, in his dreams he loved, and when he awoke, he remembered none of it.
It was still dark. He sat up. His wrist was aching. The cyst had grown to the size of a golf ball. It was misshapen and oblong like a peanut. The tips of his fingers were numb. He rubbed the cyst and scratched at it. He pressed on it and felt the pulse within.
Pain shot through his arm from his wrist to his shoulder. He clenched his jaw and killed a yell in his throat. He grit his teeth and closed his hand around his wrist and squeezed. He imagined he could feel the thing wriggling, that it knew its time had come, that only now in the crushing throes of death did it regret tormenting him.
The man rammed his knuckles into the cyst. Tears spilled from his eyes and dried to frigid streaks on his cheeks. He braced his arm across his thigh like a head on a chopping block. He punched the cyst again, then twice more; each time it rebutted with agony. He sunk his thumb into the bulge. Spots danced in his vision. He imagined the satisfaction when the cyst burst inside him and flooded his veins with pus.
Someone was screaming. The man stopped, pain forgotten.
He could not make out the words, but knew the screamer begged for mercy. It seemed to come from outside, or perhaps inside; the man could not tell. It rose to its peak, wavered, and died in the twilight stillness. He closed his eyes and listened.
He stood and went downstairs and searched the house, but he was alone. He went back to the bedroom and packed his things.
It came from everywhere. It came from nowhere. It came from above, it came from below. It came from yesterday, and it came from tomorrow.
The man followed the voice wherever it led him. For weeks he traversed the empty highways and trudged through the fields, always looking for a sign. Eventually he stopped searching with his eyes and learned only to listen. The more he listened, the more he came to believe that he recognized the voice, as though he’d heard it before, long ago. When or where, or to whom it belonged, he could not say.
Sometimes the voice screamed, the way it had when he’d first heard it. But other times it laughed. More than once he’d heard it arguing with itself. The words were indistinct and muffled as though they came through a wall, but he could distinguish in them the rage and the misery as it attacked itself and berated itself and tried to defend itself from itself. And he knew the voice was alone, and he knew what it was. He knew that when you were alone there was no one else to hurt you.
Sometimes the voice simply spoke. The man liked to think it was speaking to him. On these nights, the man made himself comfortable and closed his eyes and listened and let the voice usher him into his dreams.
It led him to a small town in the country. It echoed along the ragged suburban thoroughfares and up the main street lined with the shells of dilapidated restaurants and general stores and accounting firms. The man walked with his hands in his pockets; wandered more than walked, no longer in any hurry. He knew by now that the voice would not abandon him, because he knew by now that it was not there, not really, and that wherever he went, it would be. He had given himself to insanity.
He felt that there was something familiar about the town, and wondered if he had been here before, and at last it came to him: this was home. This was where he had grown up.
His feet carried him, finding their way one stride at a time. When they stopped, he was home. He stood on the stoop of the old house and looked at it for a while.
Inside he wandered from room to room, feeling the house and its objects, pulling recollections from threadbare curtains, wiping them off the dusty kitchen tabletop, settling into them on the living room couch, eking them out of the creaky wooden stairs. He was here, and yet the house felt far away, like he was watching himself pass through it in a dream.
It was strange to know where he was after so long and discomfiting to realize he was not lost. The feeling frightened him, and he met it with anger. He clenched his fist and hated the round face of this little broken planet for bringing him back to this place. It had taken years and thousands of steps to lose his way, but now the spell was broken, and there were not enough years, nor steps left in him to recast it.
He sat on his old bed, in his old room, looking at the lump in his wrist. The numbness had spread up his forearm. He tried to move his fingers and could not.
In the back of his head, the voice whispered. Listening to it in the quiet, the man finally remembered to whom it belonged. He had been wrong. The voice was real. More than real, it was his own, come from inside. He had invented his own direction and brought himself home. Home to die.
It came in the night.
The man blinked the sleep from his eyes and looked at the cyst on his arm. The skin was stretched nearly translucent, outlining the oblong, ununiform growth. It was gigantic and grotesque, and it was moving, writhing inside his wrist.
He put his thumb to the bulge and pressed and had the horrible feeling like some small creature was swimming up the channels of his blood vessels. An old song came to him which he sang through clenched teeth as he set the point of his knife to the center of the cyst. Blood welled as the blade slid through the skin with hardly a mote of resistance and collided with something harder than knotted muscle or calcified tissue. He braced his arm and leaned his weight on the knife. There was a muffled crack, and something screamed.
It came from everywhere. It came from nowhere. It came from above; it came from below. It came from yesterday it came from tomorrow. High, hoarse, and muted through the dermis veil. The cyst tented as though something inside were beating at the flesh-walls, trying to get out.
The man fell away from himself, his fear-clouded mind forgetting that the thing which repulsed him was of his own body, and that there was nowhere he could run or hide that it would not be.
His vision began to vignette. From far away he noted that he could smell toast, and also freshly mown grass, and gasoline. His eardrums throbbed with the sibilant night-chorus of cicadas. Someone was sobbing. Someone was calling him to breakfast. He could see the full harvest moon on a cloudless night, and then the moon was the eye of an alley cat, rumpled and regal and casing him with its glinting orbs. It spat and he flinched and when he opened his eyes it had gone, slunk away to its dark reprieve, leaving him a morsel of fear. He realized that the cat was a memory, that these were all memories, pouring out of some long-locked vault in his mind, unleashed upon his oblivion. He shut his eyes and tried to keep them out.
Then came the faces.
Too many to count, rolling before him like a kinescope, a gallery of visages. Faces with names he should have remembered. Faces making faces. Bared teeth laughed, bemused eyebrows rose, cocked heads questioned, furious mouths crimped, disappointed eyes glistened, sad smiles conciliated. Their unmoving lips asked questions he could not answer. They asked after unkept promises, the sunken dregs of his regret. He wanted to be with them, more than anything in the world.
Someone was sobbing, and the man realized that it was him. He forced his mouth shut and looked at his churning wrist and wanted it gone. He stretched his arm as far from him as it would go and swept clear the nightstand and laid his squirming arm across it. He clamped his teeth on the knife sheath, lined the knife blade up on his forearm just above the cyst and shoved it forward. He saw the flesh rend and felt a distant pain. He dragged the knife backward and heard the tick of serrated metal on bone, felt the teeth shore through the numbness. A spasm in his spine wrenched his head back as though enthralled in a silent exorcism. The sheath trapped the scream in his throat as the world exploded in white.
He awoke on the floor with a belt lashed around his stump. He did not remember putting it there. He sat up and saw stars. He twisted and vomited. He spat and dragged his sleeve across his lips. The blood on his remaining hand had not yet dried. He licked his fingers and wiped them on his shirt. He stood and swooned and steadied himself on the nightstand. He realized it was raining. He did not know when it had started.
In the mirror above the nightstand was him, all scruff and sunken eyes. Behind him was his severed arm, lying still on his bedroom floor. For a moment he wondered if he was dreaming.
Then his severed arm began to rock. It was a gentle motion, a slight teetering back and forth, almost imperceptible in the gloom. He was fascinated and repulsed. There was something in his arm other than he, and it was trying to get out.
He could see it making its slow way away from his wrist toward the bloody opening where the knife had bitten. It inched through the skin-tube like a parasitic caterpillar, squelching in the vacuum-silence of the room. The flesh of his forearm split into ribbons as it regurgitated a bulldozed heap of shredded capillaries and splintered bone. Inch by bloody inch, the creature emerged.
First the fingers, gray and groping. Next the head, overlarge and lumpy like a potato, and bleeding where the blade of the man’s knife had punctured it. Then came the chest, concave, delicate, and heaving. Followed the waist, crooked and sexless. Last came the legs, corkscrewed around one another and useless, trailing the body like a twisted tail, and the thing wriggled free.
It had the shape of an infant, only gray and smaller than a soda can. The malformed head was twisted backwards on the rigid neck so that the creature was forced to perpetually look behind itself. Its right arm, for want of proper room in the cramped birth canal, had failed to develop independent of its body. Instead, it had fused to the creature’s side so that the elbow appeared a nubbin just below the ribcage, and the forearm cleaved upward along the chest and neck. The hand came to rest on the creature’s face with the fingers pointed outward like stubby, twitching growth-tentacles. And there, in the center of its palm, was a single, bulging, lidless eye.
The man wanted to laugh. He wanted to stomp it to death. He did neither. But when the eye rolled over and met his own, he screamed in his heart.
The gray infant’s lips moved. It coughed a gargled sound and the fingers around its eye opened and closed and opened again. With some revulsion, the man realized it was beckoning.
Warily he knelt and leaned down until his ear was almost close enough to be grasped by the groping fingers. He felt one of them brush the contours of his concha. A shiver rippled through his spine. The finger was cold as a dead kitten he had once held to his chest. Colder than a thing should have been, as though the heat had not merely drained from the flesh but been driven into permanent exile by ruthless brumal forces. The man bit his tongue and kept from recoiling, some part of him wanting to preserve the dignity of this gray, twisted infant that was surely aghast by its own being.
The word came encased in a cough, “Cold.”
With the word came a feeling, looming from an abyss so profound the man could not say with any certainty that it was within him at all. The feeling at once enveloped him and sunk him to the depths beyond all reason, where light persisted but shone only on things that made him weep. He thought the feeling must have a name but could not remember it. It was relentless, oppressive, and remorseless, and he welcomed it, if not gladly.
The man shuffled his fingers beneath the tiny gray body and suppressed another shiver. Cradling it against him with his remaining hand, the man lifted the infant and placed it in his old bed and tucked it beneath the covers. The gray infant’s brow furrowed, and it whimpered so pitifully it made the man angry. His teeth clenched, and his unconscious again sought respite in violent outcomes. He saw the bulbous gray head crumpling against the corner of the nightstand, the lolling eye rupturing on the point of his knife, a horror story with a bloody beginning coming to a bloody end, out snuffed the light that should never have been lit.
Then the infant spoke again. “Please,” it said. Its voice was soft but harsh and forced as though every syllable were a measure of suffering. “I have…no warmth…for myself.”
Then something in him burst, and the man wept.
He sat in the bed with his back against the headboard, the gray infant tucked into the crook of his arm, pressed against his chest.
“Are you there?” the gray infant asked.
The man looked down, surprised. “Yes,” he said.
“I thought you must be, but I cannot feel. It’s like I am suspended in dark numbness.”
“But you can hear me,” he said.
“Yes. That is one thing God has seen fit to grant me.”
“You know of God?”
“I know all that you know, Logan Willis.”
“Logan Willis,” the man said. “That’s my name, isn’t it.” For a moment he was lost in remembering himself.
Then the gray infant asked, “What do you know of God?”
“I thought you knew all that I know.”
“What you know, yes. But what do you believe?”
Logan thought. “I believe God is a child, and we are his forgotten toys.” He looked down at the gray figure cradled in his arms. “Do you have a name?”
“A name?” said the gray infant. “No. I do not think it would be necessary. I am not long for this world. However, while I do live, there is something you could do for me.”
“What is it?” said Logan.
“I am in much pain. My vision narrows as my lidless eye desiccates and shrivels. I believe that I am dying. I was a part of you for a very long time. I have seen all that you have seen. But much of what I have seen I do not understand. I know that the world is not the way now that it was when you loved it. Tell me, in the little time that I have, what it was like when you loved the world.”
Logan began to speak.
The gray infant is an avid listener. It wants to know about cities and traffic lights and Ferris wheels and porcelain horses skewered on golden poles. Through its former host it has heard bars of Beethoven and Bach, and a little of Scriabin alongside licks of rockabilly and high warbling voices singing of hard days and lonely nights. It wants to know of them all.
So Logan tells it. He tells it also of pain and pleasure, and painful pleasure, and pleasurable pain, and of lovers who built their relationships on unkeepable promises and destroyed each other piecemeal. The stories evoke in Logan still more memories he had thought long lost. For an instant he sees the face of a girl with a green streak in her brown hair. As quickly it is gone, and he understands he has seen her for the last time.
The gray infant wretches on food, and gags on water. Logan thinks to himself that it is twisted inside as out, its gastrointestinal tract too tight and winding for sustenance to follow. Only its mind has emerged intact, leaving it fit to digest ideas, notions, and stories, which it consumes ravenously. For a moment, Logan wonders if that would be enough to sustain it, then tells himself that he is stupid to hope. He knows that by morning the gray infant will be dead. He understands that he is loving for the last time.
He speaks all night, and in the morning the gray infant is still listening.
It looks stronger. Its breathing is not so heavy. Its eye, though crimped and sightless, swivels spritely, seeing knights and gleaming armaments, locked tower doors and terrible serpents, great pillars of ire and yellow hair that blossoms into tulips at the tips. It sees the world as a boundless geological plain composed of infinite horizons. It sees the world as a pale blue dot of cosmic insignificance. It sees all that what is beyond sight.
Together, Logan and the gray infant set out into the wasted world. It is hard to leave home, but they know that the earth is round, and should they wish to return, all they must do is keep walking.
If Logan’s stories cease, the gray infant becomes depressed and effete. Logan wonders when he will get the chance to sleep, but comes to realize there is no need, for he too is vitalized by the stories. While he speaks, fatigue does not attempt to broach his consciousness, nor hunger his satiation.
Eventually, with the threads it has imbibed, the gray infant begins to tell stories of its own. These stories have never been told before. Like everything that exists, their yarns are not created, but reconstituted from assimilated filaments, spun anew and sent shuddering forth by frail vocal cords housed in the throat of a miscreated miracle.
Logan, the boy who is a man made of memories, carries the gray infant on his shoulders. Together they walk and tell stories.
Samuel is a horror fiction writer hailing from the distant land of Iowa. (Or was it Idaho?) He now lives in Marfa, Texas with his partner and their cat, Joni. You can find him on Instagram or Twitter.