Free Fiction

Scroll down for the free novelette “Bees from the Hive” by Steve & Melanie Tem.

Read Steve’s climate change story “Miguel Prays While His Mother Cries” on the Climate Change page. 


 

Mummies,” Reckoning #5

Late Sleepers,” PseudoPod #733

Forwarded,” The Dark Magazine, January 2020

Miguel Prays While His Mother Cries,” Daily Science Fiction, 8/8/2019

The Family Man,” Paper Butterfly Flash Fiction, October 2019

Night Vision,” Daily Science Fiction, 4/16/2019

“Red Rabbit,” Borderlands #6

The Men and Women of Rivendale,” Nightmare #35.

A Space of One’s Own,” Clarkesworld #141, June 2018.

Cats, Dogs, & Other Creatures,” Talebones.

Charles” (audio) StarShipSofa.

Dying on the Elephant Road,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies #54.

Field of Shoes,” Daily Science Fiction, May 2018.

For All His Eyes Can See,” The Dark, August 2018

Home Invasion,” Daily Science Fiction, October 2013.

The King of the Cats,” from Deadfall Hotel in the Weird Fiction Review.

Too Many Ghosts,” The Dark, December 2016.

Wheatfield with Crows,” The Dark, August 2016.

No Rest for Those Who Can’t Sleep,” This is Horror, July 2012.

Halloween Street,” “Tricks,” “Butcher Paper,” and “Masks of Me,” (audio) Pseudopod 566.

Her Oh So Pretty Face,” Hex Words, January 2017.

Giant Killers,” The Pedestal Magazine.

Aphasic World Syndrome,” Pindeldyboz.

 


 

BEES FROM THE HIVE

Melanie Tem & Steve Rasnic Tem

 

He’s remembering that first day at the new school, middle of fourth grade, agonizingly shy, overwhelmed by all the colors and sounds and motion and new people and new smells, crouched in a corner by the playground fence pretending to be interested in something on the ground but really just trying to control what he’d later learn to call sensory stimulation, when Molly called him over to where she was cross-legged on the ground peering and poking at something and writing things down in a green spiral notebook open on her blue-jeaned thigh.  “What do you think?” she asked him right off, not even looking up.

He stood over her.  The top of her head was velvety, very short brown hair.  She had a gigantic bug in an open jar.  Xavier flinched and tried not to make the noise he wanted to make.  He hated bugs.  All those legs, all that wriggling, the way they felt when they jumped on you or  crawled down your back or flew into your mouth when you were riding your bike really fast.  He didn’t want to look but he couldn’t take his eyes off her small square hands.  Very carefully she pulled off one of the insect’s legs.  There were so many of them he wouldn’t have known she’d already done this many times before if he hadn’t then seen a pile of legs like thread in another jar.  He thought he was going to be sick.  She wrote something in the notebook, and then tilted her head back to glance at him.  “Isn’t this cool? I’m doing an experiment.  I need an assistant.”

“I don’t–“

He has long since gotten used to hardly ever getting a whole sentence out before she grabs the conversation back.  She didn’t care whether he thought it was cool.  She, and only she, was the arbiter of cool.  She was the arbiter of everything.  If he’d fully understood earlier what that meant, things might have turned out different.  Or maybe not.  Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted them to.

That first day, in the first five minutes they knew each other, Molly stood up, taller than he was then and for quite a few years, and announced, “I almost died before I was born.  I was in the hospital a really long time.  And I almost died a bunch of times before I was six months old.  Cool, huh?”

Not quite sure what to make of this introduction, but impressed, he sort of gulped and said, “Yeah.  He’s come to wonder whether these near-death experiences–assuming they’re true–made Molly what she is.  Not that he really knows what she is.  Molly is many things.

That morning in fourth grade, her expression made it clear she knew what she was doing and he certainly didn’t, which pretty much matched what he already thought. Her hands now in fists at her sides.  He could hear her breathing, smell the sun on her blue cotton shirt.  Even then, something about her solemn, unblinking stare made him a little afraid of her, more than a little smitten.  Later he came to think of it, sometimes, as aggressive, sexually aggressive, “opposite sex” or “opposing sex.”

The way she kept brushing at her velvety hair was surprisingly wonderful.  He kind of got lost for a little while in the rhythmic motion of her small hand and arm, the very soft swishing sound of her hair against her skin, the wafts of shampoo and sunny smells.  He was almost nine; she would come to his birthday party–she would run his birthday party, override and charm his parents into taking the kids to the water park instead of the zoo because after all they were new in town and she’d lived there all her life so she knew what was best.  Already he was hers.

“Hi, Xavier.” Her very clear voice saying his name, and pronouncing it right without a stupid “eks” sound in front of the “z” sound, gave him goosebumps.  She told him her name.  “You just moved into 432 Baker Avenue. The big white house with the red roof. You’ve got two cats.”

“Um, yeah.”  She’d been watching him.  That gave him the creeps and flattered him at the same time.

“Well, we’re going to be great friends, starting this minute,” she said, and finally blinked, and walked off carrying her notebook, telling him over her shoulder to bring the jars with the bug and the bug parts.

He did, and they were great friends from that moment on.  Xavier couldn’t have exactly said why.  Molly decided what TV shows and movies they saw, what video games they played, what they’d have for snacks, and the topic of pretty much every conversation.  Never did she ask him what he wanted to do, although occasionally she did demand his opinion, which she used as an opportunity to explain to him how he had totally misunderstood things.  Every thing she said he found utterly fascinating.  He thought he could listen to her all day, and often he did.

Jillian became part of their group almost at the end of that fourth grade year.  She’d been living in California with her aunt, was now to live here with her grandmother.  According to Molly, she had strawberry-blonde hair; to Xavier it just looked light brown.  He remembers how Molly approached Jillian her first day, the intensity of her posture, her determined nodding as she spoke.  “Hey, I’m Molly.  You’re Jillian.  I almost died before I was born.  Isn’t that cool?  We’re going to be best friends.”  Jillian looked a little stunned.  It was his first out-of-body experience, watching himself watching them.

Shortly thereafter Molly declared the three of them a team.  Xavier always thought Jillian was much more like Molly’s personal assistant than a friend.  She ran her errands, carried her books, did the homework Molly considered beneath her.  At least Xavier hadn’t had to do any of that.  He’d had other uses.

“Can you move?”

Molly is above him, shouting into his face, her voice very loud and very clear.  There is a halo of tree limbs behind her head, dark against the sun like blood vessels from her skull, maybe from her brain.  He’s heard of tumors doing that, attaching themselves to veins and arteries so they have their very own blood supply. He can feel something scratchy against his neck and cheek, several hard things under his left thigh and shoulder blade, things warm and liquid which may or may not be part of him.

Coughing brings out new centers of pain.  “I don’t know,” he manages to tell her, because it isn’t a good idea not to answer Molly.  “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, sure you can.” It’s been a long time since he bothered demanding why she asks him questions if she’s not going to believe his answers anyway.  The fact is, she’s often right and he’s often wrong.  “Just rest a second, then we’ll help you.”

Jillian’s face wedges in next to Molly’s, those sinister veins piercing her head now as if Molly shot them at her.  Both faces and Jillian’s long curly light hair and the veins blot out the sky.

“Open your mouth.”

That’s Molly, giving orders.  He’s afraid to open his mouth for her, afraid not to.   He opens his mouth and something is pushed into it, hard and sticky, a piece of hard candy.  It makes him choke a little, but that isn’t what interests her.

“Can you taste that?”

Desperately wanting to tell her the truth, he has some trouble sorting out his senses.  “No,” he finally decides.  “I can feel it but not taste it, I don’t think.”

“It’s hot cinnamon,” Jillian prompts.

“I can’t taste it.”

Molly puts her hand over his eyes and then something is passed under his nose.  “Can you smell that?”

“It’s an orange.”

“Interesting,” she breathes, and removes her hand.  Instantly he misses her touch.

Jillian is normally nervous and high-strung, but Xavier can’t remember a time she’s looked so scared.  She covers her mouth with trembling fingers, her grandmother’s star sapphire ring sparking.  Xavier thinks how old she looks.  But wait, she’s only twenty-three, they’re only twenty-three.  He’s lost some indescribable and immeasurable quantity of precious time.  He’s floating.  Before he floats totally outside his body he says, to one or the other or both of them, “You pushed me, didn’t you?  You pushed me off the path?”  It’s a question.  You don’t make assertions to Molly.

Molly’s gasp is so unlike her that he guesses it’s fake.  “Jesus, Xave, you’re not fucking serious.” Then, to Jillian, “He must have really smashed his head.”

Jillian just nods, her hand still over her mouth and still shaking, the ring quiet and dull now.  Xavier focuses on the trembling of her hand, on the hand itself, on the ring, and floats away on it.

“Xavier.  Hey, Xave.” He’s at home now, in his own bed, alone in his own bed which is rare.  Some Tindersticks song is playing through the speakers, looping back over itself.  Jillian made that track for him.  Jillian is beside him, her familiar sunny smell, her familiar nervous voice and the star sapphire ring, the unfamiliar sensation of something nudging at his lips.  “You haven’t had anything to eat in like twenty-four hours.  Will you eat some yogurt? For me?”

The spoon taps at his mouth again and his lips open.  He feels the yogurt slide in, thinks of all the crass jokes they’ve made about yogurt, welcomes the feel of it in his mouth and on his tongue, but doesn’t taste it.  “What kind?” he asks, sort of urgently.

It takes her a minute to get what he wants to know.  “Oh.  Uh-—strawberry banana, it says.  I think we’ve got some plain, too, if you—“

“I can’t taste it.”

“Oh,” she says.  “Bummer.  Something happened when you fell, I guess.  That’s what Molly thinks.”

His head hurts.  She feeds him the whole carton of yogurt.  He can’t taste it.  He doesn’t think he can taste it—-the cool, thick, mucousy feel of it is so intense that it seems like a taste sometimes and he can smell it which is a lot like tasting, but he tastes no hint of strawberry or banana or yogurt tartness.  “Coffee,” he says, then makes an extra effort. “Could I have a cup of coffee, please?  With lots of sugar?”

“Since when do you drink coffee?”

“It sounds good right now.  Maybe falling off a cliff changed my taste in drinks.” He laughs, and she obviously doesn’t know what’s funny, and it really isn’t anything to laugh about even though puns are the highest form of humor.

Molly was right in front of him on the trail.  Jillian had lagged behind to look at something.  They were all high, and the sun was warm, and the mountains were awesome, the weed smoothing out all his sensations so it didn’t matter that there were so many of them.  He was feeling good.  Molly stopped, he almost ran into her, he was saying what the fuck when she turned around and punched him in the groin and he yelled and stepped backward and fell.

He remembers that.

He smells coffee, dust, plants on the windowsill, lemon-scented spray cleaner, rain, a shitload of other odors he doesn’t bother to label.  He’s learned you can get tangled up in labels, and he can’t always tell when it matters what some sensation is and when it doesn’t.  He likes the smell of coffee brewing, just not the taste.  But it’s the most definite taste he can think of off the top of his head.  So to speak.  There’s a bandage on his head.  Molly cleaned the wound and put the bandage there.  He remembers that.  Did they take him to the ER? They should have taken him to the ER.

Once when they were like thirteen Molly said they were all going to go around blindfolded for a week.  Open-minded and so goddamn tolerant it could drive you fuckin’ crazy, Xavier’s parents said it was a good exercise in sensitivity.  Jillian’s grandma said it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard of, why would you want to make yourself blind, and kept confiscating Jillian’s bandannas.  He didn’t know what Molly’s mom thought about it.  Molly never said much about her mom, and Xavier only saw her a couple of times before she died, never actually met her.

“St. Teresa of Avila said if you want to know the true meaning of life–well, actually, she said if you want to know God–you have to go inside and not be distracted by stuff from the outside,” Molly told them while they were walking blindfolded around the zoo, holding onto each other, bumping into things, Jillian and Xavier giggling and exaggerating.

Guiltily Xavier could see pieces of things from under the scarf Molly had tied too tight over his eyes, and through it he could detect light and shadow.  He didn’t tell her that.  “Who?” he asked, staggering around like he was more drunk than blind.

“St.  Teresa.  Of.  Avila,” Molly enunciated.  “She was a Christian mystic. She said our senses like vision and hearing and taste and smell and touch are like bees that go out from the hive and gather up information and bring it back.  She said you have to keep the bees from leaving the hive if you want to really understand life and death and the universe and God and stuff like that.  Actually, what she wrote was–” and here Xavier knew she was drawing herself up the way she always did when she recited something word-for-word; Molly was awesome at memorization  “‘As soon as you apply yourself to prison, you will at once feel your senses gather themselves together: they seem like bees which return to the hive and there shut themselves up to work at the making of honey.  God disposes them to a state of utter rest and of perfect contemplation.'”

“Prison?”

Molly punched his shoulder.  “Asshole.  I tell you all that and you get stuck on one word at the very beginning? See, that’s why you’ll never be great, Xavier.  You’ve got a small mind, you know that?”

It isn’t often that Jillian comes to his defense, but she did that time.  “I don’t get the part about prison, either, Molly.  What does that mean? And whatever happened to this saint chick?  Did she get to know God, or whatever”

Xavier can’t remember if Molly ever answered that, or about prison.  He remembers her saying, but she’s said it so often he’s not sure which time he’s remembering, “I almost died before I was born and when I was being born and lots of times after I was born.”

He and Jillian probably didn’t tell her yeah, yeah,  she’d said that a million times already.  She had, but this time–whenever it was–she said more.  He didn’t understand it at the time, he still doesn’t, but it stuck in his mind.

“When you’re dead,” he thinks she said, “your bees don’t go out from the hive anymore.  That’d be cool.  I want to know what that’d be like, not to take in anything from outside, just to be in there with yourself and God.  Or whatever.”

If he’s right that all this happened on the same day,  he and Jillian collided again about then and held onto each other laughing.  They were in front of the gorilla cage, or maybe orangutans.  The jumble of their odors and noises come back to him strong now.

At the end of the week when they met in their spot down by the river to compare notes from the experiment,  Xavier and Jillian had lots of comically exaggerated anecdotes about falling over furniture, sticking their hands in disgusting stuff while trying to feel their way, running into people and accidentally touching private parts.  They both swore they were already hearing better.  Molly listened avidly and asked questions and took notes.  Xavier suspected she’d cheated, hadn’t kept her blindfold on except when they were together, but he’s never asked.  Maybe he will now.

But he doesn’t think Molly’s here, and instead he croaks out, “Vinegar.”  It takes Jillian a minute to get that he wants her to put vinegar in his mouth.  When she does, he can’t taste it, although it makes his nose tingle and his tongue curl.

Over the next hours and months, Xavier tries fiery chili, limburger cheese, Tabasco sauce, lye.  The cheese makes him throw up.  The chili, Tabasco, and lye burn.  But he can’t taste them.  He never tastes anything again.

      He’s recovered from the fall, except for a scar on his arm and one under his hair where you can hardly see it but  you can feel it like a thin bunched string, and except for  his lost sense of taste.  Sometimes his balance is jacked  up, too, but it’s so subtle-—just a few seconds of dizziness here and there, the world swooning and then immediately righting itself-—he tries not to think too much about it, or to enjoy the trip, but what if it’s permanent?  Molly has always called him “a little dizzy.”  He hasn’t told her about it now that it’s literal, but he’s not surprised that Jillian did.  Molly is very interested. “This may be a long term issue,” she says solemnly.  “We may have to do something with your ears, surgery maybe.”

“‘We’?”  He means, “What’s this ‘we’ shit? It’s my ears we’re talking about here.”  But he’s having a dizzy spell right now.  Thoughts and words and sensations are swirling around in his head like loose marbles and he holds onto the doorframe, which is twisting and dissolving and reconfiguring, he can’t think how to sit down, he doesn’t want to lose all this before he can use it in his art.  One of the careening sensations is of her saying “we” and “surgery” and “your ears” in the same sentence.  He starts to slide down the curvy wall that massages him, wriggles erotically around him, heaves him away.  It’s awesome and it’s too much and he wants to go as far into it as he can (oh, Molly) and he wants it to stop (Molly, stop, stop it).

She’s talking. “…where we get our balance, you know, from our inner ears.”  Molly loves knowing things and telling you what she knows.

Everything clears up.  Xavier sits down in ordinary motion, an ordinary person in an ordinary chair.  Molly’s talking.  Lately he’s been paying even more attention to her, looking for clues, trying to understand her because maybe his life depends on it.  Not the first time he’s thought that.  So for the moment he ignores how annoying it is when she acts like he doesn’t know the simplest things.  He also ignores his fucked-up memory of her hitting him and knocking him off that ledge on purpose.  Molly wouldn’t do that to him.  They love each other.  Ashamed for even thinking she’d do that, he tries to make himself feel better by touching the stringy scar under his hair, proof that he’s had a head injury and no wonder he’s paranoid.  More for the sound of the word and the feel of it in his mouth, word as object, he repeats, “‘We’?”

“Dude! I meant ‘they!'” She giggles.  Molly doesn’t giggle.  “Doctors, people who know what they’re doing.  But you don’t have any health insurance, do you?  You can’t really afford a doctor.”

She’s doing what she always does, pulling the conversation back to where she wants it.  He has the feeling he shouldn’t let her do that this time.  But he’s tired and it’s actually kind of a relief to be told what’s real.  Molly’s good at that.  That may be why he loves her.

You can live without taste.  Having one less portal for sensory input to get into you is soothing, in a bizarre sort of way, and interesting, definitely interesting.  Molly’s spent a lot of time with him in these months, observing, recording, and she says he’s doing great.

He keeps trying out stuff to see if his sense of taste might have come back.  He pours salt straight onto his tongue; it makes the tissues pucker, but he can’t taste it.  He washes out his mouth with soap; the strong flowery smell in the back of his throat seems like taste for a second but it isn’t.  Depending on the day, he misses the taste of Merlot, Burger King french fries, white chocolate, pineapple, peanut butter, Jillian.  He always misses the taste of Molly.

He goes back to school, and he doesn’t like it any better or worse than ever.  He lost a semester to the accident so he’ll graduate in August instead of May, but who cares.  His senior project is visual and tactile representations of taste.  He gets a C.  They say it’s immature, superficial.  One of the jurors writes that the concept is interesting and “deserves further development and greater personal risk from the artist.”  Xavier would like to think he doesn’t know what the fuck that means, but he’s beginning to think he does, thanks mostly to Molly.

Sometime in there Molly starts nagging him to replace some light bulbs.  It’s his assigned job in the household.  He always procrastinates, and she always nags him.  This time she points out acidly that he doesn’t need to taste a light bulb in order to fuckin’ change it.  He’ll get to it.  He’s painting.  He’s an artist, can’t be bothered with mundane shit like that.

Jillian steps closer to the new canvas, squints at it, grabs one wrist with the other hand behind her back and twists her grandmother’s ring in her thinking-super-hard stance, steps back.  It’s Xavier who finally says, “Different, huh?”

Yeah.  Something.  What is it?”

“I can’t taste it anymore.”

“Taste the paint? What?” Jillian rolls her eyes at him.  At least this time she doesn’t say, “You are so cute!” When they’re in one of their sex phases, that can make him want to kiss her.  When they’re not, like now, since the accident, it kind of pisses him off.

But this painting is taste.  Fruit and seeds and juices, some of it warming in the light, some of it gone to sour and rot.  The reds more like blood than fruit.  The yellows, the oranges, more like pain.  Berries the color of the darkness in the middle of the night, and you wake up all of a sudden, unable to see anything, scared shitless, deep inside yourself, your bees buzzing around not even trying to go out, getting everything they need from deep inside you.  It occurs to him he’s never tasted anything so intense as making this painting.

Because he has no clue how to explain what he means, or if he means anything, he says, like she’s the dumbest chick in the world, which in some ways he’s always thought she is, “Yeah, Jillian, taste the paint.”  She glares at him and stomps out of the room.  If he said that to Molly,  she’d tell him what he means.  But he doesn’t, and it’s like a guilty secret.

“You’ve lost your sense of taste but not smell,” Molly points out.  As if he hadn’t noticed.  It makes him feel safer that she’s noticed, too.

Her hair falls straight to her chin now.  He liked it best short and velvety, but the silky look and feel of it this way are nice, too.  He strokes it while she talks.  She doesn’t seem to notice.

“You’ve got ageusia but not anosmia.  That only happens 0.5 percent of the time in head injury cases.  Interesting.”

“Quit saying that.  Makes me feel like a bug.”

“Usually ageusia doesn’t occur without anosmia.  Usually ageusia really is anosmia and results from injury to the olfactory nerve.  But you can smell even though you can’t taste.  You’re an anomaly, sweetie.”  She takes his face roughly in her hands and kisses him open-mouthed, a little tongue action, like she’s rewarding him for doing or being something really cool.

Finally all the lights in the kitchen are out.  It seems to him they burned out faster than usual.  But he can’t put off changing them any longer, and Molly’s got a point when she tells him to earn his keep.  Jillian offers to do it, but Molly shoots her a look and Xavier is a little insulted.  He’s not helpless.  Hand over her mouth, grandmother’s ring glinting, Jillian leaves the room, while Molly steadies the ladder for him.  “Just quit rocking your feet,” she orders.

He’s stretching to get the globe loose.  “I’m not rocking anything.  Quit moving your hands around.”  He’s trying not to drop the light bulb or the glass globe.

“You’re shaking the ladder, Xave.”

“I’m not,” he begins, feeling a flash of panic and anger, when he finds himself sideways, descending at the speed of nightmare, his feet gone.  It’s a short way down, but Before he crashes he’s aware of something small and hard like a fist smashing into his face.

      Jillian and Molly are standing over him, and he thinks he’s just landed at the bottom of the drop-off from the mountain trail.  Then he’s aware of the pillows arranged on either side of his head, lumpy, pale, and huge (the pillows, not his head, or maybe in fact it’s both).  He wants to push them off the bed—he doesn’t want them anywhere near him.  But for the moment he can’t make himself move.

“Oh, sweetie, you fell again,” Jillian says, patting somewhere on his body below eye level.

“Yeah, we’ve really got to do something about your balance,” Molly says.  “But right now we’ve got to take care of your nose.”

“By. . .bose?” he croaks.

Jillian lets loose a snort of laughter, apologizes for laughing, can’t stop laughing, leaves the room.  Molly explains, “Oh, yeah, you bled all over everything.  Must have really cracked it when you fell.  But I’ve packed your nasal passages good and tight.  Good thing my grandmother taught me some great remedies for nosebleed.  My dad used to get them all the time.”

He is aware, now, of the stuffed, swollen feeling of his nose, as if his face has been taken away from him and she’s grafted random meat to the underlying muscle.  He can’t smell anything but the bandages, a faint whiff of blood, and an odd metallic scent that reminds him of batteries.

“You’re going to be fine,” Molly pronounces.  It scares him a little that he believes her.

After a week or so, not being able to smell starts to get to him.  He bends over a simmering pot of Jillian’s chicken soup until his face starts to burn, without capturing even a hint of aroma.  He buries his nose in flowers and gets only their softness or prickliness or texture like tissue paper.  Desperate, he sticks his face right down to his own shit in the toilet bowl and it might as well be a lump of clay floating there.

Now he can’t taste or smell.  It feels like more than that.  The whole organic world seems denied him.  He supposes this could be artistically interesting if he weren’t so fucking scared and sad.

One night at dinner he is slowly chewing his way through a pile of shrimp when he becomes aware that Jillian and Molly are watching him closely from across the table.  “What?” A couple of well-chewed lumps drop from his mouth.  Jillian gags and covers her face.  “What!” he shouts, spitting the rest of the shrimp out over the table.

“I’m sorry, Xave.”  Molly’s face looks genuinely sorry so she’s lying to him somehow.  “I wasn’t paying good enough attention.  It looks like that batch of shrimp was spoiled.  My bad.  I am so sorry.”

The shrimp starts up his throat.  He barely makes it to the toilet bowl, hears himself retch as if his throat were turning inside out, dumps pints of colorful but remarkably odorless and tasteless puke.

“I don’t think I need that anymore,”  Xavier says later that evening as Molly takes the packing out.  Her hand on his forehead almost makes up for the tweezers up his nose and the sharp tug to get the cotton out.  Breathing feels good.  Then, seeing she’s not done, he gets to his feet, swaying a little.  “I don’t think I need that anymore.”  When she ignores him, he tries,  “I can’t remember the last time there was any blood.”

“There’s still infection, and you appear to have developed a rash and some real sensitivity up there.  You know how a doctor tells you to take all your antibiotics until your prescription runs out, even if you’re feeling lots better?  Same principle.”

“What is that stuff you’re soaking them in? It’s dark.  Looks metallic.”

She hesitates, half a beat.  Molly never hesitates, and it alarms him.  Why doesn’t he just get the fuck out of there?  “My grandmother used this on my dad.  She was a real natural healer, an actual expert.  There’s a little zinc, just a smidgen of lead, some other things.”

“It’s not toxic, right?”  What a stupid question.  Like she’s going to tell him, yeah, Xave, I’m poisoning you.

What she says is, “Oh, Xave, do you think I’d give you something toxic?”

It’s not a rhetorical question.  She actually wants an answer, and he’s forced to say, “No,” and, when he says it to her, it’s true, he doesn’t think she’d do anything like that.

She nods.  “It’s fine in these amounts.  You wait, you’ll be better in no time.”

“So it worked with your dad?”

“Well, for a while.  But he had lots of other problems.  He was a mess, actually.  My grandma said he was like that from when he was a little boy.”

She brings the cotton balls over and wedges them so far up his nose he panics a bit.  He imagines them pushing up through into his brain.  His nose feels like wood.

“I have to pack it really well,” she croons.  “In case it starts bleeding again.”  Then she wraps the bandage tight over his nose and under his eyes, standing on tiptoe to tie it at the back of his head.  Xavier thinks he must look ridiculous, monstrous, but finds he isn’t entirely displeased by the idea, especially when Molly kisses him long and hard.  He has the definite impression he should be smelling some strong, terrible odors, but he smells nothing.  Ever again.

       For seven and a half months right after high school,  he didn’t see Molly at all.  He didn’t return her messages  and, when she wouldn’t quit calling and texting, he changed  his cell number.  He treated Jillian like shit when Molly  used her as her messenger.  He moved to San Diego, for no  good reason, and his parents paid his art school tuition,  relieved that he had some direction in his life, which he didn’t except to get away from Molly.  He made them promise not to tell anybody where he was.  “Not even Molly and Jillian?”  His parents had always liked “the girls” (or sometimes “our girls”), mostly because they were his only friends.

“Especially not them.”

His dad said something approving about striking out on your own. Really what he was doing was running away.  His mom went still and tilted her head–“You know you can talk to me, honey”–but the only person who’d have had a chance of getting what he might say was Jillian and Jillian was part of it, Jillian would tell Molly, he had to cut himself off from Jillian, too.

It sucked.  He hated Molly for that more than all the other shit.  And he did hate her.  And he loved her.  He never stopped loving her.  When he came back home he paid for both hating her and loving her.  Which was actually kind of fun, in an S-and-M sort of way.

“Why’d you come back?” Jillian whispered to him that first night.  Then they were clinging to each other with Molly sound asleep–or pretending to be–between them.

“Didn’t know what to do with myself,” he tried, very aware that Molly could be listening to every word and recording it in her mental notebook.  “Wanted to see what would happen next.”

What he didn’t say then, because he didn’t quite know it yet, was that being in the world without Molly had been like being in a sensory shooting gallery, constantly bombarded, constantly on overload, not sure about which of the barrage of stimuli were foreground and which background, exhausted from trying to pay attention to them all.  Molly kept things straight.

Now Jillian is in his arms again and he asks her tenderly, “Remember the paintings I did with patches over my eyes?”

“Sick shit,” Jillian murmurs, probably meaning both sick like “disgusting” and sick like “very cool.”

“Totally.”  Drawing his hand down her body, so familiar and sweet, he wonders what happened to those paintings.  Molly probably has them cataloged somewhere, along with all the photos she takes of him and Jillian and the three of them and herself with him and with Jillian and herself with herself.  And the pictures of the black cat with the cauterized eye sockets, which was what pushed him over the edge into leaving.

Shuddering, he wonders aloud, “Whatever happened to the cat?”

“Homer.” Jillian burrows her face into his chest.  They hug each other and chorus, “for the blind poet!” like Molly always said even before the cat showed up with both eyes gone, they assumed from some mother of a fight.  When she brought him home, she’d already named him Homer because she was a fan of the Iliad or something, though Xavier didn’t think she’d ever been much of a reader.

Then Xavier and Jillian get it on for a while, and even though he can’t taste or smell her, even though they’re both crying, it’s incredible, the best it’s been between them for a long time.  Actually, being fucked up like this–no smell, no taste, sobbing hysterically when he comes–makes the sex a lot better for Xavier, and it occurs to him that Molly probably knows that.

They fall asleep for a while and then they both wake up at the same time and rush around so they won’t be late to meet Molly for the moonlight nature hike she’s decided they’re going on.  Hogging the bathroom as usual, Jillian calls out to him, “Homer did okay blind.”

“Yeah,” he grins.  “Dude wrote awesome poetry.”

She must not have heard him because when she comes back to get dressed she says, “He got so fuckin’ independent he moved out.  We saw him around and he’d let us pet him and he’d eat from Molly’s hand but he wouldn’t come home.  Didn’t need us.  Seriously pissed her off.  Remember?”

Xavier does remember that and Molly’s files of notes on her laptop.  Gelling his pompadour even bigger than before Jillian messed it up, he thinks to ask, “How did Homer lose his eyes, anyway? Did we ever know?”

Jillian takes a toke from the pre-concert joint and passes it to him.  Tightly she answers, “Catfight, wasn’t it?”

He sucks in the smoke and says in that same cartoony voice, “I don’t think so,” but she waves him off and they hurry out the door.  Molly doesn’t like to be kept waiting.  It’s a huge relief on the train when Xavier realizes he’s buzzed, just like always, even though he can’t taste or smell the weed.

      Living without two of his senses turns out not to be all bad.  That in itself is weird; he doesn’t know if it’s pitiful or admirable that a human being can adjust to any damn thing.

Things he doesn’t see coming can seriously depress him–odorless wood smoke that still makes his eyes water, pumpkin pie slimy and sickening without the taste he’s never liked anyway, his parents’ messy Christmas tree that might as well be fake now that he doesn’t get the pine fragrance.  But he’s doing okay, better than okay.  Most of the time he’s calmer than he’s ever been.  He feels safer, which is bizarre.  He can follow conversations better, organize stuff like grocery lists and his checkbook,  and stay with his art for longer periods of time without getting distracted.  All that is of great interest to Molly.

He graduates, takes a few additional computer courses over the summer and finds a computer graphics job because no one makes a living in fine arts anymore, gets into collages and assemblage pieces that seem to actually come out of his odorless and tasteless new world, or out of how his vision and hearing and tactile senses are moving in to where smell and taste used to be, or something.  He gets a couple of shows and a mention in the neighborhood paper.  Three of his pieces sell.

At work and at the galleries he meets new people and starts doing things with friends besides Jillian and Molly or by himself, which is a first.  He even has dates with a few new women, one of whom he thinks for a week or so he might be falling in love with until he hears from somebody else that she’s moved out of town.  Pissed off and embarrassed, maybe hurt, he builds a 5’x 6′ walk-in assemblage piece with all kinds of shit jutting out and thrusting up from the bottom and hanging down in your face, textures and shapes in juxtapositions he doesn’t think about but just knows in ways he maybe wouldn’t if he still had to deal with all five senses bringing him input from the wide world.  That piece is a little hard to place, but a gallery downtown puts it in the building lobby and Xavier likes to lurk around anonymously watching people staring at it but hesitant to go inside it.  He sympathizes.  He never wants to go inside it, either, but once he does he doesn’t want to come out.

He still paints now and then although it bothers him that he can’t smell the oils.  The oil smell wasn’t good for you—his painting instructors used to harp on how you had to be careful and ventilate your studio well, or use acrylics, but he never liked acrylics.  Now he’s probably getting the brain damage without the odor.  Whatever.  These new paintings have huge electric arcs of color, faces with deep layers of tissue and bone exposed, starved bodies holding candles in amorphous dark corners.

“You seem happy,” Molly observes in her very clear voice.  They’re looking at the big assemblage.  It’s the first time she’s seen it.  Jillian helped him construct it in the first place and then de-construct, move, and put it up here.  “Why are you happy?”

“Why not?” He speaks quietly because she’s talking too loud.  Her voice echoes in the lobby and people on the other side of the assemblage look at her.  Xavier suddenly doesn’t want her here.

“I didn’t say you shouldn’t be happy.  I want you to be happy.  I just didn’t think you would be, after all that’s happened.  And I’m interested in why.”

“Why what?”

Molly turns to face him.  To face him down.  She sets her feet shoulder-width apart and crosses her arms in her don’t-screw-with-me-asshole stance.  “Xavier.  You’ve lost two of your senses, so you should be getting only about sixty per cent of the normal sensory input.  I’d have thought that would handicap you.  But it seems to have made you more centered or at peace or something.  Inspired you. How does that work?”

Enraged like he’s never been at anybody before in his life, Xavier wouldn’t mind having a scene with Molly right here and now–it’s overdue–but not while there are people looking at his art.  He grabs her arm and pulls her out onto the street, down the block, into an alley strewn with garbage he can’t smell.  Probably there are other odors in here, too, other tastes in the air, piss and booze and cooking smells from the back doors of restaurants.  He expected her to resist, hoped she would so he could overpower her, but she didn’t, and now she stands there against the stained brick wall half-smiling and watching him, which makes him even more furious.  “Stop it!” he hisses.  “Just stop, Molly, give it up!”

Her hair is short again and she runs a hand over it.  His palm tingles with the feel of it, a cellular memory.  “Stop what? What am I doing?” He knows her, has known her for a long time, and there’s something wrong about the tone of her voice.

“You’re such a fuckin’ control freak! You always have been! You set people up, and you make things happen, and you take notes, and it’s all so goddamn interesting, isn’t it, Molly?”  To keep from shaking her, he’s pacing, kicking at things.  He throws a half-full Corona can against a dumpster and beer splatters into his face but he doesn’t taste it.  Of course he doesn’t taste it, or smell it, either.

Molly declares, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Xavier doesn’t know what he means, either, and the anger seeps out of him, leaving despair.  He mutters, “Just leave me alone,” and stalks off. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if Molly follows him.  She doesn’t even call his name.     When he gets back to the house late that night, so stoned he can hardly walk and so depressed he hardly cares, Jillian is waiting for him. “What?” he mumbles, wanting nothing more than to collapse in bed alone.

She takes him in her arms and he thinks he might throw up but he doesn’t have the strength to pull away.  “We’ve got to get away,” she whispers.  “We’ve got to get away from her.”

“From who?”

She claps her hand over his mouth hard enough that he feels slapped.  “Shut up.  I already packed your stuff.  Let’s go.”

“You packed my stuff?”  He’s incredulous, in a fuzzy sort of way.

“I don’t know where she is.  She could be back any second.  Come on.”

“No,” he says.

“Xavier, don’t be an idiot.  You’re in danger.  We both are, but especially you.  She’s fuckin’ crazy.”

“Who? Molly?”

“Shut up!”

“I’m not leaving, Jillian.  You do what you gotta do, but things are going too good for me here.” That’s a lot of words for him to say in his current state, and he sits down hard on the floor.

“She hurts you.”

“Well, yeah, but she doesn’t mean to.  It’s just her way.”

“She means to, Xavier.  And she’s going to hurt you more.  I don’t know how, exactly, but she’s going to.”

“Probably.”  This is all so absurd.  He’s giggling.

They hear Molly at the back door and Jillian gives one more tug at his hand, then drops it, grabs her backpack, and runs out the front.  Xavier passes out right where he is and vaguely realizes Molly is putting him to bed.  Vaguely, it feels nice.

      Molly’s sick with mumps.  She says she never had it as a kid and Xavier knows this could be serious.  “How’d you get mumps?” he asks her tenderly, not really to find out but as a way of saying he’s sorry she feels so terrible.

“My cousin’s kids all have it.  I was over there the other day.”

“Should’ve stayed home.”

“I know.  Wouldn’t be sick and Jillian wouldn’t be gone.”  She looks so pitiful.  She puts her arms around his neck and pulls him down for a long kiss.  He gets into bed with her and they make out for a while, have sex.  He wouldn’t think she’d feel like it and it pleases him that she wants him even when she’s sick.  She’s feverish.  She falls asleep and he tucks her in, only then thinks about contagion and calls his mom to see if he had mumps when he was little.  He didn’t.

When Molly’s just getting better Xavier comes down with mumps, swollen glands like alien life forms under his neck, fever dreams, puking.  Now and then he gets up to paint, and when he can’t hold a brush anymore he dips his fingers into the paint and applies it to the canvas directly.  He stands there, struggling to work, leaving only when he has to go to the bathroom.  In the mirror he sees he has smeared paint all over his face and into his hair, raised rainbow squiggles and blotches adding to the hairline scar.  Pleased with the effect, he wonders how long he can leave it there without doing damage to himself, and if he even cares about doing damage.

At some point he may have lost consciousness.  When you’re living the dream, you can never be sure if you’re awake or if you’re dreaming.

      “She tried to take your hearing,” Jillian says, above him.  They’re above him a lot, floating around like angels, closer to heaven than he can ever possibly be.  It makes him jealous and sad.  “Do you remember coming to the hospital?” Jillian holds his face still so that he has to look at her unless he closes his eyes and that’s too much trouble.

He thinks he’s shaking his head.  Jillian is holding up a hand full of papers, scribbles like mouse droppings or worm trails, disgusting and hard on the eyes.  “Are those love letters?” Trying to smile, he manages to close his eyes instead.

“It’s her notes, Xave.  She was trying to take your hearing, nobody would believe me, but now I’ve found her notes!  Your own parents wouldn’t believe me, but now we can both talk to them, and the doctors, and the police.  We’ll tell them everything she’s done to you!”  She starts crying.  “And we’ll tell them what I’ve done, too, how I was a part of it.”

“No.”  He wants to say more but doesn’t really get what more there is to say.

“Yes, yes!  Just listen to this crap! ‘Labyrinthine viral infection, from mumps or another viral illness, is one cause of Idiopathic Sudden Sensory Hearing Loss.  Difficult to estimate the odds, or the danger to myself if exposed, but X is weak and susceptible, always has been, and the concerts we go to are loud, and I always insist we sit up front.  He winces, but he’s so inured to abuse, I don’t think he even knows he’s in pain.  He has no idea I’ve been wearing ear plugs.  But it’s taking forever. I  can’t wait that long.’ And, shit, here, at the bottom, ‘intracochlear membrane rupture,’ she’s got in big letters, underlined!  What do you think that means?”

“You’re crazy!” Molly shouts, snatching the papers.  Jillian tries to grab them back, and Xavier actually admires how strong and fast Molly is, keeping the papers away.  “And stupid.  And weak!  Xave, she’s lying.  She pulled that stuff out of a magazine and wrote it down!  I saw her out in the waiting room writing and looking things up—-now I know what she was doing.  She’s resented my relationship with you for years-—she wants you all to herself!  I think she always has—she just doesn’t have the guts to fight for you like a real woman.”

Molly slaps her.  Jillian pushes Molly and they are fighting, throwing punches and scratching.   Xavier is kind of excited but so shut down all he can do is watch from a distance.

Though Molly is a good three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter, she has Jillian’s hands twisted up behind her back.  Jillian’s hair streams over Molly’s face.  “I’ve already told your parents and the doctors about her-—nobody believes her!”

“Fuck you!” Jillian kicks backward and Molly gets her onto the floor.  “Xave, listen to me–“

From where she half-sits, half-lies on top of Jillian, Molly almost whispers, “I’m going to get you home, Xavier.  I’m going to get you better.”

      His parents said they wanted him to come home with them, but Xavier didn’t notice them arguing much when Molly said she would take care of him.  They’ve never known what to do with him, and the truth is they’re good with just visiting, bringing him tasteless food, chatting about crap that means even less to him now than it ever did, and leaving the rest of him to Molly.  They trust Molly.  They’ve always been clueless.  So has he, in a different way, and that’s why he needs Molly.

So he’s home.  “You’re safe on my watch, good buddy,” she says and laughs, over and over again until it isn’t funny anymore, if it ever was.

She tells him Jillian is in a psych ward.  Everybody says she needs lots of help, rest, time to get herself better.  He misses her, but not very much.

Clay and sculpting tools were waiting for him when he got out of the hospital, a welcome-home present.  Molly says it’ll help his tactile sense.  He’s never much liked the feel of clay, the intense tiny-grained squishiness of it, the particles under his nails and in the creases of his skin, but now he’s sitting up in bed with a newspaper-covered tray across his knees, in gray-blue twilight, pressing and digging at the gray-brown chunk, not thinking about what it is or what’s in it, just getting used to the feel.

“I’ve made you some tea.” Coming into the room, Molly is all smiles.  She sees the clay, his fingers in the clay, the clay glistening and moving.  “Ooh, that’s sweet.”  She reaches toward the bulbous shape coming out from between his hands but she doesn’t quite touch it.  Kissing the top of his head, she croons, “You’re so talented.”

He leans his head back against her.  After a quiet moment she takes away the clay even though he’s not ready to stop, but once it’s out of his reach he is done, she was right.  She gives him a wet towel, helps him clean his hands.  Another nice moment between the two of them.

Then she’s businesslike and bustling again.  “I’m dropping your antibiotics into this nice tea, see?  So they’re easier to take-—they don’t taste so bad this way.  You’ve got to take all your medicine, honey, okay?”  When has she ever called him honey?  “Here’s your earphones.  Just lean back against the pillow and sip your tea and listen to the nice music.  I’ve put on something really soft-—you still like piano music, right?  That New Age stuff?  We always make fun, but it is relaxing.  Dinner will be ready soon.  I love you, sweetheart.  You’ll be better before you know it.”

Sweetheart sounds weird coming out of her mouth.  But Xavier likes it.  He may have even yearned for it, just a little.

The music really is relaxing.  It doesn’t demand anything of you.  As he’s nodding off, Molly stands by the stereo, watching.  Should he say something?  Is that what she’s waiting for?  The music changes somehow, but Xavier is so relaxed it’s like dropping into a deep hole, falling again but it’s okay, it feels good, a nice long swooping slide.

When he wakes up he can’t seem to open his eyes.  He feels a soundless buzzing in his head.   His head pulses like a too-full balloon, his hands and feet are tingling.  He’s done enough shit to know a drug hangover when he’s got one.  His thoughts are jumbled but finally he’s thinking the stereo must have malfunctioned because there’s just this buzzing, nothing remotely musical about it. Does Molly know? He needs to find Molly and tell her the piece-of-crap stereo’s jacked up again.  But why can’t he open his eyes?

Light comes through his closed lids so at least, thank god, he isn’t blind.

When he brings his hands up to rub his face, his eyelids start coming loose like they’ve been glued.  On his fingertips is an amazing amount of what they used to call “eye boogers.”  He finds the dried mucous on his lips and chin, too.

He’s starving.  Did he eat dinner?  He doesn’t think so.

He looks around the room, sees the long cord snaking toward the stereo, realizes he still has the earphones on.  He looks at the stereo, at the indicators flashing red, at the long bars pulsing.  He looks back at the window, and sees it is half-open, the curtain blowing in.  But he can’t hear the wind, or the traffic noises outside, or anything else.

He reaches up to the ear cups.  They’re both vibrating hard.  But he hears nothing.

He stares at the stereo, the indicators swinging, pulsing.  Maximum volume.  For how many days?  Three?  Five?  A week?  It would have been terrible for those expensive speakers. Shredding them internally. Good thing, he thinks, the sound had been diverted into the headphones.

And his ears?  How many days?

He tears the headphones off and throws back his head to scream her name, so loud in his head but so silent. He rushes through the house.  Where is she?  Until he’s thinking I can’t kill her if I can’t find her, he didn’t know he wanted to kill her.  She did this on purpose.  She’s done all this on purpose.  What, exactly, has she done? Deliberately he bangs against something, tips something over, stops and waits for the sound to come to him delayed, but it never does.

In the studio a blank canvas is up on the easel.  Did he put it there or did she?   He wrestles the lids off jars of acrylic he’s never used, sticks his fingers in, and throws gob after colorful gob at the expanse of pure white.  In no time at all he fills it.  He steps closer.  The painting is telling him something, but what?  He really wants to hear what it has to say.

Movement in the corner of his eye.  He glances over.  Molly is walking his way briskly, a notebook wedged under her arm, a pen in her fist.  In her other hand a recorder pushed toward him like a weapon.  She’s speaking.  What the fuck is she doing?  She’s babbling on.  Suddenly she stops, laughing silently.  She opens her mouth wide and speaks slowly, with serious exaggeration.  Does she want him to read her lips?  She’s repeating it, again and again.

(say what you feel)

Is that it?  He can still speak, so why wouldn’t he be able to say what he feels?

He rips his mouth wide and screams, lunging for her.  Noiselessly she stumbles backward, noiselessly scatters paint jars and brushes and equipment.  He falls onto her and they both go down.  She is a hysterical silent film heroine, struggling to get out from under him.

His hands are around her throat, squeezing the sound out of her.  Even trade!  But he doesn’t know if he’s saying it or just thinking it.  Then her pen comes up and up, in slow motion, and then in the jagged speeded-up motion of a silent film.  He didn’t think about her pen.

 

So now he is blind.

 

Now he is deaf, too.

 

Now he is deaf and he is blind, too.

 

Are there words for people who can’t taste or smell? For a while he panics because he doesn’t know any.  He’s deaf and blind and he can’t smell and he can’t taste.  That leaves touch.  And terror.

 

Scratchy bandages bind his eyes, but loose enough he can still move the lids.  No dim light.  No shadows.  Nothing but the deepest, darkest well of despair, and he has all the time in the world to stare down into it, to swim in it, to drink everything it holds.

Something squeezes his right hand.  Again and again.  How long has that been going on?  Squeeze and squeeze again, regular, or irregular, as a heartbeat.

“Jillian?”  he means to say.  He can’t hear the word or see it or smell it or taste it.  For a while he gets lost in all this sensory confusion, and then realizing it could just as well be Molly squeezing his hand almost makes him black out, and he grabs wildly and flails and finds the hand with the ring.  He’s afraid to be relieved, to feel even momentarily safe, because Molly could be wearing a ring just to trick him.  But it does feel like Jillian’s ring.  He isn’t used to using his sense of touch like this–the only sense he has left–so he could be wrong, but it feels like the star sapphire ring with the ridged setting and the etched design on the band.  He actually thinks he can feel the star in the sapphire, and he knows that isn’t possible, and so he must be going crazy.  A person can only take so much.

Squeeze again, then pressure, skin on skin, dampness, blood or tears?  He thinks tears, but it could be blood.  Not so long ago he wouldn’t have thought about blood, but everything’s changed.

“Squeeze once for yes if it’s you, twice for no.”  There’s a single, long squeeze.  That means it’s Jillian.  But Molly could say “yes” that way, squeeze once for yes it’s Jillian when it isn’t.  It doesn’t tell him anything.

He hopes he says, “Okay, just a test.  Squeeze twice for no.”

Two hesitant, shaky squeezes.  More tears.  Or blood.  Or piss or jiz.  Or it’s raining.  Or there’s a gigantic dog drooling on him.  Or he’s hallucinating, crazy-creating, filling in this sensory emptiness with any shit his frantic brain can make up.  But it’s probably tears.  Tears make sense.

Whatever it is, Xavier is drowning.

Hands grab his.  A man’s.  His right hand turned over and fingers unfolded, then movement across his palm, it tickles, it scares him, and he tries to close his fist and jerk his hand away but his arm is held still it hurts he panics, fights, the movement on his palm keeps on and on and he can’t fuckin’ stand it can’t stand any of this and then he realizes it’s writing.  Like with that chick in that sappy movie what’s-her-name Ellen something.  Writing.  A message.

With great struggle Xavier calms himself down enough to concentrate.  He feels tiny scratching that must be the nails, roughness here on the skin and smoothness here, the trail of warmth on his own skin that fades so fast, his fingers wanting to close, the pulses in the fingertips and in his own wrist.  He has to work really hard to bring his attention to the marks–he knows they’re invisible, but everything’s invisible to him now and he’s goddamn going to think of them as marks–the lines and arcs being laid down on his hand.  D.  A.  D again.  He feels himself say, “Dad?” and he’s drenched with his own and everybody else’s tears.  M.  O.  He likes the circle; do that again.  M.  “Mom.”

One strong squeeze.  Yes.

He fits his lips together and says, “Bee.”  There’s a pause and then the letter B is traced on his palm.  No way he can explain about the damn bees still going out from the hive to bring stuff back for him to make what he can out of it, honey and wax and shit.  Persistent little fuckers.  He’s had enough of them.  He just wants them to stop.  He can’t make anybody but Molly understand that.  So he moves his mouth, lips, tongue, teeth, to say, “Where’s Molly?

D. E. A. D.

“Dad?” He knows that’s not what was spelled, but he can’t take in–

A long curve is traced on his cheek, a J, probably for Jillian.  Then two fast squeezes on his hand, “no,” and the terrible, beautiful word “DEAD” outlined again.

“Dead? Molly’s dead?”

One squeeze and then lots of stuff written fast on his hand though he thinks he tries to pull it away, too many letters, too many words, too much stimulation.  He clenches his fist over all that stimulation, imagining he’s squashing the goddamn bees.

“Did I kill her?”

Two firm squeezes.

“Did she kill herself?”

A long pause, maybe he didn’t say it out loud, he starts to say it again when somebody squeezes his fist once.

Molly is dead.  She killed herself.  She’s freed herself from all sensory input.  All he has is touch.  He doesn’t want touch.  He’s had enough to last a lifetime.  He wants to know what Molly knows, after all this time.

He puts his mind to it.  His mind focuses and slows like it never has before.  He goes inside to meet God or the universe or whatever it is.  To meet Molly.  Who knows what happens, or when.

He stops being aware of the feel of air or a blanket or tears on his skin.

The sensations of food and liquid entering his body by mouth or IV are muted, then disappear altogether.  Whatever passes out of his body is senseless, too.  Xavier chuckles inside himself.  Puns are the highest form of humor.

Stuff is written on his knuckles, the inside of his arms, his face.  It’s like insects crawling.  Meaning goes away when he doesn’t try to understand, doesn’t answer, doesn’t engage at all.  Finally the touch goes away, too, whether they’ve stopped touching him or he just isn’t taking it in anymore.

No sense of where he is in space.  Or if he’s in space at all.  No sound, not even heartbeat or breath or the little plates of his skull clicking together.  No smell or even memory of smell.  No taste in his mouth or anywhere else.  No light or shadow or shape or dull glow on the backs of his eyelids.  And nothing tactile, nothing felt.  He might as well not be living in his body anymore.  Maybe he isn’t.  That’s the point.

It’s peaceful here.

It’s lonely here.

God comes to him, or he comes to God, or he sinks into the universe, or he rises into nothing.

Molly almost died lots of times, before she was born and all through her life.  Molly’s really dead now.  Molly knows this place.  She brought him here.

Xavier loves Molly.

 

Originally appeared in the collection IN CONCERT by Steve & Melanie Tem. 

 

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   THANATRAUMA: Stories

Announcing Steve’s new collection, THANATRAUMA, up for pre-order at a special price. This is a collection of 21 strange and deeply unsettling tales — four of them previously unpublished — that deal with our deepest fears: death, loss, grieving, aging. The hardcover will be limited to 300 signed copies, beautifully printed and bound, and is available at a terrific preorder price of just $30. The wraparound dust jacket is by Vince Haig, who has done so many great covers for Undertow Publications. Starred review from Publishers Weekly: “World Fantasy Award winner Tem (The Night Doctor) is at his sharpest and most crushing in this collection of 21 horror shorts…essential for fans of dark speculative fiction, surrealist travelogues, and meditations on loss.” Full details here: https://www.valancourtbooks.com/thanatrauma-2021.html

About Steve

Steve Rasnic Tem's short fiction has been compared to the work of Franz Kafka, Dino Buzzati, Ray Bradbury, and Raymond Carver, but to quote Joe R. Lansdale: "Steve Rasnic Tem is a school of writing unto himself." His 470 plus published stories, sixteen collections, and eight novels have garnered him the British Fantasy Award, the World Fantasy Award, two International Horror Guild Awards, and four Bram Stoker Awards.

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