Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Death and Death Again

That evening, she kills him again.

This time, she works slowly, exquisitely slowly, taking frequent stops for food, for wine, for blood. Once or twice she even excuses herself to go to the bathroom, apologizing for leaving him alone.

They both know she doesn’t mean it.

“I don’t know why you’re even bothering,” he says as she moves her knife toward his tongue.

“I sleep better at night,” she tells him, cutting into his tongue and catching the blood into her latex covered hands.

They both know that she doesn’t mean that, either.

• • • •

“Do you know how many times it’s been?” she asks him the following night.

His head is leaning over to the side. She notes that down on her tablet, as she notes down everything: how much he eats, how much he drinks, how much he urinates, how long it takes him to die, how long it takes him to come back.

“Do you?”

Slowly, he raises his head. “Twenty?” he asks. His voice is thick, hard to understand. She is going to have to avoid deaths that harm his mouth in the future. “Forty?”

More notes. “No,” she tells him, placing a tender kiss on his forehead, before reaching for a rope.

She is not unkind. Her notes include records of his favorite meals, which she cooks for him on a regular basis, feeding him by hand herself, bite by bite. She even tried to plant some citrus trees around her house after he complained about the taste of the oranges and grapefruits she gave him. The citrus trees have not grown enough to fruit yet, but someday, she assures him. Some day. She has attached a television screen to the ceiling, for when he is lying down, a second one to a wall for when she has him tilted upright. When she cannot be with him, she leaves something else: music, a film, an audio book, a voice, so he is never truly alone.

She comes back from time to time to see him sleeping with a slight smile on his face, as if he is dreaming something pleasant. It gives her a warm feeling, she tells him, and she often lingers for several moments before reaching for the axe or the gun or cyanide, something quick, so that this death will not be prolonged.

It’s why he so often pretends to be asleep.

“When did you last sleep through the night?” he asks her once, after she revives him again, after his heart settles a little.

“Does it matter?”

“It might help.”

“Don’t pretend you care.”

He doesn’t.

He hasn’t pretended anything in a long while, not since the first time she killed him. He should, she tells him. It might make it easier, if he pretended that they were lovers, enjoying a romantic evening together. Or spies, caught by the enemy government. Or knights seeking the Holy Grail. Or even that nothing has changed, that this is nothing but a nightmare, that he is home safe in his own bed.

Whenever he tries, he remembers the taste of poison, the feel of the rope, the pain of having the skin pulled from his fingers. He never remembers death, or what happens later, but he always remembers dying.

By now, he should have developed some sort of love for her, some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, but perhaps the regular deaths have prevented this.

“Shall we dance, before you die?” she asks.

“Fuck you,” he says.

She nods. “It will have to be a slow one, this time. You’re taking longer and longer to return.”

“Did we?”

“Did we what?”

“Ever fuck.”

“Interesting,” she says, leaning forward. “I wonder if your memory is fading.”

“I’m just trying to find—” The knife is moving into his gut, and he is not any better at handling it, he is not any better at facing the fear of death, of that darkness rushing at him, no matter how slowly she kills him, not any better at facing the pain. “Damn it—”

She leans back in, to whisper in his ear. “It will be swift next time, I promise you. A gun, I think.”

He is supposed to thank her. Instead he screams.

• • • •

He thinks he once had a life, though it’s becoming harder and harder to remember, harder and harder to care. What does matter is how he is going to die this time, how much pain she is going to put him through, and how many questions she will make him answer afterwards.

Sometimes she lets him live for what seems like days. Without windows, it’s impossible to tell, but he thinks, based on the number of meals he eats, the number of movies she shows him (and sometimes watches with him), the number of songs he hears, that it might be as long as a week. Perhaps more. He has learned to dread those long periods. It means the next death is going to linger.

Bad as the dying is, he sometimes thinks the revivals are the worst. Not just the horrible, painful pounding of his heart, or the pain left over from however she killed him this last time. But knowing that it is not over. That if she has her way, it will never be over. That he will never really die, no matter how many times she kills him.

“If we fucked, and I screwed you over, I am sorry. I am genuinely, truly—fuck—”

And then she is reviving him again.

He doesn’t really think they fucked. He is pretty sure they did nothing, really, until she brought him here, to whatever this is. A house, she has told him, which it might be, although he thinks it also might be a former warehouse or industrial building that she converted to a house. But that’s a guess. He’s only been allowed to see four rooms and two flights of stairs, one leading up, one down. The rooms have no windows. This bothered him, several deaths ago. He’s over it now, although every once in awhile he tells her he would like to see sunlight again.

“That would be a bad idea.”

“This whole shit is a bad—”

The gunshot ends his sentence.

Maybe that would work, or at least help: keep her angry enough to use the gun. Of all of the various ways that she’s killed him, a shot to the heart at least has the advantage of being fast. And maybe, if he is lucky, she will shoot him in the head. He will still be brought back from that, but maybe he won’t be aware anymore.

Probably why she aims for the heart.

“What is it like?”

“What?”

“The other side.”

“What?”

“Death.”

“The fucking gunshot? It hurt. That’s what it’s like.”

Her eyes are calm as she prepares the next set of syringes. “No. What comes after.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You need to stop lying to me.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You need to stop lying.”

I don’t remember.”

For once, death and the gunshot surprise him.

• • • •

Two gunshots in a row. He feels lucky, until he sees her bring out the pillow. He shuts his eyes. Smothering should be an easy death, he thinks, but it always panics him, always terrorizes him. He is not sure how much more of this he can take, how many more times she will be able to bring him back. But he is back, again, head pounding, a hellish pain against his head, as she stands in front of him with the pillow. Breathing is hard.

“What is it like?”

His head hurts too much. The planet is tilting, tilting and he can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. She isn’t even killing him and he can’t breathe.

“Answer the question.”

He can’t breathe. The planet is falling and they are all going to fall off it and go into space and he can’t breathe he needs air doesn’t she realize he needs air—

The next awakening is a little less painful.

“I’m changing your medication,” she tells him. “I had some problems stabilizing your blood pressure last time. Also, and I am very sorry about this, but I think we’re going to remove red meat from your diet for a bit.”

“No we are not.”

“We are. I promise, we’ll bring it back in a bit. A thick rare steak. But for now—”

The needle slips under his skin. He is so used to dying that he is startled when he doesn’t, when in fact he starts feeling better. “Liquid nutrients,” she explains. She points to a large container by the wall, connected by a narrow tube to an IV bag connected by another narrow tube to his skin. “Enough to last years at this rate, although I don’t think we need to keep you on them that long.”

“You don’t fucking need to keep me on them at all.”

“You won’t tell me what it’s like.”

Fucking painful is what it’s like.” He is floating a bit now, and although the planet is tipping again this time it feels less terrifying, more like a gentle rocking to help him go to sleep.

“Orange juice?”

“Not that fucking stuff from concentrate.”

“I have apple,” she says, turning from him.

As she does, he moves his right hand over to his left. He feels very comfortable—almost like giggling, really—too comfortable to keep the needle in. It really should go out. He needs to tug.

And then his right hand is being grabbed and put back into the cloth restraints.

“We really are going to have to do something about this,” she tells him, putting the apple juice to his lips. “You could hurt yourself.”

He finds himself laughing.

“I’ll think of something,” she says. “In the meantime, though, you do need that IV. It’s not part of all this. It’s part of what you need.”

He cannot stop laughing. He sips the juice, watches as she collects his urine and leaves. He wonders if, perhaps, she will try drowning next. That hasn’t happened for a while. It might be rather nice to slide under water and stop thinking.

“A compromise,” she tells him, when she returns. She uses a foot pump to tilt the table he is on to an eighty-degree angle, so he is almost but not quite standing up. He feels the restraints on his arms and legs pulling against him. He thinks of Frankenstein, and feels the tears slide down his cheeks. “I don’t want to use it very long for obvious reasons, but this is a paralytic agent that will hold you absolutely still. Or at least still enough to stop fighting me.”

He holds absolutely still.

“It may mean keeping you on the nutrients for a bit longer,” she adds. “But we have a lot of nutrients—the container you’re hooked up to right now is enough to keep you going for ten years at least, maybe more. And it shouldn’t impede our research too much.”

“How will I be able to answer your questions?” he asks.

She smiles. “How thoughtful.” The smile vanishes. “You’ve hardly been answering them anyway.”

“I’m telling you,” he says. “I don’t remember. It’s just pain, and then I’m back here, and you’re talking to me again.” Tears fill his eyes. “You have to believe me.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“I believe you,” he says as she slides a needle into his right arm. “I really, truly, believe you. I believe—christ, I believe—I believe—”

“Hush now,” she says, bending over to kiss him on the forehead. “Hush now. It will be all right, I’ll give this time to work through, and I’ll let you watch a film or two before I kill you again. I promise. It really will be all right.”

Her lips touch his forehead again before sliding down over his nose to his lips. And then her lips are on his, and she is trying to force them open, and this is too much, it is all fucking too much, and even if the world is tilting again and he is going to fall off it, she is going to fall off it, they are both going to fall off the planet but he has to push her off it first because her mouth is on his and her tongue is moving inside and he shoves, pushing back with his feet and his hands and his head as hard as he can, feeling everything but his head caught by the restraints holding him against the damn table, feeling his head knock against hers, feeling her push back, and then watching, yes, watching as she stumbles back, her heel catching on something, her arms flailing, watching as she falls, head slamming into the side table where she leaves the syringes. He hears the crack, feels his lips twitch, and shuts his eyes as she slides to the floor. The planet lurches to the left, again and again.

When the planet is steady again, he opens his eyes.

She has not moved. From the pool of blood beneath her head, he is certain she will not move. He tries to draw a deep breath. His chest feels heavy, weighted, numb. Everything feels numb. His feet. His legs. His chest. His arms—

His arms.

He looks down to see the needle in the left arm still steadily pumping in water, sugar, and nutrients, and the needle in the right arm still steadily pumping in the paralytic agent. The wires on his chest, ready to jolt him back to life at the first hint of cardiac arrest. He would scream, if he could, but his tongue is too thick, too heavy, to move, and in any case, he is certain that he has many, many years left yet to scream.

Mari Ness

Mari NessMari Ness lives in central Florida. Her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and multiple other print and online publications. For more about her work, check out her blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.