“The part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress, and that sinks or is washed ashore.”
I’m writing this down because I’m starting to forget. I may need to remember some day. The chemical air is already kissing my mind, biting my memory away. Something terrible happened at work today. Beyond imagining . . .
Jay stops reading the worn fragment of paper, and looks up. “I don’t remember writing this. Where did you find this, again?” She speaks to the young man behind the counter, who’s examining the creases of a jacket flap. His glasses slide down his nose as he stops to pull a book out of the thick stack on the counter.
“It was stuck in this one.” The man holds up a worn copy of a short story anthology. It is one of about twenty books Jay has lugged into the used bookstore to sell.
“Oh. I thought I searched all of them.” Jay takes the book from him. It is old, as thick as a tombstone. Her hand trembles from the weight. “Wait. This book doesn’t look familiar—are you sure it’s mine?”
“It was in the box with the others. The paper was stuck behind the jacket flap. That’s why I like to go through everything before you leave the store. Thought you might want it back.”
“Thanks,” says Jay, and walks away from the counter. She sits down on a worn upholstered chair and turns the paper over in her fingers. One side is crammed with writing, and the other is affixed with a single name tag, a sticker with a smeared red mark on it. She recognizes her writing. But she doesn’t recall writing the words.
It was so still after all the previous commotion, as if the traffic and people had bled off the edges of the city. Emptiness, everywhere. Only smoke plumes in the sky, coiling like worms.
What day was this? What date? Nothing on the paper gives it away. Annoyed, Jay lets it drop to her lap. At the top of the torn edge, the name of the old publishing company she worked for stands out in crisp block letters. It’s surely the thought of her former job that sends little shivers of distress sparking up her spine, and nothing else. That’s what she tells herself.
“A lot of books from the same company,” the man calls out. He is still methodically examining her offerings. “You’re in publishing, right? I can usually tell.”
“Not anymore,” Jay says. “I work in finance now. Better pay.”
Jay runs her finger along the jagged edge of the paper. She’s really only told part of the truth. She didn’t leave the company. The company left her.
“Didn’t like the job, eh?”
“Didn’t have a choice. They left the city,” she replies. “The attacks. Some people jumped ship. You know.”
The man is respectfully silent.
Everyone was in their offices, all cramming things into boxes, or staring numbly out the windows into space. Like I was.
The company did more than jump ship. It vanished. Jay and a few employees—the ones who hadn’t been warned—traveled into the city one morning to find the building as empty of life as the smoldering ruins on the tip of the island. Whispers on the street said they’d fled to another country, leaving behind the detritus of their long history: piles of old books, unread manuscripts, and discarded employees. Just as devastating, in its own way.
“I have your total.” The man holds another slip of paper, the credit for the books. “This is how much we’ll give you in books, or you can take half that amount in cash. You can use it now or later—just don’t lose it.”
Jay takes the cash. Not much, as always, but it doesn’t matter. Relief is the only payment she needs—relief that there is a little less crowding around her, a little less intrusion on her life. She needs to know that at home, at night, she has some space to think and breathe.
“Thanks. I’ll come back next Saturday with the last load.” Jay grabs her metal shopping cart and heads for the door. As she picks her way through dusty stacks, she shoves the receipt into her pocket. She stares at the fragment one more time, then slides it in as well.
From my office, I watched the apartment building across the street. Some windows were lit up in the rainy gloom like soft yellow candles, others were dark and tomb-like. Most had pale curtains drawn across the glass.
As she walks back home, Jay sees herself reflected over and over again in dark storefront windows. In one tall pane of glass, a ghostly woman walks beside her whose face still flirts with middle age while her body has fully embraced it. In another she is thin and chic, a woman of the City, proudly urban in her clothing and demeanor. In a third pane, she’s little more than a wraith. But her face remains the same in all those reflections: there’s a furrow nestling between her eyes, a deep line of fear bisecting her brow. The sight of it shocks Jay. She hasn’t seen that look on her face for almost five years.
That’s how long ago her old life ended, how long she’s kept herself from dwelling on her past. No reason to remember, Jay tells herself. It’s over. But even now, part of her still wonders why the company left without a trace, while another part secretly rejoices that she escaped something worse than what had been intended for her. What had been intended . . . ?
As she rounds the corner, her apartment building slides into view. It is thick and solid, comfortably utilitarian. From across the street, her living room window is just one of many black rectangles, indistinguishable from the others. It doesn’t have a view of the city skyline—she blocked it off years ago. She has no desire to see where she’s been.
To the left of the building a massive clock tower rose like a cream-colored phallus, laced with delicate scaffolding from base to tip.
The clock, the time—it was the last day she’d gone to work in the city, that was it. She’d been late. Only a week since the attack, and smoke still billowed in toxic sheets over the lower part of the island. Chemicals and flesh—the dead settled in their mouths and lungs. Jay hadn’t wanted to step outside. But bills had to be paid. So she’d reluctantly crept down into the subway, taking her place within the throng of silent commuters. And when she emerged from the underground, when she saw the company’s triangular building, saw the dun of the sky—
No. She does not want to remember. To her right sits a battered trash can. Through the iron mesh, magazine covers press against thick seeping paper bags, sodden bricks of newspapers, strange dribblings of food. The fragment is a tight ball in her hand. It’s only trash. But her fingers can’t release it. She stares at the crumpled paper as it unfolds, an image blossoming in her mind . . .
Broken things pressing against each other, faces and bricks all jumbled into one terrible mass . . . And a word—no. A single letter. Everywhere she had turned that morning long ago, she had seen that strange mark.
Jay crosses the street in quick steps. She pushes the shopping cart into the building courtyard, past the molding statue and stunted trees, toward her entrance. She stops to take out her keys, and the ball in her hand flattens out suddenly as her fingers work the paper open. It’s a compulsion she cannot control.
Between the buildings two inky smears of clouds slowly passed. They lingered briefly in the space before drifting toward the open square, as if surveying and cataloging the sodden masses below. If only I’d known—
She saw something that day. Not clouds, not smoke, not the ashes of her friends. Something moved . . .
Jay stands at the edge of the entrance, her body rigid. Her eyes slide up to the tops of the building and beyond, looking for the edges of the city, reassuring herself that she cannot see it. That it cannot see her. She runs her tongue around her mouth. It tastes as if something foul has just moved through her. There is more than the memory of ash in her mouth. She tastes marked.
The door swings out behind her.
“Could you—” says the janitor, and Jay grabs the door as he wheels his cart out. He gestures to the gaping mouth of plastic.
Jay looks down at the fragment. “No. Thanks.” She shoves it into her pocket.
“No books today? That’s a first.” The man smiles pleasantly at her. Jay sidles past him into the empty hallway.
“Not today. I’ve read enough already.” She drags her cart up to the seventh floor.
Giant bins of trash surrounded the building—the last remnants of the publishing company. Just twenty minutes ago, men were walking from bin to bin, red paintbrushes in their hands, marking them for removal.
Jay presses her back against the bolted door. The solid slab of painted metal makes her feel safe. Before her a cool and empty living room sits in silence. The lack of furniture and decoration comforts her profoundly. Owning nothing means nothing can be taken or thrown away, nothing can be forgotten.
She examines the sticker more closely. “MY NAME IS” borders the top in thick letters. The white space below is stained red, smeared and slightly cracked. Jay cocks her head slightly as she tries to interpret it. The original mark is lost to her. All that’s left is on the paper.
Dropping her coat to the floor, Jay walks to a large, empty bookcase and pulls it aside with a groan. Behind the case, a grimy window looks out on the quiet street, the buildings, the sky. Breathing hard, Jay presses a finger to the glass, then, as if writing a secret language, slowly traces the tops of the buildings as they sprawl across the horizon.
The creeping skyline of this city both fascinates and repels her. No matter where she looks, the sky seems to stop at the rooftops—and there is a space, a thin crack where reality does not quite knit together. She imagines something pulsating at the edge, watching and waiting. Waiting for a sign, a mark.
Workers clustered in small groups, whispering fearful gossip back and forth. During the night a thousand companies fled. We had been abandoned.
“If I get rid of this, there won’t be anything left of that day. Not even my memories. But you can’t take things I don’t have,” Jay whispers. Her hand curls around the paper, crushing it neatly. “You can’t take nothing.”
A woman with a clipboard was shouting. “Proceed to your floor and pack your belongings—”
Her hand uncurls. It’s no use. She still has the fragment. And now: trickles of memory, staining her soul like drops of blood in water. Still marked, she tells her reflection in the glass.
“—nothing will be left behind.”
The sky looms overhead like a bowl of metal riveted to the edges of the earth.
Jay stands in the middle of an empty street, before her old employer’s building. Beyond it, the island stretches out in one festering sweep of land. In five years, the corruption of the attack has spread outward and up the blocks. Now only smoldering piles of metal dot the landscape. Nothing whole remains, except the strangely triangulated building before her—a stone ship caught in a scoria sea.
A low boom catches her attention: in the distance a colossal wall, one hundred stories high, slices the island in half like a surgical scar. Rooftops of still-healthy buildings are visible over the top, while, at the base, tiny figures scurry back and forth in the thunder and wake of ponderous machines. Below, subways gag on hardening concrete. Jay had to bribe a man at the borough docks to ferry her across the water to the island. There was no other way in.
“Why not you?” Jay asks her old building. It cannot be coincidence that it alone remains. Rows of windows grin at her like blackened teeth, revealing nothing. Pink stains the worn stone. Some brighter color once ran down its sides, then faded with time. Jay’s fingers grasp the wrinkled paper.
The woman slapped a name tag on my coat while a man shoved an empty cardboard box into my arms. “You have fifteen minutes to get to your floor,” he said. “Put your personal items in this, and wait in your office to be escorted out.” As I made my way through the lobby, my fingers slid over the tag. They came away red.
She picks her way past the rounded tip of the building and tries the lobby door. After a few pulls on the handle, it swings open. The landscape behind her reflects as wavering ribbons in the thick glass and brass. Jay looks back over her shoulder.
Two dark gray clouds float along the eastern shore. They creep over the rubble as if they are snuffling and rooting their way inland. Jay slips into the building and pulls the door firmly shut, then presses her face against the glass. One cloud rises slowly, thinning out as it catches the sluggish wind. The other pulses slightly—the ruins beneath it shift.
Jay backs into the lobby until darkness envelops her. More drops of memory trickle through her. Outside, the gray mass of air spreads itself farther out and up, until it is beyond her vision.
At the far end of the lobby, beyond the elevator banks, there is an open door to a brown stairwell. Jay hesitates, listening for any sound. After a moment of silence, she begins to climb. Her footfalls sound distant, as though her body is walking somewhere she can’t yet see. She knows something terrible happened that day, to everyone who entered the building. Somehow, she escaped so thoroughly that she even escaped the remembering of it. Her bones remember, though.
My floor was a wreck. I picked my way through broken furniture, crushed bookcases. Dust choked the air. And everywhere, papers and books crammed in boxes, all marked with the same red paint. The same letter.
The water fountain is dry. Jay clenches her jaw, and air shoots out of her nostrils in tortured bursts. Fourteen floors—twenty-eight small flights of steps. A quick glance to the glass doors of the old office space: the glass doors are open slightly, one large crack running down the right side. Beyond lies empty office space.
Jay walks through the doors into the reception area. The silence is profound. As she makes her way down the narrow hall, Jay marvels at how stripped and spare it all is. No boxes or books anywhere, no furniture, no light fixtures. She moves through bands of muted light and shadow—even the blinds were removed. As she passes each office, she glances at the sky.
At the thinnest end of the building is her little nook. It’s not really an office, just a space made out of bookcases and file cabinets. Jay stops before the opening. Her desk is gone, but two thick indentations mark the carpet where it once rested. She steps in and runs the toe of her shoe along the groove, then turns to the bookcase, placing her back to the window.
I packed my box in minutes, then sat on the desk and pulled the name tag off. It stuck to my fingers as I held it to the light. What did this red mark mean? As I lowered it, a movement caught my eye. I glanced out the window.
She swivels around and stares at out the window. Five years ago, clouds had reflected off glass buildings, cold and clean.
The sun shifted, and light threw red reflections across the glass. I watched the color intensify in waves—red sunset in midday. And then . . .
“I saw,” Jay says, although the words mean nothing. She still can’t remember. “I saw.”
That’s when I realized what it was. What I had become.
Jay imagines herself five years ago, suspended in cold air, mouth open and slack, eyes huge with the sleepy pull of the clouds as they drift from left to right. She imagines pulling the layer of past over the present, moving one gray sky onto another, matching the clouds one by one . . .
I don’t remember the name
But she cannot, and there is nothing more on the paper to help. The last sentence ends in an illegible scrawl of repeated pencil marks, smudged beyond recognition. She squints at the last word, larger than the rest, in the darkening light, then frowns. The letters are barely distinguishable, but still. It looks like her name.
Jay rubs her eyes. She has no idea what happened that last afternoon. But does it really matter? Will it change anything? She came here for an epiphany, for understanding and resolution. There is none. She has a new life now. Everything else is trash. It will only drag her down if she clings to it. She crumples the fragment into a ball and throws it against the window with a papery ping. Her eyes continue up to the top of the frame.
A wet red line oozes down the glass.
Everything fades and falls away, except for the line, suspended between her and the sky. It grows thicker as it descends, as if an invisible hand is marking where she stands. Another line joins it, and a third. The buzz of blood and fear nips at the back of her neck and down her spine, until her body flushes it out in a thin stream of urine. Behind the red line, the horizon grins wide, hiccups, then splits.
“I knew,” Jay says. “I knew.”
Where the sky has stopped short at the edges of the horizon, hundreds of cloud-like creatures blossom and spill forth like sea anemones expanding to catch the currents. One cloud darts forward shockingly fast. The blunt end expands. Ropey spirals of wet flesh unfurl and catch the rotting ruins, suckling them up.
“Were you waiting for me?” The words barely pass her lips. Jay sees giant chunks of buildings work their way through the tubes into churning pockets. Sides bulge outward; bodies expand and adjust. They fan out across the island. The largest stretches leisurely and shoots out toward the building.
“Yes,” Jay says to the floating beast, “I think you were.”
Red explodes across the glass. Jay leaps back into the hall. Moving in slow strides toward her are figures in white biohazard suits. She backs up into the final office, all the way to its very end, to the prow of the building; she’s trapped. The window is painted shut. Below she sees more men in suits move an undulating hose back and forth. Red bursts forth from it like fire, dancing intricately around the coils, forming the mark they once had five years ago.
“Stop! I’m still in here!” She pounds on the window, but they can’t hear. Above, the creature pulses, and tiny veins of lightning run down its sides. Something slides around inside the mass, bending the gray flesh without breaking: the tip of the old clock tower. She punches the glass, ignoring the blood and pain.
“Turn her around!”
Figures grab her from both sides and pin her arms against the walls, while a third holds up a clipboard. An electric voice pours out of a black faceplate.
“Is this you?” He thrusts the clipboard into her face. One thick finger points at a word on the page.
“No.” Her voice is firm over the rising wind, with only a tinge of panic. They will listen to reason, she tells herself—they have to. “That’s not my name, there’s been a mistake. Please get me out of here.”
“I didn’t ask if this was your name. You don’t have one! This is you, right?”
“No! That isn’t me. I told you. I have a name!”
“What are you, then?” The man raises his voice. “Come on! I don’t got all day—tell me what you are! What’s your ‘name’?
Jay’s face hardens.
“My name is—my name—”
I’m writing this down because I’m starting to forget, I may need to remember someday.
Her name. She cannot remember her name.
“My name is Jay?” she asks.
“Hey, wadda ya know? That’s what this says.” Even with the creature growling outside, she hears their laughter float through the room.
“She’s the last of the trash, boys—let’s do it.”
Someone steps forward with a small machine and presses it against her right arm. Shafts of metal tear through the bone and flesh, impaling her to the stone wall. Her head snaps back against the glass, and the window finally breaks. Too late.
Gloved hands rip open her blouse, and another machine appears. Thin lines of light embroider her skin, searing through the flesh. Someone is screaming—is it her?
“Yeah, she won’t escape this time.” More laughter.
The entire building shudders. Everyone falls silent and looks up at the ceiling. From above, there is a crackling, then a thunderous roar of ripping stone and metal.
“It’s started—everyone out!” The figures grab their equipment, jostling with each other to be the first from the room.
“Why?” Her howl bounces off their backs. “Why are you doing this? What’s happening?”
From above a second wave of destruction pounds down through the building. The man with the clipboard looks back at her but doesn’t stop moving for the door.
“Nothing personal, lady. I’m just the garbage man.”
He turns and runs.
Vibrations burrow deep in her bones—they travel up from the stone and through the metal pins. Bits of ceiling break away. With a waterfall of sound, everything around her rises. Something smashes against her side, then rips away. Jay no longer feels her right arm. She no longer feels. She stares up into the sky. There is no sky, only the pulsing gray. Membrane and ridges curl back to reveal a mouth as wide and long as her blood-stained eyes can see.
“This isn’t my name.” She wants to point to the mark but cannot move. “I’m Jay. I’m Jay—” She lets out a small sob, almost a laugh, as the weight of her name drags it downward. It seeps through the skin, nestles into her soul.
Jay is a letter. It is the mark. It is not her name.
The gray sky inhales, and she rises.
Jay is a traveler now, squeezed through tubes and shunted from one contraction to the next. Shapes flood her eyes and graze her skin: bones, granite faces, bits of carved railing and brass fixtures.
Flashes of light ripple across her vision—the gray membranes holding her become translucent as they rise. Below, she sees another creature move in to finish the job. It spreads great sails of skin and strands of flesh as it rides an unseen current. Jay would sigh at the terrible beauty of it if she were able to breathe.
Now they skim in silence over the top of the massive wall. The rest of the city appears, healthy and alive. Jay’s severed right arm lies slightly below her—spires of steel sift between the fingers. She sees the city, a slow-moving river of rooftop gardens and secret alcoves, silver windows and neon smears, resting like the body of a lover, safe in sleep. For now. One calm moment of beauty, worth the price of Jay’s pain.
The creature tilts. Trash rumbles about her as Jay is thrust forward through hooked membranes. Mucus uncoils from her throat. Everything shifts. Jay plummets into darkness like a blood-tipped comet, the remnants of the building her silky-stoned tail.
Nothing is left behind.
“What are you looking for?”
Jay looks up at the sound of the boy’s voice. She is unaccustomed to being spoken to, unaccustomed to anything other than the sound of her hand sifting, sorting, pushing aside, and breaking. She pulls a cardboard box to her side, and opens her mouth. But the words fail her, as always. If she could just find the fragment, she might remember what to say . . .
The boy steps back and watches as Jay shoves her hair back from her face and stares into the valley. Jumbles of skyscrapers fill deep pockets in the land, separated only by occasional trickles of rivers and accidental bridges. Up where they are, blind horses canter down cracked streets with deformed dogs nipping at their sides. Here, potter’s fields and wooden shanties cling despondently to each other, and the people do the same. Perhaps they are afraid if they let go, they will drift away. From where she stands, she sees no difference between the brown of earth or sky. There is no up or down in the universe’s midden.
Jay and the boy both crouch as a wind rises. Heaps of trash stir and hitch around them, great stinking piles of garbage—old toys and dishes, broken lamps, bits of magazines, clothes. It is their history. It is everything they ever jettisoned in life, before life jettisoned them. Her box is full of paper. She reaches inside with long, dirty fingers. They curl around like dark worms. Papers crumble. If she could only find a fragment, a piece, a certain word . . . She doesn’t remember. She only remembers the wind and the search, and that sometimes the sky will open up and vomit more broken memories across the land.
“What’s your name?”
The boy is speaking again. She tries, tries to mold the feelings up out of that festering sore in her chest, to trick it from the darkness in her mind. Her fingers creep, searching for inky triggers. But they find nothing, and the only word that comes out is the only word she knows. It cracks open her mouth and hovers before them, then floats away in the filthy wind, nothing more than what it is—which is everything around it, everything she has ever been.
© 2007 by Livia Llewellyn.
First published in Sybil’s Garage No. 4,
edited by Matthew Kressel.
Reprinted by permission of the author.