I was bound, though I have not bound. I was not recognized. But I have recognized that the All is being dissolved, both the earthly and the heavenly.
“So how are you feeling?” Dr. Shapiro’s pencil hovers over the CDC risk evaluation form clamped to her clipboard.
“Pretty good.” When I talk, I make sure my tongue stays tucked out of sight. I smile at her in a way that I hope looks friendly, and not like I’m baring my teeth. The exam-room mirror reflects the back of the good doctor’s head. Part of me wishes the silvered glass were angled so I could check my expression; the rest of me is relieved that I can’t see myself.
Nothing existed before this. The present and recent past keep blurring together in my mind, but I’ve learned to take a moment before I reply to questions, speak a little more slowly to give myself the chance to sort things out before I utter something that might sound abnormal. My waking world seems to have been taken apart and put back together so that everything is just slightly off, the geometries of reality deranged.
Most of my memories before the virus are as insubstantial as dreams; the strongest of them feel like borrowed clothing. The sweet snap of peas fresh from my garden. The crush of hot perfumed bodies against mine at the club and the thud of the bass from the huge speakers. The pleasant twin burns of the sun on my shoulders and the exertion in my legs as I pedal my bike up the mountainside.
The life I had in those memories is gone forever. I don’t know why this is happening to humanity. To me. I’d like to think there’s some greater purpose, some meaning in all this, but God help me, I just can’t see it.
“So is the new job going well? Are you able to sleep?” My doctor shines a penlight in my eyes and nostrils and marks off a couple of boxes. Thankfully, she doesn’t ask to see my tongue. It’s the same set of questions every week; I’d have to be pretty far gone to answer badly and get myself quarantined. The endless doctor-visits wear down other Type Threes, but I hang onto the belief that someday there might be actual help for me here.
I nod. “It’s fine. I have blackout curtains; sleep’s not a problem. They seem pretty happy with my work.”
My new supervisor is a friendly guy, but he always has an excuse for why he can’t meet with me in person, preferring to call me on his cell phone for our weekly chats. I used to bounce from building to building, repairing computers, spending equal amounts of time swapping gossip and hardware. After I got out of the hospital, I went on the graveyard shift in the company’s cold network operations center. These nights, I’m mostly raising processes from the dead, watching endless scrolling green text on cryptic black screens. I’m pretty sure the company discreetly advised my quiet coworkers to carry tasers and mace just in case.
“Do you feel that you’re able to see your old friends and family often enough?” Dr. Shapiro asks.
“Sure,” I lie. “We meet online for games and we talk in Vent. It’s fun.”
For the sake of his own health, my boyfriend took a job and apartment in another state; we speak less and less on the phone. What is there to say to him now? We can’t even chat about anything as simple as food or wine; I must subsist on bananas, rice, apple juice, and my meager allotment of six Bovellum capsules per day. The law says I can’t go to crowded places like theaters and concerts. I only glimpse the sun when I’m hurrying from the shelter of my car’s darkly tinted windows to monthly 8:00 a.m. appointments with my court-ordered physician.
So I’m striding up the street to Dr. Shapiro’s office, my head down, squinting behind sunglasses, when suddenly I hear a man in the park across the street shouting violent nonsense. Or he used to be a man, anyhow; he’s wearing construction boots, ragged Carhartt work overalls, and a dirty gray T-shirt, all freshly spattered with the blood of the woman whose head he is enthusiastically cracking open against the curb. He howls at the sky, and I can see he’s missing some teeth. Probably whatever he did for a living didn’t pay him enough to see a dentist. But his skin looks flush and smooth, so much healthier than mine, and for a moment I envy him.
He stops howling and meets my shadowed stare, breaking into a gory, gap-toothed smile. The kind of grin you give an old, dear friend. I’ve never laid eyes on this wreck before, and the woman beneath him is beyond anyone’s help. They both are. I don’t want to be outed, not here, not like this, so I pretend I don’t even see him and stride on.
A few seconds later, I hear the spat of rifle fire and the thud of a meaty body hitting the pavement, and I know that the SWAT team just took out Ragged Carhartts. They’re never far away, not in this part of town. And once they’ve taken out one Type Three, they don’t need much excuse to kill another, even if you’re just trying to see your doctor like a good citizen.
“Oh, God,” a lady says. She and another fortyish woman are standing in the doorway of an art gallery, staring horrified at the scene behind me. They’re both wearing batik dresses and lots of handmade jewelry. “That’s the third one this month.”
“If this keeps up, we’ll have to close.” The other woman shakes her head, looking gray-faced. “Nobody will want to come here. The whole downtown will die. Not just us. The theaters, the museums, churches—everything.”
“I heard something on NPR about a new kind of gel to keep the virus from spreading,” the first woman replies, sounding hopeful.
I keep moving. Her voice fades away. People still talk about contagion control as if it matters, as if masks and sanitizers and prayers can stop the future.
The truth is, unless you’ve been living in some isolated Tibetan monastery, you’ve already been exposed to Polymorphic Viral Gastroencephalitis. Maybe it gave you a bit of a headache and some nausea, but after a few days’ bed rest you were going out for Thai again. Congratulations! You’re Type One and you probably don’t even know it.
But maybe the headache turned into the worst you’ve ever had, and you started vomiting up blood and then your stomach lining, and when you came out of the hospital you’d lost the ability to digest most foods and to make certain proteins. And in the absence of those proteins, your body has trouble growing and healing. The enzymes your DNA uses to repair itself don’t work very well anymore.
Sunlight is no longer your friend. Neither are x-rays. Even if you quit smoking and keep yourself covered up like a virgin in the Rub’ Al Khali, your skin cracks and your body sprouts tumors. Your brain begins to degenerate; you start talking to yourself in second person. Sooner or later, you develop lesions on your frontal lobe and hippocampus that cause a variety of behaviors which will lead to your friendly neighborhood SWAT team putting a .308 bullet through your skull. That means you’re a Type Two, or maybe a Type Three, like me.
If you’re Type Four, we aren’t having this conversation. Unless you’re a ghost. You aren’t a ghost, are you? I don’t think I believe in them. But if you were a Type Four, your whole GI tract got stripped. I hope you were lucky and had a massive brain bleed right when it got really bad, and you never woke up.
I’m pretty sure I woke up.
“Do you find yourself having any unwanted thoughts or violent fantasies?” Dr. Shapiro asks.
“Of course not.” I try to sound mildly indignant.
There’s one upside, if it can be called that. If you lived past all the pain and vomiting, the symptoms of your chronic disease can be alleviated, if you consume sufficient daily quantities of one of a couple of raw protein sources.
If the best protein source for you is fresh human blood, congratulations, you are a Type Two! Provided you have a fat bank account, or decent health insurance, or are quick with a razor and fast on your feet, you can resume puberty or your athletic career. Watch out for HIV; it’s a killer.
If, however, the best source for you comes from sweet, custard-like brains . . . you are a Type Three. Your situation is much more problematic. And expensive. You better have a wealthy family or truly excellent insurance. Or mob connections. Otherwise, sooner or later, you’ll end up trying to crack open someone’s skull in public. The only question then is if you’ll get that one moment of true gustatory bliss right before you die.
I have excellent health insurance. There’s no bliss for me. What I and every other upstanding, gainfully-employed, fully-covered Type Three citizen gets is an allotment of refrigerated capsules containing an unappetizing gray paste. Mostly it’s cow brains and antioxidant vitamins with just the barest hint of pureed cadaver white matter. It’s enough to keep your skin and brains from ulcerating. It’s enough to keep your nose from rotting off. It’s enough to help you think clearly enough to function at your average white-collar job.
It is not enough to keep you from constantly wishing you could taste the real thing.
“I was wondering about something,” I say, as Dr. Shapiro begins to copy the contents of her survey into the exam room computer.
She stops typing and gives me a wary smile. “Yes, what is it?”
“My medication. I feel okay, you know? But I think I could feel . . . better. If I could have a little more?” I’m choosing my words as carefully as possible. My tongue feels thick, twitchy.
I can’t talk about the cravings I’m feeling. I can’t mention wanting more energy, because nobody in charge wants someone like me feeling energetic.
I wonder if there’s a sniper watching from behind the mirror on the wall; has he tightened his grip on his rifle? Are gas canisters waiting to blow in the air conditioner vent above me? My skin itches in dread anticipation.
Dr. Shapiro hedges. “Well, I know there’s been a shortage of raw materials these days.”
I swallow down my impatience and worry. The capsules are ninety-eight percent cow brains, for God’s sake. Probably they can squeeze a single human brain for thousands of doses. I can’t imagine the pharmaceutical companies are running short of anything.
“Could you check, just the same? Could you ask for me?” I sound meek. Pathetic. The opposite of hostile. That’s good.
She gives me a pitying look and sighs. The mirror doesn’t explode in gunfire. Gas doesn’t burst from the vents.
“I’ll see what I can do,” my doctor says.
I try to believe she’ll come through for me.
• • • •
I go home. I take my capsules with some Mott’s apple juice. I rinse my mouth out with peroxide and don’t look at my tongue. I rub salve on the places my clothes have rubbed raw, and I climb naked into my bed. Sometime later, the alarm goes off, and I rise, shower, dress, and drive to work in darkness.
My shift is dull-clockwork, until just after gray drizzling dawn, when one of the new tech leads comes in to talk to my coworker George about some of the emergency server protocols. I haven’t seen this young man before; he’s wearing snug jeans and the sleeves of his black polo shirt are tight over biceps tattooed with angels and devils. His blond hair is cut close over a smooth, high-browed skull. He starts talking about database errors, but he’s thinking about a gig he has with his band on Friday night, and it suddenly hits me not just that I know what he’s thinking but that I know because I can smell the sweet chemicals shifting inside his brain. The chemicals tell me his name is Devin.
I am filled with Want in the marrow of my bones. I am filled with Need from eyeballs to soles. I excuse myself and hurry out into the mutagenic morning and punch Betty’s number into my cell. Soon after we met, she made me promise not to save her details in my phone, just in case anything went wrong.
It’s early for her. But she answers on the third ring. Speaking in the casual code we’ve used since we met online, we agree to meet that evening. It’s her turn to host.
I sleep fitfully. When my alarm goes off, I call in sick, shower, dress, and check my phone. Betty’s texted a cryptic string of letters and numbers for my directions. And so I drive out to a hotel we’ve never visited before, drinking Aquafinas the whole way. It’s a dark old place, once grand, now crumbling away in a forgotten corner of downtown. I wonder if she’s running short of money or if the extra anonymity of the place was crucial to her.
Still, as I get out my car and double-check my locks in the pouring rain, I can’t help but peer out into the oppressive black spaces in the parking lot, trying to figure out if any of the shadows between the other vehicles could be lurking cops or CDC agents. The darkness doesn’t move, so I hurry to the front door, head down, hands jammed in my raincoat pockets, my stomach roiling with worry and anticipation. I avoid making eye contact with any of the damp, tired-looking prostitutes smoking outside the hotel’s front doors. None of them pay any attention to me.
My phone chimes as Betty texts me the room number. I take the creaking, urine-stinking elevator up four floors. My pace slows as I walk down the stained hallway carpet, and I pause for a moment before I knock on the door of Room 512. What if the watchers tapped Betty’s phone? What if she’s not here at all? My poised hand quivers as my heart seems to pound out “A trap—a trap—a trap.”
I swallow. Knock twice. Step back. A moment later, Betty answers the door, wearing her Audrey Hepburn wig and a black cocktail dress that hangs limply from her skeletal shoulders. It’s appalling how much weight she’s lost; her eyes have turned entirely black, the whites permanently stained by repeated hemorrhages.
But she smiles at me, and I find myself smiling back, warmed by the first spark of real human feeling I’ve had in months. I have to believe that we’re still human. I have to.
“You ready?” Her question creaks like the hinge of a forgotten gate.
“Absolutely.” My own voice is the dry fluttering of moth wings.
She locks the door behind me. “I’m sorry this place is such a pit, but the guy at the Holiday Inn started asking all kinds of questions, and this was the best I could do on short notice.”
“It’s okay.” The room isn’t as seedy as the lobby and exterior led me to expect it to be, and it’s got a couch in addition to the queen-sized bed. Betty has already covered the couch and the carpet in front of it with a green plastic tarpaulin. Her stainless steel spritzer bottle leans against a couch arm.
“Want some wine?” She gestures toward an unopened bottle of Yellow Tail shiraz on the dresser.
“Thanks, but no . . . I couldn’t drink it right now. Maybe after.”
She nods. “There’s a really good Italian restaurant around the corner. Kind of a Goodfellas hangout, but everything’s homemade. Great garlic bread.”
Betty pulls off the wig. Before she got the virus, she could grow her thick chestnut hair clear down to her waist. I’ve never seen it except in pictures; her bare scalp gleams pale in the yellow light from the chandelier.
The scar circumscribing her skull looks red, inflamed; I wonder if she’s been seeing other Type Threes. I quickly tamp down my pang of jealousy. We never agreed to an exclusive arrangement. And maybe she just had to go to the hospital instead; she told me she’s got some kind of massive tumor on her pituitary.
She looks so frail. I can’t possibly begrudge her what comfort she can get. I should just be grateful that she agrees to see me when I need her.
And, oh sweet Lord, do I need her tonight.
Betty pulls me down to her for a kiss. Her hands are icy, but her lips are warm. She slips her tongue into my mouth, and I can taste sweet cerebrospinal fluid mingled in her saliva. The tumor must have cracked the bony barriers in her skull. Before I have a chance to try to pull away, my own tongue is swelling, toothed pores opening and nipping at her slippery flesh.
She squeaks in pain and we separate.
“Sorry,” I try to whisper. But my tongue is continuing to engorge and lengthen, curling back on itself and slithering down my own throat; I can feel the tiny maws rasping against my adenoids.
“It’s okay.” Her wan smile is smeared with blood. “We better get started.”
She kisses the palm of my hand and begins to take my clothes off. I stare up at the tawdry chandelier, watching a fly buzz among the dusty baubles and bulbs. When I’m naked, she slips off her cocktail dress and leads me to the tarp-covered couch.
“Be gentle.” She presses a short oyster knife into my hand and sits me down, the plastic crackling beneath me. I nod, barely keeping my lips closed over my shuddering tongue, and spread my legs.
With slow exhalation, Betty settles between my thighs, her back to me. She’s a tiny woman, her head barely clearing my chin when we’re seated, so this position works best. Her skin is already covered in goose bumps. The anticipation is killing both of us.
I carefully run the tip of the sharp oyster knife through the red scar around her skull; there’s relatively little blood as I cut through the tissue. Betty gives a little gasp and grips my knees, her whole body tensed. The bone has only stitched back together in a few places; I use the side-to-side motion she showed me to gently pry the lid of her skull free.
She moans when I expose her brain; it’s the most beautiful thing I could hope to see. Her dura mater glistens with a half-inch slick of golden jelly. Brain honey. When I breathe in the smell of her, I feel my blood pressure rise hard and fast.
I set the bowl of skin and bone aside and present the knife to her in my outstretched left hand. With a flick of her wrist, she slits the vein in the crook of my arm and presses her mouth against my bleeding flesh. I wrap my cut arm around her head and pull her tight to my breast.
I open my mouth and let my tongue unwind like an eel into her brainpan. It wriggles there, purple and gnarled, the tiny maw sucking down her golden jelly. It’s delicious, better than caviar, better than ice cream, better than anything I’ve had in my mouth before. Sweet and salty and tangy and perfect.
The jelly gives me flashes of her memories and dreams; she’s been with other Type Threes. She’s helped them murder people. I don’t care. I keep drinking her in, my tongue probing all the corners of her skull and sheathed wrinkles of her brain to get every last gooey drop.
I can control my tongue, but just barely. It’s hard to keep it from doing the one thing I’d dearly love, which is to drive it through her membrane deep between her slippery lobes. But that would be the end of her. The end of us. No more, all over, bye bye.
A little of what my body and soul craves is better than nothing at all. Isn’t it?
My arm aches, and I’m starting to feel lightheaded on top of the high. We’re both running dry. I release her, spritz her brain with saline and carefully put the top of her head back into place. She’s full of my blood, and already her scalp is sealing back together. We’ve done well; we spilled hardly anything on the tarp this time. But my face feels sticky, and I’ve probably even gotten her in my hair.
She daintily wipes my blood from the corners of her mouth and smiles at me. Her skin is pink and practically glowing, and her boniness seems chic rather than diseased. “Want to go to that Italian place after we get cleaned up?”
“Sure.” I’m probably glowing, too. My stomach feels strong enough for pepperoncinis.
I head to the bathroom to wash my face, but when I push open the door—
—I find myself in Dr. Shapiro’s office. She’s staring down at an MRI scan of somebody’s chest. The monochrome bones look strange, distorted.
“There’s definitely a mass behind your ribs and spine. It’s growing fast, but I can’t definitely say it’s cancer.”
I’m dizzy with terror. How did I get here? What mass? How long have I had a mass?
“What should we do?” I stammer.
She looks up at me with eyes as solidly black as Betty’s. “I think we should wait and see.”
I back away, turn, push through her office door—
—and I’m back in a rented room. But not the downtown dive with the dusty chandelier. It’s a suburban motel someplace. Have I been here before?
The green tarp on the king-sized bed is covered in blood and bits of skull. There’s a body wrapped in black trash bags, stuffed between the bed and the writing desk. Did I do that? What have I done?
Oh, God, please make this stop. I have to lean against the wall to keep myself from tumbling backward.
Betty comes out of the bathroom, dressed in a spattered silk negligee. I think it used to be white. There’s gore in her wig. Her eyes go wide.
“I told you not to come here!” She grabs me by my arm, surprising me with her strength. In the distance, I can hear sirens. “They’ll be here any minute—get away from here, fast as you can!”
She presses a set of rental car keys into my palm, hauls me to the door and pushes me out into the hallway—
—and I’m stepping into the elevator at work.
Handsome blond Devin is in there. A look of surprised fear crosses his face, and I know the very sight of me repels him. His hand goes to his jeans pocket. I see the outline of something that’s probably a canister of pepper spray. It’s too small to be a taser.
But then he pauses, smiles at me. “Hey, you going up to that training class?”
I nod mechanically, and try to say “Sure,” but my lungs spasm and suddenly I’m doubled over, coughing into my hands. When did simply breathing start hurting this much?
“You okay?” Devin asks.
I try to nod, but there’s bright blood on my palms. A long-forgotten Bible verse surfaces in the swamp of my memory: Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.
I look up and see my reflection in the chromed elevator walls—my face is gaunt, but my body is grotesquely swollen. I’ve turned into some kind of hunchback. How long have I had the mass?
Instead of the pepper spray, Devin’s pulled his cell phone out. I can smell his mind. He’s torn between wanting to run away and wanting to help. “Should I call someone? Should I call 911?”
The elevator is filled with the scent of him. Despite my pain and sickness, the Want returns with a vengeance. Adrenaline rises along with my blood pressure. My tongue is twitching, and something in my back, too. I can feel it tearing my ribs away from my spine. It hurts more than I can remember anything ever hurting. Maybe childbirth would be like this.
Betty. I need Betty. How long has it been since I’ve seen her? Oh God.
“Call 911,” I try to say, but I can’t take a breath, can’t speak around the tongue writhing backward down my throat.
“What can I do?” Devin touches my shoulder.
And the feel of his hand against my bony flesh is far too much for me to bear.
I rise up under him, grab him by the sides of his head, kissing him. My tongue goes straight down his throat, choking him. He hits me, trying to shake me off, but as strong as he is, my Want is stronger.
When he’s unconscious, I let him fall and hit the emergency stop button. The Want has me wrapped tightly in its ardor, burning away all my human qualms. The alarm is an annoyance, and I know I don’t have as much time as I want. Still. As I lift his left eyelid, I take a moment to admire his perfect bluebonnet iris.
And then I plunge my tongue into his eye. The ball squirts off to the side as my organ drills deeper, the tiny mouths rasping through the thin socket bone into his sweet frontal lobe. After the first wash of cerebral fluid I’m into the creamy white meat of him, and—
—Oh, God. This is more beautiful than I imagined.
I’m devouring his will. Devouring his memories. Living him, through and through. His first taste of wine. His first taste of a woman. The first time he stood onstage. He’s at the prime of his life, and oh, it’s been a wonderful life, and I am memorizing every second of it as I swallow down the contents of his lovely skull.
When he’s empty, I rise from his shell and feel my new wings break free from the cage of my back. As I spread them wide in the elevator, I realize I can hear the old gods whispering to me from their thrones in the dark spaces between the stars.
I smile at myself in the distorted chrome walls. Everything is clear to me now. I have been chosen. I have a purpose. Through the virus, the old gods tested me, and deemed me worthy of this holiest of duties. There are others like me; I can hear them gathering in the caves outside the city. Some died, yes, like the ragged man, but my Becoming is almost complete. Nothing as simple as a bullet will stop me then.
The Earth is ripe, human civilization at its peak. I and the other archivists will preserve the memories of the best and brightest as we devour them. We will use the blood of this world to write dark, beautiful poetry across the walls of the universe.
For the first time in my life, I don’t need faith. I know what I am supposed to do in every atom in every cell of my body. I will record thousands of souls before my masters allow me to join them in the star-shadows, and I will love every moment of my mission.
I can hear the SWAT team rush into the foyer three stories below. Angry ants. I can hear Betty and the others calling to me from the hollow hills. Smiling, I open the hatch in the top of the elevator and prepare to fly.