Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Not Us

When he comes home that evening, he wants to talk.

He tells her about his day, about an argument with his boss, about the new contract. He relates a funny story narrated by a colleague. He wants her to react.

She has difficulty feigning the correct demeanour, or even recalling what it should be. What does sympathetic annoyance look like on her face? How do her features register amused interest? She’s drawing maps in the sand, maps of unknown lands, as the waves sweep in to wash her work away.

If he notices her failings, he says nothing. Halfheartedly he compliments her on the dinner, a dish she’s prepared on a hundred occasions. She can taste each separate ingredient, can reel them off as though they were words on a page. She thanks him, as she always does, and knows distantly that once his praise had meaning to her.

In bed, she wriggles over to flick the switch on the lamp and then maintains her distance. But he presses close, reaching casually to slip a hand within her negligee. His fingers are cold. His penis is hard against her bare rump. She craves to ignore him, but she can’t. She knows that Tuesday is a night when they fuck: private time, special time, near enough to the start of the week that they both have a modicum of energy spare to convert into passion. He’s fought to preserve this tradition. She remembers this, as she remembers the mechanical process of the act.

What she can’t remember is how it’s supposed to make her feel. Now it’s merely grotesque: a part of him moving within her, rummaging parasitically at her innards. When he comes, she experiences only gratitude that her new body is sterile. She has made one life, and that was more than sufficient.

Afterwards, she lies immobile, staring at the hairline crack of night sky revealed by the gap in the curtains. She doesn’t need to sleep. Nor does she grow bored. Inside her, a scream is building, but to release it would be futile. Everything she knows, they know too. Every thought she has is theirs as well. She senses them out there, the multitude of which she’s a component. They’re closer than kin, far closer than lovers. They are her and she is them.

Nevertheless, the question rises. When?

The form beside her is silent. Even if he were to wake, she wouldn’t be able to understand him, nor he her. He relies on words, on gestures, on expressions, and she’s surpassed those.

How much longer? How much more?

She knows they can hear, as she knows they won’t answer—that the notion of answering is meaningless. But knowing doesn’t make her questioning less urgent.

• • • •

The next morning, she spends an hour in front of the mirror, meticulously inspecting feet, legs, belly, breasts, arms, and shoulders.

She suspects that her body is continuing to change, though she can see no evidence. Before she was one and now she’s a part of many. How can her flesh not represent that? She stares at her fingertips, willing their whorls to be replaced by the blank pinkness of scar tissue. She checks the lines of her face, insisting they be gone. Once, her appearance seemed important to her. Now she’d prefer to be featureless and sexless as a store mannequin. This visage is solely a mask. Why does it refuse to resemble one?

There’ll be a day when these final differences have vanished. Perhaps this vestige of separate bodies will be abandoned altogether, and all isolation will be gone. Her mind, too; eventually these stubborn traces will be wiped clean, and she won’t be she but only they. She yearns for that day with the whole of her being, and can’t escape the irony that it’s her old self doing the yearning. Her future incarnation will endure neither need nor want.

The fault, then, lies with those who remain: those who cling to an extinct way of being.

She doubts. Why can’t they change everyone together? Could it be a weakness? She can’t conceive of weakness in a unity so complete and perfect. Yet if not, what explanation can there be?

Perhaps they’re testing her. Perhaps these residues of self are like dirt in oil, poisoning the workings of their great machine. She wishes she could expunge her thoughts. Her mind should become a blank slate.

Maybe the responsibility for change lies in her hands and not theirs.

Maybe the failure is hers.

• • • •

That afternoon, she goes outside, as she hasn’t in days. She can’t put it off anymore.

The streets are glutted. As she passes each person, she thinks, he is us, she is not us, he is not us, he is us. This she knows instinctively. She never looks up, never lets her eyes linger on a face. Looking at faces to interpret the mental processes behind them belongs to the past, and to those not yet joined.

There was a time when she’d have assumed that her behaviour would be suspicious. She’d have imagined that the mass of humanity would be disturbed by this intruder worming at its heart. Now she knows better. No one looks at her either. No one regards her as strange, or if they do, not so strange as to distract them from their fractured lives.

In the store, she buys the products she’s always bought. She’s grateful to her past self for having made these decisions, so that she doesn’t need to now, grateful for that and nothing else. How could it ever have mattered which brand of fabric softener, which breakfast cereal, which type of soap she purchased? Those choices are the stuff of a world of bright and shining surfaces that she can’t respond to.

As she drifts from aisle to aisle, she resumes her internal litany: He is us. She is us.

There are more today, more every day. From their presence, she takes what she might once have called comfort, might have called belonging, and for which she now has no word. More every day . . . yet still such legions unchanged. The thought is a weight around her neck.

By the time she gets home, he’s back. She hears him from the front door, voice deadened by space.

He is not us.

He’s on the phone with their daughter. He sounds tired and irritable. Handing her the receiver, he says, “You talk to her.”

She does. Talking to their daughter is easier. She expects little, is already so disillusioned. The nature of this current rift between her and her father is barely relevant. All that’s required are the same noises, the same platitudes, the same well-placed surges of irritation or frustration. Soon her daughter will be reborn, and then they’ll communicate.

When she hangs up, he’s frowning. “You encourage her,” he says. He remains annoyed, and eager for an argument.

Arguing is something she’s incapable of. She feels no anger and finds it unfeasible to feign. Her apology doesn’t sate him, but he has no answer. His resentment will evaporate over the course of the evening, seeping away without her resistance to contain it.

In bed that night, he doesn’t attempt to touch her. She stares at the darkness, trying not to ask unanswerable questions.

• • • •

She lies prone long after he’s left. She hasn’t enough to do with her days. Once that bothered her. She was often lonely, often troubled by her own inaction. Now she’s never alone. She listens to a billion voices, all one.

She has access to the sum total of her memories, arrayed like jewels on a shelf. She remembers her first birth, fighting free of cloying flesh into the violence of frigid air. She remembers her second birth, albeit imprecisely; in her remembrance, she visualises an eye opening, only the eye is her. Between the two is much messy emotion, much passion and fear and joy and sorrow. Now those sensations are identical to her, and she wonders why she expended such effort on them.

After a while, she grows hungry. Her body still demands sustenance; this frustrates her. Foods taste indistinguishable and none satisfy. She eats what she’d once have eaten, though there’s no one around to pretend to.

That done, she cleans the house. Cleaning is the one task that continues to hold her interest. She’d sterilise the entire building from foundations to roof if she could, would discard every piece of furniture. She dreams of emptiness, devoid of all this messy character. Yet the most she can do is to tidy, to scrub, to hide.

His presence is a smeared fingerprint, and she wishes she could burn it away.

• • • •

That evening, he’s home late. He describes to her an accident he witnessed on the drive back. A truck skidded and flipped, taking two cars with it. The highway was reduced to a single lane of traffic, which crawled past the carnage. It was impossible not to look, he claims. One car was so mangled that paramedics were carving the roof off to reach the driver trapped inside.

He heard on the radio that three people had died: a little girl and two men. The truck driver wasn’t among them. He seems frustrated by these facts, particularly the last, and shaken. As he talks, she watches the events through other perspectives. She has a panoply of memories to draw on. She sees drab asphalt, torn metal, a sky the colour of old amber, and cars filing past like laden ants. But she can’t respond as he responds. She feels no grief.

She knows she should try and reassure him. But the only reassurance she can offer would have no meaning to him. She wants to tell him that those three would ultimately have died anyway, frightened and solitary. The tragedy he ought to be mourning is that they never knew anything different. Had those two men or that girl not been apart, some fragment of them would survive even now.

She would like to tell him that in her world there’s no death and no fear. She’d like to tell him he should stop resisting—for increasingly she’s certain that can be the sole explanation. He fights. His sense of self is strong.

“You don’t care, do you?”

The sudden fury of his reaction startles her. “I care,” she asserts, incapable of putting meaning into words that to her own ears aren’t much more than hollow sounds.

He huffs, turns away. When she brings dinner, he eats mutely, and unable to understand, she doesn’t probe his reticence.

That night he sleeps in the spare room.

• • • •

The next morning, she doesn’t hear him leave. He doesn’t enter their bedroom to bid her goodbye. The first she knows is the throb of the car’s engine as it pulls into the street.

Around midday, someone comes to the door. She pretends not to be in. If it was one of them, there’d be no need for such a crass electronic summons. Therefore, whoever is outside—be it salesperson, acquaintance, or neighbour—she has nothing to say to them, nor they to her.

They try the bell three times and eventually give up. Afterwards, the quiet is pristine.

• • • •

When he comes home that evening, he wants to talk.

The new contract is going less well than he predicted. He believes that his colleagues are to blame. The antagonism between him and his boss has yet to subside. No one has told him any jokes today.

He speaks in snatches, kept separate by lengthy ribbons of silence. Conceivably he provides these caesuras for her, relying on her to fill them.

She refuses, and in any case, can think of no meaningful contributions. The more his monologue extends, the more his frustration fogs the room like steam from a kettle. She disappoints him, as he has disappointed her. Her pretence is becoming fragile, is scarcely a pretence at all. If her face was capable of emotion, perhaps it would show how dearly she wishes he’d leave her in peace.

There’s a kitchen knife on the work surface. She ponders driving it into his throat. Then he’d stop talking, and she wouldn’t have to keep up this absurd facade. Once and for all, she could escape this shell she’s utterly outgrown.

The resistance that restrains her isn’t her own but theirs. Dead he’s worthless, and alive he’s everything, because life is the only resource that matters in this vast and empty universe. He has value; his value is that one day he will be they.

At last, he abandons himself to the uncomfortable silence, and she’s glad. She knows that they thrive in silence, that it draws their notice. He sleeps in the spare room, uncomplainingly, and she greets his absence with keen gratitude.

• • • •

The next morning, she experiences a tremor akin to hope. She has no precise word, now that her sensations are unimpaired by emotion. Still, she wakes filled with expectancy. Something is changing in him.

Was this how the change began in her? Despite her flawless memory, she can’t say. There’s an irreconcilable gulf between the old her and the new; to rationalise that existence is like reading a book in a language she no longer comprehends. But perhaps it was this way. Maybe this is how they start. Perhaps to take you from your life, your thoughts, your flesh, they require you to have first moved beyond them—to have despaired of them.

Could it be that she was wrong to pretend? To allow this fallacy, so as not to betray her new and secret self? Yet she’s done only what the others do. If she were capable of the feeling, she’d find this unfair.

Though she has doubts, they don’t detract from her anticipation. If this really is the beginning of a change in him, of the change, she knows she can foster it. All she has to do is show him the path.

• • • •

That night, he’s home late. He offers no explanation, but she smells alcohol on his breath and a lingering web of other odours upon his clothing. She reheats the dinner she made without comment, and he eats it without apology.

She thinks, though, that the silence has acquired a different note. It’s not an absence or an avoidance of conversation, not so excruciatingly strained. In it, she perceives his acceptance, even his understanding. Yes, it’s better like this, as if a radio playing interminable static has been shut off.

Stripped of words, he’s hardly recognisable as the man she’s spent such a portion of her life with. His face shows less than she’s accustomed to. Only now does she begin to appreciate how many of his unconscious-seeming expressions were for her benefit.

To set an example, she blanks her own mind. She lets her motions grow mechanical, refusing the illusion of personality that she’s strived to wrap about this binding of flesh. She shows him what they offer, what he could be if he would just renounce himself absolutely. She presents to him the freedom she’s found in submission and in self-annihilation.

She thinks he understands.

• • • •

Always he sleeps in the spare room. Always he leaves without disturbing her. He never tries to touch her.

Sometimes, however, old traces show through. Sometimes he’s angry, moody, confrontational. When that happens, she meets his backsliding with the indifference she used to show his attempts at discussion, at intimacy. She’s sure now: her role is to be an exemplar of what his future holds.

She has more time alone, not merely the days but much of the evenings as well. Even when he’s in the house, he makes less and less effort to communicate. He tells no stories, relates no jokes or anecdotes. If he has witnessed tragedies, he keeps them to himself. He seems increasingly comfortable with this arrangement.

She goes out rarely. She orders groceries online. Often the doorbell chimes, the phone rings, but she ignores the intrusions. Whoever they are, they don’t matter. Soon everything will be as it’s meant to be.

Alone, she’s closer to them. She knows she belongs, and that they hear her as she hears them. Thank you, she murmurs soundlessly, though what they do, they do for the benefit of all, and her response reveals a vestige of ego she’s somehow failed to wipe clean.

Tomorrow, she vows, she’ll do better—be better. And she’s prepared to believe he will too.

• • • •

That night, he doesn’t come home.

When she investigates, she finds a few things gone: clothes and toiletries, some items of value from the safe. A suitcase, the one they bought for their most recent holiday, is missing also. They went to Spain, the three of them together; it was their last holiday before their daughter left home. She remembers that they bickered constantly, that it rained for half the week. She sees clearly the shrapnel impacts of raindrops upon the surface of a swimming pool surrounded by vacant loungers.

The old him would have taken a different case, one without such sour recollections attached. She knows then, if she hadn’t already, that finally it’s happened.

He’s gone. He’s not coming back. They’ll have found a new function for him, as they will for her. This empty house is the cocoon from which he burst.

If she could feel, she would feel joy. Or maybe only relief. She’s free. They’re both free, as everyone soon will be. Free from choice, from doubt, from uncertainty. Free from lies and the need to tell them.

She knows that, if she tried, she’d be able to sense him out there, another drop amid the ocean. She knows that now they could truly communicate.

She knows that doing so would be futile.

They’re no longer the people they were, no longer people at all. Nothing connects them.

He’s gone, made anew.

He’s us.

David Tallerman

David Tallerman

David Tallerman is the author of numerous novels and novellas, most recently the historical science-fiction drama To End All Wars, thrillers A Savage Generation and The Bad Neighbor and fantasy series The Black River Chronicles. His comics work includes the graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, with artist Bob Molesworth, and his short fiction has appeared in around a hundred markets, including Clarkesworld, The Dark, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A number of his best dark fantasy stories were gathered together in his debut collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.