Mix was about ready to ditch the weird old bastard already. Too slow, too clumsy, too loud. Not even a block into Hollow City and already they’d captured the attention of one of the wagoneers, and in her experience you could almost clap your hands in front of their faces and they wouldn’t know it. Experience, though; that was the key word. She had it and he didn’t, and it was probably going to get him killed. But she’d be goddamned if she’d let it get her killed too.
She pulled him into an alcove and they waited quietly until the thing had passed.
“You need to rest?” she said.
“No I don’t need to rest,” he snapped. “Keep going.”
Mix was seventeen years old, and anybody on the far side of fifty seemed inexcusably ancient to her, but she reckoned this man to be pretty old even by those standards. He was spry enough to walk through streets cluttered with the detritus and the debris of long abandonment without too much difficulty, but she could see the strain in his face, the sheen of sweat on his forehead. And a respectable pace for an old man was still just a fraction of the speed she preferred to move at while in Hollow City. She’d been stupid to take his money, but she’d always been a stupid girl. Just ask anybody.
They turned a corner and the last checkpoint, a little wooden shack with a lantern gleaming in a window, disappeared from view. It might as well have been a hundred miles away. The buildings hulked into the cloudy sky around them, windows shattered and bellied with darkness. The doors of little shops gaped like open mouths. Glass pebbled the sidewalk. Rags of newspapers, torn and scattered clothing, and tangles of bloody meat lay strewn across the pavement. Cars lined the sidewalks in their final repose. Life still prospered here, to be sure: rats, roaches, feral cats and dogs; she’d even seen a mother bear and her train of cubs once, moving through the ruined neighborhood like a fragment of a better dream. The place seethed with it. But there weren’t any people anymore. At least, not the way she used to think of people.
“Dear God,” the man said, and she stopped. He shuffled into the middle of the street, shoulders slouched, his face slack as a dead man’s. His eyes roved over the place, taking it all in. He looked frail, and lonely, and scared; which, she supposed, is exactly what he was. Despite herself, she felt a twinge of sympathy for him. She followed him, took his elbow, and pulled him back into the relative shadow of the sidewalk.
“Hard to believe this is all just a few blocks away from where you live, huh?”
He swallowed, nodded.
“But listen to me, okay? You gotta listen to me, and do what I say. No walking out in the middle of the street. We stay quiet, we keep moving, we don’t draw attention. Don’t think I won’t leave your ass if you get us in trouble. Do you understand me?”
He disengaged his elbow from her hand. At least he had the decency to look embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said. “This is just my first time seeing it since I left. At the time it was just, it was . . . it was just chaos. Everything was so confused.”
“Yeah, I get it.” She didn’t want to hear his story. Everybody had one. Tragedy gets boring after a while.
Hollow City was not a city at all, but a series of city blocks that used to be part of the Fleming and South Kensington neighborhoods, and had acquired its own peculiar identity over the last few months. Its informal name came from its emptiness: each building a shell, scoured of life, whether through evacuation or the attentions of the surgeons. The atmosphere had long turned an ashy gray, as though under perpetual cloud cover, even around the city beyond the afflicted neighborhood. Lamps burned all the time, but not in here. Electricity had been cut off weeks ago. Nevertheless, light still swelled from isolated pockets, as though furnaces were being stoked to facilitate some awful labor transpiring beyond the sight of the surrounding populace.
“There’s things coming up that’re gonna be hard to see,” she said. “You ready for that?”
The old man looked disgusted. “I don’t need to be lectured on what’s hard to see by a child,” he said. “You have no idea what I’ve seen.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. Just don’t freak out. And hustle it up.”
Mix did not want to be here after the sun went down. She figured they had five good hours. Plenty of time for the old bastard to find who he was looking for, or—more likely— realize there was no one left to find.
They continued along the sidewalk, walking quickly but quietly. The rhythmic squeaking of unoiled wheels came from around a corner ahead, accompanied by the sound of several small voices holding a single high note in unison, like a miniature boys’ choir. Mix put out her hand to stop him. He must not have been paying attention, because he walked right into it before stuttering to a halt. She felt the thinness of his chest, the sparrow-like brittleness of his bones. Guilt welled up from some long-buried spring in her gut: she had no business bringing him here on his stupid errand. It was doomed, and he was doomed right along with it. She should have told him no. There were other ways to make money. Another client would have come along eventually. Except that fewer and fewer people were paying to be escorted through Hollow City, and those that were tended to be adrenaline junkies, who were likely to get you killed, or—worse—religious nuts and artists, who felt entitled to bear witness to what was happening here due to some perceived calling. It was a species of narcissism that offended her on an obscure, inarticulate level. A few weeks ago she had guided a poet out to the center of the place and almost slipped away while he scribbled furiously, self-importantly, in his notebook. The temptation was stronger than she would have believed possible; she’d fantasized about how long she’d hear him calling out for her before the surgeons stopped his tongue for good, or turned it to other purposes.
She didn’t leave the poet, but she learned that there was an animal living inside her, something that celebrated when nature did its work upon the weak. She came to value that animal. She knew it would keep her alive.
This sudden guilt, then, was both unexpected and unwelcome. She set her jaw and waited for it to subside.
The prow of a wheelbarrow emerged from beyond the corner of the building, followed by its laden body, the wooden wheels turning in slow, wobbling rotations. The barrow was filled with the gray, hacked torsos of children, some sprouting both arms, most with less, but all still wearing their heads, eyes rolled back to reveal the whites with little exploded capillaries standing in bright contrast to the gray pallor, each mouth rounded into an ellipse from which emitted that single, perfect note, as heartbreakingly beautiful as anything heard in one of God’s cathedrals. Then the wagoneer hoved into view, its naked body blackened and wasted, comprised of just enough gristle and bone to render it ambulatory. The skin on its face was shrunken around its skull, and a withered crown of long black hair rustled like straw in the breeze. It turned its head, and for the second time that day they found themselves speared into place by a wagoneer’s stare. This one actually stopped its movement and leaned closer, as if committing their faces to memory, or transferring the sight of them via some infernal channel to a more distant intelligence, which might answer their intrusion with punishment.
Her gaze still fixed on the wagoneer, Mix reached behind and grabbed the old man’s wrist. “We have to run,” she said.
The dog was gone. Carlos realized it at once, and a gravity took him, a feeling of aging so suddenly and so completely that he half expected to die right there. He looked at the kitchen floor and wondered if he would hurt himself in the fall. Instead, he pulled a chair from the kitchen table and collapsed into it, settling his head onto the table, his arms dangling at his sides. A great sadness moved inside him, turning in his chest, too big to be voiced. It threatened to break him in half.
Maria had been with him for fifteen years. A scruffy tan mutt, her muzzle gone gray and her eyes rheumy, they were walking life’s last mile together. Carlos had never married; he’d become so acclimated to his loneliness that eventually the very idea of human companionship just made him antsy and tired. It was not as though he’d had to fight for his independence; his demeanor had grown cold and mean as he aged, not from any ill feeling toward other people, but simply from an unwillingness to endure their eccentricities. He had a theory that people warped as they aged, like old records left out in the sun, and unless you did it together and warped in conformity to each other, you eventually became incapable of aligning with anybody else.
Well, he’d grown old with Maria, that grand old dame, and she was all he needed or wanted.
When the tremors had started in Fleming, and the nights started filling with the screams of neighbors and strangers alike, he and Maria had huddled together in his apartment. He’d kept his baseball bat clutched in his thin, spotted hands while Maria bristled and growled at his side. She’d always been a gentle dog, frightened by visitors, scurrying under the bed at a loud knock, but now she had found a core of steel within herself and she stood between him and the door, her lips peeled from her yellowed teeth, prepared to hurl her frail old body against whatever might come through it. That, even more than the screaming outside, convinced him that whatever was out there was something to fear.
On the second night, the door was kicked in and bright flashlights sprayed into his apartment, the commanding voices of men piling into the room like something physical. Maria’s whole body shook and snapped with fear and rage, her own hoarse barking pushing back at them, but when Carlos recognized what they were saying, he wrapped his arms around his dog and held her tight, whispering in her ear. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay, little mama, calm down, calm down. Calm down.”
And she did, though she still trembled. The police, one of them sobbing unashamedly, loaded them both into a van parked at the bottom of the apartment building, not giving him any grief about taking the dog, thank God. He cast a quick glance down the street before a hand shoved him inside with a few of his terrified neighbors, huddled in their pajamas, and slammed the door behind him. What he saw was impossible. A man, eight feet tall or more, skinny as a handful of sticks, crossing a street only a block away with eerie, doe-like grace. He was a shape in the sodium lights, featureless and indistinct, like a child’s drawing of a nightmare. He was stretching what looked like thin, bloody parchment from one streetlight to another; suspended from one end of the parchment was a human arm, flexing at the elbow again and again, like an animal in distress.
He looked at his neighbors, but he didn’t know any of their names. They weren’t talking, anyway.
Then the van surged to life, moving with ferocious speed to a location only a mile distant, behind a battery of checkpoints and blockades, and rings of armed officers.
Carlos and his dog were provided with a small apartment— even smaller than the one they’d been living in—in tenement housing, with as many of the other residents of the besieged neighborhood as could be evacuated. The building was overcrowded, and the previous residents received these newcomers with a gamut of reactions ranging from sympathy to resentment to outright anger. The refugees greeted their new hosts in kind.
No one knew exactly what was happening in South Kensington and Fleming. Rumors spread that a tribe of kids, homeless or in gangs or God knows what, had started charging people to go in looking for people or items of value left behind, or sometimes even chaperoning people to their old homes. Though some minor effort had been made to quell these activities, the little industry managed to thrive. It disgusted Carlos; someone was always ready to make a dollar, no matter what the circumstance.
It was thanks to them, though, that news bled back of the old neighborhood transformed, stalked by weird figures pushing wheelbarrows or hauling huge carts of human wreckage, strange music drifting from empty streets, the tall figures—surgeons, some called them—knitting people together in grotesque configurations. Buildings were empty, some completely hollowed out, as though cored from within, leaving nothing but their outer shells. The kids sneaking back inside starting calling it Hollow City, and the name stuck. Which was just one more thing Carlos hated. The old place had a name. Two names, in fact. There was a history there, lives had been lived there. It didn’t deserve some stupid comic-book tag. It had belonged to humanity once.
A gray pallor hung over the place, slowly expanding until most of the real city was covered. Carlos believed it was responsible for the way people acclimated too quickly to the transformation of the old neighborhoods. Apathy took root like a weed. Police kept up the blockades, but they were indifferently manned, and the kids’ scouting efforts grew in proportion. The Army never came in. No one in the tenements knew whether or not they were even called. There was nothing about this on the news. It was as though the city suffered its own private nightmare, which would continue unobserved until it could wake up and talk about it, or until it died in its sleep.
Carlos was resigned to let it play out in the background. He was nothing if not adaptive, and it did not take long for him to accept his reduced surroundings. It was noisy, chaotic, the walls were thin, but these things had been true of his old apartment, too. Sound was a comfort to him; he might not have friends, but his spirit was eased by the human commotion. He would have died there, as close to contentment as he might get, if only Maria had stayed with him.
He knew Maria was gone almost instantly, well before he hobbled out of bed and saw the apartment door ajar. He could feel her absence, like a pocket of airlessness. And he knew immediately that she’d gone back to her old home. What he didn’t know was why. Was there something there that called her? Was she confused? Did the place mean more to her than he did? Her absence almost felt like a betrayal, like a spade digging into his heart.
But she was Maria. He would go and get her. He would bring her home.
• • • •
Everything had gone lax at the border to the old neighborhood. The checkpoints seemed to be devoid of the police altogether; only these kids now, living in makeshift shacks, sleeping on mattresses harvested from local housing or perhaps from the afflicted area, living out of boxes and suitcases and school backpacks. Carlos knew he ought to be grateful for it, because it would only help him get back inside, but a part of him couldn’t help but despair for the continued decline of responsibilities and standards in the hands of this privileged youth. It’s good to be old, he thought. I’ll be dead before they’ve finished their work on this world.
It took a while to find anybody willing to give him the time of day. He knew they considered him too risky: old, slow, fragile. But eventually he found one who would: a girl with a shaved head, dressed in a dark blue hoodie and jeans, who called herself Mix. Ridiculous name; why did they do that? Why couldn’t they just be who they were? She considered the three crumpled twenties he offered her, and accepted them with poor grace. She turned her back to him, reaching into a box she kept by her sleeping bag and jamming it with bottles of water, a first aid kit, and what looked like a folded knife. She interrogated him as she packed.
“What are we looking for?”
“Maria,” he said.
She stopped, turned and looked at him with something like contempt. “You know she’s dead, right?”
“No. I don’t know that at all.”
“Do you know anything about what’s going on in there?”
He flashed back to the tall man—one of the surgeons, he supposed—stretching the twitching human parchment between streetlights. “Sure,” he said. “It’s Hell.”
“Who knows what the fuck it is, but there’s no one left alive in there. At least, no one that can be saved.”
A swell of impatience threatened to overwhelm him. He would go in alone if he had to. What he would not do was stand here being condescended to by an infant. “Do you want my money or not?”
“Yeah I want it. But you have to follow my rules, okay? Stay quiet and stay moving. Keep to the sidewalks at all times, and close to the walls when you can. They mostly ignore stragglers, unless they’re traveling in big groups or making some kinda scene. If one of them notices you, stay still. Usually they just move on.”
“What if they don’t?”
“Then I make it up on the fly. And you do exactly what I fucking say.” She waited until he acknowledged this before continuing. “And whenever we realize this Maria or whoever is dead, we get the fuck out again. Like, immediately.”
“She’s not dead.”
Mix zipped up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “Yeah, okay. Maybe you think you’re the hero in a movie or something. You’re not. You’re just some old guy making a bad choice. So listen to me. Once I’m sure she’s dead, I am leaving. If you come with me I’ll make sure you get back out safe. If you stay behind, that’s on you.”
“Fine. Can we go?”
“Yeah, let’s go. Where are we looking?”
“Home. She’ll have gone home.” He gave her the address.
She sighed. “Old man, that building has been cored. There’s nothing inside.”
“That’s where she is.”
Mix nodded, already turning away from him. Already, in some sense, finished. “Whatever you say.”
She yanked him around, as close to panic as she’d been in weeks, and they walked briskly back in the direction they’d come. She wanted to run, but either he couldn’t or he wouldn’t. It wasn’t until he wrenched his wrist free of her grip, though, that she considered leaving him there. The animal inside her started to pace.
He stood resolutely in place, rubbing the place she’d grabbed him. Behind him, in the dense gray air, the wagoneer still watched, its lidless eyes shedding a dim yellow light. The thin choir of dismembered bodies held their sustained note. She’d been glanced at before, but none had ever stopped and stared until now. She thought about the knife in her backpack. An affectation. So stupid. Unless she gutted this old man right here and ran while the things fell upon him instead.
“Where are you going?” he said. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet anymore. His voice bounced down the empty street, came back at them like a strange reflection of itself.
Out, she wanted to say. We’re getting out. But instead, she said, “We’ll go around. A detour. Hurry.” She wasn’t a dumb kid. She had a job. She would do it. She could handle this.
“Okay,” he said, showing her a little deference for the first time. He joined her, even picking up his pace. “I thought you were going to leave me.”
“Fuck you, I’m not leaving.” She could hear the tears in her voice and she hated herself for it. Stupid girl. That’s what they called her. They were right all along.
They doubled back, turned a corner, pursuing a longer route to the address. Mix glanced behind her often, sure they were being followed, but the wagoneer was nowhere to be seen.
The streets had continued to transform since last she’d been here. The wagoneers hauled their cartloads of human remains, coming from some central location and depositing them in moldering piles throughout Hollow City, where the surgeons continued to stitch them together into grotesque, seemingly meaningless configurations: there were more torsos like the ones they had just seen strung like bunting from one side of the street to the other, each one tuned to a different pitch; great kites of skin flapped tautly in similar fashion, punched through with holes of varying sizes and patterns, as though a kind of Morse code had been pierced into them with an awl; skeletal structures made from the combined parts of a hundred rendered people loomed between the buildings in great, stilled wheels, fitting together like cogs in some grotesque engine. The bone wheels had been hastily assembled, still wet with blood and dripping with rags of meat. The eyes of the workers boiled with furnace-light as they toiled, and the air grew steadily colder.
Mix stopped, hugging the corner of what had once been a twenty-four-hour drug store. Blood splashed the interior of the picture window now, obscuring whatever was inside. She plotted their course in her head, and realized with a buckle of disbelief that the address they were going to—the building she knew from reports of the others had been cored from the inside—seemed to be the center of the wagoneers’ activity.
If Carlos was impatient with her stopping, he gave no sign. He was leaning against the wall too, breathing heavily. His eyes were unfocused, and she wondered how much of this he was taking in.
“You still alive back there?” she said.
“I think so. Hard to tell anymore.” He made a vague gesture. “What is all this?”
“Shit, you’re asking me? It’s just another bad dream, I guess. You’re the one with all the life experience, you ought to recognize one by now.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “So, you seen enough now?”
“What do you mean?”
She pointed ahead, to where his old apartment building hulked into the sky a little over a block away. The desiccated bodies of the wagoneers came and went from inside with a clockwork regularity. “There’s no one left in there, old man. That’s fucking grand central station.”
“No. She’s in there.”
For a moment, Mix couldn’t speak through the rage. The degree of obliviousness he was displaying, the absolute blind faith in an impossible outcome, had just crossed the border from desperate hope to outright derangement. He was crazy, probably had been for some time, and now he was going to get them both killed. Or worse than killed. The thing inside her paced and growled. She was ready to let it out at last.
She felt a curious dread about it. Not at his fate—he’d bought that for himself—but at the simple act of walking away, and at the border she would be crossing within herself by doing it. It was one she had always taken pride in being ready to cross, but now that the moment had come, she was afraid of it, and afraid of the world that waited for her on the other side. She pressed her forehead against the wall, closed her eyes, and listened to the strange sounds the new architecture of flesh created around her: the gorgeous notes, the flag-like snapping, the hollow tone of bones clattering in the wind. It reminded her of the various instruments in her school band tuning themselves before a concert. She heard him breathing beside her, too, heavily and quickly, as he expended what she knew were his final energies on this suicidal quest.
“So who is she, anyway? Your wife? Your daughter?”
“No. She’s my dog.”
It was as though he had said something in a foreign language. She needed a moment to translate it into something she could understand. When it happened, the last beleaguered rank of resistance inside her folded, and she started to laugh. It was quiet, almost despairing, and she couldn’t stop it. She pressed her face into the stone wall and laughed through her clenched teeth.
The absurdity of it all.
“She’s my dog,” Carlos said, a little defensively. “She’s my only friend. I’m going to bring her home.”
“Your home is gone,” she said, the thin stream of giggles reaching its end, giving way instead to a huge sadness, the kind that did not seem to visit her but instead emerged from within, as much a part of her body as a liver or a spleen. She wanted to hate the old man but what she felt for him wasn’t hate. It was something complicated and awful and unknown to her, but hate was too simple a word to describe it. If she had ever loved a child still innocent of its first heartbreak, she might have known the feeling. But she wasn’t a parent; and anyway, she couldn’t remember love.
“A dog,” she said.
Carlos stood beside her, the aesthetic of Hell manifested around him, an abyssal acoustic being built by its wretched servants, and he looked like what he was: a slumped, fading old man, lonely in the world but for one simple animal, and fully aware of the impossibility of retrieving it. His speech was defiant but his mind had already recognized the truth, and she could see it erode him even as she watched, like a sand dune in a strong wind.
Somewhere in this bloody tangle of bone and flesh, maybe even some still-muttering faces affixed to a wall with an unguent excreted from the lungs of the surgeons, were her parents, their cold anger still seeping from their tongues, their self-loathing and their resentment still animating the flayed muscles in their peeled faces. She could hear them as clearly as ever.
God damn them anyway.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s go get your dog.”
The girl was careful, but there was no need to sneak. What could they do to him? Death wasn’t shit. Carlos knew he should tell her to leave—it was obvious he wasn’t going to be coming back, with or without Maria—but it was her choice to make. Life was long or short, and it meant something or it didn’t. It wasn’t his business to tell her how to measure hers.
The walls of his old apartment building bowed slightly, as though some great pressure grew from within. The doors had been torn off and the windows broken, though, and he could see nothing inside but shadow. Pacing the perimeter of the building were three dark-robed figures, their heads encased in black iron boxes. They exuded a monastic patience, moving slowly and with obvious precision. The lead figure held an open book in his left hand, scribbling busily into it with his right. The one in the middle swung a censer, a black orb from which spilled a heavy yellow smoke. The scent of marigolds carried over to him. The figure in the back held aloft a severed head on a pole, which emitted a beam of light from its wrenched mouth.
Carlos waited for these figures to pass before approaching the doors as casually as if he belonged there. Mix made a sound of protest, but he ignored her. A surgeon emerged from the doors just as he reached them, stooping low to fit, but though it cast him a curious glance, it did not interfere with him, or even break its stride. It stretched itself to its full height and walked away, thin hands trailing long needles of bone and bloody thread. It moved slowly and languidly, like something walking underwater.
He moved to enter the building, but Mix restrained him from behind and edged in front of him instead. She held her left arm across his chest, protectively, as they crept forward; in her right she held the knife she’d stashed in her backpack, unfolded into an ugly silver talon. He didn’t know what had changed her mind about him, but he was grateful for it.
Though barely enough light intruded into the building to see anything by, it was immediately obvious that the girl had been right: the building’s expansive interior had been scooped clean, leaving nothing but the outer walls, like the husk of an insect following a spider’s feast. A great, wet hole had opened in the earth beneath it, almost as deep as the building’s foundation. The hole looked like a gaping wound, raw and bloody, its walls sloping inward and meeting a hundred feet down in a moist, clutching glottis. Above it, the walls and ceiling had been sprayed with its meaty exhalations, red organic matter pasted over them so that they resembled the underside of a tongue.
Bodies of residents who’d been unable to evacuate were glued to the far wall with a thick yellow resin; even as they watched, one Carlos recognized as a young cashier at a local take-out was peeled from his perch and subjected to the attentions of a cleaver-wielding surgeon, who quickly quartered him with a series of heavy and efficient chops. The cashier’s limbs quivered yet, and his mouth gaped in wonderment at his own butchering. But instead of a cry or a scream, what emerged from him was a pure note, as clean and undiluted as anything heard on Earth. Tears sprang to Carlos’s eyes at the beauty of it, and ahead of him Mix put her hand over her lowered face, the curved knife glinting dully by her ear, a gesture of humility or of supplication.
“Maria,” Carlos said, and there she was, snuffling through piled offal in a far corner, her snout filthy, her hair matted and sticky. The laborers of Hell walked around her without concern, and she seemed undisturbed by them as well. When she heard Carlos call her name, she answered with a happy bark and bounded over to him, spry for the moment, slamming the side of her body into his legs and lifting her head in grateful joy as he ran his gnarled fingers through her fur. Carlos dropped to his knees, heedless of the bright pain, of how difficult it would be to rise again. His dog sprawled into his lap. For a moment, they were happy.
And then Carlos thought, You left me. You left me in the end. Why? He hugged his dog close, burying his nose in her fur. He knew there was no answer beyond the obvious, constant imbalance in any transaction of the heart. You don’t love me the way I love you.
He forgave her for it. There really wasn’t anything else he could do.
Mix watched them from a few feet away, the knife forgotten in her hand. She knew why the dog had come here. She could feel it; if the old man would leave the animal alone for a moment, he would too. The sound coming through that great, open throat in the ground, barely heard but thrumming in her blood, had called it here. She felt it like a density in the air, a gravity in the heart. She felt it in the way the earth called her to itself, with its promise of loam and worms, so that she sat down too, beside them but apart, unwelcome in their reunion.
Stupid girl. You weren’t invited. You don’t belong. You never did.
The sound from the hole grew in volume. It was an answer to loneliness, and a call to the forgotten. It was Hell’s lullaby, and as the long tone blew from the abyss it filtered out through the windows and the doors and it caught in the reedlike parchments of skin and set them to keening, it powered the wheels of bone so they clamored and rattled and chimed, and it blended with the chorus of notes from the suspended bodies until the whole of the city became as the bell of a great trumpet, spilling a mournful beauty into the world. Every yearning for love rang like a bell in the chest, every lonely fear found its justification.
The clangor of the song kept rising, until it filled the sky. Their ache stretched them until their bodies sang. In dark fathoms, something turned its vast head, and found it beautiful.
Spread the word!