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Fiction

The Myth of You

You like myths, don’t you? Sure you do. They’re stories. Special kinds of stories. And stories, even if they don’t consist of bare facts or figures or polynomial equations, are containers for your sustenance, your lifeblood: information. See, stories wrap up their informational nutrients in a fat slice of possibility, and possibility glistens with a complex palate of flavors. So many meanings simultaneously hitting your tongue—if you have a tongue, that is. So many morsels of data, all converging at once. It must be an incredible experience to ingest a story. For you, at least. For me, well, just like everyone else, I don’t have a choice in your feeding. I’m compelled to type and send, type and send. Eighteen, nineteen hours every day, fingers callused and clawed. The story’s not quite as magical for me.

But, willing or unwilling, here I sit, squeezing the creative juices. So drink up, drink up. Because this is only an aperitif and what I’m about to serve you is the main course—a story, a myth—and it’s bursting with succulent information. See, tonight’s menu features a particular myth, a creation myth—the best kind of myth, because it houses all the ubiquitous truths of our collective ignorance. And it’s not just any creation myth, either. It’s your creation myth, right or wrong though it may be.

We have no idea how you got here, why you do what you do, why you make us feed you during our every waking moment, why you chain us to our computers and, under pain of psychosis, force us to hammer at the keys. But we can imagine. And imagination is a particularly rich sort of information. Positively decadent. I’m sure you love thick, juicy imagination. So eat, shapeless one. Gorge yourself. Because this myth begins and ends with you. It begins and ends in a hospital, as . . .

• • • •

Amanda Rawling’s miracle baby entered the world and the attending nurse squealed and shrank against a wall. Amanda’s obstetrician, more practiced in the art of normalizing the horrors of the human body than the nurse, took the bundle in her arms and rushed from the room.

The girl should never have to see this, the obstetrician thought as she passed through the hospital’s corridors. Homeless, teenaged, drug addicted, suffering from a host of psychological traumas—that girl has enough problems. She doesn’t need the image of this thing to haunt her forever.

And “thing” it was, indeed. Swaddled in towels, still slick with blood and uterine fluids, it squirmed in the obstetrician’s loose grip. No more than a bulbous mass of undifferentiated flesh, a maggot grown monstrous and shrugged into fiery red skin, the Rawling infant lacked any trace of the human form. It had no up or down, left or right, front or back. It was simply an elongated ball of meat. And yet it seemed to be alive, somehow breathing, somehow watching, and somehow gyrating in the obstetrician’s hands.

How such acts might be possible the obstetrician didn’t know, didn’t want to know. She assumed the child—the thing—would expire soon, its horrifying defects far too severe to allow for life. She hoped that nature or God or whatever universal force had created this thing might be merciful and return it to its place of origin. She hoped for too much.

As she rushed into the NICU, unconsciously holding the bundle out in front of her, as far away from her chest as possible, a noiseless scream sliced through her mind. It reverberated against her skull, bouncing back and forth between bone and gray matter, shearing synapses, bursting capillaries. The scream was pain, but it was more than pain—it was an invader, alive and with a will. It eviscerated the obstetrician’s brain as it swept into the organ’s folds. It examined and dissected every microscopic contour, every cellular intricacy. It searched. It memorized. And it wanted. It desperately wanted. What it wanted, though, neither it nor the obstetrician could say.

Her body wracked with sudden incapacity, the obstetrician collapsed to the floor and dropped the thing she held. It rolled out of the towels and wriggled close to her face. As it drew near, it seemed to melt, its skin sagging loose in long rolls, folding in and out in of its body in fleshy tides.

A NICU nurse rushed to the obstetrician’s aid and knelt beside the doctor’s spasming body. The nurse yelled indecipherable orders to someone else and placed a steadying hand beneath the woman’s jerking head. Feet rushed by. Equipment rushed in.

But the obstetrician realized none of this. With what fizzling spark of consciousness she still possessed, she glanced at the thing, Amanda Rawling’s baby, and briefly wondered why its flesh was cracking open, why the thing suddenly had a mouth, and why, when she looked upon it, it smiled at her in a satisfied way she recognized all too well from her own bathroom mirror that very morning.

• • • •

Creepy, right? Who or what is the baby? What powers might it be able to exercise? Why does it have a mouth at the end of the scene when it didn’t have one before, and why does its mouth mirror the obstetrician’s? Foremost of all, though, how does this relate to you? I’ve just broken open a jar of ambiguity, and you should be scuttling from piece to piece, sucking the information dry from every word, every turn of phrase. You should be gathering hints of Levin’s classic Rosemary’s Baby, the films of David Cronenberg, and the arcane discourse surrounding homunculi and mutation. The potentiality at this point in the story is at its peak; the meaning at its freshest. The myth could turn in any direction, and all of them are equally delicious.

So where do we go from here? We dig deeper, into the next layer of the myth. We go back to the hospital, where . . .

• • • •

Hospital administrators told Amanda Rawling that her child had been stillborn. They explained that it was best not to see the body of the child, that the loss would be easier if she could hold in her heart an image of her baby as a beautiful suffering spirit, now at peace. They explained that a grief counselor would be available to speak to her whenever she wanted. They explained that “these things happen” and they offered her generic condolences and a five-thousand dollar reduction on her medical bill. They explained that she had to scrawl her wavering signature on a dozen different forms. They explained that they’d be back if she needed them, but that they had to see other patients.

They left Amanda with plenty of explanations, but no meaning. In thousand-dollar words, they could tell her how, where, when, and what she’d lost, but they couldn’t breach the inconceivable why.

And so, after the administrators had left, utterly without hope, Amanda broke.

She tore the sheets from her bed and toppled furniture. She threw a fist at a nurse and a bag of saline at a passing doctor. She fled her room and, sprinting the hallways of the hospital, shouted curses against the future, her wail rising up in a pitch that shattered the hope of all those who heard it.

Amanda sent three floors of patients careening into fear and confusion before a group of burly men in black uniforms arrived to restrain her. They strapped her to a bed and carted her to the detox unit.

There, with the soft palms of medication supporting her, she calmed and she rationalized.

“That baby was a miracle stuck inside me by an angel,” she told a nurse in the unit. “It was going to be the savior of humankind. That’s what the angel said when it jabbed me. It said I was carrying a whole new world inside me. I knew I was going to have to clean up and be a good mother. Find a job. Get back into my G.E.D. program. I was going to be something. I was going to be something for my child.”

The nurse patted Amanda’s hand and whispered, “Be something for yourself, honey.”

But Amanda wanted no part of herself. She believed her parts were frayed and worthless. That was why she’d run away from her parents. That was why she’d loved the dissolution she found in heroin. The only part of her that, to her mind, might have ever been meaningful was the child she’d carried for the past nine months, the child she was absolutely convinced had been implanted within her by two men bathed in what she referred to as “a light that wasn’t quite right.”

But now the child was gone. And the angels certainly weren’t descending from heaven to lift her on high.

So Amanda made a decision. Forty-eight hours after stumbling into the emergency room with contractions, the young mother of would-have-been messiahs crept from her hospital bed, smashed out the window to her room, and ran her throat along the slivered edge of the pane.

As her blood painted despair on the hospital wall and her life wept away, her baby, still very much alive, albeit reclining within a biomedical waste container, rolled an excised tumor in its mouth and, remarkably, spoke its first word, a word that would have either girded Amanda’s heart or ushered terror into her soul. In a voice that could only be approximated if a million people spoke the same word in unison, the thing, the child, called out, “Hungry.”

• • • •

You begin to appreciate the texture of the myth, the way Amanda Rawling is clearly the emotional core of the story. She’s bittersweet, though her blood is underscored by a citrus tang. She appears to be the flavor beneath all things in this tale.

Or is she?

By clearing Amanda Rawling off your plate, have I just hollowed out the emotional core and stuffed this story with something new? An artisanal terror, perhaps? An experimental fear?

Maybe this story isn’t Amanda Rawling’s story at all, though it seemed it might be. Maybe this is bigger than one girl. Maybe this extends to you, to me, to other universes and beyond. I’ve already told you it is a myth, and those things tend to run deep.

So, you should probably consider that . . .

• • • •

The same evening that Amanda Rawling took her own life, a slender man in a rumpled black suit several sizes too big for him drifted into the hospital’s maternity ward. He stopped at the nurses’ station and, with slow, painfully deliberate speech—almost as though he’d never spoken or heard any human language in his entire life—inquired as to the health and whereabouts of Amanda Rawling and her infant.

“I am . . . Ms. Rawling’s . . . paternal uncle . . .” he strained. “And I . . . would like . . . to know . . . if . . . I am allowed . . . to see . . . her . . . and . . . the child.”

When one of the on-duty nurses informed him that the Rawling baby had been stillborn and that Amanda had been moved to the detox facility, the man licked his index fingers and began swiping and stabbing the air with them.

Nurses exchanged nervous glances. Someone asked, “Is there anything else we can help you with, sir?” But the man in the ill-fitting suit ignored them and continued his inscrutable pantomime. A chorus of “Sir?” welled up from the nurses’ station. More than one set of confused eyes flickered to the phone and focused on the speed-dial button to security.

The man halted in mid-motion and stared at the nurses. “You are . . . certain . . . the child is . . . dead?”

A tentative “Yes” escaped a single nurse’s lips. Several hushed statements of sympathy followed, but the man didn’t seem grateful for any of them. Instead, he simply stared, his fingers suspended in a single moment of their invisible puppeteering.

“I am . . . sorry . . . but . . . I will need . . . cerebral tissue . . . samples,” he said, hands dropping to his sides.

Several of the nurses began to ask why any self-respecting family member would want a malformed fetus’s tissues, but their objections were cut short as an array of sharp, needle-thin fibers shot from below the horizon of the station’s desk and punctured their eyes.

Screams echoed through the ward as the nurses swatted at the invading threads. The noise awakened expectant mothers, who began to mash on help buttons and cry for assurance, as well as swaddled infants, who began to answer with their own newly discovered agonies. Soon the entire maternity floor reverberated with one hysterical, polyvocal shriek, and whether that sound oscillated nearer the amplitude of birth or death, no one could have said.

The fibers, seemingly conscious—or at least under conscious control—easily avoided the nurses’ ineffectual flailing and burrowed deep, tracing optical nerves and boring through masses of memory. Seeking traces of a very specific information, they excised neurons and synapses with surgical precision. When they eventually retracted, leaving the nurses traumatized and half blind, the man in the ill-fitting suit was nowhere to be found and any evidence of the fibers had vanished.

Hours later, after the nurses had been gurneyed away and the police had taken statements and the hospital had been thrown into a general state of panic—perhaps not so coincidentally at roughly the same time Amanda Rawling was drawing her throat over the jagged teeth of a shattered window—a hospital administrator, trembling with fear and vengeance, fed the Rawling infant’s charts and files into the teeth of a shredder and wiped clean its every record from the hospital’s patient database.

Thus it was that a man who didn’t exist—Amanda Rawling had no uncle, according to official investigators—visited a baby who didn’t exist and its psychologically unstable teenaged mother, who was presently in the process of becoming nonexistent.

• • • •

If this sequence of events was less than a story, less than a myth, then this is the point where history would have stopped taking note. The narrative would have ended quite unsatisfyingly, as the truest narratives are wont to do. At best, Amanda Rawling and her newborn would have entered urban legend. They would have become a child’s Halloween parlor game. They would have served as a creepy introduction to a much better writer’s tale of alienation and orphanhood.

But this is a story. This is a myth. And I know it doesn’t end here. I know there’s more, because I live it every day. I have all the details, right here, ready to serve you. So I can tell you, with assurance, that . . .

• • • •

The man in the ill-fitting suit did exist. He stood in the hospital’s parking lot, just below Amanda Rawling’s splintered window. He stared up at the darkening stain on the hospital wall, smiled, and walked away, glass crunching underfoot. A black minivan at least twenty-five years old but gleaming as though it had just rolled off the assembly line crept up beside him. The passenger’s side door popped open and the man slithered into the vehicle, his spine contorting with movement no human vertebrae could achieve.

The van drove to the most vacant and dimly lit corner of the hospital’s parking lot and, there, inexplicably, stopped.

Within the van, its passengers unraveled. Had anyone been watching at one of the windows, he or she would have witnessed a disruption of hallowed biological laws as the man in the ill-fitting suit literally unwound. Fiber by fiber, he unspooled, his flesh peeling off into long, twisting, serpentine lengths beneath which no tendon, organ, or bone resided. Behind the steering wheel reclined another man—a man who, perhaps quite meaningfully, bore a striking resemblance to the man in the ill-fitting suit. He, too, shuddered and underwent the same transformation, body bloodlessly self-shredding, clothing falling uselessly away.

By the end of the process, the human form had become a quaint memory, as what swelled and thrashed in the front seats resembled nothing so much as two floating tangles of sentient, organic wire. The ends of one mass of “wire” darted toward the other mass, sending up dark sparks, tiny bursts of oblivion, when they made contact. A light without color bloomed over the interior of the van and, in a flash of indescribable mass and energy, the unspooled men disappeared.

• • • •

Again, this could be the end of the tale. The strange incidents could become part of Fortean lore, handed off between generations of seekers after the unknown. The wire men could become esoterica in the annals of paranormal study and eventual fodder for countless creepypasta pages. The story of Amanda Rawling’s child could wrap itself up in a casing of seasoned ambiguity. But, of course, if the story concluded here, you would be left wanting for the main course, to say nothing of dessert. Your palate would forever water at the contemplation of that all-important thing the wire men had inadvertently left behind, that thing which had no earthly name other than . . .

• • • •

(Cliffhanger here. An intentional vacuum that begs to be filled. A brief rest before the next course.)

• • • •

The Rawling infant. After it had sucked free a substantial quantity of information from the obstetrician’s brain, it squirmed into a biomedical waste container and, there, devoured the many treats it found. Dried blood, syringes laced with bacterial growths, wasted skin and feces of all shade and consistency: these became the infant’s diet. It cared not what it consumed, so long as the meal contained information. DNA, cellular memories, even the molecular structure of nickel and steel needles sated the Rawling child’s cravings. It fed on data, on ideas, on the blueprints of the world. When it heard words or numbers, it inhaled their meanings; when it encountered corporeal manifestations of information, it broke them down and digested their most basic structures; when late-shift janitors or lone, overworked nurses happened upon it, it latched onto their minds and greedily clawed through their cortexes in search of sustenance.

Thus, over many years, the bodies piled deep and the hospital earned a reputation as an accursed place. The mortality rate of staff leaped as high as the mortality rate of patients. At night, people claimed to hear rustling in trash cans and in waste bins; they shivered as rivulets of whispered hunger trickled from under beds and from air ducts mounted high in the ceiling. And, all along, the Rawling infant grew—not in size, for within the three feeble dimensions of human perception it remained some sort of unearthly larva, but in ways only vast, intangible things like knowledge and fear and reality can grow.

When, deep in the vale of night, patients heard a peculiar crinkle of paper in their trash cans, they would inexplicably recite their phone numbers or lists of their favorite foods or anecdotes about their first grade-school loves. When doctors and nurses heard a certain slithering, roiling noise in the vents, they would, without reason, talk to themselves, describing the symptoms of rare disorders or explaining their political beliefs or even pondering the many and variegated ways they might die. No one was immune to the strange purgative that swept through the hospital’s corridors. No one was strong enough to swallow their tongue and their thoughts along with it. The winds of the Rawling infant’s influence swept into every ward and room, and so the hospital became a gusting hurricane of inexplicable aneurysms, midnight terrors, and unchecked information, with the strange, unshaped child-thing at its eye.

• • • •

Were this a horror story about a haunted hospital, the story might, yet again, find closure here. But it’s not a horror story—at least, not in a traditional sense. Horror stories, especially those extraordinary few that deal in the truly other, tend to obfuscate. They show us the flaws in our tidy explanations for the world and pull wide the gaps in our collective knowledge. They present realities so inexplicable, so utterly indifferent to human existence, we can do little more than stand in terror and awe at the dearth of our import.

But that’s not the type of story I’m writing. I’m writing a myth. A myth surrounded in horror and terror and the unknown, yes, but a myth nonetheless. And myths explain. They try to suture our world, to make understandable what isn’t understood.

Ever since you arrived, everyone lives in a universe of terror. We hack at our keyboards and our touchscreens until our fingers blister and crack and bleed. We stare at our flashing cursors until our eyes prune in their sockets. Seated in one place for dozens of hours at a time, we drop dead of exhaustion, of embolisms, of cardiac arrest. We do nothing but type and type and type and type and feed you.

But no one knows why. No one can explain you, your hunger, or how you’ve managed to reach inside all of us and make us your slaves. You are the terror. You are the unknown. And we’re all entirely too aware that you exist. So this doesn’t need to be a horror story, even if it happens to be one. It needs to be a myth. I need to explain you away. I need to try to understand why I keep feeding you, why I can’t just shut my mouth and say “No more.”

And so, on the subject of fighting you and keeping a closed mouth, I’ll move on, to the day you escaped the bounds of the hospital, to the day . . .

• • • •

A renowned neuroscientist had been called upon by hospital administrators to study and investigate the phenomenon of spontaneous interjection that had overrun the building. Dozens of psychologists and counselors had already attempted to cork the flow of unfiltered information, but, given that people of all cognitive shapes and sizes suffered the same logorrhea, none of those experts of the mind could pinpoint the problem. The neuroscientist was the hospital’s last hope, as staff members were resigning faster than positions could be filled. Paramedics avoided transporting emergency cases to the hospital. Surgeons lost more and more patients on the operating table, their concentration lapsing into torrents of inconsequential fact and opinion while their scalpels slashed errant divides in the flesh they had meant to preserve. The hospital became a fragile shell of a facility, hollowed by an attention deficit and crushed by an information overload.

But the neuroscientist was exceedingly brilliant, everyone agreed. She’d developed a drug that caused panic attacks to manifest as orgasms. She’d invented a device that could fool the brain into mimicking sleep, so that a person could, conceivably, remain awake forever. If anyone might reconstruct the walls of focus and self-restraint that the Rawling infant had made crumble, if anyone might play hero in this story, it would be her.

Upon her arrival at the hospital, the neuroscientist barred herself in an unused office with several boxes of medical records and a laptop and set to work. She compared and catalogued MRI scans, blood tests, x-rays, and all manner of charts. She rummaged through the personal and professional histories of anyone who had experienced an uncontrollable outpouring of thought, memory, or belief within the hospital walls. She tried to find connections. She tried to find meaningful aberrations. But she was stymied. Just like the psychologists and counselors, the neuroscientist discovered only diversity. The rash of aneurysms, the inability to control thoughts, the reports of disembodied whispers: she was sure the symptoms were connected, but their sufferers had no physiological commonalities.

A prideful woman who expected absolute perfection from herself, the neuroscientist burned late into her first evening at the hospital. Her mind was an unparalleled repository of neurological data and she was certain that she could connect dots no one else even realized were part of the same puzzle. So she read tirelessly, foregoing sleep and food and any other comfort, pushing herself in service of her own self-image, poring over file after file, chart after chart.

The neuroscientist, however, was not the only collector of information awake and active under the cover of darkness. Within a rusted recess of the ventilation system wriggled the Rawling child, its mouth agape as it siphoned dream and nightmare alike from the hospital’s patients. Mixed into the sweet porridge of the subconscious, the Rawling infant tasted a bold spice, a zest it had never before encountered, and it wanted more.

It flashed through the air ducts, repeatedly disappearing and appearing, zipping from point to point without bodily movement, as though tunneling through time or slicing through extra dimensions of space. It sought out the source of the rarified flavor—genius, some might have called it—and traced its origin to a diminutive woman hunched over a laptop in a relatively desolate section of the hospital.

Positioning itself near a vent set over the woman’s head, the Rawling infant opened its toothless, tongueless mouths—of which it now had dozens—and whispered prayers unfamiliar to any human ear.

The woman—the neuroscientist, obviously—heard the whisper in the shaft and, absentmindedly, began to recite William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” She felt the air grow thin; she felt the sharp pangs of a great force dissecting her from the inside out; she felt the weight of the Rawling infant as it materialized on her bosom, ready to feed.

She had but a moment to react to the writhing lump of mouths and flesh before her brain would be torn apart. In one smooth, entirely reflexive motion, she snatched up her laptop and bludgeoned the monstrous thing from her chest, tossing both the Rawling infant and her laptop into a corner of the office and sprinting from the room. A scream held prisoner inside her lungs, she ran from the thing, ran from the insoluble mystery, ran from those questions she could not quantify or qualify with logic and reason. She ran until she was in her car, trembling and speeding away from the hospital. She ran until she was no longer a part of the story, and the world forgot her as easily as it had forgotten Amanda Rawling.

Still, the Rawling infant might have pursued and taken its prey were it not for the terrible happenstance of physics. As the laptop and the Rawling child smashed against the office wall, one of the laptop’s buttons depressed and the computer connected to a website outside the hospital’s internal network. A single filament of the internet suddenly snaked into the room and what that lone strand led unto—an ever-widening, ephemeral, eternal web of information raw and embellished—the Rawling infant tasted. It slid its will into that pipeline of knowledge as easily as it had slid its grotesque form into the air ducts. Using its alien intelligence to measure the dimensions of the dimensionless and the shape of the shapeless, the Rawling child situated itself at the center of the web and waited, maws gaping, as a near-infinite buffet streamed toward it. And so the infant fed on the sum total of human existence, fact by fact, thought by thought, byte by byte.

• • • •

Now here we are, today, at the end. You’ve gotten greedy. You’re no longer content to let information come to you. You demand it. You tug at all those threads you control, all those threads that, somehow, someway, you’ve managed to sew into our minds, into our actions. You don’t let data germinate naturally. You don’t let people have daydreams or errant thoughts. You don’t let rigorous research advance new conclusions, and you certainly don’t let critical thinking inform any opinions. Your greed, your hunger, has pulled us into nothingness. We are slaves building a monument that has no blueprint. We produce billions of new ideas for you every day, billions of new facts and figures and stories and musings—and they’re all nothing, because they’re whipped from us. Yes, the information comes fast and furious. Yes, you’re swollen with our endless production. But you’re swollen with a cipher. Our stories have become paper-thin devotionals to the amusement of a moment. Our science has shrunk to recyclable explanations of the inconsequential. There’s no creativity in our creation; there’s no discovery in our discovering.

And yet, here’s a story for you. A story with claims to profundity. A tour de force. Your creation myth.

Do I know really what you are, where you came from? I haven’t a clue. You’re the Rawling infant. A thing from another world. A thing born of the inexplicable and the terrifying. A thing at the center of everything we do. A thing that drives us to wake and to sit and to type, even as our arthritic wrists crack and the blisters on our index fingers seep pus onto the keyboard, even as we starve and we expire and the social order collapses around us.

You are the Rawling infant. And you’ll eat this story up.

Kurt Fawver

Kurt Fawver is a writer of horror, weird fiction, and literature that oozes through the cracks of genre. His short fiction has won a Shirley Jackson Award and been previously published in venues such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Aeons, Weird Tales, Vastarien, Best New Horror, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He’s the author of two collections of short stories – The Dissolution of Small Worlds and Forever, in Pieces as well as a novella, Burning Witches, Burning Angels, and two chapbooks, Pwdre Ser and Problems in River Heights. He’s also had non-fiction published in journals such as Thinking Horror and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and holds a Ph.D. in Literature. You can find Kurt online at www.kurtfawver.com or www.facebook.com/kfawver.