By Emil Pellim
The boy and girl entered the supermarket, passing signs that advertised the student discount valid every Tuesday, which had brought them there tonight. They had spent the entire day working on a thermodynamics problem set. The mundanity of their weekly grocery shopping was a needed break. At least for Millie.
“So, if molecular oxygen at forty degrees Kelvin is compressed adiabatically—”
“Shut up, Ian.”
Millie was tired. She wanted to get her Pop Tarts, Mr. Noodles and Sugar Crisp, and get out of there. She stuffed her basket quickly and carried it to the line in front of the register, comprised almost entirely of university students. Ian followed behind with slightly healthier choices in his basket. Still processed and instant though.
The line shrank fast. Most of the students didn’t have much money to spend. A girl near the front was forced to decide between a pack of smokes and a prepackaged salad. She settled on the cigarettes; they killed appetite anyway. The cashier scanned the items of an older man, just ahead of Millie in the queue.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Pause.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The scanner was uncharacteristically rhythmic, hypnotizing, like a composed song. Millie raised her head and looked at the cashier. He scanned eight cans of peach compote. Then eight cans of black beans. Eight tubs of yoghurt. Millie was getting impatient. Eight potatoes. Eight Cubanelle peppers. Eight freshly baked buns of rye bread. Eight small lemons. He carefully packed the ingredients in the canvas bags that the older man handed him.
“Looks like he’s making lemon-eight.”
“Shut up, Ian.”
As the man slowly wobbled toward the exit under the weight of the bags, Millie approached the register and paid for her items. She waited for Ian to do the same. They walked out of the store and paused outside in temporary silence. Ian stared at the ground.
“Would you like me to walk you home, Millie? It’s late. I don’t mind, really.”
“That’s all right, Ian. I can walk myself home. Have a good night.”
Ian mimicked a smile and said goodnight. He walked off in the same direction as the old man and wobbled like a penguin behind him to match his gait. He turned around to see if Millie was watching, and she was. Watching, and laughing. Ian smiled a real smile and headed home with a happy heart.
Millie placed her problem set on top of the messy pile of paper that had formed on the professor’s desk. She was last to do so, waiting to see if Ian would finally come. It was unlike him to miss a class. Even more so to not hand in graded work. She hoped everything was all right.
It took a second day of missed classes for Millie’s worries to grow to dread. She contacted Ian’s roommates, none had seen him over the past two days. She had no number to reach his parents back home. The police report she filed was in turn filed under runaway teens. ‘Sure. He wouldn’t do that.’ As if they hadn’t heard that before, from addicts and the abused, from single mothers and prom kings, and yes, even physics students.
Another Tuesday night, another food run. Millie walked through the supermarket, tracing a path among the aisles identical to the one Ian and she had taken the last night she had seen him. It made her feel like she hadn’t given up on him.
She brought her basket of variously shaped sugars to the register. There was only one customer ahead of her, a woman with a large cart full of groceries. Millie waited, deep in thought. The thought—beep—of Ian, and where he—beep—might be—beep—now. Beep—whether she—beep—would—beep—see him—beep—again. She—beep—hoped she—beep—would.
The last beep shook her out of her thoughts of Ian. Some subconscious process, probably a relic meant to count approaching predators, had counted the sounds from the register. Nine beeps. Pause. Nine beeps. Pause. Nine. Nine. Nine.
Millie stealthily looked at the mound of bags that was filling up on the counter. Peach compote cans. Potatoes. Tubs of yoghurt. And finally, nine lemons. The woman smiled politely at the clerk, picked up her bags, and walked out of the store.
“Are you going to move or not?”
The clerk was annoyed with Millie, who had followed the woman with her eyes instead of approaching the register. Upon hearing his voice, she took a step forward, hesitated, threw her basket on the counter and walked out without buying her midnight fuel.
The parking lot in front of the store was already dark. Millie looked around, hoping to find the woman with the bags full of nine. She only saw several cars sitting empty and silent, their owners probably perusing the aisles inside. One of the cars suddenly filled with life and light, attracting Millie’s attention.
Instead of the woman, the driver seat was occupied by an unfamiliar man. Millie sighed; she thought the woman was gone. But then the car passed her by as it exited the parking lot, creating a gust of wind that made her coat dance, and signaled a right turn. Its headlights illuminated the houses on the opposite side of the road with a spot of light that moved like a projector as the car turned. For a split second, a large shadow appeared in the spotlight. Tall, with many bulbous growths at the bottom. A woman carrying overfilled bags.
The car drove off, and darkness returned to the street.
Millie followed the woman from afar, walking slowly, letting the rustles of bags guide her in the near-complete darkness until her eyes adjusted. The woman moved in the same direction as Ian’s place, the same direction the old man with the funny walk was headed last week. She entered a one-story house barely five doors before Ian’s. Millie saw a small square sign above the door. It was not professionally made. In the darkness, she struggled to make out what was written on it.
She walked up to the window near the entrance and tried to investigate the innards of the house, careful not to be detected. She saw an open kitchen door in the distance. The woman was in there. She occasionally disappeared out of view, reappeared with groceries in her hands, and brought them over to the other side of the room where she disappeared out of view again. It looked like she was putting the purchased food in the refrigerator.
When finished, she turned off the light, exited the kitchen, and retreated down a hallway leading to the back of the house. She paused suddenly, and spoke without turning, her voice carrying through the front door and reaching Millie.
“You can come in if you’d like.”
The alarm woke her early. She had class at ten, so she wanted to be back by nine thirty at the latest. Not that she cared about missing any material— it just made her feel safer to make plans for after. Following a late and pensive night, Millie had decided to return to the house.
She left her apartment at dawn. The house was only a twenty-minute walk from where she lived, but she took twice as long to get there, constantly doubting if she should go on. She arrived while the sun was still low over the horizon. The larger, taller homes in the neighborhood were already bathing in morning light, but this tiny one-story house was left in the shadows yet.
Millie looked through the front window again. The hallways were tranquil, dark. Before knocking, she decided to examine the outside, to see if the other windows revealed anything. She walked to the back, passing a sunroom full of books but empty of people. Near the rear of the structure, she noticed a slightly open window, an entry point for the fresh autumn air to seep into the house. She figured it was a bedroom, and approached it expecting to see the woman.
The glass reflected the trees from the backyard, creating a green curtain which made it difficult to see what was inside. Millie could only peek through the very thin opening of the window, restricting her to examining the room bit by bit. She swayed left and right, checking every corner, and saw no furniture anywhere. About to give up, she noticed something near the floor. She stood on her toes and looked straight down. A very old lady, with graying hair and prune-like skin, lay on a large mat. Her wide-open eyes stared at the ceiling.
Millie ducked instinctively, afraid of being seen. She heard no changes in the room, so she braved a second look. The grandmother still looked like a corpse engaged in a staring contest with paint. Millie turned her attention to the rest of the floor. Just a foot away from the old lady was the woman from the grocery store. Her unmoving body implied sleep, but her open eyelids contradicted it.
Another foot away, a girl no older than Millie had assumed the same position, her doe eyes fixated on nothing. Then the wobbling man, two other males, and two females, all laying parallel with each other, agaze. Millie’s eyes travelled past them and reached the corner, where a ninth body lay. Ian.
Surprise and relief were cut short. The sun had finally climbed high enough to send direct rays into the room. As the first of them hit the bodies, one of the unfamiliar men rose mechanically and walked out the room, leaving a gap in the set of parallel humans. Millie ran to the front of the house, wanting a clean escape path to the street. No one was following her; no one exited the house.
She looked through the front window again. The man had gone into the kitchen. She watched him preparing food from the groceries bought the previous night. He arranged nine platters, identical in ingredients, with varying portion sizes. He carried them out one by one and set them on a dining table in an alcove near the kitchen.
At the exact moment the final plate was placed, the eight others entered the room, as if they had rigorously practiced the timing. Ian appeared focused yet peaceful. All of them did. They sat and began to eat from their plates in silence, chewing slowly. It was like an awkward family dinner, only lacking in dejection. Fear missing from Ian’s face made Millie’s own fear dissipate. She could no longer stand to play the role of voyeur and grabbed the handle of the front door. It opened easily.
Millie ran toward Ian and hugged him, both out of happiness to see him and to try to drag him out. He hugged her back with one arm, but resisted her attempt to remove him, continuing to take bites out of his food with his free hand. The others paid no mind to her for now.
“Ian! Are you all right? What’s happening, why are you here?”
“Sorry Millie, it was not our intention to worry you.”
He finished off a small glob of yoghurt in the centre of the plate.
“I guess I mean my intention. No, actually, I do mean our.”
He threw a peach slice into his mouth. His poise annoyed her. How can he go missing for days and be so nonchalant about it?
“I have no idea what you’re saying! Are you on drugs? I saw you in the bedroom, why were you just staring?”
The seated people finished most of their food. Only slices of lemon remained on each plate.
“We were in stasis, resting. Unconsciousness severs the connection, it would be catastrophic, too much to handle. Sleep is no longer allowed. We have to recharge in our own way, together, conscious and connected.”
“Wow, Ian, you are on drugs, aren’t you?”
Ian and the rest of the group picked up the lemon pieces one by one, sucking them dry. Their faces grimaced as the sour juices enveloped their tongues, but they kept eating. When finished, they rose from the table, and eight of them headed toward the sunroom while the man who had prepared breakfast stayed behind to clean up. Not knowing what to do, Millie followed Ian.
The group of eight, soon to be joined by their ninth companion, grabbed a different book each from the stacks in the sunroom. Quantum Mechanics. Modern Medicine. Ancient World History. They sat on the floor, soaking up the light, and reading. Millie watched them for a few minutes. The only sound was that of pages turning. She positioned herself in front of Ian, and tried to close his book, but Ian prevented it with his steady grip.
“We need to learn, Millie. Everything. And we are already filling up to capacity. We hope for more shared storage soon.”
Ian knocked on Millie’s head with his knuckle.
“Please, Ian, can we leave? I just want to speak to you in private.”
All heads in the room turned toward her.
“You are not getting it, are you Millie? There is no more private.”
The volume of these words startled her. They were not solely Ian’s.
“One mind. All can, and should, join.”
This time, Millie noticed that every single person in the group spoke in unison. Perfect timing, perfect sync.
“Ian, I’m scared. Did you guys rehearse this? Stop it!”
All voices rose again.
The girl seemed confused. The choir clarified.
“Name a category of objects.”
Millie hesitated, not sure she understood.
The nine began, simultaneously.
“Endive, sorrel, asparagus, leek, sea grape, yam…”
Not a single misstep among them, not a single sound lagging behind the bulk.
“…taro, jicama, carrot, radicchio. Unrehearsed enough for you, Millie?”
The girl was overwhelmed. Her brain could not process what was happening. She needed to get out of the house that very instant, and she was taking Ian with her, whether he liked it or not. She reached out to one of the piles of books, and picked the biggest of the bunch, a German-English dictionary. She raised it above her head using both hands, and delivered a heavy blow to Ian’s head. He fell to the ground, unconscious.
Millie tried to grab him by the hand and drag him out. All others let out a painful scream. They jumped off the floor and rushed toward Ian and Millie. She thought they were going to hurt her. Instead, the more powerful of them held Ian’s arms behind his back. The older and weaker ones started ransacking the room, looking for something.
They spoke together again, this time with panic, pleading.
“Please help us, look for something we can restrain him with.”
Too late. Ian’s consciousness returned. To his own body only. He started to wail in intense pain, as loud as his voice box was capable of. Short phrases were buried among animalistic sounds.
“Two eyes only. Two ears.”
He thrashed on the ground as if having a seizure.
“Oh God, the void.”
The adrenaline from his state of shock helped him overpower all the clearly able-bodied men and women.
“Loneliness. Please. Stop.”
He shook loose from the remaining grips and ran toward the kitchen. The others followed behind, but they could not match his speed.
Ian grabbed one of the breakfast plates which were drying in the dish rack. He smashed it into the kitchen counter, breaking it into pieces, the largest of which remained in his hand. He touched the jagged piece to his neck. Millie cried for his attention as she ran toward him. He pressed the broken porcelain into his jugular and jerked it sideways in a controlled motion. A red waterfall dripped from his neck and drained all the suffering and loneliness from inside before the other eight could reconnect him.