By J. L. Royce
“Hello! I didn’t see you there. Welcome—it’s not much, but I call it home.”
Ben sits at the kitchen table, spoon poised over a cereal bowl. He looks healthier than his photographs.
The colorful tablets and pills float in a viscous liquid that may be writhing blood, or plasma. He jabs his spoon into the mess.
“Mi casa es su casa.”
Ben shovels a spoonful of the dripping mess into his mouth and chews loudly. He swallows with some difficulty. He spits up into his napkin.
“It’s the cancer,” he apologizes. “You’re welcome to join me, though…”
He waits for an answer, then shrugs and stands.
Ben wears pastel pajamas decorated with cartoon characters, their poses reminiscent of a Japanese pillow book.
“So,” he says. “You’re here to evaluate my mental status, I suppose.” He glances around. “All things considered, I’m doing alright. I mean, for someone whose brain is being kept below ninety Fahrenheit. And I’ve given myself structure—you’ll see—from my life before. Similar.”
Ben straightens, and his pajamas become a business suit. He shoots his cuffs.
“Have you met the family? Here, I mean, not those people waiting for…”
He trails off, peers into the next room, and bellows, “Kids!”
The sounds of their clawed feet scampering and scratching on the parquet floor herald their arrival: a boy and a girl, furred and running on all fours, long naked tails whipping behind them. Their narrow, rat-wise faces sense the visitor’s distress, and they chitter in a semblance of amused laughter.
“Kids, this is…Sorry, I don’t recognize you.” Ben laughs. “I doubt you’d recognize yourself.”
Ben catches a reflection in the toaster, a beautiful chrome-plated relic of a past century.
“No! Don’t look down. I recommend you don’t look in any mirrors.”
Stepping in front of it, he straightens his tie with a vicious tug. His fleshy neck bulges over his shirt collar. Then he pushes the appliance off the countertop. It lands with a clatter out of sight behind the kitchen counter.
“Best not to know.”
The children are nosing shoes and eating spilled food from the floor.
“My mental status. About that… Why don’t I introduce you to the Missus? She can help, being rather mental herself, ha ha!”
He leads the way through the foyer, the children scuttering along at his heels. They pause, tittering, at the sight of the family dog. It sprawls atop Ben’s elegant leather briefcase, pelvis thrusting spastically.
“Bad dog!” Ben shouts. “My father’s satchel!” He aims a kick at the hound. It dismounts and shambles away with a sullen expression. The briefcase shudders and lets out a disconsolate sigh.
His wife stands in the living room archway. Her long evening dress, in lemon chiffon, stretches over a swollen abdomen. One carefully manicured hand rests on the bulge, a crimson nail tapping idly. The mass within moves up and down rhythmically, and her lips part.
She takes a deep drag from her cigarette, and exhales in their faces, considering them.
Ben clears his throat. “Hi, honey! This is—”
The smoke is vaguely pink, emerging from her flared nostrils. Her mouth is a caricature of glowing red gloss. The children resemble their mother, her black eyes, narrow face, high cheekbones.
“Ben, I need to talk to you. It’s almost due; are you going to be around, or miss it like—”
“No time—we’ve got to get to work.”
Ben whispers, “Do you see what I have to deal with? This woman…”
He confronts her. “I’m doing this for you—” He stops short. “Was doing this…”
She draws the last puff and drops the cigarette on the burnt umber rug, grinds it out with the toe of one high-heeled pump.
“Never mind,” she replies, “Too late now.”
The movement of her belly becomes violent, and she squats indelicately, steadying herself on the door frame. “It’s time…”
Her groans are passionate and prolonged, punctuated by obscenities and pleas to ‘not stop’. The performance sends the children scampering and squeaking.
“Ah…yes!” she cries. A rush of liquid pools around her feet, reeking of fish and sweat. Her abdomen flattens and she stands, steps away, revealing a huddled, gelatinous mass on the floor.
The mess stretches, grows, the pale gray ichor sloughing off to reveal arms, then hands that wipe off the face. A small, bald fellow struggles to sit up, then gets to his knees.
“Oh, babe…” he says. “Got a ciggie?”
At the sound of her lover’s voice, her breasts dampen the dress strained taut over their breadth.
“Sure, babe,” says Ben’s wife. She takes two cigarettes out of a silvered case and lights them, together, sucking hard before handing him one, stained lipstick red.
She glances up. “Triste est omne animal post coitum…”
“Herb?” Ben stares open-mouthed at the pair. “Herb from next door?”
“I tried to tell you,” she complains. “I tried just a few minutes ago; but no, too busy. You ignored me—what did you expect?”
She crosses her legs, leans in the doorway. “I’m young, attractive—” she tosses back brick-red hair “—I want to live! Live!”
Her declaration shocks Ben out of his inaction. He rushes the slimy fellow.
“Come here, you little git!” Ben roars. “I’ll teach you to sniff around my bitch!”
“Oh, no…” Herb scrambles toward the woman, slipping in the slime. He tries to crawl beneath her dress, climb her long legs and retreat to safety, but she kicks him away with a patent leather point.
“Why can’t you be more of a man, Herbie? Fight for me!”
Herb struggles to his feet, encumbered by the massive schlong swinging to his knees. The children rush up to nip playfully at his burden. Herb turns and flees, moaning, into the ill-defined darkness of the house, the chittering little ones close behind.
“You think you know someone.” Ben shakes his head. “Putz.”
He stares at his wife. “I don’t know what you see in him. I’d…” Ben loses his train of thought and turns away.
His wife sneers. “Maybe you can ask when you get home.”
At the sturdy front door, Ben pauses and regards the gleaming bronze skull doorknob. Through the barred window the lawn is visible: sere. A large car is waiting. Beyond, all down the block, the houses are afire.
“Controlled burn,” Ben says. “Have to do it every few years, eradicate the invasive species, if you get my meaning.”
He reaches for the knob but jerks his hand back, shrugs his coat sleeve over his palm, and grips it. “Mind your step.”
The door swings wide, opening into the Cadillac’s spacious interior: bright red vinyl.
“Bye, dear,” Ben calls over his shoulder and slides across the broad bench seat to the driver’s side.
He grips the wheel and grins. “Well, we’re off.”
“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
The front seat is wide enough for a half-dozen people. The air conditioner, the car itself, is already running, the interior as chill as a hospital room. The traffic is cracking along, four lanes in either direction. Ben grabs the column shifter and jerks it into gear, speeding into the oncoming traffic with a squeal of the tires.
“What a life,” Ben nods to himself. “So, you’re here to check out my mental status and report back. And then…what? Pull the plug?”
The traffic slows. Congestion thickens like clotting blood.
“Never mind; not your decision. You wouldn’t be here if it was good news.” Ben looks away, out the window.
The car is barely creeping along now, the needle of its temperature gauge rising.
“Look at that; collateral damage, they call it.”
The breakdown lanes on both sides of the expressway are littered with corpses: mice, chipmunks, ground squirrels; raccoons, woodchucks, otters; deer, moose, elk. Ambulances and Fire Rescue vehicles are parked at intervals, their staff lounging about, smoking and talking.
The traffic crawls. The car comes alongside a twelve-point buck lying on a stretcher. Its chestnut eye stares into the car.
Ben turns back to the traffic. “Uh-oh—here comes trouble.”
The Peace Officer walks the center breakdown lane. She is beautiful and terrible to behold: helmeted and shielded, in gleaming black body armor and leather motorcycle pants, holsters on her hips rolling as she saunters along. She administers the Last Rites with a chrome-plated automatic, executing each EMT, but ignores the suffering of the animals.
“Best let me do the talking,” Ben says.
The Peace Officer reaches the Cadillac and stops at Ben’s window. She holds the gun at her side and taps the window with a gloved knuckle.
Ben cranks it down with a groan.
“Morning, Officer!” His hand remains on the column shifter.
She is crying: the tears flung from her yellow eyes strike the face shield like the cat’s-paw raindrops of a summer storm.
She looks past Ben at his passenger. “Memento mori,” she sobs.
The Peace Officer’s wings unfurl, feathers gleaming blue-black as a raven’s, each inscribed with a regret written in blood.
The wings enshadow the car. “Gotta go!” Ben cries. He slams the Cadillac into Reverse. The big car hits the sedan behind it with a sickening crunch. Its driver honks furiously.
The pistol comes up.
“Hang on!” Ben slams into Drive and leans back, straight-armed, his face smeared as if by a rocket’s acceleration. The Cadillac heads straight towards the car in front of it but rises, climbing, up the hatchback and over, ascending.
“Close one,” Ben says. “You can get used to it, though. The grind.”
He looks back to see if she will give pursuit. Her lifted gun tracks the car for a time; then she lowers it, slowly, tucks the barrel beneath her face shield, and fires.
The wings shatter, feathers scattering regrets into the air, raining down on the commuters creeping through their lives.
The Cadillac flies west above the grid-locked highway. Ben glances up and asks, “Looking for your exit? Up there, huh? I’ll bet it’s that patch of blue, isn’t it? No worries, we’ll find it, when the time comes.”
The city’s towers stand like upraised swords, bathed in the bloody sun of a new day.
Ben leads the way through the dank underground garage. Torches flickering in sconces light the way.
Around a corner, a shining door awaits. Ben steps forward and punches the Up button. The mirrored surface momentarily reveals a wasted figure in a hospital gown, trailing tubes, a leaking ostomy bag at his side.
The door slides open soundlessly. Inside, the carriage is five-sided and featureless. The door closes, plunging the car into darkness. The elevator shudders and rises into the harsh fluorescent light of the next floor.
The car is completely transparent. The headquarters is an open floor plan: aisles radiate away in five directions, lined with cubicles, occupants bent over displays. Wires at their wrists and jaws lead up to the ceiling and through it.
The lift continues to ascend, floor after floor of workers, each tied to the workers below, bound by wires leading to the floors above. Ben waggles his hands next to his ears and sticks out his tongue.
“Mirrored. They can’t see us—they don’t even know if we’re here. Doesn’t matter; they know someone might be watching, so they behave.”
The floors grow smaller as the lift ascends, the bindings heavier and heavier with the weight of their direct reports.
Ben sighs. “God, I miss this place. So glad I could bring you here, to see it all.”
The elevator stops.
“You know, if there’s an afterlife, heaven or hell, I hope it’s a corporation.”
He steps out. “We’ll stop at HR first, get you a guest badge.”
Past dull-eyed admins Ben steps to a glass-walled office with drawn blinds. He knocks.
“What?” comes a voice from within. A low moan ends with the wet sound of a slap.
“Visitor pass,” Ben announces, with a wink.
Ben swings the heavy glass door aside and leads the way. The office is spacious. At the center is a low couch in Moroccan leather, burgundy, with a man tied spread-eagle across it. The Director stands before the couch, resplendent in her matching crimson corset. Her eyes gleam eagerly behind her mask.
“You’re supposed to be on medical leave.” She steps around the table, stiletto heels clicking on the marble floor.
“I’m just visiting, and—”
“Not malingering, are you?” She slaps her riding crop into a gloved palm. “Do I have to arrange for an intervention?”
The employee on the bed squeals as the crop hits his thigh.
“Just a visitor pass for my…visitor.”
The Director smiles sweetly. “Why didn’t you say so? I was just finishing a performance review.” She nods at the supine man.
Her arms jerk up, tugged by the chrome wires ascending into the ceiling. Her hands come together, and she bows. “Pleased to meet you.”
The Director tears the paper label from her victim’s hairy chest. He squeaks. “This will do.”
It reads Hello! My name is _________ but the employee’s sweat has rendered the scrawled name illegible. She scribbles something with a marker on the tag, and presses it in place, hand lingering. Her eyes are sparkling blue marbles framed by her mask.
She runs her fingers back and forth across the tag. “All better.”
Ben clears his throat. “Must be going.” He retreats towards the elevator.
The interviewee cries, “I’ll be good!”
Ben waits for the door to open. For a moment, the tag is visible in its mirrored surface. The Director’s illegible scrawl, reversed, reads Nemo dat quod non habet.
Inside the car, the door closes, and the moans recede.
Ben shudders. “I don’t miss the performance reviews,” he says. “You alright? You look—”
The elevator opens.
The Executive suite at the apex of the tower is made of glass, revealing the cityscape beyond. Towers sway in a catastrophic breeze. The sky is full of tumbling shapes: human shapes.
“Are you going to just stand there staring out the window?”
The CEO sits naked in his Executive Chair. He is so obese as to appear genderless, or equi-gendered. He is entangled in a web of wires, wound around fingers, toes, and private parts, piercing his cheeks, lips, tongue, eyelids, ears. Every movement of his body is reflected in the corporate body below.
The CEO’s voice is dry, a tape hiss. “Report.”
Ben stammers and launches into his speech. “It’s like this—I’m dying, sir; this is just delaying the end.”
“Dying?” The CEO’s laughter is dry leaves over broken pavement. “Macht nicht. We all die. Only the Corporation lives on.”
He gathers a handful of loose wires. “You need to stay connected if you’re going to be effective.” The wires are seeping blood, for they are tubes. “Here.”
“I can’t work.”
“Explain yourself.” The deep-sunk eyes hunger for information.
“I just came to say, I have cancer. It’s incurable.”
The CEO heaves himself erect and gestures with a bloated gray hand. “You don’t look so sick to me. Slacker.”
“This is just an altered mental status; partly the drugs, partly the cryostasis.”
“Drugs will do that, young man—alter your mind. No harm, blowing off steam, but you pay the price.”
Ben shakes his head. “The cancer treatment, I mean.”
“I think you’re malingering. Underachieving. Slacking off.”
“No, really—I miss this place, but I’m not here to work.”
“Go, then! I cast you out!” With an outflung arm, the CEO sends Ben skidding towards the translucent wall. Ben’s flailing hand catches the walland holds.
The wall dissolves, and he is flung into the maelstrom beyond the shelter of the corporate headquarters.
“I was afraid of this!” Ben shouts over the roar of the wind. “Afraid of it all my life! Termination!”
Ben tumbles in the currents then rights himself with outstretched arms.
“Like this,” he says. “Follow me.”
The winds carry Ben out of the city and onward, past the coast and out to sea. With the human center far behind, the winds calm.
“This isn’t so bad,” Ben says. “No more fear.”
The swirling edge of a vast whirlpool looms ahead, an abyss whose far edge is beyond the horizon. Ben leans over to fly the margin. “Ah, except for this.”
A stream of bodies, spinning randomly, head down into the darkness and disappear.
“The Big C. This is it—the end.” Darkness looms at its heart.
“Don’t look down there—don’t stare. It doesn’t like it when you stare!”
The ocean around the vortex is an angry white. Countless people disappear into the quiet emptiness of the storm’s eye, their voices joined in an endless chorus.
We’ll meet again…
The soft blackness is touched with an infinity of tiny lights: atoms, stars, galaxies, or souls.
“Look at me!” Ben sends them skidding into the whirlpool of darkness. But then his hands fly open and he drifts away.
“It’s nothing personal!”
Ben swims upward, into the aperture of roiling sky. Above him appears a disturbance: a pair of eyes, the irises a variegated blue, the pupils an empty black—
The woman on the table groans.
“She’s coming around.”
“Hey…” someone else says. “That’s right—you’re back.”
She stares into the blue eyes. “You’re…you’re…”
“You know me.” The neuro-oncologist frowns. “Stanitz.”
“Of course.” She clears her throat, blinks, shakes her head. “Sorry. I…How long?”
He consults his tablet. “Seventy-three seconds.”
“Amazing. It seemed like hours…in there.”
“We were prepared to let you stay longer, but…”
“What happened?” She tries to sit up but flails comically. “I feel…different. And my voice—do I sound…never mind. What happened?”
Stanitz’s glance at the others in the hospital room tells it all. The wife sobs extravagantly, consoled by the balding friend of the family; the children, teens, tap on handsets, oblivious.
She twists around to the adjacent bed, where an inert shape lies, covered in a sheet. A technician removes the hypothermic inducer from the corpse, humming absently to himself.
… don’t know where, don’t know when…
“No. I mean…” To me?
“Ben is dead,” Stanitz says. “It was so sudden—we were worried about you—being in there while it happened—so we pulled you out—emergency withdrawal. Just in the nick of time, I suppose.”
Coitus interruptus. She tears her gaze from the body to look at the wife, and sighs.
“Of course.” She swings her legs off the edge of the instrumented bed and peels the transducers from her shaved head, the electrodes from her chest. Blonde hair drifts in front of her eyes as she pauses to stare beneath her gown.
The doctor taps a note on his tablet. “Obviously, no urgency to your report, now; it’s moot. Don’t think it’s a waste; we’ll use your analysis in our research.”
Stanitz reaches over, solicitous, eager to touch her.
“It was so sudden,” he repeats. “Ben seemed like such a fighter; I thought his spirit was…indomitable.”
A sound escapes her throat: a laugh struggling with a sob, emerging as a cough.
“I just want to go home; get a shower and some sleep.”
“Of course.” Stanitz nods. “It must have been frightening. Just know…I’m here if you need someone—you know, to talk it over.”
She sees the family friend staring with hungry curiosity and pulls her hospital gown close.
“Sorry for your loss,” she says to no one in particular.
* * *
J. L. Royce is an author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest, exploring the wilderness without and within. His work appears in Allegory, Fifth Di, Fireside, Ghostlight, Love Letters to Poe, Lovecraftiana, Mysterion, parABnormal, Sci Phi, Strange Aeon, Utopia, Wyldblood, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at: www.jlroyce.com.