Story art by Anton Oxenuk.
From the editor:You wake up, wires surrounding your head like a halo. You try to speak, but mechanical chirps emerge instead of words. The world may have ended, but your new life has just begun. This haunting story comes from author Ben Serna-Grey, a musician, writer, and fiction reviewer living in the Pacific Northwest.
From the author: My first piece published by an actual literary journal, and also the one that marked a substantial uptick in quality in my opinion. This is the one that made me think "oh hey I might actually have something here," and it still has a soft spot in my heart. Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Two Cities Review.
I woke up with months of my life missing, your beard and hair streaked with stripes of gray, heavy bags under your eyes. You told me to just lie still for a while. I stared at the ceiling while I felt tingles run up my arms and legs, and my vision filled with flakes of static.
I wasn’t breathing.
You came over to me and motioned for me to sit up. I slowly pushed up into a sitting position. “Do you remember me? It’s John.” You came in and pressed a light kiss to my lips. In the window I saw myself reflected, the dingy light from the bulb hanging from the ceiling sheathing me in a dirty aura. Wires splayed out of my head like a halo, my eyes shined too perfectly. I dimly remembered that I used to wear glasses. I wasn’t breathing.
You said it had been about half a year while your eyes kept flittering around, unable to sustain contact with mine. “There was that project I was working on before . . . well it’s not like there’s anyone who could use it now and I was so alone. . . .” You looked down at the floor. “I’m still not sure how you’re going to react overall. The brain in there’s made from top-of-the-line solid-state technology, so you’re going to get faster the more you work it.” I tried to work my vocal cords but only some small squeaks came out. I didn’t remember how to talk. “You’re going to be acting a little stupid for a bit until you strengthen your neural connections. It’s kind of like you’re a baby again.”
By the end of the day I was able to walk again. Soon seconds felt like an eternity and years passed by like minutes. I remember in that first week you brought Jacks to me. The old bunny couldn’t smell humanity on me, only the metallic, oily tang of machinery and synthetic skin and he was scared. I tried to pet him and I felt bones break with a loud pop. That was the first time I heard the scream rabbits make when they’re scared and in pain. We tried to nurse him back to health but the bones had punctured his lungs and you ended up breaking his neck to save him from suffering. We buried him outside by the old pine tree, a tiny plot and wooden cross. I tried to weep that night but no tears came out and strange mechanical chirping poured out of my mouth. It burned.
Every day you turned on the computer for a couple of hours and you downloaded everything you could onto these huge hard drive towers that fill the house now. You told me you were trying to get as much information as you could before the internet went down for good. Before the rainy season came and the solar cells on the roof would lose most of their use. After a while I was able to talk again and we sat for long hours outside chatting, watching the waves come in and out as we sat on the cliffs in isolation. We would sit at the table and you would talk while you ate—vegetables from the garden, some mushrooms you foraged, maybe a wild rabbit you trapped. I hated it. Our conversations felt so unnatural. I felt drugged as words crawled by at a painfully slow pace and my tin can voice would shriek out of my mouth in counterpoint to your cow-stupid lowing. What kind of conversations are you supposed to have when everything is dead or dying?
At times I would stand up in the middle of you talking and walk out to the rabbit pen. I knew you were breeding them mostly for food but you stopped because you remembered how much I loved bunnies. Kella was still alive but I could tell she was missing Jacks. She was sitting in a box swaddled with thick wool blankets feeding a new litter of kits. When she stopped freezing with fear at the sight of me and let me touch her I was so relieved. I could only give just the softest touch or I would break her. This body was monstrous and I hated myself.
One day I tried to jump off the cliffs and into the sea but I found myself unable to actually step off the edge. Later that night I tried to plunge a knife into my neck. I raised my arm and brought it down with all my strength and the blade stopped just before it would have pierced me. When you slept I downloaded your logs from the months when I was out, dimly hoping you wouldn’t wake up, dimly hoping you would. I found out you had programmed in a safety feature that made it so I would be unable to intentionally hurt myself. I think part of you knew that I would feel like a beast. Like a freak. I missed Jacks. I didn’t know if I still loved you.
In the blink of an eye years had gone by. Your hair was more salt than pepper. We were watching the water from the window. On the walls were paintings of this area, young and beautiful brown deckhands and stevedores with corded muscles and wide backs, sweat and saltwater glinting off of them as they worked. I leaned over and kissed you and you returned the kiss, slightly surprised. We stayed like this for a while, your hot, wet sloppy tongue jittering across my synthetic one, catching in random moments of friction like skin that had just been washed. Then I climbed on top of you and ripped open your shirt while you took off your pants, and then I fucked you, shuddering at the feel of the automated system pumping out a dollop of synthesized lubricant. It didn’t quite feel like it was supposed to, like I remembered, but it was something. Then I leaned over to kiss you and I grabbed your arm and heard a sick snap. You started screaming and I opened my eyes to see a shockingly white shard of bone jutting out of your forearm. You had to splint yourself out of fear that I would break more of your bones. That arm never healed right; forever it sloped into a slight angle.
After your arm had healed, despite your knees beginning to lose cartilage and the arthritis developing in your hands and feet, you took me out to the old town to go scavenging with you. I had cloudy memories of the sound of cars swishing by on the roads and airplanes occasionally roaring overhead. Now everything was eerily quiet; the calls of songbirds became shockingly loud in the silence. We carried backpacks and we would walk into empty homes and buildings and steal supplies. I say steal as if there was anyone left, as if you weren’t the last man on earth and as if you hadn’t trapped me in the an immortal body. You walked us over to the radio tower where you had hooked up solar cells and we climbed up into the control room. You slowly checked all the frequencies but there was only silence and static. Occasionally I thought I heard muffled voices in my head but I pushed it down, dismissed it as worthless hope.
Off in the distance I saw swaths of forest yellowing and dying off. When I asked you about it you said that the unmanned factories and power plants were dumping pollutants into the earth as they decayed. There would be a brief period of sickness followed by a bounce back as nature reclaimed its stake. You never really did tell me what happened. I had to find out about it years later. After we were finally able to fuck without me breaking you. After we were no longer able to have sex because you had grown old. After your hair started falling out and you began to look like a wrinkling and moldy piece of fruit.
A while back I went into town and took a radio, which I hooked up to the solar cells before they had fully decayed. I would turn it on and micrometer by micrometer I would turn the dial until I thought I could hear those muffled sounds again. Old talk shows. The Beatles. Classical music. Public radio. I figured that whatever I was hearing must have been broadcasts that were somehow left over or replaying. Or too far away for me to bother trying to find where they were coming from.
You used to like reading books and doing puzzles, but one day, after so many long seconds and short years, your hands began to shake and your faculties started to fail you. I remembered when I met you, so long ago. You were a dockhand in Seattle , with strong slabs of muscle in your back like the beautiful brown boys in the paintings. You were paying your way through college, computer engineering. I was working freelance as a graphic designer while I finished my fine arts degree and we met in one of the common core classes. You always sat next to me and we got to know each other, started having coffee after class. I miss the taste of coffee. I miss food and drink and shitting and coughing and salivating and breathing. When we graduated you asked me to marry you and I said yes, so long ago now.
It wasn’t long after you started failing that you passed away. You had me come to your side as you lied in bed and you had me read Leaves of Grass to you until you died. When you died, after so long of being unable to get it up no matter how much I kissed you or gyrated on you, an erection reared up and tented the blankets. I walked outside and began digging your plot next to the little bunny graveyard. A poppa grave and all its little children, a field of tiny wooden crosses. The thought made me begin giggling while I dug, the vocal synthesizer overloaded into multiphonics and chromatic clusters.
Did you know that the sense of smell in this thing isn’t very good? I couldn’t smell you rotting as you aged. There was a part of me that wanted to remember that decaying smell of the dead and dying. It wanted to take pleasure in the scent of you wasting away.
When I finally dragged you out to the plot, along with the sheets from the bed, freshly shat in after you died, and I buried you it began to rain. Poetry from the earth. I built a headstone from a thick piece of PVC sheeting and I carved lines from your favorite Whitman poem: Neither a servant nor a master am I, I take no sooner a large price than a small price . . . I will have my own whoever enjoys me, I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.
Moss and grass and flowers grow over your plot now, even overtaking your bone-white plastic headstone. The rabbits are all gone. They stopped mating until there was only one lop-eared doe left. She was sweet and kindly and rubbed in close despite my machine smell. She died in her sleep and made the final miniature plot and small wooden cross. Large dark clouds cover the sky but bring no rain. Animals flock here and lie calmly in wait as they waste away. The trees have begun shrugging off their leaves and turning brittle and gray. The moss is drying up. It is as if all life that is left has gathered here in this place to lie down and with one final, exhausted breath, die. And I have to watch.
Alone. Unable to end it all.
This story originally appeared in Two Cities Review.