From the author: Hell isn't just other people. You are them, and they are you.
An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →
Last week, I was Esther. I remember her plump face, pearl earrings, and huge handbag, stuffed with treats for her grandchildren—as stuffed as she was inside, with sweetmeats and perfumed memories of the postwar years. I’ve tended to pursue older people for a while, with their minds full of experiences. Dementia patients don’t work, though. When I’m them, I’m even more confused as to who I am, than I usually feel.
And then we get hungry again.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. People rarely entirely go away even after their life-energy’s been expended. Their echoes join the chorus of voices clamoring in my mind. When I close my eyes, I’m the sea, and they’re the waves. Except the sea is the waves, and the waves are the sea. Sometimes we’re divided against each other. Sometimes they’re me and I’m them, passing like water through water. Once in a while, I can see a tiny bit of flotsam being sucked under a towering whitecap, and I wonder who or what that part of me once was.
Being Esther was a problem. She wanted to see her grandkids, wanted to kiss the tops of their heads and smell shampoo and sweet skin. I could feel myself expanding out to take up her shape—no wrinkles, of course, since I don’t age, but her general size and conformation. I’d been lean and short for the last month, while I was Leon. Now, I could feel my hair growing, brushing my cheeks in dark, glossy waves. Leon had shaved his head to conceal his premature baldness.
Thing is, people don’t usually recognize me. At least, my kids and grandkids don’t. A wedding photo from 1944, browning at the edges, isn’t something that they recognize as real. Grandma or Grandpa, with gray hair and creased faces? Those are just barely more real than photos to the young. And back before photography, not many people could afford portraiture, and it wasn’t as if paintings were accurate. All that artistic license. Back then, I might have encountered a friend who’d known me from the cradle, and they’d have jumped a bit, then laughed nervously and tell me I was the spitting image of someone. And things could be smoothed over.
That’s another reason I usually prefer older people. It’s just easier to walk off as an unknown young person, leaving an old corpse behind.
Old corpses. The thought triggered a flicker of memory from some long-gone battlefield. Not the clean black-and-white images captured by News Parade cameras and shown before movies. Men and women lying dead in a cobblestone street, where a burning sun beat down from behind sere brown mountains. Colorful robes, sticky with the same blood that ran in the gutter. A dead horse, fallen and bloated in its traces. A city wall, breached. The cries of the dying—
Esther’s breath caught in my throat, choked by memories not her own as we followed the chain-link fence outside the school. She fought them down, knowing that they weren’t hers, were no part of her. You don’t get to erase me, she thought, not yet. I’m going to see my grandchildren. My legacy. My testament that I was here on this earth, the only thing that time can’t efface.
The chorus howled, “They’ll scream and run if you walk up to them looking like this and say ‘give Grammy a kiss.’” Other voices yelped, “You’re going to say I could just eat you up, and you’ll do just that, and then we’ll be them. And they’ll be in here with us! Do you want that?”
Esther—I—stood at the edge of the playground, watching. Security guards came to talk to me as her tears streaked down my face. I babbled something about not being able to have children of my own, and they walked me off the property to ensure I wouldn’t do something insane, like stealing one of the kids.
Or eating them. Becoming them.
Not that they knew about that part, of course.
Esther’s loving heart was a liability. She worried about her husband, Tommy, past eighty and alone in their apartment. About how he was taking her disappearance. Her relentless compulsion to make sure he was eating. She’d been a nurse since the war years. Taking care of other people was what she did, and what she did was who she was. Another reason to like older people. Younger people did nothing, made nothing, were nothing but a collection of online tribal identity markers. As hollow as I was myself.
But being her was exhausting.
At her tiny apartment, Tommy stood in the doorframe, shock written on his leathery face. “Esther?” he whispered. “Are you a ghost?”
I gave him a kiss on the cheek, as bashful as a bride, and teased, “Does that feel like a ghost, sweetie?”
Stunned, he let us in, and I put on her apron and made dinner. An old Depression-era standby, corned beef hash on toast. Bypassed his querulous, angry questions as best I could. But Esther’s damned soft heart broke when he growled, “So you get the Fountain of Youth treatment, and I get to die of old age?”
“No, sweetie,” I whispered, her tears springing easily to my eyes again. “I’m going to make sure you get a shot at it, too. I can’t live without you.”
And as Tommy lowered his head over his plate, I leaned down and Esther gave him a kiss at the back of the neck. Just like when they’d been twenty. And then I bit down, tearing through skin, gristle, and bone for the sweet taste of brainstem. He shouted, but couldn’t move, paralyzed instantly as my tongue slid into the hole and split into the thousand filaments of ribbon that infiltrate a brain to let me feed.
And as Esther sank down into the dark abyss of the chorus, and I remembered the smell of grease and diesel exhaust, the drone of a thousand engines lifting off from an airfield in the South Pacific. I took an exploratory first step, the ghost of a limp halting my stride. The memory of old shrapnel in the knee, twisting the flesh tight. Tommy’s anger boiled up inside me even as Esther’s curves flattened into the whipcord-lean body he’d had when rations had been short and he’d been sweating his ass off in the Marshall Islands.
His rage tastes like copper on my tongue as he upbraids his wife silently, “You couldn’t live without me, so you kill me? What kind of messed up romantic bullshit is that, Esther? I’m fine without the arthritis, but I didn’t ask you to drag me down into hell with you. I kind of figured I’d get there on my own.” I straightened my shoulders. “At least when it’s my turn, I’m going to have the courtesy to kill someone that I hate, not someone I’m supposed to love.”
She wept in the chorus, all those tears that have always come so easily to her. A twinge of guilt in Tommy, but at least they weren’t dampening my cheeks as I limped around the house, cleaning up his old body. The chorus, however, roiled in agitation. Tommy was a strong personality. They remembered strong personalities. They knew the trouble we get into, when we’re one of them.
Weaker personalities are easier. Sometimes one of them (not like Esther; her love was so strong it made her dangerous) will crumble and sink into the abyss, leaving no one in charge. And that’s worse than absorbing the mind of a dementia patient. Then I’m just a black hole filled with voices, an automaton that shambles the streets speaking in tongues. I’ve wound up in asylums that way.
Most modern young doctors think it’s a put-on when I talk to them in medieval Italian. But back in the twenties, spiritualists who believed in reincarnation and past-life migration, would try to get me to talk to ghosts. If there’s a god, he must have a sense of humor. I could have let those earnest young spiritualists talk to any number of ghosts just by opening my mouth. But I’d been wary. After all, I’d had too many run-ins over the centuries with equally earnest young priests, with their talk of demonic possession and exorcism.
I wasn’t possessed by demons. I’m possessed by humans.
Sometimes I find it easier to deal with the chorus when I’m a strong personality. The waves of their voices pound against a tough mind like a stone jetty, immobile and fixed. Being them can be a relief. Except when they’re a liability.
Sooner or later, we’re all a liability.
I finished wrapping the old corpse in plastic garbage bags. No emotion in Tommy at the sight of his wrinkled body beyond a thank god that’s over. That disturbed the chorus. No one ever thinks that way about their own body. They swallow their gorge. They shake. They weep. Not Tommy.
With him, it was all is there a furnace in the basement to burn this? Hmm, not like the kids have dropped by in the last year. They’re pictures on a wall to me. Not like Esther, always having to be involved in everything—they saw enough of her, though, that they might notice if weeks go by and she hasn’t pestered them. A month, then. Plenty of time to enjoy this.
The chorus didn’t like that. Too much pragmatism. Too much lust for life, mixed with cold indifference. They’ve sometimes united to pull down someone they found dangerous to our continued survival, and placed an older personality back in charge, burning out the last echo of that person’s life-energy to do so. I hate it when they do that. I hate waking up in a bed and not knowing who I am.
They lunged for his memories, trying to learn him, to discover how to work him, manipulate him. Found images of men dying in the South Pacific, of his own wounding. He fought them, refusing to look, and then they pushed too hard, and I was drowning in them, becoming someone I didn’t know, didn’t remember—
—marching in the line of troops promised by my lord to the Pope, passing through the cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Reaching Byzantium with its smell of olive oil and strange spices, the clamor of voices in a dozen languages. Footsore, boarding ships to take us to the Holy Land. Bright banner flapping proudly from my lords lance, the red cross on the white field reminding us why we were here.
Tommy fought it. I fought it. We all recoiled with the sudden awareness that under the waves of the abyss, darker things lurked.
—Hearing of the massacres perpetrated by the serfs of the Peasants’ Crusade who’d crossed through Europe ahead of us, against Jews who’d been offered sanctuary within an archbishop’s palace . . . hearing them glory in it as they swilled ale in Byzantium? Made me feel unclean. And yet, to take up the Cross meant redemption from any sin . . . .
The chorus dragged the memories back down to benthic depths, and then we stood there in Tommy’s apartment over his dead body, panting. “No more of that shit,” he growled, and I agreed.
We dumped the body in the furnace as he assimilated the information he needed to ensure our survival. With him in us, we’ve got a month before we need to eat again, and suddenly, I’ve got ideas of how to spend those days. I’ve been a miserable old bastard, confined to a dying body for decades. I’m going to make use of how long I’m here.
Instead of surveying old folk’s homes, I cruised clubs to dance with these modern girls and boys. So soft and pretty and filled with high ideals. Stuffed with the conviction that they’re different from everyone who’s ever gone before, just as stuffed as Esther had been with love. I laughed up my sleeve. They’re the same as every other generation. Old insecurities and twitching neuroses hidden behind new names and false pride. When I took them home, back to where I’ve shoved the old twin beds together, I sated appetites that Esther never knew I had.
But I detested these soft young things in my bed, their wide eyes at the furniture that they admiringly called “retro” or “upcycled from someone’s yardsale—awesome.” We wondered if eating them would taste like veal—bland, soft, and formless. Maybe an immigrant instead? Someone with the taste of struggle and sacrifice on them? Or maybe a politician, someone well-seasoned with power? Someone whose life I could lead profitably for a month.
The chorus protested, Esther, especially. “You were a good man,” she mourned as the others shouted, “Don’t feed on anyone who’ll be missed. Do you want to wind up in jail?”
That gave him a little pause. It’d been a while since I’d been anyone who relished living the way Tommy did, and it had made me reckless. I could remember my last stint in a prison, back in 1965, when I was Vernon Freeman, a black man who’d campaigned for equal rights.
The chorus flung Vernon’s memories at us, to try to scare Tommy into submission. Steel-toed boots colliding with our kidneys, the coppery taste of blood in our mouth. Eyes too swollen to open, unable to do more than try to hold our arms up over our head in meager self-defense—
—and then some barrier inside us breaks, and I’m in some Byzantine street, and I’ve said something shit-stupid to a group of drunk German peasants, whose eyes show white all around, because forty thousand untrained serfs encountered trained, armed Turks, and were slaughtered almost to the last man. My words echo in the air: “Maybe God judged you for having murdered those Jews,” and then they’re on me, kicking and punching and I fall to the cobblestones, bleeding—
—and Vernon fell in his cell, dying—
And the chorus howled and dragged us out of it. Made us remember how we’d put on Abigail Blake’s blond hair and cut-glass British accent, demanding through bleeding lips to be released from this American jail forthwith. We’d accused the police guards of all kinds of things, and they were so rightfully terrified of the repercussions to their jobs that they couldn’t get rid of us fast enough.
Vernon had chortled gleefully in the chorus, laughter made of bitterness and delight at once. But once out of the police station, Abigail had been helpless—the last vehicle she’d used had been a respectable landau in Victoria’s reign. She had no idea how to drive a Plymouth. So we’d brought up Francois Deveraux, whom I’d been briefly during the Nazi occupation of France. He knew how to drive. How not to draw attention.
And then I’d had to rest for months, burning through the last echoes of personas, unable to hunt. Rapid body swaps take energy. The chorus had bickered over the decision to be Vernon in the first place all the while. But I hadn’t been able to resist being him, at least for a little while. He’d been so rich with passion and anger, the kind of tangy emotion I so rarely get to taste. It’s safer being quiet souls. The kind who drift, lost, through life.
Vernon had also been a good man. I hadn’t been able to remember the last time I’d been a good person. Probably the same urge that had made me reach out for Esther, come to think of it. The grind of banal lives and petty resentments gets tedious over the centuries. And no era has ever been as petty as the current one. A solid reason to hunger for saints and martyrs, even though I can’t possibly deserve to be one of them. Not even for a little while.
But in spite of all those cautionary memories, Tommy wanted to feel alive again, as he hadn’t for years. When I go out, I want it to be memorable. A monument to my existence. Something better than a slot in a veteran’s cemetery and a funeral that no one attends. You’ll be my living testament. All of you. All of us.
He just couldn’t decide, however, who we were going to be next. His only criterion was that he had to hate the person enough to kill them. And he had too many options. The teenagers down the street with their skateboards and facial piercings, for instance. But they were annoyances, not worth the risk of eating. “They’re a moment on the lips! They have no experience! And that’s what we need, or we’ll have to eat someone else within a week. Pick someone at least forty!” the chorus demanded.
Then one morning, I woke up in a bed that I know wasn’t my own. And I had no idea who I was, or how I’d gotten there.
I got up and stared at myself in a mirror, at a head as bald as a cancer survivor’s, the shape of all the lovely bones underneath the skin visible and stark. I stared into my own eyes, which shifted from brown to green to blue as I watched. Skin? A rather sickly gray—as gray as I felt right now, a cloud hanging where my mind should be. I licked my dry lips and wandered around my room—surely a hotel room—picking up the belongings there. Men’s clothing, too big for my frame. A wallet, with a driver’s license belonging to elderly man, Tommy. . . .
Understanding flickered back, with the first whispers of the chorus. Right. I’d been Tommy, but I wasn’t anyone right now—
“Tommy was a liability.” The voices became louder.
I sat numbly on the edge of the bed. Was this who I was? Was this the base person, or was this an amalgam self, eroded fragments thousands of minds, washing up like sand on a shore? Or was I nothing but an empty shell, filled with the voices of the damned and dead?
Hunger pooled at the base of my skull, the aching longing to be someone. To be filled up by them, if only for a little while. But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t motivate myself towards the room’s wretched door. “You have to eat,” the chorus snarled at me with the voices of Vernon and Abigail and Esther: “When you don’t eat, you turn into a monster, feeding without control. We want no part of it, the wantonness, death after death, with no real choice in who we kill, who we become.” Another set of voices, Leon and Francois and others, hissing: “If you don’t eat, we die with you. We don’t want to die, even though you killed us. Get up!”
I closed my eyes against their demands. Maybe I wasn’t the monster. Maybe their combined drive for survival, the human thirst to go on, was the monster. Maybe they’d . . . been me, as much as I’d been them. Maybe they’d made me what I was, the sum of all their parts.
It was hard to think, with all their voices screaming, my mind hazy as morning fog. I got leadenly to my feet and went to the window. Outside, I saw a twenty-story drop, but of course the casements didn’t open. Safety standards.
The sight triggered a memory. Dim, but somehow truer than anything the chorus had ever shown me. Seeing my hands set colored pieces of glass in lead frames. Setting the finished window in place, my skin dyed ruby and sapphire by the light streaming through the tiny mosaic pieces.
I’d been someone else then. Someone whose hands were calloused both by work and by swords. Someone whose mind shied away from memories of foul deeds done in the name of God. My lord rode for Antioch, and I followed. My sword red-slick—the Turks bled the same color as any other men; their dying cries sounded just as piteous. The stench of open bowel and dying hands reaching for my legs as I helped carry the wounded out of the field. Save us. Save us. Please, god, save us, we don’t want to die.
I blinked, hearing the distant roar of the chorus, clamoring that they didn’t want to die. How many souls had I carried with me in darkness? Was I saving them? Was I damned by them?
My lord dying two years after having claimed Antioch for his own, fighting not the Turks, but the Byzantines and other Crusader lords over who held claim to which lands.
Walking the long roads home. Knowing in my heart that there could be no forgiveness for lives taken in an unjust cause. Understanding that the war had never been fought for God, but for earthly power and riches.
Breath fought for admittance in my constricted throat. My chest burned. Still no name. I’d been someone who wanted to sink into obscurity, to drown in it. Days spent listening to the monks sing their prayers as he made beautiful things for them. The words of God, rendered into glass. Images that replaced the intolerable visions in his head. Labor as penance.
Then I remembered looking through the window as my hands worked, to where the Bishop had some poor altar boy over the altar itself. Remembered shouting down at him to stop. He’d looked up at me, his mouth round with shock And then I’d tumbled through the half-set window, light falling in colored shards around me in the long descent towards the marble floor. My last thoughts before the pain of impact, I should have died before I returned home to find that evil was everywhere. That there was no salvation for what I’d seen and done, no salvation for who I’d been or become . . . .
I looked up, seeing the Bishop above me—reaching down to administer last rites? No, he held my mouth and nose closed, because I’d seen, I knew, and he couldn’t take the chance that I’d speak. As my agonized breath strangled in my chest, I prayed that he’d know what true horror was, the horror he’d inflicted on others.
Then he screamed, and I was him, holding down my first/not-first dying body, panicking because I knew that I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t him, I was something between the two, neither man, nor beast, nor angel . . . .
. . . and then I fell through those memories as if through glass, and I was Ermolao Famizi, and I hadn’t breathed fresh air since the Crusades. I wobbled, backing away from the clear glass and the long fall, staring at all the strange, magic devices in this huge, rich room with its strange smells, and I shook in terror.
It was the voices that steadied me. Voices like angels, like devils. A chorus of the damned. They reminded me of all the wonders I’d seen in the past thousand years. Told me I was one of them. “Don’t be a liability. Get this body moving. Downstairs.” To where there were other people to meet. Other people to be.
Inexorably, their voices moved me forward. Longing for blessed nonexistence, I gave the clear glass of the windows a steady look. I could end it. I could end all of us. But we were being punished; we were all punishing each other, the guilty and the damned. To try to escape our penance might be as much a sin as continuing to endure it. As continuing to inflict it.
No! they clamored, clinging to life. No! We want to live! You took our lives from us once—you have no right to take them again.
But I hadn’t. I’d never taken any of them. My own had been taken from me. And after a thousand years of penance, did I not deserve freedom? Had they not, by putting me back in charge of this body, given me the right to choose?
They clamored and struggled. Tried to wrest control back from me as my fingers sought window latches that weren’t there. And then they rose up as one, overwhelming me like the tide of men rising up over Antioch’s walls on siege ladders. Their dead hands clutched at me like the hands of the men dying in the fields, begging me to save them, too.
And I sank down under them once more, subsumed, but with one last, lingering thought: Someday, we will all be free.
This story originally appeared in Pseudopod.