Away

I was made of years piled up.

I was eyes falling through time.

There had been a strange but not unpleasant smell of bitter peppermint, then my mind split into a hundred minds that all slumped into darkness and drowned.

On the bed, somebody lay in my space, breathing with my lungs and seeing with my eyes, surrounded by everyday objects whose functions seemed hopelessly abstract and theoretical.

A jeweled melody slithered around.

Had music been playing all along?

This song was a favorite, but now I’d never heard it before.

Framed in a window, the penthouse of a distant high-rise resembled the top of an armored vehicle.

Then it drove away, leaving behind a steamrolled sky.

The music watered me until I could stand again.

*

The apartment and its contents had once been mine, but now they belonged to someone else, and they exuded the strangeness and hostility of all foreign possessions.

Those blind mirrors. That living ghost.

I had to get out before the owner returned.

His shoes reminded me of a pair I used to own.

They fit perfectly.

*

In the elevator’s mirrors, three copies of me imitated my expressions.

One copy gaped slackly, paralyzed by what he saw.

But I didn’t feel horrible.

I felt very far away.

It was as if I were ten meters behind my eyes.

As if my eyes were circular windows through which I glimpsed crescent rinds of reality.

I closed my eyes till the ding.

*

I was walking down to a harbor.

The clouds red. The water red.

All the buildings empty.

Doors angling into rooms with barred windows.

Litter beetling over sleeping streets.

There would be no one ever again.

Just me, forever.

And the one red gull that followed me shrieking.

In slow-motion I chased a single thought around the double-windowed room of my skull.

I opened my eyes every few minutes to a new display.

Briefly I saw one of my faces flattened on a car window.

A concrete orca burst up through the urbanscape and solidified as its jaws snapped shut. On its vertical flanks sprouted balconies, and in its rectangular ribcage many lights came on simultaneously.

When I released my breath, the people would return.

I held my breath till the pavement inflated.

*

But when I allowed in people, they were all wrong.

Like piano keys they lined the streets, and my passing plunked them.

I threw my head from side to side and the players sprang and fell, displaying exactly the features I would have imagined.

Everyone looked like someone I knew, though their faces were only many-sided origami sculptures with fewer details than some virtual characters, their noses and ears barely present, their hyperrealistic eyes aflame with visionary intensity.

An old friend leaned against a wall, staring vacantly.

Someone shuffled by with odd violence, as if fast-forwarded.

It occurred to me—with a total lack of emotion—that I might be trapped in a simulation constructed from the contents of my own consciousness.

Was that why nothing felt real?

*

Then a familiar smell slid into my nostrils.

Ghastly, rotten and sweet:

Bitter peppermint.

*

My brain stopped filtering reality.

All sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings assaulted me at once, and in all that buzzing rumbling thudding sparkling modulating droning inane brilliance, there was no spacetime to comprehend any individual corner, no handhold for any understanding.

No one could think with all that world in the way.

Every surface rushed at me, and each fractured facet reflected a pair of my panicked eyes, and my own likeness in various costumes fanned out like a glass tarot deck falling toward me.

But just before impact and explosion, the reality shards froze, stuttered, and ran in reverse, and the world unbroke like a window.

Dizzy I stepped from the curb and landed in the middle of a shallow river. Atop a bridge a ramrod figure in a gas mask, silhouetted against a flesh sun, brought up one arm and pointed at me.

I looked at the finger. The finger looked at me.

Everything became an image of itself.

*

I don’t remember how I was taken.

It all went by in pieces:

A window seat in a black bus.

Highways like diagrams.

Cars like icons.

Lights whipping our sides.

Checkpoints I barely registered.

Low tin buildings with white numbers.

Me slumping on a foldout chair in semi-darkness.

A cone of light widening between my legs.

The polished boots of my trainer.

*

Rules and regulations:

Precise times to sleep and wake.

The daily weightlifting. The chuffing through fields. The shaping of hands that at first did not close around what was offered.

The layer after layer of locked doors, each with a guard whose riddles were impossible.

I was not the only zero. There were thousands.

We ate nondescript food in silence in long halls.

But who could tell anyone apart?

There were inexplicable beatings, while I calmly searched inside my black-hole head for something that refused to come back.

There were the various guns. The knives and the grenades.

Every evening we inhaled from canisters of bitter peppermint.

And there was no one there.

Not even me.

The Best Billionaire

No one had believed Brad.

But Brad was a man of his word.

As soon as the controlling shares were transferred to his name, Brad flew to headquarters to perform the speech he’d been preparing all his youth.

He would not continue his family’s rapacious business practices.

All directors, including Brad himself, would receive a massive pay cut.

Everyone else would get a walloping raise.

Together they were going to build the world’s greatest company.

At this point, Brad’s heroic baritone was drowned out by applause.

“I should be thanking you,” he added, and sweetly smiled.

The applause went from thunderous to explosive.

This speech, the first of many, launched a fabulous career.

Every day the employees gave 120%, and afterward, in high-end bars and restaurants, they enthusiastically spread the gospel of Brad, the Best Billionaire, the Man Who Shared.

The other billionaires slithered and hissed.

A few speculated that Brad had brain damage or a tumor that was causing him to act irrationally, but most agreed that Brad was only manipulating the public in order to enrich himself in the long term—a brilliant if selfish tactic.

Everyone forgot their suspicions, however, in Brad’s cheerful and charming presence, and even fell a little in love with him, and only recovered their rage upon, say, seeing his undeniably sexy face atop yet another article about his ascendance and their moral decay.

Then came the gradual nosedive of all red fiscal arrows.

There were some irritating embargoes, and the carbon taxes plus associated migraines, and the dramatically shrunken purchasing power of certain countries so blasted they barely even qualified as countries anymore.

Brad’s employees knew lay-offs or wage reductions were coming, and some had already prepared to forgive Brad. They knew he had no choice.

But here Brad made a historical and unprecedented decision.

As a cost-cutting measure, he would fire the directors.

From now on, most decisions would be generated from bottom-up.

And not only that:

For now, all money he earned would be immediately reinvested.

That’s right: Brad’s personal profit would be zero.

He’d have to survive on what he already had.

…The applause was mountainous.

Some people cried.

But Brad didn’t smirk or bask.

He may even have been moved.

It was later rumored that Brad’s lower lip had trembled with suppressed emotion.

Long after the Fortune 500 had been scaled back to the Fortune 50, and many financially unviable parts of the country had simply been abandoned, Brad’s company—by now a many-limbed creature with a tentacle in pretty much every clam—was still expanding as steadily as the universe.

On hiring days, the queues spiraled out for blocks, with the sorts of wait-times usually reserved for refugees at borders.

It was always a scorcher.

The applicants wore shabby clothing and had the pointy features of people on government rations.

Everyone eyed each other suspiciously.

But when Brad’s personnel trotted by with free sandwiches and bottles of water, the crowd labored and managed to produce a feeble cheer.

One man, at least, was loved.

The evening news was interrupted by a special report.

Another water riot, in another crowded city with no greenery.

Brad paused the viewer and zoomed in on the individual faces.

The withered, desperate, frightened faces.

The malnourished and despairing faces.

Brad switched off the screen and turned to the colossal window.

For a minute he gazed out on his vast lawns.

Then he wept, Brad wept for the poor.

The Man Who Was Allergic To Himself

Two tiny black pyramids.

Like black sugar, but with a faintly glowing core.

Supposedly I’ll be able to taste the light.

But I’m thinking too much.

Steeling myself when I should be trying to relax.

Breathe out. In.

Without letting myself worry, I put the pyramids in my mouth.

They taste like electricity.

I’m leaning over my desk, typing one-handedly.

The keys I’m pecking look like runes embedded in jello.

Already my head is hovering above my body, engines purring; time has the consistency of clear jam, and it is no simple task to keep reality integrated.

Slopping over with stars, the kitchen sink reflects the moon.

I risk the mirror.

Every face I’ll ever have flickers superimposed, the layers of selves shifting so that I wobble between young and old, with my hair spasming and flickering through different colors.

Hours coat my cheeks, minutes glop from my chin, seconds itch at my neckline…

Did I take too much?

No: don’t think that.

Cradling my left forearm in its fleecy cast, I climb up to my loftbed and hump awkwardly beneath the covers. Only my head protrudes from the warm cotton sea.

What did I come up here trying not to think about?

The ceiling’s hung with a zebra-waved cloth that ripples and pulses jellyfishily, the inky black stripes scurrying over smoky white stripes, mesmerizing me with undulations like liquid math.

I’m forgetting something important.

What was I supposed to remember?

The ceiling is distant as a great-great-grandfather. Immensity envelops my tiny form and yet I am gigantic, stretched like a rubber band over thirty years, with my feet in a different era than my head.

And something somewhere is rotten.

It’s hard to explain.

Sometimes randomly the rot recedes and my head floats free, spinning featherwise through sunnier realms.

But mostly my body is a sack of gibbering red goblins laughing fire, with the broken wrist a raw chicken wing folded against my chest, its stiffly limp fingers like thawing frozen shit.

Well.

Looks like I’ve fallen into my own trap, again.

No matter which way I turn my thoughts, they darken, wither, and mutate into dreadful crackling forests of mocking laughter too bitter to bear, and all while I’m being sucked to taffy in a neverending spiral into myself.

Me: the white zero of ego: swirling drain all the world empties into.

Whole cities pour through me, and the sun’s stuck in my throat.

Just to stand up I’d have to reverse the entire flow of the universe.

I crawl over and open the window.

The lampstroked night, shaking inkdrops from its shiny black pelt, leans in close to inspect me, exhaling frost that trickles blue and soothing into my lungs.

It’s vast out.

A queenly evergreen wrings her hard hair over the wiry hedge-bones. Beyond her, a stately-eyed brick schoolhouse with white brows of ornamented plasterwork sweats in his own spotlights.

Out there everything is breathing, powering up.

In here it’s all grimy spiders and greasy pans, my mind stabbing itself from all directions, and decaying thoughts hanging above me, drying on strings.

It’s obvious I have to go out.

But… is that really a good idea?

Then I’m hunched in two jackets on a streetcorner just a few meters under the sleeping sky, and there is no going back. This is too important…

Bars surround me.

Within their glass bellies, flesh gargoyles yell and cough and guffaw, gnaw bones or suck on burning roots, breathing in slow watery pink music—squashed hiphop, spiraling funk, itchy jazz.

Past the bars rises a square church tower like a middle finger flipping off the ghostly sky, which has only one enormous cloud-crowd riven with crevices, crazy jigsaw seams offering slim glimpses of a night so black it looks heavy.

Whenever someone draws near, I floor my gaze to conceal my gemstone pupils and corkscrew grin—

And all the flaming, unfurling magnificence of the night fizzles, dumped out.

I just have this feeling that if I am not exceedingly careful and in control, if I don’t plot every second, if I let my guard down and unlock my fists, even for a breath, something terrible and irrevocable will occur.

But what?

I sit cross-legged above the canal.

Dangling lanterns ring luminal bells, singing in a language of light.

Upon the black water hangs my graven image, the familiar pale round face melting into itself, staying in one place and yet forever eroding and losing its contours, an enduring frame of reference in a dissolving world.

Or is that the moon?

Yup—just the moon, the pounding and cascading moon, a cataracted eye fizzling and popping against the rippling cheek of the sky, doubled in the water, quadrupled in windows.

I stand up, and my upside-down self streaks off to lead his own adventures.

Further downstream the bridge makes a running jump over the canal and freezes in mid-air, over that goddamned moon bouncing like a puppy’s tongue.

The moon is a cursed coin I trade for coffee, to a sharky clerk who grins too wide.

I look up and away, into myself.

My eyes rearrange themselves again.

Level after level of streets stack themselves teetering, plazas and alleys spiraling around impossibly, with partiers staggering up zigzag stairs at ninety-degree angles to each other. Gargantuan bridges fork off in all directions. A train car with motionless silhouettes floats above an empty parking lot, all thoughts inside frozen into a solid block.

On a concrete ledge I gather a handful of dust whiskery and hostile with micronized glass. From my hand crumble cities, flinging out streetlamps and traffic signs as they sparkle down into the water.

Along the river, the buildings look like fortresses dedicated to various ideologies: there’s a jumble of beer-umbrellaed verandas, a clean crystal helmet for sterile business thoughts, and a dated ultramodern experiment resembling a tumorous potato with blinking eyes.

One building in particular stands out, a collaged chaos of styles that doesn’t quite hang together, all its variously shaped windows loudly lit, and its front doors wide open despite the evil cold and late hour.

Its sign says only THE MUSEUM.

I climb the museum’s stairs, turning to gaze out.

Further down the river, elephantine trees trumpet and stampede.

A rusty Ferris wheel turns, creaking, under the wind’s transparent hand.

Seen from afar, the city districts are englassed by smooth golden sodium domes that resemble the foreheads and cheeks of the skull of no animal.

All over the globe, city-filled skulls direct their questioning gazes into the roomy, sunlit interstellar spaces.

The stars are opening their mouths to answer.

Yeah… I think it’s time to go inside.

There’s no one around, which makes sense once I see what’s hung on the milky walls: oil paintings, in modest wooden frames, of people from my life and landscapes I’ve traveled through—

A sort of greatest hits of my memories.

From afar the details stand out with dazzling clarity, realer than life.

But as I draw near, the images splinter into spiraling thickets that refuse to resolve into any single form, their realism dissolving into noise.

Next is an artifact room with all my lifetime’s major possessions.

Then come interconnected exhibits modeled on my apartments—true-to-life rooms complete with old shirts, pages of my handwriting, and windows on high-quality print-outs of the proper view.

In bluish aquarium light, I wander through galleries of enormous phosphorescent wax dolls with human eyes. One room has all my lovers, another a broad cross-section of ancestors, and a third me at different ages, posed in often embarrassing attitudes.

And here are lucite cages with animals that look and move exactly like my dead pets, and who hop around excitedly and try to speak to me.

I can’t reach them.

Past the cages, a glass elevator with only three buttons: up, down, and possibly a mayday button, bright red and engraved with the screaming face of somebody having a baaaaad trip.

I press the down button.

The elevator descends into a colossal red-lit space with no visible walls.

Below, giant ghosts hustle through each other—everybody from my life, and me a hundred times over.

Except everything’s twisted.

Here I’m always a repulsive sniveling fool.

My family can’t stand me, and my friends mock me behind my back.

Even my pets just scratch and bite and growl.

It’s all so convincing that instantly I can’t imagine anything else.

All my favorite memories—airy, tight gems full of clouds and thumbprints, so alluring they mesmerized—were conceited delusions.

But isn’t it better to perceive the reality?

The truth is an ugly angel.

The elevator plunges through the floor into a hangar-sized replica of my bedroom, with massive versions of the ceiling-spanning zebra-cloth, the deer skull, and all my books.

On the bed, a gargantuan duplicate of me reclines shirtless, soft from sloth and pale as ham; I’m holding up the cast-imprisoned arm and squinting stone-faced at the paralyzed thumb and forefinger, trying to force them to meet.

With the other hand I scratch at my beard, where scaly red paramecium crawl and breed:

Psoriasis:

The command, inscribed in my DNA, to repair skin that isn’t broken.

Broke-winged, scarlet and peeling, I am slowly boiling in my own inflammation.

The disease coats my insides: it forms scales over my eyes.

My body, inside and out, is the color of hell.

The room below is a colossal replica of an operating theater, with an ensemble of medical personnel clustered around me supine on a table, my eyes open but sedatively deadened, and the silenced arm stretched out and subject to the magic-markerings of a masked man with round spectacles of frosted glass.

Up in the elevator, every muscle I have puckers, and the broken wrist twitches with horrible half-life, like a mind shuddering up out of oblivion.

But something ain’t right.

Why are the surgeons and nurses wearing full-face masks of white latex?

Only their eyes are exposed, with white pupils and black irises that grow and shrink dramatically in reaction to the red radiance pouring off my face.

While a nurse manipulates a round black vacuum to suck away the excess red light, the round-spectacled surgeon dawdles with his prolonged fingers over a tray of nightmarish tools till he reaches a rusty boxcutter.

He strokes its blade lovingly.

Then he snatches it up and starts hacking at my arm with rough jerks and impatient grunts, as if it were a parcel from his home planet.

My arm flowers open meatily and sticks out a tongue of bone.

The bone he deftly tugs out and replaces with a hard-plastic tube.

The tube noses up into my armpit, its wet nostril snuffling deep into my chest.

Into the tube’s other end, the surgeon tweezes finger-sized, sterile-looking white insects.

Just as the elevator sinks into the floor, I see my eviscerated arm flap down limply from the table, and its innards look like urban infrastructure, with layers of earth and concrete, cables and pipes.

The room below contains a shot of the accident, the bike slipping sideways, my terrified face frozen over the pavement, the left arm flung out ahead of my body at a steep angle to the concrete.

I don’t look for long.

The exhibits continue backward through my life. Some rooms have entire streets from Berlin, others only have massive close-up of my face reacting, the elevator sliding down my own cliff-size cheek.

In the time before the accident I wasn’t happy either.

In one room my own enormous skull, cross-sectioned, shows the brain as an eye glancing around frantically. In another my replica astrally projects himself over his own shoulder to rant advice and hiss insults.

Again and again I smack myself in the face and curse.

I write and erase, write and erase.

The paper rips.

Then we reach my twenties, and the omniprescent figure of my wife.

Sometimes she is three times my size, clutching her head and babbling as I hold her and calmly talk. More often she’s tiny, and my imperious replicas treat her with cold contempt.

She’s swollen to fill the entire room and I’m fighting for air in a corner.

Or she’s curled up on the bed, I have a face like a meat grinder and I’m chewing up her hands.

Side by side without body heat, we look in different directions, our faces like tins someone tried and failed to open.

But as we pass backward through cities, apartments, jobs, we begin to thaw, to draw together. Our sleeping forms migrate toward each other. We sketch on the same piece of paper. The sun flies up like a tossed orange while we lie embracing in sleep. Here I am singing one of our favorite songs to her in my ungodly, merciless voice. Holding hands we talk while cities rise and fall on all sides. Letters flap through the air between us.

I hold her face. I whisper to her. I brush her hair back tenderly behind her ears.

Finally there are dozens of rooms dedicated to the first two weeks of our real relationship, her just out of the hospital, barely making it over the border, half-dead on my doorstep on the mountain.

Our hundred-hour conversation in each other’s arms.

For the first time in all the scenes, the essential redness fades from my skin, the muscles unclench, and here, at the beginning, it really does look as if I might escape my own inflamed unhappiness, down into a hidden internal corridor, into the describable light of an entirely new way of being.

She’s standing by her suitcases, dressed in all black, and so young.

Then she’s gone, and I’m folded back into my own private flames, scratching obsessively, washing dishes in fry restaurants and at night filling notebooks with hilariously bad bullshit, in public thumping my rubber chest and rambling loudly, bullying my friends with books I hadn’t actually read.

Scenes of university and school take over. My enormous form slumps at a schooldesk over a hidden book, taking up most of the room, so that only the elbows and arms of other students half-emerge from the distant walls.

Quickly shrinking back through the years, squirming under varying bowl cuts and hair colors, I don’t essentially change, always refusing to listen and responding with the insolence of supreme contempt.

Nothing that bad ever happens, yet I’m always miserable.

All the way back in kindergarten, I hide with head in hands for two days straight, crying, refusing to talk or interact, having re-invented non-violent resistance in the hopes of getting out of being educated.

I’d raged when I found out about school.

Why force me out of my privacy to spend time around kids who would only make fun of me, learning shit I didn’t care about?

I’d show them. I’d never give in.

I’d always hold myself apart.

Those feelings never left.

I clutched them tightly.

School was a prison.

Work prison after prison.

Marriage prison.

And then would come the final prison.

The blank and endless one.

Four years old, I watch my mother double-check all the windows, having moved to the boondocks because of her obsessive fear of child abduction, only to find herself single, broke, with three young children, amid yokels who regarded her accent with suspicion.

Then my father appears.

It’s an outdoor scene with fake sunlight.

My mother is crying on the steps.

His pick-up is filled with boxes.

Dad’s crouching and talking to me.

He manages to sound both sweet and enraged.

He’s telling me I’m man of the house now.

That I have to be tough, and never let anyone get the better of me.

I’m red-nosed and crying. I don’t understand what’s happening.

Dad’s telling me it’s okay to cry in front of him—

But that if I’m ever weak in front of others, they’d make fun of me, and I’d be everyone’s dog.

I wish I could be around, he says, to teach you how to fight.

After that the scenes grow indistinct.

The people deform into bobbleheads with caricatured expressions, then blotches of color blaring nonsense.

The elevator finally halts in reddish darkness.

Far below, half-obscured, is a sort of hilly, bulbous landscape.

Rocking gently, the landscape slowly drifts up through dark currents, gradually resolving into an enormous fetus with eyeballs like white orbs wrapped in cloth, its umbilical cord noosed around its neck…

The elevator doors don’t open. Pressing the down button does nothing, and the scream-embossed button makes me uneasy.

There’s no way to go but back up.

The return trip is much quicker.

The elevator rockets up through thirty years, through the hellish hangar of spectral anti-people, the ground level, and past, bursting into a vast, airy room, prodigiously sunlit, with sweeping cloud formations under a stone roof.

Here all the people from my life have been transfigured into mystical, prismatic versions, like my life cast in 3D stained-glass windows.

But I only get a brief, aching glance before the elevator passes through the ceiling and divides into thousands of elevators, then millions, then billions, with my mind splitting along with it into a billion minds as the branching elevators pass through all the possible lives I could lead, weaving a massive braid of realities like the myriad-stranded DNA of a higher-dimensional self.

One by one the separate elevators with their separate selves hurtle into black, until the only one left follows my last self alive in a timeline where I contract a terminal illness and volunteer for experiments that transfer my consciousness into a computer.

This self survives thousands of years and ends up venturing into deep space, outfitted as a sort of sentient spaceship, and heading toward an alien beacon repeating an incomprehensible message.

For millions of years I journey through dusty emptiness.

Only a few galaxies from the beacon, I’m ambushed by a swirling metal being that emerges from the sun.

The elevator door opens on the museum roof.

All the galaxy, a half-stirred sauce of diamonds, spirals around me.

The moon is huge, as big as an eye peering in a jar at an ant.

To either side Mars and Venus are red and green apples of discord, so bright their brightness is a noise.

Far below glint the dwarfy lights of the city, like fire in mud.

But the roof isn’t empty.

There’s a strange one-story construction that looks cut out from a larger building, with its wires and pipes neatly sliced.

It has a single tall window.

I soft-shoe over and peer in.

Inside is my kitchen.

There’s a double of me slouched with crossed arms at my desk, sullenly staring at an empty page.

But he’s not quite me.

In fact, he’s not even human.

He’s a glass-skulled lizardman with an itchy purple brain.

Suddenly he shifts and meets my gaze.

He has bitter red evil eyes.

He snarls.

I’m already backing away in horror.

I sprint into the elevator and jam the down button. Nothing happens.

Holding my breath, weirdly nervous, I hit the screaming red mayday button.

Nothing happens.

Behind me a disembodied door blasts open.

My lizard double appears, brandishing the only sharp knife I own—a toothy breadknife.

He hisses what sounds like a question.

I put up both hands in surrender and start apologizing, stepping out toward him.

The elevator door snicks closed behind me.

Fuck.

He screams something garbled and begins advancing on me.

With every step he takes, I take one back.

Why am I like this?

Why do I always do this to myself?

Behind me, a 100,000-foot drop to earth.

In front of me, my reptile self jabbering and flourishing a breadknife, bent on murdering me.

But I’ve never seen anyone so feverish, so angry and confused.

He looks like he’s about to cry. Even the knife tip is trembling.

So I take a deep breath. I relax my face, my throat, my shoulders.

I open my eyes wide and show him my palms.

“It’s okay,” I say gently, and take a step forward.

He shrieks and waves the knife, but doesn’t move.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I whisper.

Already more human, he stares bewildered at me. The knife tip drifts down.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

I watch my face twist off his body, shake loose from its roots, and billow skyward on a cauliflower of steam.

My face falls up, fluttering ribbons, a jellyfish flying to nirvana.

Our Lady of the Streets

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

The city’s rectangular eyes towered over me. Banks and offices whispered to each other forecasts of my movements. They knew I was lost and trying to escape them. Where the city wanted me to end up was anybody’s guess. Probably the same place where everyone ended up, and where my family, transformed beyond all recognition, would be hungrily awaiting my arrival.

I kept my movements erratic, preferring the small-aired sidestreets and alleyways. Stores leered at me. A sewer drain gurgled a recognizable melody, something sweet and sad, trying to lure me.

Then the alleyway ended in a brick wall.

I yelped and fell over myself trying to run. But it was too late: between me and the streetmouth was a little girl in a frock, with a rose in her hair.

If she was a real child, the streets would literally eat her alive—unless they killed her first. Not my problem though. I pocketed my hands and hurried past with my eyes averted.

But her fingers like five steel cables closed around my elbow.

I had no choice but to turn and look.

She was incredibly old, with a scrunched face and a single tooth. She had small confused eyes and seemed to have already forgotten what she wanted to ask.

Then her face lifted off from her skull and smoothed out like a photo of a teenage girl uncrumpling, with eyes like tiny red lightbulbs. Then her entire head collapsed and reformed as a glossy black vortex grinding inward. I watched my own frightened reflection sucked in.

She spoke, and her voice was like rusted machinery.

“You waaaaant to fuuuuck meeeeeeeeeee?”

I did not.

At her place she kept the lights off and played porn on her face. Was she trying to make it easier for me? Could something like her feel pity? Her bed was wide and cold as a bay, and she was gently trying to push me down onto it. I thought that if I co-operated she might stay gentle, so I lay down for her, but the mattress was sandy and wet and strewn with trash, and pebbles and loose screws dug into my back. I winced and tried to adjust myself, but she was already climbing onto me, and she was heavy as a building. I felt crushed into place by concrete and steel, with the mattress foaming and swirling around my head. Slowly she winched her architecture down over me. Her face had split into a city square with flashing billboards. By now bridges lashed together my knees, and my sagging jaw was filling up with high-rises. Skyscrapers crawled all over my body and trains ran straight through me, carrying sleepy commuters that stared out from my torso bored, as if she weren’t out there bearing down on me like an infrastructural sky, all her vast cabled machinery bouncing hard and heavy on my radio tower. Up through the tower pulsed a painful red sun; inside its sphere was my screaming face. Then the sun burst, and a mushroom cloud as thick and brown as gravy rolled over her harbors and meatpacking plants.

I was going to be a father.

The Insemination (Old Version)

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A drastically different form appears in my book Unearthlily. I leave this here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

With her right claw Genu46 grips the child and tugs her beak from its ribs. She dribbles softener on its forehead, then cuts from combed hair to snub nose and tenderly peels back the floppy bone, exposing lobes packed with eggs as round and white as pearls.

She gapes briefly but catches herself quick and tunes down her mood engine until she’s calm enough to tweeze out the eggs.

Afterward she darts up into the pea-green sky over the human village and cuts off east toward her roost, skimming over winged trees fluffy with spring feathers. On the horizon her roost, a glossy black pillar, slopes up hairlike into clustered stratocumuli.

Inside, Genu46 skips her usual friendly beak-rubbing and slips off to the chapel, where she discovers Genu85 perched in front, his eyeball cocked at the gauges set into the altar. In the altar’s testing chamber he has placed an entire brain—eggless, of course, like every day.

Normally 46 tries to be patient with 85—they all do—but today she shoulders him aside, plucks out his junk specimen, unseals her eye canal and lets one egg roll into the altar.

All sixteen gauges bong in unison.

46 and 85 glance at each other. 85 begins to twitter in happy hack-brained excitement, and even 46 permits herself some joy in the instant before her mind is overridden by an incoming command:

DELIVER THE EGGS.

Her personality dissolves like sugar into water. Only the smallest grains of self still blink on and off, sparking through the depths of an ocean of nonbeing.

Her beak siphons the egg back into her eye pouch. Her body turns to leave.

The chapel is crammed with her roostmates—they line the pews and are stacked along the walls up to the dome, tiers of glassy eyeballs arranged so that everyone can stare at her.

But her legs carry her past them, through deserted maintenance halls, and into a bright corridor to mountains and plains and oceanic sky.

Her body launches itself out and her wings lock into hummingbird mode and carry her straight up.

The landscape rapidly contracts, rivers and forests pulling together into a mottled, blossoming flesh. Her roost tapers and curves down into a shiny black spiral.

Other colossal spirals appear in the far distance, dozens tangling on pale plains that curve off to the end of the world, where red waterfalls cascade sparkling into astral darkness.

Her wings slow, three nozzles emerge from her tail feathers, and then she blasts up out of the atmosphere, a cyclopean magpie rising on triplet jets of white flame, a speck departing her planet, which looks like a reclining human wreathed in clouds, with a red umbilical ocean, ribs made of mountain chains, and a bald head with closed eyes and a serene smile.

Three eye-moons orbit its torso, sweeping their gazes across its length.

And near its left knee, the thin black hair of her roost.

In the back of her mind a half-crushed feeling rears up and she plunges after it, chasing the pain into herself, shrinking, as she falls inward, to a dot of mind snowing toward an electric island of fragmented emotions.

With time other human planets spin past, vast sleepers clothed in clouds and feather-forests, their transcendental smiles reflected in the glassy dome of her deserted eye.

Meanwhile, 46, deep inside herself, glitchy and incomplete, views and reviews the footage of her roostmates filling the chapel. Again and again they stare at her, the Finder of the Eggs, the One, with all the camaraderie gone from their ancient faces, replaced by disappointment and an awful distance.

As her body passes the sun, a gargantuan glass orb containing an irradiant organism with feathery membranes swirling around its blinding core, she’s composing a speech for her return in which she reassures everyone, and especially poor deluded 85, that she found the eggs only because of their work ethic, their determination, the unbreakable unity of all their people everywhere—they who had searched so long and so bravely for the eggs.

The sun fades behind her. The stars drop from view. Her body ascends through silent darkness toward a matte-black ceiling and angles into a short tunnel to a metal room.

She’ll say she was only ever the insignificant emissary of a noble, superior, and devoted race.

A mechanical pincer drops down, seizes her eye, and yanks her into the air. A green laser hums in sideways and halves her skull. Her body and most of her brain drop.

Her eyeball is scoured by microlasers until it shines and turns translucent—revealing the clutch of eggs stored behind its pupil—and then the pincer pushes the eye into a slot in the roof.

Her eye, wedged in place, looks out from a submicroscopic gap in a smooth pale surface that extends beyond all horizons, curving around 46’s entire universe—

All her reality contained in a round, glowing shell, a cosmic pearl that fills all space.

I press one final button.

Her pupil squirts the eggs. They spray out, glittering in a light that is not light, travel up your gaze and through your eyes and thud into your brain.

Your figments wriggle toward the eggs…

Solitude of the Employee

At the specified hour the employee strode into the national HQ and presented his summons. After a brief interrogation, he was pushed into an amphitheater. On its semi-circular tiers, behind executive desks, dozens of bosses conferred, muttered into phones, or glared down at him with hands buckled across paunches.

The employee’s personal boss—young and crisp, stiff as a soldier—rapped on his desk.

“We’ve ordered you here because your colleagues have testified that you often stare at nothing in particular, lost in private thought.

“In other words, you have been stealing the time that we purchased from you.

“Personally, I believe that such behavior deserves swift exile—with prejudice.

“However, here at Corp Inc. we subscribe to compassion, and the directors will settle for removing the part of you that stares into space and imagines other ways of existing.

“It will be stored safely, in isolation. You won’t feel that different, but there are a few side effects…”

“Okay,” said the employee, and stood up. “I’ll make this as easy as possible for both of us.”

And he bolted.

He hurtled through the generic hallways, skidded into a stairwell, and fled down concrete steps, past bare pipes, toward the coolness of fresh air.

But the corridor led to a catwalk forking off through windy darkness.

Eying a distant EXIT sign, he edged out onto the open…

And found himself high over an immense cavern split by an agitated river.

The rocky walls and ceiling, the wet boulders of the riverbanks, were webbed with thick white strands that sagged everywhere with bulky cocoons.

Inside each cocoon, just barely visible, was a junior boss in suit and tie, knees curled to chest.

The employee crept across the catwalk through echoing river-roar until he reached an iron staircase that spiraled down toward daylight. He had descended several flights when the thin stairs began to reverberate with someone’s ascent.

It was a muscular, clean-cut boss in a white dress shirt tucked into chinos.

As they passed each other, he realized that the other man had his face, but harder, and perfected.

He emerged into noon dazzle on a lush hill over a strange city.

A city he’d seen in dreams.

A fractal city that shifted under his gaze, its streets opening at impossible angles on ever more castles, skyscrapers and pavilions, circuses in ancient forests, ziggurats and temples and hypermodern black cubes. There were carved stone dwellings teeming with monkeys. There were single-acre farmsteads sailing down canals, past floating nightclubs lit by throbbing holograms. There were mammoth trees, growing out of abandoned churches, whose boughs supported colonies of eccentric treehouses.

But though he often called out, no one ever answered.

He was alone.

Message From The Devil (Vibrations in a Red Crystal)

“It was Lambros. I went out with her food and he had her leash and was taking Sally out the back gate.”

“Lambros? That boy with the huge forehead?”

“His kid brother.”

“That little shit.”

“He was laughing the whole time, pulling on Sally. She didn’t want to go, she was looking back at me and whining, but he dragged her into the trees.”
“Seriously? Why didn’t you follow him?”

“Christie—you have to let me tell the story.”

“Oh, so I can’t ask about what happened to my fucking dog?”

“Of course I followed them! I ran as hard as I could!”

“Okay! I’m sorry, all right?”

“It’s just that I tried to jump the fence. And my foot caught. And I fell on the gravel. Which gave Lambros even more of a head start.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, I know… Anyway, I caught up by the footbridge. Sally was nowhere. Lambros was on the railing, grinning like he’d just played a hilarious joke and now got to enjoy the grand treat of watching me bumble through. And then I see it: right beside the creek there’s a circular hole in the ground, with a ladder set into its side.”

“A ladder. In a hole.”

“Yep.”

“And how did we never notice it before?”

“It wasn’t there before.”

“Are you sure?”

“…no. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“Did you try calling for Sally?”

“Well, by the way that asshole kid was smirking at me, I figured he’d thrown Sally into the hole. I’m not going to lie, I wanted to do things to that kid’s skull that would have put me in prison for a very long time. And right away I thought about Maria and Bruce’s—“

“Oh my god, their cat.”

“Yeah… But I figured I could deal with Lambros later. Call social services on his parents and get him committed or whatever. Something nasty and satisfying. But I pushed it out of my mind and climbed down the ladder after her.“

“But she wasn’t down there, was she? What did Lambros say?”

“So. I climbed down. It was warm and almost dark. I was in a sort of large room, there was junk everywhere, old electronics, busted couches. Twisted metal wire. Like somebody had been hoarding in this weird hole. I call out Sally, Sally! Nothing. I walked around a little, found a passageway. Another room: the same deal, maybe less junk. Dim light that I couldn’t find the source of. And only two exits. Around this time I stopped calling for Sally and just listened. I guess I got a little nervous. I started wondering who had dragged all this shit down here, and whether they were still around…”

“Eric…”

“Please listen. Because next the rooms got cleaner, emptier. The trash disappeared. The paint looked newer and brighter, and there were windows way high above, too high for me to look out. Then I heard people, lots of them, some kind of market, somebody yelling out prices. I went through another passageway and came out into a street I didn’t recognize, in a city I’d never seen before.”

“ERIC…”

“And there were all these people rushing past me. But something’s wrong with their faces. Their eyes were split four ways, like… like quartered golf balls. And they had noses like red cucumbers. White gloves. And big hanging mouths and rows of teeth like sharks do. Their throats were full of teeth.”

“Okay so there are two possibilities right now. One is that you’re completely insane and who knows what the fuck you did with the Sally.”
“You know what, it really could be that I lost my mind. I totally agree with you.”

“The other possibility is that you’re the biggest tool who has ever existed.”

“Christie…”

“You think I’m an idiot?”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

“I have a Master’s!”

“I know.”

“Here’s what really happened: you thought this like scrawny sixteen-year-old kid was going to whup you, and you made up this entire fake story which no one in the world would ever believe—nobody I know, nobody who has ever lived would fall for it. You’re a coward, AND a liar.”

“Sure, I am a coward. You’re right.”

“I don’t give a shit! I just want my dog back!”

“I was a coward when I climbed down into the scary hole, when I went through all those rooms, and when I went into that strange city with the weird people. I was a coward because I was willing to risk my life to avoid the fit you would throw if anything happened to your precious irritating shitting yapping idiot dog.”

“It’s starting to sound like you’re the one who got rid of her.”

“I couldn’t. Too much of a coward.”

“…”

“…”

“There’s an easy way to settle this, isn’t there? Let’s go look at the hole.”

“We can’t.”

“Let me guess: it’s not there anymore.”

“I can’t explain it either.”

“Your story’s so full of shit, man. How did you get out of fairyland? Did the hole like, close behind you at the last minute?”

“No. I went the other way. The people ignored me completely, they didn’t seem dangerous, and anyway in a few minutes they were all gone. I was alone in the street. I could see deserted high-rises for miles. The sun was too close and too big, it went down between two condos as if it were welding them together. Then I heard a crack, and the street split in half and began to fall apart, but jumped back into place. I hauled ass in the other direction, up a hill, and the sky seemed to sort of melt down and flow toward me, washing away the buildings as it came, and then washing away me… Then I wasn’t in the city anymore. I felt like I was nowhere. Like I didn’t have a body. I felt like a network of vibrations in a sort of red crystal that went on forever, underneath everything, vibrating. I felt like red lightning crackling everywhere at once superfast, but in a space so big that I could never branch through it all. But all that energy was swirling toward a center, to a tight black bubble, inside of which was this intricate lightshow — our entire universe, sustained by this awful red energy. The last thing I sensed was that the universe had not been created by a kind God. There had never been a God, only a Satan, and the evil he had planned was bigger in conception and in time than anything we could understand. All the evil we humans have ever experienced is only a by-product of his ultimate plan. And when I saw this, I woke up by the creek. And the hole was gone.”

“Do… you… realize that if you had just admitted to losing Sally, I would have been mad, but I would have forgiven you? Someday? But by lying… I mean what… what are you even trying to accomplish? Are you actually insane? I mean literally insane. Because how could you ever think I would be stupid enough to believe you?”

“Christie, I just came back from a first-hand encounter with the absolute evil at the center of existence. You think I still care whether you leave me?”

Something yapped.

Christie cried out and ran to the window. The garden gate was swinging open: Lambros bustled through with Sally in his arms. She snuffled his neck, licked him under the chin. Christie gave me a quick look that compressed twelve years into less than a second, then opened the window and called smiling to Lambros. In his soft voice he explained that he’d found her by the creek. But when she leaned down to take Sally, he looked in at me and grinned, baring rows of teeth, like a shark, all the way down his throat.

I skipped sideways into the bathroom and locked the door. I sat on the tub and put my face in my hands, and laughed. Briefly.

The Rainy Library

In the rainy library, anyone can find a book about herself.

I’d felt for some time that I was largely invisible to my own eyes. That how other people experienced me was so different from my own ideas as to be unimaginable.

So I needed that book. I had to see myself, even if it broke me.

But reaching the library wasn’t easy. First I saved up for years for the black-market maps—only to find out that the library was halfway across the world. Well. Swallowing my anger, I saved for another year, then took a long-haul flight to a remote plateau, and with map in hand backpacked over an icy mountain range to a hidden valley filled with dense jungle. In the depths of that steaming jungle was a waterfall so chilly it spit icicles, and I had to grope through plummeting ice for a doorknob embedded in rock.

I stepped through into warm drizzle, into a large atrium with clouds rumbling and bumping under its glass ceiling. Above me rose eight stories of sagging shelves and waterlogged stacks of books.  When I called out, nobody responded… and my echo seemed to mock me.

I was starting to worry that I’d been scammed.

But that atrium turned out to be one of hundreds, and the library itself was larger than a city. My map took me through muddy side corridors that forked and star-split constantly, each new hallway decorated like a different culture or era. I rode horizontal elevators and crossed catwalks over book vaults. I gazed out windows at a mirrory lake, then a living city, then a sky filled by the glossy black wing of a planet-sized bird.

Finally I pushed open the heavy stone door to the final room, where an orb-headed mannequin posed by an enormous rose-window.

This part was in the instructions too.

I joined the mannequin at the glass, and we gazed out at darkness as flat as if reality ended just beyond the pane. Soon this darkness softened—not becoming light so much as giving way to a whiteness that wasn’t really white, but a color I’d never seen before. This color grew nested curves and crosshatched shadows, spiraling open into the furled layers of an antimatter rose.

Unwhite petals swirled out, larger than the sky.

And in the rose? At its center?

An eye, tracking from side to side.

Reading me.

The mannequin shifted and gasped.

Now she looked exactly like me.

She turned in my direction.

We spoke at the same time.

We stopped.

We leaned toward each other.

I gazed deep into my own apprehensive eyes.

I began to read.

Birds 2.0

As the songbirds began to die off, the park services, having in mind only customer satisfaction, hired an innovative and award-winning start-up to troubleshoot.

The start-up’s A-team of hotrodding, tattoed, handsomely bearded data scientists recorded millions of hours of birdsong, used machine learning to sort the recordings by species, age, gender, health, and mood, and finally wrapped speakers resembling vines around high branches and began to supplement the organic birdsong with a play cycle that simulated the movements of real birds.

Later they added the droning of bees, and the sound of feral paws padding across mulch.

But then an up-and-coming young manager drank a certain specialty coffee and stayed up all night innovating, and the next morning he presented the park management with a game-changing proposal: during the day, at damn decent prices, they would sell airtime on the branch speakers, though the ads should be soothing, serene, kid-safe, and preferably for natural products; and at night, visitors could dance, chat, flirt, purchase drinks, and otherwise enjoy themselves under trees blasting the freshest hits, with a live DJ on weekends.

None of this lasted, of course, because then the war came, and no one had any time for leisure, and anyway it wasn’t long before the park, along with the rest of civilization, was incinerated during a single night of retaliatory nuclear strikes—a night that was never named, for there was no one left to write history.

But there’s good news: after a relatively brief span of geological time, living things—though not ones we would easily recognize—recolonized the wasteland: hairy, oddly coloured foliage rose in misshapen domes, the birdish creatures laid more eggs to compensate for the deformed chicks, and meanwhile their threatening, desperate songs provided a charming backdrop against which nature could finally breed and murder in peace.

Eternophobe

“Here. Put these on.”

Tortoiseshell aviators with scratched lenses. Oddly heavy.

“Why?”

“It’s for your own good.”

Up close the lens scratches looked like overlapping letters, as if many sentences had been carved over each other.

I felt deeply uneasy.

“What will you give me?”

“Raymond, these glasses will let you see infinity. It’s the quickest way to settle our argument. It’ll completely smash your ideas about free will.”

“Mmm, yeah, sounds fun…” I laid them carefully on the nightstand and maneuvered toward him. “Let’s just…”

“What’s wrong with you? You want to stay ignorant? Are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Then put them on. Just for a second, and afterward we can…”

“Fine.”

The glasses felt like two stone tablets crushing my face.

“Dude, come on. You have to open your eyes.”

First I saw N. He was smiling, and suddenly it seemed worth it that I had put on the glasses.

Then his face wavered: his eyes seemed to be open and shut, and his mouth was a flickering scramble of lips and teeth.

He swung off the bed, leaving behind a trail of selves, and branched backwards into the bathroom.

Then dozens of Ns, many totally nude, burst back in, crowding through each other.

Copies of myself multiplied everywhere, flipping through expressions.

Other men appeared, strangers to me. Many duplicates of each one climbed into bed with us, and the air filled with their thrusting bare asses.

Over them the walls and ceiling became flimsy and ghostlike. Glaring skies shone through, kaleidoscopic with scrawly birds. Trees mutated through each other.

The sun was a screaming oscillation.

In the distance giant sloths wandered through rolling tanks.

Metal strings spread everywhere, as if over some cosmic guitar, but they were only bullets existing along their entire paths simultaneously.

How can I say this? Everything branched and intertwined, everything wove back into itself without ever ending. Every moment that had ever existed hung there overlapping, and then it all abruptly sort of turned at an angle, the trillion trillion instances spreading out like a deck of cards, and I saw my life cross-sectioned two hundred times a second from birth to death; I saw every face I would ever have, frozen in mundane scenes of supernatural beauty, and it was immediately obvious just how much love and patience had gone into rendering every hair and wrinkle, how meticulously each expression had been carved.

My life was a majestic baroque sculpture perfect in every detail, unbelievably grand, and yet it was only a microscopic subpart of the universal masterpiece, just a tiny, glowing vein deep within the huge frozen block of infinity.

Free will? Forget it. What we call time is just the tour through the four-dimensional sculpture.

N might have won the argument, but I ghosted him.