The Mausoleum, Part 3.

Part 3 of the short fiction series, The Mausoleum.

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Cassie followed behind and just slightly to the left of Cody.  He was tall, but young.  She thought he was maybe just out of high school, and still awkwardly thin and lanky from teenage growth spurts.  She wondered briefly how one chose a job like this, or what qualifications were sought by the Mausoleum.

They were walking down a corridor that seemed to be separated from the Hall of Remembrance by a sturdy wall.  The floor gleamed.  The hallway was softly lit from hidden sconces.  The effect was dim, without seeming dingy.  Rather, the lighting felt comforting. The walls hosted a number of potted plants along their length.   There were no windows, and she wondered how the plants lived back here.  Maybe the Mausoleum paid someone to come and switch them around every day so that they all got exposure to the sunlight, and none had to spend more than a day or so in the dimness of the hallway.

“If you’ll follow me through here,” he said, gesturing her through a door, “I’ll show you around our control room.”

Cassie stepped through the door, into a room that was even quieter than the rest of the center was.  She looked around.  It wasn’t a large space, but it was full of keyboards and monitors and buttons.  One entire wall was taken up by row upon row of numbered switches.  In one corner, on a raised platform, was a single wheeled office chair.

“What is this?” She asked quietly.

“This,” Cody said with a pride that seemed genuine, “is the brains of the Mausoleum.  This is where we control the computers that make all of this possible.”

“Make what possible?”

“Oh, the digital memorialization of our loved ones that have passed.”

Cassie peered over a rack of black plastic toggles, with her hands safely clasped behind her back.  “I guess I still don’t know what exactly you do here.  I’ve never been inside before.”

“Well, for a long time, we’ve buried our deceased friends and family in the ground at places called cemeteries…”

“I know what cemeteries are.”  Cassie had been to a cemetery once, on a trip with her parents.  It was an old historical site, no longer in active use, but still maintained by the city that owned it in order to preserve a piece of a long-ago era.

“… yes, well, there are problems with using cemeteries.  They become full, they take up what would otherwise be usable land, and there were sometimes problems with ground pollution.  The Mausoleums are intended to help alleviate those issues by replacing the old custom with something similar, but new.”

“So do the dead people end up here?” She asked.

“No.  They’re cremated at a separate facility.”

“So how is this similar to a cemetery?”

“Well, when someone dies, and when we have enough advance warning, we have the technology now to scan the brain of the person dying.”

“You scan their brains?”

“Yes, we need to in order to create the digital memorials.  It has to be done before or immediately after death.  The structure of the brain changes irreparably after death, and the information cannot be recovered after that happens.”

“What do you… record? Store?”

“It might be more accurate to think of it in terms of storage.  Recording is so static.  We target pieces of information to help make the memorial richer and more detailed.  Associations, memories, things like that.  We store them and use a piece of software to use that data to create the memorial.”

Cassie thought back to the moving images on the screens in the Hall of Remembrance.  “So it’s like a video of the person’s life?”  She thought that didn’t quite make sense, because Sam’s father wouldn’t have memories of his own face staring, like had been pictured on the screen.

“No, it’s a dynamic likeness.  Videos can only show the same things over and over again.  The software produces a sort of a simulation, with more autonomy than a video.”

“Why?”

“Because using this technology, we can produce a memorial that is more vibrant than visiting a headstone in a cemetery.  People often seem comforted by having the opportunity to see the deceased as they were in life.  It’s a far better option than wasting time and resources preserving the body.  You are in essence celebrating the living memory, rather than mourning a death.”

“What’s this?” Cassie asked, running a finger along the big wall of switches, carefully, in between the rows.

“Look with your eyes, please, miss.”

Cassie jerked her hand away and clasped it behind her back again.

“This,” he continued, “is where we control the monitors in the Hall of Remembrance.  When you come in, we get you checked in at the front, and you’re assigned a monitor. Then we use the control room to call up the stored data, and the switches help us direct the program to the assigned monitor.”

“Why are there so many switches for each one?”

“Well, one is for the video, and one is for the sound, and…”

Cassie interrupted him.  “These have sound?”

“… well, yes, but we largely leave the sound off.  It can make the Hall of Remembrance quite noisy, so to be fair to everyone we just leave it off.”

“I see.”

“Do you have any more questions about how the center is run?”

“I don’t think so.”

Cody clapped his hands together, seeming pleased that he had done his job.  “Wonderful.  If you’ll follow me back into the hall and to the right, I’ll show you where we keep all the data.  It’s amazing!”

Cassie followed behind Cody.  She had the oddest feeling that things just didn’t add up.

The Mausoleum, Part 2

Cassie sat still in the living room of Sam’s house, trying not to be a bother while he freshened up and while his mother got Rebbekah tidied up for the trip to the mausoleum.  Sam’s mother was pretty and harried, and Cassie thought this elemental state perhaps made her all the more lovely.  Sam’s father had died many years ago; Cassie didn’t remember ever meeting him, and she knew that looking after both Sam and Rebbekah must be time consuming.  She admired Sam’s mom, and tried to help out whenever she could, even coming over to help Sam babysit his younger sister, who admitted herself that she could be quite a handful.

The small family came into the room, Rebbekah in a fresh dress, with her hair tied back, and Sam in slacks and a button-down shirt.  Cassie felt suddenly self-conscious about her own clothes.

“Mrs. Jacobsen, I’m sorry…” she trailed off, looking down at her overalls.

“Don’t you worry about it, Cassandra, I wouldn’t change you for all the tea in China,” she said, with a reassuring smile.

The Mausoleum was a short drive from Sam’s house, in the civic complex downtown.  It was a large rectangle, faced in black glass, and looked anachronistic nestled between the library and the courthouse.  The technology the Mausoleums used was relatively new, but over the last decade they had been going in all over the country, first in smaller towns, where it was less expensive to build them, but also in larger cities.  The bigger cities usually needed several, just like old fashioned graveyards.

Cassie had never been to the Mausoleum before, and she found the sleek facade intimidating.  She held back behind Sam and his mom, holding Rebbekah’s hand as much for her own comfort as for the child’s. She couldn’t turn back now, though… to do so would be to allow her fear to limit her curiosity. She had a burning need to know, to understand, a need that would smolder in the back of her brain until she satisfied it.  Such curiosities sometimes kept her up nights, lying in bed in her dark bedroom, turning things over in her head again and again.

The doors were near-silent as they opened to admit the family and their hanger-on, and Sam’s mother checked them in at the front counter.  Inside the lobby it was much brighter than Cassie had expected, given the dark color of the glass from the outside.  It was a peaceful place, with comfortable chairs for waiting in, a discrete fountain burbling in the corner, and potted plants growing in any unobtrusive spot.  Everything was decorated in dark neutral tones, and the lobby had a complete lack of electronic screens.  There were signs on the wall every so often reminding visitors to be respectful of those who were there to see dead loved ones.

They all had visitor badges pinned neatly to their clothes, even tiny Rebbekah, and they were escorted back.  The staff member guided them to a screen labeled “231,” and told them to wait.  Cassie could see that the wall hosted similar screens all down the length of the visitor’s hall, some dark, and some casting their blue glow over the faces of attendant family and friends.  They sat in the provided chairs and waited.  It was only a few minutes before the screen brightened.

The image resolved into an image of Sam’s father.  It was a face she’d seen in family photos. She thought the image was moving, and as she watched she was proven correct.  The eyebrows, the eyes themselves quivered in the way that living things do, never still, always moving.

“Hello, Jim,” Sam’s mom said, with an expression on her face that spoke of both sadness and happiness.

The lips on the screen moved, but there was no sound, and Cassie couldn’t interpret the movements into anything sensible.  The entire visitor’s hall was strangely quiet… there was the occasional hiss of a whisper, and somewhere the soft clatter of something accidentally falling to the floor.

Cassie quietly got up and slipped away from the family.  She walked back out to the lobby and up to the desk.

“Excuse me,” she said politely to the woman at the desk, standing on her toes in an effort to seem older than she was, “I have some questions about the Mausoleum.”

The woman smiled.  “Yes, of course.  We have an informational pamphlet here, and I can also have a guide show you around.”

Cassie reached out and took the pamphlet.  The woman had bright red nails.  “I think I’d like a guide as well, please.”

“If you’ll have a seat for just a moment, I’ll have someone right out for you.”

Cassie took her pamphlet and sat in one of the chairs in the lobby.  The copy filling the glossy pages was intended for mourning families, and took pains to emphasize that the services offered by the Mausoleum were “tasteful” and “respectful.”  The photos that accompanied the copy were of beautiful model families, a husband and wife and two kids, a boy and a girl, all neatly dressed and all smiling, but not smiling too much; no distasteful displays of happiness to disturb grieving clients.

“Hello, miss?”

She looked up from the pamphlet to see a young man in well tailored slacks and a button down shirt.

“Oh hello,” she said.

“I understand that you requested a guide,” he said with a smile.  “My name’s Cody, and I’d be happy to show you around.”

The Mausoleum.

Cassie and Sam walked along the tree-lined lane toward the elementary school, just as they did every afternoon.  It was Sam’s responsibility to pick up his younger sister, Rebbekah, from school each afternoon, and Cassie, as his best friend, accompanied him on the task.

Cassie couldn’t sort out how or why they were best friends, it had always just kind of been that way.  They had met in class four years ago, before Rebbekah had even been in school, and it had just stuck.  They understood each other in ways nobody else seemed to, and trusted one another in a way that they could not even trust their respective parents.  It was the way things were, and perhaps on some level, the way things had always been destined to be.  It felt like that to Cassie, some days… there was a rightness to being around Sam that was comforting, that brought her peace even among the most chaotic teenage tantrums.

Cassie didn’t keep a lot of friends.  She found that in middle school, it was difficult to know for sure who to trust.  The other girls looked askance at her anyway, at her baggy overalls and dirty fingernails.  They watched her trapping bugs in old pickle jars and walked away, giving her the eye and tittering among themselves.  They were disgusted by her swearing and unimpressed by her short, untidy hair.  That was fine; Cassie didn’t pay them no never mind.  Cassie broke rules, and to those girls, that made her a threat. Because maybe, just maybe, her refusal to be bound by those rules meant that the game they’d been raised to play just didn’t really exist.

Sam, on the other hand, wavered between fascination and amusement at her use of crude language, and while he had no interest himself in catching bugs in old pickle jars, he had no problem waiting a few minutes while she did so.  Sam had been there two years ago when she’d broken her arm climbing the big oak tree behind the school.  Her parents couldn’t fathom why she’d do something so dangerous when there was an enrichment gym on the corner, complete with a tree analogue and plenty of safety features.  They didn’t understand that it was different somehow to climb a real live tree than to scramble up an aluminum and foam structure that was built for climbing.  One was the simple human use of a human tool; the other was a triumph over adversity.

Her arm had been in a cast and a sling for the rest of that summer.

“Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?” She asked him.

“Nah, I can’t.  We have to go to the mausoleum tonight to see Dad.”

“Oh,” Cassie replied, stung suddenly with curiosity.  She had no deceased loved ones, and had never had a reason to visit the mausoleum.  She wondered what it was like.

Sam glanced down at her.  This was a recent thing, this looking down.  Prior to his most recent growth spurt, they had been the same height, more or less. “What, you want to come?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t impose on something that personal,” she answered.

“No, it’s not a big deal.  Just let me check with my mom.”

“Okay.”

Sam paused to dial his mother, but Cassie kept walking a few paces, and then stood, digging idly in the dirt along the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe.  She never liked listening in on other people’s conversations, so much so that she preferred that it not even look like that was the case.  She had grown up without any brothers or sisters, so it seemed strange to share space so closely with people that one couldn’t even have a conversation in private.  So that one didn’t even expect to have a conversation in private.

“Hey,” Sam said, walking up to her.  “Mom says it’s okay.  So we’ll get the kid, and then head to my place?”

“Sure!”

“Have you ever been there before?”

“No,” Cassie admitted.  “What’s it like? Is it sad?  Is it scary?”

“It’s not bad.  It’s just lots of screens with people on them.”

“So why do you go?”

“My mom says that it’s a nicer way to remember dead people than visiting a pile of old bones in the ground.  I don’t know, you can’t talk to them, they’re not really there.  Mom seems to like it, though.”

“It sounds weird.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know.  I mostly go for mom’s sake.”

They had reached the elementary school, and Rebbekah came bounding up the driveway, a whirlwind of sticky hands and light brown curls.

“Sam! Sam! Sam!” She yelled as she ran, excited to see her older brother.  She threw her arms around him and hugged his waist.

“Hello, Bekkah,” he said, “you’re going to have to get cleaned up before we visit dad tonight.”

Rebbekah sported grass stains on her dress, and dirt smeared across the white toes of her shoes.

“Why?  He doesn’t care.”

“Because if you don’t, you’ll just fight with mom all evening and I don’t want to wait on you.”

She wormed her little hand into his, and Sam rolled his eyes, but didn’t pull his hand away.  They were only a few blocks from the house, it was a small concession for him to make to his younger sister.

“Cass, you too!” she called out, thrusting her empty hand out to the side.  Cassie obligingly switched sides, and took Rebbekah’s hand for the remainder of the walk home.

The Resurrectionists.

Clara stood awkwardly at the head of the grave, watching her husband. He had finished the hole, and now, standing in it, he heaved downward with the blade of the shovel, again and again. The dull thud of the metal against a wooden coffin, muffled by the soil covering the rest of it, was one of the things she liked the least about their new profession. She also had a horror of the soil itself, doubtless full of worms who feasted on the bodies of the now deceased. She felt dread as she heard the crack of the shovel blade splintering the coffin; now it was her turn.

She took the long pole and lowered its vicious hook into the half uncovered grave, and hooked the dead man’s head. Pulling the corpses out by their jaws was obscene; their faces stretched open, and the rest of the body hung from the neck in a loose and lolling fashion that one would never see in the living. Sometimes, once she had them up and was hauling them into the cart, their weight and something about the way their arms and legs brushed her made her swear that they were moving on their own. The horror and the humiliation of these moments was a physical sensation; a combination of numbness and sharp prickle that washed over her entire body.

“It’s not right! It’s not seemly, and it’s not godly!” These were the words that she had, in a storm of tears, shouted at Leo after their first outing.

“My dearest dove, I know it’s unconventional. I do. And I know it’s not the life that I promised you when you decided to act in line with your heart and run away with a poor milliner. But now that the shop has burned down, what are we to do for food? For lodging? I promised you the day that we married that I would always look after you. No matter what.”

“Then do it and leave me out of it!”

“Oh my darling, if I could shield you from this, I would, and at any cost to myself, but it’s simply not a task that I can handle on my own. And there’s nobody in the world that I trust more than you, my own sweet wife. What greater testament to our love is there?”

“It’s wrong!”

“Who says it’s wrong? Is it in the bible, the Lord’s own word? We’re giving these people a new purpose, and helping with breakthroughs in medicine that could help thousands stay the grave a bit longer. Isn’t that marvelous?”

Leo’s unfailing optimism had been one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him. Now, after a few years of marriage, she had come to see what an irritating trait it could be. He was a sweet and attentive man, though, and she had to admit that these nighttime grave robberies were the only times that she regretted it. It had been a big decision for her, and it was not one that she made lightly. Her father had wanted her to marry a barrister from a wealthy family, and indeed the man had courted her quite determinedly. Defying her family had left her penniless, excluded her from any inheritance, and left her entirely dependent on her new craftsman husband. And for a while, things had been wonderful. Meager, but wonderful. She and Leo would never be rich, and she had known that when she married him. But there had been love, and warmth, and no cold, damp nights spend in graveyards.

They tried to go the night after an interment, or if necessary, the second night after. The fresher the corpse, the better the price the medical men paid. They would take and light the lamp on the outside of the church; that way, if anyone saw the meager light it cast, they would simply think that the groundskeeper was out and about. This was also the reason why she must wear her hair coiled so tightly to her head; why she wore men’s trousers so baggy that she had to pin them at the waist, and a long baggy black coat. A lady in a dress at a grave at night would arouse too much curiosity.

The men’s clothing also made it easier for her to practice her new craft. There was a bit of a trick to setting the hook in the jaw of a corpse. It took a jerk and a little bit of strength to set it well, and if it were not well-set, the body could come loose and tumble back into the grave. Setting the hook a second time would be more difficult, in some cases near impossible depending on the posture of the corpse. The corded, tendonous tissues of the body would have already started to soften as decay set in, which made the flesh more fragile and setting the hook easier, but too old of a body and the hook could drag clean through the jaw, separating the mandible at the chin or cheek, and the task would have to be abandoned, and the body re-buried half in, half out of the coffin. And yet, one must be careful in setting the hook. The bone in the roof of the mouth was fragile, and the structures above quite delicate; it was easy, with a little too much force, to send the hook up into the head, reducing the value of the body to the anatomist, and as a result, reducing their pay.

This one set well. She could see the end of the hook gleaming dully in the man’s now open mouth. It always surprised her faintly when the bodies came up pale-skinned. She always seemed to expect indians or negroes, even though they had drawn up white bodies before. This was a tall man, and she was struggling to lift his bulk from the hole. Leo came over.

“Sweet Clara, please let me help you,” he whispered, placing his hand on her back. She obligingly stepped aside, and Leo grasped the handles of the hook and hauled the man up to the surface. She stripped the clothes from the bloating body, and tossed them down back into the coffin. They weren’t common thieves after all. The two of them collaborated in levering the corpse’s length into the hand cart, and she waited while he hurriedly filled the grave back in. Keeping the graves tidy, he had reasoned, gave the bereaved less cause for anguish. No reason to leave evidence behind of their loved one’s new profession that might upset them. He had become quite good at it.

Once the grave was filled in and neatly, subtly mounded, they stowed the shovel and the hook with their newly acquired companion. Leo lifted the shafts of the cart and began to pull. She heard him grunt softly as the wheels began to turn and the cart to move. She had always admired his strength. She trailed behind the cart; they had had occasions on which the corpse had fallen from the back of it. She heard Leo’s soft voice drift back to her:

“Let’s go see what tonight’s efforts have earned us, shall we dear?”

And then he began to whistle.

Serafina.

Jacob was rushed down the hallway of the enormous ship by his older brother and a handful of his friends.  It was the middle of ship’s-night, and the ambient lights in the hallway were turned down until they just caused a blush along the off-white walls of the corridor, allowing those living aboard to sleep more soundly during what was an arbitrarily chosen evening.

The lack of true day and night cycles was not something that Jacob had ever needed to get used to; he was among the first of the babies born on the generation ship… the false night time was all he’d ever known.  His mother had tried to tell him once about night, that it was a time when the sky was dark and filled with stars.  To Jacob that was a normal sky… it was what he saw beyond the hull of the massive vessel through windows and viewscreens regardless of the time of day.  What he could not imagine was a daytime sky… a sky of blue!  The thought of it seemed garish and strange to him.

“Jacob,” came his brother’s hushed voice, rousing him from his thoughts.  They had reached the airlock door.

These things had to take place at night; otherwise the hangar personnel would prevent this from happening… too dangerous, they would say.  And yet these same men all bore similar scars, and they had all done the same thing around his age.  In fact, there was not a single grown man on board the ship who didn’t now bear this scar.

“Okay, Jacob.  Are you ready?”

Jacob nodded, afraid that if he spoke, his teenaged voice would break.

“I won’t make you do this… you need to do this on your own, okay?  Otherwise it doesn’t count.”

Jacob nodded a second time.

“Okay.”  His brother tossed a hand signal to his friends over his shoulder, and they pulled open the door to the airlock.

Inside, it was a smallish space, big enough for five men to outfit and depart for EVA.  There was nothing loose or dangling, apart from the safety straps that lined the floors and ceilings, and the emergency bars that protruded from the back wall.  The front was one massively thick door, with a toothed line cutting through it horizontally.

“Come on,” his brother motioned him to the back of the room.  “Slide your arms through the E bars, and hold on!  If you don’t hold on, you can still get blown out.  Don’t hold your breath, or you’ll die.  Your lungs will burst in your body.”  He tapped the E bar to Jacob’s left and showed him where the rubberized coating had been stripped away during an accidental decompression, and the steel beneath was exposed.

“Don’t forget to get your kiss before you come back,” he said.  Jacob nodded.

“The lock is on a timer for ten seconds.  That’s as long as you get to find yourself in the void.  You’ll survive ten seconds, as long as you don’t hold your breath.  After the lock closes, we’ll be gone, but we’ll put in an alarm to the infirmary.  I’ll see you tomorrow.  I love you, Jacob.” he said, and tousled Jacob’s hair.

Then, in an instant, all of the older boys were gone.

There was a moment of quiet.

And then the big doors parted.  The movement was slow at first, and he could hear the air in the room whistling out the tiny gap.  This was his warning to not hold his breath.  He held his mouth open and breathed out one long, slow, breath.

In the next moment, the top and bottom of the big lock doors slid back, and the void of space yawned before him.  There was an instant of chaos as all of the air left in the lock burst outward, but after that, everything was peaceful, silent, and utterly still.  The void stretched out, the universe itself, with endless fields of stars.  Jacob had expected it to be terrifying, but after the decompression, in the silence, he was gripped by a feeling of tranquility and wholeness.  This was his, his birthright.  He was of the first generation to not have a home planet.  He was a citizen of space.  He felt the urge to gasp, but his lungs, forcibly emptied, would never fill themselves against that immense emptiness.  He felt the saliva on his tongue start to boil away, a painful tingle, and he closed his gaping mouth.  He pressed his eyes shut as those same bubbles formed in his tears.  The spell was broken, and he suddenly became aware of the terrible pain in his face from the incomprehensible cold and from the vacuum.  It was almost time.

He pressed the left side of his face against the exposed steel of the E bar, and held it there despite the pain.  He counted.

By the time he got to five, the lock lights came up red and an alarm sounded, and the doors shut quickly, with a clanging noise.  The lock filled with atmosphere, and Jacob gratefully filled his lungs.  His face was still frozen to the E bar, and he could feel warm mammalian blood trickling from his nose as his world went quietly black.

When he woke up in the ship’s infirmary, he had expected his brother would be next to him, but instead he saw Serafina.  She was one of his best friends from primary school, before the girls were separated out from the boys.

“You’re awake,” she said, brushing his hair off of his forehead.  Her fingers brushed a bulky gauze bandage on his cheek, and Jacob felt relieved.  His kiss would leave a fine scar, judging by the thickness of that bandage.  “And you’re a man now, it would seem.”

She was smiling, but he could hear an edge of hurt in her voice.

“Sera, what are you doing here?  I haven’t seen you in years.”

“I’d heard you were in here with decompression sickness.  I thought I’d come visit.  Is that so strange?  We were friends once,” she said.

“No, not strange.  I just thought I’d left my childhood friends behind.”

Sera pulled her hand away as if he had burned her.

“No, I didn’t mean it like that…” he said.

“I’ll go, if that’s what you want, Jacob.  But you mark my words, someday soon, I’ll kiss the void.  I’ll wear a scar on my cheek and go to school and get a job, just like you.”

Jacob looked at her as if she were mad.  “You can’t do those things, Sera.  This is a generation ship.  You girls can’t do the dangerous work; we need you to have babies.  And who will want to marry a scarred up harridan like that?”

Serafina stood from her place at his bedside. “Well,” she said coldly, “isn’t it lucky that I have no interest in either marriage or children?”

And then she turned and left the infirmary.

In That Hole.

She staggered out through the dry timbers that framed a gaping doorway into the wild night.  The wind itself was starting to die, and the largest grains of sand were precipitating from the storm as a gentle crystalline rain.  A rain that held no power to comfort or sustain.

A rain with no water.

She saw a tiny movement at the edge of her sight, some distance away.  She turned like a drunk to follow it, with no idea whether it was him or not.  The dark moving shape looked at first like an animal thrashing on the ground.  As she got closer, she discovered that she was only seeing a part of the total form… the rest was in a hole in the ground.

She came to the edge of the hole and found Ray, shirtless, kneeling in a trench.  He was wielding a large, flat stone against the earth, dragging it toward himself and bringing up rolling berms of soil, which he then tossed out of the hole.

“Ray, what are you…” she croaked.

“Digging. Can’t count on you to do it for me.  Can’t burden you with this task.” He spoke in a voice that seemed strangely clear and very flat.

I’ll try to dig for water…

Liz looked at the hole.  It was a trench, almost six feet long by about two feet across.  He had dug it down to eighteen inches already, and a corona of discarded earth lay all around it, describing silently how he had shaped the thing, carved it like a sculptor, crawling around on the bottom.  She fell to her knees beside the hole.  Her eyes burned but could summon no tears.

Ray put his stone down and knelt there, his back and shoulders heaving for a few moments as he recovered from his exertion.

“When the first man dragged himself up out of the clay, and saw standing there the first woman, shining and perfect, he reached out and took her golden hands in his.  As they stood there, on the blasted and bare plain of a new earth, her hands in his, three stars in the sky went out.  One for truth, one for beauty, and one for pain.  And these things are the only things that we’re promised in this world.  The only things we’re promised.  No matter what we do, what choices we make, or what happens to us, these three things fall into our lives with abundance.  To pick up any one of them, you must also take hold of the other three.  They are inseparable.  Without truth and pain, there cannot be beauty.  These are the gifts we are given, we misbegotten creatures with the minds of gods, the hearts of jackals, and the livers of fools.  And we are so undeserving of them.”

His voice was an incantation.  It creaked in his dry throat, but the words emerged clear like bells in the hiss and roar of the ebbing storm.  His voice was flat, strange, and inhuman.  In it she heard all of his weariness.  He turned to her, his eyes bright and the several days of grey-blonde beard caked with desert earth, and said, “do you understand, Liz?”

“What does it mean?” she asked, her head lolling to one side.

He shuffled toward her on his knees, and reached out to her, wrapping his hands around her wrists.  She felt that the tips of his fingers were rough against her skin, and she raised her arms to look.  She saw that the tips of the fingers were crusted in grey dust and beneath that, something darker.  Suddenly she realized that he had started digging with his bare hands, clawing at the ground, and had scraped away his fingertips in the process.  The fingernail was missing on the middle finger of his left hand, probably lost now in one of the piles of discarded earth that ringed the trench.  At some point he had found the stone, probably levered it out of the hole itself, and started using it to dig instead.

I’ll try to dig…

“Oh god, Ray, what have you done,” she breathed.

He pulled downward on her arms, and she allowed herself to be dragged into the hole.  She didn’t have the strength to resist.  She tumbled on top of him, and felt him pulling her until she was lying down beside him in the narrow space, their bodies pressed together.  The walls and the floor of the hole felt blessedly cool, possibly even slightly damp, but there was no way to extract that tiny bit of moisture from it.  She pressed her cheek against the bottom of it, and beside her, Ray’s body felt impossibly warm, pouring off heat into the cool morning air.

He wrapped one ruined hand around her hand and held it to his chest. She could feel his pulse racing in the slightest throb of his hand.

“Nothing is real,” he said, after a few moments of silence.

Panic and welled up inside her, accompanied by a strange ache that she had no name for, but she knew she could do nothing to help him.  The man who had been so focused, so clear, and so lucid just hours ago was gone, replaced by a desperate, delirious man nearing the end of his rope.

“I’m real,” she said.

Ray’s body gave a slight shudder, and then she felt the muscles of his body relax.  “Thank god,” he whispered.

She closed her eyes for a while, and was awakened again as the sun crept up in the sky and shone down into the hole.  The sky was blue, but the finest particles of dust hung in the air and left a shimmering halo around the sun,  She tried to get away from it; its light hurt her skin, but there was nowhere to go.

She tried to lift herself, hoping she could crawl out of the trench, but Ray grabbed her and said, “Don’t leave me.”  He was weak, but his grip on her was strong enough that she didn’t have the energy to break free.  She settled back to the ground next to him, and his grip loosened.

Even if she crawled out of the hole, even if Ray let her, there was nowhere to walk to.  Just miles of desert in every direction… desert that she certainly didn’t have the strength to cross.  She had waited too long to act in defiance of Ray’s plan, to strike out on her own in search of a small town or even an isolated home, and now there were no other options.

Beside her, Ray’s eyes were just barely open enough for her to see the color of the irises.  His upper and lower lashes touched near the ends, and had grains of sand clinging to them.  The eyes darted back and forth almost imperceptibly, as though he were sleeping.  There was no way to know what he saw.  He murmured quietly to himself, a long string of unintelligible syllables, his lips barely moving.

The next time she woke up, Ray was still.  His lips were parted, as though stilled mid-syllable, and the flesh of his hand around hers felt dense and cold and stiff, like wet clay.  His eyes were still partly open, and she could see a grain of sand resting on the surface of the eyeball.  He already smelled different.  The spice and tobacco and strange desert smell were gone, replaced with a faint but foul smell that seemed to come from deep inside him.  Her mother had told her that the role of women was to usher men into and out of life; this was an old family tradition, according to her mother, that went back generations.  She had never paid much attention to it; when you’re in your twenties, one pays little attention to the specter of death.  Now she had laid next to a man she barely knew while his last breath left him. The loneliness she felt was unspeakable.  She gave a hopeless and silent sob, pressed her eyes closed, and prayed for sleep.

Exercise.

This is a short piece written in response to a writing prompt on my writers group.  The prompt originally specified that the finished writing be fewer than five hundred words, and this has a few things left in that I cut for the finished piece, and has a couple of things added.

She snapped the clasps shut on the guitar case.  It had seen better days, and the hinges clattered, ready to give way at any moment.  Now clad in jeans and a softly worn t-shirt that smelled of better times, she stuffed her stage clothing into a backpack and put one of the straps over her shoulder.  She rattled the tip jar and then counted its contents… fifteen dollars and eighty-six cents.  Almost minimum wage.

She carried her bag and her guitar out to the front of the house and dropped them next to an empty stool.  She perched there, and prepared to enjoy the free cocktail that the entertainment agreement with the venue had promised her.

“What’ll you have?”  The bartender had a shaggy haircut that seemed popular among those in their twenties these days, but an earnest look in his eyes.

“Gin gimlet, please.”

“You got it.”

The ice clattered into the glass like soothsayer’s bones…  a sound that seemed, in the patternicity of hindsight, to occur at linchpin moments in her life.

“That was a great set,” he said.  He stirred the drink, provoking a soft echo of that portentous noise, and then tasted what remained on the spoon thoughtfully.  He nodded, and pushed the drink toward her.

“Thanks.”  She took a drink.  “This drink isn’t bad either.”

The bartender shrugged.  “It’s kinda hard to fuck up,” he said with a half smile.  “So, you got somewhere to stay tonight?”

“Oh, I was just going to park up and sleep in my van… save a few dollars.”

“Nah, why don’t you crash on my couch?  I guarantee it’s more comfortable than a van.”

She considered the offer for a moment, chewing on her straw.

“Yeah, okay.  Sure.”

“Cool.  I’ll keep drinks coming while I close, if you like.”

At two AM on the dot, she was feeling just warm and loose, without the jangling chaos that comes with overconsumption.  She slid into the passenger side seat of his old dingy Camry.  It was a short drive, somewhere in between five and ten minutes.

“We’re here,” he said.  She climbed out of the car, grabbed her backpack and her guitar.  They walked upstairs, and stopped at a door marked 207.  The hallway was dim, but she heard him fiddling with his keys.  He unlocked the door and opened it.

“Hold on, let me get the lights…”

He reached inside and flipped the light switch, and the sudden glare illuminated the happy faces of a dozen strangers.  As they all yelled “surprise!” a sweat broke out down her back.

“Happy birthday!” said the shaggy bartender with a huge grin.

She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.  She looked at all the people, all the faces to remember, all the names…

“Well, you sure look surprised…” he said, the grin fading.  The strangers inside the apartment were starting to look at one another uncomfortably.  She heard murmurs.

“I don’t even know you people,” she whispered, turning toward him with wide eyes.

“Your boyfriend called the bar a few days ago.  He wired me the money to have a party for you.  For your birthday.” He tried a smile again, but was looking unsure.

“I,” she said through gritted teeth, “am going to kill him.”

“No, look… it’s your birthday.  This is your party.”  The bartender was starting to lean toward her, and was speaking clearly and urgently, as if to a hyperactive child.  “There’s drinks and snacks…”

“No.”  She was feeling overwhelmed, and longed for the safety of solitude.  It couldn’t be more than a couple of miles back to her van…

“Wait…”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said to him with a ragged voice.  “We broke up months ago.  He’s not supposed to know where I am, and he’s definitely not supposed to be throwing parties for me.”

“Oh.”  The smile melted from his face.  “Wow, I’m really sorry.  This must be super uncomfortable for you.”

“Look, I have to go.”  She turned to face the whispering crowd inside the apartment. “I’m sorry, everyone, I gotta go.”

“At least let me drive you back,” the bartender said, looking to make amends.   She looked at his outstretched hand, but she knew that she couldn’t take his offer.  Her ex touched every part of her life… now even this part, and she just wanted something that was her own, even if it was the sidewalk pushing back up against her feet and the relatively cool evening air.  Even if it was the soreness in her back from sleeping in the van.  This represented the length of his determined reach, the breadth of his sphere of influence.  He had touched this, and now it was soiled.

“No.  I have to go.  Thank you for all your trouble,” she said quietly, and walked quickly and quietly back down the stairs, fading into the darkness.