Martha turned the wine glass on the table then stood back and frowned. She then leant back and turned it back to its original position before smiling and stepping to the next place setting. The sound of her shoes against the floorboards echoed through the room.
The house was quiet, empty and waiting.
After checking each glass Martha stood back and took in her handiwork. The table was square, wooden and simple and Martha had set it meticulously. Every element before her was arranged by a formula only known to her. Chairs ordered, plates stacked, candles placed. Cutlery lay parallel to their neighbours and sparkled under the lighting of the carefully dimmed bulbs above them. Flowers twisted and curled in the most particular way and together it surrounded a curiously empty centre. A horseshoe shaped hole that ended on one side of the table where there were no plates, cutlery or chairs at all. It was purposeful and calculated.
Martha looked up at a clock on the wall. Archaic and ugly the clock stood out against the elegance of Martha’s modern place setting. Gold around its edge was faded and rusting and scrawling symbols of some unknown language had been cut into its face. The clock hands were bent and still and had not moved for centuries.
Martha looked up at the clock and nodded to no one. They would be here soon.
There was a tap at the window.
Martha turned and saw no one in the darkness outside. Her own reflection stared back and watched her as she exhaled then turned back to the table. Her reflection did not turn with her.
There was a tap at the window.
Martha whipped around, facing herself. Her reflection smiled at her, a smile that Martha did not echo.
Martha tilted her head.
Her reflection did not.
And then its smile grew wider.
The edges of the reflection’s lips stretched further and further up its cheeks in a way that flesh should not allow. Martha, unchanged, watched as her face split in half. The eyes of her reflection rolled back and turned red.
Now Martha smiled. They were here.
Martha opened the windows of the room and beamed as her guests crawled inside. Pale figures, skeletal and hairless, slid headfirst into the room. Their long and bony limbs twisted around each other as they fell forward, so eager to get inside and take their place at the table. When they stood upright they loomed over Martha and had to bend their necks to stop their heads from scraping against the ceiling.
Once settled they turned to their host. Martha smiled at each guest before leaning back against the table and carefully laying herself in the centre of the congregation. The hole in the setting was filled.
The figures stood silently, their skinny chests rising and falling rapidly.
Martha nodded and her guests sat down.
A ticking began from the clock on the wall and Martha’s guests started to feed.
The tiny man that lives in my chest is breathing louder.
His lungs swell and ribcage expands and with each breath instead of retreating his body continues to grow. He sits curled, his spine arched and face unseen and with every inhale I feel my bones creak. You stand above me, watching me from the ceiling. Glaring and spinning as the room spins with you, one eye is fire, the other a ticking clock.
The clock strikes one.
You scream at me with a mouth invisible. From screens taped to my hands, pasted on every desk and available wall space you scream at me. Miles away, you remain in my view and in my head. Frightened by your screams the man in my chest breathes heavier and heavier.
I watch my skin stretch and distort. Like bubble gum on the pavement, like cling film torn on a serrated edge, my skin is changing. The colour becomes pale in the spots that are thinnest and scars once thick and healed become pink and splitting. I am breaking.
The clock strikes two.
You are everybody that isn’t me. Everybody that hates me. You are the news in my feed, the looks on the train, the scorned lover that believes me dirt. You are strong and I am weak. The man in my chest cannot withstand your war and my flesh and blood cannot contain him.
In my body the second room that is the housing that holds my heart and lungs aches. Walls are cracking and foundations below are receding. I want to open the door. I need space so the man can expand without hindrance but the key I have been given does not fit the lock. The man does not heed the cries of my insides as they are crushed.
The clock strikes three.
My stomach bursts as the man breathes in once more. I want to stop him. I need to stop him. With every message and hint of you the man breathes in and I am terrified he will not stop. Please stop screaming at me. I can be better. I can be good. But I need you to stop. I want this to stop and you want this and maybe you want him.
When he emerges maybe I will be replaced. As he stands in my stomach, my body twisted and broken underneath him like the shell of an egg, maybe he will step forward and become me. Be the me you always wanted and maybe finally I will be better.
Into the mirror of his mother’s downstairs bathroom Peter stared. Susan stared right back. Peter on one side of aluminium, glass and paint, and Susan reflected perfectly back on the other. They stared,
at the pimple pulsing in the centre of Peter’s forehead.
Peter raised two hands, shaking as he placed a finger on either side of the thudding skin spot. Susan watched, her arms pressed tight on either side of her body. Her hands are fists and her fingers are cramping.
Peter shuts his eyes,
Pressure builds from the base of the spot, forcing pus and blood to the surface of the skin. For a moment the thin tissue holding Peter’s face together remains strong. Peter’s grip tightens and his skin relents.
Blood, pus, and oil tears through his forehead, bursting outwards into the air. In one solid line the grotesque rainbow arcs from Peter’s face and towards the mirror. When hitting surface, instead of splattering as physics would allow, the mess continues through the mirror. Through wall, through reality, until coming to rest.
On Susan’s top lip.
Susan’s lips part and she breathes out. Her lungs flutter and she shuts her eyes. Her tongue snakes from her mouth, pushing upwards and meeting the blood, pus and oil. She runs her tongue up from one side of her mouth, to the other, then back again. Her tongue returns to her mouth and her eyes open.
The ragged hole left in Peter’s head is expanding. Red raw edges and black centre are growing. Soon the wound goes from being just the centre of Peter’s forehead to his entire forehead. The wound becomes eyes, becomes cheeks, becomes mouth. Soon Peter’s face is all but gone, replaced with a hole, still dripping from the edge with yellow and red and in the centre black. Impossibly deep.
Red lines spin from the outside of Peter’s head inwards to the black, becoming a spinning sinking spiral that disappears into nothing. Susan’s eyes roll back in her head and her feet leave the ground. Behind the mirror Susan begins to float forward.
Susan’s body moves through the air as if weightless and when she too meets glass she does not stop. Instead she continues on as if there was nothing there at all. With no resistance or signs of fear Susan flies head first into the hole that was once Peter’s head.
Susan is consumed.
After she disappears into darkness the hole seals itself shut. Peter’s face does not return, replaced now with a solid blank wall of flesh. The mirror reflects nothing and for a moment
there is silence.
Peter’s body twists. An arm jerks and there is a snap as ribs break. Peter’s shoulders convulse, his spin arcs backwards and the sound of fists against meat thumps from inside his stomach. Peter’s body falls.
A hand grips basin
and pulls itself up.
Into the mirror of Peter’s mother’s downstairs bathroom Susan stared. Peter stared right back.
Next to a broken set of drawers is a couch with the seat pillows missing and on top of the couch is a mattress and between the mattress and the couch is a dead body. I’m pretty sure it’s dead. The arm dangling down the side of the couch is bloodied and one of the feet are missing from the legs sticking out the other end. I squint and take another bite of my Crunchy Nut. Yep. It’s dead alright.
I think about calling the cops. I’ve never called the cops before. I Google to see if I can just book them online or something but they said in a case like this I should call. They need an app for these sort of things, like an Uber for the police. I decide one of the neighbours would probably call instead.
That night my alarm goes off reminding me to put the bins out. My roommates are away so I can’t ignore it. The dead body is still there but the mattress is gone which means now I can see his face. He’s lying face up, his head tilted to one side so he’s looking straight at me. The blood from his arm stops at his elbow and his mouth and eyes are open. Mosquitoes fly lazily between what’s left of his teeth.
The next morning I rush out the front, half asleep and already late for work. My car starts on the second try and I look over my shoulder to check for oncoming traffic. One of the ladies from down at the retirement village is out walking her dog and I watch her stroll by the dead body. She lets her dog leap up onto the guy’s lap and lick his crotch. I get a funny feeling in my stomach that I pretend doesn’t happen then take off with a squeal.
When I get home the couch is gone but the body is still there. He has been rolled off the couch so now he has his face in the dirt and arse in the air. I feel a sense of loss and sadness come over me. I liked that couch. I ignore the bins so I don’t have to take them back inside.
I get woken up in the middle of the night by my roommates who are home and without keys. I glare when I open the door but manage a bleary hello. Reluctantly I follow them to the kitchen and ask them about their trip. After they’re done I ask,
“Did you see the body?”
We all wander outside. The gravel of the driveway hurts my feet and they walk ahead of me. When I catch up I point across the street but the body is gone.
“That’s a set of drawers.”
I shrug, “Someone must have taken it.”
“Should we grab the drawers?”
“Nah they’re broken.”
A wind whips down the street and I shudder. We argue over who should take the bins inside.
I suppose it wasn’t that long ago when the star fell from the sky. He was surprised at how small it was. Some may describe it as tiny. Though tiny, he reminded himself, is a relative term. I mean compared to an average sized elephant he was tiny. But compared to his old skinny jeans he was not.
Anyway. The star, relative to him, was smaller than how big he imagined a star might be.
Although small the star was indeed beautiful. Beautiful in the way that all bright lights are. Like when you step out of the shower and stare at a fluorescent until you feel it in the back of your skull. Beautiful like that one second you’re blinded by a passing car that accidentally left their high beams on.
He decided he was going to touch it.
Now he wasn’t a physicist, he didn’t study astrology and he barely went to school. But he had Google and an imagination and he believed that this gave him at least some claim to the nature of stars. At least enough that warranted a further exploration of the matter.
So yeah, he was going to touch it.
It was cold in the woods and his breath warped in front of him, blurring the fallen star light steaming in the snow. He could feel a comfortable warmth coming from the star, even through his gloves. It felt safe.
He smiled and with face lit up by the soft glow he reached out.
There was a soft push in his belly, like a gulp moving backwards. Like when someone meets the person they’ll marry. Like when parents hold their child for the first time. Like when a child meets Santa and asks for a wish. He touched the star.
And was instantly incinerated.
Turns out stars are relatively hot. Maybe not so much compared to even hotter stars, but definitely when compared to an average sized human being.
Ash fell in a pile. The star continued to glow.
His phone was dead and the dirt and rubble didn’t allow sunlight to reach him. How long had he been down here? Something hard and cold was impaled through his side and it was difficult to breathe. The ground above and below had him pinned looking down so his face was in the dirt and he couldn’t move.
He couldn’t move.
How long had he been down here?
He knew if he didn’t starve first he would bleed to death. Rock and broken glass was bunched up around his face, neck, ribs, stomach. His lungs and stomach were coated in a thick layer of dust, every inhale turning his insides into mud. Dust and dirt and rocks and glass. He was dissolving into the rubble from the inside out.
He was cold. He couldn’t think. He was cold. He couldn’t move. He had to do something.
He couldn’t think.
He was told in situations like this humans were supposed to gain some sort of inner magical strength. In the face of certain death his survival instincts were going to kick in more potent then ever before. Adrenaline would pump. Muscles would strain. An unstoppable force would fill him and destroy an immovable object.
But he had tried.
He had strained.
And he was still trapped.
He shouldn’t have been shocked. Getting out from underneath an entire office building was always going to be difficult and the earthquake had been thorough. He tried to remember how many floors were above his own when the building collapsed. Maybe if he knew he could figure out how deeply he was buried.
But he couldn’t. Think. Do. Move.
Blood from a cut on his forehead pooled at the sides of his eyes. Now that he had stopped crying the blood had hardened making his face tight. He struggled to keep his eyes open.
He never imagined much of a future but what he had hoped for was far better than this.
He shut his eyes.
A shift above him.
There was a grinding sound as rock moved against rock and he felt dust fall against his cheek. He opened his eyes and watched cracks of light split the darkness above him, gasping when moving rubble grazed his nose. The light that dripped through cracks now poured. Temporary blindness from the sudden light gave way to tears and then to a dust-choked,
Lifting his head was ecstasy. He couldn’t keep the grin from his face as he looked up, squinting as his pupils contracted and adjusted to what was in front of him. He could see a floodlight pointing down at him from far away. It was bright enough that he couldn’t see past it, couldn’t see the sky. At least not yet. And that was okay. Soon. He was safe, he was-
A black shape moved and blocked the light. His pupils widened. With the light behind the figure he couldn’t make out the features of who it was that was in front of him. He could make out shoulders, a neck and a head but that was it.
He didn’t mind. He was safe, he was-
“Do you prefer sir or madam or other?”
He laughed, then groaned.
“You can call me whatever you want.”
“Sir or madam or other?”
He laughed, quieter.
“Sir is fine.”
The silhouette turned and pulled a transparent clipboard out from behind their back. On the surface of the clipboard swirled different colours. He watched dark purples and bright greens shift and change, mixing and separating seemingly at random. He could make out letters and numbers briefly but they disappeared as soon as they came. Whatever they were he didn’t care. He only wanted to know one thing.
“Can you get me out?”
The silhouette ran a finger over the glass. Colours moved and he watched as two brighter swirls darkened and spun a little tighter.
“Perfect, let’s do it.”
“Depends on what?”
The silhouette cleared its throat.
“How would you describe yourself in ten words or less?”
“How would you describe yourself in ten words or less?”
His smile froze then fell.
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you have a family? Any children?”
“No I don’t. Please I think I’m badly hurt.”
“And would you describe yourself as lower, middle or upper class?”
He stared at the silhouette, confused. He searched for a pair of eyes or a mouth, something to understand but he couldn’t see either. Black fingers spun across the board and colours spun with them.
“I don’t know. I’m losing a lot of blood.”
“Let me simplify that. What is your yearly income?”
“I-I’m on casual rates. I’m not sure. What is this?”
The silhouette made another mark against the clipboard. The colours respond, pooling to the corners of the screen. Their spinning slows.
“I need a hospital.”
“Where did you go to school?”
“Where did you go to school?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was it a public or private institution?”
“What is this for?”
The silhouette tapped the centre of the board. His neck was hurting from looking upwards and for a moment he lets his head drop back to the dirt. When he lifted his head back he gasped as the movement shot pain up his side.
“What is your sex?”
“Get me out.”
“Answer the question. We don’t have much time.”
“Answer the question.”
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. How would you describe your sexual orientation?”
“Please I need help. I think I’m dying.”
“Sir, the faster you answer the questions the sooner we can decide what we need to do.”
“We need to get me out of here.”
“Not until you answer these questions. We must determine your worth.”
“How much society needs you sir.”
His chest tightened. He felt nauseous.
“Can we proceed?”
“Can we proceed?”
“Get me the fuck out of here.”
Fingers tapped against the glass of the clipboard. Colour swirled and tightened.
“Are you religious? Muslim? Buddhist? Atheist?”
“Does it matter?”
“That’s up to you sir. Hot tip, the Pope has tweeted that he is ‘Praying for all the Catholics in the area’ which could boost your average.”
“My average what?”
The silhouette sighed.
“We can’t keep going over this. I have other people to save.”
“You’re not saving anyone at the moment.”
“Pro-life or pro-choice?”
He was crying again.
“Liberal or labour?”
“I don’t know. I don’t vote.”
The clipboard darkened.
He could feel himself slipping.
“Socialist or capitalist?”
“Whatever you want me to say I’ll say it. Just get me out of here please.”
His mind was foggy.
“Black or white?”
The shadow paused and looked down before bringing out a torch and shining it in his eyes. It hurt.
“There is no point in lying sir, you’re only slowing things down.”
“I don’t. I don’t have long.”
“Where are your parents from?”
The silhouette’s voice was fading.
“What are your opinions on climate change?”
His eyes close.
“Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?”
His mouth falls open.
“A genocide occurs. Do you celebrate it?”
Spit dribbled out of his mouth and he could feel it. He could feel it drip warm over his lip. A singular blob slowly stretching as gravity forced it over the edge of his mouth and down towards his chin. He felt it cool and stick to his face, falling no further as it mixed with the dust in the air and became mud. Something shone in his face and his eyes opened.
“Sir we are almost done. Please watch this short video.”
His head droops forward. A hand lifts his head back up and his eyes meet the outstretched clipboard. An advertisement for the new half-chicken half-beef Maxi-Splosion burger from McDonalds plays.
“Sorry about this, it’ll be over in thirty seconds.”
The main video begins.
A crowd of protestors chant something unheard then scatter abruptly as a van plows through the centre of them. A woman is struck and she is seen spiralling through the air, crashing into the camera. Smash cut to a man with a swastika tied around his arm, shouting in the face of a person in a large grey hoody. The person in the hoody throws out a fist and knocks the Nazi to the floor.
The silhouette chuckles.
In the dirt he shuts his eyes.
Without an audience the video continues.
A politician stands at a press pedestal and flips off the camera. A house is on fire. A family can be seen on the top floor staring out the window. A crucifix stands in the front yard and the family waves it goodbye. Smash cut and the whole world can be seen as if from space.
It is on fire.
The silhouette chuckles again.
“I love that. Now you have a choice of four answers to give in response to this clip. Do you either A. Comment below, outraged. B. Report the vid-Sir? Sir are you paying attention?”
The silhouette moves their hand from the man’s chin to his neck. He doesn’t react. The man’s head is dropped, slumping into the dirt. The silhouette makes a note and the clipboard goes black.
The rubble is replaced.
She didn’t know how long she had been down there. Her chest ached. She couldn’t feel anything below her stomach and she was scared. Something shifted above.
Light broke through.
A shadow of a face loomed over her, a colourful screen swirling next to it.