Suddenly, the contents of the table shifted. Gone were the platters of chicken cutlets and veal skewers, replaced by the vivisected corpse of our former cast mater. Somehow, despite her severe wounds, Monkey was alive, screaming for us to intervene.
She should have already been dead.
All we could do was watch.
Four sets of greedy, grubby fingers entered her open chest cavity-ripping, tearing, splitting, sharing, and pulling out organs of all shapes and sizes. In a ravenous fit of cannibalism, Bird and Bernie fought over the large intestines, while I devoured a kidney; the parallel version of Monkey shoveled handfuls of her own flesh inside her own red-stained mouth.
I closed my eyes, sealed them tight. However, hearing the sounds of the gluttonous orgy was just as bad as seeing it. The Director appeared on top of the table towering over Monkey's corpse. She had been picked clean.
“Don't fret my pets,” cackled the maniacal man with scissors. “Hair keeps growing long after you're dead. It'll grow back. Snip, snip!”
58:21, 58:22, 58:23....
Where had all the time gone?
, how long were we watching ourselves eat? We took off, running into a hallway of molded, knotty wood. Behind us, Bird lost her footing. It was so tempting to keep moving, not even look back. (That's probably what I would have done if I'd been able to use my legs.) Bernie, however, slowed, waited for her to catch up.
A low, guttural rumble rattled the walls and vibrated under our feet. Two eyes blinked to life inside the knots in the wood. The floor opened revealing rows of splintery teeth; a tongue of pink insulation shot out and coiled around Bird's leg. She didn't scream; she didn't try to fight it. The tongue retracted back into the mouth, swallowing Bird in a single gulp.
At least the Director won't get her hair as a trophy,
“Only two left, oh me oh my!” said the face in the floor with the voice of the Director. The face twitched, spasmed, and morphed until the wood and drywall became skin and blonde hair. “You two silly-willies are blowing through my house in record time! You're almost there...only one more place to show you...and oh what a place it is!”
We vanished—the Director, Bernie and me
we reappeared in Hell.
An enormous black iron gate blocked any further passage. People, so many people...every dead person from every dead age of Earth's history were sewn into the ancient walls, woven together in writhing honeycombs. They called the names of their loved ones, they shouted for help and for water. I never knew what the phrase
gnashing of teeth
meant until that very moment. I thought my ears were going to explode.
67:00, 67:01, 67:02....
For the first time, Bernie faltered. He dropped me on the harsh stone, my hip exploded in an orgasm of pain. He fell to his knees with his hands over his ears. That was when I accepted my fate. It was time to die. Hell...that time had long passed.
“Are you the Devil?” asked Bernie, wincing.
“No you fool. I'm God. And you are the forsaken,” said the Director. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a package. On the top of the package were three addresses, in the center, in big, bold letters were the words:
Bernie shook his head. “I don't want it.”
“You don't have a choice. This is how it works. One person leaves. Never two. One person always survives. Someone has to deliver the package. And it is sure not going to be this old fuck!”
“What if I refuse?”
The Director seemed unfazed. “Sure, sure, Bernie the Jew. That's an option. But you won't like it,” he took a breath, paced around us like a drill instructor. “It'd be a shame for you to have to watch the wrinkled skin of your mother, Miriam Heller, being pulled apart by one of my imps. Also, I'd be forced to take care of poor Mr. Scanlan's family as well. His son, his daughter, his four sweet grandbabies!”
He snatched the package from the Director's hands. “Okay,” he said, defeated. “Ronald. What happens to Ronald?”
“When the clock reaches ninety, he dies.”
Bernie Heller looked down at me with tears in his eyes. “I'm sorry.”
I nodded. I didn't think there was anything left to say. But then again there was a lot to say. I just didn't know how to say it. So a nod would have to suffice.
The black iron gates opened slightly, enough of a sliver for Bernie to slip through. I didn't turn around to watch him leave. It would've been too hard. I didn't want to be blubbering like a baby in one of my final acts of life. I knew he was gone when I heard metal scrap against metal and heard the sound of a key turning inside an ancient lock. This was the sound of finality. The sound of the end.
77:44, 77:45, 77:46....
I had time. Not much time, but enough.
Sprawled on the cool caves of Hell, I raised my head to look the Director in the eyes. He was next to me, close enough to kiss my lips or bite my neck, yet, still, he moved closer; his sulfuric breath puffed into my ear. “You've lived a long time Mr. Scanlan. I think someone wants to meet you. Wink, wink.”
High above my head Death descended, gradually; inch by delicate inch, he floated like a glacier in black tattered cloth; His hood covered His face; He carried a large wooden scythe that pointed downward, directly at me.
I smiled at Him, unafraid.
He didn't have flowers.
87:01, 87:02, 87:03....
The Director, once again behind his camera, zoomed in as close as he could to my face, trying to capture my fear. But I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. If I had to die, I'd die with dignity, on my feet, looking Death in the eyes. I used the last ounce of my remaining strength to lift up from the rocks. My hipbone punctured nerve endings but I pushed through it.
Standing, I waited.
88:29, 88:30, 88:31....
I pictured my son, my daughter, all four of my grandchildren; I even pictured the face of the wife I'd neglected for years until she finally gave up and left me. Each one of those important relationships I had single-handily sabotaged in one way or another. I hoped they knew how much I loved them, how much I wished I could fix things.
The numbers were counting down long before I came to this house; I just never saw them until it was too late.
89:50, 89:51, 89:52....
Suddenly, it all seemed to make sense—both life and death. In the end, it's all dust in an hourglass. What a tragic waste, I got to live so long but actually
I thought of the day my son was born, the day of my daughter's fifth birthday party; I thought of my honeymoon. Those were the moments that mattered—the real moments, the genuine moments.
Everything else was just special effects.
He could hear the tune, he could almost see its lyrics written capriciously across a saffron-tinted sky, but he couldn't remember its title. It distressed him that he couldn’t remember. It
at him. Try as he might, he couldn’t concentrate. His recollection was an empty slate.
Then, as imperceptibly as it had deserted him, consciousness reasserted itself. The vivid kaleidoscope that was his dream and the song that scored it both expired. Yet with consciousness came only darkness and silence.
No chirping birds or barking dogs greeted him. He felt the early morning sunlight splash across his face but he couldn't see it. The dull ache of his polyethylene, chrome-cobalt alloy knees and the dryness of his throat alerted him to the new day's arrival. It had been that way for years; waking not with a bang but with a creak and a whimper, discomfort the daily reminder of his continued existence. Still, he'd never grown accustomed to regaining consciousness blind and deaf.
As he disengaged from the cobwebs of slumber, awareness gradually returned and he recalled his place in the universe. For Benjamin Edward Glucorde, that awareness was not wholly gratifying. Though half-forgotten decades had dulled its razor sharpness and diminished its capacity to conceive—his mind was still his. Whether that was a curse or a blessing was a debate his inner voice never fully resolved.
His fingers inched across the cool Lycra sheet until they brushed the familiar texture of the rubberized control pad. The head of the bed began to elevate.
With the first upward movement, his optic array activated, revealing daylight in progressively brighter increments. There was, however, nothing incremental about the stiffness in his back. It carped grievously against the change of position, drawing attention away from the complaint emanating from his titanium-plated hips. The pain came and went at its own discretion.
He had few body parts that didn't whine and squawk from time to time. He ignored the pain as best he could. He could do little else, since he refused to dull his senses with drugs.
When the bed reached a forty-three degree angle, his cochlear implants became fully operative. As was often the case, the first sound he heard came from a passing aerocar.
Damned flying gewgaws,
he thought. They were always swooping over his place as if they were on some kind of bloody bombing run. He was almost glad his ears shut down when he slept. Lately though, the volume control was all over the place. One moment he could hardly hear a thing, the next he was listening to a gnat walk up the wall.
At exactly seventy-six degrees, the bed halted. With a technique honed by repetition he slowly shifted his legs over the side and planted his feet on the carpeted floor. He took a deep breath and started to rub his eyes. He checked himself. There was something about rubbing his eyes he was supposed to remember–something about fracturing the lenses.
Standing required greater effort but once his weight was equally distributed, what he liked to call his "bionic knees" made walking easy, if not pain free.
He had a sullen agreement with his body–at least what there was left of the original equipment. If it could go about its business without making him look like Mr. Roboto he would resist the temptation to do the Highland fling.
He hobbled into the kitchen to see if he could find anything other than the Easy-Digest Nutrients swill he'd tried the day before but the phone chime diverted him. He triggered the display and saw a stern-faced old man dressed in a dark suit. Of course,
was a relative term.
"Grandfather, it's me, William. Can you see me? Can you hear me okay?"
It took a few moments before he recognized the face. "I can see and hear just fine, Billy. What do you want?"
“I know you don't want to hear this but if you're going to insist on living in that place all alone, I should have some SecureVision cameras installed. That way, if anything happened to–”
“You're not spying on me with no cameras!”
“Not spying, Grandfather. They just alert the medtechs if you fall or…”
“I don't need anyone to babysit me.”
"Well, anyway, that’s not why I called. I wanted to remind you that Amber is coming to visit you tomorrow."
"Amber? Is that one of my grandkids?"
your grandson." There was impatience in William’s tone, only somewhat disguised by a look of concern. "Amber is
granddaughter. She's your great-great-granddaughter."
"Oh," Ben muttered, chagrined. "So you say she's coming to visit?"
"Yes, don't you remember? She's coming to see you tomorrow. And I wish you'd try to talk to her.”
"Her mother says she's been spending time with some university extremists, reading prohibited books, that sort of thing."
"We thought maybe she might listen to you. She's always liked you. She won't listen to her mother or me. Will you do that? Will you talk some sense into her?"
"I'll take her for a ride in my car."
"Your car? Grandfather, that automobile's almost as old as you are. You shouldn't be driving that thing."
"What are you talking about Billy?" Outrage fortified his voice. "Driving my car's the only thing I got left in this miserable life!"
"That antique is dangerous. You should get rid of it."
"Maybe then you ought to get rid of me too."
"Grandfather, don't be ridiculous."
"Then don't be a dickhead, boy. I was driving that car before you were toilet-trained. So don't be telling me to trash her like she was some worn-out old shoe."
"All right, we'll talk about it some other time.
, Amber will be there tomorrow."
"And, Grandfather, I'm seventy-six years old. Nobody calls me 'Billy' any more. My name's William."
Ben was still staring at the phone display as it went black. "You're still little snot-nosed Billy to me," he said to the blank screen.
Grumbling, he made his way with some effort to the side door. "Thinks he can tell me what to do just because he's an old fart now. Let's see how bossy he is when he's a hundred." The door dilated at his approach. "Talking like a crazy man–get rid of my car. Sure, something's old, so it must be useless. Just dump it, replace it, get some newfangled flying
.” He stepped into the garage and the lights came on.
The sight of it calmed him. He stood steadfast, staring. It was a dazzling blue vision, trimmed in shimmering chrome and carved with sleek dynamic lines that conveyed the quality of motion even while stationary. Just seeing the old Ford was enough to alleviate the grumpy aftertaste left by the conversation with his grandson.
He limped around to the driver's side, inhaling the lingering scent of oil and exhaust. His fingers trailed across the hood, relishing the cool, soothing metal. So many years together; so many memories. How could his grandson understand? How could anyone understand when they made such a ritual of replacing the old with the new? It didn't matter if the oven still cooked properly, the stereo still sounded great or the clothes weren't worn. What mattered was that there was always more money to spend–fresh styles, novel gadgets–toss out the used, buy the up-to-date.
He peered through the driver's window. A strange face stared back at him.
It took a moment to recognize his own reflection, disguised as it was by ruckled rows of mottled skin and wispy, wild strands of white hair. His face reminded him of a shirt that had been left in the hamper too long.
How different he'd looked the first time he'd gazed through that glass. He'd been a dashing young rogue of forty-something. He could have bought a brand-new car but he chose this one instead. Already a classic, it had been on the road more than three decades. He picked it because it was like his first car, the one he'd bought with his own money as a teenager. He'd loved that car too, until he was drafted into the Army and had to sell it. When he got this one, he vowed never to part with it.
He grasped the chrome handle and pressed the button that opened the door. Not a console pad or touch-screen but a real mechanical button. The immaculate white vinyl beckoned him, but bending down and sliding into the seat was tricky. He managed it though, resting his hands on the steering wheel. The hard resin finish was smooth as a woman's thigh. He stroked it lovingly, his hands coming to rest on its chrome centerpiece, where a silver horse galloped ever-in-place across a red, white and blue field.
He pumped the accelerator once, twice, three times and released it–a routine ingrained in him by his own father more than a century ago. He turned the key and felt the eight-cylinder beast rear up, its 289 cubic-inch engine roaring through dual exhaust. Twice more he pumped fuel into the four-barrel carburetor. She pulled at the reins but hushed as he lifted his foot, routinely checking the gauges. He needed to order more gas.
The garage door activated and he drove out into the sunshine.
He could still handle her, as long as he didn't push it, his reflexes not being as prompt as they once were. He drove past Cecilia's place. She was outside messing with her plants. She smiled and waved. He gave her a cursory wave back.
The woman had designs on him–he was sure. It didn't seem to matter to her that she was young enough to be his granddaughter. Hell, twenty or thirty years ago he might have taken her up on it and given her the thrill of her life. Now he just humored her because her son was some fancy engineer who liked
He was the only person Ben knew who could work on the old Ford when some part needed replacing.
He took his usual route, an old paved road running down by the sea cliffs and getting little use these days. He was glad he lived far from the city proper, teeming as it was with what they called
–not to mention all the crazy flying contraptions taking off and landing all over the place. He didn’t want to maneuver through those streets. He’d tried it once. It was like being a potato bug in a swarm of bees. No, he was content to cruise his back roads, reveling in the stares he provoked.
She still drove like a dream, that car—smooth, steady, yet she had the get-up-and-go when he felt like testing her. He was sure she could outrun any of those flying cars—that was, if they stayed grounded.
"Yes sir, they don't make 'em like this anymore," he said aloud, smiling at his own inanity. "Hold it together Benny, don't start talking to yourself."
He glanced at his rearview mirror and thought for a moment he saw something. He looked again but nothing was there. Nothing but an empty road and the hundreds of thousands of miles he had left behind. That’s the way life was, always trailing behind…memories always back there a ways, just beyond the vanishing point.
He reached over, opened the console and pulled out a small, clear plastic baggie. Sealed inside it was a lock of light red hair—her hair—still as soft looking as the first day he'd laid eyes on it so many years before. He kept it in the car for good luck. Maybe that's why the old engine had lasted so long. He put the baggie back.
Off to his left now, far down from the cliff wall, was the ocean. It was a balmy day and the waters were tranquil. He couldn’t see a whitecap or a single vessel all the way to the horizon. The only thing marring the view was a phalanx of rusted old wind power turbines, plumbing the depths offshore.
When he decided to turn around and drive home, he noticed the engine was running hot. Worried she might overheat he babied her the rest of the way. As he approached Cecilia's house steam sprayed up from under the hood. He stopped, turned off the engine and got out.
It was a struggle to open the hood and he cursed himself for the decrepit old cripple he was. When he finally pushed it up, a cloud of steam billowed out, scalding his face and forcing him back. He cursed some more until he tired of it and started walking. Fortunately his place was just up the road a bit from Cecilia's. He saw her as he rounded the corner and tried to call out. But when he opened his mouth nothing but a gurgle came out. He became dizzy, then uncomfortably warm. His optic array began to malfunction; everything grew blurry.
Panic gripped him. A chill raced through his body. Was this it? Was it finally going to end? Conflicting emotions cascaded and collided. Fright—dread of the unknown—regret—acceptance…relief. He'd wished for it more times than he could count. Now that it seemed near, he both feared and welcomed it.
He couldn’t breathe. His chest was on fire. He felt himself falling and heard Cecilia scream.
* * *
He opened his eyes. He didn’t know where he was but he knew he was alive. He knew because he could feel his body—his old, worn out body. Anger surged through him. He'd been so close, so ready. Why wasn't he dead? Why wouldn't they let him die?
“Why did you do this to me?” he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.