Empress Josephine

She woke up in the morgue, the mark of the cannula still worn into her upper lip, more clear-headed than she’d been in years. She sat up, just like that, without thinking about it, without having to plan every step carefully. Standing was an equal joy, no shifting her weight out past her knees, no rocking back and forth, no hoping she’d catch the handles of the walker and not fall on her forearms again. Standing! She laughed, the loudest sound she’d made since they moved up from Olympia, the same clear voice she’d heard in her head, then kept laughing, a minute, two, five, just to see how long she could go. She got bored before she had to stop.

There was someone else in the building with her, she could tell, someone warm, so she went looking, luxuriating just to be moving again.

“Oh, shit, you’re alive!” He was young, 22, maybe. College-aged; he looked like her grandson. He made his face look sympathetic. “Come sit down. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Do you remember your name? We’ll find your family. Let me look at your tag.”

She broke his neck easy as standing, then settled down to eat, still laughing. She’d never felt so alive.

Mycology

You swing between poles: one century you are self-effacing, invisible, a nondescript face in the crowd, forgotten even while they look at you. Other centuries you are a wildfire, the cynosure of civilization, a glorious polar star at the center of your own personal empire. Two sides of one door, you are never completely either, unknowable as deep water.

This decade you are deep-rooted and widespread as a fairy ring. They pass, like this one, this man brilliant as an arc light, into your circle not even recognizing your border. You seep into his lungs, into his soft tissues, and feast small feasts upon his life. He dims, just slightly. They say, who know him, that he has settled into his community: you smile inside their cells.

Death is wasteful, this century. You delight in populations, in aggregate. Porous bones, thickened skin, intermittent fevers. The water is fine, but they take you in with every swallow, every breath of heavy, humid air.

For This Meal We Give Thanks

You never do get used to waking up in the dark. Bleary-eyed, you shower, dress, poke listlessly at a piece of toast slowly going soggy and limp on your plate. The butter is rancid: you gag at the smell when you lift the lid on the plate but can’t muster the energy to throw it out.

It’s a windowless hole you live in, with a flight of narrow stairs leading from the peeling door down to the concrete floor. The whole room floods when the rain comes from the east; you clean and clean but there’s always the faint smell of mildew coming from somewhere.

The rest of the line is mostly all zombies, haggard and colorless in the bleach of the halogen lights, muffled out and alien with face masks and ear guards. You approach soundlessly from behind, exert steady slow pressure to gain attention; nothing fast, nothing startling. Cartoon gravestones posted on the break room walls memorialize fallen workers like HASTE MAKES WASTE and SHOULDA GONE SLOW. You can’t remember the last time you saw the sun, can’t remember what an unfiltered human voice sounds like. Everything is concrete, aluminum, moving lines, sparks.

It’s a nothing night in the middle of November when you find the body. You’re shocked, at first, more by the offensive red of the blood than by anything else. You don’t know the man, though his name tag says he was S. Patrick: it doesn’t mean anything to you. You recognize the marks on his throat, though, and on his wrists and elbows. Sloppy work. You cluck to yourself, and bend down to finish what’s left, shuddering with rare pleasure, before feeding S. Patrick back to the machine.

The next day they’ve reset the accident counter and there’s a mandatory staff meeting. You scan the crowd, looking for a brighter eye, rosier cheeks, a knowing twist to the cheek. It’s been ages since you’ve had a trainee, but everyone is safer when each person follows the rules. This, at least, you’ve taken to heart.

Rossum’s Universal Romance

You have fallen in love, as much as you can, and spend your endless nights hanging outside his apartment, looking down at his dark windows. He stands motionless behind the glass until morning throws the stone that puts the night to flight. He could see you, invisible though you are, if he but turned his head, but he doesn’t. You are two statues, together, and you incline toward him, like a magnet toward the poles.

He is perfectly built for mediocrity. He might be from any of a dozen races, might be an old 25 or a young 60, might, in this light or that, be male or female. He blends perfectly into any crowd, a half-familiar face in a hundred neighborhoods. You have never seen such impossible perfection, and sawdust leaks from your every empty pore for him.

You edge closer and closer until you are his shadow, stretched two steps behind as he moves through the city, one seat back on the train, one breath away in the bars, if you breathed, or he did. Neither of you drink, or eat, but sit pallidly apart in restaurants, picking at your waters and your steaks.

You urge promises through his windows, blandishments through his walls. One night he opens the window for you and you ooze inside, curl like fog around his unheated flesh as he stands, recharging, staring unblinking at the red glow of the city. He could see you if he but turned his head, but he doesn’t.

Eating Disorders

Normally enemies, they are united in their concern for you.

“You’ve been so depressed lately,” says your better nature.

“It’s not good for you,” says your worse.

“You haven’t bathed in a week.”

“You haven’t eaten anything but peanut butter.”

“With a spoon,” adds your better nature, and shudders.

“Not to shame you or anything.”

“Oh! No, no, nothing like that. It’s just…”

“…It can’t be good for you.”

“Come out from under the bed.”

“Just for a second.”

“That can’t be comfortable.” You hiss and curl more tightly around the half-empty jar of peanut butter. “Come on, now. Come out and eat something. There’s some pig’s blood in the fridge.”

“Or maybe we can find someone easy. Park benches, alleyways… country roads.”

“Just be safe.”

“We’re worried about you, aren’t we?”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

You buried an article of faith in the bottom of the jar years ago. Each bite burns through your stomach like battery acid. If you can’t control the hunger — and you can’t, you’re weak, aren’t you? — you can at least make it hurt. Let that be a lesson to all the many parts of you.