I think about it often. What is must have been like living your entire life past thirty-five. How did people do it? The fuck were they doing for the rest of their lives? Well, I guess we’re going to find out now, aren’t we? Bad joke. I read about what it was like back then. People seemed happier. Is that the right word? Content, maybe. Easy to please. In a lot of ways, I hate them. All of them.
Sorry, I shouldn’t be crying. All of the world is a goddamn desert, no one left and I’m still insecure. Oh fuck you, Tyson. Seriously. Fuck you. What? Where was I?
Oh yeah. I hate every single one of them. For how happy they were. How many choices they had. Like, just imagine growing up in a world where you could practically do anything and everything you ever wanted. Except you couldn’t. You just thought you could because the way society was structured, the way it was set up. Fought with those around you, especially those below you. Copied people you were jealous of. And then one day, your life didn’t matter. Just when you figured that shit out, when you finally had a grasp on things, it was over.
Am I talking about my time? Or theirs?
Never underestimate the power of people
“This is where I leave you”
Because someone’s always watching
Air was dry, filled with chemicals. Molecules, particles. Debris. The ground was soft under their feet, then it was hard. Undulating, shifting. Green, brown, mist, smog. They were barefoot, and upon further inspection, completely naked. No memory of before, just the now. The man felt the roughness of his hair, pulled at his thick beard. She held her stomach in pain. Had they fallen? Or was an old injury flaring up? Both, probably. The man stood on the hard (soft) ground and began to look around.
Nothing. Everything. Mostly green. Mostly brown. His skin was dirty, that much he could tell. His skin cracked as he moved, the dirt falling off his skin, taking shape below. He looked at his skin. Brown like the dirt that was on it, darker even. And so was hers. They stumbled into each other, naked, surprised at each other’s touch but not really. Not entirely.
“Who are you?”
Stumbling through the mass, the pile of soft (hard) ground as it turned and mushed together forming a mess that neither could describe. It was hard to hear too. “Who are you?” the words the women spoke rang like a mouse in a crowded city square. Maybe it was there but no one really cared if it was. What was that noise? The man took the woman’s hand. They explored.
She was beautiful, he noticed that the second he saw her. Dark, just like him. Youthful, didn’t look as rugged, as worn-out, as he did. Short but firm, her back muscles some of the best he had ever seen on a woman. And through the green---through the mist, she smiled. Maybe she had been speaking, or maybe she just liked men with beards. Still, a smile. The pair reached the top of a hill. Shifting ground, pungent air, molecules you could see, describe as they floated, mixed with your own body. They walked on.
A gust of wind followed by a blinding yellow light nearly killed the man. There was a pounding in his head he had never felt before. The woman too, was dropped to her knees by this light, this higher power. And almost simultaneously, in sync with each other’s pain and minds, they remembered. The man gripped his chest as the green matter flowed through his lungs. It burned into his stomach as he screamed. He closed his eyes.
Birthday cake and ice cream. Candles that showed the number thirty-five. Himself, sitting in a chair, not amused by whatever nonsense was happening in front of him. And she sat across from him. Or rather, stood on a ladder, with a banner, those back muscles bulging, and she turned, smiled. Just like she was now. And as his lungs were burning and his sight gone from the yellow light, he smiled. This was his wife. And he remembered her name.
She was holding her stomach, screaming as the noise and light devoured her. And called out his name.
Their skin morphed. Smooth but jagged. Just like the ground around them. He could feel his hands, his legs, even his teeth, had all grown. To almost monstrous proportions. Laughable proportions. His mind went to a time before the birthday cake. With Brianna in bed.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what black people do in this country, baby. We’ll always be targets,” Howard said. “Civil rights, Black Lives Matter, and now this. What is this?”
“I’m not sure,” Brianna said. Her voice soft, gentle. Much different from her screams now.
“Combining people. It isn’t right. And they have huge corporations making sure we do it faster than any other group.”
“I know, baby. I know,” Brianna said. She smiled at him again. Kissed his chest as she lay against it. “But we don’t have to think about that right now. We have five years. Five years of happiness.”
Now to the cake. Her muscles. Her smile. His sorrow.
They were transformed forever, in this place. Green, brown, shifting matter. He reached down with his enormous hand and picked up a box. His vision was clear now. Beneath his feet, beneath hers, trash. Scraps, excess. A clump of it lay in his hand as he walked toward the blinding light, which was comforting now. She was close behind him, trash in her hand. They meandered through the muck, the slime. Released their piles into the light and watched it float. Watched it burn. And began to walk back.
Howard was still there. Inside. He could feel his wants and desires, could practically feel Brianna’s chest against his as they kissed and made love. And Howard, not who he became, looked up at the light to see what they didn’t want him to see. Or maybe they did. Howard could see, buried in the trash, bodies. Old and new. Human and monster. Soft (hard) and shifting as the green mist settled in the air. Those bodies lifted, just like his pile. Right into the light. A certain smell. And one day, Howard looked up and saw someone watching him. A woman, wearing glasses, observing, writing things down.
Until one day he floated into the light. Still screaming. Brianna still smiling in his mind.
Dana woke up sweating. It hadn’t even been three hours since she laid down. But here she was, awake. Ready to conquer the world and look at rocks. She grabbed her glasses before looking at her clock. Past midnight. Happy birthday. She tapped her glasses.
Report to station 453 with partner within three business days. Failure to do so can result in---
She took her glasses off. Laid back in bed. A total of three minutes went by before they were back on, and she was using them to call Tristan. Who was still talkative, even in the middle of the night.
“Please, Tristan. Please. I just want to speak with your brother, Reggie.” Dana felt a chill come over her. Went over to the window to close it. Why was it open? She didn’t remember opening it.
“Yes, yes. I know I called you, but I just want to meet him. See how he’s handling this. Can you arrange a sit down?”
As Tristan prattled on about the possibility of a white woman fusing with his brother, Dana noticed an owl just outside her window. Small but majestic. Creepy in a dignified way. And it seemed to know it, wade in it. That it was one of the classiest animals alive, in her backyard. As it flew away, Dana wanted to tap her glasses. Tristan wanted to talk.
“Tomorrow at nine works great. But I need to get some sleep. Goodnight, Tristan.”
The owl was gone. And now, Dana was tired.
“This is where I leave you,” she whispered. Uninterrupted for the night.
In the morning, she waited at a coffee shop. The sun was bright, at least to her. Couldn’t remember the last time she had been in the field, not looking at replicas. She watched the people move about their lives. One woman complaining about the sweetness of her drink, everyone else recording her. Dogs walked with their owners. And Dana couldn’t help but ask how many? How many of these people were under the age? How many were still them? It was a world Dana didn’t recognize, yet it was the only word she knew. Outcast. Stranded. Not even a ball to play pretend with. Fetch. Bring it back. The warmth of her coffee comforted her, as the soulless continued their day. A man entered the shop five minutes later.
He was extremely handsome, so much so the women of the shop immediately began to drool the second he walked in. Good body too. He noticed Dana and acknowledged her. They shook hands and he sat down. He didn’t look thirty-five. No facial hair, and skin was some of the best, smoothest she had ever seen. She rubbed her hands together awkwardly, trying to remember the last time her skin looked, or even felt like that. A smile.
Reggie tried to smile back, but Dana recognized the attempt. Her attempts. At living in this world, being something you are not. The pain was all over his face. His gaze averted her.
“We can go somewhere else if you want,” she said. She smiled again, because this one was real. How could a man who look like this, built like this, carry so much fear? So much insecurity? Dana wanted to throw herself off a bridge when she remembered why they were here. Compassion. Learn some. He was already getting up from the table.
“My stupid brother recommended this place,” his voice was smooth, low. “Thinks he’s some sort of comedian.”
Dana stood up. “Trust me, he’s not.”
The pair walked down the street and passed other couples, some nodding their approval. Some disgusted. They didn’t talk about what they came to talk about though. Mainly their lives, what they did. Things they liked to do. He told Dana about his work as a computer scientist. Which was really a fancy way of him saying he fixed his company’s computers. It paid his bills though and he had lived a full life. And he wasn’t ready to give that up. Dana talked about work, how she had read that geologists jobs used to be jokes, non-important in the past. Reggie laughed when she told him that not much had changed.
“Government work?” he asked.
“A University. The one right down the road. But we get contracted for all types of things.”
They rested at a local park bench, the sun shining bright, the holographic landscapes impossible to tell from the real ones. Reggie let out a deep sigh, leaned forward, his arms resting on his knees.
“I miss this,” he said. “Talking to people.”
Dana nodded. She didn’t have anything to add.
“Why did you want to meet me?” Reggie asked. An almost annoyance in his voice. The pleasantries were nice, rare, and almost orgasmic to Dana. She didn’t love this man. But she did. And maybe he loved her, the way children love things the first time they see them. It was her turn to sigh.
“I’m not sure,” she said. And that was a lie. She decided that he was worth it, to tell the truth. Some of it, anyway. “I—I guess I just wanted to see someone like me. Wanted to know what you’re planning to do.”
Reggie sat there. Please. Say something. Dana’s mind was as fuzzy as the tree when her colleague walked through it yesterday. A pixelated mess of blue and white, with memories of the colors it was trying to imitate. She wanted to cry. Instead, it was Reggie who was moved to tears. His eyes closed. Cheeks wet.
He opened them and looked at her. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I like my life. It’s a normal life, but it’s mine. Am I selfish for wanting to keep that? Too keep who I am?”
Her hand moved to his. He gripped it like a child scared of the dark. “No, I don’t think so,” she said.
“There’s rumors,” Reggie said. “Of where people go if they don’t do a fusion. If they simply refuse and say no. And---there’s rumors of what they do to people like me.” Dana recoiled at his words. Felt her breath release from her like a popped balloon. “Where do they go?” Reggie pleaded looking up to the sky.
Dana thought about his words. This man, and how valuable his life was. But not because he was crying here on a park bench on her birthday, his birthday. It was valuable because it was. The guilt washed over her like mist, a soft (hard) ground beneath her feet, changing forever. She forced herself to hold it in. Hold in the information, hold in her knowledge of the place Reggie had heard rumors about. That journalists speculated about, made documentaries without evidence about. The schematics she had seen, the horrors she witnessed. The place her colleagues past and present had helped build.
The place she oversaw for an entire year. Too much pain, agony. From naked lawbreakers to monsters to slaves to fuel. She looked at the holographic landscapes once more. Dana wondered if all she ever felt was guilt, not purpose. Or even love. For Reggie. Was it all to atone for a life in the past? Lives hurt. If she had been like Reggie, without her privilege, her knowledge, would this feeling live inside her? Or would she just be another Rick? Complaining about the sweetness of her coffee. They could escape this. She wanted to escape this. Together, or better for her and Reggie, separate.
“Reggie,” she said. “Do you want to beat this? Them?”
He nodded. “More than anything.”
“I have a plan.”
END PART 2
About the Author: Toren Chenault (he/him) lives in Lansing with his fiancee, Rachel. A writer of everything from comic books to novels, Toren loves science-fiction and anything that pushes the brain to think. His influences range from hip-hop, sports, television, and of course, comics.