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Ten Minute Writes

It happened again today. We were on the phone, and you were telling me where you wanted to meet, and I said, “Meet me on the corner of 34th and Madison in twenty minutes,” and then I just hung up without waiting to see if that was okay with you, or if you had any additional thoughts on the matter.

If this seemed rude, I apologize. It’s simply something I do–something I’ve always done. I don’t like saying goodbye, especially on the phone. I’m trying to lower my daily word count and omit the needless words in my life, and I didn’t think the rest of our conversation was going to be interesting. Again, I’m sorry if that seems rude.

Also, if it ever appears to you that I don’t listen to the second half of your sentences, it’s because I already know how most of them are likely to end. Yesterday when you said to me, “I got an A on my …,” I must confess my attention cut you off right there. I assumed you were talking about your Bio test. If you weren’t–if, say, you were saying something like that you’d gotten a scarlet A sewn onto your blouse–well, then, I probably misunderstood, because I wasn’t really listening to that part. If you want me to listen, please structure your sentences in a more suspenseful way.

I also apologize for showing up late to your birthday dinner and then leaving a few moments later. Everyone was far too agreeable, and that one guy was talking at great length about the dream he had the previous night, going way beyond the standard two or three line maximum allowed by modern dialogue. It was horrid, and at any rate I just didn’t think anything interesting was happening in that scene–that scene that was your birthday dinner.

I hope you accept this apology, realizing that I am apologizing not because I mean to change, but because I want you to accept my behavior, even if you find it rude. Because it’s not rude. Not really. I’m just trying to trim the meaningless parts of my life away, and some of them, I’m sorry to say, include pieces of you.

Henry never understood why what happened to him happened to him, but he was keenly aware of what it felt like: an itching neurosis, blooming in his brain, triggered a desperate need to climb out his window on the fifteenth floor of his penthouse apartment on 79th and 1st. His hands felt gummy when he opened the window, and for a horrible moment he couldn’t let go of the plastic molding. The pustules on his hand barfed more viscous glue as he gave another pull and freed himself to begin the climb.

Sun, he thought. I need sunlight. That’s the ticket.

He reached around the window and began to climb toward the roof a few feet above. For a moment he imagined himself to be Peter Parker, scaling his first building, until he pushed his face out of shadow into the warming plane of sun, and the urge to climb any higher dissolved. He gritted his teeth, pressed himself against the concrete above his window, and stayed there until the muck oozing out of him solidified and all hope of further movement was lost.

The itch was gone. In its place was a tranquility he’d rarely known in his thirty-five years. He finally felt he’d reached the place he belonged.

There was no way Henry could know it was merely the Ophiocordyceps humanis talking. A new and youthful form of fungus, recently mutated accidentally by a prominent pesticide company supplying a major farming conglomerate, the new species had made its way to Henry’s body through a potato he’d purchased from a vegetable cart on the corner. The fungus had spidered through his brain and triggered an autoimmune reaction from his skin the likes of which had not been predicted by the prominent pesticide company, whose researchers had never considered what their new product might evolve into, given exposure to bacteria found in farmlands downstream from slaughterhouse cattle pens.

Yet so long as Henry did what the fungus wanted him to do, it rewarded him with blasts of endorphins. It was, probably, the best he’d ever felt in his entire life, clinging like a smiling, hardening booger to the side of his Manhattan high-rise.

He wasn’t alone. The fungus by that point was rampant in the greater New York City area. It had, in fact, been making the rounds for a little over a week. In his peripheral vision, Henry noted the presence of many other people, all creeping toward the slants of sunlight striking the tops of the neighboring buildings. They crowded together, sometimes crawling over each other to steal space, yet all looked quite content.

Quite content indeed. It wasn’t so bad, dying outside in the sun.

Not until the sun set, anyway, and the fungus changed its tune. The itch returned, but Henry could no longer move, nor was there any sun to move toward. The lights of the city around him whispered a faint call, but he knew it wasn’t enough. Around him, he heard crying; he heard moaning and rage and sadness. The city was wailing. He was hungry and thirsty, and the fall night air bit through his mucus encasement.

He didn’t know why no one was coming to save them. He thought he heard helicopters in the distance.

Maybe we’re not worth saving. Maybe we’re as good as dead.

It seemed likely. If he’d seen people glued to buildings on TV, he would assume they had some terrible disease best left within a well-enforced quarantine. Not in his backyard, no way.

It occurred to him he would never again go to a backyard barbecue. Never eat another cheesehamburger or steak, or drink another beer. Even worse–he realized he was never going to finish the fantasy series he was reading. Such a shame–he really wanted to know what happened next.

Then he had The Thought.

As soon as The Thought happened, he tried to mentally brush it away. The Thought was such a cheesy thing to think, and no, he wouldn’t condemn his life that way. It was lazy thinking. It was too easy. It was wrong. He’d lived a good life. He had. Maybe he hadn’t accomplished everything he’d wanted to, but–

Bullshit. He’d accomplished nothing. Nothing of what he’d set out to do. He’d done a lot of nonsense, yes, and now–

Whatever. It was fine. He’d lived enough. Had he not? And what was achievement worth anyway at such a time as this, dying in a rigid-as-bone crust?

His tears came out gluey, and his eyes soon would no longer open. He spent so long in the cold, starving dark, he thought he’d finally died and was floating through empty space. Except there was a nail in his head. A thickening nail, and soon he was weeping with the pain of a throbbing headache that broke through all his delusions of death.

Death wasn’t this painful.

The pain lasted a long, long time. Each second of that interminable night felt like an hour, and when dawn came and the sun spread over Henry and the other flowers of the Ophiocordyceps humanis, his mind was quite broken. Yet it received the doses of endorphins just the same, and for the next day the mood inside the hardened shell was once again bright. Bright, until an early-evening thunderstorm blacked out the sun and brought an early return of the dark, and the pods moaned again. With their mouths sealed, the sounds were muffled and haunting, like a whimpering wind through hollow trees.

It continued like this for four days, until the spores emerged from the cocooned bodies, and the stalks of the fungus broke from the heads of the dead, rising in alien shapes above the silent streets, and burst, releasing their dust into the wind.

I kept thinking of the Agatha Christie story, “Ten Little Indians.” Annie said it’s more like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but there weren’t ever ninety-nine of us. We started with thirteen.

The Fuckers (and that’s their official name, we all decided) kidnapped us, threw us in the back of a black van, and brought us here–to this ancient basement shower room. Everything here is covered in small blue ceramic tiles. They locked us in, the only other thing with us being an open cardboard box. They left us in handcuffs and leg-irons, but we can move around all right, so it didn’t take long for someone, Mark, to shuffle over and look inside the box.

So that’s why he died first.

No one knows why the Fuckers didn’t die, because they must have gotten as close as Mark did. Couldn’t help it, putting those things in the box and bringing the box into the middle of the room. They had to be right up against it.

Lily, she’s the youngest by far–only thirteen–thought maybe they brought it in on a forklift. “My daddy drives one at work. He doesn’t have to touch anything.” I got along with Lily right away; she said I reminded her of her brother. She was always about the sweetest little girl you could imagine. Why the Fuckers would do this to someone like her was beyond imagining.

“Or maybe the things inside hadn’t hatched yet,” was Susan’s suggestion, but I don’t see how. Mark didn’t say anything about shells or anything. He said he just saw five of the bastards, writhing around on the bottom of the box, before one of them hissed and sprayed his face with black venom.

Not that he’d been able to tell us what they were. Even though he’d seen them, he was better at telling us what theyweren’t. “They’re not scorpions and they’re not spiders and they’re not snakes. They’re something in the middle.”

We were all more caring back in those days, before we figured out how contagious the Slug Virus was (we didn’t evencall it the Slug Virus back then, because we didn’t know yet that it was either a virus or that it had anything at all to do with slugs). We all sat there and listened to Mark joke as his face turned shiny and black and bubbled up like it was being burned from the inside. It cracked, and this gray dust fell out where his skin broke. His girlfriend kept trying to wash the dust off  by having him put his face under one of the showers, thinking maybe it was that he was drying out or something. She didn’t realize it was pollen. She didn’t realize she was already just as dead as Mark.

It takes about two full days to work its way through one of us. When Mark’s skin was about seventy percent charred, he started to complain of cramps. Six hours after that, he stopped being able to joke about his situation and could only weep silently, doubling over with his girlfriend suddenly horrified to find her own skin hardening and turning that awful blue-black shade that looked like the shell of a beetle.

A few hours after that, the crying gave way to screaming and begging, Mark asking us to strangle him. To kill him. To end the pain. Of course no one could. We were all hoping something might change for the better, but it’s not that kind of world, it turns out.

He died before the giant slug made it all the way out of his mouth. We were all too horrified to do anything, no one wanted to touch him or even get too close to his body, and then the Fuckers gassed us until we passed out. When we woke up, there was no sign of the slug or Mark’s body. There was just us, the survivors: twelve little Indians, one of which was already showing signs of following her boyfriend’s lead.

She pretty much decided to spend her days crying. None of us would let her come too close. No one else wanted the Slug Virus. We made her go around one of the tiled walls to the lockers to die. She didn’t want to go, but after all the shouting and hatred, she gave up.

She let us know she hated us, though. “You’re the worst, all of you! I hope it’s worse when you get it! You’re Fuckers, too!”

Stuff like that. She kept it up for a while, then quit. Then cried. Then moaned. Then screamed. Then died. Then more gas, and after that it was quiet for a few days with no one showing any signs of anything.

But the Fuckers always fed us after they gassed us. And they always put the food next to the box. Always the same frozen dinners. Always Salisbury steak. Always exactly the right number for those of us still alive. But every time they put food out, it took a while for anyone to dare to get close to the food.

But after a while, you get hungry enough to risk it, and some of the others started to suggest maybe it wasn’t safe to leave the food close to the box for too long. If we were going to eat it, we were better off eating it quickly so it didn’t get poisoned. After someone suggested that, we started eating the food as soon as it was out.

Lily was a vegetarian, so I saved my corn and potatoes for her and she gave me her meat. I didn’t like the meat, but taking care of Lily made me feel light a nightlight was on somewhere in my head.

And so eleven became eight after one of those things in the box hit three hungry fools who were just a little too clumsy and not cautious enough for their own good. At least they had each other when they went around the corner. I remember hearing them talk and joke with each other, and I almost cried. I didn’t know why.

No one went around the corner unless they were infected, and no one ever came back around the corner once they’d gone around it. I envisioned a mess of death on the other side, because I felt pretty sure the Fuckers didn’t do much of a cleaning job when they came to take the slugs away.

It took a long time for the next one of us to screw up, but when he did–his name was Kevin–he did not take it well. He didn’t want to go around the corner, and Frank didn’t want to take his bullshit, so Frank beat Kevin to death with his bare hands and then dragged Kevin’s corpse around the corner.

“Obey the rules, or that’s what happens,” Frank said to the rest of us. “I am not dying for anyone else’s stupidity! When your time is up, you go around the corner. One way or the other.”

Everyone hoped Frank would die because of what he’d done. Secretly, we were all watching him closely, hoping that he got the marks on his face or something. You can’t just murder people without consequence. But nothing happened. He was fine. Three more days passed. We kept away from Frank anyway. Frank seemed happy in his own little corner. He glared at us with his arms over his chest and didn’t say much.

No one knew how it happened, but Judy got it next. We started wondering if the things in the box could creep out, so we set up a watch after Judy went around the corner. It didn’t help. After Judy, all bets were off. Two more went after her for no good reason, and then it was just me, Annie, Frank, and Lily.

When Lily got it, I felt the bottom drop out. I was only hanging around to look out for her, anyway. Annie, well, she was torn up, too, but not as torn up as I was, I guess. Watching Lily say goodbye to all of us, taking her little self around the corner, well … what was the point?

I looked at Annie, who was looking into the corner to the left of her, and I said, “I’m not letting Lily die alone.”

Frank scoffed at me as I passed him. “Have a nice death, loser,” he said.

“Thanks, I will,” I said, and I followed Lily around the corner.

Lily had her back to me as I came around. She was looking at the gray ash smeared on the walls. At least there weren’t any bodies. At least the Fuckers had been decent enough to get rid of those. I put my hand on Lily’s shoulder.

Lily didn’t understand why I’d come back. “But Peter, you’re not sick,” she said. “Go back!”

I reached out and drew a line with my finger through the pollen on the wall. I smeared a line of it under each eye, like a batter on a sunny day. “Too late now,” I said.

She hugged me tightly, and then we sat down and started playing Twenty Questions.

So I finally got the marks of the virus. My index finger where I touched the pollen is gone. Fell right off. Shouldn’t be long now, but it doesn’t hurt yet. I know it will, and I’m afraid. I fear how awful a death this is going to be. Lily does, too, I can tell, but she’s a brave little toaster and she doesn’t ever say anything about it. She’s still making jokes, trying to make us laugh, and I know I’d rather have her company for as long as it lasts than to sit out there clinging to ugly, selfish hope with Frank and Annie.

If they’re the only ones left, I guess I’d rather be next. If I have to go, I’d rather go with my friend.

 

The case got the national news networks interested because the killer (or killers, as some speculated) kidnapped men rather than women–and not weak men, either; one of the victims was a professional bodybuilder. Another was a bouncer at a nightclub. These were men who should have been able to defend themselves against an average psychopath, but they all ended up skinned just the same.

Some writer at one of the less prestigious newspapers started calling the man Mr. Grim. It stuck. Don’t ask me why; I hate nicknames. I think it encourages the deranged.

My partner and I had the bad luck of getting assigned the case. That was until he went missing. Then they assigned me a new partner. It was my new partner who cracked the whole thing and ended the reign of that foolish nickname. After that, everyone could call the asshole by his real handle, Mr. Paul Leonard.

Didn’t they tell you to be wary of people with two first names?

He wasn’t anything to look at. He was short, stocky, clean-cut. But he was fast. He used a wire to garrote his victims first. He liked to target the big guys because of some Napoleonic thing. He would torture them for days, removing a bit here, a bit there. He said his greatest skinning job lasted fifteen days before the guy finally bled out. He’d recorded a lot of it. It was horrible to watch.

But he never told me or anyone else where my partner was. Most everyone else thought he was dead. But if that was the case, why not just tell me? Why not add another body to the tally? Leonard was proud of himself; I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t want another death out in the open. He’d already confessed to seventeen murders; what was one more?

“You’re better off never finding him, Detective,” Leonard said to me before they killed him off via lethal injection in front of a cheering crowd.”That’s one freak better left in the shadows.”

It took me three years to find him, and when I did, I realized Leonard had been right. Sometimes, things change people, and it’s no fun at all to look at the wreckage of what you once knew.

For three years, my partner lived freely in the farmhouse where he’d once been tortured. We found evidence that someone else had kept him supplied with the bodies of the recently deceased, but this third man has never been identified, let alone apprehended. Three local teenagers found my partner by accident when they were breaking into old houses in the area to break things. Only one of the teenagers lived to report the incident to the police.

I was the one who took the kid’s story; I was the first one into the room where my old partner was living. The walls were crumbling, and the window was broken. Bright fall light was coming in, and even though it was cold, my partner was completely naked. His flesh, if you could call it that, was patchy and pink from years of systematic flaying. I could see blood welling in the creases everywhere on him, the way blood will seep from a hangnail bitten too far down. He had pieces of himself draped over the windowsill, and another piece dangling from his mouth, where he was sucking on it. Even as I walked in and surprised him, he was deftly slicing off a quarter-inch-thick slab of his right thigh. When he saw me, he charged, and I shot him in the head. We found the remnants of the other two teenagers on a pile of corpses in the corner of the room.

Now I sit up nights, and I think about how one blade can sharpen another, and I fear the cost of every tragic report I see on the evening news–violence rippling out from one of us to the next, forever, and sometimes our corpses are more than the bags of meat and bones they put in the ground. Sometimes …what is that they say?

Oh yeah–to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

Well, my partner lives on in my heart, and, even though I never even say his name anymore, I suspect he always will.

I think it’s about time for another drink.

They all said the nights would be the worst–all of them said it, Paul, Jess, Mel, Mike, LT, all of them. Being the only girl, they didn’t have to try and scare me any more than I already was. I was only there by accident anyway; I wasn’t like them. I wasn’t one of the damned like they were. It’d been curiosity, that was all, and who hasn’t ever been curious? Looked a little too deeply into the wrong dark corner of the world and fallen through one of the holes. And now was my first night here, and I was in a small gray one-room cabin with five tough-looking guys I didn’t know, wondering what was going to happen to me next.

There wasn’t any food. “We’re always hungry. There’s never anything to eat. You’ll get used to it,” LT said. He was probably my favorite. He was the skinniest, the cleanest, and the youngest, maybe twenty, and so I felt safest with him. I don’t know why. I was only sixteen, but I tried not to think about that because it only ever seemed more and more unfair.

LT started putting logs in the fire. I didn’t know why, because it had been hot all day. “It gets cold once it gets dark.”

The others were all playing some kind of card game I didn’t know. I almost asked if someone could teach me, but it seemed like such a mistake once I saw how the big fat one named Jess was looking at me. So I went and sat in a corner until someone told me not to get too close to the walls.

“You’ll want to be as far from outside as possible, missy,” Mel said. “They can dig their claws through the slats. Where the wind can reach, so can they.”

LT took his place at the table once the fire was going. There wasn’t a place for me, so I stood slightly away from the table, trying to seem like I had something else to do other than stand there and feel lost and afraid.

There was no getting out of this place. Whatever gate I’d fallen through was gone when I looked behind me. I’d been up high in the mountains, lost in the corkscrews of dark green stone. But then I got out of there when I started noticing all the chest-sized spiders, black with bright yellow lines down their bodies. I’d bolted down out of the mountains, and that’s when they caught me in one of their traps. They’d been looking for food.

“We’re always looking for food,” Jess had said. His reaction was hard to read. I couldn’t tell if he was happy to see a human in the trap or not. Any minute, I expected him to come at me with his knife and decide I was going to be dinner, but the others seemed to have some honor at least, and they kept him in check.

So night came, and I ended up sitting with my back to where they were all playing cards and laughing at the table in the center of the room. I was about to fall asleep just sitting there, lulled into a comfortable doze by the passing of time, when the call of the outsiders cut through the silence and everyone dropped their cards and stood up.

Then everyone got real quiet, LT looked at me with his finger to his lips to make sure I understood. Yeah, I knew they were scared, all right, but I was annoyed by this whole operation and I was still half-asleep and so my terror and disorientation seemed farther away.

The outsiders’ whining trill was haunting. It seemed to be coming from all sides of the cottage as well as from above. Whatever they were, they knew where we were, and they were coming.

My name is Esther Reed, and I was sixteen the night I stood up off the floor of that cottage, went past all those terrified men to the door, threw it open, and yelled, “Who’s out there, huh? Come on and show yourself!” and then cringed as I felt the wind intensify as Hell itself tightened and rushed forward.

The ones that came that night were tall. They were not friendly. It was the first mistake I made there. I only wish it had also been the last. You can always tell the fresh meat by its audacity; after awhile living here, you learn the value of cowardice.

Coming back across the frozen lake to my house, I squinted my eyes to see if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Yup. I was. Someone had built a snowman in the middle of my yard. Classic-looking one, too: black top hat, coal eyes, carrot nose, stick arms, buttons down the front. I crunched my way through the hard shell of ice the previous night had dropped over the soft powder until I was eye-to-stone with the figure. Whoever had done it had done a damned good job. No one I’d ever known had bothered to make such neat, round balls for the body of a snowman.

“Ho, Frosty,” I said, because I’m the kind of guy that fills his empty life with conversations between himself and inanimate objects.

“Ho’s are for Santa,” Frosty replied, and it surprised me to see the crescent of rocks split apart and mouth the words. My mind expected to see jerky stop-motion animation, but the movement in real life was smooth. He pointed a stick-arm into my chest. “And you ain’t Santa.”

“Well,” I said, “color me clarified.”

“To color I would need crayons,” Frosty said. A harder poke. “And I ain’t got crayons!”

“Can you talk without moving your lips?” I asked.

“I can do anything,” Frosty said, “but I’d rather move my lips without talking.” He moved his lips all around. Opened to an O-shape, closed to a straight line, then undulating like a sine wave or a child’s picture of water. Then diamond shapes, spinning round. Then a wide half-moon grin. Then another frown, and the hardest poke yet: “So don’t test me, bitch!” He had a rather harsh voice, like the rasp of someone about to get laryngitis.

“Whoa,” I said, trying to grab the finger and move it away from my chest, which was sore from all the poking. “You really are frosty.” But the finger wouldn’t move. Frosty was strong.

Frosty seemed to feel he made his point, and he pulled his branch back. “Give me that!”

“Strong for a twig,” I said. “What exactly are you made of?”

Frosty froze. I saw one of the coals forming his dotted mouth turn almost imperceptibly, but nothing else moved. His arms were back to their upraised, default location of hey-how-ya-doin’-welcome-welcome common to stick figures the world over, as if all any barely-imagined form could think to do was enthusiastically greet people who came upon them.

Except on Frosty, those arms didn’t look welcoming. On Frosty, there was somehow an irony to the gesture; this was Frosty, “greeting” me, and “saying hello.”

“You’re not really made of snow are you?” I said.

“My veins are thick,” Frosty said. “My veins are blue and cold. I will wrap you in them and take you back with me.”

“Back where, Frosty?”

“Back to my home,” Frosty said, and his eyes turned upward to look at the sky. “It’s frosty out there,” he said. Pale blue cords moved under his chest like snakes, pushing out against the surface. The bottom edge of the sun hit the horizon, and the first stars of the night came out.

“Soooo frosty.”

The painting was dark green, sort of like what one might imagine the sea looked like at the end of a pier with the algae grown thick around rotting wood posts. Where it wasn’t green, it was deep black and mean shade of red.

But the colors weren’t why anyone was there. The four collectors were there because the painting moved, and it had been promised to them that they were looking through the murky veil of their world into the very plains of Hell.

Tristram, the British guy, was speaking into the ear of the trophy blonde he’d brought along while giving her ass a good squeeze with the hand he wasn’t using to hold his martini. The woman was giggling and trying to get him to see something in the left corner. She seemed to think she’d found a point of interest.

Karl the German stood still, unmoving, but to Frank’s eye he looked scared. Frank didn’t think the man would have the courage in the end to make a bid.

The one collector Frank was worried about was the other American, Yusef, who stood close to him and smirked whenever he caught Frank’s eye. Frank had lost too many lots to Yusef in the past; he didn’t want to lose this one, too.

“What do you think, Yusef?” Frank said. “You see anything in there worth bidding on?”

Yusef turned to him slowly and ran his tongue across the edge of his upper teeth. Then he blew Frank a kiss. “Don’t you?” he said.

Frank rolled his eyes. He turned back toward the painting. Karl was pretending his glasses needed cleaning and had his back to the work. Tristram and his whore were growing increasingly furtive. The martini had been set on a bookcase, and Tristram’s hand had disappeared up between the blonde’s legs. She moaned and threw her head back.

That was when Frank saw something in the painting stir.

Something huge. The canvas itself was sixty inches wide and forty inches tall, and whatever it was that was moving in the sea of paint was at least that big, if not even bigger.

Frank took a step forward to get a closer look.

*     *     *

The steward of the manor where the painting was housed stood still and silent by the door when a bloodied Frank came screaming and weeping toward him. Most of what Frank said was indecipherable. Something about “horror” and “death” and “put it behind a drape.” The steward couldn’t tell; the steward, in fact, didn’t care to tell.

He opened the door as the man scurried toward him. There was a large gash across the shrieking man’s face, and the iris of one of his eyes had turned bright gold.

“Thank you, Mr. Osgood,” the steward said as two large men came out of the shadows and grabbed Frank Osgood by the arms. He struggled to wrestle free, but it was little use. He was carried through the open door beside the steward. “Your offer will be considered along with the others. We will let you know in due course if the lot is yours.”

Frank was still screaming and babbling as he was dragged out of the manor and into the night, the steward closing the door gently behind him.

Just about the time Larry was going to give up, put a gun to his head, and blow his own brains out, something else happened that was not zombie-related at all: Larry discovered he now had the ability to fly. Why he should suddenly develop such an ability at the age of thirty-seven, Larry could not say, but in a land that had been overrun by the living dead for the last six months, he supposed anything was possible.

He found out about his new talent one morning when he woke up with his nose pressed against the ceiling, his body floating horizontally, and a sextet of hungry fiends swaying and moaning beneath him. They’d broken through the kitchen door during the night, and by all rights he should have been well-gnawed already. When he realized the nature of his predicament, he waved his hands below him, trying to get closer to the ceiling while also expecting himself to drop at any time into the rotting appetite beneath him like Wile E. Coyote into a chasm after his moment of perplexed suspension.

But that moment didn’t come. He stayed afloat, out of reach of the groping zombies, and he noted how lucky he was to have a house with high ceilings. Something cheaper or more modern, and even the miracle of levitation would not have saved him.

He walked himself with his hands across the ceiling toward the window. Below him, the zombies shuffled along, keeping pace. It presented a problem when they crowded around the window he meant to escape through. Fortunately, zombies were dumb and slow. He slapped them in their decayed faces, swatted away their hands, until he had successfully unlocked the window. He slid the upper half down, punched out the screen, and after a few more kicks and jabs, slid smoothly through the opening into the night.

He rolled around so he was facing forward with his stomach toward the yard beneath him, where a gaggle of the undead continued to work its clumsy way into his house. A few looked up when he whistled and foolishly tried to reach him, but he was well out of range. He gave the fuckers the finger and pushed on, moving his arms less like a bird and more like a swimmer.

It turned out, he could fly incredibly fast with a few gentle strokes. He flew over the suburbs, toward the city, noticing all the bombed-out, burned-out, terrorized neighborhoods below him–neighborhoods he was now free to visit or leave at will. No more fear of gas shortages or getting trapped in an alley. He was free. Free as a bird.

When he reached the city, he dropped onto the top of the tallest building, perching like a gargoyle. He heard a noise, and for a moment he was deeply annoyed. Damn zombies, could they get everywhere?! But then he saw it was just another person who’d discovered the gift of flight. She looked about thirty, and she smiled at him with a big grin as she stumbled to a stop on the top of the roof.

Not only was she not a zombie, not only could she fly, but she was also cute!

“You, too?” he asked her.

She nodded. “It’s amazing!”

“Yeah,” he agreed, and he looked back out at the world beneath him like a person seeing paradise for the first time.

I could totally get used to this, Larry thought.

I tired of dragging my girlfriend around in search of hidden messages from extraterrestrials, which were only proving to be not-very-hidden messages from a viral marketing team bent on exploiting my cell phone ownership to send me advertisements. Despite understanding the ploy, I nevertheless enjoy a good scavenger hunt, but my enjoyment of it only lasted for so many minutes before it was conquered by my depression and sadness at once again finding little mystery in the world. We walked over the grassy hills of Governor’s Island, and we found our way to other art installations, but all the real wonder seemed one reality away–as though there was another draft of the day written on some other Earth where all these offerings were less hollow in tone.

That’s when we came to the machine. It was a twelve-foot-tall octagon, made of black metal, held together at the sides with sheets of lobstered brass. The entrance was guarded by twin brunettes wearing all black. The line was short but curious. There was a frail older woman talking to the four people waiting. She held a basket of fruit on one arm, and she was extolling the virtues of a proper diet at informing the consciousness.

Might as well take a look at this thing, I thought. My girlfriend agreed, and we joined the line. When asked if we wanted any fruit, I took a green apple, and she selected a kiwi.

“Only one person at a time may enter the machine,” the old woman told us as we accepted our fruit. “Do not eat the fruit until you are inside. Once you are inside, you may begin eating. Eat at whatever pace you like, but once you finish your fruit, please exit the machine and allow the person behind you to enter.”

I wondered if I would try to drag the time out or get it over with quickly. How was it possible to know myself so poorly?

It came down to skepticism: what was this machine? What was the point of it? The first person who came out passed the rinds of an orange to one of the brunette guards, who dropped it into a paper bag by her feet. I heard her say, “Yes, we compost them.” Then the person nodded, gave a short smile, clearly approving of this whole composting thing, and left, without giving any clue as to the nature of the experience of eating a piece of fruit inside the black, octagonal tower.

The tower that the old woman had called a machine.

After several minutes of grimly tossing my apple into the air and catching, it was my turn. The door opened, a short balding man came out and courteously dropped a mango rind into the compost bag, and the brunettes waved me into the machine. I smiled, which I think was probably a very skeptical thing to do, and I went inside, expecting absolutely nothing save the modest pleasure of eating a free piece of fruit.

When the door closed behind me, it was completely black. I could see nothing. Eyes open, eyes closed–it didn’t matter.

“Hello?” I said.

There was no response.

I considered the apple.

Well, okay, then, I thought, and I took a bite.

I’m sure whoever had constructed this thing expected sensory deprivation to make the taste of that apple even more sublime, but the apple was mealy and not very good, and it was this slight rot that was, in the end, amplified by the machine. I was in oblivion, and I was eating something that was half-rotten. Had they tricked me? Had they meant to give me a terrible piece of fruit? One could only wonder at the intent of the machine.

After a few bites, I stood in the dark with the wretched apple at my side, wondering if I could go out without having eaten all that I’d been given. I reasoned it was only bad luck, after all; no one else had seemed to have a problem finishing. I was sure it was not intentional. It was just me, picking a lousy piece of fruit.

Or maybe this was all some tricky plot to get me to imagine that the Garden of Eden was really a giant black octagonal tower, and that eating a shitty piece of fruit was the only means of escape for Eve. Now, there was a thought to blow your mind: what if Eve had meant to get the hell out of that place? But she didn”t want to go alone, either, so she had to get Adam to commit the crime, too. Eat this worthless, mealy apple and we can get out of here. We can go get back on the ferry, get back to Manhattan, and watch that show you like on HBO.

At any rate, the point of the thing was obscure, the apple was horrible, and I didn’t finish it. When I’d had enough of the game, I stepped outside, threw the apple into the composting bag, and made the same blank face that everyone else had made when facing the people still waiting in line.