Bridges

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She fell in love with bridges.

She always marveled at the mere idea of them. A pathway, arcing through the sky, crossing the water. And it was a miracle that they could be built at all, somehow placing those supports so deep in the river, somehow holding all of that weight for decades.

Her father often told her how important it was to never burn bridges.

It was when she was little, when she was ten, that she found her love. She had snuck out of home, told her parents she was going to her friend’s place up the street. And she went all the way out to the main street, and she went all the way out to the bridge that crossed the river into downtown. She’d brought all the money that she’d saved up, and she went to a music store to buy the new Muse album. And then she had a couple dollars left over, so she got herself an ice cream cone.

Nobody questioned it. It wasn’t really a city where people questioned things.

And on the way home, she crossed back over that bridge, and there was a man there, standing at the edge. He had been looking out at the river, staring out to the bay. Must’ve been new in the city. He should’ve looked sad, but he looked impressed, but about what, she didn’t know.

And he looked at her. He looked at her and smiled. Then he climbed over the edge and jumped.

She never told anybody. What was the point?

The Muse album was great, by the way. It was everything she hoped it to be.

What was it about bridges that she loved so much? It wasn’t anything particular. It was the possibilities. It was the aesthetic. It was the power.

She never talked about it. It was her secret love. One time when she was a freshman, she was taking the bus home, and she saw them fixing the bridge on the far other end of town. She got out and watched, from her own bridge, the bridge where she’d seen the man fall.

They had these boats, and they had all these big trucks. She’d waited there for hours, watching, until the sun was going down. Her parents got mad at her for disappearing, and she didn’t want to say what she’d been doing.

She wanted to build. She drew maps. She learned the physics, and the weight distribution. She watched shows. She saw books once, at the library, but she didn’t dare check them out. She wanted nothing more than to get a boat and sail under the bridges, see them from below, see them from an angle that nobody ever thought to look from.

She rarely thought about that jumping man. And she knew that she shouldn’t, but she wanted to see somebody else, watch somebody else fall. One night, when the whole house was asleep, she gotten onto her mom’s computer and watched videos of people jumping, but most of them were jumping from buildings, and it just wasn’t the same. There was something about standing over the center of the river, standing where the arc is the highest, and falling straight into the middle. The symmetry was unbearable.

And the dripping. The dripping of water. It had a sound to it.

On windy days, the water crashed against the sides of the bridges, and the air whistled through the holes, and the gaps, and she could hear the Earth whispering at her, beckoning.

She wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to jump or anything. She just wanted to get a closer look.

Some bridges had a smell to them. She’d gone to the coast once, on vacation. There was this big bridge they’d crossed over, on the way into the hills, for a hike. And she could smell the bridge, like the sea, and she could almost see the barnacles clinging to the legs. She wanted to climb down and touch them, to feel them.

Sometimes she thought that she felt a little bit too much, that her emotions could never be tamed when she needed it most. Bridges could never be moved. They were impossibly sturdy, fighting gravity, fighting the waves, fighting the water that tried to whittle them away.

When she thought about that day, she almost never thought about the man who jumped. She thought about the ice cream. A scoop of raspberry and a scoop of vanilla, with hazelnuts sprinkled on top. Only a dollar eighty. She’d never found that place again, or maybe they’d just upped the prices.

It was the cold and the wind, or maybe it was the stillness. She didn’t know. She didn’t know why she loved the bridges. She had so many guesses, but none of them tasted right in her mouth. Not that she’d ever say them aloud.

Mom brought a brochure home once, from some city she’d traveled too, and it had a wide, majestic bridge on the front. The brochure went missing, hidden under a bed. What do normal teenagers hide under their beds? Money? Liquor? Certainly not brochures.

But some nights, she took it out from under her bed, and she touched the cover, wanted to touch the concrete, touch the steel. Hear the traffic going by. Taste that ice cream again, a scoop of raspberry and a scoop of vanilla, with hazelnuts sprinkled on top.

She’d forgotten the man’s face. She’d forgotten it a long time ago. Maybe she’d never remembered it at all. But she remembered the look he’d given her. The smile. The look of wonder as he stared down the river, into the bay. The grace with which he’d climbed up onto the railing.

He hadn’t jumped. He’d flown.

 

Whispers

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“This is one is very dark.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Harvard proudly. “That’s one of our best samples.”

Dr. Eloise Verde stepped closer to the cell, her fingernails sliding down the glass. The Being was almost impossible to see, nothing more than a shadow. “I can barely see it. But I think I can hear it.”

“You don’t hear it,” Harvard told her. “It’s not an auditory sensation. Purely a mental one. But this isn’t what I wanted to show you. We’ve found something better.”

Mrs. Harvard was a tall, broad-shouldered woman. Her hair was cut short, and her posture was so impeccable that she looked almost uncanny when she took her long strides forward. Had she not become a physicist, it would have been easy to picture her as an athlete, perhaps a swimmer.

Harvard kept moving at a brisk pace, barely giving Dr. Verde a chance to glance in the other rooms. Most of them were apparently unoccupied cells, glass boxes that showed no traces of having ever been touched, perfect cubes. Other cells were used to store equipment. It was difficult to be certain what precisely Verde was looking at when she only had a chance to spare a glance.

They were deep underground. Deep, deep underground. Nothing came in without authorization. Nothing got out without authorization. Nothing so much as made a sound without authorization.

Verde was not quite sure how she had gotten authorization. Her research paper on visual and auditory hallucinations certainly wasn’t an obvious step towards getting closer to these Beings.

Dr. Verde was a well-respected neuroscientist. It hadn’t been her first paper on hallucinations, but it was the first to look at such a granular level, how individual neurons within the human brain would light up for no reason whatsoever. Pure randomness. Brains make mistakes all the time, and they don’t have to have a cause.

That was where Mrs. Harvard disagreed.

“Every day, people are deceived,” Harvard had said, only moments after Verde had entered the facility. “Every day, every second, an idea pops into somebody’s head, and there is no traceable origin. Not traceable with modern technology, of course. What caught my attention in your paper, Dr. Verde, was the search for an external event that caused these hallucinations. Ah! But they are not hallucinations. By definition, a hallucination must not have an external cause.”

“The cause can’t be internal,” Verde had told her. “I’ve spent over a decade searching. That was why I looked towards radio waves, or x-rays. There must be something imperceptible that influences us.”

“There is,” Mrs. Harvard had said, as though it were nothing. “There are Beings that have been whispering in our ears.”

That was when they had stepped into the first decontamination chamber.

It was the first of at least eight. Dr. Verde had lost count after that.

Still, after exploring this place for over an hour and a half, she felt as though she couldn’t believe what she was seeing, if she was really seeing anything at all. Struggling to keep step with Mrs. Harvard, Verde kept glancing back and forth, back and forth, rubbing her left thumb over her right wrist like she always did when she was anxious. But she wasn’t anxious. Was she?

She was only anxious when she caught glimpses of dark shapes, almost invisible, lurking on the other side of the glass.

“They don’t like us very much, I’m afraid,” Harvard said. “You can see how they move closer. They can’t see us. They have no eyes. But they can sense. And I’m sure that they are frustrated, unable to touch us with their foul breath.”

Again, Verde glimpsed a shadow, a faint shape on the other side, moving, floating, drifting. “What do they want from us?”

“We don’t know. But they’ve been following us for generations, giving us little sparks of ideas, fractions of a thought, guiding us towards some greater purpose. Sometimes people listen. Sometimes people don’t. For all we know, they’ve been pushing us down a path since the dawn of time, convincing the first men to use tools, convincing the monkeys to get down from the trees, convincing the ancient sea creatures to try walking on land…” Mrs. Harvard’s voice faded, as though she’d been struck by nostalgia. Yet still, her pace down the hall was unwavering and strict.

“How did you catch them?” Verde asked. “How did you get them into the cells?”

“The first step was to detect them, to bring them into a tangible form. The Beings are tricky, on a plane of existence that we hadn’t even considered before. But we tracked them down. Yes, we found them.” She was smug. “Once you know how something works, you know how it breaks. I’m sure you can tell that these cells aren’t made of ordinary glass, and if you were to step inside, you would feel the vibrations of our security system, pulsating out a frequency that keeps them at bay.”

“Fascinating,” Verde whispered.

With a click of the heels, Mrs. Harvard stopped walking and spun to the left, suddenly standing perfectly still. “This is what I wanted to show you. This is the greatest sample we’ve ever captured.”

Dr. Verde’s jaw hung open. She stepped closer to the cell.

Harvard asked, “Do you like what you see? And you are really seeing this time. It isn’t a trick.”

The shadow had a shape. It had arms, legs, a head. It was like the shadow of a person, but it had a form, three dimensions. And it was only a few inches away, on the other side of the glass.

“This Being is different somehow,” Harvard said boldly. “It was a trick to catch, I can tell you that. And, oh, what I would give to get it to speak again.”

Verde recoiled. “Speak?”

She shook her head, tightening her lips. “We had it in captivity for only a few hours before we heard it. All of us. Everybody in the facility, even the folks all the way upstairs. I know that ‘speak’ isn’t the precise word. It spoke to us with thoughts, and the same words entered all of our minds.”

Dr. Verde’s mouth had gone dry. “What were the words?” Out of the corner of her eye, it was watching her intently, shimmering like ripples in a pond.

Mrs. Harvard cleared her throat. “We have what you’re looking for.”

Verde looked back at the shadow on the other side, automatically taking a step backward. “What… What does that mean?”

“It means that they are here by choice,” Harvard answered. “Don’t you see? These shapeless creatures… They whisper into our ears, giving us ideas, guiding us along. If they can communicate with us, even from within their cells…” Her eyes moved to the floor. “I’ll wager that these Beings could escape whenever they wanted to.”

Beyond the glass, still watching intently, the shadow lifted its arm, a mess of blackness wobbling upwards.

And the Being waved.

 

Two Packs

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“Three,” Shelby said aloud.

The only thing that he had told her was to count her cigarettes. For somebody trying to quit, it didn’t feel like the best advice. What use was it? She’d told him that she smoked more cigs than she could count. Was it a joke?

She didn’t want to see him again next week. But she had to. She had to stop buying so many packs, or she wouldn’t be able to afford gas, and definitely not the motels. Cash is scarce, and she didn’t know anybody around these parts, so it wasn’t like she could sell dubs again until she went back home.

Home was a long ways away. Home wasn’t far. Where was she, anyway?

Shelby dragged the cigarette from her mouth, looking out over the highway. Almost noon, probably. Ready for some lunch, for sure. She’d spotted a vending machine by the stairs, maybe get some chips or somethin’. Probably a buck fifty for a bag, so she’d want to wait another hour or so, keep herself from spending too high.

A red truck rolled by, with a kid in the backseat. Not her kid. No chance.

Ever since Marty had left her, this was her life. She was better off alone. Every time she tried to settle down with a good man, he turned bad. Had he turned bad himself, or had it been her? And when she had a son, stupid enough to think that she was ready, he’d left before he was ten.

This was her day, every day. Wake up in a motel. Walk the streets. Look for that boy. Come back. Get in the car. Drive. Drive where? Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

Since when does a nine-year-old have the stones to run away from home? Where does he go? Not enough friends in school, right? At least, none that Shelby knew about, and Marty had been long gone by then.

Far away, far far away, she thought that she could see a sign for an IHOP, and her stomach grumbled. She pulled another drag from her cigarette and patted at her belly, wondering when she’d allow herself to have a good meal again. Marty had that warehouse job, and he would bring her out to McDonalds, or maybe Baja Fresh, damn near every day. But then he’d lost that job, when she’d convinced him to stand up to his boss. Fat chance that had of working, but she’d told him to do it anyway.

Last gas station, she’d seen a big map on the back wall. Not a single familiar name. How far had she come? Couldn’t even be bothered to read the signs on the highway. But she loved a good map. The lines, the shapes… She wondered how many more days it would be before she drove off the edge of that map.

She had to stop running. He was going to help her stop smoking. He was going to help her turn her life around, he said. She had to come back next week, if by some crazy chance she ever found this place again. Not that he’d help. He’d leave, like she’d done to every other man who crossed her.

Shelby drew another cigarette from the pack, not a moment after flicking away the old butt. “Four,” she said aloud, and the lighter clicked.

 

 

She wasn’t used to staying still, but she stayed still for him.

Shelby flicked the lighter and lit the cig. “Seven,” she said aloud.

She had her feet up on the dash, sitting in the parking lot. The meetings weren’t supposed to be “therapy” per se. They were just… people who wanted to talk. People who had stories to tell. People who HAD to tell that story, HAD to get it out into the air, because changing your story into sound, out of brain circuitry, and out of that pure emotion, it released it. Shelby always knew that release was necessary. Keep anything inside for too long, you’re bound to explode.

The building was still emptying out. The meetings took place in the attic of a church. Not in the pews of the church. Not in the basement. The attic. Shelby wasn’t sure why. It was dusty, and smelled like a bunch of old farts. Maybe the people who came here were old farts, not in age, but in how much they had seen.

It was night out by the time the meeting ended. And here Shelby was, sucking on one more cigarette with her feet up on the dash, her car window rolled down, and the radio blabbing on about the economy, and some baccalaureate smartass was going on about politics and foreign policy and yak yak yak.

She didn’t see him come out the building. Maybe he was still in there, talking to somebody. He was religious, she’d learned recently. He was good friends with the woman who ran these meetings. They’d been assigned as a pair today, as they had last week, and the week before, and the week before that, and they talked to each other. They talked, and then they listened. There were too many people at the meetings to all go one at a time. Too many screw-ups out in the world, too many words to spit out. Best to split into pairs, gives you as much time as possible to jabber on until your throat goes sore.

Four weeks she’d been in this town. The town had a name, but she kept forgetting it. No point in remembering. What’s the point of a name, anyway? The place is the place, no matter what you call it. Towns were all the same out here, and she’d seen a lot of towns around these parts. It had been such a long time since she’d slid behind the wheel and just driven driven driven until the next town, whether it was a half hour out or a hundred mile ride.

She wasn’t used to staying still, but she stayed still for him.

She ground the ash into the dashboard, pulled her legs back down to find the pedals. “Seven,” she said again.

They were supposed to give one piece of advice every week. Just one piece. They probably figured that if they gave too much advice at once, it’d sound a heck of a lot like complaining. The stupid things that’ll set a person off. Too much advice? Too harsh a critique? What’s the point of coming to this place for help you aren’t gonna listen to it?

He always gave the same advice, every week. Count your cigarettes. Kinda lame, wasn’t it? That was the best that he could come up with to cut back on the cigs? Count ‘em? They get smoked one way or another, whether you know how many you’ve swallowed or not.

But she did it. It seemed wise, somehow, giving advice that seemed so trivial, so simple and dull. Out of anybody else’s mouth, would’ve sounded like total bullshit. But he had this WAY about him. This WAY that he made the suggestion, like he knew that it would even work, like one of those cheesy self-help books that sounds like it’ll turn you into a total laughing stock, but you gotta do it anyway to turn your whole life around.

She didn’t know why she listened to him. But she did. And she kept coming back. She switched motels a couple weeks ago, but she stayed in town. Couldn’t get much further than that seven eleven out by the edge. Then she’d turned back figuring, what the hell, next city’s probably a killer drive anyway, and Shelby couldn’t afford gas.

She spent her days at a playground, usually, when she managed to get past the vending machine at the bottom of the stairs under her motel room. Sometimes it took her hours to get outside, other than for a bite. When she did make it out, by willpower from an unknown source, she went to that little park just a couple blocks away.

Sometimes she saw a kid there that looked like hers. Couldn’t be. Her kid had outgrown parks before he even hit grade school. Nine years old, already done playing with the other kids? Already hiding out in his room with a video game, already tired of all his toys?

Had he turned ten yet? What day was it? She couldn’t even remember her own son’s birthday. It was in July, wasn’t it?

July 11th.

No, she couldn’t remember it. How could she forget? What kind of mother forgets her own son’s birthday, just like that, the moment he’s gone?

July 11th.

She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember anything anymore. She was broken. Been through too much for a girl her age. Where was she? How had she ended up like this? She used to be young, used to have a future. Somehow she’d spent her future already, and now she was just floating in purgatory.

Shelby almost reached for another cig, but she didn’t. It was getting late, and she just wanted her bed.

“Seven,” she said aloud, and she started up the car.

 

Follow Me

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The other night, I had a dream that I couldn’t speak. I was running through the streets, trying to warn people, but they couldn’t hear me. Maybe they simply didn’t want to hear me.

Every morning when I leave my home, there is a man following me. He walks slowly. He isn’t in a hurry. The man is a little bit closer every time that I see him.

My breath comes short, and my mouth goes dry. I try not to look at him, try not to acknowledge him, but he’s always coming from just outside my peripheral vision. My palms sweat and my heart thuds. I pretend that he isn’t real.

The man is a little bit closer every time that I see him.

I pass by windows, and there are eyes behind them. I know that they are his eyes. When I’m inside, at a restaurant or a grocery store, I can see him sitting in a corner, hiding behind a newspaper. He licks his finger before he turns the page. He sees me try to smile at people as they pass me by, sees me trying to make small talk, and fumbling over my words.

He makes me nervous. I make myself nervous.

The man is a little bit closer every time.

The other night, I had a dream that nobody could see me. They kept colliding with me, crowding around me, but they couldn’t even feel my skin. I didn’t have an outline, I knew, because I wasn’t complete. I wasn’t a real person.

Every morning I try to say at least one thing to somebody. A cashier. A waiter. A stranger. Anybody. I hardly speak a single sentence more than that. When you haven’t used your mouth until noon, your voice comes out as a croak. I don’t have friends anymore. They’ve forgotten about me, or I’ve forgotten about them, or they don’t want to see me, or I don’t want to see them.

I live alone. I’ve been alone for years. I don’t know when it happened, but one by one, all of the people that I knew fell out of touch. I want to meet new people, make new friends, but it never feels quite right. It feels forced, as if I’m treating friendship like a fishing trip. Hook the bait, cast the line, and wait.

My bait isn’t very alluring, you might say.

No bites. Except for one.

There’s no point trying to describe the man, because he looks different every time. Each day, each hour, each instant, he is wearing different clothes, wearing a different face. But he follows me, every day, without fail.

He isn’t in a hurry.

The man is a little bit closer every time.

The other night, I had a dream that he was whispering in my ear. He told me that he would devour me, consume me, as if he hadn’t already.

I may be in the belly of the beast, but you are what you eat.

When there are people near me, I feel uneasy. I want to talk to them, but I don’t have anything to say. I live my life on autopilot, without the willpower to break the cycle by myself. I hope that somebody will answer me, before I even ask a question. Somebody will notice me, before I’m even in the room. Somebody will remember me. All I want is to be remembered before I disappear for good.

They know him. Everybody knows that man. It isn’t safe to be in public anymore, but I can’t help myself. Not that being out there does me any good. He doesn’t smile. Sometimes he smiles. Each instant, he is wearing a different face.

The man is closer.

And I want him to follow.

 

The Fall at the End

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After a point, you forget about the cold. The shivering continues, yes, but the sensation of the cold itself starts to numb over, just like the rest of your body. It squeezes at your skull, constricting you, making you want nothing more than to burn yourself to the bone.

The land was still flat. It was always flat. It had been flat for weeks. Simon had no idea how fast he was traveling, but perhaps it didn’t matter. The white went on forever. He kept seeing those thin patches of ice, and it would tempt him. Before, when he had his company with him, they would avoid those patches like the plague. They’d bob under your weight, and creak and squeal, but Simon had never seen it break out from beneath anybody, never seen anybody swallowed into the silence.

Those patches of thin ice were a temptation. Why bother watching your feet? Who cares if the ice eats you alive? And maybe it would feel nice, the frozen water crushing at you, biting at you.

Freeing you.

Still no food. Hadn’t been food for days. Simon had caught a penguin not too long ago, might’ve been four days, could’ve been ten. The meat was all fat, good for staying awake, no good for nutrition. His stomach felt like it was being stretched taut inside of him. Finding water was never a problem. A person’s just got to break a chunk of ice off the ground, hold it in his mouth. Couldn’t drink the water underneath, full of salt. Makes you gag, and choke. Simon had tried, in his impatience.

The ice went on forever. There was no end. There was no edge to the world.

If there were creaks and aches sounding below his feet, he didn’t hear them. He didn’t hear anything anymore. For a long time, he was lost in his head, just thinking, about anything, about nothing, about how wrong he’d been to come out here on this expedition. He didn’t think much at all now. His mind had frozen over.

Sometimes he could hear his footsteps. It was all he heard. It was his universe. Crunch crunch crunch, through the ice, through the thin snow. The white dust picked up in swirls, stung at Simon’s eyes. But it was all dry, so dry, and it scratched at his throat when he tried to swallow.

He hadn’t looked at his feet in weeks, but they must’ve been thick with blisters. Every step should’ve been agony. Not anymore. Not since the cold had befriended what was left of his soul.

And now Simon was starting to see shapes. Through the gray haze, there might’ve been a little hut in the distance, or a tent. Could’ve been anything. Could be a mirage. Mirages were only supposed to happen in the desert, but it was a desert out here.

But the shape didn’t disappear, only grew sharper. Came closer. Must’ve been a person, somebody with camp set up all the way out here. Impossible. Only a mirage. Simon didn’t have the strength to get excited. But the hut was coming closer.

He tried to call out. The words wouldn’t come up. His teeth were chattering, and his throat was locked shut.

There was light inside. A lantern. Maybe. It’s nothing. It’s a mirage. It’s a reflection of the sun. No light. Just dreams. Just sleep.

“Hello?” a voice called. It didn’t sound real. Simon couldn’t have been sure that he’d even heard anything. All a hallucination. He’d fallen down from exhaustion hours ago, and this was all a vivid dream. Not even vivid. Vague, disorienting.

“Hello?” it called again. Something moving, a person climbing out of the hut.

Simon wanted to answer, but couldn’t. He felt the strength draining out of him, but he kept moving, had to be sure that this was real.

In the blink of an eye, he was just in front of the man, the man bundled up in fur from what must’ve been sea otter. The man was holding Simon up, but he couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t think. Still didn’t know if it was real.

“Come inside, come inside, my god.”

Simon was on his hands and knees, which felt wrong, because for weeks now he’d been trying not to fall to the ground, but he was sitting, resting, inside with the bright light of the man’s lantern.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

It was warm in the hut. Impossibly warm. “Simon,” he grunted, dizzy. “Came with a group of seven. All dead now. Searching for The Fall at the End.” The words were tumbling out of him, and he couldn’t tell if he was making sense of not.

“Travis,” the man said. He reached out a hand. Simon might’ve shook it, might’ve just moved his arm limply. Hard to be sure.

“Eat. Eat,” Travis said. He held up a hunk of meat. “It’s caribou. Eat.”

Simon took it and bit into it. It should’ve been frozen solid, but it was only a bit frosty. It was supposed to taste like paradise, but Simon tasted nothing. “Where?” he asked. “Where’d you find caribou this far?”

“Supply drops. Got men at camp, week’s ride back north. They come out on sled. They give me food, I give them my reports.”

“Reports?”

“I’m a researcher. Examining the water out here, and how the currents move under the ice. I’ve dug holes in the ice a short distance out from here. You’re lucky that you didn’t wind up falling in, in your state.”

Simon nodded, though he felt like he couldn’t quite understand anything. He took another bite, but still couldn’t taste. “Researcher?”

“The Fall at the End is out there,” Travis said. “Aye, almost seen it myself. Almost. Another two days south, you’ll hear the rush. Nothing to see, I’m afraid. The mist is too thick. The waves make a blizzard out there. Ice is all broken up, too dangerous to go forward on foot or by sled. No, you’d need a ship. Who knows how you’d get a ship this far out. Even so, currents are bad enough even from this distance. You board a ship out here, you won’t get back off. You’d be tumbling over the edge of the world for the rest of eternity.”

Simon nodded again, the numbness covering him like a blanket. “The Fall at the End is real.”

“Aye,” Travis said. “It’s real. But what about you? What are you doing out here? You were with an expedition, you said?”

“Not an expedition,” Simon answered, shaking his head. “Too smart of a word. We were just young and stupid. All we wanted was to see the edge of the world.”

“You won’t. The Fall is great, yes, but if you get too close…”

“There’s nothing left of me,” Simon said. He might’ve been whispering. He took another bite of meat, but his throat was sore, and he could barely swallow. “So what if I plummet over the edge of the great waterfall? I’m dead out here no matter what happens.”

Travis studied him. “I can bring you to camp. Even if you’ve got frostbite, they’ll do what they can. We have doctors, and medicine. Maybe they’ve even got a job for you.”

Simon shook his head. “I just want to see it. No matter what.”

“Then you’re asking to die,” Travis concluded. He looked out of the hut, out at the white wind. “I know people have gone over the edge of The Fall at the End. They’re still falling to this very day. The edge of the world is the last thing out there.”

“I want to see it,” Simon repeated. His brain was numb. “I just want to see it.”

Slime

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Chelsea had always hated the idea of online dating. She had been absolutely certain that she would end up with some deranged maniac who had a weird obsession with ears or something. Yet she had been surprised. The man she was supposed to meet, Josh, had told her to meet him at a very nice restaurant, one of the nicest restaurants in town.

When he showed up, he looked exactly like he did in all of the pictures, too, which was more than a relief. Although, Josh came into the restaurant carrying a briefcase, which she found peculiar. Maybe he worked weekends, or was just coming from someplace important. Chelsea promised herself that she wouldn’t mention it. She always worried that she asked too many questions.

“Hello there!” Josh said. He seemed perky, which might’ve been a sign of nervousness. “Have you ordered already? I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”

“No, you’re fine,” Chelsea said, putting on her nicest smile. “You’re here right on time. I was early, I guess.”

“Good, good, great,” Josh smiled. He wasn’t quite looking her in the eyes. His gaze was more aimed at her nose.

The waiter came. “Ah, Josh,” the waiter said.

Chelsea didn’t know how to react, so she said nothing.

“Ah, Gregory, good to see you again,” Josh grinned at the waiter.

“Your usual?” the waiter asked him.

Josh seemed hesitant. “Um… Oh, sure, why not?”

The waiter turned to Chelsea. “And for you, ma’am?”

She was hesitant too. “Uh, I’ll start with a salad, I suppose.”

“Any dressing?” the waiter offered. “Josh here loves to see a girl with dressings.”

Chelsea didn’t know if she had just been told a pun, but she managed to answer, “Ranch is fine,” without too much of her discomfort showing through her voice.

The waiter walked away after another smile to Josh.

Chelsea leaned forward, her fingers fidgeting with the corner of the tablecloth. “What was that about liking a girl with dressings?”

Josh rubbed his teeth together. “Do you, ah, know my line of work, at all?”

Chelsea hastily tried to remember what it had said on his dating profile, but she couldn’t remember if it had mentioned his job.

“I’m a slime expert,” Josh told her.

Chelsea assumed that she had misheard, so she smiled and said, “Okay.”

Josh narrowed his eyes. “Maybe I should show you some of my samples.” He lifted his briefcase and set it on the table.

Feeling off-balance, Chelsea looked around the restaurant. “Samples?” Had he actually said that he was a slime expert?

The briefcase popped open, and Chelsea craned her neck to see what was inside. Josh lifted a small vial, filled with a dark green fluid. It was thick, viscous. It was definitely a slime.

“This is one of my personal favorites,” Josh said, looking a touch sheepish.

“You’re a slime expert,” Chelsea stated. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

“That’s something of an overgeneralization of my work,” he said, wiggling the vial in front of his eyes. “Slimes are only a small portion of the fluids that I’m involved with. You’ve got your goops, your sludges, your grimes, your mucks… Ah, and mucus, but those only tend to come in during the winter.”

Chelsea felt like her head was spinning. Was she dreaming? Was this a prank?

“Here’s a peculiar specimen that I received only yesterday,” Josh said, taking out another vial. This one was a pale yellow. “I think it might be a glob, but it could be a gloop. They’re very hard to tell apart sometimes.”

He kept sorting through his vials, as if looking for the one that was just right. Chelsea got the sense that none of them would be just right.

Josh suddenly laughed. “Ah, I forgot I had this with me. Quite funny really. Somebody clearly doesn’t know the proper mode of transportation for these kinds of things.” He lifted up a white envelope, but it was dripping a white fluid from the bottom corner. “Some people aren’t too careful with their slimes. They don’t understand the importance of preservation.”

“But what…” Chelsea started. Her mouth didn’t seem to be working properly. Neither did her brain. “But what do you do with all of these… slimes?”

“Well the slimes are only a portion of the specimens, as I just said,” Josh told her. “I use the term ‘slime’ as a simplification for people that aren’t as practiced as I am.” It felt like he was dodging the question. “Do you have any slimes?” he asked her.

“Do I… What?”

He tilted his head. “Do you have any slimes of your own? Goops? Secretions? I know that a cold was going around a few weeks ago, so I’m sure that you’ve got your fair share of mucus.”

Chelsea couldn’t answer him, no matter how hard she fought to find words. It was lucky that the waiter returned at that moment.

“Here’s your salad,” the waiter said, setting it in front of her with a fresh coating of ranch dressing. “And for you,” he added, passing a glass to Josh. It looked like a smoothie or some sort, but it might’ve been a milkshake.

Actually, it could’ve been anything in that glass.

Josh took a long drink from it, nodding to the waiter. “Excellent, as always.”

“I’m glad you approve,” the waiter said retreating back around the corner.

Chelsea desperately searched for a topic, any topic, back she was too slow. Josh asked, “What’s your stance on slugs? Are you a slug girl?”

“I’m… Uhm… I’m more of a dog person, personally,” she said. She felt like she was whispering, but she couldn’t help it.

“I have had a real time getting high quality slugs this past fiscal year,” Josh said, annoyed. “Nobody is a slug person anymore! They’re all going out of business, too. The suppliers, I mean.”

Chelsea stuttered for a moment, drawing a blank.

Josh shut his briefcase and set it aside. “Clearly I’m boring you. So tell me, what do you do for a living, then?”

And it was a huge relief, because finally Chelsea could talk about the toenail business she was running.

 

AgeDrop

Standard

“We’re going to have to let some of them die,” Richard said. He was over sixty years old, but he looked no more than thirty.

“We have the resources to keep dosing them with the pill,” Wendy said. “They all believe that we can keep them this way forever.”

“But they’re wrong!” Richard argued. He drooped in his seat.

They were in the tallest building in the world, owned by AgeDrop. This meeting room had mostly been unused, because most of the higher-ups saw no need to stay at the company. They were all wealthy billionaires, traveling the world, forever young. They didn’t care what happened to the business now, now that things had really gotten out of hand.

But it wasn’t just the corporate building that was losing control. Everybody was losing control. Human beings weren’t meant to live this long. The cities were all overcrowded, starvation was shriveling entire countries, and there was hardly any fresh water left on the planet.

The population had reached twenty billion, and threatened to keep growing. It was because people had stopped dying.

It had started twenty-five years ago. It didn’t feel like twenty-five years ago, but it was hard to say if that figure felt too long or too short. On the one hand, it seemed that things had gotten too crazy on Earth for only two and a half decades to have passed. On the other hand, it felt like time had frozen once everyone had stopped aging.

“We have to kill them,” Richard said.

“Which ones?” Wendy asked.

“I don’t care. Anybody!”

They were sitting on opposite ends of the long table in the conference room. Richard thought that it was symbolic, showing how much space they had here. Downstairs, in the lobby, you could scarcely move it was so crowded.

“We can use the side effects,” Wendy said. “We thought it was a problem at first, but now it’ll really help. If anybody misses a single dose of AgeDrop, they’ll wither and die. Simple as that.”

“They only have to skip one pill,” Richard nodded. “Killing them will be easy.”

He’d seen it before. He’d seen it many times, during testing. Back then, they had thought that they were geniuses, perfecting a pill that could stop the aging process. Then they’d realized that the body became dependent on it instantly. If you didn’t have a pill every single day, aging would be accelerated.

And it accelerated a lot.

Richard remembered the first time that he’d seen it, down in the lab. That was when the company was only fourteen scientists, excited to write up some patents and get some funding. They had been working out of a basement, in a university, and one of their test subjects had started… changing. He’d stopped taking the pill after having repeated doses for a week, and he’d started coughing. His face wrinkled and contorted. His hair turned gray in a matter of seconds, until it started falling out.

Within forty-seven seconds, he was dead.

But people didn’t care. It was incredible, but people didn’t care. The AgeDrop pill was so cheap to produce, so cheap to buy, that everyone wanted that dependence, gladly. Why would they need to live a long life when they could live a life eternally young? And when their money ran out, and the pills stopped coming every morning, they would die in a minute.

Anything is better than aging, isn’t it?

“We should let the best people live,” Wendy decided. “As for the weak… the unintelligent… the criminals… We can restrict their access to the pills, and the rest will take care of itself.”

“If we restrict pills in any area, it would be anarchy,” Richard mumbled. “They need those pills to live… They’d murder each other over them if we cut the supply!”

“Good,” Wendy said. “Overpopulation is the problem that we’re trying to solve, isn’t it? We need people to kill each other. There hasn’t been a decent war since this company first started, because the whole population is more worried about appearances than anything else now.”

Yes, that’s right. AgeDrop had ended all of the wars. They had brought about world peace. And still, everybody was miserable, because there weren’t enough homes to fit the population into anymore. It was a miracle that science had managed to keep up, genetically modifying crops to produce more food, and creating filters to make ocean water drinkable. Antibiotics had improved, because infections and diseases spread at ten times the rate in these conditions.

Richard looked out the window, out at the city, out at the endless gridlock on the highways surrounding them.

“Who are we to kill so many people?” he asked.

“We have no choice,” Wendy said. “Earth was never meant to sustain this many people. Before we started, it was believed that the planet couldn’t handle over twelve billion. We’ve almost doubled that, and it’s rising exponentially. Something has to be done.”

“We should send them to Mars,” Richard grunted, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. “There must be something we can do besides a… a slaughter!”

“There is no cure. Their dependence is unbreakable. It would take years of research to find a way to reverse the effects of AgeDrop. We don’t have years. Every inch of this planet is going to be packed like sardines by then.”

“People will starve to death before that happens.”

“They might,” Wendy said. “Or they might not. People are already living on scarce resources, but GMOs are keeping up. And once we can filter ocean water on a larger scale—”

“Why do people still want to live?” Richard asked. “Living on such pitiful rations… Spending hours commuting to work in this insane traffic… And unemployment is through the roof! If we raised the price of the pill…”

“We could raise the price of the pill,” Wendy agreed. “It’s the only thing that we can do. Those who are unemployed will have to face the consequences.”

“I don’t want to kill them,” Richard whispered, shaking his head.

“We have to kill them,” Wendy told him.