Fiction by Brenda Birenbaum
—all night through wet streets, empty venues, narrow leeways—wrists raw, hair flying, sneakers unlaced. No idea why you’re running, you got no reason to be scared—the nocturnal predators have all been rounded up, all behind bars on trumped-up charges. Except for the war raging in your blood stream (disease is also a type of predator), the place is totally deserted, there are no moving parts like cars or life, the only breath is steam rising from underground lungs, the only sound the yelps in your head. Silent spring crashes the party, April showers poison May flowers, they haven’t gone anywhere. The only color is from a million reflections—the progeny of street lamps, traffic lights, neon signs, shop windows, electronic billboards, office fluorescents—a big halo in the sky.
Power is on—yay—they forgot to flick off the switch on the way out.
- Aliens scooped up everyone into a giant spaceship and took off to conduct experiments away from earth’s orbit.
- The plague or a plague did away with everyone (though not before they placed air fresheners in all the rooms).
- An earthquake neutralized everyone with a meltdown upstream (the power plant) or maybe nerve gas release from the neighborly stockpile.
- You’re stranded on a movie set sans exit signs, floundering in the rain after everyone’s gone home.
“Absolutely not,” says the spectacled monitor (rolls eyes at the white ceiling), “you can’t correct everyone to everybody. When you hear the buzzer, put your pencil down, hand over the paper and—
—out of the room with a gun to the back of your head. Your spine rigid like the bars at the zoo, your blood stinging like pepper spray (disease is also a type of weapon). “Hey listen, guns ain’t my thing,” you protest, tripping over puddles in potholed asphalt and crumbling sidewalks with uncollected trash—the muzzle against your cerebellum is leading you out of the maze, abandoning you on a weathered boardwalk. Someone’s banging violently on a piano, a broken melody to help perk things up, and the sultry summer night goes crimson as it scuffles with dawn, trying to stop the early light from showing up on time.
You kick off your sneakers, peel your wet socks, drop barefoot to the damp sand. Like the sea turtle hatchlings scattered across the beach, you don’t know where the hell you’re going. The difference is they don’t know what they don’t know as they waddle happily toward the big halo in the sky, confusing the concrete desert for the moist ocean. Either way, see, it’s easy to die—
The waning moon peekaboos between galloping clouds, the swooshing surf serenades the oil rigs far on the horizon—spiky structures jutting out from black water, ready to blow up their gloppy fluid into the dense atmosphere. It’s the same ravaged topography no matter how far down the shoreline you continue, so like why the fuck should you care about the next generation of another species—
(—it’s a boy, it’s a girl), it’s an office, a dungeon, a cave—too bad you left the sneakers on the boardwalk. Crunch underfoot reverberates against craggy shadows, ground littered with thousands of tiny mammalian bones from a whole bat colony that perished here over winter. You swear it wasn’t you, you never came near them with that toxic stuff, you always wash your hands (chlorinated water, antibacterial soap), besides, there’re no multiple choice questions when it’s all a mistake. Time to get away from the microbes, the radiation, the aliens’ lab, the glittering aftermath of hollywood’s rain machine and—
—all day in front of a desk made of wood made of trees that gave their trunks to furniture, boardwalks, the four walls you’re packaged in. There’s no door (or windows) so the joke’s on you. You showed up, you reported for duty, no idea how. Maybe you got dropped in from a helicopter—looks like a giant hand had reached in, scooped out the roof, leaving jagged edges to frame a yellow sky with a big smiley clock.
Even with that delinquent autumn pouring blinding daylight on your head, you can still make out the laptop on the desk (equipped with its own source of radiation with nary a sliver of wood to adulterate the view). You’re slumped in front of the screen for as long as it takes to meet the word count, could be as long as it takes the still-standing trees to transport the fallout particles from roots to leaves, deposit the latter on the surface when the days get shorter, the nights longer, new programming and all that.
A lone protestor (probably dyslexic) sprays the brick wall across from Government “power to the pea—” when two robots in black uniforms grab him under his armpits, haul him off screen—the spray can clatters on the pavement, the a sprouts a tail that trails off.
You’ve been at it so long that all the blood in the world is draining to your feet (disease is also a type of pollution), your sneakers aren’t going to fit you now, your eyes, bleary, squint at a new robotic duo on screen—two mechanical guys who pee on the pea then go on to whitewash the graffiti with roving brushes like vertical Zambonis in perfect sync.
You can’t step away from the desk, but you might manage to slide off the chair and—
—out of a hole, through the cat door? where to? into winter wonderland?
—what for? to proposition a preposition?
- The end: when you crawl across scalding dunes under unsheltering sky, as blasts and sand and bits of flesh blow up and swirl around. (still winter, just a different locale.)
- The beginning: on pink belly in pulp and plastic diapers, on a journey of discovery of your first-world safety playpen.
- The middle: when you drag your broken body along gunked up floorboards, fumbling for the phone or your pills or your smokes. Hollywood can make you whole again—yay—you just gotta believe there’s gonna be season two.
- Between the lines, in the margins, in the dark along a narrow concrete aisle, your ribs brushing against an assortment of trendy footwear, or maybe just a long stiff row of combat boots. It’s the top level seating of a huge stadium, the crowd is cheering a lone figure on stage under a spotlight in the valley below. The only way to get close to this guy is to watch his pale shimmering likeness on humongous screens, listen to an echoey electronic vibration masquerading as his voice. He’s bouncing on stage with a mic, making you laugh or urging you to bring out the better you or promising a better life which is a better economy which is whichever comes first. You cock your head, look up into the nostrils of the roaring silhouettes, you should take a page from their book, be happy you crawled out, prove that you belong, you’re one with the universe—
—the tabby meows, jumps off the desk—a tiger actually, growling at the screen, blowing desert wind in your face. You’re sprawled on your belly like your Pisumsativum with its trellis knocked down, must have crawled back into the four walls with the gone roof during a commercial break. The tiger paws you this way and that as if turning meat on a grill or wondering if you’re safe for feline consumption, then smacks the keyboard, drags the laptop down next to you. There isn’t time left to figure out the correct answer, you’re bleeding all over the sheets (disease is also a type of infrastructure), you never understood why there were questions in the first place. You should have skipped crawl, like you’ve skipped climb or dance or skulk around and just—
—tricky little shit, huh. But you promised not to. That leaves being flat on your back, nerves on fire, muscles ready to spring to action, if only you could move. No idea if it’s day or night, summer or winter, if you’re floating weightlessly in amniotic fluid or freezing in outer space like an astronaut with a snapped umbilical cord.
“Who’s there?” you yell, open your eyes—the white ceiling is fastened back on, a small TV on a metal rack high up the wall. You’re strapped to a hospital bed, partition curtain pulled halfway around, and several suits on the other side roaring with laughter as they flick syringes, squirting little tears into the air. One hands you a clipboard with a pen. “Sign here, will ya?” “Undo me first,” you say, don’t they know you can’t sign with your arms tied down? “Have it your way,” the suit says, hands the clipboard to his friend—“You sign, subject’s batshit crazy.”
No shit, the bats are a heap of brittle bones in the big dank cave, but before you can explain, the volume on the TV shoots up: “Mandatory means everyone and everybody. We gotta inject you to protect you to remove you from the food chain. The microbes got to take their cue from the sharks and the wolves. We got the fire, we got the power. It’s a song.”
“Wow, who’s crazy now?” you ask, but they don’t take questions, they’re busy laughing (all the way to the bank or the bunker or somewhere). A herd of bison blows through the room in a cloud of dust, squealing sows skid on their backs across the floor (piglets holding onto nipples for dear life), deformed hens and shrieking pigeons flap at the gap in the roof, oiled sea birds sag against the tall grasses in the salt marsh near where limp fish wash up on shore. Scrawny rats and mice climb in through the sewer grates, bees buzz around your head as they flee their collapsed colonies—it’s a racket—helicopter rotors whip smog and muck overhead while the entire zoo population crashes the party, pulling along warped sections of cages—clanging metal rods with bits of mortar attached.
An old witch brings up the rear, cartwheeling across the room, muddy palm prints on slippery tiles, cackling about the smushed laptop on the floor. The progeny of the sand on the beach and the yellow disk in the sky, she hoists onto the desk a giant cauldron in which to mix her fucking metaphors—all that notwithstanding, upstanding, outstanding, understanding—you don’t want to know. “Enough with the cackling,” you say, “wave your fucking wand, point the turtle hatchlings to the ocean,” but she’d rather turn up the oven on what’s already baked into the system, glug the genie out of the bottle, ram the masterpiece down your throat.
Did she just flick ants and spiders off her matted hair, spit out toads and frogs and whatever other critters didn’t make it to the parade? Better close your eyes so you don’t have to participate. For all you know, she could morph into a cockroach next, grab her sac of eggs from the back of the piano (or other wooden structure), skitter off into the vast flat adjectives of the killing fields.
Someone behind the partition curtain is in stitches over how they got you tied down so they can stick the needle in your veins. This will not exempt you from future requirement to fill an application, sign, date, mail it in. The small print on the back of the envelope reads, “Did you remember to enclose your smile?” And you did—you passed all the tests, learned how to get your share of the firepower and the song, be an action-hero, snap the straps, bolt off the bed, grab your trusted sneakers and—
Brenda Birenbaum writes things (always with something in parenthesis), and she is an editor at Unbroken Journal. Find her @brbirenbaum