by shukyou (主教)
Eyes first. If I can get the eyes open, I’m good. If not, the meat’s too far gone, which means I have to try again, and I hate fucking trying again.
This time’s okay, though. Eyelids roll up surprisingly easy, even if it takes the eyes themselves a minute. That’s fine, though; everybody’s eyes are different, even if nobody but me knows it, because how many eyes do you get to see through in your life? Me, I’ve lost count. The soft jelly settles, the focal centers slowly pull themselves into place. I can hear the pupils contract against the light. Eyes blink once, twice. We’re in business.
Next are the lungs, which will do their thing on their own once I get them going, but first I’ve got to get them going. Take the chest and imagine making space inside it. Feel the tight cage of the torso begin to shift. Pull against the meaty strain of muscles and tendons against bone until they remember how this all moves. Stretch the damp sacks of lung tissue out until the tiny spaces in them slide wetly open, one by one. Open wide and the air comes in on its own. Close and it leaves. Nobody can make air do anything. You give it a space and it fills where it can. Kind of like me.
I don’t strictly need to breathe, but it’s weird how much people tend to notice when you don’t. Same with the heartbeat. You can leave a heart still, but the blood pools in places and drains from others. I have it on good authority that shit’s unsettling. Pun slightly intended.
Plus, when you ignore the basics, everything rots faster. And then, sooner than you wanted, you have to try again. And you know how I feel about trying again.
There’s a weird roar of distort in my head, something making the world look even more unreal than it usually does. Everything’s a little like staring at the sun. So that’s what did it. Probably not any one something so much as a bunch of somethings at once, some fancy-ass substance cocktail for rich people that costs more than a car and fucks you up for a long time. In this case, permanently. I’ll have to take it slow. No sitting up too fast; learned that lesson the hard way. Bit by bit, rolling over. Trying not to roll into the … I don’t even know what all is on the sheets. I need to hose it down. If you know anything about what death does to a body, you’ll know why.
Fortunately for me, it’s naked already. It’s fairly young, too, or maybe closer to middle-aged but well-preserved. Seems like all systems are intact, all senses more or less functional, all limbs under control and responsive. Not that it’s impossible to work with absences, but workarounds take concentration. Concentration means it’s easier to fuck up. And then we’re back to trying again.
I flop onto its back — my back now — and feel all the liquids in the body slosh sideways like a seasick waterbed. Its stomach aches, but at least it’s empty enough that a few dry retches are all the protest it can muster. Its mouth tastes like rot, but that doesn’t bother me. Everything is bright and high and painted white. Maybe a hospital? No, can’t be that. Too few machines and wires, too many expensive items piled on the shelves just so. A hotel? Maybe. A house? I guess, but who the hell would live like this on purpose?
There’s no one else in the bed. Or, I should say, there’s no one else in the bed right now. With the state of things, it looks like there might have been someone else here earlier, maybe more than one someone. I find myself wondering if they wandered off before bad things started to happen, or if that’s what scared them off, the puking and convulsing and all the other little niceties of death by overdose. This place looks like an expensive place where expensive people fuck.
So that’s what we’re dealing with. Not a house, not a hotel, but some weird middle ground of a house you have to treat like nobody actually lives in. And anyway, I don’t think I
Shit, what the fuck was that?
I listen quietly for a full minute. I even stop breathing. I don’t hear it again.
…Okay, see, that’s the problem with poisons, that they show up to kill you but don’t have the good graces to make a quick exit after. At least with most things actually meant to be poisons, it’s just a few hours of sweating it out. In the battle between a substance meant to stop your heart and a body that doesn’t care what its heart’s doing, I’ll win every time. It’s the things that fuck with your brain that are the worst. Everything else I can deal with, but the brain’s a must-have if I’m going to get anything done. And if it’s fucked up, I’m fucked up.
I resolve to lie here for a little while longer, staring at the ceiling, taking inventory of the major muscle groups, waiting to see if I hallucinate anything else. After a while, the room stops swimming and I stop feeling quite as disconnected. No more weird voices. There you have it. Must have been my imagination.
How much do you think about bipedal motion on a daily basis? Is it a lot? You sit and think about how weird just walking is? I do, every time I take those first steps. Everyone’s center of gravity is different. Everybody’s limbs are just a little bit out of proportion. Do you know that basically everybody has one leg a little longer than the other? Human beings aren’t symmetrical. You’re an idea of symmetry that someone gets wrong every time.
At least this body makes it easy. Young, fit, able to maintain its balance. Good to work with. I can feel the way the soles of its feet squish flat every so slightly as it steps against the hardwood floors. My arms swing ever so lightly at my sides, keeping me level. No problems holding my head upright or my spine straight, which is good. Balanced like a well-made clock.
We pass by a full-length mirror, but I don’t look. Me, I have no reflection. I just borrow other people’s.
The bathroom is as bright as the bedroom, only now the surfaces are tile and stone and chrome. There’s a few pill bottles by the sink. I guess that answers at least some of my questions. There’s words printed on them, but they’re not making sense to me yet. That always takes the longest, being able to read. That’s contingent on the brain too. I can’t read. The meat has to do that for me. Maybe the words on the bottles aren’t even in a script this body understands. Less likely that it can’t read at all, but who knows? Anything’s possible when
it says methylisoholphone
Fucking fuck. Okay. I grab the edge of the marble counter and force several deep breaths in and out of its lungs. I look around to make sure there’s not some kind of speaker system at work, maybe a television left on in the next room. But no, I know the difference between a sound your ears hear and a sound your ears don’t, and this was very clearly the latter.
Maybe the meat’s schizophrenic. I’ve been in bodies with mental illnesses before. Never that particular flavor, or at least not so that I noticed, but there’s a first time for everything. So great, what? I luck out with a healthy body, but the tradeoff is, I’m not-hearing voices?
Stop that. Stop that fucking right now. I thump the heel of its hand against its head like it’s a misbehaving appliance. Maybe I can fix this. I’ve never fixed a brain before, but it can’t be too hard, right? No harder than making a spleen work. You even know what your spleen does? I do.
I know what it does
Who fucking asked you? I thump its head again, this time hard enough to set loose a flood of nausea. Its stomach lurches. I lean over the sink and spit bile into the sink. It’s a number of different colors at once, and all of them are incompatible with a long life. Shit. Voices in my head. Whatever. I can ignore those. I’ve ignored worse. I once took over a body that had been gut-shot. You know how hard it is to hold in your intestines? I can’t recommend it. But I did it, and I was fine. So this will be fine too.
I start the shower. The water sprays hot almost immediately, which to me is a true sign of wealth. Before I can do anything else, the meat has to be less filthy. I step straight into the spray, enjoying the contrast of its heat against the room-temperature meat.
stop saying that
I turn the spray right in my face. I am refusing to engage with a borrowed mental illness.
stop saying that who are you
I am refusing. To engage. With a borrowed mental illness. I am taking the shampoo and putting some in its hand, then working the lather clumsily back through its hair. It has soft, short hair that feels much better to touch when it’s not matted with vomit. The strands are at the front are long enough that they fall into its eyes when they’re wet. Given how much money is at play here, I bet the look is a fashionable one. I’ve spent several bodies’ worth of time living under overpasses and in ditches. Fashionable is a nice change.
What matters to me with a body is what I can do with it. A pretty body, I can do a lot more. A pretty rich body, shit, sky’s the limit, or at least it will be when I can start getting rid of the voices in my
my head. Just going to ignore that. “Just going to ignore that,” I even try to say aloud, though it comes out as an unintelligible series of grunts and flapping of lips. Look, you think walking on dead legs is hard? Try talking with a dead mouth. I’ll get it eventually. Usually takes me about half a day until all the fine little muscles heat back up to where they should be. Same goes for facial expressions. Smiling’s going to take me a couple hours at least. Right now, the body’s whole face is probably slumped with stroke-patient looseness, slack and unfocused. That’s why I’m not looking in the mirror.
The shower gives me a little bit of time to do some examination of what I’ve picked up here. I soap up my
hands and reach down to cup at my
my my it’s mine
dick, which needs a good washing. There’s residue stuck to it of fluids accumulated before death, which bolsters my theory that the deadly overdose was accompanied by some less deadly fucking. And you know what? Good for it. Glad it had a nice time before it checked out, bought the farm, shuffled off this mortal coil, whatever. I just wish it’d taken this goddamn voice with it when whoever it used to be decided to
Stop! Shut the fuck up! God, why can’t I just ignore this? I can ignore a lot of other shit. I can ignore a sucking chest wound. I can ignore complete organ failure.
that’s my name fuckwad
that’s my name fuckw
No, I know that’s what you said, I heard you the first time. I lean back against the wall and try to catch my breath. Turns out there’s a difference between when the voices in your head are talking at you and when the voices in your head are talking to you. This is more than I am strictly prepared to manage for having been in a body for barely half a hour now. There’s not supposed to be this much goddamn drama. And what kind of fucking name is Garland?
Fuck you right back. Stop talking. You’re not real.
you’re not real
Look, buddy — I say, arguing with my fun new borrowed mental illness in the shower, because why not? — in the grand scheme of things that aren’t real right now, it’s you. Incorporeal doesn’t mean imaginary. And besides
this is a dream wake up wake up
I turn the dial on the spray as far to hot as it goes and stick my whole face under it, hoping that maybe somehow it will make this entire experience suck less. God, fuck everything about today. I find a nice intact body for once, somebody who didn’t lose half their fingers freezing to death under an overpass or start to have all their skin slough off after drowning in a lake, and it’s crazy. I wonder if others of my kind have to deal with shit like that. Maybe if I’d ever met one, I’d know.
wake up wake up wake
Shut up! Shut the entire fuck up, or I am going to take an ice pick to this body’s head and carve out whatever part of the brain is misbehaving, and that’ll show you, won’t it? I leave out the part where it’ll show me too. You think not breathing makes a body rot faster? Try walking around with a hole in your skull. Again, not recommended.
That stupid fucking voice shuts up, though, so clearly we’ve established that threatening a mental illness is the way to make it stop. What a revelation. I could patent this therapeutic technique and make millions, provided I could stay in one place long enough to do it.
As you might have guessed, this isn’t exactly a long-term arrangement. It’s a week, maybe, before the decay I can’t stop starts to be noticeable by others. A week more than that, and it’s noticeable enough by me that I’m having trouble functioning. Maybe sometimes if luck out and wind up finding myself inside a hermit in the middle of fucking nowhere, I can shamble on like that for a week or two longer, provided that nobody shows up to get upset about a block of meat that’s clearly seen better days. Best-case scenario, I get a month, by the end of which things are absolutely just fucking falling apart, and I’m out and off again.
Don’t you fucking judge me, stupid voice in my head. It’s the circle of life or something. Nature’s full of carrion-eaters. I’ve always felt a certain kinship to vultures, and not just because from time to time, I hang around while they congregate and start in on whatever body I’m just about done with. It doesn’t hurt. Or maybe it does and I just don’t care at that point, because it feels good to be touched by anything. Even when it’s scavengers picking at your organs. Hell, especially.
I feel my stomach
my goddamn stomach lurch, and I spit more bile onto the floor of the shower. It’s a little clearer now, and I want to say that’s a good sign, but honestly i don’t know. What do you think, imaginary friend? Garland? Is that my borrowed mental illness’ name?
what is happening
I can’t believe I’m explaining mental illness to the voice in my head. The words mental illness are starting to sound fake. Mental illness mental illness mental illness. See? Anyway, your mommy and daddy should have told you that when a brain and some bad neurotransmitters hate one another very much, they get together and fuck and make a baby, and that baby is named Congratulations, Now You’re Crazy.
that’s not how anything works
What do you mean, that’s not how it works? What are you, a fucking doctor?
Oh, la-di-dah, the voice in my head is a doctor! Ooh, fancy! Did you go to Mental Illness Medical School? Get a B.S.? (The joke is my implication that this stands for Being Schizophrenia.) Okay, fine, I think I’m so funny, but let’s be real: nearly every minute of my life is spent amusing myself. It’s not like I have anyone to talk to, except through the borrowed meat. And even then, I’m not exactly keep to have conversations with people who might figure out I’m just a thing wearing the fleshy shell of someone they used to know. That tends to end badly.
my degree from Yale School of
That’s not even a real place.
chief resident at the City Hospital
Shut up. You’re not a fucking doctor. I turn off the shower, because I’m starting to feel my skin get a little loose beneath the warm spray, and that’s not really something I want to accelerate. It’s only now I realize that there’s no towel anywhere around. How rich can you really be if you don’t even have a towel when you
in the white cabinet
What white cabinet?
Oh, that white cabinet. It takes me a second to figure out what the voice in my head means by that, because I’m not really used to giving voices in my head — or in anyone’s, for that matter — the benefit of the doubt about knowing things. But there it is, a little white cabinet, about knee-high, just over to the side of the shower. I open the door and feel a little puff of heat. There’s about eight or so towels inside, all rolled up, and they’re being warmed by that thing. This motherfucker has a little cabinet with the sole purpose of keeping his towels warm. Come the fuck on.
I try not to think about how absolutely great it feels to dry off with a heated towel as I do just that. I’d be stupid to get used to luxury, given how I spend far more time in the gutter than with the stars, so to speak. But damn, if feels nice in the moment.
we need to go to the hospital
Buddy, we need to do the opposite of going to the hospital. I have never had a doctor check me out, especially not now they have all their fancy machines and scans. I have no idea what they’d find out about me. I can’t imagine it’d be good. It definitely wouldn’t lead to letting me stick around. Were you not listening when I was talking about how much I hate trying again? Or was that before you got here?
need to go to the
Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time, but no. No, we are not going to any goddamn hospital.
pseudocoma, or sleep paralysis
I don’t even know what those are.
bilateral brainstem tumor
That sounds rough but
hemorrhage of the basilar artery
Fuck, if this is how smart this guy’s psycho parts were, imagine how smart the rest of him was. Still, I guess you can be as smart and as rich as you want and it won’t keep you from choking on your own vomit while you overdose.
Overdose. Yeah. The guy whose brain you used to fuck up? Snorted up or shot up a bunch of nasty shit and died. That’s why I’m here. Finders keepers. Free meat is free meat. He — and I’m assuming from the dick and general presentation it’s a he, but you know, correct me if I’m wrong — fucking died. He took something bad, probably a lot of something bad, and it killed him. Because that’s what happens eventually if you fuck around with that stuff. I don’t know if you knew that, being a mental illness, but it’s true. So if you’re just here to torment him specifically, sorry, but that fucker’s left the building. It’s all me now.
It’s quiet after that. Okay, so clearly my hypothetical miracle mental illness therapy has a second step, which is to threaten the crazy with its own mortality. Everything that can die is afraid of death. I’m not, but I’m not too sure I can die, either. So there’s that.
I guess I should figure out what to do with myself. Now that I’m all dried off with this nice warm towel, it’s time to think about getting the fuck out of here.
I know what you’re thinking, and that is, why don’t you just stick around in this rich-person place with its white walls and nice appliances? And I’d like to, but the truth is, I’d never pull it off. I can only fake so far. Whoever walks in and sees the meat isn’t going to want to talk to me. They’re going to want to talk to whoever used to live in it. I can fake it a little, but only so far before someone starts to notice. Better to be out and gone before they do. Let this guy become a weird Missing Person. By the time that case gets solved, I’ll have moved on.
My little lives are generally pretty boring. Mostly I walk around. I get to the nicest, quietest place I can find and just exist there until the corpse I’m wearing rots right off me. Deep forests and high mountains are the best, somewhere you can just start going and keep going forever. Nobody’s up there to bother me, and I contribute to the ecosystem when I’m done. See? I’m a friend to the environment. I’m helping.
Not to be one of those shitheads that talks about the good old days, but it was easier when most of the planet’s surface didn’t have people anywhere near it. Nowadays, a lucky find for me is the body of some lonely old soul in an apartment nobody visits. I’ve watched a lot of television that way. Do you know how great television is? Eh, you probably do.
It’s quiet in here. At first I think it’s just rich-people sound insulation, buildings built to make sure you don’t have to think about the rest of the world. But no, it’s real quiet. I clap my hands together experimentally and startle myself with the sharpness of the sound. Still, it’s the wrong kind of sound. For the first time in any amount of time I can remember, I find myself bothered with how quiet it is inside my head. Normally that’s not an issue. You’ve seen how I can fill up the space with my own thoughts. But I had a weird sort of duet going. And, to my growing surprise, I find I kinda liked it.
Hey, mental illness, are you still there?
I wait for a minute and don’t hear anything. So I try again: Garland? Garland, right? Come on, talk to me.
Aw, great. The hostility is almost warm and fuzzy. You’re all over the place here, you know, bud. Look I’m sorry that you came with this body
Yeah, you keep saying that. Are mental illnesses usually so possessive about things?
not a mental illness fuck you my body
Stop, stop, you’re running things together. Slow down and talk to me.
not a mental illness. fuck you. my body.
Ah, we’re making progress. Hi. Even though it’s generally against my policy, I lean against the bathroom counter and look into the enormous mirrors behind the sink. Anything to make my new mental illness friend feel right at home, right? The vapor is slowly clearing off the glass as the room’s temperature returns to normal.
As it peels back, it generally reveals a body that television has taught me is very attractive. That’s some muscle definition to be proud of. No tattoos or big scars, or at least not as I can see. Wide shoulders. Dark hair plastered to my scalp with dampness. Deep dark eyes. Smooth, even features. I bet it’ll look even better when I can smile later. Right now I sort of look like a little wax figurine someone left too close to a stove. What do we think, mental illness?
fuck you. my body. that’s me.
What do you mean, that’s you?
that’s me. all of it. I’m it. I’m Garland. that’s me. get out.
Have I been trying to ignore this possibility? Am I clinging to the whole “mental illness” thing because the alternative scares me? Have I found myself pondering from time to time, several times, over several lifetimes, just what might happen if the body I wound up inside of wasn’t quite dead yet?
what do you mean, wasn’t quite dead yet?
My questions first. Who are you?
Instead of getting a specific verbal answer, I feel a sensation in my right hand that isn’t coming from me. Nothing happens, but I feel it wanting to happen. I decide to let it. The sensation wants the index finger on that hand to extend while the others curl back, so I do that. When it’s done, I feel the sensation wants me to lift that hand. I do, until it’s about chest-height. I’m pointing at my own reflection. Fuck.
One of those times when I had television, I watched a lot of movies. Do you know how many movies there are? More than I could watch, and I’ve got time. So I watched a couple movies about haunted houses. They’re mostly all the same: nice little family moves into a nice little house, expecting a happy fresh start on life. There’s just one problem, and that’s that the previous occupants aren’t done with it yet.
So yeah. The dead guy isn’t actually dead.
how could you not
Look, man, in my defense, this has never been a problem bef
so get out
Yeah, that’s not going to
get out get out get
You’re breaking up again.
Stop! Stop already, okay? Just stop and, I don’t know, take a deep breath? I feel a little ache in my lungs like that’s what he’s trying to do, so I do it for him. Expand the rib cage. Make a space. I do, and the warm, steamy air from the bathroom rushes in. I hold it there for a moment, then use the muscles to squeeze it back out.
that’s not how breathing works.
That’s mostly how breathing works, which is close enough for me.
the intercostal muscles use
Okay! Okay, I give up, you’re a doctor. You’re a doctor. I believe you’re a doctor. Are you happy?
Yeah, well, that makes two of us. I swear, I didn’t even know it was possible to enter a not-dead-yet body. I’ve never had that happen before, and I’ve done this a lot. How long, you might ask? The truth is, I don’t know. I was doing this back before I had any awareness that I was doing it. What if I asked you when you learned to digest? You don’t remember, and neither do I. It’s just me.
With another deep breath and loud exhale, I rake my fingers back through my
our hair, okay? Our damp hair. I try and get it into place so it won’t dry all funny, even though it really makes no difference to me if it dries funny or not. I’m not entering any beauty contests anytime soon, unless a bunch of vultures are the judges. Those bastards love me.
Well, this is new and different. I’ve never had someone else to coordinate plans with. Honestly, I was just going to get dressed and lie around a little bit until I got to feeling a little more in control, and then split. Wherever I am in the world, I’m sure there’s lots to explore. Maybe with a body like this I could even roam undetected around the city for a while, seeing all the buildings and people and life. I can’t stay long in cities for what I feel are obvious reasons, but I still have a place for them in my metaphorical heart.
But now I’ve get a passenger. Passenger? Mental illness?
I hear nothing.
It’s almost stupid how relieved I am to hear (or not-hear) his voice. Maybe I’m a little starved for conversation. Hey, Garland, what do you want to do now?
I want my body back.
That’s not going to happen. And before you start screaming and making us both miserable about it, the truth is, I could fuck off. But it wouldn’t get you anywhere good. You were pretty dead, my guy. I’m what’s holding your bits together now. I bet you can feel it, if you think about it. All the little electrical impulses that make your everything do everything? It’s me now.
Everything goes still for a second. I can tell he’s taking me up on it. He’s listening, really listening, for the first time in either his life or death, to the connective mesh that holds his body together. How could he notice it before? It’s only noticeable now that it’s something different. All the engines in his body humming on a new frequency. All the pathways speaking new languages. I feel his hand want to open and close, experimentally. I don’t let it. He can want things, but I’m the one who has them. I’m the one who tells the muscles in his hand to contract and release around the bone, to shift beneath the skin. It may have been his hand once, but it’s mine now. Just like everything else.
When all that’s done, he’s quiet, but I can tell he’s there. I’m not worried he’s vanished again. I can feel him now. He exists in the body, decentralized but present. I think I thought it was the drugs at first, and maybe it was a little. But it’s also him.
There’s a robe on a hook behind the bathroom door. I pull it on. The material is glossy and soft, like satin.
I stand corrected. Hey. Hi.
There’s no reply. I walk out of the bathroom into the rest of his … apartment? No, we’re not in a bigger building; we’re on the ground floor. Huge parts of some of the walls seem to roll up entirely, giving the main room an open-air pavilion sort of feel. It’s nice. I’ve spent a lot of nights out in the open air. I’m fond of it.
Just outside beyond the walls of the bedroom are water gardens, complete with splashing little fountains. None of them even look like little boys peeing, an absence which I guess these days I should regard as a mark of class. I remember when they were all the rage. You ever seen them? The little stone statues pissing into fountains?
No comment? I bet you have. Hilarious.
Anyway, being dead’s not so bad, you know? I mean, I wouldn’t know personally, but from what I’ve seen. Maybe dying sucks, but I’ve never seen anything to complain about being dead. I bet it’s kind of nice. Peaceful. Like your little water gardens. Are those fish? Wow, those are totally fish. I like fish.
I assume he likes fish too, given that they’re, well, there. That’s a lot of time and effort that went into getting fish into a place. Seems silly to do it for an animal you don’t like. They’re huge fish, too, not the little things that swim in most people’s aquariums, but the size of a loaf of bread, if not bigger. Most of them are white with orange spots. They’re all just meandering around, leading their little fishy lives. Someday they’re going to die too, but they’re not worried about that. Animals are afraid of the things that will kill them, but they’re not afraid of death. You don’t find an animal sitting around, munching on whatever it likes to have for dinner, only to have it struck with the sudden awareness of its mortality. That’s a people thing. These fish don’t know. They don’t care.
You still there?
I sigh and sit down on one of the short stone walls that divide the bedroom area from the garden area. So what if it’s just me and the fish now? It was going to be just me and the fish anyway. The sunlight feels good on my bare legs and feet. I can hear the world beyond the house, beyond the garden, but around me now, it’s just quiet. It’s real quiet.
I dip my big toe in the water and watch all the fish come up to it curiously. Oh no, little fishies. You need to wait. I’ll be fish food someday. Just not today.
The sound of the knock on the door nearly startles me out of my skin, which for me is more than an expression. “Sir?” asks a gentle, almost maternal voice from the other side. “Sir, are you awake?”
Am I? It’s hard to tell. I’ve completely lost track of time just watching the fish. So much for grabbing clothes and getting the hell out of here. Shit, I got careless. I got careless when I should have been running. I should be on the other side of town by now, if not all the way outside the city limits already. I should be dressed and ready to go, not sitting around in a little robe, watching some fish meander their way through their little fishy lives as my hair dries in the sunlight.
She’s knocking again. “Sir? Sir, may I come in?”
No, I don’t want her to come in, because if she comes in, that’s going to lead to more questions, and it’ll be about two minutes before she realizes that something is really fucking wrong. Hell, it’ll be closer to two seconds, assuming the first thing she does when she walks into the room is looks at the giant biohazard that got made of the bed. What’s the least suspicious way to tell someone to leave you alone? I’ve never learned it. A lot of things you think I’d be good at, I’m not. Shit. Maybe if I tell her that I’m sick, she’ll
say, everything’s fine, I just have a headache.
I put all my focus into the muscles around my mouth. Jaw, tongue, lips. Speaking is an act of intense coordination, a work of collaboration that would put entire dance companies to shame. Ballerinas could work every day of their lives and never perform as much choreography as you need to say the letter p. Draw back the spongy meat of the lungs, let the air chase the absence in. The wet, soft muscle of the tongue curls and turns, twisting inside its cage of gums and teeth. Vocal cords need to be pushed just right. I squeeze my throat and feel them choke me just enough to make sound. Exhale. Speak. “Everything’s fine,” I manage, and though it’s slurred, the words are clearly words. “I just have a headache.”
“Yes, sir,” she says. I sense it’s not the first time she’s been told that, in so many words. “Shall I bring your lunch in and leave it on the table?” Shit, I don’t know, should she?
that would be lovely.
“That would be lovely,” I wheeze out. I don’t do much talking, as a rule. I don’t do much being around other people. Pooling blood isn’t the only thing they notice. I’m a thing that wears human skin. I try not to give them a chance to notice that.
The door opens and in walks a small woman, petite along every axis, carrying a small lacquered tray. She places it on the table on the veranda. I sit there quietly, watching her while I try not to look like I’m watching her. I’m engrossed in the fish, see? Look at me, looking at the fish. Love these fucking fish.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?” she asks.
I don’t even have to wait for a cue for that. “No, thank you.” This is an interesting language. Melodic. Complicated. It has a huge vocabulary, and he knows so much of it.
She nods. Why isn’t she leaving? “Your father’s travel has been delayed. He should be home tomorrow night. He wants to know if you’re free for dinner.” Oh fuck no, there’s no way we
I’m looking forward to it.
“I’m looking forward to it,” I echo, because that’s what I’m supposed to say, and not because that’s what he actually feels. Not too big on your dad, eh?
“Of course, Mr. Flores.” She gives a polite little bow with her hands clasped in front of her, then leaves the room, shutting the door behind her. In the silence after her departure, something clicks. Sorry, your name is Garland Flores? Your name is seriously Garland Flores?
I think I’m seeing why you don’t like him.
fuck you shitbag
Seriously, who sees a little baby and thinks, I have the perfect name for this squishy little thing, and it’s going to be
I’m a junior.
Oh, see, that’s worse, because that means two people saw a
shut the fuck up.
I do, but not because he told me to. I can feel that I’m smiling now, though, which is nice. It’s easier when the parts remember how to do the things on their own. All right, so what do you figure we do now?
A little laugh slips out of me, more of a sad gurgle than anything else, but the sentiment is there. I don’t eat.
what do you mean you don’t eat?
Look, a body is a temporary arrangement. That’s true for everybody, sure, but it’s especially true for me. I don’t feel hunger. That’s apparently one of those things that stops when you’re dead, the little signals that let your body know what you need to do to it to keep it alive. Like how I don’t actually need to breathe, or have a heartbeat, or anything of the other systems up and running now. They’re just, you know. Nice.
no, we need to eat.
because I’m hungry. and not dead.
You’re pretty fucking dead, my guy.
I feel this lurch in my body. It doesn’t move anything, but it’s a pretty powerful sensation. It wants me to get the hell up and walk over to the table. Usually when I feel an invisible force this irresistible, it’s gravity, or inertia, or some combination of the two. This is the opposite of falling, though. Instead of down, it wants up. You’re really into this, aren’t you?
There’s that lurch again.
fuck you fuck you fuck
Okay! Okay, I’ll do it, are you happy? I stand with such an unexpected force that I nearly topple over forward. Come on, you don’t want me to hit my head and bruise your pretty face, do you? Because I can tell you, healing isn’t really something you can count on anymore.
There’s no answer to that, but at least he’s stopped hollering. Fine, fine. I walk over to the table and take off the lid covering the tray. Underneath it is a bowl of soup, a few slices of toasted bread, and several strips of bacon. This is lunch?
I could laugh. Maybe that’s what I am. I’m a hangover. You’re a mental illness, and I’m a hangover.
shut up. eat.
what do you mean, how?
I mean, do you just want me to pour this into my mouth and hope for the best? Because you’re not going to like the results.
you started my heart. how do you not know about digestion?
I’m not going to recap the whole part where I inhabit dead bodies until they decompose around me. That’s well-trodden territory by now.
you were the one bragging earlier about knowing what a spleen does.
Oh, you were listening. Yeah, well, I know kind of what it does, okay? I know enough of what it does to know it doesn’t really mean much if your immune system is pretty much a moot point. And anyway, a spleen is sort of passive. It’s a low priority on the restart menu. Nobody in the world who meets you is going to know if your spleen is working or not. I sit down in the chair. The food smells good.
No, wait. The food smells good, but it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel like I’ve got a vacuum inside my stomach. I double over slightly, clutching the table as I take deep breaths. What the hell? I check my systems to make sure something hasn’t gone wrong with the internal organs, up to and including having a fist-sized hole punched through them. So this is hunger — not just a little, but a lot, in the face of something that could fix it. Okay, so it turns out I do get hungry. I’ve just never before had that sensation threaten to take me out.
The bread looks easiest. Let’s start there. I open my mouth and put the corner of the slice on my tongue. I can feel the little prickles of its toasted surface across my tastebuds. There’s salt to it too.
that’s the butter.
Butter, okay. I feel like I should close my jaw, so I do. My teeth sink down through the slice with a pleasant crunch, until they tap against one another.
I know what chewing is. I’ve seen people and animals do it. You just sort of move your jaw around like this, right? Everything’s getting wetter in there. The bread isn’t as crunchy anymore. What’s my tongue supposed to be doing?
just shut up and listen.
I do. I shut up and listen to him — not to his words, but to those needy impulses that come with having him in my head
I’m not having this argument anymore. I open my jaw a little more than I’d expected to need to, and when I close it again, there’s bread between my teeth. Apparently it’s supposed to be there, because I repeat the process, with the bread in the same place. A dozen of these, maybe more, and I feel we’re getting somewhere. Everything is much wetter and softer now. The butter’s gone. It’s just bread now. Or whatever happens when bread gets wet and condensed. Sometimes my tongue pushes everything around a little, nudging it in place so that the teeth can smash it just right. I don’t even know what just right is. I’m following his lead here.
When that’s done, it’s time to swallow. I’ve swallowed before, usually without really meaning to. I’ve fallen into or woken up in enough bodies of water that it’s kind of inevitable. But doing it on purpose seems…
Are you going to laugh at me if I say gross?
Then something other than that. Fine. If I can speak, I can swallow. Back goes the thing that used to be bread. I don’t think you’d call it bread anymore. My tongue flattens a little to push it into place. It’s right at the back of my mouth. Now what?
newborns can do this. the autonomic nervous system knows how to do it. listen to it.
Listening to a body seems counterintuitive. Ordinarily I’m trying not to listen to what’s happening to it, so I can get by one more day without noticing too much how all the decomposition is getting in my way. Is it weird that I don’t find rotting gross, but the act of swallowing weirds me the fuck out?
I wasn’t– That was a rhetorical question, okay? That was not directed at you.
Ugh, fine. I get it back on the back of my tongue
this is trough formation.
Stop telling me this! You can’t tell me to work on instinct and expect me to memorize all the steps. It doesn’t work that way.
He doesn’t sound sorry. I choose to ignore that. Okay, muscles. I’m going to trust that there’s enough of him left in here that you can figure out what you’re supposed to do next. I let the former bread push back. Back and down. Nice and easy.
It’s stupid how easy it is. Like making lungs breathe on their own. And speaking of lungs, I’m impressed that my body knows enough on its own to know that that’s not where the food is supposed to go. I’ve always considered that a weird little design flaw, that both food and air happen in the same hole. Considering how many bodies I’ve inhabited where the cause of death was choking, I guess I’m not the only one.
It’s done almost before I know it. There we go, into the stomach. It feels almost pleasant in there. Better than in my throat, that’s for sure. There are little enzymes down there, gut flora, bacteria. I’m dimly aware of them. I don’t know why I should feel like an intruder, when there’s billions of them and only one of me. I’m statistically insignificant. You know they outnumber you? That if they could vote, they’d have a majority share, by a factor of a number so big, most languages don’t even have a word for it? That so much of you isn’t you, but something else alive and separate from you? That they’ll live on after you do? That your death means less to them than you’d like to think? Do you know all this?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m just one of them. If I’m a weird little bacterium that somehow figured out how to outlive its host. I don’t spend a lot of time pondering this, because, like, who the fuck knows? But I think I’m allowed to wonder sometimes. I’ve always felt kind of a kinship to them. I wonder sometimes if they’re even aware of me. I wonder if they miss me when I’m gone.
Okay, now what?
now you do it again.
I look at the lunch in front of me. The whole thing, huh?
the whole thing.
Fuck it. Wasn’t like I was doing anything else this afternoon. Fine, fine. If the mental illness wants lunch, then I guess the hangover will eat. You’re welcome.
He doesn’t say thank you, but I like to think he means it anyway.
It’s a quiet afternoon of digestion for us, digestion and watching the fish. I feel almost stupid for how much better I feel, even though I know I’m going to have to deal with what happens on the other end later. Well, that’s fine. I’m way more used to that.
What’s weird is how quickly I feel this settle into something comfortable. Maybe I’m just adaptable. Maybe I’m not thinking too hard about how fucked-up this is for both of us. Yeah, probably the latter.
He has me check his phone, check his notifications. I’ve never really used a phone like this before, so he walks me through it. It’s a lot of tapping. At least I’m picking up the art of reading a lot faster than I usually do. Must be unique circumstances. He has a lot of pictures of himself with sexy people. Were they here with you when you died?
I was alone. I think.
I guess that makes my job easier. Nobody freaking out, calling emergency services. So what, the lady with the tray would have found you when she came to bring you lunch?
I hope she gets paid enough for that possibility.
what would be enough?
I don’t have an answer to that question. Fortunately for me, I’m saved from having to concoct one by a little message that pops up on the screen.
I do. It’s from somebody named John. It asks how you’re doing. Says you should text him back. He left a couple other messages earlier. Who’s he?
I feel a soul-deep groan roll like a wave over my body. I don’t entirely know what that means.
because I don’t want to talk to him.
I flip back up through the other unread messages. Are you sure? Because there’s like five from this guy just since you technically died.
he’s a patient.
Okay, cut me a little slack here, I’ve never been to a doctor before, but I’ve watched a lot of doctor TV shows, and even by those really fucky metrics, it seems unlikely that a patient would be texting his doctor that much. Don’t they usually go through offices? I’m pretty sure doctor’s offices have phones. And there’s–
I’m stopped mid-thought by a week-old photograph of a penis, erect and full-focus, with a hand gripping its base. It’s a rough shot, slightly out of focus and from a poorly lit angle. A patient, huh? So are you his dick doctor? Is this a diagnostic situation? Are you a dick doctor? A dick doctor should be called a dicktor.
fine fuck okay he’s my dealer.
Like, blackjack, or
Oh. Well, should I message him and tell him that he’s lost a customer? In the RIP sense?
I thumb through more of his messages. Fuck, he’s a thirsty little thing. It’s pretty soon that I’ve seen his dick from every angle, under a bunch of lighting conditions. At least a two of the shots are clearly from public places. A few more feature body parts of other people, but they’re just accentuating the dick. All of the shots are angled to be the most enticing they could be, not in an artsy way, but in the way the scent of blood attracts prey animals. He wants your ass bad, doesn’t he?
he’s a gold digger.
Like, professionally? I’m picturing this guy with a headlamp and pickaxe now. Except most of what I’ve seen of him is his dick, so I’m really picturing his dick in a little headlamp and pickaxe. Safety first!
no, fuckwit. he wants my money. he wants me to be his sugar daddy.
Before I even have time to be confused about that one, a information helpfully arrives at the front of my thoughts that a sugar daddy is a colloquial term for a man who financially supports his intimate and romantic partner, often in the more indirect form of gifts, as opposed to prostitution, which is more openly an exchange of money for sexual services. Thanks for the clarification. But don’t you already give him money for drugs?
and that’s it. that’s all it’ll ever be. I told him to quit getting his hopes up.
So he was here last night?
I can feel his reluctance to consider the events of the night before like it’s a physical barrier. He doesn’t want to think about dying. He doesn’t want to think about what happened right before he died. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he doesn’t remember a lot of it, not any of it. Maybe it all got stored in the neurons that went permanently dark between the time the oxygen stopped getting to his brain and the time I started pumping it back in there. But I think it’s important. I think we need to know.
no. wait. yes. okay. yes, he came over. we talked. we got high. we fucked. he left. that’s it.
It’s a short story that’s unfathomably alien to me, and he tells it like it’s what happens every night of his life. Which, you know, maybe it is. Or was. I’m not exactly inclined to keep up that routine, and I’ve acquired a pretty powerful veto. Did he leave before or after you died?
There’s no answer. He can’t remember. He said no earlier, but now he’s not sure.
What’d he give you? Did he take the same thing himself?
Garland? What’s wrong?
text him back.
And say what?
say, I’m fine.
I pick up the phone and scroll down to the bottom of the messages. There’s a keyboard there. I realize I’ve never typed anything before in my life. It takes me a moment to contemplate the art of spelling. I manage out an awkward I’m fine and send it. Okay, now why do that?
testing a theory. hold on.
Maybe ten seconds later, a new message notification pops up: Is that you? Why wouldn’t it be you? I mean, besides the obvious, but to be fair, nobody knows about me.
because he thinks I’m dead.
What? Why didn’t he tell anyone?
because he’s the motherfucker who killed me.
Leave it to me, my first shared-body experience, and it’s a fucking murder mystery. I watched lots of those. They make great television. Some shows are made entirely of murder mysteries. A whole new person gets to die every week. Of course, they don’t really die. They’re just characters, just actors. I’ve understood acting for millennia. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life, after all. One character after another.
And yeah, a lot of those murder mysteries are about jealous lovers, or worse, jealous not-lovers. ‘If I can’t have you, nobody will!’ they scream as they brandish whatever deadly weapon is closest at hand, while someone meets a grisly end for the sole crime of spurning some unstable would-be paramour’s advances. So maybe it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a jealous dick-pic-sending drug dealer deciding that a rich boy who’ll fuck him but won’t love him isn’t worth keeping around.
But wait, if he thinks you’re dead, why is he texting you?
set up an alibi.
cops would ask the same question.
That’s true, I guess. Why would someone text a dead man, unless they thought he wasn’t dead? Smart. I should have thought of that.
tell him, of course it is, lefty.
Of course it is, lefty, I respond. Why am I calling him that?
so he knows it’s me.
Okay, fine, I’m willing to let the nickname remain a mystery. There’s a pause. I see a little bubble pop up, three dots that pulse slowly. Somehow I know that means he’s typing. It’s useful in here, getting access to more of this information. I’m mostly just happy to have a brain that knows how to read, and here I am, learning about technology and colloquialisms.
After nearly a minute of dithering, there’s another reply: How are you doing man?
tell him I feel great.
I do. I even feel compelled to add a little picture by it, one of a hand giving a thumbs-up gesture. An emoji. That’s a funny word. It sounds cute. Great. Now what? Am I supposed to just going to keep talking about how you’re feeling today?
no. he’s coming over.
What? Okay, then it’s time to get the fuck out! I’m not inviting a murderer back around to re-murder me. I mean, for starters, I can’t imagine how he’d do it. No, wait, I can. I’m thinking decapitation, some exciting kind of dismemberment. That’d do it. I mean, it wouldn’t take down me, but it’d take down us, and then
do you trust me?
and I don’t trust you. but we’re all we’ve fucking got.
He has a point. Inside of me, I can feel the digestion working. Little squeezes of intestines, now troubled by my anxiety. I try to calm it all down, to restore the system to normal. I’m already not too keen on the process itself; the last thing I want is to fuck it up somehow. The consequences could be messy. They almost always are.
Okay. Fine. What are we doing?
That’s what I said.
My dick gets hard when he walks in the door. It’s not a completely foreign sensation to me, since bodies are bodies and they do what they do, especially once you get the blood pumping. But it’s alien enough to have it happen in response to another person’s presence. I get erections. I don’t get hard.
But I do now. The man himself isn’t handsome — and understand that I’m not judging, I walk around in rotting corpses all the time. It’s just true. He looks like he was born in a bar fight. It’s hard to imagine a guy like him walking into a fancy house like this. He’s got scars on his knuckles and tattoos peeking out from beneath his sleeves. He’s hairy, and he’s broad, and he’s thick, and he gives me a grin like he wants to eat me up. I wouldn’t see the appeal on my own, but it’s not all about me anymore, is it? This is what Garland likes, and as such, this is making my own dick start to throb noticeably beneath my robe.
We’re still wearing the robe. He didn’t want to put on anything else. He said it would get in the way. I didn’t ask in the way of what. I figured I knew.
“Don’t you look good?” he says, practically licking his lips as the door shuts behind him. There’s a nervousness to his demeanor, one I don’t see but Garland does. He’s fidgeting with his hands a little, sticking them in his pants pockets and pulling them out again. He looks a little bit like he’s seen a ghost. He doesn’t even know the half of it.
And he smells like what killed you.
what do you mean?
I mean … I don’t know what I mean. When I woke up, there was this taste at the back of your throat. I mean, besides the vomit, which there was a lot of. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s the same smell he has on him. I can tell from here. Realistically, I probably shouldn’t be able to, but who knows? Maybe I can smell death. We’re old friends, in all its forms. On him, it’s unmistakable.
so it was him.
I mean, I can’t be sure, but…
Yeah. He did it.
tell him hi.
“Hi,” I say. Do I need to sound casual? I think we’re past that, not when I’m standing here, my robe barely belted around my waist. It’s practically falling off my shoulders.
His grin widens a little. Maybe he’s thinking about all the things that could have not happened. Maybe Garland didn’t take the dose he’d intended. Maybe he’d thrown it up too early. His attempt didn’t work, but also it didn’t do any damage. That means he’s still in the clear. I can see him relax just slightly, the tiniest bit of tension slip out from his shoulders. “Guess you couldn’t wait for another hit,” he says. His voice is a meaty sort of growl. It’s incredibly effective.
what do you have for me tonight?
“What do you have for me tonight?” I echo. I’d complain about feeling like a puppet, but I think the irony would kill me.
John’s hands drop into one of the tiny pockets of his jean jacket. He pulls out a little plastic bag with something in it. Pills. Maybe poison. “Something sweet.” I assume that’s metaphorical.
now say thank you. walk close.
I do, step by step. “Thank you,” I tell him. I have no idea if I’m being seductive or ridiculous. I’ve never tried to seduce someone before.
No! Why would I? Did you miss the part of my life about corpses? Because really, that’s all of it. The most fuckable dead body you’ve ever seen is still a dead body. I don’t know where to put my hands. This robe doesn’t have pockets. It barely has any fabric.
it’s easy. follow my lead.
I feel the urge to open my mouth, so I do. I stick out my tongue ever so slightly. John grins and takes the pills from the bag. He puts one right on my tongue. “Good boy,” he tells me, which sends a shiver through me I don’t expect. “Take your medicine.” Then he leans in and kisses me hard, using his tongue against mine like he’s trying to force the pill back down my throat.
Kisses are weird. No weirder than remembering how to speak or learning how to swallow, but still weird. Mouths and saliva. Lips and tongues. Teeth, muscle, bone. It’s weird enough to have to deal with your own; it’s even weirder to be that close to someone else’s. I can feel the scratch of his stubble. I close my lips around his tongue, tasting the cigarette he’d smoked on the way over. I salivate. I do the trough formation thing. I swallow the pill.
Having near-complete control over a body’s systems provides a lot of perks. One of them is that I can just tell my intestines just not to digest that. He doesn’t seem like the type to try poisoning the same guy two nights in a row, but even the baseline narcotic effect isn’t something I’m going for right now. I can tell Garland would enjoy the hit, but he doesn’t fight me on this one. At least he’s not stupid enough to try something like this while fucked up.
I’m just saying. You don’t have the greatest decision-making track record around this guy.
shut the fuck up. put our arms around his shoulders.
I do. He’s a little taller than I am, so it’s just the slightest reach. He grins and deepens the kiss. He grabs my ass, pulling my body closer to his. I can feel that oft-photographed dick of his pressing at me through the front of his jeans. He pulls back a little and takes the other pill for himself before looking me in the eye. He draws my hair back from my forehead. It’s almost a tender gesture. “You taste like you missed me,” he says.
tell him, I did.
tell him, I was thinking about your cock all day.
“I was thinking about your cock all day.” As I say this, I lean in a little closer, rubbing up against it so that he knows I mean that, and not, I don’t know, something else. I don’t think there’d be confusion at this point, but then again, I’ve never done this before. As I push against him with my hips, I feel the pressure on my own dick. It’s good. My head swims a little. I want more. Garland wants more. I want more because Garland wants more. I hear a little whimper escape from my lips as I do it again.
That gets a laugh from John. “Yeah, were you?” he says as he kisses my ear. “Thinking about that big dick inside you?”
tell him yes.
I nod. “Yes.”
tell him you want it all the time.
“I want it all the time,” I tell John. The words come out breathy, almost whiny. I wouldn’t have imagined myself capable of making those kinds of sounds, if they hadn’t come out of my own mouth. Well, our own mouth. This isn’t all me, after all. This is a joint effort.
John’s hands tighten around my ass, gripping it harder. The pressure should probably hurt. It doesn’t. “See, you let me move in, you could get that. You could get that dick any time you wanted it.” Now he lets go just long enough to smack my ass hard, spanking me so I lean forward into him. “So what about it, baby? Did you reconsider? Did you see how much better it would be to have me around full-time?”
Garland doesn’t like being called baby. It makes him want to clench our teeth.
tell him yes.
“Yes,” I promise him. He laughs and smacks my ass again. Garland wishes he didn’t like that. He wishes he didn’t like any of this. He hates the way it pushes his buttons, until his ability to make good decisions gets overrun with need. He hates that he knows he’s an addict — not addicted to anything in particular, he’s too smart for that, he switches it up. But addicted nonetheless, and whatever fills its place is what he needs in that moment. Getting high, getting fucked, getting the best grades, getting praise and recognition.
And he wishes he didn’t know that about himself, because maybe if he didn’t, he could pretend that this was all just normal behavior, not a problem at all. But he can’t. He’s too smart for that. So he likes to get high and fucked stupid, because how else can he live with himself?
Sorry. Where were we?
The answer, apparently, is halfway to the bed. John is leading me back, leading me like in a dance. He steps forward, and my choices are to step back or fall over, so I step back. Then again, and again, until the bed hits against the back of my knees. I choose to fall then, and the mattress catches me. Thank fuck I changed the sheets. John’s right on top of me after that, pinning my hands above my head. He gets his legs between my thighs. I can feel the rough denim against my bare skin. We do it now?
look at him. he’s still too sober.
So what do we do?
John yanks open the knot belting the robe together, exposing my body. I’m completely hard now, hard enough that my cock lies stiff against my belly. He runs the backs of his hairy, scarred knuckles down the curve of my dick. I make a very embarrassing sound. A little blob of precome seeps from the slit in my dick and pools against my stomach. What do I do now?
now you let him fuck you.
What? How do I do that?
you don’t know how to get fucked?
No! I feel the very strong need to reiterate, again: I wear dead people.
have you ever even had sex?
No. Never really saw the appeal, honestly. Sure, maybe a couple of times, very soon after stepping into a new piece of meat, I got cornered by situations I couldn’t exactly say no to. But when that happens, I just leave. I can always just leave.
At the end of the bed, John is taking off his pants. From this angle, it’s clear his dick hangs to the left. Oh, lefty, I get it now. He peels of his shirt, revealing even more tattoos, pretty monochrome things that snake up and down his skin. He’s got the kind of body that looks soft only because all that fat is cushioning muscle beneath. If he wanted to hurt us, physically hurt us very badly, he could do so without a lot of associated effort.
But he could.
he won’t. he doesn’t get off on pain. he’s after something better now.
“How do you want it?” John asks with a grin, holding his dick in his hand like it’s a weapon, stroking it lightly. I don’t know what the question means. I don’t know how I like it.
roll over. all fours. elbows and knees.
I do, still wearing the robe. It pools up around my shoulders, revealing my ass and back. I don’t think I like this position. I feel very vulnerable.
that’s the point, shithead.
That’s not comforting. I feel him start to manhandle my ass — roughly, but not in a way meant to do damage. Garland’s right; he doesn’t want to hurt us. He just isn’t so concerned about whether or not he hurts us incidentally. In some ways, I think that might be worse.
shut up. you don’t get to stop now.
I think I get to stop any time I want.
fuck you. don’t be a fucking coward.
If you knew one thousandth of the things I’ve seen, you wouldn’t fucking say that.
then prove it. coward. take it.
Before I can ask what “it” is, I feel a cold, slippery finger slide into my ass. Boy, am I glad I cleaned that out earlier. I moan louder than I mean to. I’m still not that practiced managing involuntary responses. They happen, though. Like swallowing when I’m drowning. I don’t think I like this. I don’t think I like this at all.
fuck you. you take over corpses and you can’t handle pleasure?
What the fuck are you talking about? This isn’t pleasure.
yes it is.
How do you figure?
shut the fuck up and feel it like I feel it.
Of course I’m feeling it like you’re feeling it; do I have any other choice? But I still shut up for a minute. I’m not used to trusting the bodies I take. They’re fickle little things, all falling apart. I don’t trust their senses or their impulses. How could I? If I did, most of them would just up and die on me. My entire physical existence is predicated on not-listening to a corpse as long as I can manage.
But even I have to admit that this is different. This time is different. And no, I don’t trust him — I said don’t trust you, don’t get any ideas — but maybe I can, just for a minute, trust his responses. This shouldn’t be so easy, but it is. This isn’t the first time he’s done this, or the tenth, or the hundredth. The way John’s fingers slide inside of him is with the ease of practice. He’s trained his body to accept this. Now he loves it.
spread your knees wider.
I do. Just a little wider, for balance. I can only imagine how vulgar it must look from that angle. But it’s starting to feel … better? good? not terrible?
Buddy, I am a goddamn professional at relaxing. Otherwise the rigor mortis alone would be unbearable.
then fucking do it.
Okay. I’m doing it. I’m relaxing. I draw in a deep breath and hold it tight, then release. The sound I make as the air slips from my lungs is far needier than a simple exhale. I feel like I should be saying something. Should I be saying something? Do people talk during sex? Is he waiting for me?
don’t you say a fucking word. breathe. again.
Another breath. Deep in, deep out. Then another. Deep in, as I feel his fingers warming me up, spreading me wide. I’d object and say that bodies aren’t supposed to work like that, but there are so many ways bodies aren’t supposed to work but do that I stopped making a fuss about it a long time ago. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do this.
don’t you fucking chicken out. not now.
I’m not a fucking chicken.
piece of shit. coward. little bitch. fucking thief.
He’s baiting me. He’s making me mad so I have that to focus on. The worst part is that it works. That makes me even madder at him. At myself. At the whole damn situation. Fuck him. Fuck this. I can do this. There’s just this guy behind me who
don’t think about him. don’t you fucking think about him. think about me.
Think about Garland. Right. Like I’ve been doing anything else since the moment I opened his eyes.
But that’s not quite right. He’s been on my mind — he’s been in my mind — but I haven’t been thinking about him, not so much. Because if I thought about him, I’d have to think about me. And if I thought about me, I’d have to think about why the hell I didn’t just drop this body and run screaming the second I realized I wasn’t alone in here. Because sure, I fucking hate trying again, but I have to. All the time, one after the other, I have to try again eventually, sometimes way sooner rather than later. I make a fuss of it, but there’s no avoiding it. I could have moved on. Rich, handsome, that shouldn’t have been enough to keep me from heading for the hills.
So maybe alone is a little lonelier than I give it credit for being. Maybe it was nice having someone else there. I’ve had him in my ear for, what, twelve hours? And already the fear of the quiet on the other end of this is gnawing into me like teeth. Just my fucking luck to figure
Hey. Sorry. What?
do you want to fuck me?
do you? want? to fuck me?
I know for a fact that is an objectively fucked-up thing to ask the thing that took over your nearly dead body. I don’t think you’re thinking straight.
I don’t get fucked to think straight. I get fucked to not have to think. so do you want to fuck me?
There’s a surge in here, a bolt of sensation that strips me of my concentration. For a moment I can’t answer. I can only gasp, wide-mouthed like a beached fish, as I realize what’s just happened is that John has pushed all of that well-photographed cock inside of me. I can feel his balls press up against me, heavy and soft. His hands grip my hips. I swear it feels like he’s thrust in all the way to my lungs. He’s inside me. He’s inside me. He’s inside
you’re inside me.
it isn’t. you said it. you’re what’s keeping me together now. you fucker.
I did say that. John pulls back out and then thrusts in again, this time shoving me forward into the bed. It feels like fireworks are going off behind my eyes. I can’t tell if it feels good or not. It just feels. There’s so much of it I can’t concentrate.
good. now think about your cock.
How had I forgotten about that? It’s hard and needy, swinging beneath me as my body is rocked forward senselessly. It needs something. It needs to be touched.
Without thinking, I shove my hand back under me, between my legs. The sudden shift in position leaves me half-smothered in the bed, but I can handle that. My hand wraps around the shaft. My fingers are cool. The contrast is electric. I can feel precome drooling down in a steady stream, pooling onto the bed.
that’s you. you’re making me do that.
Am I? I thought it’s him.
fucking forget him.
I want to say that’s easier said than done, but no, it’s really not. It’s almost easier done than said. He doesn’t matter. He’s behind me. I can’t even see him. He could be anyone. He could be no one.
Who couldn’t be anyone is the body on the bed, the body that’s mine now, but also Garland’s. His hand is on my cock. Is that how it works? It could just as easily be that my hand is on his cock, couldn’t it? I can feel him with me. I can’t feel where he ends and I begin. There’s a body behind me, but it might as well be his. There’s a voice in my ear, and it’s his. That piece of shit, that spoiled little brat, that pompous asshole
that’s right. fuck me.
I push back from my elbows, shoving my whole body backward just as John thrusts forward. Fuck, fuck, fuck, that’s deep. I wouldn’t be too surprised to open my mouth and find the head of his cock jutting out from the wrong side of my lips. He’s got me all the way through. But he’s still not as deep inside as Garland is.
I’m always the invading force, the temporary resident. It feels good for a change to be the space filled. I think I’m starting to understand it. I don’t know if I’m ever going to understand anything else. He reaches behind me and grabs my hair, gets a good fistful and yanks me back. He’s not trying to hurt me, but he also doesn’t care if it happens. My spine bends back. I push myself up on one elbow, then continue jerking myself hard, harder. Our hand is on our cock. Something’s happening.
I do. It’s intense. Maybe I don’t have any control over it, or maybe I just don’t want to. I’m coming hard while being fucked for the first time in my not-inconsiderable life, and I love it. Maybe I love it because Garland loves it. Maybe I’ve learned to love it on my own. The difference seems mostly academic.
The strength in my arms leaves me, and I collapse against the bed. I hear John’s laugh. “That’s not all you can take, is it, you little slut?” He grabs us by the hips and flips us back over onto our back with a surprising amount of force. Looking up at him, I have to admit, I get it. He’s car-crash-ugly and definitely a murderer, but he knows how to fuck.
It takes me a minute to focus, and then another to realize that he’s not as focused as he thinks he is. His gaze is glassy. One side of his mouth is going slightly slack. The party drug he took earlier has already kicked in, but just his dose’s worth. Time to be gross.
Swallowing works in both directions. That pill I took down comes back up just as easily — which is to say, not really — until it’s on my tongue again, like it never left. It doesn’t taste great, but I’m not concerned about that. “Kiss me,” I say, now that we’re face to face.
He does, and this time I’m the one who gets my tongue into his mouth. So what if I don’t have a lot of experience kissing, or swallowing, or doing any of the things I’m doing right now? I’m learning. I take the pill on my tongue and shove it into his mouth. He doesn’t realize what’s going on yet. He’s still hard and distracted. That’s all the distraction I need.
I hold my metaphorical breath for the length of a single heartbeat. Then I go.
Eyes first. Except I don’t need to open them. They’re open for me. They’re half-lidded and out of focus, but they’re open. Through them, I can see Garland’s body go completely slack against the bed. Eyes rolled up in his head. Mouth open. Not a note of tension left in his muscles. No lights on; nobody home.
Whereas I, for the first time in my life, have jumped into a living person.
It’s awful in here, like walking into a factory when all the machines are running hot. Everything is deafening. I can barely hear myself think. I can hear him, though, not as words but as massive booming shouts. He knows something’s wrong. His immune system has kicked into massive overdrive, trying to burn the intruder out. I’m not worried. There’s no such thing as immunity against me.
A body is a million different tiny little systems. Garland probably knows exactly how many there are, in fact. Except Garland’s not here now. He’s dead on the bed beneath me. I have to act fast.
Where was I? Right, a million different tiny little systems. All of them necessary. All of them intricate as fuck. They don’t know where they get their orders from. They just know there are orders, and they follow them, and that’s how everything works. So while part of his brain may be screaming bloody murder, his vascular system, for example, doesn’t know how to tell one set of instructions from another. It’s probably spent years, if not entire decades, getting told all sorts of weird things by whatever drugs he’s taken.
So it doesn’t know what’s wrong when I tell it two things. First, that there’s a foul-tasting little pill in his mouth that needs to get swallowed. There we go, down the hatch. I’m getting better at this. Nice and easy, into the stomach. Easy to find.
Second, that there’s the little valve that pumps brain to his blood, and it needs to be turned off now. I bet Garland knows what that thing is called. I bet he could tell me exactly what it does. I don’t care. I’m not finessing anything; I’m running the fuck out of time. Off it goes.
Is that enough? It’s got to be enough. I’ve got to believe it’s enough.
I’m a hangover, baby. I’m the worst one you’ll ever have. And I want to make sure you know, as you’re dying, as you’re feeling your brain start to suffocate and slow down, that I’m almost grateful. See, if it weren’t for you, I never would have met him. But then again, if it weren’t for him, you never would’ve met me.
He’s screaming too much to reply. But that’s not my concern.
Oh, and you had good dick pics. I hope whatever afterlife you get into takes those as currency. You can’t give them to me, though. I’m not a Grim Reaper or anything like that. I’m just somebody who was alone a lot, until I wasn’t. You know what people will do to not be alone? Yeah, I bet you do.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere else to be.
The sudden cold and quiet is a stomach-turning contrast. Garland? Garland, where the fuck are you? I feel like I’m busting down the front door of a house and storming inside, shouting into all the rooms, hammering on the walls with my fists.
It’s quiet. It’s too fucking quiet. How long was I gone? How long is too long?
Garland! I shout his name down every nerve ending, out along every patch of skin, through the marrow of every bone. Garland! Fucking answer me!
Oh, fuck. Oh thank fuck, thank fuck for everything. Fuck, I’m here. I’m back. I’m here.
I know. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here. I’m right here.
He doesn’t say anything else. He only shivers as I become his heartbeat again. Everything starts up so much more easily this time. It knows me already. We’re old friends.
Something heavy falls on us. It’s John. His glassy stare has become fully vacant. A little trickle of blood is coming out of his nose. I give him a shove to the side, where he flops across the bed, dead weight. I give him another shove, this time heaving him fully out of the bed. It’s a satisfying little thud he makes as he collapses onto the tile floor, out of sight. Good fucking riddance.
We’re probably going to need to call somebody soon. That lady who brought in the tray, or whoever works her job on the night shift, or whatever. She can call the authorities and get this all taken care of. Who knows if they’ll do an autopsy, all the drugs they’ll find in his system. Do they do autopsies when people like him die? Television leads me to believe that they do. Television cops and television doctors. But then again, they only care about a good mystery. This isn’t a good mystery. This is a death by natural causes. It just turns out that I’m about as natural of a cause as they come.
dad’s going to be pissed.
Oh, hey, you’re back in the conversation. Anyway, isn’t making dead bodies disappear what money is good for?
you watch too much tv.
Tell me something I don’t know.
We lie there together in the bed. I can feel our come on the sheets beneath us, wet and cool now. That’s two sets of really expensive sheets pretty much ruined in a single day. That’s a record, even for me. I can feel our heart beat, running mostly on its own. It’s strong. All the systems are strong. Everything is strong. Except for the recreational substance abuse and the sex with terrible people, this meat has been pretty well-preserved. With proper maintenance, everything could continue to run for .. well, a while.
So hey. I was having a thought.
I look up at the ceiling and watch the fan lazily spin its blades. Around and around they go. So you’re a doctor. And you know things. About, like … digestion.
Yeah, well, I don’t. And maybe I should, maybe I should have figured that out by now, but I haven’t. But maybe I could learn to. And maybe if I learned to, maybe a couple things would tend to be a little less, I don’t know. Disposable. Short-term.
you’re saying you want to stay.
I’m saying I want us both to stay. Okay? That maybe there’s something we can do together to keep … you know, this. Us. And maybe it’s not the life you were expecting to have, and I know it’s definitely not the life I was expecting to have, but I think…
I think I can live with that.
yeah as in yeah. fuckwit.
I can’t tell if it’s him or me that makes our mouth curl up into a smile. Another involuntary reaction. That must mean it’s real.