Ephemera

by Jonathan Wood

—blood on a green wall. The paint is peeling, yellow and white blistering through. The blood—the same color as the lipstick I chose this morning, I note—is still fresh. So is the body. Good. Should make it easier for the slugs to do their work. I reach into my case, pull out a baggy of them. They're crawling over each other, warmed by the effluence of the decaying mind. I pour them over the gash in the man's neck, and they burrow down, tails flapping wetly.

While I wait for the slugs to move from white matter to gray, I tie back my hair, kneel, look at the body. A short man, likely in his fifties, unlikely to have seen his feet since his forties. A life cut short. All his loose ends left flapping. His conclusion only notable in that it's my beginning. I'm not sure either of us are satisfied by reaching for the door. Cold. Always cold. Whole place is cold. Turn the handle. Rust like calluses on—

Reality returns with an audible smack somewhere in the region of my thalamus. The slugs have hit cortex slipping money across the counter. Holding onto that last note for just a little too long so she has to touch me to get it. The bottom of her fingers brushing over my nails. Such exquisite little moments and the images come. The ephemera of what was. Pieces of stories.

I search for the coherent, the thread of narrative whatever they put in these things. Going to feel sick all afternoon. Grease all—that? What the hell? Spin. Feet grating over the floor. Need to clean the floor. But what was that? Was that a noise? My ears are going. I'm old. Decaying. Just like—tongue is always dry these days—knife on my throat. Cold. Like a line of ice. Everything is always cold in this apartment. But I didn't do anything. I didn't. I'm the wrong guy. One hand on my chest. One on my ass. Small hands. Feel like I'm going to shit. This doesn't make sense—

I come to lying on the floor. My jaw aches. My tongue's swollen. A sense of overwhelming futility as I try to sort through the images from the dead man, trying to pick through his life for what I need, for the story. Images blur behind my eyes. People have such poor grasps on the narrative of things. We spend all our lives shuffling between past and future, ignoring the present. I try to scrape away the mental detritus, like clearing phlegm from my throat. But whatever I do, I don't get the story I need. I don't get the killer's face. The knife-wielder came from behind.

The slugs are still spitting images, unable to stop from gorging themselves. In the glut of the dead man's thoughts they are swelling, popping in his cranium like sausages left too long beneath the grill.

I am picking shapely thumbs myself up when I hear a sound. The same sound he heard. The door. Rusted hinges. The officers outside the door are meant to stop this sort of thing. But there's a woman—in her forties, more make-up than I would ever feel comfortable in—standing there.

"Lem?" she says. "Lem, are you OK? I saw your door—" Then she sees me. Then she sees the body. Her mouth falls open. A little "o" of ice turns to fire. In my neck. I'm on fire. I'm. I'm. Fire and ice in me. Cut me. They cut me. I can hear wind in my throat. I can hear myself dying. I can feel the blood. It's like fire. Hot from my veins. The knife comes out of my throat. And for just an instant I see the painted nails gripping the handle. Then rotate backwards. No balance. No. No. Mistake. This is. Cold with hot blood. Hot out. Hot—

The slugs' final spastic burst almost drives me to my knees. The woman in the doorway keels over backwards. Hits her head on the frame as she goes down. Shit.

The doctor checks the woman's vitals as we bounce together in an oversized rickshaw on the way to the hospital. She'll come out of it soon, he tells me. I try to look pleased. I'm not sure I succeed. I don't do so well interviewing the living. But the slugs were done with their work, and I'm not trusting flatfoots incapable of guarding an apartment door with getting the details from this woman.

We're in a labyrinth of office blocks. Shantytown dwellings cling to them like tumors. People on the streets either crowd round trashcan fires or laptops.

My witness, the woman, starts, half sits up, then presses both hands to her neck, and slams back. "Oh, God!" she screams. "Oh God!" The doctor puts a hand on her shoulder. I watch him calm her. Eventually her eyes come to rest on me.

"You called him Lem," I sign at her, my fingers beating each letter of his name. L-E-M. "You knew him?"

She looks blankly at my hands. Looks from my manicure to her own.

As if I didn't have enough trouble. . . . But the doctor translates for me. He's cute. I don't think the feeling's mutual.

The woman begins to nod, slowly. "God, Lem." She says it a few times. "He's dead, isn't he?" Her nodding has turned into a rocking, her whole body swaying. "That's. . . . He had so much planned. It doesn't seem right," she pauses, "for everything to just be cut off in the middle like that. To be stopped before the end. He seemed on the brink of so much. Always seemed like he was going to tie it all together." She stares off into space.

When we arrive at the hospital I give the doctor my card, tell him to call me.

"If she says anything useful?" he asks.

I shrug. I doubt he understands. I have trouble making sense these days.

"Tell me we're going to end this damn Pieces case," the Chief demands through the matted tangle of his mustache. "Tell me it was him. He likes a knife."

I sign, "Woman."

He stares at me, perplexed. I try again. "Killer. Woman killer."

He looks at some photos. "A woman killed this guy? You saying this Pieces psycho is a woman?"

I shrug.

"You saying you don't know?"

I try to push my frustration down. I used to be a talker. Even after I lost my larynx. Couldn't stop with my hands. Drove my parents mad. I would run home full of stories from school, of friends, of teachers, of enemies. Life was a soap opera and I the eager narrator. One reason I took this job—so many stories to tell. Something has happened to me. I have stopped finding the sense in things. I have stopped finding the sense in my speech. My stories make no sense.

We've been tracking the killer known as Pieces for six months. Five bodies, all cut across the neck, all men, all overweight. This could be her, could not be. I don't know.

I sign more. "Corporeal forensics?"

"Taking time we don't have." The Chief spits, misses the spittoon. It sits, flecked brown with misfires. "What about the witness, the neighbor?" He flicks through pages. "Theresa Miller?"

I show him empty palms. "Nothing."

"Could you read her? See if she knows anything that could help us see a pattern, a motive?"

And of course I could. But this is not a science. Barely an art. Who knows if she has a story to tell? Who knows if I could find something masquerading as a beginning? Who knows if can find a path to the end. Just as likely to get as stuck in the middle of her life as she is. But, "Yes," I sign. "I could read her."

The doctor calls me at home. He catches me off-guard. I try to organize my fingers, push the buttons. Needles spike the bodies of eels. They twitch dully, dispensing their charge into wires, firing off phonemes.

"Huh. Low eye. Did next." I stop.

"What?" I hear him. Trying futilely to understand me.

I try again. "Hello." My fingers find the rhythms of speech. "I didn't expect you to call. Didn't expect my witness to be useful."

"Oh," he says. "This isn't—" He fumbles. There is static on the line. "This isn't a business call."

It is awkward at the restaurant where we meet. I think a woman dressed far more prettily than me is going to take my coat. I slip it off my shoulders, then find she is gone. I try to make this look intentional. I order an appetizer. He does not. The meals come at the same time. We eat at odds with each other.

It's the same as we talk. Gears never quite catching. I try to follow his stories but am caught in their minutia. Their ephemera. The image of a scalpel dropped. A patient's cadaverous hand, fingers trapped tapping out the same minuet over, over, over—

And so I miss his conclusions, make observations too late, so they are incorporated into the next tale. A bricolage of shiny moments. Nothing adding up.

He seems oblivious to all this. He seems comfortable here, though he tells me he's never been to this restaurant before. He seems comfortable with me, not minding my awkwardness when I fumble with the cutlery while trying to sign to him, the awkward pauses in our conversation, the misunderstandings.

A waiter seeing my signing comes over, excited to practice. His girlfriend, he tells me in halting phrases, caught the plague as a child. I nod politely. He describes how it took most of her larynx, most of her tongue. He tells me she cannot taste the food he serves. I make a few simple gestures. I apologize to the doctor. To Timothy. His name is Timothy.

When my main course, his dessert, comes, he leans over and says, "You don't remember me, do you?"

I look at him perplexed. "The rickshaw?" I sign, but then I feel foolish.

He smiles, shakes his head. "High school," he says. "Psycho-ethics society."

I put a hand to my mouth sitting in a room. Smeared windows. Construction site beyond that never seems to be finished. Sweaty youths on plastic chairs. Standing at the front, still with the metal brace in my mouth, signing fast. Conscious of my hands in front of my budding chest. A boy at the back. Never seemed to speak. My friend Delia said he smelled of chicken fat. Juliet said she liked his hair He smiles.

"Not quite a first date," he says. "Just picking up where I wish I'd left off."

I am silent. I don't know what to say. The restaurant plays music. Someone singing that they are stuck in the middle with me.

I settle the squid upon Theresa Miller's head. Its beakless mouth gums wetly at her hair, drooling thick spittle that soaks her hair and the pillow below her. Its tentacles loop like pigtails beneath her chin. The psychotropins in the squid's tentacles are starting to leech through her skin, leaving small whorls of purple and green.

"Better leave," I sign at Timothy. He does. His hand trails on my hip. It feels familiar, as if this were not day two. Maybe eight, nine, ten strokes of the brush. Next tooth. One, two—way he holds his fork is sloppy. Why are people so sloppy? I should tell him I don't like sloppy men. I should Images thick as where's the fucking chocolate? ink, blotting me Pig hands in the drawer out. Fat fucking hands. Tear drawer out. Everything spilling Struggle to sort through them, to keep track. Everything a mess. Pig in the mess. Pig. Pig Struggle not to fall, to breathe between You're a cute little doctor, now, aren't you, Timothy? glimpses of this woman's Got to be organized to be a doctor. Stands to reason. All the charts in order. Can't give the wrong person the wrong medicine. Stands to—on my back again—why The squid's body lashes back and forth. screw you, mister—number three, please number three My witness's head lashes back and forth. My head lashes back and don't understand forth.

I am twisting with her. Too much. Too strong. Must have. . . . Not an exact science. Not even an would someone design chairs like this? Going to walk like a harlot after—are you doing over there, Mr. Doctor? Got a cure for what ails me? Look over. Look Breathe over. Just a glance. Look up from that patient girl, Mr. Doctor. Oh she's skinny and pretty, like that detective girl you flirt with oh so. But what Open mouth about me? What about a girl with meat on her bones. Look. . . . What are you doing? Are you . . . ? Healing hands not enough? We need a Open lungs laying on of lips as well? That little detective girl wouldn't like to see you kissing your patients when you give them their medicine would—pink or purple Gasp didn't make sense at all Like a squid out of water.

I try to move my damn thing won't arm are you talking to but—

Something wrong. Like a tentacle flopping. And I—

—world is white, bleached of content. I let my eyelids fall. It is easier than I remember. A cosmos plays against the blur of skin and blood well what do you know? Here on time for once

Reality is a whip crack. I groan. I try to sign, but my hands don't work. Twitching. I try to make noise. Something guttural comes. Animal sounds. All the plague left me with smells of roasting meat. Saliva in my mouth. On my tongue. Tongue's fuzzy. Thick today

I try to reel, but I'm in the wrong position. I flop like a fish. Again the animal sounds.

"Hush." A hand in my hair.

When the nurses roll me back, the bedpan changed, Timothy is there. They've sat me up too. They've got me on a lot hopefully he'll just—what is it with you why do—go fuck yourself of muscle relaxants, he tells me. I can't sign. My fingers are only things I can amazing what you can do with a little hydrochloric look at. There was a lot of thrashing about at first, he tells me. When the images come, I react.

Something went wrong with hello. Goodbye. Laughing at the squid. Too many chemicals or too few. Maybe it wasn't spayed right. They don't know. They're trying to find out. They can't make sense of bloated things. Can't find the start of it. Can't find a way to the end. It's not a science. But my psychic walls have weakened, the barriers of my sun. Can't see anything. Gonna crash this damn—

Others leak in. Images. Flashes. Unstoppable. I can't turn it off. Never turn it so soft

I groan and roll my head. Timothy reaches up, strokes my hand.

I wonder if they suspect him. Think he did this to me. My colleagues are a suspicious shoal of fish. They look just like—the flash and sparkle bunch. But they know I prepared the squid myself. They know I'm particular about that. And now I know let me take another look at that isn't Timothy's particular perversion. Now I know what what? What do Theresa Miller, saw.

She thought it was a kiss. She remembered him administering a drug to another patient, bending down to her mouth. Doesn't know her tastes funny psychotropics. In the syringe—yellow for phenylated etherium. Weakens the psychic walls. Shantyfolk call it dream chasing. Experience exhaled on washing up takes forever the breath. Dive into someone else's head. Enjoyed by some couples, though amnesia is a frequent side effect. Without consent—that's psychic rape.

"It'll be all right," he tells me.

—never could whistle. And what's wrong with humming anyway—warm hands—one. And two. And repeat. And one. And It doesn't stop. It doesn't and—and make sense. It all tumbles in. And I don't even know where my thoughts end and other's begin to—

There's a nurse who excellent likes to come and talk to me. Don't know if she thinks she's doing me a good turn, keeping my spirits up, or knife and fork together, like we practiced just likes that I can't talk back. She starts with minutia, fragments from the news, but over time her stories become more and shave more confessional, a litany of personal details.

There is something to do with do I have to do a brother, or a brother-in-law—she may be callous. Callow. Candle divorced, or possibly her lover will not insert into slot A marry her—and something that might involve sex, or simply the desire for it. I cannot ask for four letters, three across. I hate these bloody things. Don't know why—look at me like that. You always look at me like clarifications, for her to repeat herself, and so meaning and implications slip past me. She seems sad to me, though.

The Chief comes to see me.

I am excited to elephant see him. There is a sense of potential about him. Something to his bulk that suggests a culmination. A crescendo. He seems a sweaty knight in shining armor come to drag me back into the action. Come to pull me from the quagmire of things. I feel I can almost move my hands. Almost. Almost.

"We caught her," he tells me. "Our killer. Pieces."

And that's it. Those Like a bunny rabbit, see? Round the tree then through the hole and pull the bunny ears tight. Now you words. That's the ending. And I have somehow missed it. The story has gone. Departed. Left. The narrative has bypassed in the end, you see, it's easier to unbutton the shirt now before—rub the wax deep between the scales to get a really good—did you get that package from—really was looking for more square footage. I don't suppose you have anything closer to the Engine? I was really hoping I could get about ten blocks further

"It was because of you." The Chief attempts a smile. "Once we knew it was a woman. Lot of the corporeal forensics started to add up. Most of these freaks," he shrugs, "men. So they hadn't, we hadn't. . . . It helped. You helped."

A long, guttural sound is coming from me. extinguish the damned smoke already you Not quite a moan, not quite a gobbledygook

The Chief stands, Hello? Hello? Hello? alarmed. And I wish I could stand, could throttle him. But I that's how you wash an apple. I can't believe can't. And I am suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that it you know, I never really cared for pine nuts. It's true. Not once have I enjoyed—whatever, man. No. It's too late, man. No. Too late. I'm sorry, man but is not the drugs that weighs me down but simply the weight of stories—a thousand tales I do not truly belong in. And now I am confined to yet another beautiful drama. Timothy perhaps.

"She's going up in court next week. Hopefully it'll all stick." The Chief shuffles his hands in his lap.

I want to tell him about Timothy, about catfish the dream chasing, about what he's doing here. God, he could be doing it to me. Would I even mean, seriously, mom. I'm a grown up here. I can make my—teleconference him in—wishing well

When I resurface from other people's thoughts, he's gone.

I devise a language of blinks and tongue clicks. An approximation of my hand signs. It is what was meant to be a blunt language. There is no subtlety to it. It is just green today, gone tomorrow. She's pretty when she laughs demands. Statements. Simple, unattached phrases.

When the nurse comes to talk at me I tell her, "Timothy, the doctor, did it. The one who holds my hand. Psychic rape. Not me. Others. He is a criminal. The one who says he cares for me."

The nurse soothes my elbows. What do I like brow as I wink and cluck. Electric sheep. The next big think. Make them electric She cannot break my code. I cannot explain. Eventually all in Timothy comes numb. In these moments of proximity, her breath warm and hot, the sweat of body, the press of flesh and oh and ah, I just feel and gives me another shot.

—three parts flour, to one part baking soda. An egg. Eggs always feel so good. Tablespoon—open wide. Just pinch your nose if you don't—numbers don't add up. Nothing adds up. There's never anything that adds up. What the point is hiring me as an accountant if nothing

The nurse is crying one day. The brother/non-husband/non-lover—there is something in this soup there is something has happened. Either he walks in and out of here like is in trouble or has caused trouble. The police are coming to me with your problems. Always me. And I can't get involved. I want to see you again sometime. Please—No you. No you. No you tell her that I am the police, perhaps I can see into the future, peel back the layers of reality and help. I blink and spit. Again there is something so close, almost tangible in the air. And there is something so desperate in her tone. I try so hard to touch her. To touch it. I will move. I will overcome this. I will achieve this one thing. Here. Now. Yet all my body does is shimmy, shimmy, shimmy, and quick step, and quick step, more, now, faster, again, and quake. A tremor builds. I cannot think of me when you're gone—each step I take like a little murder, a piece of me flaking away, no more to be. Never more. Lost. And what do I regain as I—No, you—Is there anything more than this? Is this all that's— No you. No you. No you stop it. And then I simply flop spastically, unable to control anything, my movement a useless spectacle of light and sound. Really, Michael's new work is a masterpiece, not at all the jumble, nothing adding up to anything.

And the nurse stands, fear on her careful now face. And the nurse flees.

—no end to this, Never ends. Just rolls on and on and on. Forms, receipts, forms, meetings, conference calls, forms. One just spawns the other. Never can just draw a line in the sand. Say this is enough. This is the end. Never—hello stranger—whatever you want if only you let me—so damn tired—warm hands—and—and—warm hands

They help me see? No, watch the way I do it. See, here, like this. Simple see. There's nothing to it. Just repeat it. Over and over. You'll get the hang of it, get used to the movement. Practice. All it takes is—a prick of Novocain and she's down and she's done and she's mine—to do what I like with my own damn train set, woman. What is it to you whether I brush my teeth. I watch the slow trickle of time. Try to disperse it. Except there's nothing. Only this endless nurse work the bristles over my great album, that. He hits the high notes and I hit my molars. The toothpaste tastes sour. I swallow some. It wallow. Swallow. Swan Song. Long John Silver is an accident. It burns want something to distract me, to stop this tedium. I used to love stories. To tell them. I used to be a talker. Even after I lost my larynx. Couldn't stop with my hands. Drove my parents mad. I would run home full of stories from school, of friends, of teachers, of enemies. Life was a soap opera and I the eager narrator. One reason I took this job—in my throat and stomach. I grimace. The nurse is jolly well ought to sympathetic.

"Ah well," he says, "that's life for you."


Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He writes odd little things that show up in odd little places, including Weird Tales, Chizine, Fantasy Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He can be found on-line at cogsandneurons.com.