Of Homes Gone
Their eyes blink like bits of broken glass in the setting sun. Everywhere I step, they glint.
"Back in your heads," I hiss as they huddle and cringe under sheets of coruscated zinc and stitched-together curtains. These must be the brave ones—brave enough to grope an inch into a broken window to grab at the fabric that still flutters in tatters there.
They just keep staring. I shudder but don't let it show. Instead I sprint through the middle of their makeshift curbcamps, kitchen after kitchen, toilet after toilet, bed after bed, as they cook and shit and fuck on the bricks beneath the twisted ribbon of gaping space that sags above the cold, smoke-smeared boulevard.
They're getting desperate. But I'm not here for them, the craven or the brave. I'm here because I caught a rumor. Some kid down on the Delta told me she heard it from some punk that some crazy bastard went and done it.
The unthinkable. The insane. The forbidden.
There aren't any laws anymore—those are what got us here in the first place, say the whispers—so staying outside isn't really a rule. It's just what's real. You don't go inside buildings for the same reason you don't jump off cliffs or stick your fists into the greasy bonfires that punctuate the curbcamps, ozone coiling up from ruptured batteries.
They'll burn anything, these curbers.
I'd wonder yet again why they do it, why they choose to camp so close to the source of their misery, their missing, temptation. But I've got a job to do.
"You," I say, curling a finger at teenager who might be a boy, his matted hair dangling in his face as he tends his farm, a congested gutter abloom with malformed mushrooms. The last ten kids I questioned form a chain, and that chain ends here. "Where can I find Emerson?"
"The street or the dude?" he shoots back, his voice twangy and hollow. His eyes are fixed on the gutter. He's spreading fertilizer around his crops. The mushrooms are almost frighteningly healthy, pale and luminous like the moon.
"Don't make me hit you."
He shrugs but doesn't look up. "It was a trick question anyway. Emerson is the street and the dude. He's named after it. Or the other way around."
I'm already tired of this kid's attitude. "Help me out or I haul you in."
Finally he twists and stares up at me, half-crouching, like a rodent. Instead of a nose he's got a hole. I can see into his head.
"In?" He points toward the nearest building, a thing of brick and shadow. But I know he's not pointing toward that particular building, really, but at all buildings, in the abstract sense. "Unless you're taking me in there, I don't care. Do you have a jail?"
Sadly, despite myself, I shake my head. Sympathy wells in my throat. I need to watch that. "I have no jail for you, son."
He sighs. "I suppose you'll threaten my shrooms next."
"That would be standard procedure. You've dealt with Ells before."
"Ells?" He turns the word around in his mouth.
"Yeah. Ells. Enforcers. Of the Lack of Law?"
His mouth hangs opens right below the gaping hole where his nose isn't. "I didn't know there was a name for you. What's your real name?"
My indoors name is Sarah, but I'm not about to tell a curber that. "What's yours?"
"Friar. Should I call you Ell?"
"Why would you be calling me anything?"
He smirks, stands, and makes a futile attempt to brush grime off his grimy jeans. Then he pulls a filthy piece of sock out of his pocket, pulls it over his head, and positions it over his single monstrous nostril. "'Cause, Ell," he says, "I'm taking you to find Emerson."
It only takes a few minutes before I realize Friar has no idea where Emerson is.
"Do too," he argues when I tell him this. "Up ahead. To the east."
He turns west.
We're walking briskly down the residences on 13th Avenue. The cracked asphalt has knee-high weeds growing up from it, and ornaments are hanging from those weeds: soda-can tabs, crusted bandages, shreds of litter contorted into totems. They jingle as I brush past them, and something clatters to the blacktop.
"Hey!" comes a birdlike voice from inside an overturned vehicle, its chassis stripped so as not to resemble a room. "My shrine!"
"Don't stop," Friar says. "Keep moving." His voice sounds different with the piece of sock stretched over the middle of his face. When he turns in profile, I can see the flatness that extends between his eyes and his lips. It's sickeningly beautiful, that uninterrupted profile, like a brutal refinement of some vestigial flaw.
I nod and do as he says. I've never been this deep into the city before. I'm not telling this kid that I'm new at this job anymore than I'm telling him my indoors name. Or that there even is such a thing.
"Where are we going?"
"Emerson. I told you. But we have to take a shortcut."
"A shortcut?" I call after him as he steps up his pace to a long-legged trot. "How can there be a shortcut? This is all a grid."
I still don't know where he's taking me. Is this a mistake? I have to find Emerson. If there's been a violation…Then what? The Lack of Law might not be enough. I barely know what I'm doing. I can't let on, though.
"There are grids," he says, "then there are grids."
Soon I know what he means. We round a corner, and it's about time. The woman with the shrine, the one I must have knocked over as I walked by, has scrambled out of her car like a crab abandoning its shell, pink and naked and running after us. The cold doesn't seem to bother her.
"I know you think I'm just a curber," says Friar, "but trust me." His eyes are watering in the chemical smog. Maybe it's better he has nothing to smell it with.
"My nose. You want to know what happened to it, don't you? Meds? Fight? Birth defect?" He grins, and his teeth are so geometrically assembled, I expect to see hinges at their edges. "I put it where it belonged."
"Where it didn't belong, you mean?"
His smile widens.
He runs. I run after.
Life wasn't always like this.
It used to be worse.
Long ago, say the whispers, there was Law, and people lived inside. Then the ceilings collapsed and the walls contracted and the floors became hungry and almost everyone died. All that's left inside the buildings is death. Buildings are vindictive, unpredictable, sheltering one minute and murdering the next. Outside makes more sense. You can see things coming. You have room to run.
"My shrine!" The woman with the bird voice is still chirping at us. Others have joined her. Friar and I clear a corner, then another. It gets darker. I glance up. Eaves, balconies, fire escapes, they meld into a tangle of cinder and metal, spider-webbing the sky.
It's an alley. The walls squish in. They're so close, I can see their veins. I might as well be halfway inside.
"Friar," I say, bearing down on the tremor in my throat. "Where are we? What is this?"
"We lost them," he says, panting. I can see the sock on his face getting sucked into the cavity underneath. Suck. Suck. Suck.
In front of him. In the wall, boiling like a bubble of black. An orifice. A door. Unthinkable. Insane. Forbidden.
The ground goes all queasy, and the brick begins to quiver.
"Told you," Friar says.
And just like that, I'm sucked in too.
Emerson isn't a person or a street, a name or a place. It's a figure of speech, a symbol of something.
That symbol is standing in front of me.
We're inside now. It smells like mold and loam.
Friar looks at me with animal eyes, eyes that would eat me if they could. If we weren't both already eaten.
But I can't look at him. All I can look at is Emerson.
Emerson is the empty space where the building isn't. It's shaped like a ritual, then a sunrise, then a fossil, then a sunset. It oscillates through many phases while the walls morph around some impossible axis along its crystalline spine.
"You know now, you know now" is all Friar can say. Tears soak his sock, and mucous oozes underneath it.
I peer at Emerson. Its spine is a shard of light. Motes of dust dance inside it like cancer. The bone beams down from a crack in the ceiling, piercing the air.
I hear a scurrying sound. Friar is gone. I stand before Emerson, as naked as the shrine woman.
It smiles. I can tell by the way the light arcs.
A sound comes from that smile. It rasps like plaster against timber, a rhapsody in friction. Its dryness is repulsive.
I don't know what the words mean, or even if they are words. Emerson's body writhes as the materials that contain it ripple and flux. Frustration seems to flicker through it. Pipes rip free from the ceiling, showering me with a fine white powder, threading through that magnificent absence like a labyrinth of capillaries.
It gets louder.
I don't know what to do. Is this Order? Logic? Architecture? Some other demon? Dust spirals in the hollowness that is Emerson, thickening its flesh.
It reaches out.
I don't know where to go. I can move, but I can't find the will to. I am an Ell, but enforcer is only a word, one we give ourselves, a paradox, a perversion. I am sworn to uphold the Lack. Yet here is a lack the likes of which I've never known, congealing before me.
It touches me.
I don't know what it feels like. A hexagon, if it had no sides. A punishment, if it had no pain. An outdoors, if it were in.
I can't speak, but I know that if I could, I would not sound like myself.
Finally something wriggles out of the slithering static of its voice. A single word, blurred yet purposeful, as if vast resources had been expended in its construction.
It knows. It knows my indoors name. It knows that there is such a thing as an indoors name, the notion of indoors and out. It is aware. Perhaps it is awareness itself, sculpted in relief.
"Open," it goes on with a buzzing sigh of dust. "Open. Sarah. Open."
That's when I realize Emerson isn't talking to me.
Many days have passed since I've been opened. I no longer count those days. I no longer think of lives lost, of homes gone. I find I no longer have the room for such thoughts, or rather, they seem to seep right through me.
My name is Sarah. That is my indoors name. I use it outside. The skin between the two has become so limpid, it's absurd to think of them as a plurality.
Friar has returned, and he's shown me. He's shown me how to farm, how to shun the glint of the curbers' eyes, how to accept the benedictions of Emerson. But he's also shown me how to dislocate the ceilings and floors of everything, one plane at a time. And how the walls of jails are blades to use against them, to perform surgery on them.
I begin with a partition of flesh behind my right ear, a parallelogram that clings to my skull like a tattered curtain, one covering something that should never be hidden. Back in your heads, I once hissed at the curbers. I wouldn't dream of such heresy now.
There is no need for curtains anymore. Or cellophane shrines. Or membranes that separate us from all of the things that we are a part of, that are inside us, and that we, in turn, are inside.
Jason Heller is a former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld; as part of the magazine’s 2012 editorial team, he received a Hugo Award. He’s also the author of the alt-history novel Taft 2012 (Quirk Books) and a Senior Writer for The Onion’s pop-culture website, The A.V. Club. His short fiction has been published by Apex Magazine, Sybil’s Garage, and others, and his reviews and essays have appeared in Weird Tales, Entertainment Weekly, NPR.org, Tor.com, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Time Traveler’s Almanac (Tor Books). He lives in Denver with this wife Angela amid a marked absence of anything except books.