Peter wakes up in the darkness in an empty bed. He’s knocked the sheets off again, and he lies there naked, imagining that he has been prepared for surgery. He doesn’t know what they can do for him, but he needs someone to do something. But even in dream and imagination the doctors never come. Finally, fully awake, he remembers he is in Clarice’s bed.
Clarice is gone, but she is usually gone when he wakes up, no matter when he wakes up. Every night she ventures out across the seas of trash and ruin that surround the old warehouses, staying away for hours, and sometimes all night, eventually dragging back old tires, obsolete electronics, broken umbrellas, someone’s torn clothing, unidentifiable bits of fire-blasted metal, whatever might interest her for whatever reason. Sometimes she brings back something for him: an old knife blade, a twisted bit of wreckage, and the remains of an accident. Of course these items aren’t really for him. They’re for him to look at and to report on what he sees: the wear and the corruption along the edges, the occult blood and the microscopic bits of flesh, the hidden evidence of reality’s decay which his human eyes should be unable to see, but which do. For this is his talent, his secret advantage which is really no advantage at all. And—he doesn’t delude himself on this point—it’s the only reason Clarice is interested in him—his eye for degeneration.
But still, she has chosen him. After years of existing alone, someone has chosen him. And in doing so has allowed him to feel what he imagines other people must feel.
“She’s using you, you know? She’s the kind—uses you up and then throws you away. I’m not sure for what—you ain’t that pretty. I can’t stand looking at those eyes of yours for more than five seconds. Like two wasp nests in plastic bags. Just telling it like it is.”
That was Billy, who mined the piles of trash several streets over at the lower end of Main. Billy had advice for everyone, on any subject. Peter, who has no advice, always listened, even though these things were not news to him. Where Clarice is concerned he entertains no illusions. He just no longer cares. “How do you know these things, Billy?”
“Experience. Experience. You may be smart and older—what are you now? Fifty?—but you have no knowledge of romance, Peter.”
This was a true statement, but Peter still didn’t like hearing it. Not that he wanted Billy to go away. Before Clarice, Billy was about the only person Peter spoke to every day.
Billy has been gone for months. No one seems to know what happened to him. That’s not that unusual in this time of displacement; sometimes entire blocks disappear over a few days. The people too. They die or they move away or some other thing that Peter doesn’t understand. And Peter has to try to forget one more thing no longer part of this world.
Peter eventually falls back asleep, thinking of Billy, and all the other people he used to know but doesn’t anymore. He dreams about clouds boiling black across the sky, and the earth churning noisily below.
Hours later he wakes up again, with light cutting through the cracked warehouse windows high above the bed. This has become the best part of Peter’s day, waking up in Clarice’s room, the sun striking her bits and pieces in unexpected ways, making even the most unpromising among them glow.
Out one corner of the windows he sees a blackened and fire-twisted skeleton of rods and wires. For a long time he couldn’t figure out what this was, then finally recognized it as a TV aerial mounted on the roof of the burned out building next door. He has not watched a television in a very long time, and has no idea if there are still broadcasts. Some parts of the city still have random bursts of electricity. He has been in Abby’s trade shop when the lights glimmered on for a few minutes before going out again, so like a little magic trick, a cheap illusion, and the cruelest thing he has seen in months.
He tries to touch everything in Clarice’s room as he leaves it. He never knows if he will be able to return or not, or if Clarice will disappear before he comes back, so he is trying to build a replica of this room in his memory he can visit whenever he wants. He knows the touching is a risk—she is very particular how she places things. Objects are arranged as they might be in a museum, for display, with nothing completely obscuring the thing behind it. Glass and metal and plastic and wood. Knob and dial and armature and casing. So many different styles of screw heads and nail heads and brads and markings both ornamentive and functional in design. Peter has no idea what the meaning of any of this might be, or if there is any meaning to be had. But Clarice collects them here for a reason, even though he doubts he will ever know that reason.
Outside Clarice’s room the walls of the warehouse are festooned with water damage and rust deposits, and a pervasive dark liquid decay that bleeds out from the underlying structural members.The bedroom used to be an office in a corner of the second floor. The rest of the floor is open, although now full of the junk museum Clarice has collected. Some of these articles look too big for two people to carry. Some appear too big for six. In one corner lie the picked-over remains of a large truck. Its metal carcass is much too large for the freight elevator. Peter has made up several stories to explain its presence here, but is unable to settle on the one that satisfies.
Part of a bridge trestle leans in another corner. Nearer the center of the floor are the blasted shells of old gas pumps, the tail section of a plane, a detached (and twisted) fire escape, a shattered cast iron fireplace, a cluster of traffic lights, a burned bed, amalgamated piles of computers, TVs, and other electronics.
Angular shadows chase each other through the interior. Peter is inclined to imagine that they are the shadows of angels’ wings, but he knows better. Outside the high windows the world has broken into sharp edges.
“Look at this. Tell me.” He remembers how Clarice had been that day, tall and so slender she had no profile—he couldn’t even see her the way she was wrapped in gray, there by the scorched posts of the burned bed. She’d discovered him in the street outside the warehouse that very morning. He’d been scavenging for food among the debris, something he did for hours every day, but never before so close to these old warehouses. Every scrounger he knew said they were dangerous, but no one wanted to say why.
But his findings had been pitiful lately, and actual starvation was beginning to feel like a very real possibility. If he didn’t find food soon, or something he could trade for food, he was likely to starve. So a little risk was necessary. Besides, you never knew if a scrounger might be lying to you in order to protect a horde or preserve an advantage. The truth was it had always been hard to live, even before everything blew up. Especially if you didn’t like looking at people, and seeing what was in their eyes. Back then you had to talk to people behind desks, and those people could get you a bed, a shower, or a little food, or they could deny you, make you jump through hoops. And all that for some temporary repair, because nothing ever was fixed, not as far as Peter could see. Now all the desks had been blown up along with everything else. At least no one was making promises they couldn’t keep.
“Go on, touch it. I know that you want to.” That’s the way she’d said it, like she knew everything. Like it was some kind of sex thing. Of course Peter knew she didn’t understand everything—otherwise she wouldn’t need him to look.
She’d just turned up while he was searching through the trash that day. He didn’t know how long she’d been standing there. She might have been standing there for hours. Or just dropped in out of the sky. In any case he hadn’t heard anything, or seen anything, before he saw the gleam of her. So tall and perfect and bright. And him too shy to really look at her, or not wanting to, afraid of what he might see.
She’d asked him to come upstairs, said she had things for him. He hadn’t wanted to, but he did it anyway, because she’d asked him. She said there was something different about him. Of course she meant his eyes, although she’d never come right out and said so.
“Let me just put this in your hand. You tell me what you see.”
He’d been shy, and looked down. But she got it into his hand somehow. It was an old metal bedspring, burned and corroded. It felt rough and repulsive against his skin, the way bits of it flaked off and stained his fingers a rich dark brown, like mud, or shit. Under normal circumstances—with anyone but Clarice—he might have answered with something obvious, like “it’s an old bedspring.”
But even that first time he knew that wasn’t what Clarice was asking for. And that he shouldn’t mess around with her. She was as serious as a heart attack, and wouldn’t appreciate a joke either good or bad. So he did then what he does every day. He focuses, and if the conditions are right, and there is sufficient light, he can see the edges of things, or rather how so many things lose their edge over time.
The spring has smoke in it, and fire, and that faint trail of disintegration all things have on them as the world and everything in it dissolves into nothing. And it has flesh, or the ghost of flesh, and there’s something of a woman’s life in this, and her death, and that’s how he knows a woman died in the bed this spring was once a part of. And it was no accident. Nothing about this metal spring is accidental.
He tells Clarice all this in his stumbling way. The words tumble and roll and drop out of his mouth. And Clarice grows warm, and he loves it when Clarice is warm. And that was when and how she first took him in.
He takes the broken stairs down to the first floor of the warehouse, which is impassable; there is so much old stuff, so much destruction jammed into it. There’s only a clear path to the front door, which he takes, and breaks out into the too-bright day.
“Is she up there?”
The voice is dry and torn to pieces. Peter looks around for Diaz, discovers that he has crawled behind the industrial waste bin a few yards away. No agency empties that bin anymore, but the contents are always being recycled. Now and then Clarice adds something she’s tired of looking at. Peter wonders if she might get tired of looking at him.
“No. She’s gone.”
Diaz slides out from behind the bin on his battered creeper board. He owns a wheelchair. Peter has actually seen Diaz in it a couple of times. But he seems to prefer this thing like what a mechanic uses to slide underneath cars. Or used to use. There probably still are mechanics somewhere, working on cars, but Peter hasn’t seen any for a very long time. Diaz is good with the creeper, though—he moves fast as a rat across the broken pavement. “Good, we can talk then,” and he slides Peter’s way.
Diaz has many angles to his body, like some broken thing that has fallen out of the sky. Peter is amazed this fallen angel is able to move as well as he does. But it only requires a cursory glance for Peter to know that Diaz isn’t long for this world—the tumors decorating Diaz’s interior are like a brilliant constellation in Peter’s eyes.
Diaz hasn’t said anything more, and lies there patiently looking up at Peter, as if waiting for the answer to some question. “What did you want to talk about?” Peter asks.
“Some of us just wanted to know what she does with you up there every night, if she’s keeping you under—what’s the word—duress?”
“Some of us? Who’s still around? I haven’t seen anyone in weeks.”
“A few of us still hang on. Excuse me, but I don’t think I should be saying who. She’s treating you well? You’re looking fat.”
Peter self-consciously pinches one side of his belly, finds a little bit of a roll there. Clarice does feed him well—she always has food. “She shares,” he says. “She’s a generous person.”
“Generous, or dangerous?”
“I don’t feel in any danger. People just fear what they don’t understand. It’s always been that way. More so now, maybe, with so much taken away.”
“Stuff is still being taken away. People are still disappearing. You know anything about that?”
“She’s harmless. She’s been good to me. I can’t remember the last time anyone was good to me. My folks weren’t even good to me. She chose me—can you imagine? I’ve never been chosen before. Now I’m getting fat and people are jealous they weren’t chosen, that’s all. It’s an old story.”
Diaz spits into the rubble and begins creeping away. “You don’t see it. She chose people before. At least three or four that I know of. Do you see them anywhere? Because I sure don’t.”
Diaz spreads himself out and scurries faster until he is around the edge of the bin. Like a crab, or some kind of insect. Diaz seems clearly afraid of him. Peter doesn’t understand—he’d never hurt anyone, never done anything.
As far as he knows Clarice hasn’t either. He doesn’t know why people say these things, except for their fear and suspicion. But they shouldn’t make up tales—that’s what is dangerous. Peter has looked at Clarice hundreds of times and never seen anything, and doesn’t Peter see everything?
`What does she do with him every night? As if he would tell them. Most nights she feeds him something, and then she asks him to look at something and tell her what he sees. Sometimes he sees nothing. Sometimes it would appear he can see more than he has words for. She shines lights into his eyes and does other things to them he doesn’t understand. Sometimes she asks him to look at her and say what he sees. He thinks this last request is some kind of test, because it would seem he can’t see anything. He can’t see her at all. He could never describe her because he’s never actually seen her. So instead he gives her a compliment. He says the food she gave him was very good. Or he says she makes him feel safe, or she makes him feel useful. And that must be the right thing to do because she never punishes him for it. She punishes him for other things but not for that.
Some nights she tells him poetry, speaks it right out as if she knows it by heart. Goethe and Emily Dickinson, and others whose names come to him in the dark.
She died—this was the way she died;
And when her breath was done,
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun.
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
He cannot remember who had written what—he has never been clever that way. But he remembers the lines—she says them over and over until they became part of the fabric of his thoughts. She says she is preparing him, but she never tells him for what. She says that life will not always be this way, but she never tells him why.
He stays out all day wandering the seas of trash, the forests of cars, the hollowed out buildings, wandering further and further with each hour. She tells him this is his job now. She tells him this is what she wants him to do. He needs to see as much as his eyes can see. He needs to train them, she says, but for what she does not reveal.
By the end of the day his eyes are frequently raw and irritated. Sometimes he sees haloes, and shadows, and fleeting things which are a little bit of both. Sometimes the surfaces of his eyes feel like layers of transparency, as if they might crack and flake, dropping lustrous leaves on his face, his shirt.
But for all his eyes can see he wonders if sometimes he is missing things. Sometimes shadows move which should not be moving. Sometimes everything just flows and he can’t tell whether it is disintegration or transformation or both. Bits of the world are taken away and he never sees them again.
After hours wandering through an interminable field of rubbish he discovers a burrow in the layers of cloth and paper and cardboard and warped and tortured metal. It’s like a wasp’s nest, he thinks, as he stares down into the dark oval hole which he assumes is its entrance. Surrounding the opening is furniture collapsed and covered by sheets and brightly-colored spreads. He knows enough not to peek beneath them. Anyone living here is unlikely to welcome visitors, and he has no desire today to see anyone dead. There is activity deep inside the rubble, but he won’t go down that hole, not even for her.
He travels a little beyond, into an area where there are discernible streets and some buildings still standing so that at least there is some skeletal impression of neighborhoods. He looks for people and although there is the occasional distant gesture out of the corner of his eye he finds none. He gazes around at the assorted neglect beneath the late afternoon sun, the greasy patina of a worn–out and exhausted world.
He has suspected for some time that he is not in the best of health. He has developed a rash of some sort that has left the flesh on parts of his arms looking like a crumbling mess of old wallpaper, the skin lifting in numerous places, puzzle pieces flaking off into wings and rising in the ash-flecked air. The dark lines between the pieces gape wider, like his despair. He wonders idly if he will still be human if he loses all his skin.
The world flutters around the edges. Something beats at his left eye. It might be his eyelid, spasming its objections, or his abused retina beginning to detach. Blindness suddenly seems an actual possibility and he wonders if Clarice will have nothing to do with him once he cannot see.
In the distance he can see pieces of cloud peeling off and diving, their silver bellies flashing in the sun as the darker parts of them spread open into expansive wings. They drop swiftly into the ground below, sometimes rising up again with struggling figures in their grasp. He tries to follow their flight paths but there is too much distraction. Here and there the clouds burst open and curtains of fire rain down, but he is almost convinced that the effect comes from his eyes suddenly seeing through the clouds and witnessing the madness taking place beyond. A sudden explosion burns across his vision seeming to dissolve the clouds and rupturing through to a backdrop of black space shimmering with gestures of violet luminescence.
He drops his head unwilling to see any more, and again there are the familiar shells of buildings, the vague lines of the streets, the chewed up and no longer necessary material of the human-made world.
A black bird approximately six feet tall is pushing a grocery cart down the vague passageway between two buildings in front of him. For some reason he decides the bird is female, although he isn’t sure of what type, possibly a raven. The wheels of her cart wobble and squeak, and their nervous activity appears to be infectious because she keeps jerking her head from side to side, almost looking back at him, but not quite. Even though her eyes are enormous, like inky globes, and mounted on opposite sides of her head so she wouldn’t have to turn her head that far to see him. She has a long stiff tail that bobs as she walks, the edge of it kicking up the loose wreckage and spraying it back on him.
Creatures keep falling out of her feathers and scurrying away, hiding under crushed cars and fallen bits of wall. After some review he decides they are giant lice.
In another few jittery minutes she picks up speed, takes wing, dangling the cart beneath her. Some of her scavenged groceries fall to the pavement below, but she appears not to notice, or care.
Suddenly a human woman comes running at him through the ruins, waving her hands and screaming for his attention. Her head thrashes wildly about, and as it comes around he can see the tiny black wings fluttering through her hair and digging into the back of her scalp, feeding. Between their wings and beneath their claws he can see blood and her glistening white skull. She attempts to clutch his arm but there is nothing he can do for her, nothing he can do. He can only see.
To his relief a bit of the sky comes down and carries him away.
“Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater . . . ” Clarice’s voice floats high above him. He looks for her, and sees that he is back in her bedroom, with something flying high above him, although he cannot quite see what it is. He can only feel its gravity.
He twists his head around. He can only see the skeletal remains of things, or rather their dusty outlines in the air. The transparency of everything assaults him.
“I’m afraid your eyes don’t operate in the conventional way anymore. They’ve become their potential, my darling, as they were always meant to be.”
He thrashes about, but she has pinned him somehow to the bed. Out of the corner of his eyes he can see the piercings, but there is no flesh to speak of, or at least he can’t see it. There is only pain.
“You will be alright, if you want to be. If you want to be you can be perfectly fine. We just need what your eyes can see. It’s simply one of the last steps. Everything every one of you has been, it’s all properly recorded now. But you can still live on—it will just seem very different, I suspect.”
She comes closer, and for the first he can make some sense of her. A form with the form ripped away. An empty breath. An invisible frame where the dust adheres. And two terribly, terribly gluttonous eyes.
“I’ve trained them of course, so these, these are mine.”
She pries them out almost simultaneously, with surprisingly little pain. He tries to blink the distortion away, but then realizes she’s also taken the lids.
And yet how would he know? His body begins its revolt, convulsing as if to purge what is entering it through his empty eye sockets: the sights and the vistas, the terrible beyonds. Because his eyes had not been the instruments—they had been the filters meant to keep it all out.