duke | artist, engineer

Unravel

 

Unravel

first draft, 5300 words, fall 2018.


On the 1st day, he wakes up and everything is quiet.

He sits in bed, waiting to hear something. The sound of the morning traffic. The neighbor’s kid playing outside. The whoosh of a car driving by.

Nothing, save the occasional rustling of trees.

He leans across the bed and peeks through the bedroom curtains.

The street is completely empty.

His heart sinks. So it’s finally happened, huh.

He spends the morning pedaling through the streets. Gusts of ash and dust spiral in the air as his bike crosses gravel, pavement, gutter and grass. Hello? he yells. Is anyone here?

The city is silent.

He searches houses. Buildings. He runs through the post office. The mall. The local diner. Yelling, desperately, for some response. Checking, desperately, for some sign of life.

Nothing.

Just yesterday, he had complained to the cashier about how noisy the city got at night, even under martial law. The cashier had laughed and said, The city stays vibrant even through all this talk of the calamity, eh?

He chuckles at the irony.

The city was alive yesterday. Empty today.

And he is alone.

~

On the 2nd day, he starts building something of a food supply. What he has in the house won’t last the week.

He grabs a shopping cart from the nearby mart and starts going around his block, door by door.

Wherever he goes, he knocks before he enters. Stores. Restaurants. Other houses. He feels silly doing it, but he does it anyway. In the moments of silence following every rap of his knuckles, his heart jumps. Hoping. Thud. Thud. Thud.

He waits until the inevitable silence is too much, and only then does he go in.

~

On the 10th day, he wakes up and his body does not feel right.

He sits up frantically and stares at his hands. The skin is tanned from years spent by the sea. On his left hand, a faint scar runs from the top of his index finger to his wrist, curling around the middle of his palm. He flexes his fingers, wiggles them around, mimics a finger gun and shoots. Bang bang. His hands feels fine.

He throws off the sheets and sprints to the bathroom, a sheen of sweat on his brow. He runs his fingers down his chest. Over his neck and shoulders; down his navel to his feet. Half-expecting to feel a strange bump, some tumor, something to explain the dogged sense of malaise buried beneath his skin. But his fingers feel nothing out of the ordinary.

In the mirror, a young man stares back at him. A mess of curly dark hair hangs over his brow. Two brown eyes laid into sunken cheeks. Brooding and mysterious, some had said in a past life. Handsome to some, but not all.

He sits back down in bed, face in his hands. He looks exactly the same as he did the day before, the day before that, and the day before that. But he cannot shake the feeling that something has changed in him. Or rather, that he has become something else.

That night, for the first time in years, he dreams of the ocean.

~

The next day, he decides he deserves a good meal for brunch. After yesterday, I deserve to splurge a little, he thinks. Let’s go shopping. He throws on a sweatshirt and walks down to the corner store.

His footsteps echo like ghosts as he strolls the aisles, trolley rattling in hand. The shelves are mostly empty, save for a few things here and there. People had stockpiled supplies in the days before it all happened, stuffing their basements and rooms and closets with as much food as they could. Not that they knew what exactly was coming, or whether they would even survive it. But sometimes, he thinks, the only thing we can do is to do what we can, cling to whatever fragments of hope we can find.

Because hope keeps us sane.

He grabs whatever is left on the shelves and tosses it into the trolley. Canned sardines. Potatoes. Baby carrots. Salt.

Back at the house, he starts the stove and begins his preparations.

Cuts the few potatoes he found into cubes. Boils them in hot water with a pinch of salt. 15 minutes.

Chops the carrots, onions and green peppers. Adds a dash of lemon. He lets them sit in the pan, sizzling and crackling under the heat.

As the aroma fills the kitchen, he leans back against the kitchen counter, closes his eyes and breathes in. Flashes of a time in days past – her, cookbook in hand, leaning over the kitchen counter. The soft hollows of her humming filling the air, warming the house. The faint roar of waves in the background. A flower in her hair. And him, sitting on the counter, sketchbook in hand, furiously drawing, capturing the perfect scene of happiness before him.

He opens his eyes and smiles sadly. It smells like home.

He sets everything on the table. Lays out a fork and knife on either side of the plate. Places the salt shaker on the side. Gingerly, he brings a boiled potato to his mouth, bites down and –

Tastes nothing.

His brow furrows as he swallows. He stabs his fork into another potato. And another. Then he tries the carrots and the onions. By the time he gets to the peppers, his hands are trembling. His fork rattles against the plate as he reaches for the first of the peppers.

He doesn’t taste anything.

He sinks into the chair. What the hell is going? he thinks. Am I hallucinating? He slaps himself across the face. Hard.

It has to be a bad batch from the store. He grabs the shaker and douses the rest of his plate in salt. Digs into the food with all the ferocity of a sentenced man eating his last meal. The whole time his head is screaming, please please please taste something, please this cannot be happening

Nothing.

In a last-ditch effort, he tears open the fridge and crams whatever he can into his mouth. Chicken. Leftover pasta. Tomatoes. He pours milk, juice, soda down his throat. Finally, he reaches into the back and pulls out a slab of raw beef. Slowly, he bites into it, chewing as slowly as he would savoring a world-class dish. Please, his head screams. Give me some flavor, any flavor. Give me something.

As he swallows, a trail of red dribbles down his chin. A tear rolls down his cheek.

He sinks to the floor, sobbing. The feeling from yesterday – this had to be it. There was something wrong with him.

From that day onwards, he stops putting any effort into his cooking. Dust gathers on the salt shakers, on the condiments sitting on the kitchen counter. He eats what he needs to survive. But what he puts in his mouth means nothing to him anymore.

~

On the 20th day, he finds a notebook and a few colored pencils in a neighboring house. He dances around the room like a child on Christmas. He jumps up and down in the air. He walks home giddily, a newfound leap in his step.

That night, he climbs onto the roof. The city sprawls in front of him, blanketed in a thin haze. In the darkness, he can almost imagine that the city is still alive, teeming with people. The lights of houses dot the skyline; although parts of the grid had somehow survived the calamity, the city’s inhabitants had not. The houses are empty. The streets are empty. And the quiet, the quiet is most disturbing of all. A silent city isn’t a city, he thinks. It’s a graveyard.

I’m living in a graveyard.

Under the moonlight, his fingers dance and twirl across the page as his mind drifts. What am I living for? he whispers to himself. I’m alone, completely alone. I could be the only one alive in the world. And I’m sick. I’ve clearly caught some sort of disease.

What do I do?

The weight of his thoughts is too much for him to bear. And so he stops thinking. He folds his mind up like a paper crane, and empties himself into his drawing.

She’s standing out on the beach when he gets home. Staring out into the sea. He watches as she takes a step towards the water, and another, and another. She stops when the water reaches her waist.  

Honey, he says. Let’s head back inside, okay? He takes her hand and steps towards the house.

She shakes him off gently. No, she says, turning back towards horizon. I want to stay out here for a while.

He watches her from the kitchen window as the sun begins to set. As he reaches over the counter to refill his glass of water, he notices the corner of an envelope jutting out of a stack of books.

He puts the glass down.

The next morning, he pulls up a chair and pins a picture to his bedroom wall. It shows a two-story house on the beach. Patches of grass and overgrowth lie scattered around the scene; in the skies above, seagulls sail among the clouds. A lone figure stands on the porch, hands reaching upwards, outstretched towards the sea. What he or she is reaching for, whether it is a solemn salute or a plea for help, no one can tell.

~

By the 82nd day, he has settled into something of a routine.

He had found a map of the city, and marked his location on it. On the Monday of every week, he takes his shopping cart out and explores a new street. Flashlight in hand, he works his way down every house on the street, gathering anything useful he can find. On every corner, he brings his hands to his mouth and hollers as loud as he can. Hello? Is anyone there?

Occasionally he finds trinkets he adds to his bedroom – a Superman figurine, a mini gumball machine, a poster he fancies. He jots down the houses that still have electricity in his notebook, the ones that still have running water. The ones with stockpiles of food so vast he can’t carry it all back. And when he gets home, he marks his findings on the map.

He spends most evenings drawing. By now, hundreds of sketches line the walls of his room. Some depict the city. Others reflect scenes that could only have come from his past. A two-story house. A woman lying in the sand. A sunset over the water.

He’s gotten used to not tasting anything, too. His mouth waters, still, when he sees the graphic on the back of a spaghetti box, or walks by the ghost of a restaurant. But it’s been almost 3 months – and truth be told, he has almost forgotten what anything tasted like.

There is a rhythm to his life. A beat. A glimpse of hope, even.

Which is why, when he loses his sense of smell, his world is blown to pieces. Again.

He is sitting out on the lawn when something like a light switch turns off inside his brain.

One second, he was him.

Then,

Flip

and a part of him is gone.

It takes him a minute to realize that when he breathes, he simply inhales. Air travels up through his nostrils and down into his lungs – but the smells of the garden around him are completely missing. Gone is the bittersweet smell of the city in springtime, tinged with the musty scent of dust and rubble. Gone is the breezy fragrance of the flowers scattered about the lawn. Gone is the musky odor of his own sweat.

He brings his nose towards his armpit, but he already knows what he’s expecting.

He can’t smell anything.

He takes a deep breath, and buries his face in his hands.

That night, he draws a garden in his notebook. A figure crouches by a bed of hydrangeas, flower in hand.

In the corner of the drawing, he writes:

Perhaps it’s our sense of smell that we take for granted most. Our every breath draws not only air, but the smells that permeate our surroundings. The two are so intertwined that we don’t think twice about this fact.

Right now, I wish I had cherished every breath. Every breath in the stink of the city. Every breath in the ocean wind. Every breath in the kitchen, the attic, the yard.

When I inhale, I only feel air. There is a sense of void, a null, a missing-ness to my every breath.

I feel like I’ve lost another part of myself.

He had always believed that every problem could be solved, every puzzle unraveled. When he had first woken up after the calamity, he had vowed to himself to survive; he had always refused to give up. But now, for the first time in his life, he feels himself letting go. Loosening his grip on life. As he lays in bed with his heart heavier than the weight of the world, his fingers absentmindedly trace the scar on his hand.

~

On the 118th day, he finds a working car.

It’s a 2004 Ford F-150 pickup. Bright red. Key in the ignition. And, miraculously, gas full and ready to go.

He throws his things into the back and climbs into the front seat. A layer of dust rises from the steering wheel, and slowly settles again. He pulls out of the driveway and begins the journey home.

They’re driving back from the doctor’s office. She stares out the window, her face nestled in the nook of her arm.

It’s too much, she says. You know we can’t afford it.

What are you talking about? he says angrily. We’re going to find the money. I’ll take on extra work, odd jobs. Anything.

Honey, she says.

They both know what she means. It isn’t a good time to be an artist. The government had just declared martial law, and people were stockpiling their homes with food, weapons – anything and everything. Anything and everything, but art.

They both know he isn’t going to find the cash in time.

I’m not giving up on you, he says. She doesn’t respond.

Sunlight streams in through the trees outside, a film reel of light and leaves. As they near the house, she rests her eyes on him. The smile on her face is bittersweet.

When he gets home, he tears every single drawing down from his walls. Then he grabs them in bunches and rips them in half, over and over again. He sends his notebook and pencils pencils flying across the room. He smashes the mini gumball machine against the wall. Pieces of paper, wood, glass and gumballs go flying. He slams his fists against the wall until he can’t feel his knuckles anymore.

When he is done, he sinks to his knees in the middle of his room. I couldn’t save you, he whispers. I couldn’t save you.

I’m sorry.

~

He starts driving through the city. Not just on Mondays, but practically every other day. Over the next month, he covers the rest of the city.

When the map is completely marked, he begins to venture beyond the city limits. The land is dull and uninteresting: empty swathes of forest interspersed with patches of withered grass. He searches the occasional farm he sees. Sometimes he finds packets of seeds, tools. But without a map to guide his way, he avoids traveling too far.

He spends less and less time drawing. Most nights, he sits on the roof and stares into the sky for hours. His eyes are blank, listless. His mind a world away. When he does draw, the scene remains the same. Two hands on opposite ends of the page, outstretched towards one another. One hand reaching up, the other down. Fingers grasping for one another… but touching nothing.

~

On the 150th day, he is driving past a farm when he almost runs over a woman.

She stands in front of his car, waving her arms frantically. For a minute, he sits there, frozen in place. A roar of emotion floods through him. Joy. Exhilaration. Doubt. Fear. His heart thumps in his chest, and he almost forgets to breathe.

His fingers scramble to find the door handle. Slowly, he steps out of the car.

“Easy there,” she says, stepping back quickly. She pulls a pistol from her coat. “I don’t know who you are, where you’re from, or what you’re doing here. But I sure am glad to see you.”

“I…” He fumbles for words. “I.. I-I– you–”

He tries again. “I… I- I thought I was the only one.”

Maybe it’s the expression on his face. The sense of listlessness around him. Maybe it’s the way he struggles to find his words. The way his eyes scans her face like he’s searching for something. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s clearly overwhelmed by the rush of seeing another human being, and that she, too, knows exactly how he is feeling. Something causes her face to soften.

She lowers the pistol. Slowly, she steps towards him and, first hesitantly then urgently, pulls him into an embrace. He holds on for dear life. Neither of them wants to let go.

Finally, she pulls away. “You smell like shit.”

He starts to cry.

~

They share their stories over coffee in her living room. Her name is Claire. She’s in her late 40s – almost twenty years older than he is. Curly dark hair and freckled skin. Woke up alone, same as he did, but out in the farmlands. Set up camp in the farmhouse he was driving by. When she heard his car, she dropped everything to stop him in his tracks. He notices that Claire mentions nothing about losing her sense of taste and smell.

She’s describing the crop system on her farm when he interrupts her quietly.

“Claire… I think I’m sick.”

~

When he finishes talking, she is silent. She studies his face. He looks worn down, weathered. Resigned, even. Gently, she wraps her hands around his and says, “There’s something you need to know.”

They called it the Assimilation. It was a neurological disease that inhibited the function of the thalamus, the part of the brain that processes sensory information. The Assimilation begins with the loss of taste. Then the loss of olfactory functions. Then the loss of hearing, touch, and finally sight. At the end, the patient becomes a vegetative being – alive, existing, thinking, but unable to experience any of the 5 senses. The interval between each sense-loss is approximately 3 months.

The first cases appeared in the years leading up to the calamity. With all the chaos already happening at the time, the government elected to keep things quiet while they researched the disease. They found that while the Assimilation affects people at random, it is not contagious.

And they found that there is no cure.

His vision blurs. He feels like a truck has run him over, doubled back and then run over him again. The bile rises up his throat and he vomits in the sink. He retches and vomits again. Tears stream down his face and for a minute, he’s motionless. Then he falls to the floor in pieces and folds himself into a ball.

Why, he mumbles. Why. Why me.

He senses Claire standing over him. Shaking him. Her mouth is moving. She’s lifting him from under his arms.

He’s sitting in a chair. Claire hands him a glass of water. He mumbles something incomprehensible.

His mind feebly attempts to piece together the consequences of her words.

He is going to be deaf. Dully, his mind plays a silent film, skimming over a life without sound. Human conversation – gone. Music, singing – gone. The crunch of footsteps in the snow, the rustling of the trees at night, the rhythm of the waves – gone, gone, gone.

He is going to lose his sense of touch. He won’t be able to feel his own skin again, the sensation of his hair running through his fingers. He won’t be able to feel the touch of another person. Or the pull of the clothes on his skin. The ground beneath his every step. Rain, snow, wind, sunshine on his face. He will never experience those sensations again.

He is going to be blind. No more art. No more drawing. No more running, cooking, reading. The world he sees when he opens his eyes at the start of every day? Gone.

Any one of those things would have sufficed to push a man over the edge. As he struggles to comprehend their combined impact at the same time, he feels his mind teetering at the brink of insanity. A strange wail rises in his eardrums, drowning out the noise in his brain. A black tint swells around the edges of his vision. A million tiny knives stab into his brain, over and over again.

Before he knows it, darkness rushes in to surround him. He sinks into its arms gladly.

~

He wakes up on the couch. Claire is sitting across from him, a trail of dried tears running down her cheeks.

Almost immediately, a part of him wants to deny it. Call her a liar. But he knows Claire is telling the truth. What did he think was happening when he lost his sense of taste, smell? He had suspected that the rest of his senses would follow, but he hadn’t known for sure. Hadn’t wanted to think about it. And now the truth was kicking him in the face.

He manages to croak out, “How do you know? The Assimilation?”

“My brother,” she says quietly. “He had it.”

He’s silent. “I’m sorry.”

“Please,” she says. “Come here and live with me. I can’t cure you, but I can help you.”

He puts the glass down and reaches for the envelope. It’s addressed to her. On the top right corner of the letter is the emblem of a hospital.

From: Dr. Christopher Wall. St. John’s Hospital, Department of Oncology.

He reaches the end of the letter. “At the current stage of your diagnosis, patients can expect to live another 6 months if they undergo treatment immediately. The cost of treatment is approximately–”

He tucks the envelope back where he found it. He looks out at her, standing in the ocean. He wants to call her back but he doesn’t. Instead he sits, silent, as he attempts to piece his heart back together.

He meets Claire’s eyes. They’re shining. In her green irises he sees despair. He sees regret. But he also sees determination and a glimmer of hope.

He nods.

~

Over the next weeks, he spends his time feeling as much as he can.

He takes long drives through the city, through the plains, through the forests. Claire gives him an old MP3 player, and he brings it with him wherever he goes. He lowers the windows and hollers at the wind. He learns to sing old school Air Supply by heart. Bob Dylan. The Beatles.

He does things he has never done before. Foolish things, childish things, anything. He climbs trees and almost breaks his neck. He tries biting a rock. Once, he drives naked to feel the leather seating of the car against his skin.

He learns that he loves to run his fingers across freshly shaven wood. That he loves the cacophony of sound Claire makes as she gets ready in the morning – the opening and closing of drawers, the singing in the shower, the careless stomp down the stairs. He discovers that he can’t stand digging around for weeds but loves to water the crops.

Whatever he does, he tries to save the moment. Sometimes he focuses so hard it’s exhausting. But he does it anyway. Saving memories of every sensation, every experience in his head. He draws, writes in his notebook to help himself remember.

At night, Claire helps him practice sign language from a book. He learns to read the shape of her lips.

On the 191st day, he wakes up and the only sound he can hear is a dull, muted pitch. He waits for Claire in the kitchen until she finally makes her way down the stairs. He makes the sign, Goodbye sound. She pulls him in close.

~

He relives the past in his dreams.

She spends all her time at home watching the sea.

He hides the sleeping pills in a locked cabinet. Takes the rope from the shed and buries it. Tells her the old knives were rusty, and replaces them with a plastic set.

He watches as her skin turns pale and her hair grows brittle. As she begins to cough up blood in the morning, and throws up after dinner.

Stay with me, please, he says every night as he tucks the sheets under her chin. I’m so close. I’ll get the money tomorrow.

After she falls asleep, he goes downstairs and runs the numbers in the kitchen. Day after day, he comes nowhere close to what they need.

In the darkness of his new bedroom, he gasps and sits up in bed. The clock shows 4:00am. His left hand is throbbing.

~

On the 235th day, he writes in his notebook,

Sometimes I wonder if I’m still human.

He’s sitting out on a ledge overlooking the farm. He and Claire had just finished harvesting the potato crop, and a thin layer of dirt trails his fingers as his hand moves across the page.

I am a man, and I am losing my senses one by one. When I’ve lost all my senses, I’ll be nothing but a mind occupying a dead shell. Yes, I’ll still be able to think, feel emotions. Yes, I’ll still be able to use my voice, speak, sign.

But nothing will come in.

The day I become Assimilated, my brain no longer take in any new inputs. I become an echo chamber of my own thoughts, forever trapped in the mind and memories of a past life. I’ll speak, and Claire will not be able to communicate back to me. She can scream at me, sign at me, tap a message in Morse code on me, and I will not receive it.

The main difference between animals and plants is that animals have senses. We see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. Of course, we also think and feel emotions.

The difference between a plant and a rock is that even a plant has some form of agency. When it lacks water, it sinks its roots deeper and wider into the ground. When it needs sunlight, it spreads its leaves and grows higher.

The Assimilated have no agency. They are vulnerable. Powerless. S dubject to the whims of whatever crosses their path, human or natural.

They’re caught somewhere between a plant and a non-living object.

If someone had told me that I would become a pseudo-living object a year ago, I would have laughed. But now? Honestly, I’m terrified. I’m fucking terrified. The reality of my condition makes me want to scream.

Whoever came up with the term Assimilated, I get it now.

With every passing day, I lose another piece of myself to the wind. Whatever humanity I have left is diminishing. Whatever idea of life my body embodies, that idea is fading.

I become less.

I assimilate.

I unravel.                                                                    

~

The next day at breakfast, he asks Claire for a favor. She gets up immediately, knocking her chair backwards. Her hands fly as she signs furiously at him. When she is done, he takes her hand and says, Claire. Look at me.

Over the next 2 weeks, they pack the car with enough food, gas and supplies for an extended trip. Claire spreads every geographical book they have across the kitchen table and plots a tentative course. The trip will take them at least fourteen days to get there and back.

On the 250th day, they set off. As the truck rumbles down the driveway, he turns his head and gives the farm one last look.

Soon, they leave the plains behind them and enter the mountains. They swap 8-hour shifts at the wheel, stopping only to use the bathroom.

On his off-shifts, he leans his seat back and stares up at the sky. He’s exhausted, and yet an urgency fills his chest, keeping him awake.

She’s already waist-deep in the water when he gets home. He jumps out of the car and sprints towards her.

He slips in the sand, stumbles, and keeps going. The waves nibble at her neck.

He screams her name. He screams for her to stop walking.  

By the time he reaches the edge of the water, her head has dipped underwater. He dives in and swims after her. The waves crash about him, pushing him back. After a while, they threaten to pull him under.

He gasps for air and sees a trace of her hair in the distance.

He takes a deep breath and dives underwater. A dark blue meets his eyes. She lies still, cradled in its embrace. Her eyes are closed. She looks peaceful.                                    

He swims as hard as he can. Reaches out, and just barely catches the tips of her fingers. She opens her eyes as he manages to take her fingers in his.

Almost imperceptibly, she shakes her head. The current is pulling him back, tugging at his grip.

With the last of her strength, she untangles her fingers from his –

And lets go.

He feels a wave crashing overhead, and the ocean sweeps her away.

The ocean tosses him to the floor, and a bolt of pain flashes across his left side.

 ~

On the 255th day, he loses his sense of touch. He presses the brake pedal as hard as he can, or he thinks he does, and watches as his arm moves to wake Claire from her sleep.

Goodbye touch, he signs.

She helps him into the passenger seat, and takes the wheel. He has become a spectator to his own life. He looks down at his hands to make sure they’re sitting in his lap, and moves his eyes to stare straight ahead.

~

On the 257th day, they reach their destination.

The ocean rises before his eyes like a tidal wave. A trembling blue. Claire clasps his arm firmly and helps him onto the sand. The waves rise and roar at the sky, declaring their presence before crashing onto the shore.

There is a light wind, she mouths. I know, he says, smiling. He can tell by the way her hair tousles in the air. It’s a hot day out, but the wind makes it nice, she says. The sand feels like freshly baked cookies.

How does it smell? he asks.

It smells like – she struggles to find the word – it smells like… the sea. 

The grin on her face tells him he laughed.

Do you remember? she says.

I do, he says. I remember.

When they begin to near the water’s edge, he signs, let me. Reluctantly, Claire steadies him in place and steps back.

After a while, he turns and smiles at her. Thank you. 

What are you–

He turns back before he can finish reading her lips. And starts walking towards the sea.

He watches as his feet take one step after another. As the water creeps from his feet to his waist, he expects himself to fall. But the wind is light, and his body somehow maintains its balance.

When the waves start tugging at his chest, he stops walking. He looks out at the ocean before him. It’s roaring, but somehow he is not afraid.

He lifts his left arm from his side, and reaches it towards the sky. Under the bright of the sun, the scar on his hand is barely visible.

A wave rises before him, and he closes his eyes.


 

written in intro to fiction w/ lucy corin.

things i'll rework in later revisions: downsizing the apocalypse storyline, starting my story with a short set-up scene, fleshing out claire's character/relationship with the protagonist, removing cliches