“Awakening” by Frances Ippolito
Chum enjoyed death more than anything else.
Particularly, he enjoyed the many deaths he had personally secured. Chum was prideful in this regard. Not of his numbers, but because he practiced an equality of opportunity, excluding no one. All of his predecessors had had some preference, some gravitation towards only women, men, or children, which in the end became the pattern of their undoing. Chum chose not to discriminate.
Sitting in the corner of a cream-colored kill box, his right index finger caressed a single smooth ceramic tile, one of many that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. This particular box, the ninth, had a single door, no windows, and multiple floor drains in the pearl epoxy floor that emptied into deep soak pits. Above him, steel tracks lined a long side of the ceiling to hang thick, glistening hooks that often suspended fresh kills for bleeding, hiding, and dressing.
Beyond its efficiency for its obvious purpose, the kill box served as a place of truth. In the moments before death, Chum bore witness to confessions, last requests, and regrets. This stolen honesty always gave Chum a heady thrill of intimacy that exceeded any physical knowing he had experienced. To be fair, it wasn’t always this way. The nearly dead gave up a lot of nonsense and gibberish too. For that, partial blame belonged to Chum because he chose his count based on availability not personality. Some people never reflect, even at the end.
Back on the floor, Chum moved to his knees and gently applied upward pressure against the base of the corner tile with the palm of his right hand. The tile shifted slightly up and released from the wall, revealing a small recess large enough to fit one of Chum’s hands reaching inside to a shelf contained within. On the shelf sat a mason jar with three dark chunks floating in a glittery soupy slurry. Beside the jar lay a flat leathery oblong shape that resembled a deflated, folded football.
Chum took out the leathery piece and stroked the desiccated eyebrows, fingered the empty eye sockets, and pinched the thin dry lips. Satisfied with the condition, he placed the dried, pressed face carefully back onto the shelf and pulled out the mason jar. He gave the jar a few rough jerks, swinging it with his whole arm up and down like a drink shaker. He stopped and peered into the jar, watching the eyeballs and tongue swirl and spin with the purple burgundy and silver glitter of the snow globe. A smile spread across his face as his amber eyes moistened with tender recollection. When the glitter and chunks settled, Chum placed the jar back onto the shelf.
Time to close up, he thought. Sighing, he ran a hand through his sandy blonde hair before pulling on his work gloves. Gloved and ready, he grabbed the grout trowel lying next to him on a tarp, and began to seal the corner tile.
Ninety minutes later, clean, attractive, but unremarkable in the morning crowd, Chum walked into Kaffee Putsch in his fresh khaki slacks and blue button down dress shirt. His shaggy hair was washed and messily-styled, and the beginnings of a grin stayed chiseled on his face.
As Chum gave his order, his usual medium sea salt “cup de gras,” he scanned the room quickly, without any noticeable pause at any particular subject. This was a reflexive exercise; not a serious effort. Chum did not case in the morning because everyone was expected somewhere. A scheduled 9:30am meeting that “Kim” would run. The pallet of dog food waiting for “Sam” to unload into the store. When missed, these events of accountability easily aroused alarm and inconvenient interest.
So Chum glanced around, but did not plan too deeply about anyone or anything.
Chum could not; however, prevent his mind from doing what it naturally did all the time. Waiting for his drink, Chum pulled out a light green jade ring hanging on a long gold chain that rested under his shirt. He rubbed the ring while his mind played through scenes of death for each living thing in the room.
In these moments, Chum’s mind did not always supply the details for how each death would take place. But he did reliably see final resting positions in this contorted reality. The middle-aged ginger over there, by the window, laid face-down in the toilet with tendrils of her red hair burning a shade brighter from the wetness. That overweight bearded bear of a man, who had squeezed himself into a size too small black AC-DC shirt, looked slumped over to Chum, a few shades grayer, and as swollen and bloated as a raw turkey that had been injected with too much marinade. These visions amused Chum and gave him a sideways connection to the living that, mostly, didn’t result in their immediate passing.
In the midst of this mental mussing, Chum heard a thin, high pitched voice screech, “Chum for a medium cup de gras, salted, with room for cream!”
What a shrill voice! He thought as he cringed inward and reached for the hot paper cup.
“Dale, small Cocoa Revolution with steamed soy and large Napoleon’s cup d’état!” The voice called out.
Chum grimaced at the counter and involuntarily, his shoulders hunched upwards toward his ears as if they could possibly rise high enough to block out the sound. To catch a glimpse of the barista, he moved to the other side of the counter. He only needed a single look to enter her into the early morning death reel humming through his head.
When Chum finally spotted her, he concluded within seconds that the voice was the least underwhelming thing about her.
“Jing-zhe,” according to the tag pinned to her shirt, resembled a brown barrel wrapped in a dirty potato sack. An oversized, baggy long-sleeved flannel shirt draped over her shoulders and fluffed around her body like a soil colored tent suspended from a short pole. Her face held no expression. Drooping almond pale brown eyes, a flat nose, and thin pale lips that conveyed an uncomfortable emptiness more uncanny valley than living person. Chum thought, how ironic that someone so flat and dull could be named “Awakening” in Chinese, the time of Spring when hibernating insects awoke to new life.
Chum waited, but an image of Jing-zhe’s death did not come. For the first time, he had encountered someone so lacking in life that even he (ever the equal opportunist) had no interest in snuffing it out. When the world is abundant in the lushest, ripest plants for picking, Chum could rouse no enthusiasm for a humdrum tumbleweed rolling around in the dust.
Without another glance, Chum turned away to add cream to his drink at the service table. But as soon as he pulled off the top, Chum flung the plastic lid across the floor.
“GAAHH!” Chum shouted, jumping back from the table, knocking over his open cup. Hot brown liquid poured out of the flipped cup, covering the table, dripping to the floor.
Chum backed away from the mess, shoulders shaking, eyes clenched close.
“FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!” Chum chanted repeatedly.
“Sir, are you alright?” A boyish twenty-something year old manager asked.
“THERE’S A FUCKING ROACH IN MY DRINK! WHAT THE FUCK!” Chum screamed.
Though matching the color of the coffee, all could see a wildly articulating blob floating in the middle of the steaming fluid. Upside-down, the cockroach flailed its black legs and antennae, desperately arching to escape death by burning and suffocation. The whole of its body bobbed and twisted in coordination with the exception of a turgid, purse-shaped beige egg sac extending from the abdomen. There, the pulsing and twitching was equally desperate, but entirely independent.
“THIS. IS. YOUR. FAULT!!!” He said each word more forcefully than the last. And with each word, Chum advanced a step closer to the boy. There was no way to mistake Chum’s look as anything but dangerous – eyes dark and his hands raised in bent open claws.
The manager faltered and stumbled backwards, almost tripping. A few of the men in the cafe stiffened. Cell phones were already out and recording.
“Sir, please calm down. It’s just a roach, not a big deal,” the manager coaxed in a trembling voice, having now seen the very lively roach struggling in the brown pool fanning across the table.
Chum didn’t answer. In his mind, he saw his hands wrapped around the boy’s neck, his thumbs pressing up and down across the throat, pushing out the last bit of living breath like emptying the toothpaste from a spent tube. Chum stepped closer and the men in the café frowned deeper.
Suddenly, a high pitched breaking voice called out, “Medium Red October for Len.”
Chum cringed. That sound! A jarring unpleasant shiver slithered down his spine, a discomfort great enough to propel himself out of his mind, back into the room with the people. Chum twisted his neck to the counter and found Jing-zhe’s eyes boring into him. She regarded him with no emotion and no change in her face.
“DID YOU MAKE MY DRINK?” Chum breathed out in a halting angry gasp and pointed his finger at her.
“Sir, as the manager, I take full responsibility. We can make you a new drink and issue a refund. This has NEVER happened before.” The boy manager sounded close to tears.
Chum paled at the offer of another roach spiked coffee. But he didn’t let himself look at the manager again or the other people starring at him. Instead, he dropped his hands, keeping his arms stuck to his sides, and glowered at Jing-zhe one last time before turning quickly and stomping out the door.
Like walking straight into butter, Chum felt instantly slicked and slowed by the oppressive hot humid DC air outside. Taking a heavy wet breath weighed down his lungs and slowed the pounding inside his body. Chum rushed into his car and closed the door with the windows shut, letting the hotness build on the inside. Here, in the deathtrap, Chum let himself remember.
When Chum was five, he wanted to make friends.
“Don’t you want to see my transformer?” Chum asked the popular boy named Drake.
“No, you’re dirty,” Drake said, shaking his head and running away.
Alone again at recess, Chum asked his teacher, “Why don’t the kids want to play with my toys?”
She looked uneasy, but said everyone likes to play with different things.
After school, Chum returned home every day to the rented room at the Golden Palace Motel. There the roaches outnumbered the guests. At night, roaches of all shapes and sizes came out, scouring the walls, ceilings, shelves, and floors searching for food, water, and safe nesting places.
In the beginning, Chum woke up at night, screaming, “Mommy, they’re on me, climbing all over me!” And they were, crawling on his legs, chest, and on his face.
Chum’s mother complained to the motel. “Can’t you take care of the roach problem?” She said, tired from working the night nurse shift. “Sure, we’ll fumigate and set traps in your room,” the manager answered.
But the infestation clearly went beyond a single room. And the six-legged guests from the adjoining rooms moved into any discovered void, breeding and blanketing the floor as a squirming skittering brown mass that Chum saw whenever he turned on the lights to go to the bathroom at night. And the overflow climbed into his backpack, hitching a ride to school.
It hurt Chum when the kids screamed at the dried roaches flattened and affixed to the pages of his picture books. He cried a little after the roaches crept out of his pockets and his classmates ran from him, screaming. But slowly, Chum grew ashamed and angry at the children and at himself.
So, after a while, Chum woke up purposely every night to kill the roaches. When the light came on, he went straight for the pregnant roaches, the ones that he knew continued the cycle. He had to be careful though. Even when the mothers died, the egg sacs could survive. He became more attentive, making an extra effort to smash the plump tan pillows until the egg sac popped and squirted custard goo over his little fingers.
When he and his mother finally moved into an apartment, Chum felt fast relief in living somewhere without the roaches. But this did not last. The roaches, being clever, had invited themselves. They stowed away in boxes, suitcases, or left eggs and nymphs in clothing and shoes. In a few weeks’ time, Chum resumed his nightly ritual.
No matter where they moved, the roaches always found a way to come with them, like unwanted family.
Just past 11pm, Chum drove back to Kaffee Putsch. He didn’t park in the main lot, but drove past the building a few blocks to check the area. Earlier that day, Chum had told himself that it was too risky. Careless. But, he also concluded that taking boy manager’s head off his neck would be worth it. After all, the boy did say he’d take “full responsibility.” Chum grinned. Maybe the boy would cry, pee in his pants, maybe even shit himself.
As Chum circled back around the block, large dark shadows leapt about in the rain. He tried to get a better view by pushing his face closer to the windshield and adjusting the wipers down a speed.
Suddenly, Chum’s eyes widened in surprise. Two figures struggled against each other in front of the cafe. The shorter one was faster and he deftly dodged a punch before pushing roughly against the other taller, lanky form. The taller one fell heavily against the wall and stopped moving. For several seconds, neither person moved. Then, the shorter one grabbed the taller one’s arms, positioning them above the head to yank and drag the body in a jerking scrapping course toward the alley.
Chum grimaced, to his experienced eyes, this was a terrible plan and even worse execution. Outmatched in height and weight, the smaller, shorter guy could not easily maneuver the body. Chum shook his head. Not interested your problems, buddy, he thought. Nonetheless, even as he thought this, the temptation for two kills itched inside him.
Unable to quell the building desire to take both home, he drove around the block again and parked near the alley in a surveillance camera blind spot he had scouted months ago. He pulled on his dark jacket and slipped a small case of syringes and two ampules of ketamine into his pocket.
Soundlessly, Chum crept toward the short one’s back, watching his movements like the prowling big cat in a field of wild wheat. He observed that the shorter one struggled to pull the longer body, dropping the taller one every couple of steps on the ground. The taller one moaned. Chum nodded in satisfaction. Not quite dead. Perfect, two for one.
Reaching into his pockets, Chum took out an ampule of ketamine in one hand and a syringe in another. Pressing his thumb against the top of the ampule, the glass tip broke off. Chum inserted the syringe into the opening and extracted half the volume. This should be sufficient to encourage cooperation from Shorty. Chum didn’t want to deal with two dead weights. He needed Shorty receptive and helpful enough to help carry Tall-boy into the trunk of the car.
The short man abruptly stopped, straightened. “Why are you here? I can do this.” The unmistakable shrill voice of Jing-zhe echoed in the dark.
Chum froze. To find her here, of all people, was unexpected. That she recognized him and his intentions surprised him even more. But Chum quickly deflected, “Just taking a walk. What are you doing? How’s your friend?”
Jing-zhe ignored Chum and went back to hauling Tall-boy.
Chum stepped back cautiously and capped the syringe, but held it in his hand just in case. He took that moment to look at Jing-zhe in the rain. Muddy dark brown tights covered short, muscular legs and a crinkled light brown trench coat wrapped around her torso, double-knotted at the waist. Her hair pressed wetly against her head, a layer of blobby black paint on a paper mache ball. A shapeless brown mess, he thought.
After ten minutes of what Chum believed was the most pathetic attempt at murder he had ever seen, he couldn’t stay quiet anymore.
“Where are you dragging him to?”
“Somewhere inside to finish it,” Jing-zhe panted.
Tall-boy had gained back some mental wherewithal to understand the general direction of her words. This triggered violent thrashing and kicking against Jing-zhe’s grip, which landed Tall-boy in a jagged, shallow pot-hole, splashing black water all over Jing-zhe’s coat.
“God dammit!” Jing-zhe batted roughly at the wet splotches on her jacket.
Chum placed a closed fist against his mouth to hide his grin, but chuckled out loud.
“What?” Jing-zhe snapped back at him.
“Need help?” Hands behind his back, he leaned casually against a wall.
Hesitation, and maybe fear, flickered in her eyes. She looked down at her boots. “I don’t need you for this.”
Chum decided to make it an easier binary choice for her. “I can get in my car and go home. Or,” he paused, long enough for Jing-zhe to raise her eyes back up at him, “we can share.”
Chum knew she obviously should not trust him. His calmness in this extraordinary second chance meeting between strangers screamed danger. Yet, Chum also knew she was distracted, which kept her from considering the most important question: Did she really have a choice?
Tall-boy was the boy manager from Kaffee Putsch. Despite what Chum had said, Tall-boy would be his. Jing-zhe didn’t excite his killing instinct, but he had no intention of letting her go. Nonetheless, it would be easier for Chum if she willingly walked partway to her death.
“Ok, but I have conditions,” she finally said, standing up and walking towards Chum.
“Ok.” Chum felt some amusement at her attempt to bargain.
“It’s gotta be warm where we go.”
“It’s 90 degrees with rain and humidity. Most places around here are warm.”
“I want to do it.”
“It? What it?” Chum said coyly.
She rolled her eyes. “I want to be the one to do IT.” Jing-zhe raised her eyebrows at him and inclined her head at Tall-boy.
“Sure,” Chum paused and stared directly into Jing-zhe’s eyes before adding, “if you can.”
The edges of her lips twitched, but she didn’t say anything else.
Taking this as consent, Chum said, “You can get under his right arm, under his armpit here, and I’ll lift the other side. We’ll take him to my place.” He pulled Tall-boy upright to his feet and draped Tall-boy’s limp arm over her shoulders.
Together, Chum and Jing-zhe threw him into the backseat of Chum’s car. Chum walked over to the passenger side and opened the door, waiting for Jing-zhe to get in. He kept one hand hovered over his pocketed syringe as he watched her, not knowing if she would sit down. But Jing-zhe climbed in without a word. While he drove, she stared blankly ahead, ignoring everything, including the moaning and crying in the backseat.
Chum wanted to know more. “So, you’re Jing-zhe, right?”
“And, who is that in the back?”
“You mean the kid manager at the cafe?” Chum played dumb.
“Jesus is not a kid.”
Chum adjusted the rear view mirror down to see the sprawled body in the back.
“Well, ‘Jesus’ can’t be more than 20. He’s a kid.”
Jing-zhe didn’t respond.
“Was he bothering you? Did he do something?”
Jing-zhe shook her head. “Not to me.”
“So…you just decided to…,” Chum intentionally left it vague.
“That’s a little odd, don’t you think?”
Jing-zhe didn’t say anything, but scowled at Chum. Her expression – maybe the first real one that Chum had seen on her face – was accusatory.
Pulling into his driveway, Chum asked finally, “Why did you come with me?”
“I’ve been looking for you,” Jing-zhe said in a whisper.
Startled, Chum stiffly stared back, his right hand tightening on the steering wheel, his left in his pocket. He always knew some day someone would come for him. He’d killed too many people to expect otherwise. He studied her for several heartbeats, waiting from some movement to give her away. But Jing-zhe’s head stayed down, refusing to meet his eyes. Chum’s left index finger petted the loaded syringe in his pocket. His finger stilled. Not yet, he thought. He had more questions and the space inside the car was too crammed. Better to get her inside the kill box.
“Business first.” Chum tilted his head toward the back at the sobbing in the backseat getting louder and more frantic.
In-between sobs on the kill box floor, Jesus begged to be let go.
“Pleaasssee, please,” he wailed and cried, “I don’t want to die. Oh, God, Mom and Dad. They going to be so worried. Mi pez y los monos. Muro de orbes.” On his back, in a fetal position, his limbs bent inward like the curled legs of a dead spider, snot flowed freely from his nose, a straight path into his open mouth. Suddenly, he stretched his arms, like wings and flapped, while yelling loudly, “The lake of fire, the lake of fire, I’m drowning in the lake of fire. My name’s not in the book of life. Someone erased it on the final night.”
Chum sighed as he crouched by Jesus’s head, grabbing his chin to check his pupil dilation. Two doses of ketamine had been given to keep him from fighting and running. In this dissociated state, Jesus was incomprehensible, higher than a kite. No honest confessions or revelations were coming. Chum murmured, “A pity really.”
Chum reached for a sharp, serrated hunting knife folded in his back pocket. Two cuts along both sides of the neck and he’d bleed out. Then, he could focus on Jing-zhe, who, unlike the other one, was perfectly lucid.
“Wait,” Jing-zhe called out by the locked door. She had been silent until now, watching.
“Having second thoughts?” Chum responded, moving closer to Jesus.
“You promised!” She hissed like the hot steam whistling out of a boiling kettle,
Chum eyed her closely, considering her words. Sure, he’d promised in order to get her here. However, Chum had no intention of becoming her two-for-one.
“The first time is always difficult,” Chum said, approaching her, still holding onto the handle of the knife in his right grip, blade out, narrowed eyes focused on Jing-zhe’s movements.
Jing-zhe shook her head and raised her chin, defiant. “It’s not my first time. I won’t need that.” She walked from the door, right past Chum, and stood above a crumpled Jesus.
She untied her trench coat and removed several brown ziplock bags from inner pockets.
“Shit!” Chum, who had followed her, leapt back a foot when he realized the bags were and full of live things crawling over each other. He glared at Jing-zhe in disbelief.
“What the hell!? Like sandwiches and snacks in your coat!?”
Jing-zhe gently laid ten undulating plastic bags next to Jesus.
“They follow me everywhere anyway. It’s warmer inside the jacket,” she replied as if she had answered Chum’s real question.
He smelled his vomit before he tasted it in his mouth, the pungency of the bile and regurgitation making it into his nose before the chyme erupted out of his throat. He felt dizzy and quickly averted his eyes.
“What are you going to do?” He asked facing the door.
“Something I’ve wanted to try. Go outside. I’ll come soon,” Jing-zhe instructed.
Eager to get away from the teeming bags, Chum did as she asked. Outside the unlocked door, Chum braced himself against the wall with his eyes shut, willing himself to un-see the writhing roaches. Chum couldn’t see this way, but he could hear rustling of plastic bags and the tink-tank of what sounded like skittles bouncing on the floor. Chum grimaced and swallowed more vomit. He inhaled slowed. Knives were so clean and efficient, he thought.
He had a bad feeling about all of this. He reached for his keys in his pocket. He could lock her in there until he came up with something else. Not a great plan, but it would buy him some time.
But Chum’s mind moved sluggishly and Jing-zhe soon popped outside, dropping a pile of clothes. She handed Chum her cell phone. An image of the boy’s bare chest streamed onto the screen. Chum squinted, the lighting and colors were all wrong. He realized then that she must have turned off the lights and placed a night camera to his chest. On the screen, Chum could see a greenish image of Jesus’s body violently arching and wiggling. With bound hands Jesus tried to scratch at his thighs, torso, wherever he could reach.
Chum shuddered and looked away from the phone. “Oh my god! Did you . . . are they on him?”
From the phone, Chum had seen what must have been hundreds of roaches climbing and covering the boy’s naked body with hairy legs and wriggling antennae vellicating every touched surface of skin. Chum thought he could not get any sicker, but he promptly threw up on the ground, heaving dryly after emptying his stomach.
Head bent low and hands on his knees, Chum gasped, “You know, that’s absolutely revolting and completely ineffective. No one’s been tickled to death by roaches.”
From his childhood, Chum knew roaches didn’t have mandibles strong enough to seriously injure human skin. A bite or taste here or there, but nothing fatal. Disgusted, Chum pulled out his knife again to end things the old-fashioned way. No more playing.
Before he could act, Jing-zhe opened the door, rushed into the room, turned on the bright lights, and darted back out, shutting the door behind her. She pointed back at the phone.
On the screen, the antennae of hundreds of roaches twitched in the air but their bodies had stopped moving, stunned by the sudden change in light. After a pause, they began to run for the only safe darkness in the bright room provided by the soft crevices and orifices of Jesus’s body. The roaches charged into his nose, ears, eyes, and the cavernous opening of his mouth. Jesus screamed, but choked on the roaches burrowing into his throat. His teeth clamped down, crushing bodies in-between. But when he gagged, more roaches surged in, choking and suffocating him. Bound and drugged, he could not fight the large unified mass storming onto his face. His eyes bulged. He sputtered, spat, and foamed at the mouth. Finally, he stilled.
In the quiet, Jing-zhe peered up at Chum expectantly, like a child awaiting approval. Chum had not moved in all this time, but large shapeless horshot sweat stains covered his gray shirt. Any color in his face had long since fled.
Feeling he should speak, Chum forced himself to say blandly, “Well, that was different.”
This seemed to satisfy Jing-zhe and she switched the phone off.
For a few minutes, neither one of them spoke.
“Why are you looking for me?” Chum finally whispered leaning against the door.
As he spoke, his hand stroked the handle of his knife. The questions would distract her. He wanted this nightmare of a day to be over soon.
Instead of answering, Jing-zhe took out a long gold chain from under her shirt. On the chain was a jade ring, identical to the one Chum wore under his shirt.
He drew a stuttering breath, “Who…who…gave you that?”
Chum said nothing, lost in a memory. He had barely turned 18. She had been young, like him. One night, she stumbled upon Chum killing an older man with an ax in the village along the river. Chum knew she was crouched in the bamboo stalks, watching, but he didn’t want to catch her until he had finished with the man. When that was done, instead of running, she stood up, revealing herself, and walked straight into his arms. Neither made promises, but Chum did not kill her in the end. Before Chum left the village, she gave him a jade ring, the same one he wore on his chain. She had kept a matching one for herself.
“Ni ji sui?” Chum asked Jing-zhe’s age in Mandarin.
“Shi qi.” Seventeen.
Chum searched her face for something familiar, a reminder of someone else.
“You don’t look like her.”
“I am like my father,” Jing-zhe replied simply.
“Is she here?” Chum asked.
“No. She was sick. She’s gone now,” Jing-zhe said, eyes fixed at the kill box door.
After a long laden moment, Chum switched the knife for the keys in his pocket. He took them out and locked the door.
“We can come back and clean this up later. It’s almost 5am. Are you hungry?”
“Come with me.” Chum led her down a winding path back to the house. He stayed only a couple steps ahead of her, always within an arm’s reach to grab her if she’d tried to run. But she followed obediently behind him.
Before he opened the door, Chum said firmly, “Please leave your . . . pets outside.”
Nodding, Jing-zhe extracted four more bags of roaches from her coat and placed them on a rocking chair on the porch. Shaking his head, Chum opened the door and took Jing-zhe to the kitchen, seating her at the breakfast nook, still close enough for him to chase her down.
Opening the fridge, Chum asked, “Can I make you eggs?”
“Mmmnn,” she replied.
While cooking, Chum ran through his options. Did he believe she was his child? Mildly, but not completely. Did it matter? Already, she had seen too much. However, ending her, though easier, made Chum uncomfortable, and something inside of him twisted at the thought of Jing-zhe’s strange presence extinguishing forever. Maybe, he told himself, she could stay a while. He could teach her so many things. She could learn, make fewer mistakes, and survive longer. Isn’t that what parents did? If things became too complicated, then he’d have to un-complicate them.
Chum glanced over at her again, his probable daughter, a warmth and excitement spreading gradually in his chest.
Jing-zhe appeared to look back in Chum’s direction, but she didn’t return his gaze or notice the softness in his eyes. Rather, her eyes were unfocused as she studiously watched and re-watched the death reel playing in her mind. As she did, noiselessly, from her pocket, a small twitching roach, a nymph, jumped down, skittering around before burying itself into the safe shadows between the wooden floor boards. Finally home.
Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito is an emerging Chinese American writer in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not spending time with her children in the outdoors, she’s working on short stories with diverse characters in unusual situations of horror, sci-fi, magical realism, or whatever genre-bending she can get away with. Her work was recently featured in the Ooligan Press Writers of Color Showcase 2020 in Portland, Oregon.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.