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We Run.

We Shuffle.

We Eat.

Belly rumbles. Step over stones. This group. Together. Always together.

Find Others! Hunt! They are Food! Eat others! If no others! Eat fallen from group!

Teeth rip flesh. Strings of muscle. Brain. Yum. Awake at Night. Sleep at Day.

Full.

Yell! Yell at Darkness! Yell at Stars!

Night cool. Pick at skin. Flesh falling.

Day. Bright. Light hurts. Time to move. Hide till Night.

We Run. We Shuffle. We Eat.

Always same. Always same. Till it is not.

We Push. We Stumble. We Fall.

Can’t. Move. Leg flesh gone. Bone shows crack.

Group steps everywhere. Group eats everything. Hide! Eyes look. Eyes see. Stones. Stones and Bones! Bones! All around. Bones! Bones in dark holes. Dark holes in ground. Find hole. Hide! Hide in hole!

Group can’t see. Group can’t hear. Group sees bones. Group sees stones. Group moves on. Group going! Group moving! Group gone!

New feeling. Old feeling.

Safe.

 

Can’t move.

Leg flesh gone! Bone shows crack! Trapped! Eyes look. Eyes see. Bones! Bones! All around. Bones! Bones in holes. Old bones with flesh. Flesh means food!

Dig. Grab bone. Eat flesh. Tough flesh. Dry flesh. Old flesh.

 

Night. Day. Sun.

Sun bright. Sun shine.

Night. Day. Sun.

Dig old bones. Eat old flesh. Sleep.

Night. Day. Sun.

Awake. Stay in hole. Leg moves. Bone whole. Arm works. Strange skin. Pink skin. Warm skin.

Get up. Walk. Walk in Sun. Sun don’t hurt.

Alone.

Sky dark. Sky wet. Drink water. Clear water.

Back to hole. Back to bones. Eat tough, dry flesh. Belly full. Sleep. Cozy hole. Sleep for days. Days not same.

Listen. Noise. Sounds. Heart heavy. Touch face. Face wet.

Sleep.

 

Many suns and nights pass. So alone.

 

Sleep at Night. Awake at Day.

Sleep at Night. Awake at Day.

Sleep at Night. Awake at Day.

Water running. Something singing. Wind whistling. Sun shining.

First thought.

First thought.

First thought. I.

I am.

 

Stunned by the sun. Skin whole. Scarred. New color. Not grey. Not rotting. Far from what I have been used to my whole life.

Except when I remember something before that.

 

Wake up. Eyes staring at me. Blue eyes. Danger? Other? Not other. Words flash.

Monkey?

Naked monkey?

No. Something. Something. Different.

Other makes noise. Sounds that soothe. Its skin is whole. My heart beats fast. Its mouth curves up, opens. All teeth.

Words flash. Memory.

Smile.

Words flash. Memory.

Woman.

Words flash. Memory.

I am man.

 

She watches over me. She stays at a distance. Knows I need to be alone. She watches. Always watches. Blue eyes.

She brings foods I never thought to eat. Fruits from trees. Roots from the ground. Animals burned on fire.

First, I do not eat. I am sick. I am whole and sick. Not like group. Too strange. I can sit in the sun. Too terrible. I can smell and taste. Too odd. I can feel. But belly rumbles. Gets better of me. I eat the foods she leaves.

Sun and food mend bone and skin. Sun and food make brain think.

 

I see the world in a new way. Confused. Some days my sadness stretches as large as the sky. She sits near me, but apart. I am alone. Sometimes I remember. A memory. Flash from a fever dream. Grey clothes. Silver machine with buttons. Box that rolls with a foot press. Days and days of paper. Then the darkness. I remember. I was an I. Then I was a them. Now I am an I again.

I shudder at memories of endless time roaming in a group. Of eating brains. And when there were no more brains. Eating others. Losing the group. Eating the bones. Old bones. Bones from before the darkness.

 

She speaks from across a long way. A song made of gibberish. A pleasant stream of steady sound. I moan. Cling to old ways. But she points. She points. She makes sounds.

There are things flying in the sky. I point.

“Bird.”

There are plants that bloom.

“Flower.”

There are crumbling stones all around us.

“Home.”

I understand. Agree. These sounds have meaning.

She points to her chest.

“Pole.”

She points to me.

She points to her chest.

“Pole.”

She points to me.

I point to my chest.

“Dav.”

I am called Dav.

 

After many days and nights, she inches her way over to me.

The last inch takes forever. Her hand cups me. The touch of fingers on fresh skin makes me shudder. I burst. I swell. I need to be close to her. Even closer. Even closer.

I reach. Arms around her body. Her chest presses to mine. I am between her legs. We moan. As we did before. When we were food. Her hands on me. I howl. I am hungry in new way.

I push. I push. I push until I am inside of her. I remember nothing and everything. I am old and new. I am before and after.

We do not unfold for a week. And when we do, she is she and I am me, but we are one.

I look at Pole. I want to eat her. Not tear the flesh off. More tender. My mouth on every inch of her.

I remember the word.

“Love,” I say.

“Love,” she agrees.

 

There was a before, when everyone had thought. Then Something happened. Darkness. Infection. Then there was the after. The group. Years of shuffling. Everyone shuffling. No one thinking.

Now I am an I. I was an I. I am an I. She is a she. We are a we.

I think all the time. All around me are stones. Evenly plotted, like tiny places to sleep.

Beds. Like tiny beds.

Dead. Beds for the dead.

There are stone caves. In the caves there are bones. The bones we gnawed. Old bones. Bones from before the darkness.

Graves.

I think all the time.

 

We dream terrible things. She screams in the night. We do not talk of before, of the awful things we remember. We do not talk much. Instead, we work. She clears a space near a tree. She gathers food. She crafts things we need. I move some stones. I build a shelter.

“Home,” she says.

“Home,” I say.

I lay sharp things around, to slow anything that comes. I protect us. Our bodies change. I grow strong, tough.

Pole blooms. Curves spring up everywhere. Softness and round. Belly bigger than mine. She is always hungry. I give her my food. I am hungry, too. Hungry from hard work. But it does not make me angry to share.

 

Sounds. I am awake and alert. Far away, I see the group. They are shuffling. They are running. They are hungry.

Hide, I think.

“Hide,” I say. I grab her hand and we crouch behind the stones.

They get louder. Coming closer. One group first. Then another. We watch. Wide-eyed, we watch while they war. Weak ones fall and are eaten. Flesh stripped. Limbs ripped. Grunts and yells. But no words. Not one word. None of them have any words. There is nothing left for them to eat but each other.

I remember what it felt like to eat dead flesh. Now it makes me feel sick. Pole squeezes my hand. I pull her close. She hides her face in my shoulder. I am cold. Night falls. War rages. Eyes close.

In the morning only their bones are left.

We pull ourselves up. Need to flee. Every direction I turn to run to, I once came from. The group is everywhere. Soon, they will come for us. They will devour us.

If only they could talk.

If only I could tell them.

Something.

The word comes to me. Reason.

I cannot reason with the group. They have no words.

“Not safe,” I say.

“Not safe,” she says.

I look all around. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Nowhere is safe. We move anyway.

 

Pole moves slowly now. She takes my hand and puts it on her round belly. It is bigger every day. It moves. I know what it is but I am too afraid to name it. I wonder when it will come. There is no place for something like it, in this world.

One night, it is time. Pole shakes. She screams. Looks at me, wide-eyed. In fear. She grabs my hand and puts it on her belly. The belly moves. It moves!

I watch it become hard as a rock.

For hours, she screams. She writhes. She grunts.

I worry that she is dying. I worry that they will hear us. I hold her hand. And then it comes. It comes. Its face meets the world. It cries.

Pole falls asleep. Asleep but alive. Breathing.

I look at the new thing that came from inside her.

I feel love. I remember the word.

Baby.

 

The baby is growing. I will do anything for Pole and the baby. I need to keep them safe.

I need to stop the group. I need to make them think, like me. No. Not like me. Like a me. But they run, they shuffle, they eat. They do not think.

I think.

I think. I think. I think.

Why am I a man?

How am I a Dav?

When did it all change?

I remember the old bones. Bones from before the darkness. The tough, dry old flesh I ate. My flesh healed. Pink. Warm.

I dig and dig. But all the graves are empty now. There are no more old bones with old flesh for gnawing, for healing. There is only flesh on my bones. And Pole’s. And the baby’s.

I think. I think. I think.

 

I hear the shuffling, the moaning. Then I see them on the ridge. They are hungry. So hungry.

Pole and the baby are asleep. I look at them for a long time. The world is beautiful. They are beautiful. I kiss them. I leave them; they will be safe.

I steal away quietly toward the group. They are coming closer. They smell me. Then they see me. Then there is noise. Such noise. Moaning. Gnashing. Shuffling.

Then they are on me. Bodies pressing. Pressing. Heavy. They circle me and close in. They are rotten. I cannot breathe. The smell of sickness is terrible.

They are all teeth. Their mouths sting. Their fluids burn. I cannot see the moon any more. Only their faces. Terrible faces. I feel the pieces of me ripping away. My arms, my legs, my heart, my brain.

They will be infected with me. With the idea of being a me.

My flesh is in their mouths. I fade away.

I remember the word.

Healed.

 

Cecil Castellucci PhotoCecil Castellucci is the author of books and graphic novels for young adults including Boy Proof, The Plain Janes, First Day on Earth and The Year of the Beasts. Her picture book, Grandma’s Gloves, won the California Book Award Gold Medal. Her short stories have been published in Strange Horizons, YARN, Tor.com, and various anthologies including, Teeth, After and Interfictions 2. She is the YA editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Children’s Correspondence Coordinator for The Rumpus and a two time Macdowell Fellow. She lives in Los Angeles. For more information, go to www.misscecil.com.


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