By Katharine E.K. Duckett
“You can see summer from here,” said Zoya. “On a clear day, anyway. And September’s a ten-minute walk.”
Teskia looked toward the hills, fingers tapping the sill. “What’s your asking price?”
Zoya shrugged her small shoulders. “I’m not asking to sell. You’re asking to buy.” She morphalated, her hair lightening from deep auburn to the red-gold curls that once shone under the Black Sea sun. Teskia averted her eyes: flashes of her mother’s younger self disquieted her.
The season was setting in the west. “Four years.”
“I won’t take any goldens. They’re worthless.”
“No, I’ll give you sterling. Mid-50s. To own the place.”
Zoya closed her eyes. “Okay.” She extended a hand. “It’s yours.”
Teskia brought Julio to the house in a dawn-driven caravan. He lay motionless on a gold litter she had constructed for a high school play, carried by tanned, solid memories: multiplication tables and easy grammar rules, grounded reminiscences that almost passed for facts. They carried him up the steps and into the empty living room, where she fed him a few minutes through a funnel. He swallowed, but did not open his eyes.
Furniture began to pop up. Oak chairs from their first dining room; a milk-stained futon from pre-school; her grandmother’s bedside table, complete with its icon of a baleful Virgin and Child–nothing matched. Decorating took time, intention: all her energy was focused on Julio. She spent her hours sitting beside him, kneading his limp hand, snatching at bits of the past she might have overlooked. What had his soccer uniform looked like junior year? When did he lose his fifth tooth? How many games of Scrabble had he won against her during the summer of 2013? She thought it was helping–his cheeks seemed ruddier, his breathing easier–but he didn’t wake up. They were surviving entirely on her time now, draining her memories twice as quickly. They couldn’t afford the strain much longer: Julio had to wake up and remember their life, or they would no longer have one.
It was Julio who had coined the term “morphalating” to describe how people looked in the Afterlife.
“Flickering’s not quite the word for it,” Teskia had said as she’d watched Julio’s face shift, the wrinkles from his frequent grin creasing and fading, his facial hair receding from full beard into peach fuzz. “It’s more like–”
The term had stuck–Julio liked the sci-fi feel of it, and Teskia was a sucker for goofy portmanteaus. As far as they knew, no one had bothered to name the phenomenon before: people were, for the most part, oddly incurious about the weirdnesses of the Afterlife.
Teskia’s grandfather chalked it up to nationality. “All Americans believe in immortality,” he’d told her. “Even the atheists. The Afterlife doesn’t surprise them in the least. They’ve had everything else handed to them–why not eternity?”
“And what about Russians? Or Greeks?”
He blew out a long plume of cigarette smoke. “We try not to show that we notice. Notice it, appreciate it–someone will take it away from you. I, for one, try to live like I’m dead.”
They’d met at his shop, one of the few shared spaces that remained between them. It saddened Teskia to see that her beloved grandfather had traded in the memories of her childhood for those of his own youth, but he had been a respected writer in his earlier years, and dementia had stolen his goldens just as it had taken hers. She had reverted to her younger self, too, of course; but then, she had no children.
That meeting had been their first and only: her grandfather had faded soon after. Teskia knew he was running out of time from the choppy way he morphalated, vibrating back and forth between only two or three states of being. His timeline–what Julio called “the snake”–was losing its tail, shriveling down to its essential segments.
“People’s timelines are like long, stringy creatures,” Julio had explained as they’d discussed the concept of morphalation. “They contain every moment of that person’s life. We should be able to see every second of our lives, all at once, but we see each other like this because that’s what we’re used to. I don’t think the brain can handle much more than a flicker.”
“We’re dead,” Teskia had pointed out. “Who knows what our brains can handle?”
It was a question they rehashed frequently in their rambling post-life discussions: why were they conscious, now that their brains had, presumably, decomposed? Why did the Afterlife exist? What was its purpose?
“It’s a simulation.” Julio was a software engineer: this was his favorite hypothesis. “We’re all just pieces of virtual reality and the Afterlife is a kind of processor, sorting through all the information we’ve accumulated to find what’s important.”
“What do you mean, what’s important? What do you think it’s looking for?”
“The things that make us human. You know, the most important things. Maybe it discards everything else, all the pain we have to go through, all the mistakes. Maybe it just saves what’s good.”
“I don’t know.” Teskia was a student of Russian literature: her theories skewed metaphysical. “I think this could be hell.”
Julio furrowed his brow. “Then why would we be together?”
“It’s an atonement thing, maybe. Maybe we’re supposed to forgive each other our sins.”
He shook his head. “But the Afterlife is about second chances. You get to see the people you love again, you get to change things–well, change the way you remember them, at least. I don’t think you get second chances in hell.”
Julio got sick in 2001. They had gone there to visit an old friend who had died in November of that year, a high school classmate of theirs who was killed by a bus during his first semester at college.
“I still have that minute right before,” Zack told them over dinner at Moneta’s, a shabby diner they all remembered from their hometown. “Not the minutes when I was lying there, waiting to die–I sold those off soon as I got here. But right before it hit, when I could see it coming, and it couldn’t see me? I kept that one. Might be the last one I ever give up.”
Despite herself, Teskia envied him. The decade before her death had been used up by then: it was all fog anyway, empty years with Alzheimer’s and without Julio. At least, she thought it was. That was the thing about giving up your time–you retained some sense of it, but it became like a story you heard somewhere, once. Like something you read in a book, but you couldn’t remember which one, or when, or why you cared.
Zack morphalated only slightly, hair spiking and lengthening, braces twisting into a mess of unaligned teeth: Teskia guessed that he only had five or six years left. “Your mom still around, Tes?”
“More or less. She’s somewhere in the 80s, these days.”
He forked a chunk of meatloaf. “You guys see Alex much?”
“Yeah, Alex. You remember. The third Musketeer? The only other person in English class who actually liked Dreams of My Russian Summers?” Zack wiped his mouth. “Wait–do you remember?”
“I don’t–“ Teskia glanced at Julio to see if he recognized the name, but his dark eyes were glassy. “Julio?”
He didn’t respond. Teskia put her hand on his. “Julio? What’s wrong?”
Tightening his grip on his fork, Julio shook himself, looking through Teskia as if she were one of Moneta’s faux-Hellenistic plaster statues. “Who–what?”
He ran a hand through his hair, exhaling slowly. “Yeah…sorry. Guess I spaced there for a minute.”
At Zack’s request, Julio began to fill him in on all the geeky news he’d missed (“I can’t believe you had to go and die before Firefly, man. Seriously bad timing”) but his face had a feverish sheen. Sometimes old sicknesses cropped up in ghost form–harmless and temporary, but still irritating. Teskia tried to remember if he’d had the flu in 2001: maybe some figment of it was attacking him now.
Halfway through dessert, though, it became clear the disease was no phantom. Julio had fallen asleep in his chair.
Nobody slept in the Afterlife. It was an enormous waste of memories: dreams needed huge amounts of fodder, and you could never tell what might be pulled from you while you slept. When Teskia looked up from her key lime pie and saw Julio sitting there, unconscious for the first time since he had died, she knew she wasn’t safe. Their memories were wholly communal–without Julio, she had barely enough time to cover their check.
Teskia had died in her sleep, so her early impressions of the Afterlife were hazy, and she wasn’t sure when she’d moved from those last living dreams into her death. She told Zoya that she had felt someone holding her, someone steadying her as she transitioned from life to whatever lay beyond. “It didn’t seem like Julio, at first, but…it must have been. It was like those dreams you have sometimes, where you see someone you know but they’re two separate people, and you don’t recognize them as one being. But it musthave been Julio. Who else would it be?”
When Julio didn’t get better after that first week, Teskia knew they needed a house: somewhere for him to convalesce in peace. 2001 was too loud. The crash of the towers, the tolls of freshman year–he couldn’t recover in that din.
1981, Teskia recalled, wasn’t so bad. They had both been very young then, so the population would be sparse. They took a train (it was five days for the fare) and ended up in July. They traveled north until she found Zoya, living in October. Zoya wanted out of 1981; Teskia wanted in.
“It’s a nice neighborhood,” Zoya said as she ushered Teskia through the wood-paneled ranch house. “But I need to get out of the 80s. Nothing past ’79 from now on. That’s when life stopped being worth living.” She flashed Teskia an abashed smile. “No offense.”
Teskia, in urgent need of a house, took none. Trading was uncommon in the Afterlife: most people were self-sufficient and used their own years to house, feed, and clothe themselves. But without Julio, Teskia didn’t have nearly enough time to build a house, and Zoya, dead from lung cancer at 54, was desperate for borrowed time. Before Zoya’s sister Masha had faded away for good, she sometimes hinted to Teskia that Zoya made a habit of trading her body for minutes, but sex wasn’t popular enough in the Afterlife for her to make much profit off that.
Sex in the Afterlife wasn’t physically gratifying, not unless it was with someone whose body you had true, solid memories of. You had to understand a person thoroughly for either of you to get anything out of it. You had to know them, inside and out.
October was colder than she’d expected. Teskia had never liked the month: the charms of late fall only reminded her that winter was near.
She spent the days sorting through her memories, setting aside what was hers alone, determining how much time they had left. So much had been lost already: she remembered a random phrase from The Brothers Karamazov–“I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering”–but she didn’t know who had written it. She remembered the way her hometown had looked in January, the frost-caked cars driving black snow up against the dirty brown storefronts, but she couldn’t recall its name. She remembered that Julio had a best friend, someone whose timeline slithered through their own, but Julio had given up that person’s face and name long before Teskia had made it to the Afterlife. “Wasn’t important,” he’d said, when she asked him about it. “I didn’t think you’d mind. I mean, we’re what matters, right?”
Other bits of information rattled around in her recollection, too small to be valuable–her locker combination from 6th grade, the names of the streets she used to take on her morning walks, the warning message that used to pop up on her old MacBook before its battery ran out: “Your computer will go to sleep in a few minutes to preserve the contents of memory.” Maybe Julio’s theory was right; maybe he was just a piece of VR. Maybe he’d shut down to save some crucial file. But what? Teskia thought. What could be worth saving, if it cost them everything else?
There was no one to whom she could voice these questions, no one who had faced a similar plight. The Afterlife was a largely autonomous experience, and most people moved through it alone.
Julio and Teskia, however, were oddities: they had shared almost every moment of their lives together since they were born. Their mothers had been best friends for years, and when Julio’s dad died and Teskia’s left, they moved in together, each helping to raise the other’s child. Julio and Teskia had only spent six years apart in their entire lives and deaths–a year when Teskia studied abroad, nine months in their thirties when she had taken a sabbatical from her position at the university, and the four years that she had survived after Julio passed on.
Both of their mothers had immigrated to the U.S. in middle school, though Zoya, with her pale skin and Baltic-blue eyes, faced less of the prejudice that Julio’s mom, Maria, endured. As children Julio and Teskia, both dark haired and olive skinned, were often mistaken for siblings; as teenagers they’d dubbed themselves the “Ambiguously Ethnic Duo.”
Teskia used to be able to trace their timelines back across the generations: prompted by an impetus she could no longer identify, she’d gone into research mode in her early 30s, unearthing both of their genealogies in order to catalogue all the coincidences and improbabilities that led to them living in the same house, the movements across four continents that brought them together. All that effort, all those names and dates, were gone now, and only Teskia and Julio remained, the final sum of those erased histories.
When she could no longer bear watching Julio’s still form, naked beneath its thin white sheet, Teskia walked to September, watching the red and yellow leaves reverse themselves into the brittle, faded greens of late summer. She could keep walking, she thought. All the way through August, even into July, June–
Her boots scuffed the dirt as she stopped, staring at an apple tree on the edge of August. She thought she saw a shadow, as if someone were hiding behind the trunk, but when she stepped forward, a shiver of September wind passed through her, and she turned back. There was nothing there, she thought. She’d been on her own too long. She needed to return to Julio.
Not long before his illness, they’d lain in the summer grass together, Teskia’s head on Julio’s chest as his fingers traced small circles on her side. “Do you ever get that feeling,” she’d murmured, her eyes falling closed, “when you’re in a room with everyone you love, and it still feels like someone’s missing? And you feel it so keenly you even count, to make sure you’re not overlooking somebody, but everyone’s accounted for? And you don’t know why, but you’re sure someone else was supposed to be there, only you don’t know who, or what they look like, or who they are?”
His hand stilled, fingertips brushing her stomach. “No. Not when I’m with you. I don’t get that feeling at all.”
They had been married on a rainy day in spring, not long after her grandfather’s funeral. Teskia’s imminent betrothal seemed to help her grandmother take her mind off her own husband’s passing: “It’s a fairytale!” she kept exclaiming. “True love for your whole lives. Eto horosho, vnoochka. Ochen horosho.”
Yet as the day approached, Teskia felt a curious lack of excitement. She’d always known, or at least suspected, this day would come, and now she could see everything that came next: the children, the house, the paring down of friends and outside interests until all that remained was their little family unit. To be trapped in one life–even a good one–suddenly seemed a horrible thing. She’d never realized: but now, as the path became narrower, and the means to the end became fewer still, she shivered in the night, wondering how anyone endured this linear passage, one firm step after another, right into the grave. Time, ticking; time, inevitable; time, expiring, for her and for Julio.
Despite her misgivings, Teskia hadn’t been tempted to run: she’d walked down the aisle as though stepping onto a stage, keeping perfect poise, her expression a mask of calm exhilaration. As she’d played the part, the feeling had begun to surge up inside her, so that when she reached the altar she was giddy, fighting the urge to stomp her feet and clap her hands like a child. She was getting married to Julio, whom she loved, and who loved her, who knew her, inside and out. Maybe it was a fairytale, generations in the telling. Maybe it was an ending she should embrace.
“The AIDS of the Afterlife”: that’s what they called the thing that was re-killing Julio. It was the only real disease anyone could contract after death, and no one had bothered to find a cure, or even a cause. It was rare and rumor ridden: people said it was everything from a scourge on sinners to the work of time-sucking parasites, who embedded themselveswithin the victim’s body and fed on his memories. Teskia’s mother was a believer in the latter.
“I’ve seen it,” Zoya asserted over celebratory cognac the night Teskia bought the house, a theatric touch of her own mother’s accent creeping into her speech. “Great vormy tings, stealing people’s minds. I’ve seen the husks they leave behind–dried up, vasted.”
“Where?” Teskia asked. “Where did you see these bodies, Zoya?”
But her mother offered no evidence. She and Teskia had little history left by that point: Zoya had long ago surrendered her memories of Teskia’s adolescence and early adulthood. “I love you, darling. And Julio, too, of course–it’s just that I got pregnant too young.”
Seeming to forget that Teskia was already dead, Zoya morphalated maternal, offering the advice she had so often given her daughter in life: “Wait as long as you can. Don’t have a child right away. You have time, Teskia. There’s always more time.”
Dreaded and damned, the disease Zoya so feared might have been part of why sex was so insignificant in the Afterlife. After all, that was the only way it could be transmitted.
“You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved,” Julio had told her on his deathbed, when her dementia had already set in, when she struggled to remember his name. Then he had coughed, his throat clogged with phlegm. “Remember that. Don’t remember anything else.” He squeezed her hand. “Only this.”
She didn’t want to know who, or where, or why. All she wanted to know was when.
They’d only slept together once after entering the Afterlife. Teskia hadn’t thought much of it, until Julio had fallen ill. Then she thought about it all the time.
He couldn’t have contracted this disease any other way. He must have slept with someone–and not some one-night stand, a brief lapse in judgment. It had to have been someone he knew. Someone he’d known–and loved–in life. All Teskia knew was that it hadn’t been her.
Crawling into bed as the season set, curling herself around Julio’s body, she sometimes felt she could guess the truth. In that space between wake and rest, possibilities came to her, jerking her upright with hypnagogic force. It felt like the dementia all over again–like those endless mornings before they’d put her in the home, when she’d be walking to the mailbox and a cloud would pass, stopping her in her tracks. Dread would creep up within her, as though something crucial, damning, were about to surface. Then the shadow would pass, dissipating, like all her thoughts, and she would turn back, letters unclaimed.
Teskia leaned in, her lips almost touching his. “When, Julio?” Opening his eyelids with her fingers, she peered into the sightless orbs. “When did you become somebody else?”
His breathing never altered. She thought about slapping him, to jar him into consciousness, but it would be too much like smacking her own face. So, instead, she kissed him, gently. It told her nothing, so she pushed harder, forcing her tongue past his dry lips and searching his teeth for the truth. That’s when she felt it–a tug, on the tip of her tongue. She recoiled, gaping at Julio, who was as immobile as before. Hesitantly, she pried open his mouth with her hands, gazing inside. Something red was poking up from Julio’s throat. Something new. Something starving.
It was October. Outside, the streets were sun dazzled, but here in the dark of the bedroom it was colorless, cold. Julio sat on the bed, his head in his hands. “We could keep it. Raise it as our own. We don’t have to–“
“No.” Teskia swallowed, a sour taste on her tongue, her fingers stretched toward the table as if presaging a fall. “We go through with the adoption. I’ll go away, and I’ll have it, and–it’ll be done. It’ll be over.”
“And what if we can’t–I mean, we’re in our thirties, Tes. What if–“
She knelt at his feet, hands on his knees. “We’ll have another. Okay? Don’t worry, Julio–please. We’ll have another, and it’ll be ours. Only ours. I promise.” Beneath her fingertips, two heartbeats pulsed: hers, and that of another, a tiny, blind, human being.
She yanked the parasites out of his ears, his mouth, his anus. They were ropy and thick and she could not hold them for long before they scorched her skin. They had been feeding on him all this time, these gigantic, gaping tapeworms, consuming every second he’d ever had. Wrenching the last one from his nose with a clawed hand, she sank her teeth into its tough, engorged body. It gave a hissing caterwaul as its flesh exploded in her mouth, spewing hard seeds down her throat–too fast. She gagged, not just from the force but the fusty, necrotic taste, the bruising texture. Collapsing, she kecked, but nothing fell to the ground–the tiny black suckers that had burst from the creature were taking hold in her esophagus, stabbing barbed pinchers into the mucus-slicked walls of the membranous tube, sliding themselves into her.
They dislodged minutes she hadn’t realized were inside her, sets of seconds buried a dozen layers deep. Shaken loose by the burrowing scroungers, the memories fell into place: the first time she and Alex, Julio’s best friend, slept together, falling into bed at a college party; the first time they’d had sex after she and Julio had gotten married; the last time they’d slept together in life, because she’d gotten pregnant, because the affair she’d kept up as an escape route, an alternate life, just in case she needed it, had twisted in on itself, constricting her choices.
“Oh,” she tried to say, digesting the old, familiar knowledge. It had been her, all along. It had been her Julio had wanted to save: from the memory of what they had become, from the sins she had committed, from the recollection of those last and only moments with her child, of its downy hair beneath her palm.
They’d never had another. They’d never tried. It wasn’t the affair; that they could have survived. Alex was nothing but a ghost to them, and they never spoke his name–not until Teskia’s dementia set in, not until she began thinking he was there, in the next room, with his grey eyes and silvery hair, waiting for her moments of weakness. No, it wasn’t Alex: it was the child, out there, somewhere, the living last sentence in a book it would never read. She didn’t think of the child as Alex’s–she knew it wasn’t, that no matter whose genes it carried it was Julio’s, and hers, and she had given it away.
That was what had killed them, in the end. That was what had eaten away everything they were, leaving only the surface, only all those times and places they’d shared together, only the topography of a land that didn’t exist. They had suffered decades of denial, of talking around that empty space, with Teskia knowing every moment that she’d failed them: not just Julio and the child, but that long line of her begetters, stretching from here to Stavropol, all those ancestors of whose toil and triumphs her child would never know.
She’d forgotten they were hollow inside, her and Julio. It seemed so obvious, suddenly. It was the kind of fact you couldn’t miss–unless, of course, you’d already forced yourself to forget it.
Teskia could feel the leeches nibbling, gnawing at every memory. “Take them,” she gurgled, closing her eyes. “They’re not mine.”
They didn’t take it all. That surprised her–what little of her there was left to be surprised. They left a single moment: gummed, but intact. It was like a photograph, a still frame, of her at age eight, running across the playground, running, as she remembered, from Julio. She could no longer recall if he had caught her.
Katharine Duckett recently returned from two years of teaching English in rural Kazakhstan, which provided her with all the post-apocalyptic imagery needed to complete the dystopian zombie novel she began while studying creative writing at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. She has interned for Small Beer Press and io9.com, and currently resides in New York City, where she works as assistant to Swordspoint author Ellen Kushner and The Freedom Maze author Delia Sherman.
You can find her on Twitter @hottmcawesome.