Here’s my first question: how the hell does a head without a body wind up in a vegetable box in a Safeway stock room, anyway? Sure they call them ‘heads’ of lettuce, but that’s just rife with wrong. Second question: how much wronger is it that the head opens its eyes and starts gabbling away in Spanish? Third, and wrongest of all: why does it happen when I’m here? I mean, I’ve been good, mostly.
Pretty handsome, as heads go. Long dark hair, deep brown eyes, straight mostly-white teeth in a mouth without a bottom. Ew.
I’m Tina Tryon, night stocker. These things happen to me.
No way is this some joke of Manuel’s or Pablo’s. For one thing, they’re both backing away in horror, hands totally visible.
“What’s he saying?” I ask. Sure, I want to retreat, too, but vegetables is my beat. Somebody’s got to stick around. Guess I’m elected.
From behind the forklift, Pablo says, “He’s very tired, and he wants his body.”
“Fair enough,” I say. “Tell him we don’t have any in stock. Manny, call the cops.” I know this script; somehow by the time they come the head won’t be there or it’ll turn into lettuce, and I’ll look like some kind of kook. But maybe if I don’t call them it’ll get worse. A lot worse.
“So why’s he here?” I ask Pablo. “Ask him what he’s doing contaminating my lettuce.” If I know Alan Parkins, the store manager, he’s just going to have me wash the stuff and put it out anyway. Hell, he’d probably have me put the head out in the freezer case marked $7.99 a pound.
“He says he is a powerful brujo, a wizard, and often turns his head into a crow to spy on his enemies.” Neat trick. “Sadly, he takes on crow habits, like trying to grab food. He landed in a truckload of lettuce, ran out of magic, and turned back into a head. Without hands he’s stuck this way.”
I hear sirens approaching. It’ll be the simplest thing in the world to let them have the head. Then I can go back to stocking.
Boring, boring stocking.
Or I could grab the head, hitch south, and learn Spanish. Maybe learn magic.
Maybe lose my head. “Pablo,” I say. “When the cops get here let them in. I’m going to keep an eye on this head and make sure it doesn’t get away.” I shrug at the head, and get the impression he’d shrug back if he had shoulders.
A homeless guy panhandling downstairs had told me this was where the old lady lived. The one eating all the livestock. The one who might be my missing grandmother. If this was her, and I thought it was, she needed help. I knocked again. Sometimes old people took a long time to get to the door. I was just finally turning away when the cover slid away from the peephole.
“Yeah?!” A voice roughened by hard use.
I had not decided what to say. “Um.” My mind was empty.
“Ms. Johnson,” I said desperately, “I think I’m your grandson.”
Silence. Then the door swung open. There she stood, Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies. Instead of a corn cob pipe she had a can of Bud.
“No,” she said and moved to slam the door.
“I’m pretty sure. My mother was…”
“I believe you; don’t want to talk.” She bounced the door off the hand I put out to stop it.
“And I heard about the cow. I’m curious. How…”
She rolled her eyes and took a swig, stepping aside to give me room. As soon as I was in she slammed the door hard enough to shake dust off the knickknacks on the shelves, if there had been any. There weren’t. A battered wooden table with a couple of chairs was all the furniture in the front room. The only thing on the table was a 4-inch ceramic horse, which was, frankly, hideous. She set the beer can down beside it.
I cleared my throat.
“I don’t know how to say this, Grandma. I hear you’ve been eating animals. Raw, whole, live. Is this true?”
For a moment she just stared. My eyes flicked to the doorway as I measured my chances of escape. Then she laughed, a true belly laugh, improbably loud coming from her. It went on and on. Gradually she subsided. She wiped her eyes.
“Raw, sure. Whole? No. Live? No. I did eat a dead fly. The spider might have been in a coma. The rest of them were ceramic, and good riddance to the lot. The cat was pink, nuff said. The dog had Heartfelt-Moments eyes. The cow was an abomination. People make the most disgusting crap imaginable. I dispose of it.” She pointed at the center of the table.
“And tomorrow? Tomorrow I’m going to take care of that obnoxious horse. You watch me.”
‘Go and have a nice holiday with your auntie.’
Sure. Great idea. That was before whatever it was that happened, happened.
By the time I arrived in Sydney, my auntie was nowhere to be seen, and when I tried to go home the trains had stopped running, with no one to drive them. And the phones had stopped working; my mobile just hummed back at me, same as the public phones and the ones in the private houses I’ve broken into in later days. Sometimes I pick up a handset just to pretend it’s something alive.
I was lucky, I found Billy – or maybe he found me – and brought me to the safe-house. He said he’d show me the ropes, but he disappeared a day later. I waited until I was starving then went out. Only in daylight – you can see things coming at you then, kind of.
Maybe Billy got swallowed by the night. He boasted he’d lasted longer than anyone. That’s why he was so surprised to see me that day, wondering down the Pitt Street Mall like some half-witted lamb, eyes wide, mouth slack, staring at the complete lack of devastation. At the total nothingness.
I haven’t seen proper sun for weeks now. It’s like it’s scared to come out.
I’m braver now, about going out for food and the useful etceteras like bottled water, because what comes out of the taps now is the colour of mud. Sometimes it just looks like blood and I don’t fancy re-hydrating with that. Some days I just wander because I’ve nothing else to do. I go to that big bookstore, Berkelouw, and pick through the stacks. My idea of an apocalypse is no new books – but it should take me an age to get through this lot.
Other days I just stay inside, under a table where nothing can see me. Those are the days I can hear noises from outside.
But here’s the thing: I cut my hand on this piece of glass. It sliced the lines of my palm that are supposed to map out my future, heart, head, and life, all snipped. That worries me especially on the days when all I can hear is the flapping and swooping noises of things that might once have been angels. And some days there’s a voice in the darkness and it knows my name.
“We believe,” the man with the missing hand said, “that when the Fragments of God settle each day, one can sometimes be coaxed to settle in a goat. When our priest–that’s me–determines that this has happened, we put the goat in the shrine and bring sick and unfortunate people to it so they can bask in its divinity. Then we roast and eat the goat, and the Fragment passes through each of us.”
“Well, we don’t believe that at all,” I said. “You people are crazy.”
The priest shrugged. “You think we’re crazy, but we spend more time with God than you, so we think you people don’t understand God like we do. That’s why you keep having accidents.”
“We keep having accidents because we’ve been driven into the mountains by the River People and it’s easy to fall down in the mountains when you were raised on farmland. Your people keep having accidents, too. Why is your hand missing?”
“I stole a goat years ago, and the River People cut my hand off.”
“Because the goat had a Fragment of God in it?”
“No, because I was hungry.”
“And your people made you a priest?”
He shrugged again. “God said it was OK. Would you like a piece of goat?”
I looked at the piece of goat. It was just a dried strip, not very appetizing, but I’d lost my bread on the mountainside on the way to the village, and I hadn’t eaten anything since dawn. I took the meat.
“Does it have a Fragment of God in it?”
The priest smiled.
I tore off a bite with my teeth and chewed slowly. Then I noticed that the priest seemed to have two hands now. With the one that had been missing, he gave me a thumbs up.