Plugs

In this kingdom, even beggars can become something better.

It is a promise that has led us all to this long line of supplicants, waiting for a hot meal and the opportunity to be chosen. I stand among the stinking hordes, darkly-hooded, hunched, ignored.

A small man walks the line, making a selection. He reaches me; I straighten, pull the hood back a little; my eyes remain shadowed. He picks up the glimmer of skin, full lips, a finely-boned face.

‘You. Follow.’

And I do, passing those envious unchosen, through bronze doors, into the great hall, empty as a skeleton’s ribcage but for the triple throne. The little man leads me to a small dark door. He ushers me through, does not follow. The door closes with the scratching of a key in the lock, and I am alone in a dimly lit room; alone with the Three.

‘Beggar-maid. Now is your chance to become part of us, something new,’ whispers the male. He is well-made, but his skin is puffy. The women are pale, frayed. Obeying the lore, they have not ventured into the sun for a long time. This is no harem; they control him, this whole spectacle was their idea.

Trying to infect themselves with gluttonous feasting on cattle-blooded peasants; committing pointless murders when the only thing that will make them like me is a bloodline, is evolution. It was false piety, foolish games – they didn’t think the Blood Mother would rise. But their prayers woke me and rise I did, painfully, unwillingly. I came.

‘No,’ I say. ‘But it’s your chance to become something other.’

My cloak falls back and my wings shake loose. The Three see the full glory of my face, luminous as the moon and framed by black hair, with white-as-snow fangs, red-as-blood lips. The face painted on temple walls; they’ve seen it so often they’ve forgotten to fear.

‘Stolen blood will not lengthen your lives.’ My shadow grows, engulfs them.

Their blood is flat, diluted. But it is enough after my centuries of sleep.

The little man enters, later; he heard too many screams. He eyes the finely-dressed husks. He is pragmatic, clever, sees an advantage for himself.

‘There will be but one ruler here,’ I tell him.

He nods. ‘Yes, my Queen.’

‘Then bring them to me and choose carefully.’

“How was your first day?”  says the woman standing in front of him. She’s 50 or so. Middle management. Uncomfortable and avoiding his gaze. He can’t remember her name. Peggy? Pinky? Something with a P.

“Just like every other day,” he says. He shrugs.

She smiles a bit too widely, as if trying to mask her disdain for him – the lowly mailroom clerk – but doing a shitty job. That’s fine, he thinks. She’ll be here herself one day. You can only stay comfortably in the middle for so long. Falling is easiest.

Patty? he thinks. Maybe Polly?

He can’t really remember anyone’s name anymore, even the ones he’s worked with for decades. The long descent from chief executive to mailroom clerk is all he’s got left. The blurry remnants of an enthusiastic start, a somewhat satisfying career, an occasional breakdown. Something in the back of his mind nags at him, tells him things aren’t supposed to be this way. Something’s backward.

But what’s the point of questioning when you’re on your way out?

“Just leaving,” he says. “Getting ready to go.”

“Well,” she says. “This is goodbye, then.”

She waits, as if for a cue that she’s allowed to go. As if she has to ask his permission.

“So long, Pankaja,” he says. Her smile drops away. For a moment it seems as if she may start crying, but then she spins and rushes out the door. Maybe, he thinks, he wasn’t supposed to remember anything after all.

“First day,” he mutters, the words lonely and barely audible. “Or is it the last?” He can’t remember.

The former president cleans off his desk, empties the trash, turns off the mail room lights, and exits.

Everything fades quickly from memory.

Jonny’s a space pilot. He’s got an airship made from an old tire swing. Lucy-Jane’s his girl. She’s wearing tin foil over her dress. I’m an alien lurking on a distant moon, waiting to shoot Jonny down, to pick over his bones. I’m going to go easy on Lucy-Jane, though. Things are rough with her mom and dad shouting all the time right now.

Jonny steers his ship down onto my planet. I clamber over the moon rocks and the slide. His cockpit opens with a hiss and he swings up high into the air and leaps out. Lucy-Jane follows more daintily, her foil outfit glinting in the light of the twin suns.

As Jonny surveys the barren landscape and Lucy-Jane asks what he sees, I crawl close. My tentacles drip ooze. My fangs drip blood. And then I leap. But Jonny, space hero that he is, feels the motion in the air. He spins, his laser pistol already unholstered.

But I leap too wild, and he draws too fast, and his fist catches me in the jaw, and I spill to earth, biting my tongue, the taste of my blood hot and sudden in my mouth.

And then whoever I am is lost back on earth, and now I am the alien, and I’m on Jonny, space idiot, and I am spitting my blood at him as I hit him. And I’m crying, and I think he’s crying. He better be crying. I am an alien. I feed on his tears.

Lucy-Jane ends it. She pushes me off him. I sprawl on the grass. On the moon rock. We both lie there panting, sniffing.

“Why is it always fighting? Why is it always aliens and fighting?” She shouts it. And suddenly she is crying, suddenly there are tears. They stand out, bright as jewels on her tin foil outfit, shining in the light of the twin suns. “Why doesn’t anyone ever come in peace?”

And she turns and she runs, off across the moonscape and out of the park and away into the distance of outer space, out into the great unexplored stars that Jonny and I have no idea about, won’t even realize exist until the slow time travel of our lives has left the park and our spaceships far far behind.

All the hollow men were walking, walking up the gently sloping grassy spire.  We followed them, the hollow men, climbing, climbing higher up the wildflower slopes, but they saw not the purple poppy and deep blue cornflower, knee-high grasses stirring in the breeze.  We observed, we knew, we were aware.

At the top the spire ended in a cliff, and there the hollow men would topple, legs scissoring the air as if they were still moving up.  They hit with various resonant clangs like struck bells.  We stopped, patting ourselves on the back for averting the danger.  But then, weeks or months passed, the same men returned, climbing, climbing.  Again they fell and hit with the clangs of a clock striking midnight.  Half of us–the bravest and the strong–volunteered to follow, for we the aware should learn more in the fall than these fools.  The strong and the brave landed with a shower, a choir of tiny bells.

A year later one volunteer returned–perhaps the least insightful of the lot we sent forth–his form mangled almost beyond recognition.  The others, he said, shattered while he alone remained.  We, he suggested, were also hollow, just made of different stuffing and stuff.

This we could not believe, for we were the aware, we the observant, we the knowing.

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