Book: The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy

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I was walking the telephone wires upside down, the sky underfoot cold and flat with a few hard bright stars sparsely scattered about it, when I thought how it would take only an instant’s weakness to step off to the side and fall up forever into the night. A kind of wildness entered me then and I began to run.

I made the wires sing. They leapt and bulged above me as I raced past Ricky’s Luncheonette and up the hill. Past the old chocolate factory and the IDI Advertising Display plant. Past the body shops, past A J LaCourse Electric Motors-Controls-Parts. Then, where the slope steepened, along the curving snake of rowhouses that went the full quarter-mile up to the Ridge. Twice I overtook pedestrians, hunched and bundled, heads doggedly down, out on incomprehensible errands. They didn’t notice me, of course. They never do.

The antenna farm was visible from here. I could see the Seven Sisters spangled with red lights, dependent on the Earth like stalactites. “Where are you running to, little one?” one tower whispered in a crackling, staticky voice. I think it was Hegemone.

“Fuck off,” I said without slackening my pace, and they all chuckled.

Cars mumbled by. This was ravine country, however built-up, and the far side of the road, too steep and rocky for development, was given over to trees and garbage. Hamburger wrappings and white plastic trash bags rustled in their wake. I was running full-out now.

About a block or so from the Ridge, I stumbled and almost fell. I slapped an arm across a telephone pole and just managed to catch myself in time. Aghast at my own carelessness, I hung there, dizzy and alarmed.

The ground overhead was black as black, an iron roof that somehow was yet as anxious as a hound to leap upon me, crush me flat, smear me to nothingness. I stared up at it, horrified.

Somebody screamed my name.

I turned. A faint blue figure clung to a television antenna atop a small, stuccoed brick duplex. Charlie’s Widow. She pointed an arm that flickered with silver fire down Ripka Street. I slewed about to see what was coming after me.

It was the Corpsegrinder.

When it saw that I’d spotted it, it put out several more legs, extended a quilled head, and raised a howl that bounced off the Heaviside layer. My nonexistent blood chilled.

In a panic, I scrambled up and ran toward the Ridge and safety. I had a squat in the old Roxy, and once I was through the wall, the Corpsegrinder would not follow. Why this should be so, I did not know. But you learn the rules if you want to survive.

I ran. In the back of my head I could hear the Seven Sisters clucking and gossiping to each other, radiating television and radio over a few dozen frequencies. Indifferent to my plight.

The Corpsegrinder churned up the wires on a hundred needle-sharp legs. I could feel the ion surge it kicked up pushing against me as I reached the intersection of Ridge and Leverington. Cars were pulling up to the pumps at the Atlantic station. Teenagers stood in front of the A-Plus Mini Market, flicking half-smoked cigarettes into the street, stamping their feet like colts, and waiting for something to happen. I couldn’t help feeling a great longing disdain for them. Every last one worried about grades and drugs and zits, and all the while snugly barricaded within hulking fortresses of flesh.

I was scant yards from home. The Roxy was a big old movie palace, fallen into disrepair and semi-converted to a skateboarding rink which had gone out of business almost immediately. But it had been a wonderful place once, and the terra cotta trim was still there: ribbons and river gods, great puffing faces with panpipes, guitars, flowers, wyverns. I crossed the Ridge on a dead telephone wire, spider-web delicate but still usable.

Almost there.

Then the creature was upon me, with a howl of electromagnetic rage that silenced even the Sisters for an instant. It slammed into my side, a storm of razors and diamond-edged fury, hooks and claws extended.

I grabbed at a rusty flange on the side of the Roxy.

Too late! Pain exploded within me, a sheet of white nausea. All in an instant I lost the name of my second daughter, an April morning when the world was new and I was five, a smoky string of all-nighters in Rensselaer Polytech, the jowly grin of Old Whatsisface the German who lived on LaFountain Street, the fresh pain of a sprained ankle out back of a Banana Republic warehouse, fishing off a yellow rubber raft with my old man on Lake Champlain. All gone, these and a thousand things more, sucked away, crushed to nothing, beyond retrieval.

Furious as any wounded animal, I fought back. Foul bits of substance splattered under my fist. The Corpsegrinder reared up to smash me down, and I scrabbled desperately away. Something tore and gave.

Then I was through the wall and safe among the bats and the gloom.

Cobb!” the Corpsegrinder shouted. It lashed wildly back and forth, scouring the brick walls with limbs and teeth, as restless as a March wind, as unpredictable as ball lightning.

For the moment I was safe. But it had seized a part of me, tortured it, and made it a part of itself. I could no longer delude myself into thinking it was simply going to go away. “Cahawahawbb!” It broke my name down to a chord of overlapping tones. It had an ugly, muddy voice. I felt dirtied just listening to it. “Caw…” A pause. “…awbb!”

In a horrified daze, I stumbled up the Roxy’s curving patterned-tin roof until I found a section free of bats. Exhausted and dispirited, I slumped down.

“Caw aw aw awb buh buh!”

How had the thing found me? I’d thought I’d left it behind in Manhattan. Had my flight across the high-tension lines left a trail of some kind? Maybe. Then again, it might have some special connection with me. To follow me here it must have passed by easier prey. Which implied it had a grudge against me. Maybe I’d known the Corpsegrinder back when it was human. We could once have been important to each other. We might have been lovers. It was possible. The world is a stranger place than I used to believe.

The horror of my existence overtook me then, an acute awareness of the squalor in which I dwelt, the danger which surrounded me, and the dark mystery informing my universe.

I wept for all that I had lost.

Eventually, the sun rose up like God’s own Peterbilt and with a triumphant blare of chromed trumpets, gently sent all of us creatures of the night to sleep.

When you die, the first thing that happens is that the world turns upside down. You feel an overwhelming disorientation and a strange sensation that’s not quite pain as the last strands connecting you to your body part, and then you slip out of physical being and fall from the planet.

As you fall, you attenuate. Your substance expands and thins, glowing more and more faintly as you pick up speed. So far as can be told, it’s a process that doesn’t ever stop. Fainter, thinner, colder…until you’ve merged into the substance of everyone else who’s ever died, spread perfectly uniformly through the universal vacuum, forever moving toward but never arriving at absolute zero.

Look hard, and the sky is full of the Dead.

Not everyone falls away. Some few are fast-thinking or lucky enough to maintain a tenuous hold on earthly existence. I was one of the lucky ones. I was working late one night on a proposal when I had my heart attack. The office was empty. The ceiling had a wire mesh within the plaster, and that’s what saved me.

The first response to death is denial. This can’t be happening, I thought. I gaped up at the floor where my body had fallen, and would lie undiscovered until morning. My own corpse, pale and bloodless, wearing a corporate tie and sleeveless grey Angora sweater. Gold Rolex, Sharper Image desk accessories, and of course I also thought: I died for THIS?

By which of course I meant my entire life.

So it was in a state of both personal and ontological crisis that I wandered across the ceiling to the location of an old pneumatic message tube, removed and casually plastered over some fifty years before. I fell from the seventeenth to the twenty-fifth floor, and I learned a lot in the process.

Shaken, startled, and already beginning to assume the wariness that the afterlife requires, I went to a window to get a glimpse of the outer world. When I tried to touch the glass, my hand went right through. I jerked back. Cautiously, I leaned forward, so that my head stuck out into the night.

What a wonderful experience Times Square is when you’re dead! There is ten times the light a living being sees. All metal things vibrate with inner life. Electric wires are thin blue scratches in the air. Neon sings. The world is filled with strange sights and cries. Everything shifts from beauty to beauty.

Something that looked like a cross between a dragon and a wisp of smoke was feeding in the Square. But it was lost among so many wonders that I gave it no particular thought.

Night again. I awoke with Led Zeppelin playing in the back of my head. “Stairway to Heaven.” Again. It can be a long wait between Dead Milkmen cuts.

“Wakey-risey, little man,” crooned one of the Sisters. It was funny how sometimes they took a close personal interest in our doings, and other times ignored us completely. “This is Euphrosyne with the red-eye weather report. The outlook is moody with a chance of existential despair. You won’t be going outside tonight if you know what’s good for you. There’ll be lightning within the hour.”

“It’s too late in the year for lightning,” I said.

“Oh dear. Should I inform the weather?”

By now I was beginning to realize that what I had taken on awakening to be the pressure of the Corpsegrinder’s dark aura was actually the high-pressure front of an advancing storm. The first drops of rain pattered on the roof. Wind skirled and the rain grew stronger. Thunder growled in the distance. “Why don’t you just go fuck your…”

A light laugh that trilled up into the supersonic, and she was gone.

I was listening to the rain underfoot when a lightning bolt screamed into existence, turning me inside out for the briefest instant then cartwheeling gleefully into oblivion. In the femtosecond of restoration following the bolt, the walls were transparent and all the world made of glass, its secrets available to be snooped out. But before comprehension was possible, the walls opaqued again and the lightning’s malevolent aftermath faded like a madman’s smile in the night.

Through it all the Seven Sisters were laughing and singing, screaming with joy whenever a lightning bolt flashed, and making up nonsense poems from howls, whistles, and static. During a momentary lull, the flat hum of a carrier wave filled my head. Phaenna, by the feel of her. But instead of her voice, I heard only the sound of fearful sobs.

“Widow?” I said. “Is that you?”

“She can’t hear you,” Phaenna purred. “You’re lucky I’m here to bring you up to speed. A lightning bolt hit the transformer outside her house. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Your Nemesis – the one you call the Corpsegrinder, such a cute nickname, by the way – has her trapped.”

This was making no sense at all. “Why would the Corpsegrinder be after her?”

“Why why why why?” Phaenna sang, a snatch of some pop ballad or other. “You didn’t get answers when you were alive, what made you think you’d get any now?”

The sobbing went on and on. “She can sit it out,” I said. “The Corpsegrinder can’t – hey, wait. Didn’t they just wire her house for cable? I’m trying to picture it. Phone lines on one side, electricity on the other, cable. She can slip out on his blind side.”

The sobs lessened and then rose in a most unWidowlike wail of despair.

“Typical,” Phaenna said. “You haven’t the slightest notion of what you’re talking about. The lightning stroke has altered your little pet. Go out and see for yourself.”

My hackles rose. “You know damned good and well that I can’t…”

Phaenna’s attention shifted and the carrier beam died. The Seven Sisters are fickle that way. This time, though, it was just as well. No way was I going out there to face that monstrosity. I couldn’t. And I was grateful not to have to admit it.

For a long while I sat thinking about the Corpsegrinder. Even here, protected by the strong walls of the Roxy, the mere thought of it was paralyzing. I tried to imagine what Charlie’s Widow was going through, separated from this monster by only a thin curtain of brick and stucco. Feeling the hard radiation of its malice and need… It was beyond my powers of visualization. Eventually I gave up and thought instead about my first meeting with the Widow.

She was coming down the hill from Roxborough with her arms out, the inverted image of a child playing at tightrope walker. Placing one foot ahead of the other with deliberate concentration, scanning the wire before her so cautiously that she was less than a block away when she saw me.

She screamed.

Then she was running straight at me. My back was to the transformer station – there was no place to flee. I shrank away as she stumbled to a halt.

“It’s you!” she cried. “Oh God, Charlie, I knew you’d come back for me, I waited so long, but I never doubted you, never, we can…” She lunged forward as if to hug me. Our eyes met.

All the joy in her died.

“Oh,” she said. “It’s not you.”

I was fresh off the high-tension lines, still vibrating with energy and fear. My mind was a blaze of contradictions. I could remember almost nothing of my post-death existence. Fragments, bits of advice from the old dead, a horrifying confrontation with…something, some creature or phenomenon that had driven me to flee Manhattan. Whether it was this event or the fearsome voltage of that radiant highway that had scoured me of experience, I did not know. “It’s me,” I protested.

“No, it’s not.” Her gaze was unflatteringly frank. “You’re not Charlie and you never were. You’re – just the sad remnant of what once was a man, and not a very good one at that.” She turned away. She was leaving me! In my confusion, I felt such a despair as I had never known before.

“Please…” I said.

She stopped.

A long silence. Then what in a living woman would have been a sigh. “You’d think that I – well, never mind.” She offered her hand, and when I would not take it, simply said, “This way.”

I followed her down Main Street, through the shallow canyon of the business district to a diner at the edge of town. It was across from Hubcap Heaven and an automotive junkyard bordered it on two sides. The diner was closed. We settled down on the ceiling.

“That’s where the car ended up after I died,” she said, gesturing toward the junkyard. “It was right after I got the call about Charlie. I stayed up drinking and after a while it occurred to me that maybe they were wrong, they’d made some sort of horrible mistake and he wasn’t really dead, you know? Like maybe he was in a coma or something, some horrible kind of misdiagnosis, they’d gotten him confused with somebody else, who knows? Terrible things happen in hospitals. They make mistakes.

“I decided I had to go and straighten things out. There wasn’t time to make coffee so I went to the medicine cabinet and gulped down a bunch of pills at random, figuring something among them would keep me awake. Then I jumped into the car and started off for Colorado.”

“My God.”

“I have no idea how fast I was going – everything was a blur when I crashed. At least I didn’t take anybody with me, thank the Lord. There was this one horrible moment of confusion and pain and rage and then I found myself lying on the floor of the car with my corpse just inches beneath me on the underside of the roof.” She was silent for a moment. “My first impulse was to crawl out the window. Lucky for me I didn’t.” Another pause. “It took me most of a night to work my way out of the yard. I had to go from wreck to wreck. There were these gaps to jump. It was a nightmare.”

“I’m amazed you had the presence of mind to stay in the car.”

“Dying sobers you up fast.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. And without the slightest hesitation, she joined right in with me. It was a fine warm moment, the first I’d had since I didn’t know when. The two of us set each other off, laughing louder and louder, our merriment heterodyning until it filled every television screen for a mile around with snow.

My defenses were down. She reached out and took my hand.

Memory flooded me. It was her first date with Charlie. He was an electrician. The people next door were having the place rehabbed. She’d been working in the back yard and he struck up a conversation. Then he asked her out. They went to a disco in the Adam’s Mark over on City Line Avenue.

She wasn’t eager to get involved with somebody just then. She was still recovering from a hellish affair with a married man who’d thought that since he wasn’t available for anything permanent, that made her his property. But when Charlie suggested they go out to the car for some coke – it was the Seventies – she’d said sure. He was going to put the moves on her sooner or later. Might as well get this settled early so they’d have more time for dancing.

But after they’d done up the lines, Charlie had shocked her by taking her hands in his and kissing them. She worked for a Bucks County pottery in those days and her hands were rough and red. She was very sensitive about them.

“Beautiful hands,” he murmured. “Such beautiful, beautiful hands.”

“You’re making fun of me,” she protested, hurt.

“No! These are hands that do things, and they’ve been shaped by the things they’ve done. The way stones in a stream are shaped by the water that passes over them. The way tools are shaped by their work. A hammer is beautiful, if it’s a good hammer, and your hands are too.”

He could have been scamming her. But something in his voice, his manner, said no, he really meant it. She squeezed his hands and saw that they were beautiful too. Suddenly she was glad she hadn’t gone off the pill when she broke up with Daniel. She started to cry. Her date looked alarmed and baffled. But she couldn’t stop. All the tears she hadn’t cried in the past two years came pouring out of her, unstoppable.

Charlie-boy she thought, you just got lucky.

All this in an instant. I snatched my hands away, breaking contact. “Dont do that!” I cried. “Don’t you ever touch me again!”

With flat disdain, the Widow said, “It wasn’t pleasant for me either. But I had to see how much of your life you remember.”

It was naive of me, but I was shocked to realize that the passage of memories had gone both ways. But before I could voice my outrage, she said, “There’s not much left of you. You’re only a fragment of a man, shreds and tatters, hardly anything. No wonder you’re so frightened. You’ve got what Charlie calls a low signal-to-noise ratio. What happened in New York City almost destroyed you.”

“That doesn’t give you the right to…”

“Oh be still. You need to know this. Living is simple, you just keep going. But death is complex. It’s so hard to hang on and so easy to let go. The temptation is always there. Believe me, I know. There used to be five of us in Roxborough, and where are the others now? Two came through Manayunk last spring and camped out under the El for a season and they’re gone too. Holding it together is hard work. One day the stars start singing to you, and the next you begin to listen to them. A week later they start to make sense. You’re just reacting to events – that’s not good enough. If you mean to hold on, you’ve got to know why you’re doing it.”

“So why are you?”

“I’m waiting for Charlie,” she said simply.

It occurred to me to wonder exactly how many years she had been waiting. Three? Fifteen? Just how long was it possible to hold on? Even in my confused and emotional state, though, I knew better than to ask. Deep inside, she must’ve known as well as I did that Charlie wasn’t coming. “My name’s Cobb,” I said. “What’s yours?”

She hesitated and then, with an odd sidelong look, said, “I’m Charlie’s Widow. That’s all that matters.” It was all the name she ever gave, and Charlie’s Widow she was to me from then onward.

I rolled onto my back on the tin ceiling and spread out my arms and legs, a phantom starfish among the bats. A fragment, she had called me, shreds and tatters. No wonder you’re so frightened! In all the months since I’d been washed into this backwater of the power grid, she’d never treated me with anything but a condescension bordering on contempt.

So I went out into the storm after all.

The rain was nothing. It passed right through me. But there were ion-heavy gusts of wind that threatened to knock me right off the lines, and the transformer outside the Widow’s house was burning a fierce actinic blue. It was a gusher of energy, a flare star brought to earth, dazzling. A bolt of lightning unzipped me, turned me inside out, and restored me before I had a chance to react.

The Corpsegrinder was visible from the Roxy, but between the burning transformer and the creature’s metamorphosis, I was within a block of the monster before I understood exactly what it was I was seeing.

It was feeding off the dying transformer, sucking in energy so greedily that it pulsed like a mosquito engorged with blood. Enormous plasma wings warped to either side, hot blue and transparent. They curved entirely around the Widow’s house in an unbroken and circular wall. At the resonance points they extruded less detailed versions of the Corpsegrinder itself, like sentinels, all facing the Widow.

Surrounding her with a prickly ring of electricity and malice.

I retreated a block, though the transformer fire apparently hid me from the Corpsegrinder, for it stayed where it was, eyelessly staring inward. Three times I circled the house from a distance, looking for a way in. An unguarded cable, a wrought-iron fence, any unbroken stretch of metal too high or too low for the Corpsegrinder to reach.

Nothing.

Finally, because there was no alternative, I entered the house across the street from the Widow’s, the one that was best shielded by the spouting and stuttering transformer. A power line took me into the attic crawl space. From there I scaled the electrical system down through the second and first floors and so to the basement. I had a brief glimpse of a man asleep on a couch before the television. The set was off but it still held a residual charge. It sat quiescent, smug, bloated with stolen energies. If the poor bastard on the couch could have seen what I saw, he’d’ve never turned on the TV again.

In the basement I hand-over-handed myself from the washing machine to the main water inlet. Straddling the pipe, I summoned all my courage and plunged my head underground.

It was black as pitch. I inched forward on the pipe in a kind of panic. I could see nothing, hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing. All I could feel was the iron pipe beneath my hands. Just beyond the wall the pipe ended in a T-joint where it hooked into a branch line under the drive. I followed it to the street.

It was awful: Like suffocation infinitely prolonged. Like being wrapped in black cloth. Like being drowned in ink. Like strangling noiselessly in the void between the stars.

To distract myself, I thought about my old man.

When my father was young, he navigated between cities by radio. Driving dark and usually empty highways, he’d twist the dial back and forth, back and forth, until he hit a station. Then he’d withdraw his hand and wait for the station ID. That would give him his rough location – that he was somewhere outside of Albany, say. A sudden signal coming in strong and then abruptly dissolving in groans and eerie whistles was a fluke of the ionosphere, impossibly distant and easily disregarded.

One that faded in and immediately out meant he had grazed the edge of a station’s range. But then a signal would grow and strengthen as he penetrated its field, crescendo, fade, and collapse into static and silence. That left him north of Troy, let’s say, and making good time. He would begin the search for the next station.

You could drive across the continent in this way, passed from hand to hand by local radio, and tuned in to the geography of the night.

I went over that memory three times, polishing and refining it, before the branch line abruptly ended. One hand groped forward and closed upon nothing.

I had reached the main conduit. For a panicked moment I had feared that it would be concrete or brick or even one of the cedar pipes the city laid down in the nineteenth century, remnants of which still linger here and there beneath the pavement. But by sheer blind luck, the system had been installed during that narrow window of time when the pipes were cast iron. I crawled along its underside first one way and then the other, searching for the branch line to the Widow’s. There was a lot of crap under the street. Several times I was blocked by gas lines or by the high-pressure pipes for the fire hydrants and had to awkwardly clamber around them.

At last I found the line and began the painful journey out from the street again.

When I emerged in the Widow’s basement, I was a nervous wreck. It came to me then that I could no longer remember my father’s name. A thing of rags and shreds indeed!

I worked my way up the electrical system, searching every room and unintentionally spying on the family who had bought the house after the Widows death. In the kitchen a puffy man stood with his sleeves rolled up, elbow-deep in the sink, angrily washing dishes by candlelight. A woman who was surely his wife expressively smoked a cigarette at his stiff back, drawing in the smoke with bitter intensity and exhaling it in puffs of hatred. On the second floor a preadolescent girl clutched a tortoise-shell cat so tightly it struggled to escape, and cried into its fur. In the next room a younger boy sat on his bed in earphones, Walkman on his lap, staring sightlessly out the window at the burning transformer. No Widow on either floor.

How, I wondered, could she have endured staying in this entropic oven of a blue-collar rowhouse, forever the voyeur at the banquet, watching the living squander what she had already spent? Her trace was everywhere, her presence elusive. I was beginning to think she’d despaired and given herself up to the sky when I found her in the attic, clutching the wire that led to the antenna. She looked up, silenced and amazed by my unexpected appearance.

“Come on,” I said. “I know a way out.”

Returning, however, I couldn’t retrace the route I’d taken in. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of navigating the twisting maze of pipes under the street, though that was bad enough, as the fact that the Widow wouldn’t hazard the passage unless I led her by the hand.

“You don’t know how difficult this is for me,” I said.

“It’s the only way I’d dare.” A nervous, humorless laugh. “I have such a lousy sense of direction.”

So, steeling myself, I seized her hand and plunged through the wall.

It took all my concentration to keep from sliding off the water pipes, I was so distracted by the violence of her thoughts. We crawled through a hundred memories, all of her married lover, all alike.

Here’s one:

Daniel snapped on the car radio. Sad music – something classical – flooded the car. “That’s bullshit, babe. You know how much I have invested in you?” He jabbed a blunt finger at her dress. “I could buy two good whores for what that thing cost.”

Then why don’t you, she thought. Get back on your Metroliner and go home to New York City and your wife and your money and your two good whores. Aloud, reasonably, she said, “It’s over, Danny, can’t you see that?”

“Look, babe. Let’s not argue here, okay? Not in the parking lot, with people walking by and everybody listening. Drive us to your place, we can sit down and talk it over like civilized human beings.”

She clutched the wheel, staring straight ahead. “No. We’re going to settle this here and now.”

“Christ.” One-handed he wrangled a pack of Kents from a jacket pocket and knocked out a cigarette. Put the end in his lips and drew it out. Punched the lighter. “So talk.”

A wash of hopelessness swept over her. Married men were supposed to be easy to get rid of. That was the whole point. “Let me go, Danny,” she pleaded. Then, lying, “We can still be friends.”

He made a disgusted noise.

“I’ve tried, Danny, I really have. You don’t know how hard I’ve tried. But it’s just not working.”

“All right, I’ve listened. Now let’s go.” Reaching over her, Daniel threw the gearshift into reverse. He stepped on her foot, mashing it down on the accelerator.

The car leapt backwards. She shrieked and in a flurry of panic swung the wheel about and slammed on the brake with her free foot.

With a jolt and a crunch, the car stopped. There was the tinkle of broken plastic. They’d hit a lime-green Hyundai.

“Oh, that’s just perfect!” Daniel said. The lighter popped out. He lit his cigarette and then swung open the door. “I’ll check the damage.”

Over her shoulder, she saw Daniel tug at his trousers’ knees as he crouched to examine the Hyundai. She had a sudden impulse to slew the car around and escape. Step on the gas and never look back. Watch his face, dismayed and dwindling, in the rear-view mirror. Eyes flooded with tears, she began quietly to laugh.

Then Daniel was back. “It’s all right, let’s go.”

“I heard something break.”

“It was just a taillight, okay?” He gave her a funny look. “What the hell are you laughing about?”

She shook her head hopelessly, unable to sort out the tears from the laughter. Then somehow they were on the Expressway, the car humming down the indistinct and warping road. She was driving but Daniel was still in control.

We were completely lost now and had been for some time. I had taken what I was certain had to be a branch line and it had led nowhere. We’d been tracing its twisty passage for blocks. I stopped and pulled my hand away. I couldn’t concentrate. Not with the caustics and poisons of the Widow’s past churning through me. “Listen,” I said. “We’ve got to get something straight between us.”

Her voice came out of nowhere, small and wary. “What?”

How to say it? The horror of those memories lay not in their brutality but in their particularity. They nestled into empty spaces where memories of my own should have been. They were as familiar as old shoes. They fit.

“If I could remember any of this crap,” I said, “I’d apologize. Hell, I can’t blame you for how you feel. Of course you’re angry. But it’s gone, can’t you see that, it’s over. You’ve got to let go. You can’t hold me accountable for things I can’t even remember, okay? All that shit happened decades ago. I was young. I’ve changed.” The absurdity of the thing swept over me. I’d have laughed if I’d been able. “I’m dead, for pity’s sake!”

A long silence. Then, “So you’ve figured it out.”

“You’ve known all along,” I said bitterly. “Ever since I came off of the high-tension lines in Manayunk.”

She didn’t deny it. “I suppose I should be flattered that when you were in trouble you came to me,” she said in a way that indicated she was not.

“Why didn’t you tell me then? Why drag it out?”

“Danny…”

“Don’t call me that!”

“It’s your name. Daniel. Daniel Cobb.”

All the emotions I’d been holding back by sheer force of denial closed about me. I flung myself down and clutched the pipe tight, crushing myself against its unforgiving surface. Trapped in the friendless wastes of night, I weighed my fear of letting go against my fear of holding on.

“Cobb?”

I said nothing.

The Widow’s voice took on an edgy quality. “Cobb, we can’t stay here. You’ve got to lead me out. I don’t have the slightest idea which way to go. I’m lost without your help.”

I still could not speak.

Cobb!’ She was close to panic. “I put my own feelings aside. Back in Manayunk. You needed help and I did what I could. Now it’s your turn.”

Silently, invisibly, I shook my head.

“God damn you, Danny,” she said furiously. “I won’t let you do this to me again! So you’re unhappy with what a jerk you were – that’s not my problem. You can’t redeem your manliness on me any more. I am not your fucking salvation. I am not some kind of cosmic last chance and it’s not my job to talk you down from the ledge.”

That stung. “I wasn’t asking you to,” I mumbled.

“So you’re still there! Take my hand and lead us out.”

I pulled myself together. “You’ll have to follow my voice, babe. Your memories are too intense for me.”

We resumed our slow progress. I was sick of crawling, sick of the dark, sick of this lightless horrid existence, disgusted to the pit of my soul with who and what I was. Was there no end to this labyrinth of pipes?

“Wait.” I’d brushed by something. Something metal buried in the earth.

“What is it?”

“I think it’s…” I groped about, trying to get a sense of the thing’s shape. “I think it’s a cast-iron gatepost. Here. Wait. Let me climb up and take a look.”

Relinquishing my grip on the pipe, I seized hold of the object and stuck my head out of the ground. I emerged at the gate of an iron fence framing the minuscule front yard of a house on Ripka Street. I could see again! It was so good to feel the clear breath of the world once more that I closed my eyes briefly to savor the sensation.

“How ironic,” Euphrosyne said.

“After being so heroic,” Thalia said.

“Overcoming his fears,” Aglaia said.

“Rescuing the fair maid from terror and durance vile,” Cleta said.

“Realizing at last who he is,” Phaenna said.

“Beginning that long and difficult road to recovery by finally getting in touch with his innermost feelings,” Auxo said.

Hegemone giggled.

“What?” I opened my eyes.

That was when the Corpsegrinder struck. It leapt upon me with stunning force, driving spear-long talons through my head and body. The talons were barbed so that they couldn’t be pulled free and they burned like molten metal. “Ahhhh, Cobb,” the Corpsegrinder crooned. “Now this is sweet.

I screamed and it drank in those screams, so that only silence escaped into the outside world. I struggled and it made those struggles its own, leaving me to kick myself deeper and deeper into the drowning pools of its identity. With all my will I resisted. It was not enough. I experienced the languorous pleasure of surrender as that very will and resistance were sucked down into my attacker’s substance. The distinction between me and it weakened, strained, dissolved. I was transformed.

I was the Corpsegrinder now.

Manhattan is a virtual school for the dead. Enough people die there every day to keep any number of monsters fed. From the store of memories the Corpsegrinder had stolen from me, I recalled a quiet moment sitting cross-legged on the tin ceiling of a sleaze joint while table dancers entertained Japanese tourists on the floor above and a kobold instructed me on some of the finer points of survival. “The worst thing you can be hunted by,” he said, “is yourself.”

“Very aphoristic.”

“Fuck you. I used to be human too.”

“Sorry.”

“Apology accepted. Look, I told you about Salamanders. That’s a shitty way to go, but at least it’s final. When they’re done with you, nothing remains. But a Corpsegrinder is a parasite. It has no true identity of its own, so it constructs one from bits and pieces of everything that’s unpleasant within you. Your basic greeds and lusts. It gives you a particularly nasty sort of immortality. Remember that old cartoon? This hideous toad saying ‘Kiss me and live forever – you’ll be a toad, but you’ll live forever.’” He grimaced. “If you get the choice, go with the Salamander.”

“So what’s this business about hunting myself?”

“Sometimes a Corpsegrinder will rip you in two and let half escape. For a while.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. Maybe it likes to play with its food. Ever watch a cat torture a mouse? Maybe it thinks it’s fun.”

From a million miles away, I thought: So now I know what’s happened to me. I’d made quite a run of it, but now it was over. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the hoard of memories, glorious memories, into which I’d been dumped. I wallowed in them, picking out here a winter sunset and there the pain of a jellyfish sting when I was nine. So what if I was already beginning to dissolve? I was intoxicated, drunk, stoned with the raw stuff of experience. I was high on life.

Then the Widow climbed up the gatepost looking for me.

“Cobb?”

The Corpsegrinder had moved up the fence to a more comfortable spot in which to digest me. When it saw the Widow, it reflexively parked me in a memory of a grey drizzly day in a Ford Fiesta outside of 30th Street Station. The engine was going and the heater and the windshield wiper too, so I snapped on the radio to mask their noise. Beethoven filled the car, the Moonlight Sonata.

“That’s bullshit, babe,” I said. “You know how much I have invested in you? I could buy two good whores for what that dress cost.”

She refused to meet my eyes. In a whine that set my teeth on edge, she said, “Danny, can’t you see that it’s over between us?”

“Look, babe, let’s not argue in the parking lot, okay?” I was trying hard to be reasonable. “Not with people walking by and listening. We’ll go someplace private where we can talk this over calmly, like two civilized human beings.”

She shifted slightly in the seat and adjusted her skirt with a little tug. Drawing attention to her long legs and fine ass. Making it hard for me to think straight. The bitch really knew how to twist the knife. Even now, crying and begging, she was aware of how it turned me on. And even though I hated being aroused by her little act, I was. The sex was always best after an argument; it made her sluttish.

I clenched my anger in one hand and fisted my pocket with it. Thinking how much I’d like to up and give her a shot. She was begging for it. Secretly, maybe, it was what she wanted; I’d often suspected she’d enjoy being hit. It was too late to act on the impulse, though. The memory was playing out like a tape, immutable, unstoppable.

All the while, like a hallucination or the screen of a television set receiving conflicting signals, I could see the Widow, frozen with fear half in and half out of the ground. She quivered like an acetylene flame. In the memory she was saying something, but with the shift in my emotions came a corresponding warping-away of perception. The train station, car, the windshield wipers and music, all faded to a murmur in my consciousness.

Tentacles whipped around the Widow. She was caught. She struggled helplessly, deliciously. The Corpsegrinder’s emotions pulsed through me and to my remote horror I found that they were identical to my own. I wanted the Widow, wanted her so bad there were no words for it. I wanted to clutch her to me so tightly her ribs would splinter and for just this once she’d know it was real. I wanted to own her. To possess her. To put an end to all her little games. To know her every thought and secret, down to the very bottom of her being.

No more lies, babe, I thought, no more evasions. You’re mine now.

So perfectly in synch was I with the Corpsegrinder’s desires that it shifted its primary consciousness back into the liquid sphere of memory, where it hung smug and lazy, watching, a voyeur with a willing agent. I was in control of the autonomous functions now. I reshaped the tentacles, merging and recombining them into two strong arms. The claws and talons that clutched the fence I made legs again. The exterior of the Corpsegrinder I morphed into human semblance, save for that great mass of memories sprouting from our back like a bloated spider-sack. Last of all I made the head.

I gave it my own face.

“Surprised to see me again, babe?” I leered.

Her expression was not so much fearful as disappointed. “No,” she said wearily. “Deep down, I guess I always knew you’d be back.”

As I drew the Widow closer, I distantly knew that all that held me to the Corpsegrinder in that instant was our common store of memories and my determination not to lose them again. That was enough, though. I pushed my face into hers, forcing open her mouth. Energies flowed between us like a feast of tongues.

I prepared to drink her in.

There were no barriers between us. This was an experience as intense as when, making love, you lose all track of which body is your own and thought dissolves into the animal moment. For a giddy instant I was no less her than I was myself. I was the Widow staring fascinated into the filthy depths of my psyche. She was myself witnessing her astonishment as she realized exactly how little I had ever known her. We both saw her freeze still to the core with horror. Horror not of what I was doing.

But of what I was.

I can’t take any credit for what happened then. It was only an impulse, a spasm of the emotions, a sudden and unexpected clarity of vision. Can a single flash of decency redeem a life like mine? I don’t believe it. I refuse to believe it.

Had there been time for second thoughts, things might well have gone differently. But there was no time to think. There was only time enough to feel an upwelling of revulsion, a visceral desire to be anybody or anything but my own loathsome self, a profound and total yearning to be quit of the burden of such memories as were mine. An aching need to just once do the moral thing.

I let go.

Bobbing gently, the swollen corpus of my past floated up and away, carrying with it the parasitic Corpsegrinder. Everything I had spent all my life accumulating fled from me. It went up like a balloon, spinning, dwindling…gone. Leaving me only what few flat memories I have narrated here.

I screamed.

And then I cried.

I don’t know how long I clung to the fence, mourning my loss. But when I gathered myself together, the Widow was still there.

“Danny,” the Widow said. She didn’t touch me. “Danny, I’m sorry.”

I’d almost rather that she had abandoned me. How do you apologize for sins you can no longer remember? For having been someone who, however reprehensible, is gone forever? How can you expect forgiveness from somebody you have forgotten so completely you don’t even know her name? I felt twisted with shame and misery. “Look,” I said. “I know I’ve behaved badly. More than badly. But there ought to be some way to make it up to you. For, you know, everything. Somehow. I mean…”

What do you say to somebody who’s seen to the bottom of your wretched and inadequate soul?

“I want to apologize,” I said.

With something very close to compassion, the Widow said, “It’s too late for that, Danny. It’s over. Everything’s over. You and I only ever had the one trait in common. We neither of us could ever let go of anything. Small wonder we’re back together again. But don’t you see, it doesn’t matter what you want or don’t want – you’re not going to get it. Not now. You had your chance. It’s too late to make things right.” Then she stopped, aghast at what she had just said.

But we both knew she had spoken the truth.

“Widow,” I said as gently as I could, “I’m sure Charlie…”

“Shut up.”

I shut up.

The Widow closed her eyes and swayed, as if in a wind. A ripple ran through her and when it was gone her features were simpler, more schematic, less recognizably human. She was already beginning to surrender the anthropomorphic.

I tried again. “Widow…” Reaching out my guilty hand to her.

She stiffened but did not draw away. Our fingers touched, twined, mated. “Elizabeth,” she said at last. “My name is Elizabeth Connelly.”

We huddled together on the ceiling of the Roxy through the dawn and the blank horror that is day. When sunset brought us conscious again, we talked through half the night before making the one decision we knew all along that we’d have to make.

It took us almost an hour to reach the Seven Sisters and climb down to the highest point of Thalia.

We stood holding hands at the top of the mast. Radio waves were gushing out from under us like a great wind. It was all we could do to keep from being blown away.

Underfoot, Thalia was happily chatting with her sisters. Typically, at our moment of greatest resolve, they gave us not the slightest indication of interest. But they were all listening to us. Don’t ask me how I knew.

“Cobb?” Elizabeth said. “I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, me too.”

A long silence, and then she said, “Let me go first. If you go first, I won’t have the nerve.”

“Okay.”

She took a deep breath – funny, if you think about it – and then she let go, and fell into the sky.

First she was like a kite, and then a scrap of paper, and finally she was a rapidly tumbling speck. I stood for a long time watching her falling, dwindling, until she was lost in the background flicker of the universe, just one more spark in infinity.

She was gone and I couldn’t help wondering if she had ever really been there at all. Had the Widow truly been Elizabeth Connelly? Or was she just another fragment of my shattered self, a bundle of related memories that I had to come to terms with before I could bring myself to finally let go?

A vast emptiness seemed to spread itself through all of existence. I clutched the mast spasmodically then, and thought: I can’t!

But the moment passed. I’ve got a lot of questions, and there aren’t any answers here. In just another instant, I’ll let go and follow Elizabeth (if Elizabeth she was) into the night. I will fall forever and I will be converted to background radiation, smeared ever thinner and cooler across the universe, a smooth, uniform, and universal message that has only one decode. Let Thalia carry my story to whoever cares to listen. I won’t be here for it.

It’s time to go now. Time and then some to leave. I’m frightened, and I’m going.

Now.

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