“Ever since she got back from that conference,” one of them says, “she’s been acting kind of different, hasn’t she?”
“I haven’t seen her since she got back,” replies one.
“Well,” says another, “she’s more confident.”
“More of a bitch, you mean,” says another. Some voices laugh, some don’t, but she can’t find the energy to care much about them individually, not anymore.
Like everything else, her hearing has flowered into something new and wonderful. They are rooms away, but she hears them all the same: the squeak and groan of office chairs adjusting to their fidgeting weight, the food sounds in their guts, their empty senseless chattering and weak thin breathing, all signs of the slow ticking entropy gnawing away at the organic machinery of life.
Dull. She turns her perception away from them, tuning out the deep sigh of muffled concrete and steel as the building bends in the wind, pivots her awareness beyond the walls. Outside, there are car noises and the highway rumbling, the hiss of stunted leaves in the wind, the sharp defiance of birds protecting little kingdoms among the branches. She looks out a window over the parking lot below and closes her eyes. Listens.
Beneath the cracked artificial desert of the parking lot buried soil churns with roots and worms and minerals and water, the electric spark of dirt communally alive and on the attack, digesting asphalt. She wants to help it, rip the slabs apart and bury herself in soil, tangle herself in damp clay and black humus.
But a girl’s got to eat. She opens her eyes, and walks to the meeting. Plod, plod, plod, she stumps towards them, with feet and legs and swinging arms and hips. It takes her longer than it could, but she gets there.
She steps into the room and her nostrils flare to take in their scent: fear, desire, repugnance, some with all three mingling in the lactic tang of their bodies. Normally, she finds their odor easy to ignore, but it has been a month since she’s eaten and her teeth ache with the smell of them. One (a man? She has to focus to register their features) speaks to her. There is trepidation in his voice.
“How was Malaysia?” It is too much for her. She laughs, careful to hide her teeth with her hand.
“Wonderful,” she finally says, “I’m a new person.” She returns their moon-eyed stare. “I can’t wait to go back.”
“Must’ve been a hell of a seminar!” another one speaks. This one is wrapped in calculated masculinity. “Maybe next time you’ll take one of us along.” He leans back, hands behind his head, chest out, bright scarlet tie down his tapering front. Animal confidence. She laughs again, and the meeting starts.
It’s all as boring as she remembers. She wants to leave, or kill them all, or sink into the dark cool quiet between the walls and sleep for a thousand years, but the experiences of her old life help her get through. After all, in her past she wore masks too.
They gibber and squawk and mumble for an hour while she sits and listens to their other sounds, lulled by the quick gurgle of blood pumping through veins, the millstone grinding of molars. For the sake of the glowing projector the room is dark. She drifts out of consciousness, shining the drab memories of her old life against the backs of her eyelids.
She had been a good drone, and the reward for her increased productivity and maximized efficiency had been a grim succession of airports on the way to an overseas conference: Chicago to LA, LA to Singapore, Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, thirty-six hours total, desperate for rest she could not find. Days packed with empty corporate platitudes, talks buzzing with the wheedling voices of middle-managers thanking their bosses for the opportunity to better themselves in their service. Assembly line buffets eaten to the soulless chirp of motivational speakers.
Stuck in the hotel with all those awful people! Now, she would laugh at their silly narrow lives or flay them into ragged strips (or both) but at the time, goodness, how terrible they all had seemed to her, loud and close and demanding. And nights! “Come be sociable!” “Come and have a drink!” “Don’t be a stick-in-the-mud!” Pawing, whispering, leering.
But then salvation, greater than she could have hoped; similarly weary businesswomen followed an impulse for travel, for escape, and she joined them. Where had the idea come from? Even now, she did not know. Hadn’t one of them said her boss, a bold, dynamic woman, suggested it to her before she’d left? They skipped a day and took a three-hour drive north to Ipoh, beautiful Ipoh with its whitewashed walls and careful garden squares, a delicately fluted colonial fossil. Ipoh with its cool, damp caves, sunless caves dark with starless night, voiceless caves full of silence.
And during their visit: an impossibly old woman standing in the cave’s maw, beckoning to them.
She made the silent caves sing with the ghostly hum of brass bells, filled the dark with clouds of incense, revealed to them the annihilating splendor of their own truth.
The lights snap on, and she returns to the room. Successfully, nothing of importance has been said or done. Those around the table congratulate each other on another day’s work as they gather themselves up and leave the meeting room. She follows, her tongue rasping against the back of her teeth. It is precisely four hours and eleven minutes to dusk.
She watches the aftermath of the meeting play itself out in the corral of the cubicle floor, the work running downslope in torrents to assistants and junior staff. One of the men from the meeting, the confident one, has monopolized the common space between the workers’ cells, ensuring everyone has a clear view as he snorts and paws the ground to reinforce his dominance.
He is leaning close, looming over a small bird of a woman, her hand fluttering as she tries to keep up with her note taking. He jabs a finger into her face. He barks and growls, loud enough for everyone to hear both his tone and words. His hand lingers low on her back as he listens to her catechize his instructions. Satisfied, he dismisses the underling with a wave. Turning, he sees that she has been watching from the doorway of the meeting room. He gives her a wolfish grin.
She returns it.
Four hours, she thinks, on the dot.
Since the rebirth she cannot trust herself with a car, so she takes a packed rush-hour bus from the industrial park. The smell of people and the wonderful radiating heat of their bodies makes her giddy, and she dances up the stairs to her apartment. Neighbor dogs bark as she winds up the central stairwell, their howls receding into whimpers as she reaches her door.
Inside, the living room is dark and empty. On her first day back in the country, she moved the useless furniture into adjacent rooms. The cleared space was bare except for a pile of linens, pillows, bedding, and sheets, all heaped into a rat’s nest in the center of the room. She locks the door behind her, and sighs happily.
She rarely comes to her apartment anymore, but now, on the darkest night of the month, the little heap was heaven, warm and peaceful in the light of the city glaring in through the big bay windows. She looked forward to snuggling down into the folds. But not yet; there are preparations still, and some jobs are easier with hands and thumbs.
In the kitchen she finds the open pantry full of big plastic jugs of vinegar. A gallon in each hand, she walks to the bathroom. There, she twists the tops off, tips the jugs, and empties them into the tub. She fills it with water for when she returns. A vinegar fog rises from the tub, bites her nose, fills the bathroom, flows down the dark hall and into the rest of the apartment.
In the living room she stands before the window and looks out over a humid dusk, the last daylight reflecting red against the west face of the city. She opens the window and tastes the fresh air as it pours into her apartment, overwhelming the lingering hint of vinegar. Then the sun dies, and it is her night.
Naked, she nestles into the heaped cloth, propped up against a pile of overstuffed pillows. She sits cross-legged facing the open window, and finally lets her mask slip away. Sometimes, as she sleepwalks through the shrouded days, she can just catch the pulsing ring of brass on the edge of hearing. Now though, wrapped in night, the sound is clear, immediate, joyful.
She feels it first deep in her guts: sharp, sudden jolts in time to the echo of bells sounding in her ears. A writhing in the pit of her stomach gives way to the sense of sliding, slippery freedom born from untying an obstinate knot. The rippling movement travels up to her chest; her lungs swell to bursting, then are crushed like a sponge. Integument pulls away from bone, muscle, skin, her organs jitter like fish in a net, eager for freedom. The gums draw back from her teeth and gasping laughter filters through her fangs. A searing white line of pain etches itself along her clavicles, just below her neck. It’s sharp and hot and sticky and then it gives away. The pain vanishes, and there is only the bobbing lightness of air and freedom as she rises above her shell, out of the empty body cavity, floating, finally truly wonderfully alive. She drifts out the open window, leaving her seated body headless and peeled, hands folded demurely in its lap.
She finds her new self unbearably beautiful. She can’t help but admire the glimmer of amber lights that wink up and down her trailing viscera, or the way her movements are all sinuous, submarine ripples, light as air, heavy as fate. The wind rushing through her lungs gives her flight a voice like the wail of pipes heard in some lonely place in the mountains. Her heart, a plum-bob hanging by its aorta, swings free in the dark as she turns and loops over the city, enjoying her freedom.
She plays until she can no longer ignore her hunger. She makes one last lazy circle through the sky, orienting herself to the gentle hum of Earth’s magnetism, then tucks her organs into a tight ball and heads west, coursing on the hunt.
She flies through the city center, grinning at the multihued reflection of neon light against the slick tangle of her guts. She leaves the towers and the glow of night traffic behind, flitting over interstates and roads until she hears the sound of trees and the whine of streetlamps, a suburban serenade that tells her she is close.
The houses sprawl toward the horizon, featurelessly repetitive blocks planted along imperfect grids. Stuttering lawn sprinklers tempt her down, the little damp drops cold in the wind as she skims over yards and through showers. A cat, eyes wide and padding silently on its own hunt, watches her pass.
She pauses to read a street sign, idly tearing chunks of concrete from the curb as she gets her bearings. Another mile or so, she estimates. She wraps the trunk of her intestine around the signpost and twists, wrenching it from the ground and tossing it aside as she ascends.
She crisscrosses her path a few times, and twice has to backtrack to find another cross street, but eventually finds the house, a bland two-story thing squatting on a forgettable quarter acre. The windows are dark, and there is no car in the driveway. She circles the house, pressing ears against the wall and peering in through windows. No heartbeat, no breathing, nobody home. She sniffs the air; it is a little before midnight on a Friday. Her stomach tightens. Tonight, she can wait.
There is an overgrown oak tree in the backyard, dark green glossy leaves hanging in shadows. She settles into its crown, threading herself through the tree’s twists and turns, yards of herself stretched out against the rough bark. She settles in to wait, her little amber lights flashing like fireflies along the branches.
It tests her resolve. She is nearly ready to leave and hunt other food before night turns to morning, when a car finally pulls into the driveway. Its lights shine around the dark bulk of the house for a moment before switching off.
She unwinds herself from the tree, slithers to the ground, crawls across the grass to the back porch. A light comes on in the kitchen. He fills a glass of water from the sink. He wears the same suit he had on at work, the red tie now askew and its knot loose around his bull neck. The storm of his brain is a fuzzy chemical hissing behind bloodshot eyes. He fills the glass a second time, drinks some, spits the rest back into the sink.
She floats delicately up onto the porch, anchoring herself to the gutter over the glass sliding door. The light in the kitchen is still on, and she hears him moving around.
She heavily slaps the door, smearing the glass with a wet streak at around head height. He stops moving, coughs, waits. She rattles the gutter, sending moldy leaves and branches clattering to the wooden deck.
Footsteps approach. He eclipses the kitchen light, his shadow stretching out over the deck.
The lock clicks. The door hisses as it slides open.
He steps out. Sweat, alcohol, anger steams off of him. She titters as she falls on him, knocking him to the ground.
He struggles, but his throat is wrapped in her coils before they tumble to the wooden deck. The sharp spice of adrenaline and terror pours out of him, making her giddy. He chokes, gurgles, she tangles around him tighter and tighter, pressing his arms in against his chest, twisting his legs back. She drags him off the porch, away from the light, up the tree and into green leaves and darkness.
She flies slower on the way back, lazy with a full meal, buffeted by the breeze coming in off the lake. She has left his parched and ruined body tucked high in the branches of the oak tree. It is nearly two in the morning, and the glow of the city drowns out all but the brightest stars overhead. She lets herself get turned around once or twice, but eventually catches the smell of her lair, clean linen and vinegar, and follows the trail back to her open window.
Getting inside is a little precarious; she is swollen, heavier now, and pleasantly lazy. She braces against the window, pulls herself inside, and drifts along the ceiling to the bathroom. She settles into the cold vinegar solution in the bathtub, sighing her contentment.
She dreams of an underground river, and a great yellow-eyed cat staring out over fathomless water.
Just before dawn she puts her shell back on. The vinegar has shrunk her organs back down to size, and she easily slips back into her body, the arms rising to help guide any errant viscera into the cavity. There is a brief, dull stinging sensation as the ragged line at her throat seals up, and she is safely inside just as dawn light creeps back into the city. She stretches her legs, makes sure everything inside is where it should be, and then curls up among the pillows and cloth to dream the weekend away, a smile on her face.
Monday brings the police to the office, asking questions about the missing man. He had been seen around town at bars and nightclubs until two or so in the morning, when he’d gone home. No one had seen him since, but a neighbor had noticed the glass door overlooking his backyard hanging open all day and night Saturday and into Sunday, and so had called the police.
When it comes time to speak to her, she ushers them into her office, closes the blinds and the door, and sits them down.
“This will only take a minute,” they say to her. She nods.
“Dream,” she says. They slump back into their chairs, mouths open, eyes closed. She lets their restless brains fill in the interview to their own satisfaction. She picks her teeth, gives them fifteen minutes, and then sends them on their way.
That afternoon, the little bird of a woman, delicate and apologetic, knocks on her door. She is holding a sheaf of paperwork, and talking.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she is saying, “but I don’t know who these should go to, now that…” the words catch in her throat, and she swallows once before continuing, her voice shaky. “Since Mr. Johnson isn’t here today.”
Ah, she thinks to herself, this trembling leaf of a woman was his assistant. That is why she is talking to me. After feeding it is especially hard to see how these people fit into her new life. Sometimes even for days.
“Well,” she says to the bird woman, “do you know what it’s for?”
“It’s our division’s contribution to the Augustino Report,” she answers, opening a folder. “Expenditures and outlay from FY2010 to the current year, according to projected growth,” she snaps her mouth shut with an audible pop when she sees eyes closing, a hand waving slightly.
“Well,” she says to the now quiet little rabbit, “why don’t you just take over on that project?”
“I’m just an assistant-” she mumbles.
“A promotion to…what was he?”
“Mr. Johnson?” she says, and thinks. “Senior Manager?” she squeaks.
“To that then,” she says, “effective immediately. Find my assistant outside, have her see to paperwork.” She opens her eyes. The woman is stunned, her mouth working but silent. “What’s your name?” she asks, and the woman finally answers.
“Emily Preston,” she says, straightening up.
“Emily,” she says, “I need good managers. People with a killer instinct. Do you have a killer instinct, Emily?”
Emily Preston swallows, tries to answer, can’t.
“Well, Emily,” she says, “no worries. Killer instinct isn’t something you’re born with, something intrinsic. It’s taught, learned, something cultivated.”
“Yes ma’am,” Emily Preston answers, trying to put some steel into her voice. She looks her newly promoted employee over. She wilts in her gaze, of course (what human wouldn’t?), but not immediately. Something there to work with then.
“Emily,” she says after a moment. “I myself learned a great deal about management at the conference I attended in Malaysia. I understand they run those workshops every three months. If you are interested, I would like to send you to the next conference.”
“Oh!” Emily Preston says, her eyes lighting up, “Oh my! Yes, please! Thank you, thank you very much!”
“And when you’re there, Emily, I want you to promise to do something for me.”
“Anything ma’am,” she answers, smiling.
“I want you to take a couple of personal days, and travel north, to a little city called Ipoh. Emily, they have the most wonderful things there, wonderful caves that you have to see to believe…”