Fiction Contemporary Horror

The younger one without the new ears stopped pushing her broom when we got too loud. One of the echoes was relaying how Sheryl always ate garlic-infused hummus at her desk with kale chips—oblivious, it seemed, to the smell—and one of us exclaimed that a former co-worker, likewise named Sheryl, always re-heated leftover Tilapia in the office microwave and then the dam broke because everyone had a Sheryl story, even if the person wasn’t named Sheryl, and because there was never enough time everyone talked over everyone else and soon there was shouting. Which was when the younger one without the new ears stopped pushing tinsel and plastic champagne flutes across the floor and looked up. 

     One of us whooshed into a deflating balloon and popped it and though the younger one jumped she seemed satisfied and went back to work, pushing her dark hair behind one ear, which was when we noticed she didn’t have the new ears. 

      The younger ones always have new ears, one of us said. Well, apparently notNew ears? said an echo. They are not new to you, we said and the echoes said, eh? And one of us said, the ears with which they listen to faraway ghostsGhosts!?

     Collectively we groaned and a shiver went up the younger one’s back and she maneuvered the broom in a more staccato rhythm. 

      It’s nothing to be frightened of, we said. Ghosts is shorthandShorthand for what? Are you ghosts? Yes and no, we said. But…are we ghosts? Oh! I was just drinking champagne. And that belly is safe at home, we said. ProbablyProbably!

     We were wasting time and cursing the one among us who’d used the word ghost too early, but really it was the fault of the younger one for not having new ears because really we hadn’t had to watch our volume for some time, what with all the faraway ghosts covering our whispers. Now we were stuck explaining when there was so much new language buzzing. 

      It had been a big party, the biggest one in a while. An office party, which was our second favorite right behind a funeral reception where the words flew away unwanted from unhappy mouths. Weddings were boring because everyone said the same things, same with anniversaries. Birthday parties were depressing from a linguistic perspective. But office parties, soaked in alcohol and grievance, were delicious. Flesh filled the space and gorged on rich food, satisfied bellies pressed against each other and jostled the helium balloons tied to the corners of the tables, sending some of them floating up to us salivating in the rafters. 

     What are ghosts but language left behind, one of us said, skipping ahead, past the division between the parts of the body and the parts of the body, past the different hooks of the vowels and the consonants, past the shaping of memory by syntax. This was a mistake. 

     Left behind! But I am here! Was, we said, tense is important. Am I dead? Am I dyingWell, of course, we said. I can’t die!

     Here this particular echo’s tenor became a shout and the younger one without ears dropped her broom and the clamor dispersed us for a moment. Gathered again, the younger one was already tapping the older one on the shoulder. The latter removed an ear. 

     “¿Escuchas eso?” the younger one said. 

     “Maria, you need to practice English.”

     “¿Por qué debería hablar en inglés contigo?“ Maria said. “He oído algo”

     “No has escuchado nada. Don’t be crazy.”

     “Valeria, I serious,” Maria said. 

     “I’m serious, too,” Valeria said. “I’m already tired. Let’s get back to work.” 

     Typical, said one of the echoes. Typical? we said. Please tell us you understand this language, that would be most— Understand? Do you understand what they bri—Don’t start, Sheryl. Sheryl! You are here. Please tell us: what are kale chips? we asked. Kale chips are over, said an echo that was not Sheryl. Over? Oh, how delicious! Over is over, said another echo. Even better! We exclaimed. Sherly had distracted the echoes and they were giving us language. I just wanted to say…said the Sheryl’s echo. I can’t…put…words? Oh please, Sheryl, you can do it. Only a little longer. A little longer? Another echo. What exactly are you doing? The echo meant us, all of us. What is happening to Sherly? One of us said: You aren’t going to use the words and they’re new for us so—So you’re stealing! Thieves! Vampires! We interrupted: Well, we think of this as insultingPoachers! Yes, well, maybe that fitsYou can’t have my…my… What is happening to…I don’t know her name!

     The crescendo washed again into the old ears of Maria. “¡Basta ya!” she said. She threw down her broom and waved her hands where she thought we were. 

     “Maria! ¿Qué haces?” Valeria said. 

     The clap of the broom on the floor had blinked us out again and most of the echoes, the pulse of the flesh fading, did not survive the dispersal and all these said was ghosts…vampires...poachers

     In our anger at the lack of new ears we became wind and gale-forced at the detritus still scattered across the concrete floor, sweeping up napkins and glitter and cone-shaped party hats, rolling them toward Maria and Valeria, who crossed herself, which made us laugh and this laugh chased the both of them out of the room.

      And that was it for the language for the evening. We were frustrated and meager but there would be other parties. Yes, perhaps we were vampirespoachers but we were not the lucky ones that hooked onto some street corner with a crooked ancient oak or in a storeroom with forgotten children’s toys or an attic with secrets. We were bound here in this concrete geometry, a cube with clean lines and bare walls, interrupted only by ephemera: folding chairs, folding tables, streamers, balloons, tinsel, ice spilled across the floor that melted into a mirror we could almost see ourselves in before the mops took it away. 

     We no longer had the language for how we ended up here. We had banished most of the words. Bandage remained. Slam, tear, crack. These were more afterimages than words. Flash

     We needed the new language to sustain us—and to keep away the banished words. Every missed opportunity was a frustration, but there were always other parties, events, gatherings, people coming into each other’s air, touching flesh to flesh, laughing in each other’s faces, crying in each other’s arms. 

     Except there wasn’t another party. Not a wedding, not a funeral, no office parties, no birthdays. Maria and Valeria returned a couple of days later when the sun was brightest and cleaned up the refuse grown sticky. And then it was dark and empty and silent. We grew thin and hoarse. Banished words returned. Gun. Blindfold

      Maria and Valeria returned with new smells and new hands and the wiped every surface they could reach with a series of rags, throwing every rag into the trash bin. The whole time Valeria was coughing, like she wanted to get rid of her insides. 

      “Valeria, necesitas un medico,” Maria said. 

      “No puedo permitírmelo,” Valeria said. “Dios mios, I have coughed days.”

      Oh, this was a wonderful thing. To have coughed days. We wanted to keep it with us, but there was not enough volume and not enough flesh. The words went with Valeria’s body when they wheeled her out of our space, their hands all over her face. 

      She had coughed and collapsed, and Valeria had rushed to her and shook her and then used Valeria’s own pocket to call someone. We hoped beyond hope that the older woman might expire there, breath herself out into our number and teach us this new language with all the new words—but this is no longer a space where people die. 

     The days piled upon each other, stacking up the shortening nights in leaning columns of vastness until one day stretched over everything and it was no longer days and we no longer us, so many having slipped away, fleeing the banished words that returned. Gun. Blindfold. Blood. Everyone’s hands behind their backs. 

      Into this infinite day that was no longer a day cracked and whined a door. Maria entered with a new face. Her new hands were gone. She cleaned the dust that had gathered, attacked everything with the new smell. She did not speak a word, not even when she stopped at the spot where Valeria had collapsed. We could feel all the words welling up in her new face, we hovered close, and we begged for language, for any word. We were so weak we caused only her skin to prickle. She did not even notice.

     She wiped circles with her mop around and around the spot on the floor. 

May 14, 2021 17:49

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