She was crumbling. It was taking a while, but bits and pieces were sputtering off her, rolling down her body, clattering with tiny bouncing clicks onto the floor below. In a few hours her skin would be gone, and the decay would spread to tissue, muscle, tendon, sinew, then, finally, bone.
Entropy dictates the arrow of time.
Of course, she had known this, everyone learned the basics at school, when they were young, vibrant. Whole. Everyone lived forever except for those that did not. Everyone’s body grew until they were mature and able to procreate, and then stopped. No one aged after that, except for those that did.
Selection is random, naturally driven, irreversible.
There had always been a bit of a niggle, a tendril of doubt twined around hope, that she was destined to crumble. Someone had to. At any given time, around the world, ten to twenty people were dissolving. Quickly, painfully, within the span of a day and a night, without warning. Given that the global population was in the tens of billions, those weren’t bad numbers. A few people die so that billions might live for eternity.
She wondered if eventually everyone crumbled. If time was unwinding all of creation, together, and a few people just had the bad luck to be more visible as entropy claimed its prize. Everything all slumping down together, silently.
Her eyelids hurt. Everything ached, but her eyelids were the worst, burning as skin abandoned tissue. Soon she’d only have open eyes, then she’d go blind. The hermetically sealed case she was in kept out dirt and even sound waves, lest they hasten her decay, but at sundown the case would be removed, and she’d dwindle in the open-air darkness. She prayed, laughing inside as she did so at her sudden conversion to faith. She prayed that he would come once light was gone, once the case was removed and darkness fell, once anonymity was assured. She prayed he would do as she had asked.
Her case was perched on a dais set up in the main square, in front of city hall. Hosting a crumbling was a rare and special event, and her small town was making the most of it. She kept her eyes closed mostly, savoring darkness while she could. It was quiet inside the case, all sound buffered by the thick glass, though people were likely filing by in front of her, muttering pleas and prayers, touching their lips, their chests, glancing at their own bodies.
Complete dissolution would take all of today and tonight, but most people lost consciousness after about twelve hours in. Near as she could tell, about five hours had passed since she’d poured a cup of tea and noticed the tip of her finger missing. She’d called him, though her claim to his time and attention had long been ruptured, torn beyond repair. She had made him promise.
“Come when it’s dark, when I’m past recognition, and sing to me. Promise. Don’t let me linger in the dark. Use your voice to set me free.”
Entropy only promises a level playing field, nothing more, nothing less.
He had said yes, but she doubted he’d actually do it. Now that he was famous, now that his career had bloomed into one shining performance after another, now that his voice soared through cathedrals and capitols, now that he had climbed on her own back and the backs of so many others to get to the top, he didn’t need to do anything. Certainly not sneak out to a crumbling woman, slumped and shattered, and sing her into oblivion, scattering the last bits of her being into nothingness with the vibrations of his voice.
She opened her eyes. They stung. A group of schoolchildren was passing, their hats perched jauntily on their curious heads, some pressing their hands against the case only to be pulled back by their teacher. One little boy stayed behind as his group wandered on to the Exhibit of Past Crumblings. He looked at her with such concern, such worry. She tried to speak, but air was raw and biting in her mouth. She tried again.
“It’s okay. I’m okay.”
The boy shook his head. This was likely the first crumbling he’d ever seen. His eyes searched the edges of the case, as if to find a way in.
She nodded slowly. She had done the same when she’d seen her first. Trying to figure out how to remove the case, let the decrepit being inside fully dissolve in the open air. She had known, with all her heart, that the display of the crumbling was wrong, that the dying should be put in a wild and wonderful place where they could feel the wind break them up. Where they’d dissolve into dirt, into water.
Her head felt heavy. She closed her eyes and wished it was all over. She was mostly muscle and tendon now, with bits of bone showing through. Poor boy, having to see this. Back when people first started crumbling, all those centuries ago, it was done in private, hidden. Then the scientists figured out what was happening; that a select few were required to honor the law of entropy. to counteract all the tinkering being done with lifespans and immortality. As if entropy decided to apply itself quickly, mercilessly, to balance out the universe.
That was when the formalities began, the celebrations and the ritual viewing, the establishment of the crumbling as heroes. Decades ago, the Right to Dissolve group had sprung up, so now the inflicted were put on view during the day, trapped in the cases that delayed their process, until night when they were left alone to die in peace.
In theory. She wondered what would happen when darkness came. Would people come to collect bits of her, or touch her? Would she still be conscious enough to feel it? Or would the fear of catching something, getting infected, keep them away. She hoped so. They couldn’t catch crumbling from her. It was random. But she hoped they thought so.
She woke with a start. She must have fallen asleep. Pain radiated through her, out to in and in to out. Every moment was immobile agony. She could still see a bit, hazy outlines in dimness. There was a loud hiss and a bitterly cold stirring of air. They were removing the case. She felt her eyes twitching, a residual instinct to blink.
There were blobs of movement and wonderful sounds, birds and footsteps and distant traffic. A voice calling something in the distance. Then the movements ceased, and she was alone.
She knew he wouldn’t come. It was, as it had always been, up to her. She had sung back then, not him, she had written the music, not him, she had made a home, not him. She had scrimped and saved for his trip to the contest, she had cheered for him, believed in him, and when he won – with the song she had written - he left her.
She focused and took a deep breath in, trying to map what breathing meant in this strange new body. She exhaled, forming what words she could. If he would not sing her into oblivion, she would sing herself.
No sound came out. She tried again, and again, but her voice was gone. Stripped away. She mouthed words as best she could to herself, trying to lean her paralyzed body into any bit of a breeze she could feel.
A blob of a shape loomed in front of her. Her heart leapt. He had come!
She felt him kneel in front of her, a blur of grey against darkness. Sound trickled into her.
“Are you okay? I mean, does it really not hurt? They say it doesn’t really hurt.” The voice was young. Too young to be him.
The schoolboy. He had come back.
Every word he said arrowed into her, the vibrations stealing in, weaving through her remaining flesh. She tried to nod but couldn’t move.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you.” The boy’s voice was tight and trembling. “My dad said that you were married to a famous singer. I’ll sing to you, okay? My mom sings to me when I don’t feel good.”
His voice rose in song, light, like a bird cheeping.
Her bones trembled as waves of sound ricocheted through her. She felt her head crack. Darkness washed over her, and she gladly, finally, dissolved.