“Shuffle” by Jennifer K. Oliver
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My mouth, full of leathery flesh. Still, there are colors, lights. They shudder and pulse in the deep dark.

There are good days. Meat days like today. Days like these, I can remember fragments. Bright slices of color.

Synapses sputter, stringing colors between dark cells, through rotting gray tissue. But the picture is not complete, and it’s never mine.

Sometimes I wonder if Harr-eeoh also absorbs the memories of the few remaining living we find. All those thoughts, ideas, and marvels that shine in the darkness.

I think my name might be Sarauugh. At least that’s how it sounds when I pull it up through frayed vocal cords. But I’ve also been Joe, followed briefly by Amelia. I was an echo of Dumaka, and for a few moments I was Frederick. And once, I was Mei for an entire morning.

Mei tasted of dawn and of endless days spread beneath an autumn maple, its leaves flaming apocalyptic red and gold. The analogy is darkly funny to me, given everything, and sometimes I remember to laugh at these things, when I can recall irony.

Mei was in love with a boy her parents wouldn’t let her marry. When I pushed my tongue into her cranium and lapped at the warm, buttery thing inside, memories rolled into me like a flood of dopamine: soul-wrenching longing, the urge to disobey, the tingle deep between my cold legs that shouldn’t have been possible at the thought of Kazuki, the one Mei truly wanted, the boy she was not allowed to have.

Sexual thrill is odd when you’ve forgotten what it feels like. A bright ripple in a river of black. A ghost of sensation where there’s been empty halls for so long.

On good days, on meat days, I remember these things. I remember Mei — she’s my favorite. Her defiant streak. Her desire for someone beloved when my only desire is for flesh.

My throat contracts. Lights strobe.

Always, Mei’s memories sink into yawning gray. They peel apart. Scatter. Colors drain. Brightness dims.

Everything fades, gray, gray.

And I can’t seem to hold on.

I don’t know what I —

What umm remembering — what.

Sarauugh.

* * *

My mouth. Something crunchy, scratchy. A tooth maybe. Or a shard of bone.

I chew. Here come colors. Here come lights.

My tongue, a fat, dry thing. It grows slick again, slippery again — coppery.

Color bursts and light flares. Pictures swarm my eyes, burning so fierce I squint.

Sometimes the sun’s so bright I can barely see.

I make out filmy shapes: a withered leg twisted on the ground and the burnt shells of cars. A buckled shopping trolley. A crumpled paper bag dragging across concrete. The hunch of blackened buildings all around us. The exhausted blue of a fathomless sky. The trees are the only things that stand tall, growing green, living to their fullest. They whisper in the parched breeze, but they do not speak to me.

I watch Harr-eeoh as he eats unreservedly. I can’t shuffle far and neither does he, and since we’ve ended up on the same road we see each other a lot. Shops are silent on the high street, faded closing-down signs still pinned in their fractured windows. But I get the feeling they were closing before we appeared and took over.

There are a few others like us in this town, but they’re not good at finding food. Some of the first are too broken, and when they don’t eat, it’s harder to move. They sprawl on the street like lumps of paper dried in the sun. Will this happen to me? To Harr-eeoh? It makes me wonder if I’m the only one who can capture the past, and what it means, and how long it’ll last. If this is vestigial then it will one day stop, when I’m too far gone and what’s left of my brain turns to mush.

At that time, will I no longer be able to move or feed? Will my remaining brothers and sisters tramp over me, crush me under their torn and bloody feet?

I wonder these things when I can wonder.

There’s blood on Harr-eeoh’s face and hands. I want to know what he gets from his food, but I can’t ask him.

The memory fragments are not mine, but I need them. They take me by the hand and lead me places I’ve never seen and will never see. Perhaps they’ll eventually lead me to the real me, whoever I was before.

Now there’s a thought. A spark of light.

Light.

We move faster with meat in our bellies. It doesn’t take us long to find a house, tumbled down and charred black from fire. We almost miss it — it’s amazing anyone could survive in there, breathing ashes, semi-conscious and probably unaware of what shuffles just outside.

The man folded in the bathtub is still alive when I discover him. He’s a lucky find; we have eaten through most of the living. Some of the ones we don’t finish turn to increase our numbers, and some of them are simply too torn-up to revive. This man breathes in shallow little bursts. One of his feet is twisted at an odd angle. I must eat, but when I lean towards him his hands shoot up and grip my shoulder. The suddenness of it knocks me off balance; this man has more strength than he should have. As he grapples with me, half climbing out of the tub, I try to push him back down, try to pin him. A couple of my fingers snap. I feel nothing, nothing but terror as I watch my chance at memories struggle out of my grasp.

If I had a heartbeat, it would be racing.

No. No, I won’t let him go. This is too important. I lunge, not caring where my mouth lands, only that it does. The man screams and tries to shove me off, thumping my back, my arms, the impacts like earthquakes.

I chomp, and keep eating until he’s still. Eventually he slumps, sinking back into the tub. I suck him dry, tear thin lines of skin off his bones, and as we approach his end only a spindly cobweb of life clings to him. But it’s enough. It’s enough for me to enjoy a fleeting moment of him as his breath draws for the last time.

This is the closest I can imagine to being full.

It’s the birth of a thousand galaxies in a single heartbeat, immediate, stark, searing, a sweep of blazing stars. Daniel. He watched his family die one by one. The last to die was his youngest daughter — he killed her himself, snapping her tiny neck to save her. From us. But he could not snap his own. When I stand it’s with a masculine bearing, as he must have once stood. I sway in the blood-haze, but my mind is whirling with Daniel’s wants and dreams.

And there, something else breaks through, something new, something that is not Daniel. It flickers dimly through the sparking brilliance of his life and I almost don’t catch it; a touch of pastel, recognizably female, not one of his memories. And I realize too late, when it’s already vanished, that it was one of mine.

Mine.

Me. Sarauugh. Sarah.

Daniel’s first sexual experience burns a path through my brain, distractingly bright. It’s funny how those types of memories are often the strongest. They overwhelm thoughts of Sarah, and for a while all there is, is the thrust, the tense, the flex, the light and the ecstasy.

I want to feed again.

When I leave the bathroom, I catch Harr-eeoh standing in the hallway, looking right at me. For a second it’s like he’s trying to speak, his mouth dropping open and drawing back up, dropping again. Something flits across his torn features, then — the beginnings of a frown — but it’s gone just as quickly. When I tilt my head in question he totters, his face vacant, and he merely goes for what’s left in the tub.

Was that really frustration I caught in his eyes and on his mouth?

I try harder to remember my life as Sarah and catch a shimmer of regret for something undone, something from before the world changed. I lumber along the hallway, disturbing the photographs hung on the walls — Daniel and his family on a jetty somewhere balmy and dreamlike, an elderly couple beaming in front of a sky-blue backdrop. People and their lives.

People and their meat.

As soon as I think about meat, my stomach clenches and my recollections start to fade. Images pale, color seeps. Sarah slides through my grip, dripping like blood to the floor. I had her, though. Had me for a while. And this time I kept hold of me for longer.

Harr-eeoh lurches out of the bathroom, chin red and wet. He sighs. Ragged. I tug him closer. Harr-eeoh mumbles. I don’t understand. I lean up, suck blood off his jaw. Taste zings through me. Too short-lived.

Grayness eats away at the walls. The ceiling. The floor. Color peels back like strips of flesh.

Door hinges groan, and there was something I wanted to —

I can’t remember what I was —

But I can’t —

And umm. Umm…

Sarauugh. Sarauugh. Sarauugh.

* * *

Umm wander. Hours. Days. Darkness. Light.

Umm forwards. Harr-eeoh. On and on. Stumble.

No food. A few remains, here and there. Mostly dry.

More of us fall and don’t get back up.

Harr-eeoh pushes black feathers to my mouth. I bite in and jerk, a trickle of blood sweetening my throat. On and on.

A plane roared overhead some weeks ago. Or perhaps it was months. I don’t know where it was going, what it was looking for. We haven’t seen any planes since. Or maybe we just don’t remember them all.

I find a dog too weak to run tucked away under a porch. Real, living flesh. Soft and furry and bloody. And bright — suddenly so bright.

Grass crunches under my feet. There are cars and lorries everywhere. You would think there had once been more vehicles than people, a planet ruled by automobiles. At least cars don’t revive and eat the world. I saw someone raise once, still strapped into their car seat. They didn’t know how to undo the buckle so they just sat there, struggling feebly, slowly and surely starving.

My limbs are slowing, and they were never that quick to begin with; the one that bit me broke my body in a couple of inconvenient places. It’s days before I find a family of rats trapped in a drain, still alive and squirming. I see Harr-eeoh in a shop doorway, facing me, staring at me. I immediately catch his intention. He beckons me over with an awkward sweep of his arm, and leads me into the shop where it’s dark and quiet. We stand side by side and we must look strange, two dancers caught in a grotesque sway, or a married couple gone wrong, so very, very wrong. I lift one side of my mouth in a twitching smile, but I can’t hold it for long.

Harr-eeoh leads me deeper into the shop, to a little stockroom at the back. I wonder what it is he wants to show me. And then I hear it. The wet sniffle. The hitch of a breath.

Meat.

Memories.

What’s more astonishing, more than the promise of food and the anticipation of a new fragment of soul, is that Harr-eeoh knew to bring me here. It’s confirmation enough that I’m not alone.

We kneel and scoop back the spilled boxes and crates and tins. Beneath, huddled around open packets of half-eaten dry goods and empty fizzy drink cans, is a woman, all quivering and boneless skin. She struggles weakly as we begin. The physical act of eating no longer excites, and it isn’t her body I draw strength from. I am Hyacinth — a name I always hated and got me bullied at school — and I run as a net of girls chase me around a playground.

Harry moans beside me.

Then, as suddenly as before, someone else breaks through the visions.

Sarah.

Me.

Quickly as I can, I turn to Harry and gurgle at him. For a second I don’t think he understands, but then he looks over at me, chin dripping, and smiles.

“Back.”

“Ha!” I say. It’s all I can get out, but at this point words are unnecessary. Our bond is formed: we are, momentarily, ourselves again.

“Nnygh,” Harry says.

Nnygh, indeed.

Hyacinth’s life-long self-loathing spirals around me, but that sliver of Sarah sprouts out of the center, more brilliant than any memory I’ve had before. It overrides the sense that something is not quite right here, and I wrap myself around the brightness as tightly as possible, trying to tempt it out further, trying to get a good grip.

I was a teacher. Primary school. But it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. Someone — family perhaps, or a spouse — had convinced me that I was good with children. How amusing, to think what they would say about that, were they here now.

With every bite, the echo of the woman I was before grows stronger, full of color. As it turns out, Sarah — I — was planning on travelling the world, but I didn’t tell anyone, not friends or family. It was my secret, the most exciting thing I would ever do. The realization that I was on the verge of breaking out slams into my fractured ribcage like a fist. Like life.

I groan, my face trying to grin.

Harry humphs.

And then I feel another punch, this one in my gut. Not like life, but a knife-point of clarity.

I’m dead.

The meat sticks in my throat and for the first time I’m fully aware of what it is.

I’m dead. I’m dead. It sparks in my brain. Dead. A bloody hand comes up, my own hand smeared with the remains of the person I’m eating. The knife twists, a surge of something like pain. I try to hold on to it.

Afterwards, we let the body crumple to the floor. Harry turns to me, shakes his head and points down at our feet. Broken bones grind together somewhere deep inside him. “Not. Sss. Aaye.”

Not this way. I reach for his hand and grasp it in understanding.

“Oh-sure.”

Closure. It seems Harry has had his own shuffle down memory lane. I hope he liked what he saw. I hope his closure was positive. I don’t have the vocal cords to ask him, but it doesn’t matter.

He’s right. This is no way to exist. The feeling that something is not quite right solidifies. Even if we regain more memories and manage to hold onto them for longer, our bodies are decaying and there’s nothing to sustain what’s left of them.

I know what to do. Simple enough for a dead person to realize.

We push our way through the shop towards the outside. Out where there’s light and possibly color.

We look around at the broken street. There’s little left now, old blood stains brown like rust on the tarmac. It rained once, many days or weeks or months ago. I remember because that was the day I found the young boy folded under a pile of shoes at the bottom of a wardrobe. The rain hammered the roof so hard I thought the sky was coming to claim me. When I stumbled outside the street was wet, the blood and gore washed away. It would have almost looked normal, until you noticed us ambling around.

A lot of us are starved to husks. There are so many more shriveled lumps on the ground, remains making weird motifs in the sun. I’m sure some of the bodies are dead — truly dead. Gone. All it seems to take is a matter of time and no food, and there, they shrivel and bake in the heat. No more waking nightmare.

I stare at Harry. I know he gets it too.

I swim in the colors of memories while they last. Bright, strong thoughts of making a change, of running away, of doing something new. Right before the end of the world, I had chosen not to be what everyone else thought I should be, what I had almost come to believe I should be.

I don’t want to be Sarauugh.

I am Sarah.

* * *

Slow, slow, slowly.

We are slowing.

Sarauugh slows.

No, Sarah. It’s Sarah. I’m Sarah. Just hold on.

I can’t remember the last time we ate. There’s not much left now, on the ground or inside me. Just enough to know that when Harry moans and tries to lift his arm, he’s spotted something interesting. If I was alive and the betting type, I know what I’d put my money on.

If I was alive.

The person pinned in an upturned truck is barely alive. The luck of this find isn’t lost on me. Shards of my life lie on the other side of the skull that rocks to and fro. Its owner shakes its head no, too frail to even cry. My memories are right in there. Where it’s soft and warm and runny.

And yet.

Yet.

Harry mumbles, knocking my elbow. I stare down at the body, a dead thing pitying the living. My hands don’t work like they did, and though it wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be impossible to beat that skull open.

Harr-eeoh — no, Harry, it’s Harry — nudges me harder. I know, I want to say.

We both stagger away. When I try to open my mouth, my lips peel apart like sticky tape. It takes a couple of seconds for me to notice Harry has stopped. He turns to go back to the body, but I grab his arm and yank him. A small part of me is glad I’m not struggling alone. The other part of me aches for blood and flesh. Light and color. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.

We fight our own bodies and each other’s. Clawing, tearing ourselves to get away. I half lead, half drag Harry towards a black sports car that’s been abandoned on the forecourt. And when I start to lose myself to the vast grayness, Harry takes over. Bones snap, both his and mine.

Light flickers through my mind. I tug Harry to the car. It takes a few tries — another finger snaps — but I get the passenger door open. The inside is still pristine. A sleek leather cage. I clamber over to the driver’s seat. Pull Harry in behind me.

In the end, it’s as simple as pushing a buckle into a clasp. The safety belts hold us upright, hold us firm. Simple enough for a zombie with half a brain.

Quarter of a brain.

What was I…?

What am —

Sarauu — Sarah.

* * *

I’ll stop moving. Soon. Then maybe I’ll die. Harry sits beside me. Strapped in tight. He hasn’t tried unbuckling himself in hours. Maybe he’s forgotten how. He hasn’t groaned in a while. I hope this is the end. The true end. Our end.

I let life pass me by when umm — I was alive. What little I had was taken from me the day umm — I died.

But now, Harry and me, we’re taking something back.


Jennifer K. Oliver is a British writer and freelance web designer. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Jersey Devil Press and Nanoism. You can find more of her work at www.jenniferkoliver.com. Tweets are @jenniferkoliver.
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