We started sticking together when more and more of us disappeared each night. At first we consoled ourselves with the story that those who went missing had made it off the streets. Reconciled with family. Gotten clean. Begged enough to rent an apartment.
Until seven of the homeless community vanished at once.
Huddled together beneath a bridge, we didn’t realize we had made culling us easier until unmarked white vans pulled up, surrounding us.
Leaving my belongings behind, I scrabbled away before city officials could hem me in. Covering my ears to block out the screams echoing in my wake.
I fought against the tide of people shoving me from behind, pushed forward by indifferent forces funneling us into a featureless corporate building. I had seen creatives, my friends, enter this place and come out the other side wearing business suits and complaining about taxes. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t escape.
As I stumbled through the door, I wished for the touch of guitar strings under my fingers.
Inside were cubicles as far as I could see. My mind drained of songs about life and happiness. Unresisting, I headed toward my designated cubicle. Purged of all individuality.
Deep in the woods, I built a mound of dirt and twigs and pinecones, an altar upon which to make my sacrifice. Packed together with my bare hands, mud squeezed cool and alive between my fingers, under my nails.
Rain started drizzling through whispering pine needles. I laid my phone down upon a bed of dry leaves on the altar. Fire from my lighter caught on the leaves with a crackle. Plastic and metal began to melt. The glass screen cracked.
Soon the phone melted down to a black lump. All my contacts, all my apps, sacrificed.
The cold had seeped deep into my bones by bath time. Shivering, I lit a fire beneath my oversized cauldron hanging from a metal hook driven deep into the brick above my hearth. Deep enough to hold my weight.
I started to melt the moment I settled into the bubbling water. My skin began to slough off. Floating around on the water’s surface like eerie bits of soup.
Revealing myself for the lizard-person I was.
I would have to reapply a new human skin, but that would come later. For now, basking in hot luxury, I hissed a contented sigh.
A twinkling deep in the desert brought me to a choice. One that appeared as one light from a distance, but separated into three as I drew near. Beneath the star-splashed night sky, a lone figure stood. Cloaked in black. A bird’s face for a mask. Bone, etched with secrets and mystery.
A trio of candles sputtered upon an iron candelabra. The figure held the candles out toward me.
From beneath the mask, a deep voice reverberated with the tones of the desert. “You may choose, Wanderer.”
“What are the choices?” I asked.
“Blow out the candle that burns with your name, your path, or your past.”
All things I wanted. I considered the candles before me, but none of them showed their secrets. Closing my eyes, I hovered my palms over them, feeling for cold spots. Listening with my other senses. Nothing came to me.
The barest whisper. Replace me, replace me, replace me… Coming from inside the mask or… from the mask itself. Along with the scent of decay.
When I glanced back up at the figure’s face, the eye sockets of the mask wept tears of blood down the beak. One or two sizzled where they dripped onto hot wax.
In one huge breath, I blew out all three.
The desert grinned sideways at me.
From the darkness, the figure’s deep voice came. Distraught. Reproving. “That’s cheating.”
A bright flash of orange sparks and blue smoke illuminated the figure for a second. The mask had morphed into the rotting skull of a long-dead bird. The beak clacked once at me and then the figure vanished.
These desert haunts were canny foes. Annoyed at myself for falling for the usual tricks, I scuffed my toe in the sand. “Well, I think I won in the end.”
I knew that meant, since I died, that you should be free of me. Somehow, I thought you would be happy to see me. That I dug out. Yet as I shambled up our driveway, grave dirt trailing off my heels, I felt unreasoning rage.
Rage at the unfamiliar car in the garage.
Rage at your silhouette through the window, wrapped around someone else.
Rage that my funeral had just happened this morning.
Once I had vowed love. Now, as I opened the front door with rotting hands, I vowed revenge.
I turned the skeleton key in the lock of my own door before pulling it closed behind me. The key went into my pocket, the only one left that could unlock this door, as I had melted the original down to a lump of brass.
No one could get in.
I sat in the corner of the windowless room, arms crossed over my drawn up knees. Watching the door. This was my life now. To keep me safe.
I jumped when the doorknob rattled. Held my breath as it turned. Turned.