io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is “The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Enjoy!
Image © 2013 Galen Dara.
Maria Dahvana Headley
By your first anniversary, the world’s stopped making paper, and so you can’t give your boyfriend the traditional gift. You never would have anyway, regardless of circumstances. You’re not that kind of girl. You pride yourself on your original sin. It’s the hot you trade in.
So you give him the piece of your skin just beneath your ribcage on the right side, where the floating ribs bend in. It’s a good part. Not the best. You’re like a food hoarder who pretends her larder’s empty, all the while running her finger along the dusty ledge that leads to the trick shelves that hold the jars of Caspian caviar. You’ve always been the kind of liar who leans back and lets boys fall into you while you see if you can make them fall all the way out the other side. You want them to feel like they’ve hit Narnia. You traffic in interdimensional fucking, during which they transcend space and time, and you go nowhere. When they fall in love, you Shun & Break™ them. Their poor plastic hearts are Pez dispensers topped with copyright violation Mickey Mice.
Your boy’s not falling for this shit. He simply refuses. He sees through your methods. You met him in a bar on the night of the first apocalypse, just prior, and both of you somehow lived through the night.
He clocked you from moment one, when you bought him a drink and brought it to him, fresh lipstick on your mouth, altering your walk to cause him pain. He drank it. He then took the cherry out of yours and drank your drink too, looking at you the whole time like he was a prime transgressor who was going to rock your world until it broke.
“You gonna try to make me love you now?” he asked. “That your thing?”
“Brother,” you said, taken aback by the way he’d just needlessly whacked the rules of flirtation, “I don’t even know you exist.”
This would have been the end of it, except that five minutes later there was a rending, and everyone was screaming and trying to get away, and buildings were falling down, and the streets were full of unimaginable.
You were out of your element. You loved the Woolworthing of the world before the apocalypse, the shopping mall fluorescence of flirtation, the IKEA particleboard pushing together of things that would shortly fall apart. You loved paper parasols and plastic monkeys. Everything was your toy. You killed men, but they never got anywhere near killing you.
But he grabbed your hand, and you grabbed his, and you took off running together, dodging crazy, jumping holes in the streets, not stopping to look at the people who were down on the ground already, vomiting up important parts of anatomy.
You didn’t actually see the worms that night, though other people did. That was the first anyone heard of them.
When you finally got indoors and safe as you were likely to get given the stakes, given the world situation—sex, you informed him, was necessary, because minus sex? This shit was just monsters and the end of the world.
He wasn’t so sure. He’d sobered up, considered lighting out on his own, but you insisted you were better off together. Then you tore off his clothes and climbed him like a firefighter reversing up a pole.
Maybe you love him now, maybe you don’t. You don’t trust him, but there’s nothing new about that.
The apartment you share has big windows, and no curtains. You don’t look out. The floor beneath the window has an old bloodstain, but whatever happened there happened a long time ago. In bed, you’re rubber and he’s glue, and it’s hot enough to keep you going.
“This is so you can write on me instead of paper,” you say, thrilling at your own fin de monde generosity. The rest of the world’s in mourning, but you’re celebrating your survival.
You roll over to face him. You’ve outlined the page with a razor blade. The rest of you is unmarked. There’s the promise of a quarto. Back before all this, you were both, weirdly, the kind of people who footnoted fucks. You prided yourselves on your grasp of gory details of the philosophical arguments of the 1300s. Now you don’t know what you are. Your dissertation is stalled. You used to be the cool girl. Now you’re just a live girl.
Your boy presses his cheek to your hipbone.
“You feel like a fossil,” he says. “Like a pterodactyl wrapped in fabric.”
“As long as I don’t feel like a worm,” you say.
You know very well that you don’t. The people out there who’ve died, the ones eaten by the worms? First everything liquefies. Then the worm emerges. While it’s happening, you feel it like an earthquake inside your soul. There’s a reason you’re in here. A year of that, and the worms are getting bigger all the time. They start out the size of pencils.
He cuts a word into your skin, and then another, and you gasp when the knife touches you, because here’s something you’ve never done before, and you’re a girl who does everything. You have a flash of worry about yourself. There is a distinct possibility that you’re flipping backward, your head upturned, everything sweet you’ve kept hidden sliding out into his hands.
Outside you can hear one of the worms moving through the streets, a big one, about the size of a motorcycle. You blow out the candle. It’s not like you’re scared.
“Do you remember mimeograph machines?” you ask him. You do. Your grade school had one. Once, because you couldn’t stop talking, you were exorcised in the mimeograph room by a substitute teacher using Diet Sprite as holy water. Back then, you couldn’t stop anything once you started. You revolved like a bent top, twitched, and bit boys. You cast spells. None of them worked. Now, if you were out there, it would be worse than mimeograph ink. People believe in things they didn’t.
“Yeah, I remember mimeographs,” he says, and smiles. “The purple ink. It smelled like a hot skillet.”
You flip over so you don’t have to look at him, and then you roll across the sheet to print the words he’s written, grabbing the fuck out of random religion, but isn’t everyone?
Hallelujah, Holy, Glory, Be, God, Gone, Gotten, Begat, Bore, Bear, Beginning: in the. End of days.
Out in the street there is a scream, high and wavering, which you both totally ignore.
For your second anniversary, he gives you two teeth, wisdom. The traditional gift is cotton, but you’ve sold most of your clothes. He gives you ivory instead. The teeth aren’t quite white, because of the drinking of tea, back before it all. They’ve been out of his mouth for a while. The world’s shifted away from dentistry, or rather, the world’s shifted from cosmetic dentistry into tooth-retention, but his were removed before all that. He’s lost other things, too. He has no appendix. He has no tonsils. He still owns both his kidneys, though. You only have one.
The thought that he purposefully had organs removed, and didn’t even sell them, makes you pissed off with the waste (wastrel, you compulsively think, over and over, wastrel wastrel) and so you carefully don’t imagine his tonsils twitching on a tonsil heap. His appendix like a tiny harp, strumming inside a bath of alcohol.
There is, by now, a black market trade in vestigials, and the wisdom teeth are worth their weight in something. Some people have their mouths studded with other people’s teeth. It’s become a status symbol. The worms, however, don’t care. People are entirely in hiding by now, and still, sometimes, a worm gets in. No one sleeps with an open mouth anymore. There are masks and door seals. If you see a worm, even a tiny one, you’re supposed to shine a light on it and stomp on its head. This is not always possible. It takes time, but eventually, the worms get their way.
“Do you love me?” you ask him. It’s bullshit to hear yourself. Your voice sounds wobbly. You sound like what you never were.
“I gave you my teeth,” he says, but he doesn’t say he loves you. You are now plastic in a world where no one needs anything but metal.
You don’t say you love him, either. You met during an apocalypse. What kind of fool are you?
“What are your teeth for?” you ask.
“To pay tolls,” he says and then he closes your fingers around them. You hide the teeth beneath your pillow. One morning there are coins in their place. Some old traditions, apparently, linger in the world. Or maybe you did that, to try to make him love you. You place the coins on his eyes as he sleeps, and he wakes up laughing.
“Not that kind of toll,” he says.
You aren’t laughing. You hide his teeth, in case they’re ever all that is left of him, and you have to find something to bury. You curse yourself. Even at the end of the world, you’re still trying to rig the system. You don’t want to talk about love, and so you talk about worms. You casually relate anecdotes of people who died, listing their agonies like ingredients in a complicated recipe, waiting for him to tell you he loves you, waiting for him to tell you he hopes the worms don’t get you.
Your skin, by the third year, for which the traditional gift is leather, is covered with words no one uses any longer. He’s careful. You’re careful. The blood isn’t much.
Sometimes he quotes you. “Brother, I don’t even know you exist.” Then sometimes he laughs. Sometimes he doesn’t.
Sometimes you tell him everything you know about him, which is everything except one thing.
Other things have gone wrong outside. You’re living in a drifting cloud of ash from some far off worm-battling explosion, and the lights are out, and the sun’s dimmed. You eat from cans opened with stabbing, and you aren’t sure what you’re eating, but no one says anything nasty. You’re still together, in a new little room, this one with only three walls. Your old apartment sank into a hole in the Earth and was gone for good. He traces words on your skin, and then erases them, and then traces new ones over the scars. You comfort each other with childhood.
“Blackboard,” he says, grinning in the dim. “Do you remember?”
“Eraser monitor,” you reply. “More times than I should have been.”
“Chalk dust,” he says. “Inhaled.”
“Snow,” you say. “Back when there was snow.”
“There’s still snow somewhere,” he says.
“I don’t think so,” you say. “No ice. Remember ice?”
“Of course I remember ice,” he says, annoyed, because he’s started to forget it. “Your drink had ice the night we met.”
“There isn’t any ice left,” you say, your voice taut against his cheek, and what you mean is, I’m a new world, fall into me. You’re scared of being by yourself at the end of the world, even though you pretend you’re chill. Chill, you repeat to yourself, chill chill chill. It starts to sound like a word you don’t know.
“How would you know?” he asks.
In the dark, you hand him the scar from your inner thigh. In the space where it was, there’s now another scar. You’ve stitched the leather into a purse, on which you’ve scarred an unsayable word.
“Tetragrammaton,” he says, and you feel him tasting the sound of it, not unimpressed with your syllables.
The end of the world has not made you a believer. The end of the word has.
By the fourth anniversary, you’ve forgotten the traditional gifts. Sex has begun to involve your skeletons. Your boy gives you his scalp. There’s a girl one apartment over who was a surgeon, and she comes in with a flat cloth-wrapped packet of knives and little saws like chefs used to carry. She cuts a circle out of his scalp, then out of his skull. You touch his brain, just once, with your fingertip, watching his eyes roll beneath closed lids. Then the doctor replaces the circles and closes his head back up with black stitches so no worms get in.
You give him your heart. Once your chest cavity is open, he looks at it beating for thirteen seconds, and then the doctor closes you back up again. It takes months to heal from that anniversary, but when you finally do, though you no longer have a bed, you lie on the floor and hold hands, and he tells you what your heart looks like at close range. You tell him about the gray whorls of his brain.
“I pretty much love you,” you say at last.
“I pretty much loved you the whole time,” he says. “Since I saw you standing on top of the bar as the roof fell in. Since I saw you kill that worm with a bottle of bourbon.”
This is a new kind of love for both of you, but not a new kind of love for the world. In the pre-catastrophe world, things that loved one another sometimes ate their mates. You both consider this. The thought of lapping at blood and chewing flesh becomes tempting. You’re both getting mad scared of the dark.
For your fifth anniversary, after the sun is apparently gone for good, you’re fully baroque. You cut off your hair and sell it to buy a ring for him. There’s still a trade in hair. It’s used to weave blankets. It’s also used in spells. Magic has started to exist again, in the desperate early mornings.
He’s had the bones of his fingers made into a comb for your hair, which is, of course, gone. There’s a man who does that, filing the bones down into something spined and wired. The story that inspired these gifts is a cheesy classic, one you both partially remember from childhood, and it’s become hot, too, though in its original version it was only about love and pocketwatches. Sex at the end of the world is a pornographic, ecstatic recitation of everything that has ever and has never existed, a naming of genus and species, taxonomies of winged creatures and those that slither.
“Lunchmeat,” he says.
“Tempeh,” you say.
“Hummingbirds,” he says.
“Doves,” you say.
“The story where the baby gets cut in half.”
“It doesn’t. It’s a threat.”
“The story where there are a thousand babies who keep having more babies.”
“That story isn’t a real story.”
You pause in your movements, considering extinctions.
“Carol,” you say. “The secretary from the English lit department.”
“My grandfather,” he replies.
“I didn’t know Henry died,” you say.
“Of course he did,” he tells you, but you still don’t remember.
“The woman who used to stand at the end of the street, selling meat on skewers.”
“That wasn’t meat.”
“It was, sort of.”
“It was shoe soles.”
“It was the color of meat.”
You lie together in the dark, listening to the world ending. Five years is more than you would ever have expected, given the beginning of this. In the dark, something shines briefly.
“Dungeons and Dragons.”
“Fish at the bottom of the world.”
He puts his remaining hand up to touch your shaven head.
“There was a gorilla,” he says. “Do you remember it?”
“There was a gorilla who climbed the Empire State Building,” you finish. You aren’t who you were. You’ve given him all the things you were saving for yourself.
In the world outside your room, the question now is whether to go out and fight the newest version of the worm. This one rears up and bares its teeth. It’s got seven rows of sharp: old school multiplex shit. Now it emerges, in the shadowy days at the end of everything. No one has yet seen its tail. It seems to go on forever.
Outside your windows, buildings begin to crumble, and the sidewalks ripple. You are still that loser thinking about love.
“I have to go out,” you say.
“I have to go out, too,” he replies, and you touch him with your tongue. He tastes like you. Both of you are hungry. You feel like you might explode from out of his chest, or him from yours, writhing and opening jaws, eyeless.
Outside, the worm is rising where the sunrise was. Its flesh is smooth and gray. Your building shakes as the worm moves around it, wrapping it in coils.
“Nylon support stockings,” he says.
“Slinkies,” you counter.
A window breaks. He stands up. You stand up, too, and walk out without looking at him again. There’s nowhere to look, in any case. It’s dark. You start climbing.
The worm makes its way through the streets, turning left and turning right, making a low sound, a slurring rasp. It’s a successful worm. The more people a worm gets, the bigger it grows. You walk out under the sky, hunting the worm as the worm hunts you. You’re just a normal person who lived through things she shouldn’t have. Your fires have gone out. You’re not especially special.
Heaven is a cloud of ash, a starless place full of low nests.
You hold your present in your hand, the pronged, sharpened fingers of your man, and below you, you see the worm, shining in the no light.
Fall into me, you think, using your old self, willing the worm to woo. It shouldn’t come to you, but it does. Hunger and love work the same way. The spells you knew as a little girl are still part of you. Once you start spelling you’re never stopping. It’s like you have an audience and a word with a million letters, and you’re going to spell it to death. It’s like you’re a champion.
The worm stretches itself and you stand on top of a building, watching it approach. It’s curious. No one comes out in the street anymore. It smells you, or tastes you in the air.
Then, movement. Now you know why the worm is coming. Your man is in the street, the purse made of your skin held out before him, and on your skin, the unsayable word.
The worm writhes toward him, following your scent, and you’re shaking, feeling a this-is-it-shithead situation, but you’re here anyway and so is he. You can see your ring, flashing on your man’s finger, his remaining hand outstretched. He throws the purse into the worm’s mouth, and it laps at it, tasting it, rasping. Its teeth are shining and white, whiter than anything you’ve seen before. They close on the purse like it’s a washrag being wrung. Now the worm’s eaten the name of god. In some places, that would be poison.
Its head turns toward you.
You teeter, teeter, and leap, an old movie move showing up in your game plan unexpectedly. You dive for its face, its open mouth, its seven rows of teeth, and they cut you as you go in. No mouth, only throat. The thing is all throat. You hold out the comb and claw your way down.
You’re going into the center of the Earth. You fall, and you fall, and all around you the stars are falling, too. The inside of the worm is the inside of the world. You claw words into its throat, and you’re covered in blood and wet, in cold dark. You’re being digested and pulsed, inside a long channel of charnel. You think about all the people this worm has eaten from the inside, and now you’re inside it, too. You’ll do the same. You’re Woolworthing the monster, cataloging it into a bin of like unnecessaries.
You’re fucking terrified.
You think about your mother, whom you haven’t seen in years. You think about your umbilical cord and the way it wormtangled around your throat. You think about how you lived through that. You hold your man’s hand, the sharpened points of the fingers, and around you, the worm convulses and quivers. You stab yourself in, using the bonecomb, finger by finger, and you tear at the worm’s simplicity, bisecting it like a bad deed on a summer afternoon.
Eventually there is a larger shudder, a scream, a rasp, and you feel the worm give way.
For your sixth anniversary, you are the woman who emerged unscathed from the worm that ate the city. He’s the man who did it with you. You hold his hand in yours, and his other hand, the one made of bone, holds your hair, grown back now, into a twist on top of your head. The sky changes. The ash drifts down. You’ve given way, just as the worm did, and now, your skin, covered in words, and his body, covered in scars, are what the remaining people know to be the way that leaders look.
Beneath the streets, the worms are asunder, rotting corpses, bewildered by bones.
You met him drinking. He met you drinking your drink. Now you’re both in charge of things.
You give him a look for your sixth anniversary. He gives you the same look back.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2013 issue, which also features original science fiction by M. Bennardo (“Water Finds Its Level”), along with SF reprints by Maureen F. McHugh (“Interview: On Any Given Day”) and Sean Williams (“The Missing Metatarsals”). Plus, we have original fantasy by Damien Walters Grintalis (“Always, They Whisper”) and Dennis Danvers (“Leaving the Dead”), and fantasy reprints by Holly Black (“The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue”) and Richard Parks (“The Man Who Carved Skulls”). And of course we have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with Gregory Maguire and Karen Russell. For our ebook readers, our ebook-exclusive novella is “The Garden” by Eleanor Arnason and our featured novel excerpt is from The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!