Part One: N
In our town there are six streets and six houses and nineteen people who live here. Each street connects to one other street which connects to one other street and nothing else. The remaining stubs of pavement slide down the throat of the forest like long strips of shredded meat.
Behind our houses the trees go on forever. Each night, K and I lay naked atop an old mattress in the warm, musty gloom of our basement. Here we whisper questions about our neighbors. In all the decades we’ve lived here, we’ve neither seen them nor met them nor talked to them, but we know they are there, hiding in their own basements, listening to the creak of the trees, and whispering their own questions about us.
We never sleep. We haven’t for decades. But by now we know the importance of routine, so we try. We make the effort. We pretend, hoping something different will happen eventually. I know that it won’t, that nothing will ever change, that we’ll be stuck here forever, never sleeping, never eating, never aging, just breathing and watching and waiting, but K still believes somehow. She was always the believer between the two of us.
Just before we close our eyes for the night, she drapes a thin blanket over our bodies and stares at me. Her eyes are wet, close, alert.
Do you really think there are people in the other houses?
A storm pounds the town overnight. I lay awake the entire time, studying K’s face by lightning. The smooth cream of her skin, the curved threads of her eyelashes. Between flashes I close my eyes and see the two of us as naked warriors of God in a surreal painting from the Middle Ages. In the painting we wield her eyelashes as longswords and protect a gothic cathedral from an army of demonic skeletons. When I open my eyes moments later, a burst of thunder explodes above our house. K flinches and tightens her lips into a wince. I rest my hand on her warm cheek. She wraps her arm around my torso. For the rest of the night, we hold each other close and listen to the wind scudding past the windows, the treelimbs clattering against the house.
Pink light floods the basement in the morning. When it’s bright enough to give up on sleep, K slithers from beneath our blankets and starts her morning run around the room. Ever since we abandoned the rest of the house, this is what she does to prevent the last pieces of herself from disappearing. For years I had joined her on her run each morning, working up a good sweat, getting in my daily exercise, sticking to our old routine, maintaining my grip on who I was before we moved here, but after a few decades of drudgery, I no longer see the point. Since we never get older and never need to eat, I don’t think we have to worry about exercise.
Laying atop our mattress, I listen to the smack of K’s feet against the concrete. I stare out the basement window. I think about nothing at all.
Through the window I see the pink sun glinting above a desert of white snow. But, as always, it’s warm and sweaty down here no matter what the weather is doing outside.
Soon my eyes start to water from the slicing brightness of the white snow, the brilliant shine of the huge pink sun. Despite the sour burn behind my eyes, I force myself to keep staring for as long as I can. For a few blissful moments, the pain distracts me from the boredom of yet another empty morning.
Just before I turn away from the window, K stops running.
What is it? I say, as a warm tear crawls toward my ear.
K doesn’t answer.
I wait a little longer, and then I climb out of bed and walk to where she’s standing in the corner of the room. There I find a surreal painting from the Middle Ages leaning against the wall. Instead of canvas or a wood panel, this artwork seems to be painted on some kind of thick, eggshellcolored sketching paper fixed to a wooden frame. And because of the standing heat and humidity down here, the paint has already started to crack in some places.
In the painting, as was the case in my daydream last night, K and I are naked warriors of God, wielding the silver threads of her eyelashes as longswords. But this time, instead of a gothic cathedral, we’re protecting our tiny house in the woods from the army of demonic skeletons.
Wow, K says in a whisper. This is incredible.
Yeah, I say.
In the top-right corner of the painting, I see an old man standing in front of an unfinished canvas of his own. Stranded in a small clearing in the middle of the infinite forest, the old man clamps a black-paper cigarette between his lips and scrapes at his artwork with a painter’s knife. But the old man isn’t looking at the woods or his canvas or anything else around him. He’s looking off the surface of the painting, and staring straight at K and I here in our basement.
I rest a hand on K’s sweaty shoulder and take a step back.
Maybe we shouldn’t—
You didn’t do this, K says, leaning forward and studying the painting. Did you?
Later that morning, we hear a loud crash upstairs. For two hours we hide in a dark corner of the basement, waiting for the intruder to go away.
At noon I creep up the stairs and peer down the hallway. Fat flies buzz circles above the pile of broken chairs and dirt-caked stones stacked behind the front door. A dusty bar of pink sunlight cuts through a brick-sized hole punched through the wood. A yellow scrap of paper sits atop our decades-old barricade we built to seal ourselves off from the world.
An hour later, once we’ve decided it’s safe to read the note, I creep down the hallway on my hands and knees. The floorboards groan under my weight. The smells of fresh snow and cedarsmoke slide past my face. Icy air knifes through the thin blanket wrapped around my naked body.
Downstairs, K and I stand beneath the greasy basement window and hold the note under the light.
Someone in town is missing. We don’t know who it is. We want everyone to meet on Fourth Street tonight at twilight. We know you and your wife are in there.
Sitting on the floor in the basement, K and I discuss what to do.
I don’t think we should go, I whisper, looking at K with concern.
K looks past me and shakes her head. A strange smile flashes across her face and disappears.
But what if they— she says, but she doesn’t finish her sentence. Her words stop there and she stares at the wall behind me.
What? I say.
I wait for a while but she doesn’t answer. Following her gaze and turning around, I see that she’s studying the surreal painting.
I look back at her.
What is it? I say, but she stays silent.
Moments later she stands up, walks over to the artwork, and cranes her head to the side. She raises her arm and gently grazes her fingernail across the miniature figure of me in the painting.
A sliver of paint flakes off and clings to the bottom of her fingernail. A thick wash of sparkling heat slashes across my torso. The air leaps from my lungs and catches in my throat. Looking down at my chest, I see a twelve-inch, diagonal gash grinning from the swoop of my left collarbone to the bottom of my right ribcage. Within this wound I see the silky blackness of outer space, the glittering sneeze of distant stars, and the spinning tails of a pinwheel galaxy.
Another moment passes and a blast of fiery pain screams through my body. Black, sludge-like blood seeps thick and slow from the gash in my chest. Pressing my hands against my wound, I fall backward onto the mattress and close my eyes.
Part 2: K
K studies the crumb of paint stuck to the bottom of her fingernail. It is a perfect, tiny sphere; it shines wetly, as if the painting has not finished drying; it gleams under the pink light of the sun and seems to change color with each small movement of her finger.
Turning her attention back to the painting, she sees what looks like a diagonal slash of black paint smeared across the chest of the miniature Nick. Without thinking, she cranes her head to the side and scratches the nail of her middle finger across a patch of green grass in front of her and Nick’s house in the painting. A ribbon of paint curls off the artwork, rolls into a tiny sphere, and clings to the underside of her fingernail. Studying this second scratch, K finds neither black paint nor the eggshellcolored paper underneath, but a second layer of the surreal painting, one which depicts what appears to be a strip of gray pavement.
Wow, K whispers to herself. Unable to tear her gaze from the painting, she waves her hand at Nick and beckons him to her side. You’ve got to take a look at this.
She stares at the painting for another minute, but Nick doesn’t answer. When her eyes slide back to the miniature figure of him in the painting, she notices four trails of thick black blood crawling down his chest.
Whoa, come here, I really think you should— she starts to say, but then a sharp crash upstairs rips her attention from the painting. She shudders in surprise, drops into a crouch, and looks up at the ceiling. With her heartbeat smashing in her chest, she frantically scans the basement for Nick. Since there’s nowhere to hide in this mostly empty room, her eyes snap to the mattress near the window. There she sees Nick laying on his back with his eyes closed, the same black gash from the painting slicing across his chest.
Moments after the noise upstairs goes silent, K scrabbles to the mattress and checks on Nick. Holding her ear above his mouth, she hears no breathing; so she rips one of their thin blankets in half, wraps it around his chest, and ties it tightly around his wound. Mucky, onyxcolored blood sticks to her hands, her thighs, the ends of her swinging hair.
With the weeping wound bandaged for the moment, K presses her lips to Nick’s chilly mouth and forces air into his lungs.
After a minute of heavy breathing, Nick shudders to consciousness. His body heaves; he coughs thick blood into K’s mouth. The blood tastes rusty, metallic, ashy. K turns her head and spits the blood on the floor. Then she carefully rolls Nick onto his side and thumps him on the back. He coughs, groans, and gasps. With his lungs free of blood, he crumples onto the pillow. His face crunches into a grimace of agony. He slurps a shallow breath.
Okay, okay, K says, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pressing her cheek against his face. You’re going to be okay. Just relax. I’ll be right back.
With the inside of her wrist, K wipes the thick blood from his lips and kisses him. Then she jogs to the window. There she sees that the neighbors are gathered on Fourth Street just like they said they would be, their faces concealed behind masks of old blankets, their bodies hidden within lumpy cocoons of mismatched clothes. But for some reason, there seem to be fewer people present than K expected. A quick count produces a tally of ten neighbors, instead of the sixteen others who should still be here in town.
Though the neighbors are holding various clubs and knives, it’s the ground just past the basement window that catches K’s attention. A thick strip of gray pavement slashes across the lawn in the exact spot where K made her second scratch on the painting. And in contrast to the cracked and ruined pavement of the six main streets in town, this new strip of pavement is fresh, intact, and pristine.
Shuffling over to the painting, K confirms her suspicion. The two scratches she made on the painting somehow affected the real world. With this information in mind, she holds her right hand up to her face and studies the two spheres of sticky paint clinging to the undersides of her fingernails. Maybe if she fixes things in the painting, it will fix things in real life.
So she kneels beside the mattress on the floor, rests a hand on Nick’s burning cheek, and kisses his forehead.
Everything is going to be okay, she whispers. I know what to do now. Just relax. I have to go upstairs for a minute to get something, but I’ll be right back.
She kisses him once more, and then creeps up the stairs to the ground floor of the house.
Spiky, arctic air washes over K’s bare body as she slips out of the basement and onto the ground floor. Before she can take more than three steps down the hallway, violent shivers rumble to the tips of her toes. Since she used all the available blankets to keep Nick safe, she didn’t have anything left to protect herself with.
Hunching into a half-crouch, K stalks toward her destination: Nick’s old penknife in the kitchen junk drawer.
Creeping quietly over the groaning floorboards, she scans the ground for sharp debris that might slice open her bare feet. Here she finds rotted pieces of broken wood and dirt-caked stones scattered across the hallway.
A man’s voice yells something from outside. Raspy, thin, and grinding with wrathful anger, the voice echoes through the silent streets and rattles down the hallway of K and Nick’s house. At this sound K springs to her left and flattens herself against the wall. A large stone smacks against the opposite wall and snaps past K’s bare feet. Looking up, K sees that the barricade of broken chairs and stacked stones her and Nick built behind the front door is gone, and that the entrance to their house hangs open like a yawning mouth. The man yells again, this time louder, and once again, his voice is followed by the hard bang of a rock being thrown through the front door. K takes two quick breaths, looks through the open doorway at the end of the hallway, and makes a dash for the kitchen.
Thinking back to the years before the paranoia set in, before her and Nick abandoned their house and closed themselves off in the basement, K remembers that the kitchen is only accessible through the dining room, which itself stands immediately to the left of the front door. With this floor plan in mind, she darts down the hallway, dodges the wood and stones on the floor, and ducks into the doorway of the dining room. As she flashes past the open front door, the shouting man yells another angry command; his incomprehensible words are punctuated with the sharp cracks of three rocks banging against the wall behind her.
Once in the dining room, K drops into a crouch and claws through the thick cobwebs stringing between the wall and the mold-crusted table. The webs stick to her fingers, her hair, the end of her nose.
K scrabbles into the kitchen and pulls open the junk drawer. After a minute of breathless searching, she finds Nick’s old penknife. Grinning and shaking her head in admiration, she silently thanks her husband for his wonderfully ridiculous OCD tendencies: the tool is sheathed in a dust-flecked plastic bag, which holds the shaft, collar, and blade of the knife, all sealed in their own, smaller plastic bags. Inspecting her find, K sees that the blade of the knife is in perfect condition, and completely free of rust, grime, dirt, and wood shavings.
Clutching the bag carefully in her hand, K closes the drawer and sneaks back into the dining room. When she passes through the room this time, she notices a yellow slip of paper sitting on the end of the table near the front door of the house. Not wanting to waste any extra moments away from Nick, K grabs the piece of paper, gulps a deep breath, and runs down the hallway to the basement door, dodging the debris on the floor the whole way. The shouting man bellows another series of unintelligible words. Three rocks smack against the side of the house. A burst of crackling glass sounds from behind. But K doesn’t stop or look back. She rips open the basement door and swings it closed behind her. Once the door is locked and barricaded with the steel chair from Nick’s old workbench, she shuffles down the stairs and reads the note.
Seven of us are missing. You are the ones who did it. You have ten minutes to come out and beg for God’s forgiveness. If not, we will come in there again. We know you are in the basement.
With the note in one hand and the plastic-sealed penknife in the other, K pads to the mattress and checks on Nick. His face is as white as milk; his skin is drenched in sweat; his breath is slow and shallow. Looking down at his chest, K sees that the sparkling, ink-black blood has soaked through the blanket completely, and is now leaking onto the mattress beneath.
Jesus, K whispers, leaning over Nick’s trembling body. Okay. I got it. Just relax. I’m going to get you healed up. Everything’s going to be okay.
She kisses him on the forehead and jogs over to the painting. After inserting the blade into the penknife’s shaft and securing it in place with the collar, she scrapes the sphere of paint from under the nail of her right index finger. She draws a hissing breath. She holds the knife above the painting. She rests her free hand against the wall for balance.
K drags the sphere of color across the chest of the miniature Nick. The moment the sphere touches the paper, it absorbs into the fibers like a droplet of water into a lake. The diagonal slash fades away; the skin of the miniature Nick returns to normal.
Oh, thank Christ, K says, turning away from the painting and exhaling sharply. Warm tears gather in her eyes and blur the room around her. She shuffles over to Nick and checks on him once again.
Kneeling beside the mattress, she sees that all the black blood is gone, even the bit she spat on the floor a few minutes ago. The blanket tied around Nick’s torso is dry and unstained; his skin is free of cloudy sweat; his face has regained its healthy color. Untying the blanket from around his chest, she confirms her success: the giant, terrifying gash is gone. What remains is the beautiful body she knows almost as well as her own.
K rolls onto the mattress beside Nick and rests her head on his newly restored chest. His heat seeps into her skin. His heartbeat thumps against her ear. His breath slides past her cheek and warms the soft flesh there. For the first time since they barricaded themselves in the basement, K feels happy, safe, and content.
From somewhere far away, an angry man bellows a garbled command. Before K can open her eyes, a pair of loud thwacks ring out just above her head.
K rolls off the mattress and looks up. There she sees a spider web fracture branching to the edges of the thick, greasy glass of the basement window. In an instant she remembers the surreal painting, the broken barricade upstairs, the two yellow notes, and the neighbors’ ultimatum.
She grabs the penknife off the floor and scrambles over to the painting. Just before she makes her first scratch, the shouting man bellows again. Bracing herself for the salvo of rocks to follow, K faces the window and flattens herself against the back wall of the basement. A number of rocks patter against the side of the house. One rock smacks against the basement window with a crackling crunch. A second, smaller rock follows moments later, and punches through the window like a bullet. The second rock sails over Nick’s head, bangs against the floor, and comes to rest seven feet to K’s right. Aside from the small hole left from the rock that broke through the glass, the basement window is intact.
As icy air leaks into the basement, K stands on her toes and peers out the small hole in the window. There she sees the ten remaining neighbors standing at the edge of the white snowfield that is her and Nick’s front lawn. The neighbors clutch their weapons in their cloth-fattened hands and huddle in a small circle. They talk among themselves and point at K and Nick’s house.
K turns back to the painting. Since she doesn’t want to hurt anyone else, not even her mysterious neighbors who tried to stone her a few minutes ago, she presses the penknife to the painting and begins scratching away the big house on Fourth Street, the two-story French colonial with the wrap-around porch.
Thirty seconds of careful scraping is all it takes to remove the house from the artwork. Once this is done, K looks out the window. The house is completely gone. Squatting in its place is a spotless square of freshly paved parking lot.
All ten neighbors turn around in surprise and stare at the empty void where the house on Fourth Street used to stand. The tallest of the ten neighbors points at the square of pavement and yells something K can’t decipher, his hot breath puffing through his homemade mask as a curling cloud of steam. Seconds later he spins around and jabs his finger directly at K in the basement of her and Nick’s house, but the rest of the neighbors ignore him. Instead, they break off in groups of twos and threes and bolt in different directions into the woods. The shouting man yells at the retreating neighbors one more time. When none of them acknowledge his command, he breaks into a run and streaks toward the front door of K and Nick’s house.
Seeing the approach of this new threat, K turns back to the painting, drops the penknife on the floor, and rakes her fingernails across the paper in a frenzy. She scrapes away the lawn in front of her house, the oaks and elms lining the street, and the roof of the home next door. But this doesn’t seem to stop the shouting man. As K claws at the painting, she hears the man’s heavy footsteps stomp through the front door upstairs, and clump down the hallway toward the basement.
Moments later, when the man bashes his shoulder against the basement door, K abandons all her past worries about hurting the other residents of the town. All that matters now is her and Nick’s safety.
So K turns her attention to the skeleton army and scrapes each soldier away. Since the skeleton army stands in such close proximity to the miniature versions of herself and Nick, K works slowly and carefully so as not to injure herself or her husband.
But even after all the skeleton soldiers are scratched out, the shouting man is not dead. Still he shouts and yells and smashes his weight against the weakening basement door. So K does the last thing she can think of: she places three fingers atop the miniature versions of her and Nick, and slashes every remaining inch of the painting. Her curved fingernails scour away the trees and the streets and the sky and the sun, the lawns and the homes and the clouds and the ground. But even this doesn’t stop the shouting man’s vicious attack on the basement door, so K draws a deep breath and scrapes away the miniature version of the house in which she and Nick are hiding.
Some time later, K wakes on her back in the middle of an empty parking lot. The sky above is black. The air is thick with heat. The pavement stretches on forever.
A steel streetlight stands behind K’s head. A buzzing blue sodium lamp bathes her body in azure light. Fat summer snowflakes swarm her face, her legs, the long plane of her bare stomach.
Sitting up and looking around, K sees the mattress from her and Nick’s basement hideout sitting in the pavement a few feet away. Nick lays atop the mattress with his eyes closed, sighing softly in his sleep, his body free of all wounds and injury.
K pads around the base of the streetlight and scans the expanse of pavement around them. Though the blackness beyond the glow of the cobalt light is nearly impenetrable, K sees neither houses nor streets nor forest nor neighbors. And most importantly, she no longer hears the furious, alien bellowing of the shouting man. Instead, she listens to the wispy whoosh of the summer wind, the oceanic rhythm of Nick’s respiration.
Once she’s confident they’re finally safe, she lays on the mattress beside Nick and wraps her arms around him. A few minutes later, Nick stirs from his sleep and interlocks his fingers with hers.
I was dreaming, he says, in a breathy whisper.
What were you dreaming about?
I don’t remember everything, but near the end we were walking along the bank of a creek in a forest. It was a really nice day, and at some point you spotted a glittering thing stuck in the mud in the creek, so you kneeled down and reached into the water and fished it out. After washing off the mud, we walked over to a gap in the trees and you held the thing in the light and we saw that it was a shimmering, pink crystal. Each time you turned the crystal, we saw a different version of ourselves living in some far off, fantastical place, like an advanced city in the distant future, or a gothic church in the middle of the woods. It was really beautiful, Nick says, rolling onto his back and scratching the place on his chest where the twelve-inch gash had been. He yawns, lets out a contented groan, and holds out his free hand to catch some of the fat summer snowflakes tumbling from the sky. He glances to his left and flicks his chin to get K’s attention. Who’s that?
K follows his gaze and sees an old man standing at the edge of the cone of blue light. Clamping a black-paper cigarette between his lips, the old man stands in front of an unfinished painting, squints against the glare of the buzzing blue sodium lamp, and scrapes at his canvas with a painting knife.
I don’t know, K says, fighting to keep the panicked warble out of her voice. She presses her eyes closed. Just ignore him.
What? Who am I ignoring now? Nick says.
The— K starts to say, but when she opens her eyes and looks around, the old man is gone and the parking lot around them is empty once again. Nothing, sorry. I must’ve seen a shadow.
No worries. But I don’t blame you. This place is pretty creepy.
Yeah, K says, staring into the infinite darkness looming just outside the blue glow of the sodium lamp. So what happened next in your dream? After we held the pink crystal in the light and saw all the different versions of ourselves in those cool places?
We started walking again, Nick says. But you kept the crystal in your hand the whole time to make sure we wouldn’t lose it. And then I woke up.
That sounds like a really nice dream, K says, resting her head on his chest.
Yeah, it was, he says, softly sliding his fingers down her bare back. Did you dream about anything last night?
— Steve Gergley is the author of the short story collection, A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (LEFTOVER Books ’22), and the forthcoming novel, Skyscraper (West Vine Press ’23). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Barren Magazine, New World Writing, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/