Fiction: The Absence of Death
By Jack Moody
The moment it was introduced to his bloodstream, the process of dying had begun.
Breathing slowed to a hoarse whisper, the oxygen to his heart stalled, strangling the organ until the dirtied blood pumped like thick honey from a bottle. Body temperature rose, sweat began to pour from each gland. The brain suffocated, firing off neurons like weak explosives in the rain, drowning beneath the heavy flood of dopamine colliding with their outnumbered receptors. Fluids entered the blackened lung cavities and ejected as vomit and yellow foam, cascading forth from between the lips and down the chin. In a final effort of comfort, the brain reached into its deepest memories and played for itself a movie called Nostalgia. And it watched all the wonderful things it had experienced in its life with her, as it slowly, slowly, slowly—went black.
The body was found, and taken to a coroner, where he commented to a colleague while performing the autopsy, that if it weren’t for the track marks and evidence of a tobacco addiction, he would have thought that he was looking at a healthy young man.
The body was then placed in an incinerator, where it was burned for three hours at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, until the skin and flesh and fat and bone and muscle tissue became a large pile of gray ashes.
The pile of ashes was placed in an unmarked and ordinary metal container, and emptied into a nondescript collective grave, where it became part of an even larger pile of gray ashes, and was promptly forgotten about.
This is when he woke up.
He walked for a long time. He crossed a bridge, and past rows of buildings, and the lights of the city were there and the people were too. They walked away and through him, and paid him no mind, nor did he them. Buildings became trees, and trees became forests, and though he could no longer remember where he was, he continued to walk. The world moved as it always had, and this, and everything else, was no different than it had ever been.
He stopped beside a small creek and sat down with his knees to his chest, and he watched the water move. It paid him no mind, and he was happy it allowed him to be there with it. There were too many places to look for her, and so much time had passed. He felt no rush to search. There was time, and there would always be time, and some day the time would stop but she wouldn’t leave him. He knew this.
Quiet was what he had taken for granted. And when he’d had it, it was beyond the veil and beyond grasp, and it was meaningless. So he remained by the creek, and they were quiet together until orange turned to blue, and the creek began to sparkle and gleam.
The city now glowed in the distance, and the stars fizzled out within its reach, and he stood to return to the lights and glow that choked out the sparkling, quiet night, knowing that it did not have to be the last time he sat beside the creek in silence, but still knew that nevertheless, it would be.
As he delved deeper into the cracked, neon-lit streets he returned to places he knew. These places at one time held significance but that feeling had withered, more and more with each place he found. The significance of them was instead how utterly insignificant they now had become. Cravings were an alien concept. The sting, the warm familiarity of the act that had occurred within these places was of no consequence. He neither mourned nor celebrated this. It was now how it always would be, and there was nothing left in these places but the pockets of dust swept to and fro, forever unchanged, no different than it had ever been. They were empty, and hollow, and she was nowhere to be seen.
With only one final place to go, the place it had begun and would end, he made his way towards it, knowing if she hadn’t returned to this place after all those passing days and nights gone, then she was gone for as long as time moved forward, until that too was finally gone, and only then could he find her again. This was all he had left for as long as the dust continued to be swept along with the rest of the world.
The streets before had been a frightening and cold place without her body beside him, and they were dark and dirty, but the light she provided was the closest feeling to the warm sting he felt in those empty and hollow buildings when she was away. Without her, fear was the way of the world, burnt into the yellow beams emanating from the swaying, shattered lampposts, and impressed within the lungs taking air to fill the night with horrible, untended cries. It dripped from the open sores left to fester on the arms of the sick and untreatable. It exploded out with the snap of a hastily aimed gunshot.
With her, it was nothing but quiet.
She was the absence of death. He knew this.
He retraced the steps he’d taken a hundred times in a haze of delirium, the haze now lifted, acutely aware of the darting eyes of those who would never dare look as he crossed their paths.
A man and woman sat huddled on the sidewalk before the building, its dilapidated walls hardly any more protection from the elements and averted eyes than the brown-stained clump of charity blankets draped over their bodies. He paused to sit down beside them, as although they weren’t people he knew, they were people he could have and would have known through opportunity or necessity.
“I’ve lived longer than I ever wanted to,” the man said. “I’ve lived long enough. I’m cold. I’m too sick. I’ve had enough.”
“A little longer then,” said the woman. “Just a little longer. What am I supposed to do without you?”
“You’ll have twice the blankets,” the man said. “Twice the money. Twice the food. Twice the dope. You’ll manage.”
“But I’ll still be twice as cold. Twice as poor. I won’t eat. I’ll be twice as hungry. I would rather share.”
He turned and watched a group of people talking and laughing amongst themselves, wearing shiny dresses and dry-cleaned suits. They stopped long enough to eye the man and woman, and sped up to cross the street.
They ignored the laughing people, as they always would, and the people did not turn around or stop again, as they always did.
“You’ll manage,” the man repeated.
“We’re better as a team,” said the woman. “We’re a good team. We’re good to each other. You can’t leave. I just won’t let you.”
The man shifted underneath the blankets and coughed. It rattled inside his chest and a glob of black phlegm followed, landing on the pavement. “Then I’ll find you in the next one.”
“Do you promise?” said the woman.
“How can you promise that?”
“I can see things,” the man answered.
“What kind of things?”
“Good things.” The man wrapped an arm around the woman as a harsh wind whipped across their faces. “I see good things.”
“I can’t fall asleep until you do,” said the woman. She tucked herself deeper into the man’s body, and pulled the blankets up to her chin, the scabs and broken veins no longer visible beneath her blue eyes. “Not until I hear you snoring.”
“Then be quiet,” the man said. “And I’ll wake you in the morning.”
He stood, leaving the man and woman to rest, and walked forward, through the boarded up entrance to the building. The flood of acknowledgment and memory coursed through him as he stepped across the empty room. Discarded needles and bags of trash littered the floor, and with each step the floorboards creaked and moaned in recognition of his return. The silvery, translucent forms of people he’d known sat crouched against the walls, hugging the corners, and though their eyes met, there was nothing left to say. They were only there to watch the pockets of dust, and to wait. What they were waiting for was something he would never know, because it was theirs, and until they found it, there they would remain. Until the dust cleared and time stopped.
He didn’t see her among his old friends, and something that felt vaguely like—what must have been—fear flowed like shifting ice inside him. He made his way up the stairs, stepping around holes in the rotted wood and protruding, rusted nails, knowing there was nowhere left to search but the room he was about to enter. Otherwise, he would join the ranks of the lost and unclaimed drifting nowhere in the room below, and he too would sit and wait. For as long as it took he would wait for her.
Thin beams of moonlight shone through the cracks in the ceiling, bathing the room in a blue film. In the corner was a single sleeping bag, upon it a puddle of yellow vomit that had dried and hardened. A layer of dust lined the sleeping bag and collapsing floor, though the pillow remained untouched. Strewn across the room were dozens of dead mice. Like watching the process of death fast-forwarded frame by frame, each body was in a different state of decay. Some had been reduced to skeletons, while others appeared freshly deceased, the streaks of blood coating their fur still shimmering crimson in the light.
He strained to believe he had merely missed her upon his first glimpse, his eyes scanning the floor, the empty walls and the corners collecting dust, over and over and over, waiting for the brief flash of her silhouette.
But she was gone.
The shifting ice returned inside him. He navigated between the graveyard of mice, sat down upon the stained sleeping bag, and accepted what was to come: The long wait. Piercing and consuming in its silence, not quiet. Not quiet, because she was gone.
Hours passed. Or months, or years, he waited. How long could no longer be measured and no longer mattered. The only metric that now existed was the moments before she had gone, and the single moment that they would once again be reunited at the end.
Until something broke through the cacophony of silence.
A single noise. A familiar sound.
The soft cry followed softer footsteps, the aching wood muted beneath their tiny weight.
She appeared at the top of the stairs. Though her features had aged, and long, gray streaks now adorned her once jet-black and heavy coat, he knew at once it was her. She stopped for a moment, frozen. In her eyes was the unmistakable awareness of him. Stepping closer, she dropped a new, freshly killed mouse at the foot of the sleeping bag, and began to purr. The sound drowned out the world. Her nose lifted up into the air, and she began to circle around him, pawing at nothing, but she knew, and her purrs grew louder and louder, until it encompassed his whole being, and the ice melted away.
He reached down closer to her, and saw she had been bathed, her coat shining and clean and full. Around her neck was a collar he had never seen. Dangling from it was a small, metal tag, and written upon that was a name he had never used.
She stepped onto the pillow beside him untouched by the dust, curled into a ball, and fell asleep, ever purring. It became very quiet in the room.
And at that moment, he disappeared from the earth.
He no longer had to wait. They each knew where to look. And they would find each other again at the end.
Jack Moody is a novelist and short story writer from wherever he happens to be at the time. He is the author of the short story collection Dancing to Broken Records, released through Beacon Publishing Group, as well as being a staff writer for the literary magazine and podcast Brick Moon Fiction. His work has appeared in multiple publications including The Saturday Evening Post. Moody's forthcoming debut novel Crooked Smile is set to release March 15th, 2022 through Outcast-Press. He didn't go to college.