The Vigil by Matt Neil Hill

Matt Neil Hill writes speculative and neo-noir fiction, with this his first published work. An ex-psychiatric nurse from the UK, he’s currently figuring out what’s next. Married and the proud owner of a socially maladjusted rescue cat, he’s just the right side of technophobic to have the twitter account @mattneilhill.


The Vigil

Suzanna wears her central nervous system like an exoskeleton now, shrieking the glass shards of bloody murder whenever I even think about touching her. I bring us back suspect materials wrapped in butcher’s paper that I chop so finely they have almost become mist by the time I pour them between her translucent teeth. Her glimmering flesh is the colour of a winter sunrise and her eyes the colour of milk, or at least how I remember milk to be. She reeks of orange blossom and ketones. At night I sleep at the foot of our wedding bed like a faithful dog pushed away not quite one too many times, wrapped in blankets that still carry the faintest salt-caramel scent of who she used to be—who we used to be—waiting for an end I feel sure will crush my heart but that I secretly crave.

The room is our sanctuary from the broken universe. Our signed first editions sit in watchful rows on the bookcase, yellowed by candlelight and time, the whispering black spider-scrawls of a dozen or more bleakly poetic fortune-tellers crushed between their covers. Each one sacred to us once, reality these days has shrivelled my need to take them from the shelves. In any case, Suzanna’s adapting body can ill afford to lose the moisture that drains from her coal-hot eyes whenever I read to her. I don’t know if it’s the words themselves or the muted timbre of my voice that brings the tears, but the result is the same. Even with my nails pared down to nothing I would still tear her skin if I dared to brush those tiny jewels away.

She burned all of our wedding photographs when the tremors began in her hands. Couldn’t bear, she said, to be surrounded as the dying days wore on by reminders of how she used to look. Every last one of them fed to the flames, no matter that a physical reminder of her former beauty might’ve been good for me. Celluloid visions of matching wedding dresses, hers ivory and mine black, blistered and curling in the fire. Our bodies beneath them—so similar, the forms of twins born of different mothers we joked, conjoined—suffocated by the smoke. Our faces—hers fine and elegant, mine broader, of the earth—sizzled to ashes. All gone now, with only flesh and untrustworthy memory left behind, our bedroom a time capsule punctured by entropy for her alone.

The oak dresser, with its diamond shaped mirror brooding beneath a black shawl, is a battleground of shared make-up that neither of us wear anymore. Her brittle skin rejects or absorbs it with equally inflammatory results, and since her blindness I have no one else I care to look pretty for, myself included. Vials of perfume lay exhausted by my attempts to bury the tortured animal smell of her dissolution beneath a genocide of flowers. Among the scattered lipsticks and mascara brushes sits a kagamibuta-netsuke box, brought back from our account-emptying Tokyo honeymoon. Beneath its lid—decorated by a churning and star-studded black sea engulfing a gilt bronze moon—Suzanna’s wedding ring rests upon a coiled white ribbon knotted through its empty centre. When her fingers became too thin she wore it suspended around her throat, until even that slender weight made her cry out in pain. Mine is worn, but still shines sometimes on those rare days when I brave the daylight.

Tropical bird dresses she’ll never wear again hang, shrouded in plastic, from a clothes rail with a broken strut. It leans like an old drunk waiting to fall, held aloft only by its own lack of awareness. My monochrome collection graces a corner of the floor, just like it always did, costumes of a funereal bride. Any changes in this relationship are all down to Suzanna, and she can’t help herself. What she has—what so many people have now—is transforming her day by day and inch by inch into something new, something distinctly either less or more than human. Her shifting cells are a march of history written this time by the losers: how swiftly one in a million can become one in a thousand, one in a hundred, one in ten. The distillation of infection, like the trail of discarded lovers on the ravenous path to saying I do.

Where this new plague came from no one really knows. There were no flickering lights in the sky, no swarm of alien spores, no dire warnings of chemical attacks or the rise of the machines. To some it’s not even a disease but the coming of rapture, of deliverance—though from what and to where I have no idea. To others it’s an inevitable and sadistically intimate punishment for our collective sins. Old school wrath to wipe us all away. Not quite all though. I’m still here, unscathed if no one looks too closely, watching my beloved disappear in increments, sole witness to the blossoming of her Petri dish skin, the bloat of her metastasising and bioluminescent organs. She would hate me for it, but I let her hair grow out when the shifting Rorschach patterns on her scalp began to make something like sense to me.

My stomach growls and she starts on the bed, face whipping toward me. I push my knuckles into the hollow where I used to have a little belly, slow motion punches to beat my emptiness into submission where once she would caress me with kisses. Her tongue—today the colour of undiluted Absinthe—tests the air, its tip stuttering across her Saharan lips in search of my hunger. I mimic her without meaning to, my taste buds absorbing the sickly sweetness of her body’s cannibal pheromone transmissions. I move as quietly as I can towards her, stepping through the carpet’s thick pile as though it were a minefield, Suzanna the mortally wounded combatant at its centre and I the conscientious objector too principled to fight but brave enough to try to carry her to safety while the planet erupts and burns. I don’t have to touch her skin and make her scream to know how hotly her fever burns.

Her tongue retreats slowly, as do I. I hate to leave her alone, but there is no other way to feed us. Once though, an eternally shameful once, on the morning of our wedding, fearing our symbiotic future, I considered doing just that, swaying at the lip of a precipice of abandonment across which I was finally too afraid of loneliness to leap. I burrow through my festering clothes and pull out a coat the colour of rain-soaked peat and let it swallow me. As I leave the room I turn to drink the sight of her in like we both have all the time in the world. Relief rises in me as the latch clicks, followed almost immediately by nausea.

The house beyond the room of our wedding bed is stripped of every memento or stick of furniture worth above a penny, the proceeds long since spent on a hundred types of medicine—not one of them better than snake oil, for all the good they did. The scents of decay and abandonment insinuate themselves into my nostrils along with each mournful eddy of dust. For a moment it’s like I’m poised to sneak out on my wedding day again, guilt’s ghost a vibrant presence lurking undeterred beyond sanctuary’s final room, cruising the desolation for the old me to reappear.

The paint used to mark a cross on our front door is crusted with age, scrawled there when the numbers of uninfected outweighed the diseased. Suzanna’s descent has been slower than most, and the surrounding neighbours either fled in hastily packed cars or succumbed themselves, dissipated sparkling and ethereal towards the stars or the soil. The late afternoon assaults me with a breeze rich with necrosis and burning ozone, the distant thunder of fly swarms. Screen doors slam a block away, ghost town percussion. My fingers stroke the flat edge of a sharp object in my pocket as I set off.

I walk along the lines in the middle of roads, tracing a route that I used more often before the town got sick. It feels prudent to stay away from all the brooding houses and apartments, some of which may still have ghosts of their own. A murder of crows eyes me, heads cocked, from their perch atop dead telephone wires. Their black beaks drip red and I feel safer for imagining their hunger recently sated. As I pass I feel their anthracite eyes raising welts across my back. Even after I turn the first corner I feel this.

When I get to the butcher’s shop, I can tell by the absence of light and movement that it’s closed. Every other store on the street was boarded up or looted hollow weeks ago, but somehow the butcher persevered, the useless contents of my own and other houses freely bartered for survival. I never enquired about his supply and he never told. Something bitter from deep inside me spreads across my tongue. My exposure in the street is total. When I look to the upper floors I catch the movement of twitching curtains—though whether they’re moved by a human or post-human hand or merely the wind I cannot tell. The crows start to caw, suddenly not enough distance between me and them to keep me warm. A small white square of paper adorns the glass door. It takes me a minute to decide to get close enough to read it. We’re done, it says, in the hand that used to chalk up the day’s prices, a simple and inescapable truth. I rest my face against the glass, hands cupped around my eyes to block out the fading day’s peripheral light. The display cases inside still contain offcuts of flesh, sustenance now only to industrious colonies of flies and their glistening eggs. The shadows in the back of the shop are thick and fluid and I stare at them long enough to convince myself that something moves within, something preparing to detach itself and make its way towards me and maybe unlock the door to let me in, just for old time’s sake.

The scraping of boots in the street behind me tears me away from my ravenous nostalgia and I’m running before I know it—always—and moving too fast to tell whether I’m escaping attack or aid. My fingers spasm against the knife and I feel it open me a thousand miles away, eager to taste blood after forced abstinence. A genderless voice behind me cries out and then rises in pitch, its shrieking alarm obliterating the crunch of my zig-zag footfalls and the wheezing of my breath. Waves of black clouds boil across the prematurely risen moon. The crows are nowhere to be seen, though I feel their eyes on me. I daren’t lift my eyes to the sky again in case I fall and let my pursuer take me. Always the same distance behind me, the banshee wail follows me unerringly home, shaking the windows in their frames and battering against the door even as I lock it. Lifetimes of dead skin reanimate beneath me as I scuttle across the floor.

Suzanna answers the siren’s call and I taste the bloom of blood in my sinuses as I open the door on that marital mausoleum to riptides of violating noise, our wedding bed awash with a spectral light generated by her collapsing veins, sheets soaked through with sweat and lymph. I want to go to her, but she scares me so much in this moment. This is what happens when you leave her, guilt’s ghost whispers in my ear, louder by far than all the white noise. Suzanna’s sightless eyes are closed and she shows no sign of sensing my presence, so absorbed is she in the pain of this new and final stage. I stand on the threshold, dumb and frozen as her body contorts into shapes no human being was designed for, the brightness of her ascendance like acid on my retinas.

Her screaming doesn’t stop, so much as ascend beyond my ability to hear it. Something trickles from my ears, warm and vile. My heart, which I had thought irreparably broken months ago, signals me that it is still capable of pain. After the lingering, glacial pace of her undoing, the end comes faster than even my most cowardly dreams could have desired. By the time I ford my way through the blazing waves of her transmigration there is precious little left of Suzanna to cradle in my arms. That which remains seeps through my pores and wounds both old and new to find a second home in my veins, traversing membranes to swim, jubilant and aflame, through my spinal fluid to the crucible of all my thoughts. I feel the past and present shatter, my final realisations in this moment a dissonant and melancholy pairing: the dread of facing my own personal decay—unmourned, untended, starved and hollow on this bed—entwined with the joy that I am to be rewarded for the vigil I have kept with this new and impossibly intimate marriage to the one I did not flee, the one I feared I’d lost, the one who I loved most in all the world.

I retrieve her wedding ring and unknot the ribbon, slide it over my knuckle to unite with mine. As I settle onto the flooded bed I nod my head at all the books with their dedications, the patterned fabrics beneath plastic, the hooded mirror; each one a sentinel to watch my passing from this world. As the last firefly motes of Suzanna’s disintegration pass I clasp my hands together above my stuttering heart and pledge to hang on to these eternal bands for as long as I can before I—we—transcend at last to ether and leave all gold and flesh behind.

END

 

Image, Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheRokon-1953055/