The Virus manifested, peeling itself from the fabric of the universe like an omnipotent wet surgical-gauze, bleeding out in rivers of dark matter and broken dreams. Its tentacles lashed at planets, eyes blinked supernovas. Circuitry slithered in and out of wormholes while it anchored itself upon reality. The foundation of time and space held strong, but there were shivers and cracks and lost nebulas. How many sentient forms discarded like dead flaky skin, I thought. How many murdered suns and paradises lost?
And this whole time all I thought I ever saw was pretty constellations and projected hopes.
I lit a cigarette and waited for it to finish its latest Covenant. Chemical-glowing rats carpeted the ground, gnawed at my jeans.
Oh, how it inhaled, shivered, and from the waste of photon galaxies and memories of extinct alien races it revealed its face to me. I should have known better
“Just a day?” The Virus asked. “One day for an eternity of pus?”
I nodded, taking solace in the menthol film collecting on the roof of my mouth.
“Just one day,” I said.
“Such a large price to pay,” it hissed, scales ruffling and making the rasping sound of a trillion pieces of silver tossed upon the cobbled ground of an eternally destroyed temple.
“We going to do this?” I said, coughing. “Blake drew you better.”
“It is done,” the Virus said, slowly shaking its head. “And Blake talked to trees. Will you be able to talk at all?”
“At least I know now,” I said with atom comfort. “There is something…there is really something out there.”
The Virus chuckled. Its breath shot screaming isotopes through me. “Then the price was worth it for one of us! One day then. Then an eternity of pus.”
I walked out of my room.
She stood in the kitchen in her robe. Busy as always this time of the morning.
“You want breakfast?” she asked me. I nodded and sat on the mocha couch in the living room. I made sure not to put my feet on the coffee table because she might notice my nibbled denim. The tall arching windows revealed the park across the street green with summer’s ring. She never liked the bleaching winters. Good.
I noticed for the first time that she had a secret sniffle, what might have been confused for a quick leer. She quit smoking years ago after a sinus infection gave her an oasis to free herself. She always spoke about how she still craved a cigarette, especially in the morning with her coffee. It was morning. Only a counter area separated the living room and the kitchen, both adorned with crosses and safe prints and small mirrors.
I broke the spine of my cigarette upon a smoky-glass ashtray, while she thoughtfully took a few sips of her coffee. She then mumbled about how people didn’t know how to make coffee in this country. I nodded, lit another smoke and pretended I wasn’t watching her. I had already hid the picture frame on the coffee table, the one with the photograph taken of her two months before I had left her in Portugal. Snuggled under the cushions.
There was symphony in the way she cooked, from the ringing of microwave to the slamming of cupboards, from the sizzling of the skillet to the scolding of the cat when it sensually danced across the counter. She had that secret sniffle. She enjoyed dipping the bread I brought from the Mexican bakery every morning in her coffee.
“Have you decided when you’re going this summer?” she asked. “Do you want coffee?”
“I’ll take some coffee.”
“We have to get everything ready at the house. Your cousins from the Algarve might be coming in August.”
I smoked more, knowing it would be the isotopes that would give me cancer. The symphony continued, my coffee remained untouched. She absently talked about when she was going back home, updated me on the family, complained about my gay brother and the cat and the quality of the coffee. The cat’s name was Schrodinger.
I didn’t say much. I just watched. Just one day is all I wanted. One more day with her.
I sat on the counter and ate breakfast. She was already cleaning the kitchen. The trees were shaking, but no wind touched flower beds or dead trash on the sidewalk. I concentrated on the cheese omelet. It had never tasted better, even if my jaws were swollen with saliva. She filled my coffee. The Microwave rang.
“Is there anything you want to do today?” I asked when I was done. “I can take you downtown. There’s some new painter by the Water Tower who draws clowns from wreckage smuggled from Haiti.”
“How exiting,” she said, trying to sound musical in her sarcasm but always failing. “Did you know that Terri is going to have that back operation? She’s finally listening to me. You should quit smoking.”
“I like smoking.” I really did.
“You should still quit.” How had I missed she’d gotten so much smaller these last years? How did I miss that her belly had been swollen? She had looked so bloated that day at the church by the altar. I remember thinking I didn’t like the way her hair was done—so sprayed back—and too much blue appearing around her mouth.
The kitchen was finished, so she took a shower. My ashtray was full by then. She did her afternoon routine. She played solitaire on her laptop, and I remembered teaching her how to use email for the first time many years ago. Her routine continued through the middle of the afternoon with speeches about family and acquaintances I barely remembered, cleaning here and there, back to the laptop, the microwave complaining when her coffee was ready, standing in front of the television to editorialize about the news. That sniffle like a quick leer.
She sat next to me when it was time for Dr Phil. I wanted to say what I needed to say. I wanted to tell her. At least her hair was clean and healthy, dyed in that orangey color she had used for the last five years.
I wanted to tell her.
“Yeats was right,” I said during a commercial. “Time is the only enemy.”
“Life is simple,” she said, leaning over to look for her reading glasses because soon she’d be back on Solitaire; I had bought her many pairs I scattered around the house when she visited. “God wants us to be happy. We’re here to be happy.”
I’m glad she or Schrodinger hadn’t noticed the chemical-glowing rats darting across the hardwood floors.
“Are you happy?” I asked.
She paused. The commercial was almost over. “Yes. I just wish you were happy. You never seemed to be. That’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“At least I know there is something out there. Staring, always staring.”
“What? Are you watching your medicine?”
I lit another menthol.
The afternoon passed. We re-arranged my daughter’s closet. She folded clothes so well, an art-form I realized I never mastered. Would my daughter come home from school today? We looked at some old photographs. She was a child once, with blond hair. She repeated the same venerable story of getting in trouble with the nuns at school.
We took a walk across the park. The wind didn’t make sense. I didn’t talk to the paralyzed trees. We came upon a dog deposited on the sidewalk by the intersection. It had been hit so hard ribs stabbed out of its yellow fur. Its head twitched valiantly to sip for air, but its stomach hung out of its mouth like a purple balloon with veins.
She leaned down and petted its head. “We need to change your diet, Roxie. Your fur isn’t as shiny as it usually is.”
The dog’s opal eyes looked blankly at the vast sky. I looked up as well. We both knew.
“Do you think she’ll find her way back home?” She ran her fingers over a line of syrupy ribs. I told her we should cross the streets, since the lights were red.
We went to the drugstore to pick up her cholesterol prescription. “Do you think Sofia will like this?” she asked, waiving a thin sweater in front of me with an imprint of John Lennon. I almost said it then, those sacrificial words I had never offered her my entire life, but just found myself pressing my arid lips together. There had been blue around her mouth that day during the church service.
Dusk arrived like a silent revolution. We sat alone in the house. She went to the bedroom because she needed a quick rest. When she was out of my sight, I wanted to run to the bedroom. Why hadn’t I noticed her belly had been so swollen? How had my entire family missed it?
When she came out, she asked what was wrong.
“Doesn’t the day go…by.”
“I’ll make dinner,” she said, waiving me off. “I’ve got the stew boiling.”
I hadn’t noticed she had already begun dinner.
Again, I was at the counter. It was pork. She sat by me, with a glass of wine but not offering me one because I had quit years ago. I still liked smoking.
“How did you stay happy?” I asked at one point.
“I didn’t,” she answered. “I fought for it. What else can we do?”
“I don’t know. It just goes and goes by so quickly, I guess.”
She snorted. “You always make things more complicated. Quoting someone else and thinking thoughts that don’t belong to you. Where has it gotten you?”
My daughter wasn’t coming home. No one was coming home this day. The park outside was a fertility of growing shadows and black shapes. Why weren’t the streetlights on?
“I don’t want to lie to myself anymore,” I said. “But where has the truth gotten me when I’ve been honest? What is truth?”
She left me to go clean the kitchen. One of my cousins was pregnant, she explained. But I knew that. I knew that the baby had been born months ago. They had both been at the church that day with her by the altar.
Night. It was night now. She was in her robes again, feet on the table, comfortable and set to watch her almanac of shows canonized by reading the gospel of the television guide. She smiled for the first time, focused on some comedy. She was satisfied with her day. Good.
“I’m sorry if I’ve been a disappointment,” I said at one point, still sitting on the counter that divided the kitchen and the living room.
“Just be happy,” she mumbled. “Be healthy.”
There was that sniffle. Schrodinger in his arrogance was on her lap. At one point she spoke on her cell phone to a friend in Arizona.
“Maybe you can take me to the Water Tower tomorrow,” she said in between programs. “I could go shopping for Sofia. Did we buy the sweater?”
By then my throat was clenching and my jaw was wet granite. Memories of coming home after school and telling her about my day rushed at me like a carnival wind. Her taking me to soccer practice one time and admitting she was leaving my father. Jumping up and down after I had left the delivery room while telling her it was a girl. Stroking my hair while I lay in bed with a cold fever. Teaching me how to drive stick while complaining that Americans didn’t know how to drive. Defending me when he threw me down the stairs for breaking a vase while playing tag with my brother. A carnival wind, and I didn’t know if it was my heart or some chorus of mocking ghosts drumming away.
I pressed my lips together with cruel fingers. Night! It was night now! I watched her. She fell asleep at one point. She woke up and yawned. Another ashtray full.
“I’m going to bed,” she declared.
She stood up from the couch. I stood up from the stool. There were liver marks on her arms I never had truly paid attention to. She had gotten in trouble so much as a child with the nuns.
“You don’t want to play another Solitaire?”
“Not tonight,” she answered. “I’m tired. So tomorrow to the Water Tower?”
“No with you, oh Mr. I-can’t-relax! You can drop me off. Sofia is not coming home today, is she?”
No, I thought. She is not in this world. She left us all with Him.
She folded her thin arms around her small body that had gotten smaller. I noticed the swelling around her midsection.
“Well,” she declared, probably making a quick note of anything that she needed to do, something she might have missed from her industrious day. “I’m tired. See you in the morning.”
As a child I would go into her room and kiss her goodnight before I went to bed. She might run her hands through my hair. That was it.
She said goodnight in Portuguese and left me. She did that secret sniffle, that quick leer…not done that day at the church because she couldn’t.
“Wait!” I said.
We faced each other.
I knew she had enjoyed her day, from the dipping of her bread to stories on the television that were small spells.
“I…you never told me those words either…those three sacrificial words. Ever. Why?”
“You have to fight for things. You never fought.”
“Good night. Sleep well.”
She went into the bedroom. As a child I would have gone and kissed her on her cheek.
That was it.
I sat again on the couch. I smoked one cigarette after another. The night thickened as did the electrical pain in my chest. My stomach hurt. Schrodinger stared at me from his vantage position on the television.
The bravery finally came when a warm seashore came to my eyes. And an endless sorrow as vast as the uncaring nighttime.
“She enjoyed it…” I said to nothing, except to the cat who now lazily gazed at the chemical rats invading the living room one more time.
I walked into my bedroom.
He was waiting for me.
The stars were falling from their perching on gravity. It was like a snowfall. Snow falling all around me, chaotic and glittering, like all the souls of humanity…fluttering in chaos…sparks of gleam and ether…falling and falling and bullied by the winds of time and space…settling eventually in their realities…as one…packed on the unsanitary ground of His providence…when it had been summer outside.
Infinity lurched, swallowing Creation with its mere shadow. I reached for my cigarettes. I had left them in the living room.
“Fuck!” I said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck…why did you create it?”
I’m being thrown down the stars. I was just playing in the garden…never meant to knock the flowerpot down…
“Because I infect,” the Virus said. “That is my nature. I infected the waters below. I infected the darkness. And I called it good!”
There were heavy pearls of tears in my eyes. “No, no! No! Why did you create death?”
“There is no death,” it answered, admiring the winter-hell storm. “There is only infection. Life is a sickness. Death is just a fever I give you to prevent you from finding out what you truly are. But for you it will be much worse.”
“And what are we truly?”
“I also infected the light above…made it in my image…and the contagions of the father must be carried by his children, so it is written.” It idly crushed a star with one its jeweled talons. “Now an eternity of pus for you.”
I hardened my jaw until it hurt. My tears dried so quickly. With reality falling apart all around, I stood straight and faced the abyss. And the abyss stared into me…but it had always been staring at me. Nietzsche said it was better for man to will nothing than to not will at all. She never liked that quote or any of my quotes or any of my thoughts.
“No she didn’t,” the Virus said, so close to me I could feel its ammonia stink. “She probably didn’t like either of us…I didn’t like the way she spoke to me sometimes when I came home. And you couldn’t say those words in the end, could you? You fell so short.”
I think it came out as laughter then. “I am not the one who fell short! You are the one who is ultimately lacking, not me!”
The Virus roared like Hell.
“I have no beginning or ending! I am the all and I am the nothing! There is no other but me!”
And I finally had the right quote for once. I finally fought.
“You don’t know where you came from that’s why you call yourself eternal. You don’t know your beginning that’s why you say have no beginning. I know…I know my beginning, and you don’t, oh omnipotent one! All your eternity is but time really…all you creativity is mechanical! ”
It was its turn to laugh.
“That didn’t impress the white whale either when Ahab said it. How does it show that I am lacking? What could you have that I would ever want?”
I smiled at the Virus. A billion chemical-glowing rats swarmed the ground, but they were startled.
“One day,” I said. “That’s all I wanted. One day with her.”
Its eyes widened behind the glasses he never changed in style since I knew him, the first day he hit me hard and I became diseased.
A supreme form shuddered. The Virus turned his head, not because of fear but because it couldn’t bare my look.
Like black paint spilling backward on a garage floor, like a shadow melting against a circling sun, it skulked back into the framework of the cosmos.
I was by myself.
I walked out of my room and found my cigarettes on the counter. The cat looked at me with amusement, knowing I wouldn’t swat it off the counter. I noticed it was morning again. I sat on the couch, placed my feet on the table, and infected my lungs. The wind made sense. Her picture was on the table, the last one taken of her before the funeral.
At one point, I stretched on the couch and watched the day go by. I wouldn’t go into her room. Not yet.
“Why not?” Schrodinger asked. “She’s gone and you’re alone, asshole.”
“It’s just fever anyway…that’s all it is,” I said. “And eventually it must break because it’s really just mechanical. It’s all mechanical, right?”
We were both equal now anyway. But I was free.
Story originally appeared in The Gnostic Journal