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  Table of contents Issue Twenty BLACKOUT



t's not true what they say about volcanoes," Danielle says.

In the front seat, my mother punches the dashboard and unleashes a string of curses. "Where the hell are we?" she bellows at the GPS, stabbing at the screen with furious gusto. My sister jumps at mom's outburst and instantly shuts down.

"What do they say?" I prompt Danielle. I could use the distraction, and volcanoes are as good as topic as any.

"Who?" she replies, her face blank, the story forgotten.

"You know," I remark, loud enough for mom to hear, "a casual observer might have difficulty figuring out which person in this car is going to rehab."

Mom shoots me a sharp look in the rear view mirror. She probably thinks I was making fun of Danielle, which wasn't my intent. Danielle's mind is like a delicate copy machine that retains everything it sees but goes on the fritz when you look at it wrong.

"A casual observer," mom growls, "would probably figure it's the man being driven there by his mother because he cannot be trusted to make it there himself."

I can't tell if she's entirely serious. The facts themselves are accurate, I admit, and there's no doubt that court-ordered rehab is a serious matter. But she's good at delivering her lines with a straight face, and I can't tell what she really cares about anymore. When I was about ten, I jumped out of the car on a blistering summer night and stood beneath the sweep of the Milky Way. "Mom, look at that bright star!" I called. "Do you think it's Sirius?"

"I don't think it's too serious," she deadpanned.

I laugh at that now. Sitting next to my sister in the back seat, like we're being chauffeured to a Hollywood premier instead of what everyone hopes is my personal low point, I laugh. I laugh and


They extract me from the back of the vehicle some time later. There's the familiar litany of intake, with the transfer of magical numbers and plastic cards that entitle me to be here. Before long, I'm sitting on a bed beside my small duffel bag, waving idiotic goodbyes to my mom and sister, as if I'm on a tramp steamer about to embark from port. All I want is to be left alone, but a young staff member slouches on a chair as I unpack my few, pitiful shirts and place them in the cheap bureau. I don't bother to reciprocate his halfhearted attempt at conversation. He's only following orders: don't leave the user alone. He eventually retreats into his phone.

Soon the doctor will come in. I know the routine.

I shake out and refold a t-shirt, remembering. It was a hot summer night. We drove home with the windows open. We either didn't have air conditioning in that car, or my parents objected to its use, convinced it fostered weakness. I leaned my head against the warm metal of the window frame and saw a pinpoint of light overhead, like a puncture in the dark sky.

"Hello, Dan!"

Nice timing. No white coat on this one and his wire brush mustache would look just as fitting on the guy who empties the trash cans. But he enters with an unmistakable air of bossy certainty, the kind of confidence that leads a man to tell stories about his worst patients at Christmas parties, to the titillated horror of the hosts.

I shake his hand with a firmness and resolution that I don't feel.

"I'm Dr. Aussenloss. We'll do everything we can to make you feel at home here." He has the vestiges of a bland European accent. He's lived here a long time, or paid for some training to open up those clipped, Germanic vowels.

"I'm sure," I offer.

"I have just one question for you," Dr. Aussenloss says, leaning in as if to smell my breath. "Do you want to be here? Are you ready to be well?"

As a doctor, he should probably know those were two questions. There was a time when I was willing to go along with this crap. Three times, in fact, and in each case I was using again within a day of completing rehab. I see no point in mincing words. "No."

To my surprise, Dr. Aussenloss breaks into a grin, revealing wide square teeth beneath the salt-and-pepper mustache. It's only when he steps back that I realize I was practically falling over the bed in an effort to back out of his tiny allowance of personal space. "Well!" he nods vigorously. "I like your honesty! That will save us several days!"

I shrug. "Can I have some time to settle in?"

"Of course," he replies. "But we'll begin very soon. Take a moment to finish unpacking."

I return to the summer night almost before he's out the door. High overhead in the intense rush of stars, the bright point of light, like a beacon. I stepped from the car.

"Do you think it's Sirius?"

"I don't think it's too serious


"Dan," Dr. Aussenloss rouses me, "do you know what a screwworm fly is?"

I shake my head, throwing off the beautiful oblivion.

"They have a most interesting mating ritual," he says. He's surrounded by an entourage. Not a white jacket to be found among them, but they all have the same intrusive, eager attitude of people who consider your body part of their job.

"You sound like my sister," I manage.

He continues, nonplussed. "They mate one time in their lives. The female stores the sperm, and for the rest of her life, she has no further need of copulation. She releases the captive sperm when she is ready to produce more young."

"Sounds terrible," I tell him.

"Not at all!" he sounds surprised. "It's a very effective survival strategy."

"I mean for the male screwworm," I say.

Dr. Aussenloss makes his mouth into a small line. "You are very much like that screwworm fly. You ingested the illicit drug Blackout, one time. How long ago? Two years?"

"Three, almost," I admit.

"Three years." The way he says it sounds like "tree years," which strikes me as stupidly funny. What's tree times tree? Forest? I giggle. Dr. Aussenloss grows very serious.

(Do you think it's Sirius?)

"Are you using the drug right now?" he asks.

I shake my head. Not yet.

He nods, satisfied. His words and gestures are exaggerated, half for my benefit and half for his entourage. "That one dose supplied you with enough to last twelve lifetimes. We cannot, despite what the charlatans and the religious fundamentals tell you, remove it from your brain. You can trigger its release into your cortex at any moment, just by thinking about whatever happened to be on your mind when you first ingested it."

Sounds serious, I almost say.

"We would like you to do so now."

This wakes me up a bit. "You want me to black out? Right now? In front of everyone?"

"Of course." The mustache twitches.

It shouldn't be a problem. I've never cared much about who finds me, laughing or somnolent when I'm using. Hell, I even did it in the car on the way over here, in the moment my sister's attention wandered back out the window and my mom was still focused on cursing the GPS. But to do it right here, in front of a crowd of strangers, watching...

"Go ahead, Dan," Dr. Aussenloss prompts me. His eyes never leave my face, and there's a restless eagerness to him, like a man behind a dark window, waiting to see if his neighbor is going to pull the curtains before she slips off her shirt.

"Aren't you supposed to be helping me not use?" I ask.

"It's very simple, Dan," he admonishes, as if I'm ten years old. "Just think of your prompt thought. Right now."

Like I'm ten years old, beneath a glittering sky.

"I'd rather not," I say.

The mustache rides up over the flat white teeth. I've unexpectedly pleased him again.

"I see," I nod. "That was a test."

"Oh, yes." He claps his hands together with pleasure. His accent is stronger when he gets excited. "But not, I suspect, the test you think it was. I wished to know if you would relapse at the mere suggestion not to think of your trigger. When I tell you not to think of a pink elephant..." He gestures to me.

"I think of a pink elephant," I complete the thought.

"Yes! But you did not immediately think about your trigger at my prompting. That is a very good sign."

"So we've skipped a few more days?" I venture. I'd like to get out of here as soon as I can. I'd like to fulfill the terms of my sentence, expunge my record, go back to being just another guy.

Right. Just another guy with a lifetime supply of a powerful psychoactive stored in his brain, like the poison sacs under the tongue of a venomous snake. A guy with a glittering sword hanging over his head. What I want is to get out of here so I can stand under that night sky as soon as I can, over and over and over.

"Let me ask you a question," Dr. Aussenloss strides around the foot of the bed. His shoes squeak like muffled little animals. I smile, wondering if he's about to ask me two questions. "What are you?"

I know the drill. "I'm an addict."

"No." He dismisses that with a fleshy wave. "Irrelevant. What you really are is a story you're telling yourself, about yourself."

This is a new one. The doctors all have their own signature approaches; it's just a matter of figuring out what they want you to say. "Okay," I prompt.

"Imagine you are in a bar," he goes on, gesturing as if for a camera, "telling someone you just met about what you were like as a child. You're telling them a story in which you did something very bad. That is what you are at this moment: the child in the story. Not really here. Just a character."

"A bad child," I venture. It must seem that way to everyone around me, my family and the friends I once had, but it still feels a little unfair.

"Indeed. How do you judge other people?"

I shrug, confused.

"By their actions," he nearly shouts. "By observation. That's all you have. Everything else is inference. But everyone wants to believe they're different. They think the fact that they're aware of their own thoughts means that their mind actually matters. It does not. It's just filler in the story you're telling."

"I've done bad things," I allow, "but that doesn't make me a bad person."

"Wrong. Why are you here?"

His badgering is beginning to get the best of me. "I'm here because I'm an addict," I reply. I already know that's not the answer he wants, but sometimes it's helpful to make some obvious mistakes at first, so they feel good about eliciting the right responses later.

Another wave, accompanied by a grunt of disgust. "No. No one cares about that. They care that you have a different truth than everyone else. You function on a different reward system - one they cannot control. You operate in a different set of rules. What were you arrested for?"

I see there's no point in pretending to be a victim, a better man than I really am. "Animal cruelty," I tell them.

"Not just any animal," he corrects. "Your dog."

"My dog," I acknowledge. Out of pride, I keep my voice steady, betraying no emotion. No one thinks I have any remorse in me, anyway. If I were a real, feeling human being, how could I have so meticulously disappointed the people around me?

I explain to the entourage. "I left him in a hot car while I blacked out. I didn't know I'd be out so long-"

"Excuses," Dr. Aussenloss interjects. "Stories."

I shrug. I have a thousand excuses, but so does everyone. What's a life but a series of excuses? You might be given just a handful of moments in your lifetime when you really get to decide between meaningful options. Everything else is just what to have for breakfast, what to watch on TV, and excuses for why you aren't the person you could be.

This is a familiar tactic: breaking down the patient's defenses. If I were smarter, I'd play along. I should have shown more emotion before the judge, too, like my lawyer recommended. I should have told them just how I felt when I realized what I'd done. But I didn't deserve any mercy.

The cops had shaken me awake in the parking lot, and pushed me face-first against the car window to search my pockets.

He was inside the car, and I knew it. The metal of the door frame, heated by the sun, burned my cheek. I could have said something to them, but I didn't, because at that particular moment I was utterly, perfectly happy. Nothing was wrong in the universe. To utter a single word would disturb the perfection in which I was little more than a transient passer-by.

(Do you think it's Sirius?)

"Fine," I say. "I'll black out. For your entertainment."

He holds up a cautioning finger.

"This is for your benefit," he breathes. "I am going to help you remember what real life is like. Now, first tell me about your trigger."

I tell him the story. When I first did Blackout, I remembered a silly moment from my childhood. I was riding in the car, my mother driving. I watched the immobile stars in a clean summer sky. I was fascinated by the names of things, in the way children love learning useless bits of information that adults do not know - names of dinosaurs, dog breeds, stars.

I focused on a bright pinpoint overhead.

"Do you think it's Sirius?" I asked my mother. I had meant the name of the star.

"Yes?" Dr. Aussenloss says.

"She said..." I trail off.

"It's all right," he says. He strolls to the window, gestures at the wide, manicured lawn. "There is so much out here in the world you've forgotten. You don't even know how to live anymore. I'm going to show you."

"She said 'I don't think it's too


I expect them to shake or slap me out of it, or worse. It has happened plenty of times: by a frightened girlfriend on the floor of our filthy kitchen, then again in the back yard where I'd slipped away on a cold night. That second time, her blows were rougher, more deliberate, full of outrage and disgust. She was gone forever, packed and moved out before I even made it to the house.

I've been slapped awake by an old man in a museum, and a trucker in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant along the Turnpike. By the cops. By my mother. By others I've wronged.

I care, I really do. I feel shame for what I've done to the people who made the mistake of caring about me. But they're bit players in a bigger story.

Do you think it's Sirius?

I don't think it's too serious.

I flow out to the limits of bliss and roll gently back on the ebbing tide. I laugh, and the laughter grows within me, swelling with its own life, and it emerges from me, blind and naked, and grows, and cradles me to itself, rocking me gently in laughter as wide as the wind, until eventually, my life is something the laughter makes, and not the other way around.


When I awaken, the bliss is gone, and something else has taken its place. My head is stuffed with old socks, my limbs stiff and prickly. I'm a scarecrow. I can't figure out where I am.

"Good morning, Dan," the walrus says, twitching its blunt muzzle.

I blink. A walrus. A pasty, liver-spotted grub. My tongue doesn't work.

"Just relax," the man says. "We've medicated you. You've been asleep for three days."


"I bet that is as long as you've gone without Blackout in a long time. Your mind is already beginning to recover from its influence."

I strain to recall a fast-vanishing dream. Warm metal on my cheek. Stepping from a car into a bright sky. Then it's gone.

The doctor waits, humming, his hands behind his back. "We have also temporarily damaged your ability to retrieve certain memories. I know the effect is disconcerting. As I said, we cannot remove the drug, but we can allow your mind to heal without its continued release."

I rifle through pieces of my past like mildewed coats in a wardrobe. I'm Dan, and I'm an addict. My mother brought me here, along with someone else. A girl, a strange girl.

She's standing behind the doctor, one of the faces in his entourage. Skinny, with straight dark hair that frames her sharp features. My sister. She was the one in the car. "Danielle?" I ask, my tongue still half-numb.

She doesn't react. She must be off in one of her trances, processing something she read a day or a year ago. I repeat her name, and she half-turns to see whom I'm addressing behind her.

"You know this young woman?" Dr. Aussenloss raises an eyebrow, gesturing at the girl at his side.

"She's my... sister," I say.

The girl's face betrays an instant of amused befuddlement, and she looks at the doctor for guidance. She shows no recognition of me at all.

"This is Karen, one of the residents in this program," Dr. Aussenloss replies. "You do not have a sister, Dan."

"Yes, I do," I insist. "We were talking about something on the way here and got interrupted. It was about..." the conversation doesn't come. I struggle to recall the car ride and resolve the image of the girl in the car.

The car. I was in a car, and then...

I notice that my vision isn't working normally. The colors in the room are washed out, like an old photograph. Darkness shimmers in the corners. It's like the moment before a migraine, but the pain doesn't come.

"Something's wrong with my eyes."

Dr. Aussenloss smiles. "No. Something is right with them. You've forgotten what things really look like. Now your mind is remembering what it has lost."

I shake my stuffed scarecrow-head.

"Let me ask you a question," Dr. Aussenloss says. I have the vague sense that this should strike me as funny, but I can't remember why. "Why are you here?"

I remember summertime, a car, nothing more. I fumble for words, suddenly tired. "Because I... did something wrong."

"No. You are here because you dared to stand outside reality. That makes you irresistible to us. We need to be near you, but we can't let you stray again. You don't realize it yet, Dan, but you're very important. We need you."

"For what?"

"All in good time. Can we do anything for you?"

I look at the bright, eager entourage, my rapt audience, and I hate them all, hate their smug note-taking, their easy detachment. Once upon a time, in stories told around campfires, the gods blinded and burned men for lesser hubris. "Yeah. I want all of you to take Blackout."

Dr. Aussenloss looks intrigued. "What do you think that is going to accomplish?"

"I want to see what your lives are like in a year. Do you think you'll still be the best and brightest when you can have whatever you want, just by recalling about whatever stupid thought happens to be in your head right now?"

I mean it. I'd make them take it, forcibly if necessary, just to watch their lives destroyed by the irresistible temptation of effortless relief from pain. Just to prove a point. I know what this says about me, and I don't care.

"Dan, there's something you need to understand." Dr. Aussenloss appears unfazed by the venom in my reply. "Your memories are not always accurate. They are a story you've written, but not the only story. We have erased some key moments to allow you to heal."

"I don't feel any better. I can't think." Again, I remember looking up into a warm sky.

"Focus on what you can recall. What did you do for a living, before you became a drug user?"

The memories are there, just a collection of facts, like something I've read in a textbook. "I trained dogs that had been rescued from shelters."

"Why did you do that?"

"I liked taking a frightened animal and teaching it to live with people."

"Yes, of course. Teaching it to behave, making it abide by a mutually agreed set of rules. Knitting together the stories of animal and man."

That's over now, I think. No one will ever trust me to care for another dog. I'm not certain why, but it's true.

I think I understand Dr. Aussenloss's strategy. It's the first time since I woke up that I believe I might get through this, and get out of this place soon. I nod. "So that's me, the dog? And you're the trainer?"

He looks both horrified and amused. "Oh no, Dan. Nothing like that at all. We don't need you to behave. We need you to do something terrible."

The entourage is filing out.

If I could only remember what happened after the car. I sleep instead.


And then days.

Food comes and is removed mostly uneaten. It smells faintly of dirt and crumbles on my tongue like old plaster. My sister, or her exact twin, comes twice to ask me a long series of questions, and both times I try to remind her of moments I recall vaguely from her childhood until she shakes her head in frustration and leaves.

Watching her go, it occurs to me for the first time that Dr. Aussenloss's methods might eventually work. I could be cured. The fact that I'm so confused underscores the significance of what's happening to me.

But then what? My existence for the last three years has been nothing but a string of blackouts, interspersed with the unpleasant mechanics of keeping my body alive for the next binge. If I remove the drug, there isn't enough of me left to grow a new person, to cobble together anything like a real life.

People hate me because I did something awful. If I can't hide in a blackout, where else am I supposed to go?

Something is the matter with my eyes. The darkness in the corners ripples with life. Once, a monstrous shadow flashes by the window: a passing airliner blotting out the sun. I jolt like a field mouse in the moment before the hawk strikes.

My heart has just begun to slow when I see my mother in the hallway. She's in profile, her face empty, wearing a blue frock. She's pushing a rolling cart, distributing meals. I call out to her, but she pushes on past the doorway. I fall out of bed in my frenzy to follow her, drag my twitching legs across the floor, tangled in the amniotic, sweaty blanket. That's when I see my feet and start screaming.

The staff fetches Dr. Aussenloss and bundles me back into bed. They tie soft restraints on my hands and ankles but don't bind them to the bedframe. I offer no resistance. A thick, musky smell hangs in the room, and I'm ashamed because I believe it's coming from me.

"What's wrong, Dan?" Dr. Aussenloss's voice is full of reassurance. He places a broad hand on my shoulder.

"My feet..." I manage.

He sweeps back the bedcovers. The ankles fan out in wide, featureless flippers. It's as if my toes have melted together, the rubbery flesh congealing into these half-sculpted shapes.

"I told you," he says slowly, "that we would help you recover your life. This is an encouraging sign that your rehabilitation has begun." He pats me comfortingly, and I recoil at the fingerless, muscular appendage that kneads my shoulder.

I attempt a logical argument, fighting my rising panic. "That didn't happen the last two times I was in rehab."

"It did," he smiles gently. "You've just forgotten."

"This isn't real," I say.

"You're right, in a way." The knot of a hand rests on my shoulder. "Dan, do you think there's anything wrong with pleasure?"


"Simple question. Is there anything wrong with feeling good?"

I have no idea what he wants me to say. I have the strange, childish notion that if I can answer him the way he hopes, he might make me whole again. "I guess, if it means we don't pay attention to all the other things happening around us. Too much pleasure can be bad."

"So, you think humankind has an obligation to suffer?"

"I don't know. No, I guess not."

"Have you ever read a story in which nothing bad ever happened?"

I shrug, miserable.

"Probably not," he continues. "It's quite boring. A good tale requires suffering."

It occurs to me that he might be talking about what I'm experiencing right now. He's justifying his own methods. "OK. I suppose you're right."

"So," he smiles under the mustache, "you are saying it was acceptable for you to cause so much suffering to the people around you?"

I sense I just failed a test of some sort. "Of course not. That's different."

"No? Stop saying one thing and doing another, Dan. Do you believe in the redemptive power of suffering, or not?"

I can't answer. Nothing I say seems to be right.

"You're a hypocrite," he says. "All you have to do is say and do the same thing. But you think you're a good man while you cause pain and death around you."

Death. I can feel my mind stretch out, fumbling in a dark closet for an elusive scrap of cloth, dark and flimsy.

"I want to do better," I manage.

"No, you don't. You want to be forgiven. You want an absence of consequences. That's your drug talking. It tells you redemption is possible. But you're not a good man. Start being what you really are."

Anger rises in me like a spring, flowing from a place I barely remember. It's been years since I was angry. I could always black out before I admitted the existence of anger, or sorrow.

"Screw you," I say. I intend to yell, but my voice quavers like a child's. "Make me normal again! I don't even want to be here. Just let me go back to the way I was."

"I cannot do that."

"Why not?"

He folds his fleshy hands. "You know, Dan, I believe in science. Do you know why?"

I shake my head, miserable with impotent anger.

His volume increases, as if talking for the benefit of the entourage. "If we forgot all we know about science tomorrow, we could recreate it, in time. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy... everything we know now can be deduced again, merely by observing the world in which we live and testing theories to explain its mechanisms. But people are different. If you forgot one critical event - one frightening trauma or moment of triumph - would you remain yourself?"

I try to remain calm, conceal my confusion. "I might."

"Few people get to find out. You're lucky."

My words pour out in a rush. "It's withdrawal. Please let me remember. Just once. I don't want to be like this."

He shakes his head. "I know it is painful. Do you know why your really became an addict?"

"No." I wish I had some idea what he wants me to say. If I can just make him happy, I can get out of here, get help, get lost in Blackout.

"Think," he commands, squeezing my shoulder again, almost hard enough to be painful.

"Because it felt good," I venture.

"Bah!" He stands back. "That is the symptom, not the cause. You do it to escape authorship. It takes an effort to tell yourself the story of your own existence, to spin lies all day. Your drug removed that obligation. It took over the telling of your story, made you nothing more than a character. But now we're making you tell the truth."

"I'm sorry," I blurt out. I'm not talking to him. I'm talking to my dog, the other dogs I trained, the ones I taught to love to obey commands for a stream of meaningless treats, wolfed down and instantly forgotten. I made them obedient, enthusiastic about accepting commands. They watched my eyes to anticipate my desires, to hasten the appearance of scraps of jerky that became the most important thing in their furious little worlds.

I was trying to save them. I suppose I did save something in them, while extinguishing something else.

"Stop apologizing for what you are," Dr. Aussenloss says.

Behind him, the sky darkens again, a terrifying flicker in the passage of something enormous.

The sky, the sky, the sky. It was in the sky. I was in a car.

I was in a car. Someone locked me in, and the sun came up.

I can't stay awake.


Then there are days in which the colors are gone, and the dark patches in the corners swell like sped-up footage of mold growing. The smell is choking now, a brassy stink that squeezes from my open pores. The girl who I thought was my sister slouches in, sits down but doesn't speak. Her face is doughy and pale. With her arrival, the scent alters almost imperceptibly, and as she regards me with sunken eyes, it modulates, infusing the aromas of hot asphalt and saltwater spray. I understand she is trying to comfort me, to ameliorate the anxiety that is causing my smell to disturb others nearby.

The scent becomes words.

Come with me.

"I can't walk," I say.

Out in the hallway, a bent figure ambles by the door, pushing an uneven, earthen ball as high as its waist. Pushing a cart with the dirt-filled meals. Naked, pale.

Or in a blue frock. My mother.

Come. It's wonderful.

When I step off the bed, my knees bend the wrong way. It is painless, but I lose my balance and fall into a whimpering heap. She helps me up, making encouraging smells, and leads me down the curving hallway. Most of the lights are out, and the dark quivers with layers of heat and scent. I lean heavily on her, horrified by the foreign movements of my body. As we slither forward, the scent changes abruptly, and I realize someone has laid down a chemical path, a message, as sure as if they had painted the letters on the tunnel wall.

I told you-

I backtrack. you told I.

Forward again. I told you I would show you what your life is really like.

I reach for the girl's hand, for Danielle's hand, wanting only something normal and comforting, but my fingers have fused halfway down into fleshy paddles. When I scream, the stench is intolerable.

I don't remember how they get me back to bed. Dr. Aussenloss is there, or a figure with his voice.

Dan. He folds his hands together. I smell his words rather than hear them. Why did you train dogs?

I struggle to remember. I feel like I've been dropping pieces of myself everywhere, like someone shedding their clothing as they walk, leaving behind scraps of flesh, hair, and bone, and now I'm impossibly exposed. I'm less than I ever was, less than the sniveling man in court who hid his shame out of pride, or the man who replaced his fear with bliss.

"So they could find a home," I reply. My mouth is foreign, dangerous, a soft dark cave lashed by a wounded snake.

Yes, the head nods. So they could belong.

"I want to belong," I tell him, and I mean it. I don't try to hide the desperation in my voice, the way I concealed my emotions before the judge. "Please, just fix me."

Of course you do, he says kindly. I suppress a cringe as he pats what remains of my feet with a knotted fist. But to do that, we need you to do something terrible.

I don't want to.

Just sleep now.


They stand at the foot of the bed. Words fume over them in a chemical cloud.

Come with us. We're taking you home.

I give them my arms and they lift me from the bed. My legs no longer support my weight. The one I knew as my mother puts an arm around my waist, and the one I believed was my sister props herself under the opposite shoulder. They half-drag me down the tunnel and out the courtyard door. It's nighttime. The lawn slopes down into oblivion. There is a low mound before us.

"Where are we going?" I ask them.

To the dog, they scent.

A flicker of absolute dark passes over the face of the sky and is gone. The shape in front of us is my old car, radiating heat into the night sky.

"Why?" I ask, and all my teeth fall out. They roll around like scallops on my soft gums. I try to spit them into my hands, swallowing one in the process. My fingers fall off like molten candles.

You must devour him.

"I don't want to," I croak, my tongue slithering in my soft mouth. I know, the same way I read the words in their changing smells, that it's my dog, who loved me even through my forlorn, friendless teenage years, the one friend I could never disappoint, until the end.

Hello Dan.

It's Dr. Aussenloss, or what I once thought was him. He doesn't use the word Dan; he uses another name, a much older name, that I remember from before I was born.

I told you I would show you, he scents.

"My dog is dead," I answer in a warm, foul cloud.

Not yet, he says. Only you can do that.

One by one, the stars are going out.

My tongue withers. What's going to happen to me, I ask, my skin squeezing out the word like a damp sponge.

The dog carries a little sac, something bitter. When you eat him, it will dissolve into you. This is what life is really like. Before you dreamt you were a man.

What's in the sac?

My mother and sister draw near, touching my flanks. Their faces collapse like old jack-o-lanterns.

We're all inside it. Everything we really are, waiting to be born, like unused words.

The thing that was my sister urges me forward, a soft part of her body supporting me. The others draw near, stretching out elongated arms that encircle, squeeze and press me on. Disgusted, I let them carry what is left of me.

He's in the car, my sister scents.

They bear me on, and I'm pushed against the hot, featureless planes of the car. I peer in an onyx window. There isn't even enough light to see my reflection.

Open the door.

I can't, I scent, raising the dwindling knobs that were my hands.

She shakes what remains of her head. Those don't matter. They never did.

Only a few stars remain now. My face is wet, with tears or the slipping of my flesh, I can't tell. One bright star remains overhead. The shadow swallows everything else.

Forget the old story. Open the door.

I don't know how.

Make him yours. Then we'll be free.

From within the black pane, I hear a stirring, a moan, a soft convulsion of muscle and fur. The last creature that might have loved me, no matter what I did or what I became, is dying inside.

I remember standing by a car.

A star shines overhead, the last one.

Do you think




Adam R. Shannon is a career firefighter/paramedic. He lives in the northern Virginia area with his wife, two German Shepherds, a free range toad, and a family of snails that occupy an old coffee pot. He blogs about speculative fiction, emergency medicine, and whatever else has his attention today at AdamRShannon.com

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