By Elizabeth Mcfarland
I don’t know if I’m dead, exactly. I don’t even know if I’m human. I think I look like a human, I guess. My hands do at least. Humans glow, in a halo around their bodies. I don’t glow, and I haven’t settled on what I think about that, yet. No human has ever done what I do to them to me. I Consume them. I think it serves a purpose. If one of them is glowing too much. I dip my hands into their shoulders and eat. Have you ever been depressed by a meal? I am, most of the time. It’s cold and still. A bit how I assume being human actually is.
It’s a part of them. I know what meat is supposed to taste like, what blood is supposed to taste like, and this is something different. Fluffier. At least I can believe I serve a purpose. I think I’m saving them. They’re too sad– too anything –and they glow too hard. I’m drawn to them like smelling cookies straight out of the oven, and I drink. I just know, I don’t know how else I would tell other than whatever feeling this is.
There was this girl, I think, in tennessee who was holding a gun to her head, shining the most appalling shade of red I ever saw. I came up from behind and reached inside of her. It was metallic and oily, like someone was cooking rusted iron. It tasted so good I felt like I couldn’t move. I’m getting used to being depressed by my food. She just dropped the gun on the floor and faded to a soft grey-blue.
Humans can’t see me. I think, if they did, they would have more objections to whatever I do to them. I once saw a man grab a woman in the chest and she slapped him. They both acted like it hurt. I’m glad none of them feel what I do.
I used to think I was the only one. I wondered what happened to everyone else, if there was anyone else. I had seen the feeling of lonely, drank it too, but I never thought I could feel it. I wondered, for the longest time, if it would be possible for me to die. I thought about trying it once or twice and it made me nauseous.
Then I met her. I was in a grocery store, and the fluorescent lights were flickering and made the halos hard to see. I followed her out of the frozen aisle into produce and she saw me. She wasn’t glowing and she looked right at me. Her posture dropped, and we stared at each other. The cold of the grocery store squirmed beneath my skin and we approached each other like feral cats.
Her eyes were big and round but the color was off. It was a watery plain gray. Not how some people say gray eyes, but grey, like a sad awful stone. Her hair was dusty blonde and long, but it was pulled back into a ponytail.
“What are we?” she said. Her voice was soft and crackly.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She nodded, “Do you call yourself anything?”
“What? Like a name?” She nodded again. “No.”
“Why not? What, do you have a name?”
“Why not?” I asked again.
“I think it’s because I see too many.” She cocked her head to a family picking out apples beside us, “Their parents choose their names for them. I don’t think, if it were left up to them, they would be able to choose either.”
“We might’ve had names,” I said. “I don’t remember anything… before this, so we could have had parents. I hate thinking about that, though.”
“I wish I had a name.” Her eyes wandered to the grocery store tile.
“Why not get one?”
“I wouldn’t have anyone to use it with.” She glanced around frantically. “Apple,” she blurted. “I want you to call me Apple.”
“Like the fruit?”
“There are people named Apple.” Apple bobbed up and down on the balls of her feet. “You should pick one too.”
“I want to have something other than ‘mister’ to call you.” It dawned on me right then that she was the only other thing like me I had ever seen. I looked around the produce aisle and my vision jumped from grapes, to pears, to zucchini, to spinach, to barley, to rosemary, to basil– basil. That sounded normal enough. As normal as Apple.
“Basil, I guess, is fine.” Apple smiled and gave me a deep, tight hug. I couldn’t reach into her. She got this intense smile and started shaking a little as she held onto me.
“I always wanted to do that,” her eyes got misty, “but I never could.”
“Do you think we’re ghosts?” I asked.
“Like, Beetlejuice, you mean?”
“No, do you think we’re dead and this is just what we do?”
Apple pulled away from me. “I don’t know,” she motioned around the store, “lots of people die, and… look.”
“I wonder if it matters.”
“It doesn’t matter.” She sat down in the middle of the aisle. “It’s not like anyone cares.” I sat down across from her. “It doesn’t matter what we are, it matters that we’re a we.”
I nodded. “I sat in philosophy lecture at some Ivy League college— lots of very high strung people— and they all seemed to think it matters a lot.”
“How much do you hate this?” said Apple, lying down on her back “Not being able to feel things, for real?”
“Sometimes, I go for days without doing it. I sat on some man’s bathroom floor and watched him cut both his wrists open in his tub because I couldn’t bring myself to taste that. It was torture, but watching him die was better than feeling anything close to how he felt. I could have saved him. He was glowing so hard it wasn’t even a color, wasn’t even light.” There was a long pause.
“Lighght.” I said.
“What? I said it wasn’t light.”
“It’s a poem. By Aram Saroyan.”
After a while, Apple and I left the grocery store. It closed while we were still inside
We walked the streets for hours talking about what we think we are. Apple mentioned Cihuateteo, an Aztec goddess who drained the life out of people.
“I don’t think we’re anything like that,” she said. “For her, there was never the prospect of being hurt herself, or depressed by it.”
“Do you go to a lot of places like Mexico and all?” I asked.
“Yeah, all the time. I haven’t been to England though. China is nice, though. I like the jungles, and the deserts, and the…” Apple stopped walking. I turned around and saw her standing completely still, with her hands covering her mouth.
“I can’t believe I haven’t told you! Oh god, you have to see it! You are going to love it.”
“In China, there’s this place. It does something to you.” She giggled and started bouncing up and down on her toes again. “You have to come! We have to go now!”
I agreed before I even considered any part of it. China. I didn’t even know how far away that was. It was a whole ocean away. But what did I have to lose? I wanted to know her. Apple dragged me to a port somewhere in the city. I wanted to know her, and I wondered if this was how Adam felt when he met Eve, but on fire and resurrected.
The port was cold and bleak. A single cargo ship was being loaded with steel and iron exports that was heading to Hong Kong. Apple looked up at the monstrosity with absolute wonder.
I followed her onto the deck of the boat. Men moved passed us in a perfect rhythm carrying boxes and crates, and even bigger crates swung above us carried by enormous looming cranes.
Apple and I fell asleep on the dec the first night, watching the city shrink away from us. It wasn’t until after the ship left the port when Apple bothered to tell me the ship’s course was a month long. It felt like a part of me cracked off and fell into the ocean. In that moment, I felt glacial and empty. But I dealt with it, like everything else.
The ship wasn’t how I’d imagined. Everything was cleaner, more modern, and cushier than the picture I had in my head. The sailors, even, were different. I didn’t picture pirates or anything, but they looked more like dads than bearded, rubber-yellow-hat-wearing, sailors. But that was fine. I preferred dads to pirates anyway. I got hungry almost every day. They glowed bright blue with boredom, loneliness, stagnation.
Apple watched me one day, when I did it. My arms were buried up to the elbow in the back of this man, glowing the most intense blue. He was running a zippo lighter next to an oil barrel, watching the paint curl away. He tasted cottoney and intoxicating, like rotted strawberries. When he faded, and I left him, he turned and put the lighter in his pocket. He remembered he had something else to be doing.
“How did it taste?” she asked. Apple was paler than she was before the beginning of this trip. There was a bright red rash on her wrists and neck and she scratched at it.
I told her exactly how it tasted. “Are you ok?” I asked.
“How does it feel?” I had to think for a moment.
“Like when you stand on a high place and want to jump.”
“There’s no one happy, or even just content on this entire ship,” she said. A big teardrop clung to one of her bottom eyelashes. I bent down to her level. “I’m so hungry.”
I stood, and took a step back from her. “You’re hungry? Eat then.”
“I have eaten. I just can’t do that. I can’t live though feeling that anymore. The other day, that one guy was playing that video game and when he won, I ate that. It was like lukewarm lemon water. But it was better than wanting to fling myself off a cliff.”
“But, I can feel things. Taking other people’s feelings, just isn’t the same, and sometimes it’s just too much.” Have I ever felt my own emotions? I follow wherever the hunger leads me, and eat whatever it tells me. I do what I want along the way, but it’s always… tinged, by whatever I consumed last.
I think Apple only eats the happy things. I don’t care. Everything almost tastes the same to me anyway, and it’s harder to find people happy. She and I didn’t talk for two weeks, we were so consumed by looking at the waves curl and dance against the boat. It wasn’t until we heard we dock tomorrow come out of a shipmates mouth, that we were whipped out of our trance. We both stood at the gate of the ramp and waited.
Hong Kong looked like any other big city but it’s road signs begun to morph from Cantonese to English. I looked at Apple and she grinned so wide I thought it might’ve been hurting her.
“Isn’t this place amazing?” she asked.
“I guess.” A mechanic scream erupted from a bus catapulting down the street. “It’s loud.”
There was a woman sitting on a bench outside a store front reading a book. I felt it immediately. She was glowing this bright sunny orange. I moved toward her, but Apple beat me to it. She dipped into the woman like paint, and the halo seeped into her. The rashes that had splayed further from the time I first noticed them, shrank into puckered scrapes, and her skin looked like someone was alive inside it again. The woman’s face spun from a soft smile to shaken emptiness.
There was a halo around the whole city when we left. From the people, and from the lights in the buildings. Apple and I caught a bus into a small village and spent the night there. The village was so silent. Soft light pulsed out of small houses but I stared straight up at the leafy ceiling above me. Stars peaked through and I watched the sky spin around me. I felt so empty. I felt like I could float, disappear, and never come back. Apple and I were going to take a truck full of jackfruit in some empty dirt road. She said she knew exactly where we were going. Beautiful she kept saying. Beautiful.
Suddenly I was overtaken. What if I die here? What would it feel like? If I’m not already dead. I tried to picture nothingness in my brain, the physical erasing me. Black, with inky purple swimming in it. I couldn’t do it. All the ways I could die played in my brain. I hadn’t had this little to do in my entire existence. I wanted so badly to listen to some professor, and take notes on some lecture. I wanted so badly to be distracted.
My skin had started to burn and go pale with the same rashes Apple had. I was hungry. We walked a little longer, and I started to feel something.
“We’re getting close,” said Apple. Was this it? Some sort of energy field that made my bones ache. Apple swiped another big leaf out of her way, “Oh my god!” She shot ahead of me.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was a big clearing, encased on one side by a sheet of mountain rock. A small waterfall poured into a spring at the base of the rocks. The water was the clearest I had seen in my entire life. And the feeling was stronger, and I wondered if this is what being high feel like. This was better. It felt like I was buzzing.
Apple was floating on her back in the water, and I joined her.
“Oh god, this is cold,” I shuttered. It was the coldest water I had ever felt.
“Do you feel it?” she whispered. “I think this is what it’s like to be human.”
I felt each cell in my body dividing, every breath I took, every pump of my heart pushing blood through my body. I could feel my heartbeat in my eyeballs.
Apple sank under the water and bobbed back up. “I’d almost forgotten what this felt like.” She leaned back and floated at the surface of the water. “Have you ever felt pain, without being hungry?”
Apple took me by the arm and rested at the top of my inner forearm. Her hand curled into a claw and shot down, sending a stingy salt and vinegar pain up my arm in a red firework.
“Agh, god what the hell?” I screamed, clutching my arm. She just fell back into the water laughing. “I’m serious!”
“How does it feel?” I stared at my hand. It was a small scrape next to my thumb and it was only throbbing now. I felt alive.
Human. I could live off that word.
Apple cracked open a pomegranate on the sharp side of a rock. When I took a bite out of it, spongy white membrane and all, it flooded my body with flavor. The rashes on my skin disappeared, and the burning disappeared. It was real food.
“Why did you ever leave?” I asked her.
“I got so lonely, and it felt like I was going completely insane.” I wondered if you could get lonely with another person. I don’t think I could get lonely with Apple. We laid down next to the spring and stared up at the sky, alight in reds and oranges. I took the last bite of the pomegranate and threw the husk into the bushes. Apple rolled over and plucked another off the tree.