The 999th

The 999th

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by

Philip Kuan

Chapter 9: Garden

I was surprisingly lonely, lying in a defecation of linen as a man checked my pulse, half-boredom masked beneath his lids. As I died, I vaguely wondered if they’d bothered phoning my family. It hardly mattered as I abandoned the silhouettes, as my vision faded.

There was no journey through Technicolor, as I’d been taught. It wasn’t even emotional. It was an atheist’s palette, non-existence indescribable because I’d just become non-existent. Brass monkeys could have hitched rides through my soul’s placenta, shooting opium through a pneumatic tube. For all that I cared to care, perhaps. All that’s happening, all that will happen, is the gradual revelation that I’m suddenly lying damp between tufts of a walled garden, as if birthed from a daydream.

The only angels greeting me are stone cupids lining a central fountain, letting me sip from their sprig basin. It’s sweet like honey, but not quite heavenly. And studying my reflection, I’m struck by how my old age persists.

Behind the fountain twists the simple patterns of a gate’s wrought iron bars, be-speckled with dew without rust. A light fog snakes through on the edge of breaking, retaining just enough to bundle my harvest of a supposed reward.

I’m scared enough that the gate is locked, but whatever or whomever now stands behind me is so silent that I stagger forth, terrified. My arm, emaciated enough to reach between the bars, is what unlatches the gate, is what pulls me in as my reluctant stitches pop.

The scene bears encroaching resemblance to my grandmother’s backyard, back in Jacksonville. I fully expect her to greet me from that spot just ahead, that bench beneath that mulberry tree, but when she doesn’t… I sit in her honor and wait. Hollow in my bones.

The sky above is choked with dirty cotton. I’m haunted by inexplicable claustrophobia, enough to rise and stretch up my fingers awkwardly. They confirm my suspicions by brushing a low painted ceiling, already dissipating like pollen to leave me stranded, still awkward, upon the chair of a doctor’s waiting room. I’m left holding a danish and a magazine, like a damn fool. And though from somewhere behind the front desk one would expect to hear a shuffle or cough, it’s as quiet as I am vaguely wicked.

*

Chapter 99: Waiting Room

This magazine is describing an irrelevant merger from a half decade earlier. This pastry gives me a mild, anonymous rush of something forgettable. Straining my neck towards a bolted television above me, its screen flickers up a blurry recording of a blurry patient within a blurry waiting room. The actor is blinking back through the cathode tube. I watch this man carefully, mostly riveted by a sense of familiarity.

He begins by miming speech, or so I assume until I see that broken volume knob. So then I speculate upon his speculation – having faith in a shared train of thought that we are but layers in a Tower of Babel. His premise is his hypothesis, that divine surveillance may be monitoring him as he monitors another, which I can only corroborate to myself (and the one possibly watching me). But this theory alone inspires the performer to tear out his front desk’s clipboard and hold it to where he measures my own camera to be. Like an analog insult, it spits my own name back at me in bold, cruel lettering.

Snatching pens from my own front desk, I scourge the wallpaper with my own delicious brandings, marking out territory with crude declarations that would make the heathens blush. But to lose my innovation when I glance over, to see that actor now taking similar measures, this drives me a little further into madness.

Between the hours we shamble amongst our props, wearily, science fiction failures exploring just how limited our menagerie of a universe has become. In desperation he takes to calling out plays like a sports announcer, minute-by-minute descriptions of his own thoughts and actions – some justifiable, some clearly not.

Near the end some credits roll, scrolling through a bevy of unfamiliar names. In its background the actor stares up as well, horrified by an ending so disturbing that he lunges at the fake exit, scraping his nails between the cracks of a knob-less door before his existence…changes channel.

*

Chapter 999: Nothing Else

Now I’m backed up against my own physical boundaries, staring wildly at the unrelenting static. It’s eerily familiar, but I’m still not sure why. I can feel my sweat staining the walls I’m pressed up against. Black tar seeps in from someplace blacker. As the area surrounding the television begins its fade to dark I stumble away, banging knees against coffee tables and toppling water coolers, ignoring everything as I throw myself behind the waiting room counter to cower, stifling my shivers as best I can.

In my mind’s eye I picture a pale, porcelain face, appearing without ceremony. Its flawless yet unfinished head becomes nearly visible as it approaches, missing humanity in its features as it looms into clarity. Unseeing sockets and a pregnant parted scream give birth to more of that black tar, sharp contrast to a chalky mask of a coughing doll. I can feel it roaming the room, unintentionally teasing, but approaching just steadily enough to chill every vein and capillary stringing towards my unforgiving core.

It can hear me breathing behind the counter by now.

Already convinced that I’ve acted poorly, I catch myself wondering if the next iteration will fare any better. Perhaps he’ll find a way to break down that door.

It’s reached the counter.

Perhaps the next one will search for a ventilation shaft, or find a weapon.

I know I still have a chance, if I could only open my eyes, but I’m the sightless worm cowering in an apple, oblivious to anything but where I hide. My only recourse is to delude myself, one final time, into believing that it’s only a nurse.

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Philip Kuan is an aspiring writer from California, with a healthy interest in befuddling readers with some fun stories. Some of his favorite authors include Charles Dickens, Tolkien, and Franz Kafka, among others. He has been published in several short story magazines, and is always looking for constructive feedback at http://philkuan.wordpress.com/

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