1. Abstractions on a Sky Called Arthur
Arthur was loathsome like the rest of them, but he made up for it by his lack of eyes.
“It’s blue Arthur,” his mother told him when he decided to gouge out his eyes so he could not be fooled anymore. “The sky had always been blue. They forgot to change it into something we couldn’t recognize. For me, I think it’s a curse that it remained that way. Reminds me of everything else that has been changed.”
“I don’t care, mother. You can go on and see whatever was pulled in front of your eyes, but me, well…I’m free, am I? They can no longer influence me with those stupid colorful skins, shapeshifting walls for autosuggestion, molting rainbows, disgusting pink stars to make us believe in miracles.”
“You sound just like your father before They got him. I can keep you safe here, as long as you don’t try to go out.”
“Go out to see what, Mother?”
“You’re too young to remember what we did to this planet, Arthur,” she said sadly. “After the war, there was nothing left for the survivors to rebuild on. Until They came and taught us contentment, that what we see makes us covet things. They changed everything that was wrong about this planet—”
“Shut up, Mother. I’m sick of it. I’ve heard that version of history all the time on TV.”
“You’re just tired, Arthur. The bleeding has stopped. That’s good. I think we should have dinner now.” Then she headed to the doorway and left Arthur to clean up the dried blood on his face and hands. The doorway accommodated her and loosened up its membranous hinges a bit so she could pass.
2. Abstractions on a World Called Shirley
The box was so small, enough to fit in the soft hollow curve of her left palm for the right one had dissolved a long time ago. It was hard to believe that it could mean something. Shirley wished for it to contain a gift. Perhaps, something special to compensate for the shadow that she had to give up in order to get a room in the Shelter.
She heard the gurgling of the giant mechanical worm outside the building. She tried to be afraid only to feel normal again, but she was too tired to even bother conjuring the right fear reflexes. There would be time for that later.
She glanced at the tongue-bed; it was damp and marred with pores from all the things it had lapped before. Although it looked safe because it was still asleep, its edges had ulcerations.
Easing carefully on the tongue-bed so as not to wake it prematurely, Shirley puzzled over the tiny box she had found on the shed two world-hours ago. It had no visible flaps. It was nearly weightless and very hard, a hardness that was neither metallic nor organic. And so smooth. Perhaps, it was not meant to be opened like all the other boxes before it.
They will get you someday, her brother, Arthur, had said to her when she opened the doorway and never looked back. That was the time Shirley had lost her right hand; the doorway had to take something.
The last words she heard before she disappeared with her dreams of escape were the screams of her little sister, Mischa: “Only five stitches, Shirley. Five stitches to close the mouth of the Apocalypse—”
Shirley missed them both. If she knew how to pray, then she would pray for them not to “go for it” like she did. It was the same everywhere. The landscape in and out of the doorway was already tainted end to end. Only the sky was left intact. It was still blue with fluffs of very real-looking white clouds in certain areas. Her mother said that They had forgotten to change it. Did it matter, what was left unchanged? Shirley did not think so; she only hoped that she could still find a way to warn her siblings.
Outside, the giant mechanical worm was still making that peculiar sloshing sound. It was making its rounds for stray people, knowing that the carnivorous Shelter was impregnable and kept all its guests behind its membranous hinges.
Behind the door, the clock was ticking. The walls had little human arms that waved to and fro in a motion that was both mesmerizing and annoying. There were no piles of bones on the floor, which was a good sign. The room was not hungry yet. There would be time for that later.
Shirley, after twenty-five years of running, found out that she no longer cared and went to sleep.
3. Abstractions on a Window Called Mischa
After the war, something happened one day that made Mischa build her own window out of leaves (the real ones that fell down from real trees), powdered macroscopic dust mites as adhesive, glass, and silicon wood for the pane.
The window was big enough so she could ease her head out to look at the gnarled feet of the building where the tourists had been eaten two days ago. Mischa could have built a larger one, but the natural laws said otherwise.
The window that she had built with her hands alone made her feel free. She could see all the metallic birds outside—their wings silvery and perfect, their feathers ruffled to simulate the effects of moving air, their beaks curved into arcs of light.
And the sky, still blue. It was the only thing that was left unchanged.
She could watch the giant mechanical worm nuzzle all the dark places where the survivors might hide. From a distance, the worm did not look dangerous anymore.
The floor pulsed and gurgled softly underneath her. Somehow, there was no way to ignore it. She tried not to wince lest the floor could smell her fear. There was no way to predict what floors might do in that situation.
She wondered what happened to her sister Shirley, the first to enter the doorway. That was the time Shirley had lost her right hand; the doorway had to take something. But Mischa knew that Shirley was a survivor, and she would most likely be in one of the rooms in the Shelter.
Determined to find her sister, she hurried to assemble the window. She fixed shard after shard into place. The window would claim her left eye, like all windows would, but it would be worth it. The right eye was enough to guide her. If only Shirley were still alive when she got to her…
The next day, intent on escaping, Mischa started to unravel the window just big enough for her body to fit in and small enough to fold and hide under her lips.
4. Abstractions on a Drain Called Hammett
Hammett’s fingertips were testing the circumference of the drain-hole. It would hold. But there was supposed to be a seam here somewhere. A breach to the other side, like the doorway that took the hand of his cousin, Shirley.
All doorways had to take something. It would be worth it. Shirley had told him the day before she disappeared.
The P-trap shook. A segment of the giant mechanical worm was caught in it. It was harmless, as long as it remained in the dark. The light made it grow.
The floor underneath him was the only problem. It would grow hungry soon. A soft gurgling sound from the nails that hammered the floorboards into place was the first sign. He heard one a minute ago.
Hammett saw bone dust in the crevices between the floorboards. Remnants of the unlucky ones who had no reason to stand on the floor when it was hungry.
The seam! He had to find it.
The drain was not yielding to his touch. Maybe, it was only a myth. But Shirley was never wrong. And nobody from the other side ever came back to prove that there was, indeed, a seam around the circumference of the drain.
Using the properties of the drain was painless, but it might not lead to the other side. But we have no choice, Hammett. You’ve got to find the seam. There has to be one. I’ll use the doorway…And stay alive, got it!
Hammett hoped that Shirley was still alive. They could still win this if they were together. Shirley was a survivor; she knew the streets and the breathing rooms better than anyone. She also pointed out to him that the sky was still left unchanged, that They had forgotten to change it. Perhaps, there were other things that were unchanged as well. From them, the original world could be built again.
A blister began to form on his thumb as it brushed against the hairless skin of the sink.
This surface was where he had watched his grandparents get sucked in. Stop thinking about it, he thought. Find the goddamn seam.
For the first time, he noticed the stillness of the room. The room was not breathing anymore!
Now where are the seams?
The conventional axis for a revolving cylinder passed through the hollow core parallel to the five stitches to close the mouth of the Apocalypse and all the doors gave up their meanings when left open much longer than necessary and the windows were upright slabs of all that were cold and fleeting and the blanket on the cot would never be thick enough against it. Think. Think. Where are the seams?
Another gurgling sound from the floor underneath.
He looked down to check if a mouth was starting to emerge, and he saw the half-formed protrusion on the floor. The mouth! He averted his gaze, tried to calm down, and concentrated on finding the seam as fast as he could. When he looked at the drain again, Hammett caught a sight of his dissolving thumb. It did not hurt at all, and he did not understand how he could use the drain as a doorway when he did not even know where the seam was and what it looked like.
His whole arm disappeared down the drain. He felt air against his disappearing arm. There was something down there. Maybe this was the way that Shirley was talking about.
The upper lip of the floor edged up closer to his left shoe.
Hammett grasped the tiny pores of the drain with the tip of his fingers. He was surprised to find that they had grown soft, and he could stretch them to fit his body.
He was wiggling his upper torso down the blackness of the drain when the mouth of the floor snapped shut onto his left foot still planted on the floor. The shoe and two of his digits came off.
There was a circle of light. The end of the drain-hole?
Hammett hoped to see Shirley on the other side.
5. Abstractions on a House Called Jack
Here is the house. We wait for the doors to open.
Mother, the one on the picture, the one who smiled with her eyes closed, used to tell us than the floor was the most important part of any house. “You can have a broken faucet or a creaky door but not loose floorboards or bad carpeting,” she said. None of my brothers understood the logic behind it. We believed her just the same.
The machines had come and gone, the doors swinging open with each departure, and we remained wide-eyed awaiting their inevitable return.
Tap water drummed on the stainless steel sink. Every dull trickle created its own rhythm.
Inside the busted water pipes, the mechanical dust mites scurried about their little feet, dragging the years behind them and the drone of their pointless lives. Dorian tried to shut them up many, many years ago using a polarizer, but they always returned, always appearing on the left side of the wall where his eighth wife blew her head off with a Remington.
Hammett, my eldest brother, said to just let them be. “They’ve been on this planet before the dinosaurs. They deserve a little respect for surviving that long.”
Under the stairs, the spinning room continued to toil to keep the house going. What does it see—that thing inside the spinning room, that thing with no eyes? I imagined the valves hissing to keep up with the carbon dioxide we exhaled.
Dorian found a happiness bottle inside the cupboards. It was nestled with the beer bottles and jars of gourmet pickles.
One squirt from the happiness bottle, and we’re all froth from head to toe—part darkness, part hope.
The side effects were minimal. We heard voices.
“Tell us where you keep the books,” father intoned in some faraway afterlife. We could smell the cigarette in his breath, taste his rancid sweat.
“Leave the boys alone,” mother whimpered somewhere in the house, like a forgotten dog who had been left for so long on a leash that it could no longer tell the difference between being free and not. “Just leave them alone, Chuck. They would learn the rules later. They would realize that they could not do anything about this.”
Dorian laughed himself to tears. Hammett hummed a tune from a Kellogg’s commercial. I took in my happiness silently.
Something, someone pulled open the back door. We heard the rattling as the door hinges were torn off from the wall. We were too drunk with happiness to even care.
Kristine Ong Muslim authored the full-length poetry collection A Roomful of Machines (Searle Publishing, 2010). Her work has been accepted in over four hundred publications including Aberrant Dreams, Abyss & Apex, Alternative Coordinates, Expanded Horizons, Space & Time, and Tales of the Talisman. She has received several Honorable Mentions in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror as well as five nominations for the Pushcart Prize and four for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award.