As the sunlit sanity of the waking world burns the night to ash,
embrace the unbound madness of your wildest dreams,
laugh into the endless abyss of your darkest fantasies,
and rage against the coming dawn.
The thing about universes, is they take time to sort out what they want to be when they grow up.
It was a check-cashing place in a bad part of town. He was Slither-O, former king of the Viperian. They were - and still are - an ancient reptilian-like species from caverns beneath the surface of the Earth. And while that might seem like little more than lazy exposition, it’s also why Slither-O had been left waiting at the counter for nearly twenty minutes.
“I’m sorry for the wait, Mister,” a voice called out from somewhere behind quite a lot of security glass, then pausing to ensure they were, in fact, reading this silly name correctly, “Slither-O?”
“Yeah-huh?” Slither-O sarcastically hissed.
A woman stepped out from the small cubicle where she’d been pretending to speak with someone else and approached the counter. “So, I spoke with my manager.”
“Here it comes.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we won't be able to help you cash your check today.”
“And why the Hell not?” he spat with the flaccid fury of a middle-aged, former king having been forced to wait twenty minutes for an answer he did not like.
“Well,” the employee said, then said nothing at all as she desperately searched for something, anything at all, to say, but then settled on, “you are a, uh…”
“You know...” the employee said, trailing off in that way where one really, really, really doesn’t want to piss off the former leader of an entire society of subterranean serpents, but really, really can’t avoid doing so.
“No,” Slither-O snapped. “I don’t know.” He pressed his face and fangs against the grimy surface of the security glass, and glared into the employees eyes. “So, why don’t you tell me?”
The employee began to speak. “Because you’re--”
“A man-snake?” Slither-O interjected.
The employee waited, realized she wasn’t going to be interrupted a second time, then finished her thought. “A supervillain.”
“Anyway,” the employee continued. “Mr. Slither-O. Because of your, let’s say, history with our, and other - many, many other - financial institutions--”
“Financial institution? This is a check-cashing place in a stripmall.”
“True,” she agreed. “But you were the one who went around robbing us. And I do mean us - this location - specifically. On several occasions.”
Slither-O threw the equivalent of his hands into the air. “That was years ago!”
“Also true. But because of that very true history, you’re officially banned from this location.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting,” Slither-O sighed.
“And all our sister locations,” she added.
“This is ridiculous! I served my time!”
“Also, the whole ‘man-snake’ thing.”
Slither-O looked at the woman, and the fight left him. “Wow.”
“Do man-snakes even have a valid form of identification?”
“I gave you my driver license.”
“Yes,” she said, “but aren’t man-snakes from like, Mars, or somethin’?”
Slither-O writhed in pain and groaned a loud, frustrated groan. “My family and I are from Arizona,” he corrected the employee. Then added, “Well, the caverns beneath Arizona”
“Hey!” someone shouted from behind Slither-O. “You can’t call it that.”
Slither-O turned to find a graying, bearded man with a large tummy and skinny legs poking out of a very short pair of shorts standing close behind him. “It?” Slither-O huh’d.
“Snakemen,” the graying, bearded man said. “Not ‘man-snakes.’”
Slither-O looked at the man. “Can we go back to how you called me a fuckin’ ‘It’?”
And yet another voice thought it a good idea to open their damned mouth at the worst time possible. “Snake-people, Dear.”
The graying, bearded man turned to a graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady. “What’s that?”
The graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady repeated herself. “They prefer to be called, ‘snake-people.’”
“No,” Slither-O said. “We don’t.”
“Oh, right,” the graying, bearded man said to the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady, then turned to Slither-O. “Sorry,” he sorry’d. “Snake-people.”
Slither-O looked at the smiling pair of oddly shaped people in front of him. “I should have incinerated you people years ago.”
The employee gasped, and clutched at a string of pearls that were very most definitely not there, as later made clear by security footage. “Excuse me?!”
“Did he just threaten us?” the graying, bearded man asked of no one in particular.
“I think so,” the graying, moderately fuzz-faced lady shrugged.
“Fascist,” the employee hissed from behind all that security glass.
“What the Hell is happening?” Slither-O sighed. “Are you hairless apes serious right now?”
The hairless apes gasped a collective hairless, ape-like gasp.
“Racist,” the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced ape ook’d.
“Robberies are one thing to overlook, Mr. Slither-O,” the employee said. “But I will not tolerate racists in my financial institution!” And she slapped a big, red button labeled SECURITY ALARM.
As a high-pitched, rather annoying alarm shrieked and a group of hairless apes eyed the equally hairless Person of Scale, Slither-O considered bashing his skull against a wall until he no longer could. “What’s next? Is some caped-crusader asshole gonna show up and--”
“Pot today, Slither-O!” yet another voice still shouted.
But before Slither-O could even begin to respond to such a terrible, no good, damned awful pun, a big fuckin’ pot shattered atop his skull and he howled in excruciating pain.
“Everyone okay?” Slither-O’s assailant asked of everyone but Slither-O.
“Thank you, Gnatman!” they all replied in unison for some reason.
“I heard the alarm from the parking lot,” Gnatman started, then corrected himself. “I mean, my gnat-sense was, uh, buzzing.”
“Did you seriously just hit me with a potted plant?” Slither-O concussed.
“Stay down, Slither-O,” Gnatman ordered.
“I think I have a concussion.”
Gnatman laughed like a damned maniac. “Good thing they have a wonderful doctor down at City Jail!”
“This is such bullshit.”
“It’s true, Mr. Potty Mouth,” Gnatman chastised. “They keep Dr. Magician on retainer.”
Slither-O rolled his eyes. “Huzzah.”
“Though,” Gnatman added, “I think he’s technically a registered nurse.”
“I don’t care.”
“Anyway,” Gnatman continued. “The police will be here any minute to deal with you.”
Police sirens bleated as they pulled into the stripmall, and the little bell above the door tingled as some unseemly anachronism wearing a trench coat in the middle of a pleasant summer afternoon entered.
“We’re here to deal with Slither-O, Gnatman,” Detective-Man said.
“Detective-Man!” Gnatman gushed. “Just in time!”
“Me?” Slither-O squinted. “I was trying to cash my goddamn paycheck before The Craptacular Jack-ass here--”
“Hey!” Gnatman whinged.
Slither-O glared at Gnatman, then continued mid-breath. “--conveniently shows up ‘out of nowhere’ and assaults me!”
“Assault? You’re a supervillain.”
Slithero stomped what he called feat and screamed. “Retired! I’ve been retired for like, five years!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Detective-Man yeah-yeah’d and cuffed what he assumed were Slither-O’s wrists. “You can blog all about it while we process you down at the station.
As he was escorted out the door, Slither-O litigiously lobbied at the oblivious idiot flirting with the employee behind the security glass. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, Gnatman!”
“So, uh,” Gnatman uh’d.
“Yeah?” the employee replied.
“Slither-O did try to rob you, right?”
“Yes?” the employee lied.
Gnatman shrugged. “Good enough for me.”
The man focused his camera on the woman, but she never heard the shutter click. In a week, her skin withered, her red hair faded to grey, and her bones turned to dust. And as a young old woman died in her bed, a striking beauty on the sand hung frozen in time upon the man's wall.
“WEST OF SANTA CARLA”
They cornered the man at the edge of a ravine, and the sheriff raised his rifle. "You'll hang for what you did to all those people in Santa Carla!"
"Not if I kill myself first," the man smiled, leaping to his death.
My grandfather died when I was four. It wasn't until a year or so later that I learned he was supposed to stay that way.
When I read the recent news story about the first natural death in over fifty years, I was skeptical too. Of course I was. This wasn't the first story of it's kind. It wasn't even the first this year. Ever since the tragic 1968 pandemic, the world has latched on to any and every hope that maybe, just maybe the end is in sight - medications, genetic treatments, and, yes, stories like Amber Sawyer's. And every year, we've been left disappointed.
The first such story that I could find in print is from 1973. Gloria Whitaker of Philadelphia claimed her thirty-year old sister, Dolores, passed away in her sleep. But unlike countless incidents of families - even entire apartment complexes and neighborhoods - devoured in their sleep during those first five years, Gloria awoke to a quiet house and her sister's inanimate corpse still in bed. And according to the article, instead of running in terror, Gloria wept. But she wasn't heartbroken about Dolores' death, as they both had been with the passing and subsequent reanimation of their parents in '71. No, she was overcome with joy at the thought that her sister might be the first of many to once more find rest after death.
Turns out, Dolores died from a ruptured aneurysm that mercifully damaged the part of the brain effected by Romero's.
When Amber's case started trending, I assumed the inevitable autopsy would show something similar. Perhaps a head or brain injury she decided to sleep off instead of seeking medical attention. Perhaps drugs or alcohol were involved. This was a nineteen-year old college student, after all. In a world where the dead simply don't stay that way, it's not hard to feel a little bit immortal at that age.
But then, nothing.
Far as we know or can tell, Amber Sawyer is the first person to be medically declared dead of natural causes for the first time since 1968. There was nothing in her system. No aneurysm or head trauma. No defect. Nothing but a dead girl with a bad heart who stayed that way.
My mother is getting on in years now. She's called me up every night since Amber's story made its way to her local newspaper, sharing stories of a world where Amber's death wasn't news, only a fact of life. And like many others, she's afraid of what will become of her when what should be the end comes, but doesn't. She doesn't want my father to keep her around in chains, like how her mother had kept her father, my grandfather, all those years ago. Every night she asks me to tell her that Amber's story isn't yet another news story that will come and go like all the rest, and every night I'm left unsure what to say.
When she asked me again last night, I replied with a question of my own.
"Why did grandma keep grandpa around?" I asked her.
And to her credit, she finally shared with me what grandma had said all those years ago. "God took him, but left the rest behind for me."
I want to tell my mother that the world is a different place. That when she's gone, she'll stay that way. But I can't. Because I'm unsure. Because I still have my doubts. Because I worry Amber's story will be no different than Dolores' or my grandfather's. Because a not-so small part of me is scared of a world without her in it. Because in a world where the dead don't stay that way, it can be that much harder to let go.
THE END BITS NOBODY CARES MUCH FOR
The chill of night brings with it a still darkness, brings with it an alluring promise of peace. Till the light of day warms your cold bones,may your eyes never rest,and may those little slices of death never come.
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YOU ARE NOT ALONE