Living Still Life
Warm brown tile floor. Burnt orange walls. Portia Arnalde lays on her side. Her ancient, gray terry cloth robe hangs open. Crimson spills from a deep, dark wound on her neck, covering her chest, the exposed half of a breast. It pools over the clay-colored floor, reflecting the flicker of the miniature gaslight replicas mounted on the wall. In her slack, reddened hand rests a straight razor. Its blade is marred by freckles of rust.
Portia’s vision dims. The dark closes in, forming a long, black tunnel with one dancing light at the end. She counts her waning heartbeats.
For a moment, everything is still. Her heart, her mind—they’re as still as the mansion, as still as the world outside.
Then the darkness recedes. She gasps. Slipping a bit in her own blood, she gets to her hands and knees. The wound on her neck is already a thick scab that will be gone by morning. She cleans the mess, rinsing Jason’s straight razor last. Her robe is ruined, but she has others.
She’s pretty sure she has others.
On her way to the garage, she stops before the utility closet door.
“Jason?” she calls.
He doesn’t answer. He’s still upset. She can’t blame him. If the tables were turned and he’d locked her in the closet, she’d be mad as hell.
“I’m going out for a bit,” she calls through the door. “I’ll be back before dark.”
Jason remains silent.
Red emergency lights cast the garage in an ominous, orange glow. Portia flicks the switch a few times, just to test, but the array above stays dark. It’s a safety function, built into the brain of the house. When damage to the infrastructure is detected, systems are partially or entirely shut down until the problem can be fixed. Since Portia can’t fix any part of the house, their mansion, their apocalypse-proof bunker, is slowly dying.
On the far side of the garage, from a hook by the door, Portia takes a long white cloak, stained piss-yellow by sand, and covers herself from crown to ankle. She laces up her combat boots and picks up the picnic basket containing her canteen and gun—a petite little Glock with a pink grip that, when she’d purchased it lifetimes ago, she never thought she would use. She has a photo, in the drawer of her vanity where she keeps such things, of herself on the day she’d qualified for her permit. Jason took the picture. He called the gun ‘adorable.’
Portia locks the first door behind her and fumbles in the dark for the keyhole of the second. The biometric locks are down, but some mechanism still prevents the outer doors from opening until the inner doors are secure, trapping her momentarily in the dark, stuffy purgatory between walls. Even after all this time, the cramped corridor makes her nervous. She finds the lock, braces herself for the hell outside, and opens the door.
Sunlight glares from white sand dunes. Tall, opaque windows loom as she marches between rows of mansions. They were designed to last forever by a megalomaniac gazillionaire obsessed with immortality. Portia often wonders if he’s still alive out there somewhere. Most of the abandoned fortresses are unlocked. She’s been through most of them, taking anything useful the owners left behind.
The big house on the corner looks, as Jason put it, “like a giant refrigerator.” She remembers the other neighbors bitching about what an eyesore it was when it was built; a gaudy chrome thumb, brighter even than the blinding white sands, determined to outshine the sun itself. For all its aesthetic showboating, Portia figures the house must be pretty poorly built. She knows next to nothing about construction, but she does know that of all the fortified luxury bunkers on Quartz Hill, it is in the refrigerator house that she finds the most rats.
She struggles over the embankment and hurries up the steps until her shallow, strained breathing forces her to slow down. She lost consciousness once before, moving too fast through the heat and filthy air. It took hours to recover from that misadventure.
Once inside, she walks the now familiar path through shattered china and vase shrapnel. She vaguely remembers watching rioters flood the streets from her soundproof fortress, safe behind her unbreakable floor to ceiling windows while Jason held his gun on his lap.
“Just in case,” he’d said.
He couldn’t have been too worried. He fell asleep in his chair even before the crowds dispersed. Jason and Portia didn’t need to worry. They were safe, the lucky few.
In the ballroom of the refrigerator house, Portia finds two traps with rats inside. She loads the cages into her picnic basket. The rodents won’t amount to much once cooked, but she and Jason don’t need much—another perk of their status as ‘the lucky few.’ Two rats will hold them over for days.
She’s halfway home when she spots the soldier. Portia reaches around the rat traps in the basket for her pistol. She doesn’t anticipate trouble—at this point, the survivors who were going to snap already have, and had been taken care of, so to speak, but she’s not letting her guard down. They heal fast, but a few shots to the head slows them down enough. She’ll be able to get away, if she has to.
“Are you from the base?” Portia calls.
The soldier looks down from the steps of a mansion built after the fashion of German castles. His eyes are hazy with heat exhaustion. The faded remnants of his uniform give Portia the impression this is a frequent thing for him, baking in the sun.
“Are you real?” he asks.
“I think so,” she answers. “What are you doing here? Are you alone?”
The soldier staggers toward the street, falling when he hits the deep sand. He crawls into the road and sits a few feet away from Portia. She takes her hand off the Glock. The soldier is obviously in no condition to chase anything. She fishes her canteen from the basket.
“Here,” she offers.
He shakes his head. “No Ma’am. Defeats the purpose, if you know what I mean.”
“Are you trying to die out here?” Portia asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “Just experimenting, really. For science. You know?”
Portia drinks, scrutinizing the soldier over the end of the canteen. He looks young. His hair is short and his face shaved, which she thinks strange for someone who’s given up on living, until she recalls her own little experiments with Jason’s straight razor and her “adorable” gun. She sits down, facing the soldier.
“Are you from the base?” she asks, again.
“Are people there?”
She’d driven to the base, long ago, when a man down the road started shooting up the neighborhood and the emergency line just rang and rang and nobody came. The base was empty, then. Nobody was in charge, then. She hadn’t gone back, hadn’t been able, since the dust storms filled the roads with sand.
The soldier shakes his head. “There’s a couple guys, but we come and go. They call me ‘Private.’”
“What’s your real name?”
“John, I think. Or Jonas. Something like that.” He sounds on the verge of tears. “Who forgets their own name? What kind of shit is that?”
“If nobody uses it…” Portia says, quietly, “These things just kind of slip away.”
John or Jonas wipes his nose with one blistered hand. His lips are chalk white. Portia offers the canteen again, but he waves it away.
The military used the treatment first, hoping to kill two birds with one stone: create invincible soldiers for their never-ending wars while testing the method as a viable solution to the ‘human dilemma.’ The situation was desperate. They failed to control the environment. They had to adapt. Gene editing offered a free pass on the imminent extinction event. The troops served as the first guinea pigs.
“Do you have anyone?” she asks.
“I had people. I left the base, a long time ago, to look for them, but they were gone. The whole town was gone, burned down by wild fire. I did try to find them, though. I did.” He sounds defensive, as though afraid she doubts his effort. “I don’t know how long I looked, but it was a long time. I saw some crazy shit. Crazy people. Sick people. Everything just kind of fell apart and then there were less and less crazy people, more and more dead people. Then, there was nobody.”
The soldier stares at the ground between them.
“I’m so tired,” he mumbles. “They said we’d be stronger, but I don’t think they knew how long we’d last.” His eyes meet Portia’s, twin pits of despair.
He lays down in the dust. Portia sits with him until her water is gone. Without quite understanding why, she places a dry kiss on the soldier’s sun-scarred forehead. He doesn’t move, but his chest rises and falls steadily.
“Good luck,” she whispers.
A small, windowless room. Walls covered with pipes and fuse boxes. Ominous, orange emergency lights glow behind the baseboards. On the smooth, concrete floor, with his hands behind his back, around a pipe, sits Jason. Above a wild, russet beard, hard, dark eyes stare forward into nothing.
“I brought dinner,” Portia says, sitting down beside him.
“I saw someone today. A soldier.” Portia spears a chunk of rat with a fork and brings it to his lips. After a moment of resistance, he opens his mouth and accepts the offering.
“Do you know who I am?” she asks.
“Must we?” he snaps. “Every night?”
Through clenched teeth he answers. “My wife.”
“Do you remember why you’re here? Why I put you here?”
“Do you?” he asks.
“You hurt people, Jason.”
“Oh, yeah,” he says, as though it’s all coming back to him. “Do you, dear wife, remember who it was? Can you give me a name, or tell me what happened? What could have driven me to hurt somebody? Any ideas?”
Portia stalls, picking up his bowl.
“Are you finished?” she asks.
“You can’t, can you? You can’t remember a damned thing. You’re going to keep me locked in this fucking closet forever, and you don’t even know why.”
She tries to remember, but her thoughts are just a mess of color with no context; Jason covered in blood, wet red on white marble.
“What do you remember, Jason?” she whispers.
His gaze softens.
“What happened to your neck?” he asks, looking at the pale, pink line below her jaw. Portia covers it with her hand. Jason sighs.
“Do you remember how we met?” he asks.
Portia’s eyes fill with tears. She shakes her head.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” he says. “We chose to spend eternity together, and now we can’t even remember it.”
“There was a boat, I think,” Portia grasps at vague memories, trying to form a story, something with meaning.
“We met on a boat?”
“I think so—maybe a party on a boat. And I remember our wedding.” This is partially true. In her vanity drawer is a photograph from their wedding. She remembers the photograph.
“You wore a dark gray tux,” she says. “My dress was simple; a short, white little thing. I had a bouquet of pink roses. The ceremony was near the ocean, maybe even on the beach. We were happy.”
“Were there a lot of people?”
Jason had been an attorney, once upon a time. They’d had a lot of friends, and big parties—
“Didn’t we have a dog?” he asks. “A little ankle biter or something, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She doesn’t remember a dog, but she wants to encourage him. It’s been so long since they’ve talked.
She was afraid of Jason, afraid enough to shoot him while he slept, point blank, with her adorable Glock. She was that afraid, but the fear long faded away to apprehension, and Portia feels monstrous, keeping him chained up like an animal. It would be beyond monstrous to let him forget why he was there. She needs to remember, too. If she forgets, if he’s still dangerous and she sets him free, God knows what he’ll do to her.
She rubs her throat. The scab is gone, the wound smooth, indiscernible from the unmarred skin around it.
“Are you afraid of me?” Jason asks.
“Should I be?”
The tears fall. She tries, but she can’t hold them back.
“Come here,” Jason whispers, moving as close as the handcuffs allow.
Portia rests her head on his chest and listens to his strong, steady heart, beating forever, forever, forever.
She closes her eyes and dreams of warm beaches.
When she wakes, Jason’s snoring. She considers uncuffing him, bringing him to bed. The possibility, so tangible, leaves her aching with want. She’s tired of being alone.
She closes the closet door gently and heads upstairs. In her vanity drawer, she finds the small, stubby handcuffs’ key. She closes her eyes and tries to remember—Jason covered in blood, the red pool spreading over white marble tiles.
A sharp needle of recollection pierces her mind, reverberating through her body, shaking her to the core. She squeezes the key.
It was a statue of Pan, the goat-footed god. The whole house was a parody of a Greek temple, with a human sacrifice splayed out on the floor.
That house. They’d called it Olympus, with its gaudy columns and arches facing the street. She passes it by on her raids for food, unconsciously avoiding it.
Jason, crouched on the floor with his back to her as she entered. Right in the middle of that great, round room, beneath the giant, crystal chandelier, his shoulders jerking, working, while the faun-god watched. There was something on the floor beside him, floating on the pool of blood.
Portia presses her fists against her eyes, willing away the memory fished from the depths. It’s too late. The gates are open and the grim details flood through.
An arm. An entire arm, cut from the shoulder of the man he murdered. The legs, too, piled like driftwood. Jason stood, a pale head swinging from his hand, hanging by thick, black hair.
Portia throws the key into the drawer, slams it shut. Did Jason remember? Was he in that closet, day after day, night after night, fully aware he’d dismembered a man? Panic swells in her chest, presses against her lungs.
A steady, quiet voice inside whispers:
Let him starve.
She steps away from the vanity; grateful the mirror is covered. She tells herself she couldn’t, would never, not in a million years. Yet the calm, quiet part of her whispers:
Yes. You can, and you will.
Portia creeps downstairs and crosses the main room. She stops at the end of the hallway leading to the garage. The utility closet door, a black square in the dark, seems to squirm and pulse. Portia drags her fingers along the wall until they reach its frame.
The door is open.
She sticks her hand into the abyss, swiping at the air, not believing. She closed the door. She knows she closed the door. Yet here it stands, a gaping hole in her reality. She listens for Jason’s snore, some sign he’s in there, because if he isn’t there…
Her skin crawls. The fine hairs of her arms and neck stand at attention. She can’t bring herself to turn on the light.
The gun, her mind whispers.
Portia moves past the void and toward the garage, trying not to make a sound. She expects, at any moment, to hear Jason’s voice in her ear, to feel his fingers around her arm. She grips the garage door handle and twists the knob until the latch slides—just enough—to pull the door open—just enough—to squeeze through.
Deafened by her own heartbeat, Portia searches the shadows for movement, hoping she won’t find it. She crosses to where her cloak hangs on the wall and pulls the gun from the picnic basket. Cradling it against her chest, she feels safer. She can’t hide in this corner forever, but is having a hard time convincing her legs of this.
He could still be in the closet, chained to the wall, she tells herself. Maybe you didn’t close the door. All this worry over nothing…
His voice echoes through the garage. He doesn’t sound angry. She reminds herself he may very well have forgotten what he’d done. After all, so had she. If she plays nice, plays dumb, they might be able to move forward as though nothing happened.
“Portia?” Jason calls again, louder this time.
She stands, wrapping the cloak around herself, hiding the gun from view.
“Jason?” She feigns surprise. “What are you doing out here?”
He smiles, and Portia’s mouth goes dry.
“Looking for you.” He flicks the switch on the wall and frowns when the lights don’t respond. “This place is really falling apart, huh? How long did you have me locked up?”
“How did you get out?” Her voice shakes, which puts the smile back on Jason’s face.
“The fork. You left the dinner dishes on the floor. Those cuffs weren’t exactly police issue. I think we got them from some kink store. Didn’t take much. I just needed something, any little thing. The fork worked.”
He steps forward and Portia aims the gun at his face. Jason freezes, raising his hands.
“Hey, hey. I thought we were past this.”
“I… I need more time,” she says.
“Excuse me? What do you want me to do, put the cuffs back on?” He slams the door behind him. “I don’t know what it’s felt like for you, out here, but on my side of the closet door, it’s felt like an eternity. I think you’ve had enough time, dear.”
He takes another step. Portia pulls the trigger.
Jason, stunned mid-stride, stares at Portia’s horror-stricken face. She cocks the gun and pulls the trigger again. Nothing. She locks eyes with her husband, his face lit orange and twisted with rage.
Time leaps forward. Portia drops the Glock and fumbles in the cloak pocket for the keys. Jason’s feet clap on the cement, closer and closer. She stabs at the keyhole as he grabs her shoulder, fingertips digging into soft flesh. The door opens and spills them both into the dark. Portia rolls over in time to see Jason stand and close the inner door. They are locked together now in lightless purgatory.
Hands grab her ankle. Portia kicks, connecting with what she hopes is Jason’s head. He yells. She slams her heel down into the crook of his neck and, when his grip slips, she scrambles blindly down the corridor.
“Wow,” Jason’s voice ricochets off the concrete walls. “It’s really dark in here, isn’t it?”
He stays by the door. He knows she has the keys. He’ll wait by the only exit for as long as it takes.
“I thought I had it bad, in that closet,” Jason shuffles a bit, settling in. “I guess I should be glad you didn’t lock me in here, huh? No lights, no sound, for the rest of your unnatural life—can you imagine?”
She can. She would forget her own name, lose her sense of self. She’d become just another rat in the walls. Dread fills her stomach, pushes against her bladder, her gag reflex.
“Sensory deprivation,” Jason says. “Your mind will turn to mush in here.”
Portia creeps toward the doors, toward Jason.
“You know, I remember what happened,” he says. “His name was Morley. His last name, anyway. I tried to explain to you then, but you wouldn’t listen. Maybe you were in shock, or maybe you just couldn’t understand.”
He pauses. Portia feels him listening, leaning into the dark, waiting for her to give herself away. Seconds stretch into minutes and those stretch too, until she imagines whispers. She clenches her teeth, willing herself to stay silent as the phantom sounds ebb and swell, creeping close and then passing away.
This hell will be her new reality, if she doesn’t get past him.
“He asked me to,” Jason says at last, his voice flat and alien after the lengthy silence. “Morley, or whatever. I think he used to be a lobbyist.”
Portia continues her slow creep toward the doors.
“You know how it gets, don’t you? The monotony. I know you know, Portia. That little line on your neck told me so.”
Shifting. Cloth against concrete. Jason’s back slides along the wall. His voice is close, floating just above her.
“I could help you,” he says.
Portia stands and presses herself against the outer wall, hands searching for the door.
“We don’t die easily. I learned that, with Mr. Morley. Portia, I could end this for you. No more loneliness, no more hunting rats, just sleep. Aren’t you tired?”
She remembers the soldier, laid out in the sun, looking for death and unable to find it. She is tired. It would be so easy. She could take Jason’s hand and let him end this sad imitation of a life. The whole world had ended; who did she think she was, overstaying her welcome?
“Just—come here. Come inside with me,” he begged. “We’ll talk,” he promised.
Portia’s hand finds the outer door.
“I’m not mad anymore,” he says.
She wants to believe him, but remembers his rage contorted face. There will be no mercy killing. He means to leave her in the dark. Forever.
She feels the cold knob and its keyhole groove. She has to be fast. Jason is close. He’ll hear the keys and grab for her, but if she can get the door open, she’ll have a chance. She lifts the keys to the lock. Jason is talking again, cooing reassurances that she needn’t worry.
The latch clicks and Portia kicks the door open, only to be pulled back into purgatory. Jason grabs the keys. Portia can’t fight him. She lets them fall and, as he bends down, she twists out of her robe and leaps through the open door. Jason screams from the doorway with her stained robe in one hand and the house keys in the other.
The world is shades of blue. Stars burn bright in the midnight sky. The sand dunes are stained azure by moonlight. Mansions loom, their faces dark, their features vague. On the pale path between rows of buildings lies a crumpled human form, a dark spot, like a shadow without a source.
Portia walks toward the shape of Private John-or-Jonas.
“Still alive?” she asks, when she’s close enough to be heard.
He sits up and shrugs. She sits beside him.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Portia gestures up to the universe. “It just goes on and on.”
“I’ve seen it,” John-Jonas sulks.
Comets streak through the night. Portia remembers an old myth about falling stars, but doesn’t know if you were supposed to kiss beneath them or make a wish. She’s fairly certain it was one or the other. She’s about to ask John-Jonas when one of the stars explodes, raining fire.
Portia stands and helps John-Jonas to his feet. Thunder claps, loud enough to be felt deep in the chest, and a burst of light flares on the horizon. Dark clouds rise from the earth and mushroom into the night sky, swallowing the moon. Another boom, and the ground shudders beneath them.
“Do you think this is it?” John-Jonas asks.
“The end,” he says.
His raspy voice sounds like wind through dry grass. Portia smiles, memories of running around a pond as a young girl suddenly so vivid in her mind’s eye that they bring her to tears.
“One can hope,” she says.
Without quite understanding why, she winds her fingers through the soldier’s. Hand in hand, they stand at the end of the world and watch the sky fall.