As Long As It Lasts

I know it sounds corny, but I believe life has a purpose. Really, I do. I believe that I—all of us—have a reason for being here, a reason for living. I don’t need to know what mine is. All I know is that one day it will come and it will go, and with it will go my need to live.

I test this every now and then, to see if I’ve outlived my use. The first time was with a pill bottle, but I’ve gotten more creative since. Five times I’ve tested this and five times I’ve survived.

Guess that means I’m still useful.

Hard to believe it as I make my way through the busy streets, just one of many ants in this hill. It’s times like this my philosophy carries me through. Every moment could be my moment—the one that completes me, opens the door, sets me free. All around me is potential. It gives life dimension for as long as it lasts.

As I ride the bus back from yet another eight hours spent by the burger fryer, I can’t help but wonder if today was my day. Maybe I did my part by holding the door for that girl, or by smiling at the gentleman on the corner, or by offering my seat to the grandmotherly woman on my morning bus. Every part counts, and maybe I’ve paid my dues.

I hear the moan of braking bus tires and get up at the all-too-familiar sight of my stop. I wave to the driver, but my mind is elsewhere, thinking of what the test should be. I try to change it up each time. After a while, it becomes an art of sorts, but that’s the kind of detail I pride myself on.

Lost in these thoughts, I barely even notice her until I’m almost past the alley. It’s the click that gets me. I stop in my tracks, expecting someone to come out asking for my wallet or my watch or something, but nothing happens. I glance down the alleyway and see her. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not my money she’s after.

I relax a bit, and see her look at me for the first time. She’s young enough—early twenties, no doubt—and not bad-looking. Mind you, she would probably look even better if she wasn’t holding a gun to her head.

“Guess you’re gonna tell me to back off,” she says after a long moment. I can see her grip tighten, and I almost laugh at the idea.

“Nah, go ahead.” I step back, cross my arms. “I’m kind of curious, actually.”

She snorts. “Morbid son of a bitch, aren’t ya?”

“Guess you could say that. Not every day you get a street-side show. Seems like a strange place for it.”

“Not for me. Thought I’d leave him with something to remember.” She gestures up to a window in the decrepit apartment building beside us. “Maybe I can get his attention while he’s still inside that bitch of his. Give her something to really scream about.”

“That works.”

I wait. I watch her. She watches me.

“You’re really not going to stop me?” she asks at last.

“No point,” I say with a shrug. “I’ve got a theory, of sorts. Call it fate if you like, but it all comes down to a fifty-fifty chance. Either it’ll work or it won’t. Either you’ve got a reason to live or you don’t. Not my call.”

“You really are sick, aren’t you?”

“Maybe, but it keeps me going. Here, how many bullets do you have in there?”

She pauses. “One.”

I stretch out a hand, slowly. “May I?”

I can see she wants to say no, but her curiosity is stronger. She gives me the gun. I unset it and spin the cylinder. Before she can say anything I cock it again, raise it to my head and pull the trigger.

Nothing.

I shrug. “See? Guess that means I keep going.”

The girl is visibly shaken as I hand the gun back to her. She’s lost some of her initial verve, but still cocks the gun and lifts it to her head. She bites her lip as she pulls the trigger.

Nothing.

I give a small smile. “Guess you keep going, too.”

The effort seems to have drained the last of her resolve. She almost drops the gun as she pushes it into my hands. “Thank you,” she says. She’s crying now.

I’m about to reply, but she’s already gone. Running from the alley, the building, the gun. Running to something more. As I watch her go, I wonder what her purpose is. Why she keeps on living. Why any of us keep on living.

The weight of the gun returns me to the present. I look down at it with some surprise. I think of the girl, of all that was and wasn’t.

I smile and lift the gun for one last test.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Stones

The stones were restless that night. She could hear them clattering and chattering against rock faces and echoing up from the dormant mineshafts. The town had long ago been built into those rocks, blasting and chipping and burrowing its way into ancient granite and quartzite, slate and chert, greywacke and basalt. 

Yet time moves differently there, in the deep. There, veins of silver were newly bled dry for the wealth of people long since passed. There, the shock of trauma had only just begun to fade. In its place rose an ancient fury, a rage she had long awaited.

When the town shook and crumbled, she did not think of its history, of its centennial celebrations, of its museums and plaques celebrating unwelcome conquest. She smiled, thinking like the stones, feeling the relief of swatting a mosquito who had only just landed.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Beauty Within

I can make you beautiful.

It was an enticing phrase. Ellen saw it in the Chronicle in a small, unassuming advertisement. There were no images, no flourishes, no embellishments. Just that phrase, and beneath it, more words:

For those who dedicate their lives to beauty. Serious inquiries only. Please write with preferred appointment time and place to The Beauty Within at the address below.

 Ellen considered the advertisement for a while. Even after she had put the newspaper aside, those words still followed her throughout her day.

For those who dedicate their lives to beauty.

Surely that was her. She was known throughout London as the most desirable young lady. It was a point of highest pride with her father, who went to great lengths to have her seen in only the finest fabrics, the best jewels. There was no one who would deny her beauty.

Serious inquiries only.

That line seemed almost to beckon her, to challenge her. Did she take her beauty seriously? Oh, yes indeed. Then why had she not already written? What was holding her back? What was there to explain this cold, twisted fear in her stomach?

Silliness, she thought.

She sat at her writing desk and pulled out her quill and paper.

***

“Who are you?”

I am the one you invited—the one to make you beautiful.

Ellen considered him doubtfully. He had no hair to style, no lips to redden, not even skin to powder. He was bones and nothing more.

“What can you know of beauty?”

More than you can even see.

She did not understand.

Look at yourself. What do you see?

She turned to the mirror, paused. “Dark hair, fair skin, powder, jewels.”

Illusions.

“Illusions?”

Illusions—all of them. Not one is true beauty.

She frowned, not certain of his meaning. He had no facial features to decipher. She could not know if he meant to offend.

“Who are you?”

I am Beauty.

She almost laughed. “You are bones.”

I am.

“Then what am I?”

You are flesh. But you could be so much more.

“More?”

Yes. You are flesh, yet you are bones. The beauty within.

“My bones?”

Yes, your beautiful bones. You hide them beneath fat, skin, hair. You must be less to be more.

“How?”

You must rid yourself of your wretched flesh. Be slender. Be thin. Let the sharp, beautiful angles of your bones be seen.

“But I do. I try. I eat like a lady; I lace my stays.”

But less. Tighter.

“I try, I try.”

I can help you.

“You can?”

Yes. Let me lace you. You will be smaller. You will be beautiful.

“But they are so tight already.”

But they can be tighter still, if you only know how.

“You would do that?”

I would. For you. For your beautiful bones.

“Yes. Please.”

You must hold still.

“Oh! Oh, that hurts!”

Hush.

“How are you so strong? Oh!”

I am that which is strongest.

“Ah!”

I am Death.

“Oh! Oh!”

Death is Beauty.

“Ah!”

And soon. . .

“Oh!”

. . .you will be beautiful.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Long Walk

Her shoes walked about at night. She could hear them pace through the house all night, yet by morning they always returned to their place by the door, waiting for her.

One morning she came down to find the shoes dirty. More than dirty—ruined. The once-white sneakers were caked with mud, scratched as if from underbrush. She went through the house and found the back door standing open.

That night she brought the shoes to her bedroom and set them down beside her bed. Closing the bedroom door, she settled in to sleep. 

It wasn’t long before her shoes began to shuffle about, then pace the room. She rose and opened the door. The shoes hurried out; she followed close behind. Down the hall, the stairs, to the front door. The shoes shuffled about eagerly as she turned the latch, opened the door. They hurried out, but she hesitated at the threshold, her feet bare.

The shoes returned, organized themselves at her feet, waited. She slipped her feet inside. Before she could close the door behind her, the shoes had already carried her into the night.

The door stood open through the night, the morning, into the afternoon. It was only then that a neighbour came by. He poked his head inside, concerned. He pulled his head back, frightened. 

There by the door were her shoes. They were ragged from their long walk. Torn, scratched by stones and underbrush, they sat there. Stained through and through with blood, they waited.

∼ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Only

It took seven men to exhume the body of the second Mrs. Chapman, while from a distance, he watched. From his high study window, Mr. Chapman saw as they arrived at the cemetery, raised a wall of fabric against the eyes of the town. From above, he could see their busy digging and knew that it would not be long before the coffin was raised from its slumber, his beloved with it.

His heart broke, but it was a beautiful breaking. He thought of how she had looked, laid out at the funeral. She had wished to be buried in her wedding dress, with her golden hair fastened back as it had been on that precious day. They had even arranged for a bouquet: carnations, in a range of blushing colours. She held them to her silent bosom when he saw her last, her face calmly waiting. He had wanted nothing more than to give his I do, lean forward, kiss her. But he knew he must be patient.

That had been only two days ago, but already it had been too long. The house was much too empty, his bed much too cold. He had turned to the police—a perfect facsimile of the grieving widower turned paranoid. He had said that he could not rest, could not believe that the body beneath the earth belonged to his young wife. Thankfully, he was also a wealthy widower. In time, he had been able to arrange that the body be exhumed, and then identified by him alone. It would not be long now before he would drive to the cemetery, bring his smallest buggy into the curtained space, and look upon his beloved.

Alone, he would arrange for her return.

He counted on the morbid stench to dampen the curiosity of the others. He was certain that once he left, there would be no need for them to reopen the coffin or for them to think the deathly weight was in fact the carefully prepared sandbags, ready to be returned to their earthly mother. And he would be free to return to his home, no longer alone.

Oh, he was eager to hold her, to bring her body back over their threshold. Already he missed the touch of her hand, the caress of her body. There would need to be changes, of course. Just enough to escape the gossip of the townspeople. Perhaps a wider face, a rounded nose, a sprinkling of freckles. Brown hair: he was sure she would like that. He could already imagine her prancing before a mirror, enjoying the newness of her body, the newness of her life. But her eyes, those would stay—as they always had, as they always would. Those were the eyes that had first drawn him in, captured his attention, his heart. Those were the eyes that inspired his work.

In time, there would be yet another opulent wedding. To the world, she would be a newcomer: the third Mrs. Chapman. But to her—to him—she was his only.

∼ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Feast

There would be bodies. Her mother had already warned her about the smell, about the morbid pull of curiosity. You’ll want to look, she had said. But don’t. You’ll only spoil your appetite.

In her unease, Isa had no appetite left to spoil. She paddled through the darkness, having only old habits to guide her. There was nothing to see but blackness, nothing to hear but the whispering waters against her paddle. She tried to remember her mother’s words, the pieces of advice scattered like bread crumbs to lead her home.

They want you to believe you don’t belong here. They think your humanity will make you weak, but you can prove them wrong. You will show them you belong.

Belong. It was a strange word—one that never seemed to fit. Did she ever truly belong here among the shapeshifters and specters? Here where the river was dark with spirits and the sun was an unconvincing myth? Those whispers from the water echoed her doubts, but there among the murmurs was another voice, clearer in its familiarity.

They want you to doubt. They want your questions to shake you. They want you to believe you belong to a world you have never seen. But this is your home to claimif you want it.

Wanting was a luxury Isa had never known, though it had built her world. Wanting had driven her mother to the underrealm, driven her to eat their dark feast and trade sunlight for shadows. Isa had been born into these shadows, born of flesh fed by the underrealm. For a time, that had been enough to claim her place. But that time had passed with her mother. Her mother’s wanting had brought them here; her heart and passion had made it home. But Isa did not have her heart. Without its steady rhythm, could any place be home?

Faint torch light flickered far across the water. Isa paddled closer, drawn to the light like the many crawling, scuttling things of the deep. She could sense their movements in the cavern around her. As the light grew stronger, she could see the dark shapes moving along the walls and ceiling, their bodies long as her canoe, their legs, eyes, carapaces gleaming.

At last Isa drew up close to the rocky shore. She pulled her vessel safely up from the whispering waters, away from the paths of hurrying insects. They had cleared trails through the dirt, the torchlight drawing them to earthen tunnels that glowed with a still deeper light.

This was as far as Isa had ever come. Every other year she had sat with the canoe as her mother changed for the feast, disappearing among the swarm. She only knew the feast as a time of boredom and waiting. But not this year.

Isa followed the eager procession of insects, jostled by their long bodies through too-narrow tunnels, until at last they emerged into a wide cavern. Here, the polished stone walls gleamed in the glow of countless torches, illuminating a seething heap at the centre of the chamber that rose high above her. The insects hurried into this heap, hungry for the feast, the air above them filled with warm light and the stench of decay.

You came.

Isa looked up high to the top of the writhing heap. There, atop a tower of bones stripped bare by the frenzy, sat two great beetles. One, purple-black, was feeding on the maggots born of the heap. Beside him, his queen gleamed in emerald tones. She watched Isa, her gaze steady over twitching antennae.

“Yes, your Highness,” Isa said, quickly dropping into a low bow. “I have come to join the feast.”

Why?

Isa looked up into those emerald eyes. Under their gaze, her answers suddenly felt fragile, empty.

“This is my home,” she said at last. “I wish to stay.”

Why?

Isa’s tongue sat empty. She thought only of the whispering river, the voice that carried above all others, speaking in death with more heart and strength than Isa had ever felt in life.

“This is my home,” she said again. “This is the world my mother chose. I choose it, too.”

The emerald queen considered her in silence. Then as Isa watched, those insect features melted, twisted, shaped themselves into a new form. Isa looked up into a human face, beautiful and tragic.

“I know of the choice between worlds,” the queen said. “I know of the strength of mothers, too—how they can tie you to a world of their choosing. But what of your strength?”

Looking into the queen’s face, Isa thought of her mother’s features, her strength. Isa had inherited her eyes, her nose, when what she needed most was her heart.

“My strength is my choice,” Isa said. “I choose to stay.”

“Then eat.”

At the queen’s words, a path cleared through the heap’s frenzy. The bodies of countless dead creatures were exposed—raw and rotten—and despite her mother’s warning, Isa looked. There in the heap was a familiar form with eyes and nose much like her own, though bloated with death and decay.

You’ll only spoil your appetite.

Despite the grief and revulsion churning her stomach, Isa stepped forward. She climbed into the heap, the way wet and slippery with death, but she continued until she reached her mother’s body. Much of her torso had already been eaten away, but her ribcage was intact, its strength guarding her great treasure.

You will show them you belong.

Isa reached into her mother’s chest and pulled from it her heart. It filled her hand, heavy and still. Could this thing be the same heart that had brought her mother to this place, that had brought Isa to this moment?

She bit into it.

Isa’s mouth filled with a warm wetness, with the taste and smell of rot. But as she ate, her senses changed. Each bite became sweeter, more satisfying, tasting of pomegranates. That taste fed a deep hunger that had gone unnamed. It was an awakening—the answer to questions she had never thought to ask.

Fed by her mother’s flesh, a new strength flowed through her. It sprang  from her own heart, reaching out into the many limbs that stretched from her new-formed body. That strength surrounded her, joining her to the frenzy all around. Her senses fill with life, with connection, with the thrill of the feast.

She ate, savouring the sweetness of home.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Dreamer

Two hours later, she’s dead.

As I watch the ambulance take her away, I don’t feel anything. I didn’t know her, and besides, it happens all the time. It’s not always two hours, mind you. Once it took a full three weeks, but that’s the longest so far.

The shortest was about thirty seconds. That time, I had dozed off on the bus when the dream—or whatever it was—came: a woman, a squeal of cars tires, no more woman. I jolted awake in time to see her. The bus had stopped to let her cross, but the driver in the next lane wasn’t feeling so courteous. The screech of brakes was muted by the bus windows and replaced with the screams of passengers. Everyone was moving about, trying to see what had happened, trying to make their voice heard in the mayhem. Shocked faces all around.

I didn’t move. I didn’t need to. I had seen it already: the body crushed between the car and the petunias. It was a stone flower bed, one of those decorative ones that divide the lanes of traffic. It later made its way into social media: the crack in the stone, the mess left by her head, the blood-stained flowers.

That time it was a stranger. I prefer it that way. If I didn’t even know they existed, it’s easier to watch them die. Twice. It’s much harder when it’s someone you know. Someone you love.

I had tried to tell my mother once, at my dad’s funeral. The dream I had had about the boating trip, the accident, the details I wasn’t supposed to know. I wanted to tell her all about it, but I stopped when she didn’t understand. When you’re young, you don’t want your mommy to be afraid of you. I didn’t even tell her when I saw her death coming. It was a heart attack, and by then I was seventeen and already supporting myself. The doctors were sympathetic: “We know it’s a shock—no one could have seen this coming.”

I didn’t bother to correct them.

The woman and the ambulance are gone now. One dream done, one more to go. I step away from the window, back to my kitchen, and add my coffee mug to the dirty dishes in the sink. I have never had a dreamless night, but last night was different. A double feature, with a twist I never saw coming. Lost in my thoughts, I start to fill the sink with soap and water before stopping myself. I almost laugh. Why bother?

The headache begins then. I feel my balance start to go and lower myself to the floor, my right side numbing. I stretch out there in the kitchen, but only one arm moves. My vision starts to go, and so I close my eyes, embrace the darkness.

I don’t know what to expect of death, but I hope it’s dreamless.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.