Before my organs were stolen I was somebody. Before my memories were defiled I was somebody. Maybe I was feared.
I sit alone in a crowded air-conditioned subway car studying my shriveled hands. The seats adjacent to mine are conspicuously unoccupied. No one wants to suffer the indignity of being seen (or photographed) in the vicinity of a nobody. I understand.
Leaden diagrams surface between the loose gauze on my grainy knuckles. First a bird. Next a circle. Finally an object that resembles a figure eight emerges. I feel anxious. Since my abduction by aliens I intermittently experience the inexplicable. Despite having no lungs I attempt to inhale and relax. The symbols fade and vanish.
I miss my subway stop. I am easily distracted and confused by my damaged memory cells. There is no compelling reason to ever leave my claustrophobic room at the Giza Apartments. I do not require food or liquid, my consumer needs are minimal, and my social contacts are nonexistent. I still believe, however, that it is a good idea to get some exercise, fresh air, and attempt to mingle with the locals. The City Centre subway station is only an additional two minute ride. There is nowhere I need to be. I pretend to take another deep breath.
The Thebes, Arizona metropolitan area is home to over five million people. Ten years ago, if Wikipedia can be believed, the population was ten thousand. Twenty years ago it was a “sparsely populated desert.” Today it boasts a thriving university and medical corridor. Professional caliber golf courses can be found in the exurbs. There is no rainfall and the temperature rarely dips below one hundred degrees Fahrenheit (or zero degrees American). The climate, like time, is seamless.
I feel like I’ve lived in Thebes forever.
I enter the Sphinx Beverage Shoppe and order their smallest cappuccino, a King Tut. The barista does not look at me or swipe my credit card. I stagger to an empty table. Although I can neither drink (pilfered stomach) nor taste (amputated tongue) I enjoy smelling coffee. I place my hands over my eyes and sniff King Tut’s fumes. If I had a pulse it would be as serene as a hibernating asp. The tattooed words that coiled around a shadowy figure that once stood too close to me at the Thebes Museum of Science creep into my consciousness: Those who have the greatest desires are in a worse condition than those who have none, or very slight ones.
The noise level increases and heads turn.
iPhones are aimed at the celebrities. The customers’ clothes, hairstyles, and chiseled noses are identical to those of the false idols they photograph, touch, and venerate. A sickening sameness pervades. If not for my nonexistent stomach I would vomit.
In ancient Thebes (again according to Wikipedia) such behavior elicited immediate and severe punishment. Ancient Thebes was ruled by no-nonsense theocrats who maintained their status by knowing how to leverage fear. Their cult of immortality was dependent upon unambiguous law. If a commoner so much as looked at a deity he forfeited his eyes and the promise of eternal life. If a commoner so much as stepped into the shadow of a deity he forfeited his feet and the promise of eternal life. The harshest punishments, however, were reserved for those who had been deemed sufficiently worthy to serve the deities but chose instead to surrender to corruption and weakness. Blasphemy or impure thoughts regarding the queen resulted, of course, in the relevant mutilations. But worse than the pain from purged organs and ripped flesh was the supplementary curse: “Oh shunned blasphemer, condemned to an eternal existence, a bird heedless of its cage, entombed in a circle, forever and ever, amen.”
The false idols exit through the backdoor of the Sphinx Beverage Shoppe and the noise level drops. The aroma from my King Tut cappuccino has dissipated. My sense of smell can be unreliable. It is possible that my nasal passages were injured during the removal of my brain. One of my few intact memories (I believe) involves bright lights, probes, and cryptic symbols. The most plausible explanation for that memory is, of course, alien abduction.
A young man and woman stare at their iPhones, absorbed in a world of simulated appearances. They unconsciously sit at a table adjoining mine. The woman pronounces the names of the false idols who just left the Sphinx. “I think they’re getting fat,” she says.
“Everyone looks fatter when they are wearing clothes,” says the man.
“I actually killed somebody.” The woman continues to look at her iPhone. “It wasn’t deliberate. Drugs, alcohol, and excessive speed. And the man I killed was dying to cancer. He should have been inside a hospice. I don’t think about his death much anymore, and when I do it’s like watching a film. I know it’s me, but it’s not really who I am now.”
“That’s because it is not who you are now,” says the young man. He’s more attractive than the woman; his clothes and jewelry are ostentatious. “You’re not responsible for the old you. You have a fresh identity.”
“You don’t understand,” she says. “I can tell you have never killed. You were never in a war. You were never employed by the government or an organized crime syndicate.”
“I was once involved in pyramid schemes,” he answers. “I sold false hope and unattainable dreams. I’m now an accountant for an organic vegetable corporation.”
The bored woman spots me through the coffee vapor. “Are you somebody?
I of course want to tell her that I used to be somebody but my tongueless mouth is mute.
She raises her iPhone and takes my picture. The couple then gawks at the digital image, a ball of unclean linen, my eyes two black stones.
“Maybe he used to be somebody, but not anymore,” says the man.
The woman disappears into the street. The man looks at me and then through me.
The route between the Sphinx and the Giza Apartments is difficult to negotiate. The traffic signal seems to be malfunctioning and I find myself stranded on the corner of Nile and Ninth for at least twenty minutes. Sand begins to blow and my vision deteriorates. I have no eyelids and therefore cannot blink. I bump into someone or something. I grunt an apology, raise my arms until they are parallel to the sidewalk, and walk randomly until the sandstorm subsides. I find myself less than a block away from the triangular cement edifice that contains my apartment. I lumber through the angry traffic. The desk clerk, a woman I’ve never seen, does not avert her eyes from a tablet computer. I drag myself to the second floor. The door to Room 203 will not unlock.
A slender gray man, familiar and forgettable, approaches. “What brings you to the second floor?”
I grunt. I am tired and can only think of sleep.
“Your room is on the third floor. Look at your key.”
The number 302 is on my key.
The slender man laughs. “It happens all the time. I misplace my key or forget my room number at least once a week. Now I don’t even bother locking my door. No one visits this place and there’s nothing worth stealing anymore.”
I begin to struggle towards the stairs when the slender man puts his hand on my shoulder. I recoil.
“I killed a man,” he says. “He was a bad man, but he didn’t deserve to die. Or maybe he did. No one missed him, not even his daughter. He no longer has a name or a face. It’s like he never existed, but I still know he did.”
“Did you ever kill someone?” He touches me again. “It puts life in perspective. It’s a learning experience. The world consists of those who have killed and those who haven’t.” His shadow passes over me.
I sleep standing at attention in the closet.
Occasionally during a sleep cycle my body will assume a transitory fugue state. When I wake there will be enigmatic symbols (possibly birds, circles, and figure eights) on the closet wall and broken pencils on the floor. I study these symbols for two or three days before erasing them. Did I observe these symbols inside the spaceship? They have remained inscrutable.
Radiant instruments puncture, probe, and remove pieces of my body. It is a common dream. I always fail to see the faces of the creatures wielding the glistening implements. A high-pitched humming noise, louder than a plague of locusts, emanates from the spaceship’s propulsion system. The aliens attempt to staunch the flow of blood from my surgical wounds with makeshift bandages torn from my own clothes. My vandalized body burns. Do the aliens have a concept of pain? Are my organs still being studied by alien scientists or are they rotting in some faraway landfill?
A mangled synapse misfires and a paradigm shift transpires. I think I am awake. Troubling thoughts swarm and attack.
Perhaps I was not the victim of an alien abduction. Perhaps I am one of aliens. The scientists and surgeons were endeavoring to refashion my sleek alien form into a lumpy human one. They replaced my antennae with primitive eyes appropriated from an Earthling. Then they concealed their mistakes under thick layers of bandages, hoping I’d pass for just another post-cosmetic surgery patient in the process of duplicating a false idol. I suppose the scientists and surgeons did their best. I am ambulatory. My hearing and eyesight are acceptable. My rudimentary brain is subpar but adequate. There is obviously no chance of being accepted as a fellow Arizonian, but maybe infiltration is not my goal.
It is unlikely that I volunteered for this mission. There must be a horrific crime in my past, probably a murder or two. Instead of being executed I was given a life sentence. Are there others like me? Am I part of a sleeper cell? Are improved human replicas continuously being smuggled into Thebes? Do I pass them on the street? Are they in the museum? Do I sit next to them inside the Sphinx Beverage Shoppe? Will I be allowed to return to my home planet? I am doing my best. I try to observe. I study the Wikipedia. I’d like to leave Thebes someday, or at least relocate to a better apartment. I feel like I’ve been here forever.
There is an explosive sound. My thoughts evaporate. I do not know if I was dreaming. There are no symbols on the closet walls. I am still exhausted and need more sleep. A man is shouting outside my door. I elevate my heavy arms and push the closet door aside. There is dry blood on my bandaged hands and feet. There is more blood coagulating on the linoleum floor.
A tall man is inside my apartment, next to the opened hallway door. “I knocked,” he says evenly. “I thought I heard something. Your door wasn’t locked so I entered.” He is a facsimile of the barista at the Sphinx Beverage Shoppe.
I shuffle towards him, my legs stiff and unsteady.
“I’m Detective Frank Whemple.” He points at an ID badge clipped to the collar of his black and white striped golf shirt. “The man living in Room 203 was murdered last night. Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”
I move closer to the detective who is standing inside a circle of blood.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t notice your ears. I guess I should say I didn’t notice your lack of ears. I now understand why you didn’t hear what was occurring almost directly below you.”
The absence of my outer ears does not, of course, make me deaf. He could be employing a trick he learned in detective school.
“I’m sorry,” says Detective Whemple. “I should be more observant.”
The blood on my hands and feet, however, can only be from the corpse of the slender gray man. The blood is certainly not mine. I have no circulatory system. I am bloodless. I must have stumbled upon the crime scene while in a somnambulant state. That makes sense. I’ve never had a good night’s sleep since the alien abduction, but it will be difficult to convey this backstory to the detective.
“Do you read lips?” asks the detective.
I grunt and lower my arms.
“I have killed more than once.” The detective speaks slowly and deliberately. He is less than an arm’s length from me. I am inside his shadow. No, he is inside my shadow. His breath is pleasant, like iced coffee.
He continues to talk. “Before I fall asleep I remember those who I have killed and ask them for forgiveness. I never dream and always get eight hours of sleep. I am at peace with myself. People who have not killed should respect me.”
“By the way, keep your door locked and invest in a good deadbolt. Room 203 was unlocked. It’s possible the victim knew his killer, but I’m thinking the murderer was just somebody who wandered in.”
I nod again. It is good advice.
“And one more thing: Don’t leave Thebes. I’ll be in touch.”
My guest departs. I reenter my closet and wait for sleep and the return of the detective.
Leland Neville lives and writes in upstate New York. He previously worked for a newsmagazine in Washington, D.C. and taught in both a high school and a prison. Some of his short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Space Squid, The Barcelona Review, FLAPPERHOUSE, and the Flatbush Review. Non-fiction has appeared in U.S. News & World Report and The New York Review of Science Fiction.