[This is an excerpt from the titular story in the new short story collection, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things & Other Stories, which is out now.]
Humming fills the air, but it’s the humming of a brain filling gaps exposed by silence. The lights are out. Colors flicker in space–sometimes near the ceiling, sometimes near the floor.
The brain does the math, and this is another case of the brain creating something where something should be.
But listen: the silence. It’s unnerving somehow. Unnatural.
The ceiling throbs. Cracks spiderweb the walls. From these, insects emerge. They’re miniature heads, human heads, crawling on six scrotums. Sperm oozes in their wake. Sadie throws a shoe at the wall and the insects scream and scatter.
She climbs out of bed and peeks outside: a planet-sized eyeball drifts toward a planet-sized eyelid. Twilight. She throws on her robe and taps her skin. It’s still skin. Thank Cruelty. She hasn’t transformed, not like the others.
She opens her front door.
The hallway is empty.
She tiptoes across the hall and puts her ear below “3F” on Martin’s door. Silence. But that doesn’t mean anything. Those creatures are probably in there. Right now. Fucking each other with those tentacles–or whatever the hell you call them.
Is it a lightbulb, or is it her brain doing the math, plugging holes?
She ties her robe and rubs her stomach and tiptoes down the hall, listening in on apartments 3D, 3C, 3B.
She puts her teeth together and hisses, just to make sure she hasn’t gone deaf.
She hasn’t gone deaf.
Door 3B flings open. A human-sized caterpillar pops its head into the hallway. Snot and cum drips from its mouth.
–Everything okay? it says.
–Why you in your robe? Locked out?
–Stop talking to me. Monster.
The caterpillar slams the door. Great. Now other tenants will emerge. Or creatures and monsters.
She tiptoes back to her apartment and closes the door, locks it.
Turning on the lamp, she surveys the living room, as if in search of a clue. Or more of those goddamn insects. One scurries across the floor. It makes a noise like an electric guitar. Its screeches literally sound like a metal god shredding the width and breadth of a fret board. She slips her foot into a flip-flop and crushes it. Another insect, nearby, cries and screams, –Oh, the humanity.
Sadie throws her flip-flop at it, but it scurries into a hole in the wall, yelling, –Eat a dick, bitch, as it disappears.
After a beat, she peels off her robe, slings it over her shoulder, and goes back to bed.
But it’s too dark. It’s too quiet.
She takes off her nightgown and tosses it to the floor.
Sweat beads in the hollow at the base of her neck. Waves of heat roll over her.
Colored streaks blast across the ceiling, but not quite on the ceiling–more like what she imagines holographs look like. The streaks merge and form a face, part human and part fish. It glances at her, then glances away, like a shy boy admiring a crush from afar.
–You’re in bed, it says.
–You’re the boss lady. The boss lady doesn’t get tired.
–This one does.
–You guide communities. You eat the poor. You fuck humans for sport.
–What humans? There aren’t any left.
–They’re everywhere. You just have to learn how to see.
–I see fine.
–I see you, don’t I?
–Maybe that should concern you. Or maybe not. Who knows?
The lights diverge. They crawl across the ceiling and slip out the window.
Then … silence.
The humming returns. It’s almost a tune, like a song she hasn’t heard in years, a song she knows but can’t remember. A metal song by a group whose name she can’t recall. Mercy something or other.
She used to love metal. The first time she mutilated someone was at a Megadeth show, a pre-Countdown to Extinction Megadeth concert. Just thinking about it made her wet. It was right before she got a job as an executive, right before people started transforming. She had taken a random stranger outside, near the Port-A-Johns and fucked him. But his face transformed into a cross between a human and a lizard while she rode it. Instead of scaring her, the transformation made her wetter. Something inside her ordered her to tear off its cheeks, so she dug her fingernails into both cheeks and tore off chunks of meat.
The man-lizard had screamed and, gushing blood, ran off.
The darkness and the silence, the heat and the music–all omens.
It’s time to hurt someone again. Time to kill. Too many monsters inhabited too much of the planet. It was time to assume the role she was born to play: exterminator. Fuck and kill as many creatures as possible. Maybe even skin one. But without removing all its skin. While it were alive.
The thought makes her wet. It’s the only thing that makes her wet.
The chain slides and the door opens. Martin grins and opens the door wider. At least Sadie thinks he’s grinning. The freak is a giant cockroach-looking thing. She interprets the movement of those pinchers near his mouth as something like a smile.
–If it isn’t Miss CEO, he says, –Come in. Congrats, by the way.
–Thanks. But I’m in a rush. May I borrow your car?
How appalling, having to grovel to such a monster.
–You may, hun, but it’ll be a while. Jared has it.
–How long is ‘a while’?
–An hour? Two?
Sadie spins on her heels and ambles down the hallway. Martin says something but she’s not listening.
He should thank whichever deity a freak like him would thank: if he and Sadie didn’t share the same apartment building, she would have chopped off his limbs and shit down his neck years ago.
Shards of glass beside a curb fire light at Sadie.
She raises her chin and steps to the left, stopping and standing over the glass. The reflections vanish.
A giant cock with short hair and an unkempt beard stands about twenty feet away. It’s wearing clothes but it’s clearly a cock. It spies Sadie and waddles toward her. It morphs into a floating asshole as it walks.
–Hey. It stops beside Sadie.
She stares across the street without focusing on anything.
She glances at him.
–I phrase it as an interrogative for shits and giggles. It gestures to itself. –Pun intended.
–Do I know you?
–No, but I know you.
–You work at Artaud?
–Come on, now. I know as well as you do that you don’t interact with the–what do you call them?–plebs.
Sadie searches for something large, maybe a street cone, to shove into this sphincter.
–I know, I know, it says. –I’m an asshole. It laughs. –Literally and figuratively.
–What do you want?
–I just want to tell you to have fun tonight.
She doesn’t respond.
–You do it because you have to do it, it says. –And you have to because it’s who you are. I should know. I made you that way. You can’t disentangle sex, violence, and you. Without one, the other wouldn’t serve a purpose. Or maybe, perhaps, without one, the other two would clash, and you’d–dare I say it?–feel remorse. Maybe empathy. And maybe you’d kill yourself. Ah, don’t listen to me. I’m just thinking out loud. Anyway. Have fun.
It floats past her, blasting an epic fart.
–Who the hell are you? she says. –Why do you presume to know anything about me?
–The name’s Daulton, it says, without glancing back. –And I know more about you than you do.
Cars whizz past her. None stop.
A skeleton in striped prison garbs approaches her. She sighs. Why won’t these monsters leave her alone?
The skeleton passes her, stops, and walks backward.
–Ms. Sade? he says. –I didn’t think a person of your stature would wander the streets with us rabble.
–Get away from me, you cretin.
–I was just joking.
–Go back to the cell you crawled out of.
–Actually, the cell I just crawled out of was an assembly line. Where I work. For you.
–We should reconsider our hiring practices.
–You people on top may think you’re special, but one day things will change, he says. –You treat everyone who isn’t like you like … like we’re subhuman or something. But that’ll change. You’ll see.
–You are subhuman. Now fuck off.
–Remember, Ms. Sade: today’s pig is tomorrow’s bacon.
Sadie bends the skeleton’s hand back, snapping his wrist. He yelps.
–If you don’t get away from me. Right. Now. I’ll cut you into twenty-four thousand pieces.
–Okay, okay, okay.
He spins on his heel and slinks away.
Why didn’t she catch his name? How could she fire him if she didn’t know his name?
But he did have a point.
Everyone not like her is subhuman.