Edition 26: Selfie by Lee Murray
Eve has come on this trip at the behest of her sister. No one could have predicted what would happen, or how it would change Eve’s very real plan to end it all.
Lee put together a story that was a literal example of two beings working together toward a common goal: life. Be warned though, Lee is an expert in the horror that leaves your stomach churning. SY
Was I dead?
I peered through the fog.
I was dead: I had to be, because I could see an angel. But if I was dead, why was my head throbbing like the inside of a nightclub? People were shouting and moaning. Somewhere nearby a car alarm was blasting. I smelled petrol.
I blinked. Blinked again. Slowly, my eyes cleared.
Not an angel, then. Just a man with a pigeon flapping on his shoulder, the soft grey insides of its wings like an angel’s at his back.
“Miss? Can you hear me? Are you okay?” the man shouted over the din.
Was I okay? I frowned. I felt…different. My back was sore. Probably from landing on the ground. I’d got off the tour bus with the others. The tour my sister had insisted I go on to ‘take me out of myself’, the one she’d paid for before practically shoving me onto the bus.
Day three. I remember we’d stopped in this little square…I’d been about to take a selfie with the statue—not for me, I didn’t give a shit about the stupid statue, that was for Julie’s benefit, so later, when I was dead, she wouldn’t blame herself so much.
Anyway, I’d been lining up the photo and then…nothing.
“What happened?” I croaked.
The man shook his head, the bird’s flapping wings framing his face like a halo. “I don’t know. An explosion. A nuclear event. Something big.” He extended a hand. “Here, let me help you up.”
I curled my fingers around his. “There’s a pigeon on your back,” I said. Of course, he knew. He must know. It was a pigeon.
“I tried shooing it off. It won’t go.” He pulled me upwards.
Pain shot through my back and I gasped. “Stop!” I shrieked.
He let go and I lay back, breathing deeply, the way women do when they’re in labour, at least the ones on television. Maybe it wasn’t really like that. I didn’t know. Another pain, a different sort of pain, sliced sharp and deep in my chest.
“Get her off me!”
Ah, I was lying on someone. So that was why Pigeon-Man had been helping me up. I tried to roll to one side to release him, but the pain in my back was excruciating. I sucked in a breath.
“Oh shit.” Pigeon-man flapped in agitation. “You’re fused, aren’t you? It’s not just your hand.”
“Get off!” the person beneath me—a man—complained. He shoved at my shoulders, pushing me off. The small of my back burned. It was crippling.
“You’re hurting me,” I wailed.
“Well, you’re crushing me.”
I recognised the voice. It was a guy from the bus. The one three seats behind the driver, who’d chatted with everyone and shown them pictures of his kids. He’d tried to catch my attention, start up a conversation, but I’d avoided him. Whatever he had, I wasn’t interested. But it hadn’t stopped him trying to photo-bomb my selfie. He’d been standing behind me: I’d seen him on the screen.
“I can’t,” I protested. “My back hurts.”
“It’s because you’re fused,” the Pigeon-man said.
He giggled, a hysterical cackle that sent a shiver through me, and pointed at my right hand. I lifted it to see what was so funny. My stomach dropped. For an instant, all sound melted away. I closed my eyes. Opened them again.
“I already told you. You’re fused.”
My fist had been reduced to a club, my selfie stick welded to a swollen blob of purple flesh. Molten metal seeped between my tendons. Suddenly, the wings on the man’s shoulder made sense.
Pigeon-man gave a stiff nod, then lifted his chin indicating the man beneath me. “You’re fused to him, too.”
My eyes fluttered and the sky disappeared.
The guy underneath woke me, his voice in my ear. That, and the searing in my back. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been out. Maybe only seconds.
“We’ve got attached somehow,” he said.
Dazed, I lifted my arm and looked at the lump. My hand was a selfie stick, and I was fused with someone. I twisted my head, and took in the ruined monument, the grimy cracks between the cobbles, some drifting litter.
“If you’re looking for the bird guy, he pissed off and left us to it. We need to get up,” the guy attached to me said. “We need to find out what’s going on.” He paused, huffing.
I’m not big, but I must have been deadweight on his chest.
“I’m going to roll onto my left side. I need you to roll with me,” he said.
I did as I was told. We turned together, like an old married couple spooning, and then sat up. It took some manoeuvring. I put my good hand down on the pavement. His went out too. Eventually, we struggled to our feet.
“Fuck,” he whispered.
I wanted to stagger backwards, but he held me in place with his weight. The newlyweds from the tour were fused together, along with four passengers they’d been posing with. They were sprawled on the ground in a mass, writhing like an upturned cockroach. The bus driver hadn’t been so lucky—or maybe he was, depending on how you looked at it. He was fused to the bus, slumped forward, the side mirror welded to his skull like a set of weird antlers. He’d tried to free himself because his shoulder was dripping blood, half his face torn away to the bone.
Across the square, there was a whoosh.
“Shit! It’s going to blow!” screamed the man at my back.
All I felt was a dull resignation. I was going to die. I couldn’t run; he was attached to me. We were a couple of kids lined up for the three-legged race, and no time left to practise.
My companion had other ideas. He slipped his hands under my thighs, lifting my feet off the ground, and ran, carrying me out in front of him like a sack of potatoes. I thought my head would come off. My back and hips screamed with pain as he jostled and jerked us forward. He ducked around a corner and curled his body around mine, his heart thumping against my back, his breath in my ear. The world rocked. Even out of the line of the explosion, debris rained on us: bits of metal, rocks. I coughed, choking on dust.
Then, everything went quiet. Even the car alarm stopped squawking.
Using the wall to brace us, we got to our feet and looked back. The blue-black smoke cleared. The bus was a chewed carcass, a large piece of it thrown across the square. I squinted at the misshapen hunk of metal, a child’s bloodied arm emerging from the green paintwork. I swallowed hard. And the photo group? What about them?
“This way,” I urged, shambling forward dragging my new body-double with me. I rounded the remains of the bus and stopped dead in my tracks. The cockroach was still on its back, its flesh roasted black. A curl of blue smoke rose from the blistered corpse.
“Bend,” I hissed.
“Bend over. Just do it!”
We barely made it. Even so, some vomit splashed onto the cuffs of my jeans.
When I was done, I pushed myself upright.
“No.” I wiped the back of my mouth with my forearm. “You think it’s like this everywhere?” I said.
Behind me, I felt him stiffen. “Maybe.”
An old man shuffled past us in a daze. He’d been walking his dog. The leash was melted about his arm, the chain hanging like a warrior’s flail, except instead of a spiky ball on the end there was a black terrier. A blackened terrier. The dog’s tongue lolled out the side of its mouth. Dead.
The man stopped. “Which way to the hospital?” he said.
“I don’t know,” replied my companion.
The old man dropped his gaze to look at me, eyes watery. I shook my head for no. He nodded, and wandered away.
“We should get going,” the guy behind me said.
“We need to find a phone. I need to find out if my kids are okay, and you probably have people to call, family…”
For a second, I wondered if Julia and Errol were okay, but even if she hadn’t known it, I’d said my last goodbyes three days ago. As for Paul, he’d already moved on. I’d heard he was dating someone else.
“Look, we’ll find a phone, see if our families are okay, and then we’ll decide what to do. You okay with that?” he said in my ear. I nodded. “Good. Right foot first.”
Like drunken friends leaving a party, we shambled to the edge of the square, staggering around bricks and bodies. We shuffled for an hour. Until my back felt like I’d slept on a bed of nails and my wrist was throbbing. My nostrils were full of the stench of burning flesh.
I stopped, my shadow forced to stop too. “I can’t,” I said.
“You can’t what?” he said.
“I can’t do this. Be fused to you.”
“Believe me, it isn’t what I had in mind for my post-divorce holiday either.”
“How long do you think we can do this?” I whispered. “A few days. A week?”
I couldn’t see his eyes, but his voice softened. He gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Look, you’re tired and you’re in shock. Things look bleak now, but we’ll get help. There has to be someone. That old man was looking for a hospital. We’ll find it. There’ll be people there; doctors who can help separate us.”
He was right. Doctors had contributed to splitting up Paul and me.
Shaking my head, I let my body slump, forcing him to take all my weight. My spine blazed with pain.
“No way,” he said, his voice angry. He grabbed my arms and pulled me to his chest. “You don’t get to give up.”
“No.” Technically, I wasn’t sitting down. Just hanging off him. That poem about the albatross and the mariner sprang to mind.
He didn’t do me the courtesy of arguing. Just lifted me by my legs again and hauled arse. I let him do it. By the time we spotted the sign for the hospital, my shoulders and arms were damp with his sweat.
He put me down. “You have to walk,” he puffed. Calmer now, I nodded.
We followed the street signs, walking on the road. Apart from the abandoned cars, there were fewer obstacles. Any people we found were dead or dying, fused to their vehicles. Everywhere metal seeped into purpled flesh, raised lumpy tissue like a keloid scar. Where we could, we checked the cars. There were plenty of cell phones; melted into dashboards, welded to people’s palms, their thighs, the sides of their skulls. None of the fused phones worked and the only other phone we found had been smashed.
People spewed from the office buildings like a gross procession of cyborgs. They were hybridised: to their phones, their coffee cups, a printer. I saw one guy scooting along in a computer chair, his arse bonded to the seat.
No one seemed to know much. The power was out. Television stations down. A few radio stations were still operating, but they didn’t know any more than us.
At one point we came across a line of kindergarten kids. Lined up on the sidewalk like gingerbread men, the kids were tethered by their teacher to a traffic signal. A group of adults, the ones who still had limbs, were trying to free them by hacking the woman’s body away from the pole with a hacksaw, carving her off in pieces like ham off the bone. The kids were screaming. Had the woman been dead before they’d started carving?
“Nothing we can do for them,” my companion said, hurrying us away.
There was no god. At least, not one I wanted anything to do with. What kind of god allowed babies to be strung together like plastic beads? Flambéed into car parts? Dissolved in a mother’s womb before she had a chance to know them? If there was a god, he was an arsehole, a spiteful vindictive bastard. Why else would he take all these people and leave me still alive?
Wait. I didn’t have to be alive. I put my left arm across my body and felt in my pocket. They were still there. Smiling, I retrieved the silver blister pack. There was always a silver lining. Holding the pack flat against my stomach with my selfie stick, I punched out a pill and swallowed it. Punched out another.
“What have you got there?”
I didn’t answer, just shoved the next pill into my mouth. I was gobbling the fourth one, when he yanked my arm backwards, wrenching the blister pack with it. The muscles in my back spasmed and I gasped.
“Hey, give them back!” I twisted as far as I could, swiping wildly, but the pain was too much.
“Stop struggling,” he demanded. He held the packet beyond my reach and read off the label: “Valium. What the fuck? You just took four of these.”
“My back hurts.”
“I hurt too, but Valium isn’t a pain killer.”
“No kidding, Einstein,” I mumble.
Something went off inside him. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it. Trembling with rage, he roared into my ear, “We survive an apocalypse and you want to off yourself?”
My lip quivered. “What difference does it make?” I’d been planning to check out anyway.
He gripped my shoulders, his fingers digging into my skin and shook me. “You’ll be dead, that’s what!”
“So?” I sounded pitiful.
He slammed a hand against a wall. “You selfish fucking cow. So you don’t want to live? Well, that’s too bad. Until we can find a way to separate, we’re in this together.” He was breathing hard, his heartbeat thumping against my back. I said nothing, but a fat tear rolled down my face. I brushed it away.
After a while, I felt his heartbeat slow. He straightened. I straightened with him. He sighed. “What’s your name?” he said.
I hiccupped. Scuffed my foot against the curb.
“Come on. I’m already in your pants, you can tell me your name.”
He snorted. He had a problem with my name? I pulled away from him, pain shooting through my back. “No, stop. You don’t understand.” He gave a laugh. “I’m Steve. My name is Steve. Get it? Steve.”
It took me a second to catch on.
Even our fucking names were fused.
We weren’t the first to arrive at the hospital. Cars littered the street leading up to the building. An ambulance blocked the entrance, its back doors hanging open and its contents spewed over the blacktop. We made our way around the swinging doors, shuffling wide to avoid a pool of blood.
“Don’t look inside,” Steve said, so of course I did.
It was a woman and her baby. They’d been attached like us, but now they were separated. Maybe she’d done it herself. Or maybe a paramedic had done it. It didn’t matter who, because it hadn’t worked. I clutched at the ambulance door to steady myself. Blood everywhere. Dark, greasy coagulated blood. It had seeped into blankets and bandages, dribbled to the floor, then run along the aisle of the vehicle and onto the ground.
The woman’s arm hung over the side of the gurney, the ragged sinews dangling. A fly buzzed over the tattered limb. Had she been reaching for her baby on the opposite gurney? She needn’t have bothered: her fingers were still embedded in the infant’s thigh.
“Come on,” Steve said.
I flinched as he patted my arm.
Inside, the lobby was dark. A bloodied doctor, a scalpel fused to his fist, was slumped on a bench. He waved his scalpel at us as we approached.
“Back off! Just back off. I don’t care how easy you think it’ll be, I’m not doing it okay? I’m not separating you.”
“But we need help,” Steve said over my shoulder.
Wiping his good hand through his hair, the doctor scoffed. “Do you know how many people I’ve helped today? Sixteen people. Know how many have lived? Only three.”
“You saved three,” Steve said. “Three people are alive because of you.”
The doctor shook his head. “The only able bodied nurse is overwhelmed. With no proper aftercare, what do you think the chances are for those people?” He waved his scalpel again. “I did it all with this. Just rinsed it between patients.” He sighed. “At best, I gave them enough time to say goodbye to their families. They’ll all be dead from infection the day after tomorrow.”
He got up and stumbled away.
“Wait!” Steve shouted. “Do you have a phone?”
Turning, the doctor fished in his pocket and took out a cell phone, throwing it at us. “It’s almost flat.”
He took off at a run as more people-hybrids shuffled in in search of aid.
We huddled in a corner, Steve holding the phone out in front of both of us, while he punched in his ex’s number.
“Pick up, pick up,” he mumbled.
No answer. He dialled again.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He gave the phone to me. I had no one to call.
“I have to go home,” he said abruptly.
“Where’s that?” I said.
“But that’s 400 kilometres. The road will be blocked.”
“I have to.”
We didn’t leave straight away. We raided the hospital canteen first, helping ourselves to muesli bars, bottled water, and packs of Ibuprofen, which we stuffed into a canvas paramedic bag. You’d think with the two of us, it would’ve been quick, but the irony was everything seemed to take twice as long.
“We should take the ambulance,” I said, as we exited the hospital. “I reckon the gas tank will be full. If we need to, we can sleep in it.”
I didn’t say it was because the ambulance’s seats were deep and the windscreen had better visibility. We both knew I was going to have to sit on his lap and steer while he worked the accelerator.
“Okay,” Steve said.
The keys were in the ignition. Obviously, paramedics didn’t think anyone would steal their ride. Leaving the woman on the gurney, we pushed her out of the interior, but, all arms and legs, we lost control and it took off like a kid on a waterslide, the gurney skewing sideways. The woman tumbled bodily onto the grass. I felt terrible. We hadn’t done it on purpose, but it was as if we’d disrespected her somehow. I picked up her baby, cradling her as we struggled down from the ambulance. I laid the infant beside her mother on the grass verge, and covered them both with a blanket, the bloody blotches making them look like the overlarge cocoon of an exotic butterfly. Then we sluiced out the interior of the ambulance.
It was an hour later and mid-afternoon before we were on the road, heading south out of town.
Our first attempt at driving was pathetic. Like a learner driver, we lurched onto the curb. I had to talk Steve through it, telling him when to accelerate and when to brake, while I watched the road, swerving left and right to avoid the abandoned vehicles. Even worse, were the hybrids who tried to accost us, balancing on the running board, and hanging off the window, pleading for help. I wanted to stop, but Steve was working the accelerator and he reminded me we couldn’t help everyone. We weren’t doing so well ourselves. When we’d got the hang of driving, Steve tried the phone again. Still nothing from his family. “You didn’t call anyone,” he said.
“Brake slower,” I replied.
“You don’t want to call your parents? Siblings? A boyfriend maybe?”
“I had a miscarriage. Paul left me.” Running over the curb, I drove a few metres, then found the road again.
“Your boyfriend left you because you lost a baby? What an arse.”
“I cried a lot…accelerate now.”
“That’s not why he left,” Steve said.
“No. He said I was too clingy.”
Steve chuckled. ‘Too clingy, huh?” I glanced up and caught his brown eyes twinkling in the rear view mirror.
I dragged my eyes back to the road. “So, what about you?” I said. “Why did you and your wife split?”
He sighed heavily. “I don’t know. We grew apart, I guess. I got busy with work, she was busy with the kids and her yoga practice, and in the weekends there was the garden, kids’ sports; we never saw each other. It’s been two years. We’re friends because we have to be. I can’t lose the kids, they’re like a part of me.”
I knew what he meant. Since I’d lost the baby, I hadn’t felt whole.
We drove in silence until we came across a milk tanker blocking the road. There was no way the ambulance would get through.
“You’re squashing me, anyway,” Steve said.
Grabbing the paramedic bag we tumbled out and walked. It was slow. Like the longest sack race ever. The afternoon was gorgeous: a sunny blue-skied ‘great to be alive’ day, as if the gods were apologising for the morning’s catastrophe. We stopped to crack open one of the bottles from our hospital stores and shared it between us. Walked some more. My back started to ache again from the exertion. Steve couldn’t help kicking stones into my shoes.
Out in the middle of a field, a man fused to his tractor, called to us. “Hey, help me.”
“We could give him some water,” I said, but neither of us deviated from the road. We had days of walking ahead and limited supplies.
“He’s dead, anyway,” Steve said quietly.
On the outskirts of the next town we came across a line of people sitting at a bus stop. Joined at the hip—literally—the five of them were like the fingers of a glove. They stared at us listlessly as we passed.
“See, they’re moving,” one of the men shouted. “We should get up too. Go somewhere.”
“What’s the use?” another replied.
“We should at least take a vote!”
They were still sitting there when Steve and I rounded the bend, proof that nothing ever gets done by committee.
We slept that first night under a tree on the side of the road. Wrapped in a foil blanket from the ambulance, his heart beating next to mine, Steve told me about his kids: Marion, his little girl, and his son, Arty, just five. Later, I rested with my head on his shoulder, strangely comforted by his snoring.
The second day, the bodies started to bloat, flies crawling over them.
Steve called his ex for the last time—the phone rang and rang and finally gave up the ghost. “Doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “They could all be fine.”
In the next town, a pair of men were beating a hybrid in the middle of the street while another man, dragging a big screen TV melded to his arm, leaned against a power pole to watch. We skirted the towns after that, slipping in and out of outlying houses in search of water and food. On the fourth night, Steve found a farmhouse with an outside generator.
“I’m going to have shower,” I said, pulling forward, the pain in my back now a permanent ache. Well, I was hardly going to be coy, was I? The past few days he’d been right behind me when I’d peed. Exhausted, we staggered up the driveway past a car, a dead woman in the driver’s seat. We left her there and went inside. There was food in pantry, clean clothes in the laundry basket, and in the back room, we found a baby in its crib. The stench of ammonia was enough to make my eyes water. It wasn’t fused, but without its mother, the poor thing had starved to death.
We’d seen plenty of shitty stuff, but the sight of the baby was the last straw for Steve. He sank to the ground in front of the crib, forcing me down with him. His body shook. “Lisa was taking the kids to Hawaii. I don’t know exactly when they were leaving. They might have been on the plane…”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. I know it. They’ve probably been dead for days, but I’ve dragged us across country on this wild goose chase just in case…We’ve both seen what’s going on. It’s hopeless.”
“We’ll have some food, get showered,” I said. “We’ll feel better.”
“You don’t get it. How am I supposed to be a father to them? Have you even looked at us? We’ve turned into some kind of two-headed monster.”
“We’re not a monster.”
“No? Well, I’m not a man any more either.”
I twisted, but even straining my neck the angle was impossible. “Of course you’re a man. Don’t be ridiculous.”
He laughed. “I’ve got a bird’s eye view here, Eve. I’m telling you it’s gone.”
I didn’t know what to say. My hand was gone.
He blew out slowly then, ruffling the hair off my nape as he leaned close. “You know, before all this, if you’d asked me, I’d have given my right arm to be buried in you.”
I held up my selfie stick.
“Yeah, so you lost your arm. You’ve got two,” he said bitterly.
“Steve, look, there’ll be‒”
I didn’t get to finish. He put his hands on either side of my head, turning my head from one side to the other until I saw stars. “Look around, Eve. You see anyone? Civil defence? The military?” He paused. “You know what? You’re right.”
He dropped his voice then, the resignation sending a shiver up my spine. “Nothing will ever make this right. Let’s just call it a day. We’re going to die anyway, we may as well get it over with.”
He was fumbling with something. I heard a faint crackle.
“What are you doing?”
He didn’t answer.
I craned my neck back, but I couldn’t see. “Steve, what are you doing?”
He laughed. “I’m doing what you wanted, what I should have done all along.”
My heart sped up. The pills! I’d forgotten about them. The blister pack crackled again.
“Don’t worry, I’ve left you some.” He slipped the pack into my right pocket, his breath tickling neck.
My mind raced. I wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. No more endless walking. No more ripping pain in my back. Sure, there would be pain, but afterwards…oblivion. Isn’t that what I wanted? I’d planned on dying on this trip anyway. There was nothing left here for me. My baby had died, and Paul had moved on. Only Julie would miss me, if she wasn’t already dead.
At my back, the meds were working quickly. Steve’s pulse was already slowing, the weight of his body pressing down on me, crushing my lungs.
His head slumped on my shoulder.
“Steve?” I whispered.
He grunted something incoherent. He was losing consciousness. My own brain was hazy—the drugs jumping the fence to invade my body. The woman from the ambulance floated into my mind, her mutilated arm stretching across to touch her child.
Suddenly, something shifted in me. I didn’t want to die.
I wanted to live.
But why now, when the world was going to shit? Maybe it was nothing more than my survival instinct kicking in. Maybe Steve had given me purpose. Something, someone else to worry about. I didn’t know.
Steve’s heartbeat grew weaker. My own heart would stop soon, too. How long did I have? Maybe just minutes. The revelation hit me. If I wanted to live, if I wanted us both to live, I had to do something now.
Lowering my head, I gripped the railings of the crib and heaved us upright, the pain like a switchblade along my spine. Grimacing under Steve’s weight, I dragged us towards the wall, dropping to one knee, thighs burning.
My heart faltered.
“No!” I said. “We’re not dying.” I gritted my teeth. “Not today.”
I thrust my selfie-stick into the electric socket.
Lee Murray writes fiction for adults and children, twice winning New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction and fantasy writing. However, she has only recently turned her hand to horror, and finds teenagers to be far more terrifying than spiders or zombies.