Mia didn’t recognize her own body. She only knew it was her own body because of the familiar abrasion. She identified this scraping as soul against skull. Mia believed in the soul since no one had ever told her otherwise.
Mia was lowered into a vat of gelatinous liquid. It was her first day on the new job at the hospital city.
Mia didn’t have any skin. The liquid was her skin. To the north Mia saw a white cone. The cone emitted pale pink light. Behind her—she waved her arms and rotated—was a dark cube. The cube produced a baby blue light. Disappointed and self-conscious, she did not swim towards either.
The liquid was not empty. It was filled with little detritus and filaments. These were the components that weaved her new skin.
Coming into being, Mia’s new skin spoke to her: “Can’t wait! Can’t wait! Can’t wait for the new day. Oh boy oh boy. Fresh-faced and face-replaced. What’re we gonna look at? What’re we gonna touch? What’re you gonna put in our mouth? Now things will be different. Now things will be. Here’s the rub, there’s the sea. Dead city over the ocean. What a place to be. You were a girl but now you’ve got an all new body. Sure things are hard and painful, but everyone will look at we. Please, please, please love we. We look like the sea. We taper and pulse like the sea. Sometimes the tide comes up and sometimes it’s real far out. One isn’t always the same size, scream and shout. On the first day of a new job, or in the face of violence, for example. How about we? How will we be? We’ll have to be careful. Living in the city of death, it’s like that, but it’s okay. We get to see death every day! Sometimes we’ll get tired and sometimes we’ll want to lay down in one of the beds. But other times we’ll receive fulfillment serving all the deadheads.”
Mia said, “My thoughts are like little plastic chests all of a sudden. I don’t see any hinges. I don’t know how to open them. Each of the chests are a different color and they’re all crammed and crowded inside my head. If I could open them, I think I could make a little space, since in my experience thoughts often lay together and molt towards something new. But now the chests are sharp-angled and jam-packed. What do I have to do? Who built the chests and who put them here? They’re made of synthetic plastic derived from animal byproducts. I can taste them against the back edge of my sinuses.”
Mia could not decide whether she was experiencing pain—as if she’d never experienced it at all. She thought her name was “Pain.”
The liquid she was suspended in began to change colors.
“Everyone needs some help sometimes,” said a nurse, “and that’s okay.”
She sunk a needle into Mia’s arm.
“Think of these as nutrients for your new body.”
Mia was given a uniform: scrubs, gloves and a mask.
“Your job,” said another nurse, “will be to pretend. Everyone here at Hospital City is dead or waiting to die. Essentially, they are the same. But your job is to indicate otherwise. There are many ways to do this. Talk to the patients about current events; act motherly; invoke the future and all its possibilities; make of yourself an image and an object, a handhold on this side of the veil toward which they can reach; bathe them—cleanliness is next to Godliness, and only the living believe in God; listen to their stories and laugh at their jokes; if they ask for something, even if it’s something you know you cannot provide, smile warmly, and say ‘Let me go check on that for you,’ leave the room, wait the appropriate amount of time, return and apologize profusely; say to them, ‘Deathbed? Why that’s the new middle age!’; smile constantly and never let them see how you really feel; try not to feel—especially when you’re with the patients—anything for yourself; offer to sit with them while they sleep, assuring them you’ll be there when they wake; avoid entirely speech of the spiritual or posthuman; never ever say the ‘D-word’; if a patient says the ‘D-word’ pretend not to have heard, always, no matter how many times. Each day your shift ends when your patient dies.”
“I came here with a camera,” said Mia. Her voice was deeper than ever before. “Do you know where it is?”
“Mia’s coming to meet you today,” Davidson said to his parents. “Mia is my daughter. You’ll remember her from my letters. Or well,” Davidson caught himself, “maybe not. It doesn’t matter. She’ll be here in the flesh. She’s very smart and precocious. Your granddaughter.”
In Hospital City, memory is a matter of waste management. The sterile interior of the city—the white walls and rooms, the bland food, the fluorescents blasting away all semblance of shadow—all of it is all by design: the construction of an environment free from referents. This serves to expedite the death process. Since death is the detachment of the self or soul from linear or perceived time, the removal of referents is an economical decision on the part of management, resulting in higher patient turnover.
Mr. God, the warden of the hospital and an adept businessman, designed the strategy, and its implementation was met with unanimous enthusiasm on the part of the shareholders.
Inside the city, memory is drained from the patients as if through a sieve. It’s common knowledge that the dying, en route to death along the deathline, undergo a molting process. The memories of lives soon-to-end flake off like reptilian skin. People, things, ideas and feelings ooze from the body with increasing frequency and imaginative variety. Dying bodies grow sick, since it’s the most economic way to purge (bodies having been inculcated in the mode of economies long before arrival in Hospital City). The dying body shrinks and shrivels, sloughing off life. The nurses come about piously, wielding brooms and dustpans to sweep up the waste. The dead flesh is incinerated at the center of the city and the ashes are spread over the ocean until one day the bed is empty.
Davidson looked at the dream machines plugged up to his mother and father.
Mom’s screen was blank. Dad was dreaming he had long, flowing hair.
“Just be nice. Be yourselves,” said Davidson. “I just know you guys will like her. She might be a little stressed out is all. The hospital’s working her like a dog. I really wish they’d give her a bit more time off, or at least pay more, so she could afford to take time off. Hey, she should see if there’s a nurses’ union. Help me remember to mention that to her?”
Brock was somewhere else. Davidson didn’t know where his brother could be. Brock didn’t either. He was just wandering about down long, blank hallways. He couldn’t say what, but something about imagining the scene of Mia meeting Mom and Dad made Brock feel extremely sad. Sometimes he was still surprised to find himself becoming sad, or sadder, since his natural state, he thought, was already sadness. This wave-like frequency was the only thing that broke up the numbness—but what was the point in that? So he wandered about, standing in elevators and avoiding eye contact in hallways, trying not to try to figure anything out, trying just to feel sad at the base or standard level. He couldn’t determine, psychosomatically, whether moving up or down through the levels of the hospital was more conducive to his undertaking, so Brock progressed haphazardly, and more than once found himself lost.
Mia entered the room.
“Hey there, Mama Mia,” said Davidson, beaming. “Right on time.”
A dark brown stain adorned the front of Mia’s scrubs. She pulled her mask from her face.
“Hi, Dad.” She looked towards the two bodies lying one atop the other in the bunk beds. She tried not to think of them as bodies or patients, but as something new. It was really difficult.
“How are you? How’s work going?” asked Davidson.
Mia gave her dad a hug. “I’m good. It’s going alright,” she said.
“They sure are working you a lot.”
“Well, there are a lot of bills to pay,” said Mia. The faces of her grandparents were moist, the lines that patterned them deepset, like underwater trenches, which Mia had only read about.
Davidson looked at the floor.
“Uh, you’ve come at a really good time,” he said. “Dad’s dreaming about his youth, but I think Mom’s waiting to meet you.”
Mia nodded. She approached the bunk beds, and mounted a little step ladder so as to get eye level. Her grandmother’s eyes were closed, but they fluttered slightly like the wings of a moth. Or a butterfly, but Mia thought of a moth first—isn’t that something?
“Hi Grandma,” said Mia. “I’m Mia. I’m your granddaughter.”
Standing atop the little ladder, Mia held firmly the side of the top bunk and addressed her father’s dying mother.
“Not sure what Dad’s told you about me, but I’m thirty years old. I was born in the city beyond the woods. Mom was a micro-bacterial infection that Dad contracted, which made him Mom, briefly, long enough, but now he’s just Dad. I’ve never been in love. Not sure how I feel about it honestly. I mean not sure how I feel about love, not not sure how I feel about never having been in love—by which I mean, in a romantic sense. I guess I’d like to try it someday, but it’s not as if it’s something that affects me much. Sometimes I forget about it entirely for long periods of time. It’s like it doesn’t even exist in the world to me. Then I’m all of a sudden like, ‘Oh yeah!’ I slap my forehead. That kind of a thing. Did you ever experience anything like that? Sorry if this isn’t what you want to talk about. Oh, I’m a nurse here at the hospital, I should probably mention.”
Grandma’s eyelids fluttered rapidly, cooking something up in there. Sometimes Mia caught a glimpse of the yellow-white orbs through the slits in the skin. She didn’t like it. The irises were nowhere to be seen.
“Come check this out,” said Davidson. “On the machine: I think she’s dreaming something for you.”
Mia hopped down and joined Davidson. Both leaned real close to the small fuzzy screen.
Grandma dreamed of magpies. The magpies circled over something. A drought came and ravaged the land. “What’s it all about?” wondered one of the magpies. “The end of days?” suggested another. “Can’t be,” said a third. “Us magpies are prophesized to be dead long before the end.” “Where’d you hear that?” “Let’s ask that girl down there.” The magpies swooped and perched atop a mailbox near a young Grandma. “Is the world ending?” said a magpie. “What makes you say that?” said Grandma, beautiful and young. “This heat. The glaring sun. No water for the land and animals. Is the sun heading directly towards us?” “Hard to say, since we can’t look at the sun without going blind,” said the girl. “True. We’d never really know, would we?” said a magpie. “The world could end any number of ways,” said another. “True,” said the girl. “But what if it’s ending right now?” said a magpie. “Then the reason doesn’t really matter at all.” “What should we do then?” wondered another magpie. “If the world is ending what should we do with whatever meantime we’ve got left?” The magpies were sunk deep in deliberation. “We should fly to the edge of the sky and see what’s there once and for all,” said one magpie. “We should eat that half a cat we got stashed back at the tree,” said another. “I know what we should do,” said a wise, old magpie. “We should tell each other we love each other. Even if we don’t, we should say it. Words make meaning, and maybe that way, even if the world’s gonna end, and especially if it’s gonna end, we’ll have something outside time. Love is untouched by time except in the most aesthetic sense, since it’s an object. It’s an object without physical form. There’s really nothing else like it. If we’ve got to go, at least we can leave our love behind.” “What are you all blathering about?” said the young girl. “Love and time and death,” said a magpie. “Phooey,” said the girl. The wise, old magpie said: “How can you be so nonchalant in the face of imminent death?” “Well, duh, obviously the world’s not ending,” said the girl. “Look over there.” The magpies looked. A horse was standing atop a hill. It kicked its hooves toward the sun. The sun backed off. “See?” said the girl. “The horses protect this place. Love is one thing, but as long as we have the horses, we’ll be fine.” One by one, all the horses died.
The screen went black.
“Well,” said Davidson.
“Not sure I followed that,” said Mia.
“I think,” said Davidson, furrowing his brow and touching his nose, “For starters, it must mean she’s happy to meet you.”
“You got that from that?”
“I mean, I know she’s happy to meet you.”
“It seemed like she was saying something back to me about love. I thought I was following, but then the ending, when all the horses all around the world were executed—that threw me. I’m not sure what to make of it at all.”
“Oh, right. Hmm,” said Davidson.
“I’m going to talk to her again.”
Mia climbed back up next to her grandmother.
“Thanks for showing me that, Grandma. It was nice getting to see you when you were a girl.”
“Oh! Tell her about your translations,” said Davidson.
“Uh, sure. Well, like Dad said, when we used to live in the city-book I worked as a translator, and I went all over the city and translated buildings and playgrounds and trees and graves, sewers and landfills—everything really. Maybe one day I can bring some of my pages and read to you.”
Mia thought maybe she saw the corners of Grandma’s mouth twitch.
“She’s dreaming again,” said Davidson. “There’s an airport in the middle of the ocean. It’s sinking, but nobody seems worried. Underwater, people are just going about their business as usual, rushing along the moving walkways toward their gate, or paying six-fifty for a cup of coffee. The planes are taking off and flying through the water, or floating or something. It’s a dream. Oh, wait. That’s you. You’re getting on a plane. You’re not carrying any luggage. You look very peaceful. You get a window seat. The plane rises through the ocean. A huge, beautiful school of fish emerge from a seaweed forest. They’re swimming around and alongside your airplane. Maybe they think it’s a whale. Wait, a squid has joined them. And a group of sharks. Animals from all over the aquatic kingdom are joining the procession led by your airplane. You’re smiling inside the window and taking pictures with an old-timey camera. The plane rises through the water until it reaches the waves at the top. It passes through and into the sky. The smattering of sea life hangs about a bit there at the top of the ocean, intermingling, prey and predator alike. Nobody’s messing with anybody else, like it’s as if there’s some collective recognition that what they’ve just shared was special and unique and supersedes violence. The plane disappears into the clouds.”
“Thanks,” said Mia to her grandma. “I’m glad to meet you.”
Next Mia crouched beside her grandfather’s bed. Actually, she thought, Grandma and Grandpa looked almost exactly alike. She could barely tell the difference. She wished she could stop thinking and feeling like a nurse, but she didn’t know what a granddaughter felt like.
“Hi Grandpa, nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Mia, your younger son’s daughter.”
His dream machine started up almost immediately. All the bodies in the whole world were lined up in rows. A figured in a dark robe walked along the rows, marking each body with different-colored stripes of paint. Grandpa—a bit younger, though not as young as Grandma had been in her dream—got his stripe, which was blue-green, and got up from the ground and walked away. He walked home, to a house in a suburb. He walked for a long time to get there. Mia could tell because when he arrived at the house, he was sweaty and older, though it didn’t take that long in the dream on the screen. Grandpa went into the home. Everything was wrapped in plastic. There was a loud crunch as he sat down on the couch. He turned on the TV. Each button he pressed on the remote crunched loudly beneath the plastic. He waited to die or otherwise for someone to come to the door. A couple times Mia thought she saw a female face appear in the window of the front door, but Grandpa never seemed to notice and then the face would disappear in a way which made Mia question whether it was ever there. The face looked kind of like Grandma and kind of like Mia. While he waited Grandpa watched TV. Game shows and talk shows and the news and violence and hate and game shows again. One thing Grandpa always skipped were the sitcoms, since the sets of these shows looked exactly like the plastic-covered room in which he sat. Grandpa never got up from the couch to eat or go to the bathroom. He went to the bathroom on himself until he was empty. The couch turned into an armchair, Mia guessed, since nobody came to sit next to him. The sun set outside the house.
Grandpa rolled over in his hospital bed and the dream ended.
Terra Travis is a writer and multimedia artist living in New Orleans, LA. Her work has appeared in Tilted House Review, dream pop journal, and Prismatica Magazine, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Her novel, “Filthy Rich,” was longlisted for the 2019 Tarpaulin Sky Book Award. She’s on Twitter @burls4ever.