“Neither of you have eaten or drunk anything for twenty-four hours?” Ryan asked, hauling equipment into the room: sloshing plastic buckets, packs of hypodermic needles, coils of tubing, straps. “And no drugs in your system? This is a pure trip. Just two bloods commingling. Any impurities will stop Atlas from getting inside you.”
Stewart didn’t answer. He was too distracted by all the naked couples. The attic floor was covered with bodies, lying belly to swollen belly on bedbug-blackened box springs. Their arms were thrust out above their heads, ears resting on their biceps; they clasped hands like lovers, each couple’s circulatory systems knitted into a single bloodstream.
Stewart felt his arms itch where the needles would be inserted, anticipation and fear churning into a sour mix in his gut. But Tina was ready, as she always was for things like this. She’d dragged him here, telling him they had to do this now, before they outlawed consanguination just like they’d outlawed LSD.
She stared up at Ryan with adoration as he strung the wiring above them with efficient motions. Her breath came in excited hitches.
Though his girlfriend was dry-humping Ryan with her eyes, Stewart took satisfaction in the way Ryan refused to look back. Ryan had wanted to take her to Atlas, but Tina had insisted her boyfriend should be her first time. And Stewart had gone along with it — because if he didn’t, Ryan would.
Once you’d exchanged the most vital bodily fluid, Stewart thought, sex was almost an afterthought. That must be why the consanguinated fucked so much. But Tina kept insisting this wasn’t about sex — it was about hooking into a greater consciousness.
Stewart couldn’t bear to watch Tina watching Ryan, so instead Stewart turned away to watch the other veiners. Plastic tubes sprouted from the arteries at the crooks of their elbows, in the hollows of their necks, at the backs of their legs, the tubes arcing up above them to rest on wire hangers. The corkscrew tubes, threaded with crimson, looked like some bizarre moonshiner’s still.
The tubes twitched with every heartbeat, ferrying blood between the bodies. Thick needles rooted in desiccated flesh. Erratic bursts of staticky whalesong-sounds blared down from speakers bungee-corded to the ceiling. Some made love slowly, thrusting their hips in time to the beat. Almost all the women were in the early stages of pregnancy. But most, girl or boy, just lay naked and insensate with ecstasy.
Stewart found it hard to look away. Before Tina had taken his virginity in Roeville Cemetery, he’d never seen a naked person in the flesh, let alone a room of them. Each couple’s skin was mottled with hives; bruises pooled across their backs with each breath, darkening into blue-black splotches.
Light glimmered in the depths of those splotches. Streaming nebulae floated into view, glowing in translucent neon.
Stewart pulled away. Tina gasped, reaching out to touch the wonderment, but Ryan stopped her with a tolerant smile.
Stewart knew Atlas made you trip, but — you had to get hooked up first, didn’t you? He had no experience with hallucinations. He shook his head, yet the sight remained: the veiners had patches of outer space drifting across their backs , flecked with stars, like lights viewed through deep ocean waves
“I said,” Ryan repeated, directing all his irritation at Stewart, “Did you take any drugs before you came here?”
“I’ve never even done pot.”
“Good. Cleanliness is vital. Give me your cell phones.”
“What if there’s an emergency?”
“There aren’t any. Not while you’re here.”
Stupid control freak, Stewart thought, reaching under the mattress to hand over his cell phone. He’d stashed his, hoping Ryan wouldn’t notice. Tina had, predictably, trusted in Ryan, as she trusted in everyone, and left hers in her pocket.
Ryan had been dealing pot out of the back of the Jiffy Lube not long before his rebirth as Greensdale’s local lord of blood. Now, Ryan had abandoned his Nirvana jean jacket for a sleeveless white shirt that highlighted his sanguine marks — the crusted hole punched into his neck, the plastic valve of his arterial line neatly gauze-bandaged around his left arm. He’d chopped off his mullet and replaced it with an ascetic’s buzzcut to highlight his new-found spirituality. Stewart wondered how long that would last.
“I’ll give it back when you’re done.” Ryan placed the phone into a locked metal box. “And I apologize for the vulgarity, my friends, but there is the issue of compensation.”
“Take it. It’s all there.” Stewart gestured toward his pants heaped in the corner. And it was all there; his summer job’s savings. His first semester in college would now be ramen noodles and Wonder Bread.
“No,” said Ryan. “I want you to hand it to me. As a token of willingness on your spiritual journey.”
Stewart swallowed a groan as he fished his wallet out but his irritation vanished once he saw Tina’s smile. She focused all her affection on him; even in this filthy, abandoned mansion, it was still a thrill to see her naked.
Ryan counted it out, then shoved the bills into his pocket. “I take cost only,” he said. “My goal is to knit the world together. If I could hook the President into the Chinese head of state, we’d have world peace within a week. Would that I could give this to you both as a gift — but alas, hooking up’s spendy these days now that they’ve restricted sales of medical equipment. Do you know what lancets are going for on eBay now?
“No matter. Lie down like the others: bellies touching, arm out where I can put in the shunt.”
As he pressed his skin against hers, Stewart was embarrassed to find his erect penis pressing against Tina’s belly. Even here, he still wanted her. He was so terrified of the day she’d leave him that his whole body ached to get inside her every chance he got.
Yet while he felt humiliated, getting a boner in front of Ryan, Tina got off on it, riding the excitement of the coming trip. She ground her hips against him.
A calloused hand pulled her away. “None of that,” Ryan barked, tugging a seatbelt strap over Stewart’s arm, pulling him tight to the mattress.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” Stewart cried, struggling — but Ryan trapped his legs swiftly, fastening buckles to clasps drilled in the floor.
“You might hurt yourself if you move, chum.” He bound Tina to the mattress. “These are arteries we’re dealing with; you freak out, start yanking tubes, you might bleed to death. You can breed after you’ve learned how to star-surf. But the first time in? Everyone’s strapped.”
You’re just jealous because we’re doing it together, Stewart thought, wriggling, but he was held fast. Tina had just enough play in her bonds to take his free hand in hers. Stewart strained at the bonds for real, ready to tell Ryan exactly what he thought, but Tina shushed him.
“This is for us,” Tina reassured him. “For us. Let it happen, Stewart.” And she craned her neck as far as the restraints would allow to kiss him. Ryan hauled dripping tubing and needles out of a bucket full of bleach, then ripped open a blood-bag with his teeth.
“Wait,” Stewart said, feeling the panic start to take. ”Shouldn’t you see if we’re compatible blood types?”
“That stuff’s overhyped. A little Benadryl gets A into B, no problems.” He shoved a pink pill into their mouths. Then he flicked the moisture off a tube, wrapped his lips around one end, dropped the other end into the blood-bag, which leaked all over the floor. He sucked bright plasma up to the top, putting his thumb over the tip to keep it from slipping back down, then clamped it at both ends. Blood dribbled from his mouth.
“Also, as long as we’re debunking Hollywood legends,” he said, “You need a lot of air in your system to kill you. A couple of cc’s bubbling inside you? No sweat. What they don’t tell you, however, is the first arterial stick hurts like a bitch. The walls of the arteries are wrapped in muscle. You gotta go deep to hit an artery.”
He wiped a bleach-covered rag across Stewart’s arm, then took out a huge needle and a spool of thin wire. Ryan knelt down to look Stewart in the eye.
“A lot of guys cry when I stick it in,” he said. “There’s no shame in it.”
“Just do it,” Stewart said, gritting his teeth. And after the pain subsided, he noted the blood that had squirted from his arm had joined a hundred other dried blood-sprays on the ceiling. He pointed this out to Tina as she screamed, too.
• • •
The three wounds pulsed like new organs, obscenely sensitive. He could feel the thin twinge as the wire coathangers swayed above them, the almost imperceptible movement like a yank at the back of his hair. He felt the heat of hives swelling around the needle tips as his body fought the contaminants. Every millimeter of irritated flesh around the needles made the needle’s foreignness apparent to Stewart, marking a precise outline of what had been done to him.
And he felt the strange coldness of his girlfriend’s blood flowing into him; each push down the tube swelled his neck, flooded his veins full of her.
Why had he ever thought they were compatible?
Tina kept her eyes closed, squeezing his hand tight; each squeeze traveled up his arm to jitter the needles. Her quickened heartbeat felt like fingers drumming on his skin. He held his breath, trying to slow his heart, but with every heartbeat she let out a choked moan, helpless to fend him off.
He wanted to reassure her everything would be all right, but their veins carried the truth: they were unsuitable, out of sync. They always had been, ever since he’d been just another shy AV kid setting up lights for the Greensdale High production of Bye Bye Birdie.
And now they were going to pay the price. This would be the ultimate breakup, a slow death by torture.
Why had she pulled him down from the rafters? She was the star, beautiful and popular, the most artistic girl in the whole school. He wanted to ask her what about him had caught her eye, especially when all the jocks kept asking her out, but she always laughed it off. “You’re such a dear,” she said.
She didn’t understand: without a reason for her staying, he’d always wonder when she might leave.
So he never complained when she treated him like a fix-up project, whisking him off to foreign films and poetry slams and shadowy alcoves in cemeteries because she saw something in him that needed to be filled up with experience.
He’d liked that. He’d liked being hers. Until now.
Now all their differences were made physical: his heartbeat was like him, slow and stolid, resistant to change. And hers was flighty and erratic, unable to settle into a healthy rhythm. Their bodies were battling each other. He could taste her terror on his tongue.
That atonal music blared in his ear, unpredictable squawks and silences.
The only thing that kept Stewart from yanking his shunts out was, as Ryan had predicted, the straps. They bound him tight. He would have howled for freedom, but it would have pissed off Tina, and he knew Ryan would not let them out anyway.
It would be like this until Sunday evening. Thirty hours from now. He’d even lied to his Mom and Dad, told them he’d headed up to Sacamore for the weekend to attend a Broadway play. There would be no rescues, just he and Tina slowly destroying each other.
Thirty hours. Thirty hours to die at a madman’s hands.
• • •
“This music you hear is Tachycardia.” He spoke in hushed tones, as though he was giving them a beautiful gift. “Musicians attempting to emulate Atlas’s voice.”
Stewart wished they’d turn it off. It didn’t sound like music, but some inorganic machine struggling vainly towards life.
Ryan waved up at the speakers. “That is the finest sound system I could afford — the beauty of Tachycardia’s orchestrations is that mere humans cannot hear eighty percent of it. These speakers broadcast ultrasonic sounds and subsonic bass that we register only on a cellular level. But the speakers sound them nonetheless.”
“Why?” Stewart croaked. The needle scraped against his larynx.
Ryan chuckled, shaking his head. Tina also chuckled, the first vocalization she’d made since they had been strapped in, and Stewart felt a jealous pang. Even now, Ryan was breaking their bond, sliding in between them at the moment of death. He wondered whether Tina could feel his hatred pounding inside her brain.
“To remind us of how very small we are, of course.” He had a father’s indulgence of Stewart’s ignorance, which rankled him, but then Ryan added: “You’ll understand once you feel Him in your veins.”
“Who’s Him?” Stewart’s throat gummed up the words.
“Atlas, naturally. Did you forget?”
Stewart had forgotten. Then again, he’d only come to stop Tina from consanguinating with Ryan. All her talk of hooking into some mythical beast was just Tina being mystical again — the way she warded away ghosts by refusing to speak Macbeth’s name in the theater or smudged burnt sage on her wrists for strength before a performance.
This far in, though, he wondered who was crazy.
“You’ll see,” said Ryan, hugging him tightly. “You’ll see.”
• • •
“Look at me,” she insisted. “Look at me.”
Stewart had no other choice; Ryan had, naturally, placed him to face the window, putting his back to the other consanguinated and leaving him isolated. Tina could, if she wanted, lift up her head to look over Stewart’s face and see what everyone else was doing. He couldn’t. Moving his neck would just drive the needle in deeper.
She reached over with her free hand and interlaced her fingers with his.
“Together,” she said. Her eyes had never seemed so beautiful.
He lost himself in her, and as he matched her breathing, their heartbeats began to circle each other like boxers — not together, not yet, but at least aware of each other.
Ryan wondered what it was like for the pregnant couples, their babies’ heartbeats tossed about like a shell in the surf. It didn’t matter. He and Tina were consanguinated now.
Now they shared blood, Stewart understood that being bonded meant learning new habits; it was like learning to walk with four legs instead of two. Being together was not enough. They would have to learn how to die as one.
Because this was still killing them.
His mouth was dry. His body itched like an anthill. He looked at Tina’s face, trying to see if she had black bruises filled with stars, but she had nothing but red welts and he wasn’t sure whether he had seen that anyway.
Had Ryan drugged them? He could have. Stewart hadn’t seen what went into that bucket. But he’d seen things before that.
Could it be an aerosol LSD? Such things existed, right?
Tina shivered in goose-pimpling spasms, reacting to something he had pumped into her.
I’m sorry, he mouthed, his tongue so parched it stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“Don’t apologize,” she told him. “It’s you. Your essence.”
How could he ever have wanted Ryan to share this with her? This glorious unraveling? The enlightenment of bare survival, left with only one human to live with? There was no romance in this, no more than there was romance in clinging to a board after a shipwreck, but romance was not the same as intimacy. This experience was them, and only them.
He didn’t wonder why she’d chosen him, now. Those thoughts were useless, luxuries of a better time.
His world had narrowed to Tina. Her world had narrowed to him. If they died before Sunday, at least they had that.
• • •
“Everyone hates the bedbugs at first,” Ryan said. ”But you’ll love them, once you’ve ridden Atlas.”
Stewart found that hard to believe. They scuttled underneath his ribs. He couldn’t feel them feasting, but he felt the sores breaking open as they dropped off.
Ryan brushed his hand across Stewart’s back. Stewart heard the soft patter of carapaces falling to the floor.
“We keep them for two reasons,” Ryan said. “First off, they go through what you’re going through. Do you know how they breed?”
“Nuh.” Stewart s tongue felt like cardboard.
“The females have no vaginas. The males stab the females with hypodermic genitalia, ejaculating into their body cavity.” He pushed his index finger through the closed fingers of his fist, miming the action. “Don’t you see? They, too, achieve life through their wounds.”
Ryan was hushed with wonder. Tina cooed in appreciation.
“It’s a beauty that exists nowhere else. But that’s not why we tolerate them.”
“Whuh then?” Stewart asked.
“Because they’re life, of course,” said Ryan.
• • •
He swallowed back envy. His girlfriend wanted Ryan; hell, he wanted Ryan. He didn’t want to need the bastard, but the Gatorade’s smell was life itself. How long had it been since he’d had water? Two days? Three?
He was dependent on this Jiffy Lube madman for survival. He suppressed a surge of obscene gratitude, furious.
Stewart could hear nothing but the sloshing as Ryan walked the plastic cooler around to each couple, then moist slurping sounds as Ryan fed them. There were whispers, back slaps, attaboys.
Then Ryan stood behind him. For a moment, Stewart thought Ryan would stand there just long enough to give him hope, then drag the Gatorade away.
Instead, Ryan knelt down to give him a shoulder massage.
Stewart cringed, terrified Ryan would jitter the needle in his neck, but Ryan’s hands were trained; he knew just where to touch. Stewart felt like a plant being tended in some exquisite garden.
“Ah, Stewart,” Ryan whispered. ”Who knew I’d still find you here?”
Stewart wondered where else he could have gone. Ryan unspooled a tube, placed it between Stewart’s lips. Stewart sucked hard. A trickle of sweet fluid coated his throat.
It was the most delicious moisture ever.
“I was certain you’d back out,” Ryan said. “I told Tina, he’s just another unenlightened bag of flesh; he’ll leave, or start screaming in the bonds the second I get him in. He’ll tell the newspapers how horrible we all are, all without ever riding Atlas. But she told me, no, he’s got depth, he just needs a chance. And you’ve stayed, my friend. You proved me wrong. And soon, you will ride.”
He plucked the tube out.
“Not too much.” Ryan pressed Stewart’s head down. ”Don’t want you to throw up. Just enough to keep you alive long enough to entice Him. He’ll come.”
He moved the tube over to Tina, who still muttered the same word repeatedly. And as Ryan fed her, Stewart realized what she was saying:
Atlas. Atlas. Atlas.
“She wants wisdom so badly,” Ryan murmured, ruffling her hair. “And as she rides Atlas, she’ll drag you beyond the edge of the universe. You’re a lucky man, Stewart, to have a woman who sees so much.”
In a past time, that might have made Stewart feel insignificant. But here, with their bodies so interlocked for this journey, it felt like the purest truth Stewart had ever heard.
• • •
Their heartbeats had, finally, synced up — but they did not beat together. Tina’s heart had developed an erratic, stomping pattern that would have killed her if it had beaten alone. But like a dancing partner, Stewart’s heartbeat had adopted a fluttering counter-beat, a syncopated cadence that pushed when Tina pulled.
It was a music they created with their own bodies, so elaborate it took hours to fathom, a progression uniquely suited to carry blood through two people. A perfect art.
Stewart kept forgetting the straps were there. He tried to pull her chest against his, to bring her heart closer to his, and was continually surprised to feel restraint. He supposed this was delirium, but he didn’t care; they were together, strapped in for survival.
His body wept with sores; his eyelids stuck together. But he didn’t need to see Tina; he felt her, and her presence within him made his own presence starkly apparent.
Except there was something else within them.
He wouldn’t have been aware of it, hours ago. But now that he felt his own body so clearly, felt the fragile ecosystem of himself breaking down, he felt the faintest tip of something invading them from the inside. They had conjoined their own circulatory systems to become one entity, working in unison — and now they had stabilized, reaching a form of critical mass, something else reached out to intertwine with them.
He opened his eyes, stickily; lightless pools blossomed across Tina’s cheeks.
“Atlas,” Tina said, rapturous, then coughed herself insensate.
The Gatorade, Stewart thought, he drugged the Gatorade. But he didn’t believe that. This feeling was anchored in flesh.
Her heartbeat shifted, making room for the third. So did Stewart’s. It grew inside them, a shadow on an X-ray. And when Atlas’ first pulse thrummed through them hours later it was like giving birth, a huge beast squeezing through them, shoving their organs against their ribs.
Tina flung back her head and screamed, as did Stewart, and he realized everyone else in the room was howling as Atlas’ pulse swept them away from their bodies, out of the room, into the depths of space.
He couldn’t time it, Stewart thought, Ryan couldn’t time us all together —
He was torn from his eyes.
• • •
This was the space between stars.
He flexed his hands and felt nothing; there was not a breath of air, not a mote of dust, not a droplet of fluid. He hurtled through emptiness, on the way to more emptiness. Distant smudges of diffuse illumination — galaxies? — whirled around him.
That was fine. This was just a bad trip, was all. Stewart had read about those. It was awful, this surety that he’d be here for decades, flying from nothing to nothing. But eventually he’d wake up next to Tina.
Stewart counted to a hundred.
He counted to a thousand.
Then he counted to sixty thousand, four hundred, and fifty-three before he felt the seams of his sanity starting to stretch.
You couldn’t count to sixty thousand and not wake up, couldn’t you? Had Sunday night passed? Must have. Maybe the whole week had passed.
Maybe he was dead.
He tried to scream, tried to wake up wake up wake up, but his muscles were stiff as frozen hamburger. His eyes, flecked with snowflakes, remained fixed upon the murky star-blurs that whirled around him.
Was this what happened to all good little boys who strapped themselves in for Atlas? Did they all die? Or did they go insane, drawing inside their heads like a turtle inside its shell?
He tried to listen to his heartbeat, to feel the sync with Tina — but time had died within him, and his chest had been hollowed to hold its corpse. His body was as silent as a gravestone.
What a gift my whole world was, he thought. So much earth and wind and water. A wealth of existence, and he’d squandered it all. Now he was caught between whirling light and dead blackness and though he kept counting, the numbers never ran out.
A truth crept inside him: there was no Tina, not really. Compared to this nothingness, Tina was a discarded fraction, a rounding error — just like those smudges. Each star in that distant galaxy was a grain of sand floating in a sea, and he was a smaller grain drifting in that water hoping to touch the sand, but it was better to think the sand was an illusion, matter was an illusion, life was an illusion.
The truth was the void. Everything shrank to nothing before that.
He counted more, and by the time he reached a hundred thousand he forgot Tina’s kisses. Five hundred thousand repetitions scooped out his memories of sunlight. A million vacuumed away his name. Ten million, and just before Stewart’s mind popped like an air-stuffed vein, he noticed the shine behind the stars.
It was no more than a faint shimmer. But his cracked lips mouthed the name: Atlas.
It was not aware of him, no more than Stewart would have been aware of a single blood cell. Yet it was alive, and he was engulfed within it.
Thank you thank you thank you, Stewart thought, feeling something near him after endless revolutions, flooding him with remembrance — and as he beamed waves of worship at Atlas he zoomed closer, except that couldn’t be happening but oh God he was melting into the light, hooking into its lustrous consciousness
And he was Atlas.
Its body’s hazy caverns were continually torn apart by the gravitational well of stars that passed through it, scattershot with a trillion self-repairing wounds. It rode the stars out of some long-ebbing inertia, absorbing the dead nebulae and burst stars and shattered planets into its body, more of a pulsating gas than a creature.
It had no conscious thought, no intellect — but Stewart was seized with triumph nonetheless. It was enough for life to exist, spread so far against such a darkness.
He settled into its body’s aeon-slow pulse. Its organs retreated from each other with the inevitability of tectonic plates, forming puckered, encircling ridges. Atlas was swelling, engulfing —
It’s winning, Stewart thought in a paroxysm of joy, seeing the beauty of reproduction, the fierce fight to fill the universe with consciousness. It would scavenge enough mass to split apart, and then there would be two beasts to fight the darkness.
He slid down the glimmering trails of Atlas’ sensory organs, sifting through blank seas to find his way back to Tina. He saw the planets — specks of rock, fearfully clustered together for warmth around a guttering match. Everything Stewart knew was a thin film on a dust mote. The galaxy did not hold life; it held emptiness, loneliness, so much that if he had been able to see it all it would have filled his brain like cold sea water rolling into a drowning man’s lungs.
But here, bobbing fitfully in a sea of coincidental forces, was a sliver of life. It wasn’t Tina who was amazing — it was the fact that she could create more Tinas, that we could expand and devour like Atlas, a single atom doubling within the void, and doubling, and doubling, and doubling…
He carried the truth of existence inside him, a glacial coldness. But that terrible absence made this world so magnificent. Tears streamed from his eyes as Ryan hugged him tight, called him brother.
Stewart pressed his face against Ryan’s shoulder and smelled his million scents; the universe was nothing but gaps, but here was another human being, so precious. So close.
He never wanted to be separated from anyone again.
Tina, shivering, crawled over to join him.
“Did you see?” she asked, beaming with delight. “Did you see what we need to do?”
He nodded, so grateful for the gift she’d given him. She kissed him, and the fetid breath on her lips was the growth of organic matter, everything between and inside them a miracle made new. Soon they would make love, all of them, determined to be like Atlas.
One by one, the other consanguinated made their way to their new brethren in the corner and hugged them, exulting in the feel of soft skin underneath their hands, ready to copulate and breed and fill that void. This was all the understanding that existed.
This flesh. This blood.