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Flesh-Eating Cockroaches

Before, 1842 
     Through the sewer. Up the drainpipe. Latch onto the abandoned shack’s metal pole and climb. Ignore your mud-streaked hair and the incredulous glances. Jump over the cracked fence near the end of the alleyway. Stumble into the dirt. Continue nonetheless. Cross the street without looking because only idiots fear death. Collapse on the sidewalk. Breathe. In and out. That doesn’t help. 
     Do it anyway. 
     There is a dog with three women licking the shoes of a cockerel. No, wrong. My body reforms, limbs splayed on the ground. Everything in place? Something shifts behind me and a finger lodges between my ring and my index. My eyes twitch at the back of my head. For a moment, the woman with the dogs stares down into gaping, soulless holes, before I revert myself and sit up, coughing blood. 
     The woman screams. 
     Goddammit. Does it always have to start like this? 
     Once the woman has calmed down, she and her dogs and the man with the yellow jacket gaze downwards. They could’ve sworn they saw a body with two thumbs, a lopsided mouth, and a limb twisted the wrong way round. Yet of course, there is no way to check for sure, because I am gone. 
My feet bounce against dirt. I could’ve marched along the sidewalk, but this seems more fitting. I need something to trod upon. Besides, is this not what always happens? Yes, I decide, as the moon passes through the clouds. I offer it a wave. It doesn’t respond, but I never expect it to. Yes, it is. 

After, 2043, Evening 
     I once painted somebody’s name into the sky. It spun around for a few seconds and then settled there, twisted like rotted metal railings. It never grew old, never grew young, never breathed life into others or died without purpose. Never died at all, actually. Never had any purpose to begin with. 
I don’t know when this story begins. Maybe with the creation of the universe, or the first time I set foot on this earth. Really, Before is not the before. I’ve been here since much earlier. Maybe it’s going to end with knuckles rubbing against stone, marching on a long-gone damned land. 
     When I arrive at the lake, there is no sound. Nothing but a mixture of regret and blood and the stale scent of urine somewhere in the distance. Down I go. If only I could reach the depths of hell. If only I could stumble into that fiery landscape with charred limbs and soiled skin, exposed wounds tainting my neck and sores running along my lips. They’d adore me. I’d be the one to teach Satan how to dance. It’s always been my life goal. 
     I sink deep into the surface of the water and regret thinking up the concept of thinking. There’s no need to, anyway. Not when the crows caw up above and the last days are upon us. Not
when the sky is crumbling away piece by piece. Not when there is nothing left in the air but the acrid smell of smoke. There is no place for thinking in a land where shelter is built from the bones of a friend and the ones remaining plead to be taken next. 
     I should have done something. But could anything have been done? It’ll begin again, the clockwork-machine ticking like a heart that beats until it cannot any longer and then thousands of years after the fact. Nothing can change that. Not even me. 

     The paper-machine is humming too loudly and the heater is turned up to combat the winter chill. Chuckling old ladies drink from teacups and plants twist into petals on the windowsill. Oh, how the thought of a beating heart feels so nice right now. If only there was one beneath the piercing metal rods of my ribs. If only the maggots hadn’t eaten away at that, too. 
     “Have you finished?” Jim the paper-store man is behind me. He flexes his gloved hand, as men with demonic intentions often do. Jim, with his tilted glasses and shaggy hair that’ll only become popular in ten years time, possesses none of these intentions. But his desire to be such almost trumps this fact. 
     “No,” I say, flicking through the book in my hand. I’d never quite learnt how to read, only how to remember. Luckily, everything looks and feels slightly different. After a few moments, I recollect. Ah yes. These symbols describe the reign of an empire. Whichever one is irrelevant. Clearly, I skipped its fall and had lunch instead. 
     “No, I suppose you never do. Continue.” He turns away and then stops. Like the rhythmic ticking of the clockwork-machine on his arm, it begins. “Do you have a minute?” I sigh and slip the aging book back on the shelf. The dim lights all around him illuminate sharp, pointed features. His name’s probably not Jim. But after all this time, I thought it too awkward to ask. “I have much more than a minute.” 
     “Well, I was wondering-” 
     “This book needs reshelving,” I interrupt. To help, I indicate the book in question, which is five spots over from where it should be. Letters have never interested me. But numbers provide some stability. Something that continues to exist almost until the clock strikes zero. 
     “Oh.” Jim nods, flicking the pen in his hand like a metronome. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. “I’ll get right to that. Thanks for pointing it out.” 
     “You’re welcome.” 
     The shop is always quiet. Worn-out shelves with dusty books stand tall over dimly lit desks and arched doorways. Plants twist themselves through windows, their fake counterparts collecting dust at the registry. That’s all it is, really. Quiet. Even the smell is the same - rich hot chocolate, old leather-bound paper, and ink. 

     The art isn’t all that nice, actually.
     Maybe because I’ve seen it time and time before, so the memory has condensed into indifference. But to me, there is no imitation that could surpass reality. Rivers. Steaming hot chocolate. Ancient texts and candlelight. Humans. Their hands. Their skin. The dip of their bones and the stretch of their lips. Art doesn’t move, or live, or laugh so loudly it hurts. Art can only describe moments in the way a toddler describes their day at school. Eyes unfocused. Words stilted. Paragraphs muddled. Inks bleeding together on an open wound. 
     I’ve been told by some that I can be hyper-critical, and perhaps this is why. Nonetheless, art is one thing I will never miss. In fact, I used to pray that whatever is coming would obliterate all galleries. The first time I witnessed it, I bought myself a cake. 
     “Admiring the art?” 
     Admire. That’s a strong word. Sure, the brushwork is exquisite, and the bugs bleeding into the sky, organs withering away in empty lakes, are a nice touch. But again, it’s art. Even if it’s fictional, it’s still only a crude imitation of an idea. 
     “Not really.” 
     “Probably best.” The woman steps closer. “It scares me, actually.” 
     Why? Because there’s paint on the tips of your fingertips but nobody here has stopped to wonder why? Because you’re well aware that soon none of this will matter? Welcome to earth, fair friend. 
     “The painting or what it means?” 
     “What do you think it means?” she asks. Not a woman, but a girl. A child, almost. Stupid to think that matters at all. 
     “Nothing makes sense. Life is boredom, so deep down, life means nothing. Chaos has always been the only escape.” 
     “That’s one way to see it.” 
     “And as the artist, I’m assuming that’s not what you intended? Is that why you sit in your little corner and hope somebody’s gaze will linger on your canvas?” 
     She falters. “I’m sorry, are you stalking me?” 
     “I just come here often.” 
     “Seems you don’t have many hobbies, then.” 
     “Not nearly enough time left to pick one up.” 
     When she leaves, I buy the painting. I always do. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because there’s a creature painted on the outskirts of the image, body curled into a fetal position, protruding shoulders bony. Maybe it’s so I can burn it and never mention that woman again. I think about her, sometimes. 
     She’d quite like the end of the world. 

2043, Morning 
     It happens when I’m in a supermarket. Not as climatic as I’d expect. I’ve been through countless wars, seen the evolution of human history from cavemen to cavemen with wireless devices, and this is where they choose to end it? Perhaps that’s the irony of it all - it was so random that not even the brightest of scientists and storytellers could have predicted it. There’s a wave of shrieks. Giant slabs of earth crash against the roof of the market. I look up with a sigh, grocery list still in hand. 
     They do love their dramatics. 

2043, Afternoon 
     There’s an old woman sitting at the end of the world. Her hands are caked in mud and her earrings are grimy. With every movement of the wind, her rocking chair shifts back and forth. She doesn’t remember my name, or my face, or anything. She watches from the top of a desolate hill. A shadow split between two worlds. 
     Staggering, I pull myself up to the hilltop. Vines hide in between craggy stone, twisting up the ends of her chair. She clutches an object in her shaky hands, picking it apart. She can’t see very well, so when she hears me she says, Tell me what it looks like. 
     I answer, “I can’t. I’ve seen it thousands of times before.” 
     Then tell me, little one, are there cockroaches flying in the sky? 
     Limbs fused together in a swirling sun? 
     Book pages drawing paper cuts along the ground? 
     “Yes, actually.” 
     Where are the rest of them? 
     “The ones that are left just scream. They don’t like how the ground sinks and rises with every breath. To them, this is abnormal.” 
     And to you? 
     “This is Tuesday.” 
     It’s everything I imagined. 
     The skin of the earth beats once, like the heartbeat of a clockwork-machine. “Your imagination must be horrifying.” 
     Maybe so. But it itches with life. And maggots. So many maggots. Under every skin.
     “That sounds wonderful.” 
     You sound sad. 
     “How can I be when the sky is finally letting down its wings?” 
     And then everybody is gone. Stupid, so stupid. Not enough time, they said. Not enough time to do anything, not even breathe. But there’s something tucked into the palm of my hand. Something fresh, and peeled. 
     I raise it to my lips and bite. The intoxicating juice drips down my chin, sticking to my scabbed lips. Oh, that is good. That is so good. I dig deeper into it, licking its insides clean. My skin begins to crumble, bumps littering my organs. My bones arch and twist. I should stop. But would it even matter?
     The church on 42nd with the stained glass windows is gone. The thrift store on the corner of the road with the giggling girls has collapsed. Even the statue in the front of the town sunk away, crumbling to ash. I’ve just seen a flesh-eating cockroach bite the top off a skyscraper, for god's sake. Like in a shitty children’s book or an alcohol-induced nightmare. 
     I’m supposed to sink down into the soil and begin again. I’m supposed to wander through a random town, then years later flip off Jim the paper-store man for reorganizing my shelves. But I’ve forgotten why they made me do this. 
     Maybe I don’t need to settle down into the cloth, the canvas, the ink. Maybe I can be the one admiring the image instead. I curl downwards. My body aches. My shoulders shudder. For now until the end of time, I am merely a maggot on the wall. 

     There’s a splash, and then rushing water presses against the back of my coat.
     Oh, fuck this. 

     I twist my name into the stars and try again.
Arianna Kanji (he/they) is a fourteen year old from Toronto, Canada, who has been published in
Rewrite The Stars Magazine and with Polar Expressions Publishing courtesy of their short story
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