© Bill Scott
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2027, Post-apocalyptic Pyongyang, North Korea
The bridge was impossible. Leave it to the North Koreans to construct a bridge entirely out of decapitated clown heads. I was all for recycling, but c-o-m-e o-n. I couldn't stand the way their shiny, red noses honked every time I took a step.
It'd been two hours. Two hours and I wasn't even halfway across the bridge. I guess I was the one to blame for using Tony’s Discount Travel Zoo. It seemed like a good idea at the time. For forty more dollars, I could have gone to the Bahamas. But hey, that was forty bucks in my pocket.
*OK, concentrate or this is never going to happen.* I’d be dead from old age before I made it to the other side. In the river below, I saw my chance and went for it.
Honk Honk Honk Honk Honk . . .
I threw myself from the bridge, locked my eyes on the cotton-candy North Korean sky, and prayed I'd hit my target. *Please, please* . . . splashdown, dead center, on a boat made of oversized black rubber shoes sewn together with green dental floss. The boat let out a hollow squeak and the gondolier was thrown off balance and into the river. Cold water rushed in through the empty spaces between the clown shoes. The vessel wrapped around me in a sloppy hug.
I was adrift like a waffle in syrup, partially submerged, but my face still broke the surface. Flat on my back, I drifted downstream. A mass of curly red locks hung down from the underside of the bridge.
The gondolier, a giant black ant, male I thought based on his hat and profession, was treading water. He began to swim my direction. I was desperate to keep a little distance between us. Not because he was black, but because I didn’t like the looks of the claw-grasper-thingies coming out of his head. I would have felt the same way about a red ant, so I wasn't a racist. If he'd been white ant, I would've felt the exact same way.
He was an amazingly proficient swimmer. Who wouldn’t be with six legs? Lop a couple of them off then we’d see how fast he was. I’m not sayin' I wanted to make him an amputee. I’m just sayin’ . . . I was a pretty good swimmer, and if I had six legs, I could've given him a run for his money. That’s all.
I couldn’t read the look on his face. His eyes were solid black, no pupils, and no lids to express emotion. The mouth pinchers came across as sinister. I imagine there was no way to make them into a smile. Having just been thrown from the comfort of his boat and into the cold water, it was unlikely he'd be smiling.
His skill in the water was impressive. Actually, he was on top of the water, not in the water. It was as if the previous moments submersion had never existed. A master of surface tension, the only thing touching the water was the surface of his feet … claws … ant paws?
I didn’t have the pole-thing they used to propel the boat down the river, so I was totally at the will of the current. It was unfair because he was in the current and swimming at the same time, so there was no chance for me to escape. OK, so the purists would likely say, “Unfair? How about throwing a hard working ant off his shoe gondola and into the river? Sounds pretty unfair, huh?”
To which I would have responded, “Shut your ant-lovin’ liberal hole you communist bastard. I’m not the one in a sexist all male profession.” But I didn't have time to say anything, because the Michael Phelps of ants was already back to the boat and climbing in.
The water rolled off his taut shiny exoskeleton like pool water beads off of baby-oil-soaked, six-pack abs. Standing on two legs he was taller than me, maybe an inch or so, but no more. Not counting his antennae of course, but you can’t count antennae as part of the height, just like you can’t add six inches to your height for a really big afro. Not that all black ants would have an afro. In fact, I bet no ants have afro’s. What is it with this race thing? Get over it.
He slicked his antennae back and moved toward me. I say he, but looking down there was no ant genitalia. I wasn't an expert on ant junk, but I think I’d be able to tell the parts when I saw them. But nothing was down there, just a shiny black third segment, smooth as all get out. I couldn't tell if it was an ant chick or an ant dude, but it didn’t matter an ant was an ant.
I tried to rise to my feet, brace for attack, but the raft undulated and it was hard to get my balance. Adept, the ant had no problems maneuvering. He scrambled across the vessel and pounced.
But he wasn't attacking … he … he was hitting on me. One hand, paw, foot thing gently caressed my cheek then all the sudden — *whoa, whoa, get that hand, leg, stick thing off my business.* This ant was aggressive, obviously urban gay, obviously male.
It’d been a while. Nobody would have to know. That could've been it; finally, I'd break my dry spell, but with an ant? The pinchers looked hardcore. I wasn't ready to be castrated by an ant. If it weren’t for the pinchers, who knows?
I’m somewhat of an expert on illicit substances, but never before had I had or talked to anyone who’s had Ant Pheromone. Let's just say *wow!* He had me the moment I was overtaken by the waxy mist coming from his third segment which, by the way, is the best of the three segments.
He didn’t have to tell me he could lift ten times his body weight, but he did. I’m not repeating it to impress people. It’s just an interesting fact; that's all. Another interesting fact — turns out, those hard grasper things coming from his head are called mandibles. Turns out, they made great handles, like a pommel horse in gymnastics, only the moves I was doing wouldn't be shown on ESPN. Not to mention, the mandibles pinched oh-so perfectly. Did I mention the third segment?
Don’t judge me and our man-ant love. And please, please don’t tell my Mother. I’ve got to keep the relationship from her. She’d never understand. I can just hear her, “A drone? A worker Ant? You’re a professional. What will people think? It’s not that I have anything against black ants, but . . .”
It wasn't just Mother, there were so many obstacles it would never work out. We couldn’t stay in North Korea and we couldn’t go back to Arkansas. We might have been able to go to Massachusetts and obviously San Francisco, but we’d never have a home. Plus, it was illegal to transport wildlife across international lines. I’d seen enough exposés about men with bags of exotic fish strapped to their scrotums or women trying to smuggle pygmy monkeys under their skirts through airport security to know this was a no win situation.
Long story short, we made it back to the States. I can't share the details, but let's just say Tony of Tony's Discount Travel Zoo had a side import/export business for exotic animals. And if you don't mind sharing a cabin with hygiene impaired cockatoos and some whiney sea turtles, then you and your loved one could get home.
The USA really didn't seem that different from North Korea. Not for us anyway. Our American oppressors denied our love and portrayed us as destroyers of “the family.” Really, all we wanted was the same thing they did — a little colony of our own where we’d subjugate thousands of workers to serve our needs, tend to us, and make us happy. It’s the American dream. But I guess black-North Korean-interspecies-interracial-man-ant-love was too threatening.
“First it’s an ant,” they say, “then the next thing you know someone will want to marry an iguana.” Which was ridiculous. It’s not even the same thing. I mean who would want to marry an iguana? Maybe another iguana, but I seriously doubt it.
It didn't matter. Andreàs and I didn’t want to raise pupae in such a world. But if my calculations were right it would only be six or seven generations before we could outnumber the entire ‘human’ population. That sounded like a threat. It wasn't, just something to think about, that's all.
The only place that would grant us refuge was Capitol Hill, a three square mile area of Seattle that had successfully seceded from The United States in 2025 after President Bachman was elected.
Things began to fall apart when Andreàs and I moved in together. Andreàs? Who’s ever met a North Korean named Andreàs? He said it was his birth given name. I didn’t want to pick a fight about it. It just seemed a bit pretentious, like so many Stevens turned Stephén and the Johns gone Jean. You don’t see me running around calling myself Le Bill do you?
And you know, he didn't even really have to try that hard. He was beautiful, which was hard on me. It was a lot of pressure being with someone who was so perfect. Especially when you had crow’s feet. You know, little laugh lines. Anyway, that’s what Andreàs said. I guess any little wrinkle looked like a cavernous abyss when you were blessed with a gleaming exoskeleton and an impossibly slender waist. *Bitch.*
I’m sure if I could have determined which way he was looking, I would've seen his eye had begun to wander. There was always someone younger, prettier, and freakier in bed. I was losing him and I wasn't ready for that to happen. I’d do anything, within a freaks reason, to make him happy.
My increasingly droopy skin could never compete with a chitin infused exoskeleton. So I slathered myself in lotion and draped my body in layers of silk, leaving what was beneath up to the imagination. Didn't work. His eyesight was better than his imagination.
I'd heard about this place in the warehouse district, down by the docks, where they sold knock off bags and beauty products not available anywhere else. I jumped the fence that surrounded Capitol Hill and walked into downtown Seattle to meet my contact, Claude. The snooty Medina housewives claimed Claude had the best stuff, but I had a hard time picturing any of them sullying their fineries in the narrow alleyway where I was supposed to meet Claude. I guess that’s the benefit of having a driver. You can buy your drugs from the comfort of your Italian-leather backseat.
Claude sold a line of black-market stem cells harvested from caged, former supermodels, grown on a ranch in Wyoming. I would have preferred something in a free range supermodel, after all, it was 2027 The Peoples Collective of New Seattle. But since it was my first time, I wasn't going to push it.
A slight man with perfectly undulating waves of gray hair appeared out of nowhere.
“Are you Claude?” I asked.
He nodded. Claude wore a brown tweed overcoat and a fancy purple scarf. Who wears tweed in the Pacific Northwest? It’s a set up for mildew. You can never get it dry.
“I’m Bill, Melinda’s friend.”
His lips pursed and his jaw jutted slightly forward like he was about to speak, but nothing came from his puffy pink lips. His face was an opalescent dream, skin smooth and soft like one of those smelly French cheeses that collapses under its own weight. He unbuttoned his coat and his scarf fell open to reveal the neck of a pachyderm.
Unable to stop myself from gasping, I tried to fake it into a yawn. His eyes narrowed and he wrapped the scarf back around his neck. The hands were the same as the neck, real rhinocerosey. Try saying that three times real fast, real rhinocerosey, real rhinocerosey, real rhinocerosey. Not easy.
Nerves misfired, thoughts lost their way, and my tongue betrayed me. “I was really hoping for something in a free-range, Eastern European Supermodel if it’s available.” I'd tried to come off as experienced, but based on the way he cocked his eyebrow and shot air out of his nostrils, he wasn't buying it.
His voice squeaked with annoyance, “Free range, caged, corn fed, nipple fed, it doesn’t make any differenth," he lisped difference. "It’s all about lineage. DNA. And the harvesth. Thith shit ith harvethed from bone marrow, not lung sputum. Thath the differenth. Truhth me, you don’t want stem thells from sputum. Nobody neeths their skin to glithen that much.”
I was skeptical. I didn’t want to argue, but what about the customer is always right?
He sensed my hesitation, and pulled a black satin bag from his coat pocket. Inside was a knife, a tiny jar, and some bread. He opened the jar of marrow, spread a smidge on a toast point, and held it out for me, his fingers looking like an old man's toes. “Tathe this.”
Supermodel bone marrow melted on my tongue. It tasted of youth, beauty, and caloric deprivation. It was . . . delicious. If I could get a few more samples, maybe I didn’t even need to make a purchase. “Hmm, not bad. Hard to tell, really . . . lot of garlic for lunch, should have cleared my palette. Perhaps, I’ll try another.”
“Don’t even think about mething with me, Mithy. This isn’t free thample at the Clinique counter. It doth you no good to eat it. The athid in your stomach breakth it down. Pluth, that’s been braithed with a bit of prothcuitto. You don’t want a pig fathe do you? A snout?”
I did not.
“You need the pharmatheutical grade stuff.” He pulled out a tiny blue bottle labeled Kate M. “Inject this beneath your skin and you’re waifithly beautiful in three to four days.”
The bottle weighed cold and heavy in my hand. The price was in euros — pretentious. Pricey shit. I made the leap that Claude's baby-assed smooth face had once matched his rhinoceros neck and hands, but he'd found salvation in KateM. Couldn't lose Andreàs, so I forked over the wad of cash. Claude wrapped his neck tight, buttoned his coat, and disappeared into the shadows.
Back in our apartment, I spread it out on the kitchen table — six tiny syringes and the little blue bottle. I hate needles. They were tiny, but they were still needles. Being super small only made them look twice as sharp. I thought I could do it.
“It’s just a little prick,” Melinda had said.
Yeah, it’s just a 'little prick' when Driver’s injecting you in the back of a limo. But to jab myself in the face? Holy crap, what was I thinking?
Not in my face. No ma’m. No way. Not happening.
Andreàs was still at the gym. It took a long time to workout all those limbs. I might have been able to hold still long enough for him to inject me, but he would never go for it. “Do pilates. Go to CrossFit," he'd say. "Drink more water. Eat some quinoa. All that red meat is killing you." Blah, blah, fucking blah.
I rolled the bottle of KateM between my fingertips. I couldn't let it go to waste. The little bottle of pretty had cost a week's wages. I hadn't spent that much on pharmaceuticals since my aunt died and left me money for college.
The solution to my problem had been in the room with me the whole time. Pre-Andreàs, I used to light up quite a bit. Underneath my bed was a bong, lighter, and emergency-twenty-four-hour supply of marijuana.
I poured a few drops of Kate onto a bud of Heirloom Organic California Sinsemilla. KateM filled my lungs, burned a bit, and tasted of insecurity and lost childhood. My chest crackled and tingled. The Sinsemilla had obviously added a kick, but something else was happening. I was overcome with the urge to smoke skinny Capri cigarettes, strut about in heels, toss my hair, and work a runway.
I'd never felt so pretty. Not just pretty … better than everyone else. It was what it must have felt like to be Andreàs, a specimen. I wanted more, more pretty.
Pretty. Pretty. Pretty.
Deep enough, long enough, I couldn't hold KateM in my lungs like I wanted. Each successive joint was a little more wet with stem cell. In less than an hour, the whole bottle of Kate and all the weed were gone.
I rushed to the mirror to behold my transformation. Nothing had changed — same age, same flat-blue eyes (now bloodshot), same wrinkled forehead. My skin glistened with sweat, and I was lookin' like a junky, maybe because I was breathing so fast. I should've injected KateM. I was sure I could do it if given another chance.
I wanted more, needed more. Just a little Kate. My face went from pink to white. There wasn't enough air in the room. Wheezes filled my ears. The door opened. Andreàs entered, then everything went black.
My eyes opened for the next time in the emergency room, just in time to see the ER Doctor moving a shiny shoehorn-of-a-thing towards my mouth with his gloved hand. Only, his glove had a hole in the index finger. There was enough dirt under his nail to plant an herb garden. I couldn’t do anything but lie there and let him inoculate me with fingernail debris.
I was out for a day. I awoke, in the Intensive Care Unit, Andreàs at my bedside. He shook his head and began a long, typical, Andreàs monologue. Disappointed, let down, thought he knew me, we’ve grown apart. Yipitty yipitty yap. The cowardly bastard had the nerve to break up with me while I was intubated in the ICU.
I couldn't even give him a proper go to hell. It's easy to break up with someone when they can't talk back. I expelled a little gas; he got the point and left.
Over the next few days, the doctors determined I had FLS - Fetal Lung Syndrome. The stem cells were reverting my lungs back to fetal state. The pulmonologists and pediatricians didn't know the dose of surfactant for a hundred and ninety pound man. They nearly emptied the pharmacy at Children's Hospital before they decided they couldn't spare anymore on a "drug addict."
The machine breathed for me, but I was progressively getting less and less air. Fidgety, anxious, I could no longer keep still. My nurse, a burly hunk of a man, loomed over me, panicked. He pulled a phone from his pocket and talked to, I presumed, my doctor. “Temp 103, pulse 134, sat 84 on 60 percent . . .”
The nurse's lips moved but his voice was gone. His five-o'clock shadow and surprisingly hot neck tattoo were the last things I saw before everything went black. Death was dark, cold, and wet.
A motor churned in my head, rattling my skull. A pinpoint light flickered, faster and faster, until finally, it shone solid. From the light emerged the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen — no segments (thank God), just one, big, solid rod.
He said his name was Clostridium Perfringes. He'd come to take me away. With the smallest of movements, I leaned forward and floated into the light with Clostridium. I felt warmth, love, and smelled beer and pizza — like home, but better.
I’m geographically impaired, so it would've been nice to have some landmarks — a Space Needle, Mt. Rainier, an Appleby’s, something, anything. But there was nothing but white fluffy clouds and shit. Not literally shit, it’s just an expression.
It was like that Warren Beatty movie from the 80s where he’s a football player who died and went to heaven. I was in Warren Beatty’s Heaven. I scanned the clouds, no Madonna. No, not that Madonna, the other one. Yes. I guess that wasn’t a good relationship for Warren. To each his own. It was like the clouds could read my mind because all the sudden Like a Virgin started playing.
"I don’t mean to sound ungrateful," I said, into the ether, "but that’s not really her best work. Live to Tell, Crazy for You, Express Yourself, now that’s Heaven. And uh … I don’t want to be overly directive, but how about a city planner? This is Heaven? Seriously, Arkansas was more exciting than this.”
I'd never believed in an afterlife, and now there I was in the middle of a cliché. Was this what I'd signed up for? That bastard Clostridium was nowhere in sight. Never trust a gram positive anaerobic rod. Papa Don’t Preach drifted through the clouds, the clouds which were now starting to get on my nerves.
Clostridium returned looking all handsome and glowey, super-heavenly hot. OK, maybe the place wasn't so bad. "Hey buddy," I said, "where ya been? You left me here all alone."
“You have to go back,” he said. "You can't question the musical taste of … You Know Who."
Boy, did he sound pissed. "Sure," I said, praying it wasn't too good to be true, "I'd love to go. Do I get to have my old lungs back?"
“You want to go back?”
“Like this is so great?”
“People would die to be here — you know what I’m saying.”
“I’m sure it’s really nice," I said. "It’s just, I’m more of a city mouse. Plus, I’ve got loads to do and I really don’t think there’s any future for us. I’m going to try to work things out with Andreàs.”
“Us?" His glow faded. "Where’d you get that?”
“You made it seem like … you know.”
“Hey," he said. I imagine if he'd had arms, at this point one or both of them would've been straight out, palms in my face. "No, no, no, you’re reading more into this than there is. Technically I'm asexual, but I’ve replicated like a thousand times which means there’s got to be millions of me by now. So, while I’m flattered, that's closer to heterosexual than homosexual.”
He would've been my second genitalialess lover — hardly gay, as far from it as you can get, actually. He was a one segment punk, all glow and no show. He wouldn't know the benefits of third segment pheromone if he were bathing in it.
"When can I get out of here?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re getting out of here, and you won’t do better than this.”
“Mm hmm.” Better than this? Was he talking about better than him or better than cliché, annoying, foggy Heavenland?
“And for the record," Clostridium said, "Andreàs has moved on. He’s been nailing this field cricket for over two months now. He checked out long before you did.”
“That’s a bunch of shit.”
“Sorry, this is Heaven. It’s all about the truth no matter how bad it fucks you up.”
“This isn’t Heaven. They don’t say ‘fucks you up’ in Heaven.”
“You thinking we're all prudes makes you judgmental, a judgmental prick who’s not worthy of Heaven. And FYI, Like a Virgin was a triple platinum hit. It launched Madonna’s career. When she rolled around on stage at the MTV music awards in a wedding gown ... come on man, that shit was ground breaking. So, let’s get you back to Arkansas.”
“No. I don't live there anymore. It's New Seattle.”
“Whatever," Clostridium said, "same thing.”
“Yeah, this is Heaven the same way Arkansas is New Seattle. I’d expect that from bowel flora.”
“Calm down. You're not there yet. We’ll have you home before you know it.”
* * *
Winds blew across hay fields gone to seed, undulating waves of gold shimmering beneath the setting sun. The heaviness that had always pervaded the Arkansas air was gone, the sky bigger than seemed possible.
Upon hearing the clap of a screen door behind me, I turned to find Andreàs exiting a modest, white clapboard farmhouse, porch decorated with garland. He took my hands. The warmth in his beady, black eyes had returned. My skin had the elasticity of youth, spots gone. I followed his gaze to the side yard. A Justice of the Peace stood in a gazebo with a string trio. The cellist played the first chord.
"Am I still dead?" I asked.
"Of course you are, my love. Of course you are."