She had terrible diarrhea.
Ten seconds to get to the toilet.
Horror on her face as she shuffled past the foot of the bed, panicked, elbows locomoting her.
Sitting in the toilet alcove, talking to herself, tearful words. Sound of toilet paper pulled off, more and more of it rolled off. Wiping, wiping. Emerging from the alcove bare-legged, holding the crumpled pink of the pajamas away from her face. Disappearing into the master closet, dumping the brown-soiled pants into the hamper, emerging a minute later with new pajama pants, covered with cheerful blue jays.
She had crippling back pain.
So on top of her explosive diarrhea, the searing back pain.
Because of her diarrhea, she’d have to get to the nearest toilet as quickly as possible. But because of her back pain, she could only limp along very, very slowly.
He’d help her out of her side of the bed, holding her curled hands, feeling their warmth, his bare feet braced on the carpet, pulling her upright, towards him, and her face would collapse, “Ow! Ow! Ow!” as her spine rose off the mattress, lips widening, eyes panicking, like a monkey.
She’d be watching TV, peaceful, an old movie, a famous scene, a man in a black suit with one arm in a white sling tapping his gun against the top of a desk, ‘What about you, Mel?’, the need to shit suddenly sludging its wet weight down against the inside of her asshole, expanding powerfully, and she had to get out of bed as quickly as possible, walk across the carpet from her side of the bed to the entrance to the master bedroom’s bathroom, then cripple down the travertine tiles of the bathroom carrying her back pain to the toilet alcove, lift the lid to the toilet, find a way to fight through the pain of facing away from the toilet seat, gingerly lowering her ass onto the toilet seat before the dark brown diarrhea exploded out of her.
She didn’t always make it.
Sometimes, slowly moving her limbs across the carpet, passing the bottom of the bed, she’d let out a whimper, a wet fart, back of her pink pajama pants puffing outwards as the shit spit down her back thighs. He always tried to minimize it when that happened, no big deal, but it was humiliating for her.
He could tell. By the grief on her face.
She didn’t speak English.
She spoke a language he didn’t know. Full of unfamiliar vowels, consonants, pauses.
She has terrible diarrhea, crippling back pain which prevents her from getting to a toilet on time, and speaks a language he doesn’t understand so it’s impossible for him to know what she needs him to do to help her get to the toilet on time.
He has no idea how he arrived here, in this tall-ceilinged apartment, helping her limp to the toilet over and over again each day.
No idea if she has any idea how she arrived here, since she doesn’t speak English.
His earliest memory is of him falling out of his bed, landing on the carpet, but then when he woke from the fall’s impact against his shoulders, hips, he realized he was actually in an unfamiliar bed, and she was lying next to him.
Her diarrhea was worst in the morning. Sometimes he’d help her stumble from the toilet back to their bed, holding her left wrist and elbow, and as she was standing by her side of the mattress, mentally preparing for whatever back pain she’d have to endure bending her spine to lay back down on the white sheet, she’d let out a tired cry, and he’d know she had to hobble back to the toilet, all that distance, for another explosive shit.
Even when she was finished shitting for a short while, to where she could lie on her spine in the comfortable bed, wincing, back of her long-haired head on her white pillow, her brown eyes would roll like marbles in her upper face.
He felt so sorry for her.
Even though he didn’t know her. Didn’t even know her name. And she didn’t know his name.
While she slept, face wet and troubled, lips mumbling protestations, he explored their apartment.
Their bedroom and bathroom off the bedroom were intact. Paintings on the white walls of the bedroom that were a bit old-fashioned, but better than average. Realistic depictions of odd faces in different rooms. A short hallway off the bedroom leading into the kitchen, breakfast nook, was also intact. The front hallway was half there, the other half, to the left of the front door, missing, its floor fallen away stories and stories below. When he saw that deep, deep drop down into other apartments on lower floors, he stepped back, knees shaking.
Screams from the floors below. Humans being attacked by the teeth of something not human.
Could be dogs, could be something else.
Outside the solid brown walnut of the apartment’s front door, scurrying sounds of things trying to get inside at them.
There was a lot of frozen food in the kitchen’s side-by-side. A lot of fresh produce and dairy. As long as the electricity stays on, this will last them for over a week. The pantry had enough canned and packaged products to last another two weeks.
Surely by then, someone would rescue them.
Early in their time in the apartment, one mid-afternoon after she fell asleep, exhausted from shitting for so many hours, he went out into the kitchen and did a written inventory of all the food supplies in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to try to come up with meals that, he hoped, would least likely give her diarrhea.
It was a project he actually enjoyed working on. Often, when you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, what your eventual fate will be, cataloging is a reassurance.
Cheese, for example, is supposed to be binding. He remembered that, because his grandmother once told him.
Although there were spices in one of the cabinets next to the side-by-side, he didn’t use them in the dishes he prepared for her. So as not to irritate her gastro-intestinal tract.
It made sense to him to use the fresh food first, since it would soon spoil.
So their first night in the high-ceilinged apartment, he steamed the two artichokes in the refrigerator, serving them with a blended mayonnaise and ketchup dipping sauce.
Hoping the fiber might give her firmer stools.
She ate it hungrily. Fingers flying from plate to mouth.
After he escorted her bent-over body to the toilet alcove the next morning, stepping discreetly away to the bathtub as she shit down noisily, he cooked her eggs over easy, sausages, and hash browns. For dinner he made cheeseburgers, putting raw red onion slices on his bottom bun, but not hers.
Because he had to be so involved in getting her to the toilet, sometimes putting down the white seat for her, sometimes pulling down her feminine pajama legs, because it was too painful for her to reach her hands down that far, because of her back pain, and helping her clean up afterwards, spooling toilet paper off the roll, wiping the white travertine tiles on the floor, he saw a lot of her body, especially her lower body.
But it never became sexual between them. He never thought, I’m seeing this woman’s bare legs. I’m seeing her vagina. Her asshole. It was like he was a nurse, taking care of another person with a certain degree of indifference.
Such an odd feeling.
And he didn’t know why he felt that remove from her. She was attractive. Shapely legs, thin stomach, young breasts. But he liked this relationship between them. Whenever she fell asleep during the day while they were watching TV, or at night, he didn’t masturbate, he lay in bed beside her, listening to make sure her breath was steady.
He enjoyed discovering that he had this nurturing aspect to him he hadn’t known about.
He was terrified of heights. When he was a little boy, like most little boys, he’d climb trees, climb up cliffs, without any fear at all. But as he got older, the farther up he climbed above the ground, the more his calves would tingle. Because he better realized the consequences of broken feet, leg bones.
But he did want to know what was going on. What had caused this situation they were in?
Was it an earthquake? A bomb? Tidal wave? The end of the world? Something else?
He went back out into the front hallway, stepping as close to the edge of the floor left of the doorway as he felt comfortable getting, although even then his calves were tingling, leaning over the abyss of lower apartment floors fallen away. “Hello?”
Shouted down again, “Hello?”
Rising up from the collapsed floors below, all the way down to the parking garage twelve stories below, a growl.
“Hello? Is anyone down there?”
A lot of them.
He stepped his bare feet back away from the abyss. Made him and her a grilled cheese sandwich.
The fresh food was running out.
The morning when he fried the last of their eggs. Serving them with buttered oat nut bread (fiber, again). Then the last of the milk went sour, curds in what came out of the pulled-forward triangular flap at the top of the container, so no more building strong bones. Soon after, the last pats of butter were used to enrich a packet of frozen peas.
Her diarrhea seemed to ebb and flow. Some mornings, it was one rush to the toilet after another, her humping past the foot of the bed, crying helplessly. Other mornings, they’d get through most of the morning newscast before she had to go. And then hours would pass before he’d have to help her again to the toilet.
After the first two weeks, the local TV stations stopped broadcasting. Which was a shock. Pressing a black button on the remote, flipping from one static-filled screen after another.
Fortunately, the apartment came with four shelves of Bluray movies. So they started watching those, instead.
One afternoon while she was sleeping, dark rings under her eyes, exhausted from her constant bouts of diarrhea, he ventured back out to the front hallway, to shout back down into the abyss of ruined apartments floors and floors and floors below the collapsed left side of the hallway, to see if his shouts were responded to with more or fewer growls from below.
Before he had a chance to shout, steadying his bare feet on the slightly tilted floor of the right side of the hallway, the outer wall at the opposite end of where he was standing, past the collapsed section of floor, suddenly slid down itself, majestically, thunderously, white dust rising like passing through a cloud, his side of the floor vibrating scarily, and where there used to be hung paintings and art deco furniture, now there was open blue sky, high winds, views of distant skyscrapers.
Letting out a cry, he scrabbled backwards into the kitchen, who wouldn’t, falling over, yanking down the door of the dishwasher, clinging to it like that hard square of metal was his mother.
“My name is Martin.”
Staring into her brown eyes.
Pointing his right index finger at his chest. “Martin.”
Her exhausted eyes. Thin finger tapping between her breasts. “Merden.”
Tilt of his head. “Not quite. Me. Martin. Me.” Pointing to his chest.
She nodded. Tapped between her breasts. “Merden.”
Pointed at her. Hunched his shoulders. Pantomimed confusion. “You?”
Hunched her thin shoulders. Pointed her right index finger inwards towards her chest, like it was a gun.
“No, Martin is my name. What is your name?”
A lot of vowels and consonants spilled out of her mouth. “Merden, merden.
Pointed at her again. “That’s my name. What is your name?” Looked puzzled. Drew a giant question mark in the air.
Raised her eyebrows. “Merden!” Nodded decisively. “Merden.” Grinned, which she rarely did, considering her horrible diarrhea, her crippling back pain.
She slept a lot. Understandably.
He couldn’t imagine how taxing it must be on her body to have to shit as much as she did.
How taxing it must be on her spirit to never be able to truly relax, because at any moment she might have to rise painfully off the sheets, once again, and most likely humiliate herself, once again, as she failed to get to the toilet on time.
And one other detail he had forgotten to mention earlier.
When she got out of her side of the bed to hurry to the bathroom, she refused to rush to the bathroom in her bare feet. She always had to hang her calves over her edge of the bed, and step her bare feet into a pair of pink slippers.
Which he never understood.
If you have an urgent need to shit, why can’t you hobble barefoot to the toilet?
But she never would.
Even if it meant she wouldn’t reach the toilet on time, and might have if she went barefoot, she always took the time to slip her feet into her slippers.
Because she didn’t speak English, and he didn’t speak her language, he was never able to ask her why her slippers were so important.
Once she’d slide her legs off the side of the bed, whimpering, stretching her feet out across the carpet, trying to snag the slippers and drag them closer, to where she could step into them, he’d mime to her, Why bother? Just hunch your way to the toilet, but she’d fiercely shake her long-haired head, shoveling her toes into the slippers, crying.
Now that more of the front hall was exposed to the outside, because of the recent collapse of even more of the left side of the hall, he’d sometimes sit, late at night, while she slept in the bedroom, mumbling in her sleep, at a safe distance from the jagged rift in the floor, looking out at the open space in their apartment, up at the night sky, the silhouetted tops triangular and squared-off of skyscrapers blocks away, the stationary moon, distant stars.
Was more of their apartment going to fall away?
Was all of their apartment going to fall away? To where they would fall away?
He had no idea.
But he liked looking up at the stars. Sometimes, the tiny black silhouette of a bird would slowly flap across a distant skyscraper’s façade.
It relaxed him, made him wish there were cigarettes somewhere in the apartment.
One day in bed after she had shit several times, to where she might not have to shit for another hour or so, he looked into her worried brown eyes. “I want to tell you something about my life.” Tapped the tip of his right index finger against his chest. “My life.”
Anxious brown eyes, watching him. As if behind bars. Clearly not having any idea what he was saying.
“And I know you don’t understand any of my words. But I’m going to talk to you anyway, because we can’t just watch movies all day. We have to share.
“I went to Cornell University, and I was really proud I got in. Most people don’t. You’re at parties, or business meetings, or bars, or restrooms, and you ask someone what college they went to, and most of them went to third tier universities, or community colleges, or didn’t go to college at all, but here I am, at Cornell. And I know that makes me sound like an asshole, bragging about where I went to school, but we all brag about something.”
Her eyes seemed to get more alert when he said ‘asshole’, because maybe it’s a universal word pretty much everyone recognizes.
“It was a great experience. The frat life, going over to different professors’ homes Sunday evening with other students for a soiree, debating what we thought were pressing issues in the different coffee houses surrounding the campus. Meeting girls while researching at the library, giving them a ride back to their sorority house, fucking them in my back seat parked under a tree a block from where I’d afterwards drop them off, their hair mussed.”
Brown eyes alert at ‘fucking’.
“I loved it! I felt, like, this is my world.
“But then my senior year, I took this world literature course, and it was led by this professor, this Professor Godwin, he had something wrong with the left side of his body, his left hand would hang helplessly from the end of his arm, he couldn’t lift it, and as he moved around the classroom lecturing, he had to drag his left leg behind his right leg. And, you know, I felt sorry for him he was crippled. But every time a student would raise their hand in his class to question something he had said, he would humiliate them. Right in front of the class! Make fun of their assumptions, their conclusions. It got to the point where no one would raise their hand, and then he’d point at students with his good hand and force them to give their opinion, then make fun of what they believed.
“He was a bastard. An absolute, total jerk. Everyone hated him. It got to the point where students would file into his lecture hall at the beginning of each class dragging their left foot, to make fun of him, making sure with their young, resentful eyes he could see they were mocking him. I mean, there was a lot of hatred directed towards him from his students.
“And he didn’t care. He’d drag his left foot even more across the front of the classroom, mocking their parodies of him.”
He wished she could understand English. He had never told this story to anyone else, it was one of those life stories you want to share with someone, but never do, the perfect time to never comes up, and now here he was sharing it with someone who didn’t have a clue what he was saying.
“I hated him. Hated him to the point where I thought about him every day, talking back to him in my mind, smashing his stupid face down against his lectern.
“He would humiliate me in class. Call on me at some point in every single fucking class. Like I was the class clown, a moment of levity to break up the heavy discussions, a donkey trotted out on a leather leash, make me stand, ask me a question, and once I gave an answer, he’d tear that answer apart, casually, showing how stupid I was. The other students sitting in the lecture hall laughing at me. Every fucking day. It was so unfair.
“So I studied even harder than I ever had for any class. To try to anticipate his mockery, and refute it. The final day of the semester, I actually won an argument with him in class about the use of beer in Cortazar’s ‘A Yellow Flower’. After the class, I went down to his lectern, where he was shaking hands with students about to graduate, waited in that polite young line, and when it was my turn to be face to face with him, I ignored his extended hand, and instead spit in his pretentious, paralyzed face.
“His good hand wiped my spit off his nose.
“Professors each year nominated students they felt had the most potential to succeed as Cornell graduates. Most of the other professors nominated males. Most of Professor Godwin’s nominations were women. He nominated more women than all the other professors at Cornell combined.” He snorted. “And he also nominated me! Who had spit in his face. And when our intellectual assessment tests came back? His students, who hated him for being so strict, ranked the highest.”
Bending his head. “And…after all that, graduating, I realized he wasn’t my worst professor, which I had always thought. He was my best professor. The discipline he taught me during that course, the need to rigorously examine my assumptions…it was a big help in later life.”
Lifting his tired face. “I used to think most people were assholes. But I no longer think that’s true.
“I think there’s a lot of people who will help you if they see you’re in trouble. They’ll do it spontaneously. Pull their car over to the curb, or sit down next to you on a park bench and offer you a Kleenex, or stand in front of you at a party in someone’s apartment. And then there’s a much larger group, a majority, who are basically indifferent to you. And that’s fine! But if you’re really in need, they’ll make some effort to help out. Dial 911, or escort you over to a chair, or whatever. There’s only a small percentage who aren’t good people. They’ll lie to you, steal from you, break their promises. That’s always going to exist. Most of them, I think, could have been better people if they had just been raised right. Gotten the mentoring they needed from older folk. Which leaves only a small group of people we interact with who are truly bad. Born bad, and they’ll die bad. No intervention could have helped them. They’re just rotten, like fruit gets rotten, and turns into a grainy mush.”
Looked into her brown eyes. “Do you have any idea what I’ve just said?”
Her brown eyes stared back at him, uncomprehending.
Their food was running out.
They had gone though all their fresh food, then all their frozen food. All they had left was their canned and dried food.
And there weren’t too many shelves of that.
They took to eating only twice a day, ten in the morning, seven in the evening.
The animals or whatever they were came back, in packs, paws scrabbling outside the door separating their hungry howls from the interior of the apartment, its paintings on the walls, its gentle furniture, black nostrils sniffing loudly outside the open line at the bottom of their apartment’s front door.
One morning after she had shit herself several times, and before they were going to start watching a new Bluray movie, she reached out for his right hand, guided him back to the left side of their bed.
Pantomimed that he should sit down on the edge of the bed, next to her.
Settling down on the bed’s edge next to him, so that her lowering weight on the mattress tilted his shoulders slightly more towards her, holding both his hands in hers, which felt nice, her brown eyes looked up into his eyes.
“Mă cheamă Merden. Vreau să vă mulțumesc pentru tot ce ați făcut pentru mine. Știu că nu a fost ușor pentru tine. Toate aceste dimineți, când trebuia să alerg, nedemn, la toaletă, niciodată nu m-ai profitat de mine. Ceea ce ar avea mulți alți bărbați. Și m-ai ajutat să curăț după mine, ceea ce majoritatea oamenilor n-ar face. Ai avut o mamă bună și tată. Asta cred eu. Mulțumesc.”
The apartment began creaking more.
A crack crawled across the kitchen floor, growing longer each day. Growing wider.
Still not too wide, it was easy enough to step over on his way to the sink to wash the metal top of a canned food before whirring the can with the electric can opener, but still…
He lifted the released lid off the squat can of beef stew, with its dark-colored label, red and brown, remembering when he was younger and living with a girl who was happy nearly all the time, and she’d use their electric can opener to open a can of cat food, and from the kitchen they’d hear the thumps upstairs, jumps off sunny window sills, tops of thrift store bureaus, paws rumbling down the stairs.
He fell sideways, onto the floor.
Thunder banging against the kitchen walls, cabinet doors swinging outwards, plates, spice jars, coffee cups, plastic food storage containers, bowls tumbling out into open air, crashing, bouncing up from the kitchen floor, opened can of beef stew smacking him under his jaw, brown contents spewing out, splashing across his lower face, and startled and confused as he was, tongue instinctively licking at the gravy across his lips, his first thought was that it tasted really good, even at room temperature.
He lay on his back on the hard kitchen floor for a long time. He may have even, for a short while, fallen asleep. Wasn’t sure.
When he finally got up. Noticed the crack across the floor was much wider. Now they’d have to be careful stepping over it.
Realized he had canned beef stew splashed across his upper shirt, under his jaw, across his lower face all the way up to his nostrils.
Walked across their kitchen floor towards their bedroom to change his shirt, wash off his upper body in the bathroom sink because all that canned food on him really did feel yucky. Starting to smell.
Got to the entrance to their bedroom.
Realized he was standing on a ledge.
Their bedroom was gone.
Open space, dropping twelve stories down, where their bedroom had been.
Where she had been.
Let out a sob.
Nothing in front of him but open air, distant skyscrapers. Tiny birds flapping across the sky.
Nothing below him but collapsed debris hundreds of feet down.
Only growls answering.
Bent his knees, eyes red.
‘Hello?’ It was all he could shout, because he never knew her name.
Ralph Robert Moore’s fiction has appeared in America, Canada, England, Ireland, France, India and Australia in a wide variety of genre and literary magazines and anthologies, including Reed Magazine, Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Shadows & Tall Trees, Nightscript, Midnight Street, ChiZine, and others. He’s been nominated twice for Best Story of the Year by The British Fantasy Society, once in 2013, and again in 2016. His website SENTENCE at www.ralphrobertmoore.com features a broad selection of his writings. fiction has appeared in America, Canada, England, Ireland, France, India and Australia in a wide variety of genre and literary magazines and anthologies, including Reed Magazine, Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Shadows & Tall Trees, Nightscript, Midnight Street, ChiZine, and others. He’s been nominated twice for Best Story of the Year by The British Fantasy Society, once in 2013, and again in 2016. His website SENTENCE at www.ralphrobertmoore.com features a broad selection of his writings.