Z #2

Rotterdam,
Tuesday afternoon,
sometime in the ‘20s.

Grey

“Hey, Z. . . You, uh. . .” she murmurs, trying to keep up with Z’s pace as they are making their way to Het Park.

“Hm?” Z asks, lazily turning his head toward her. He is still a few steps ahead of her.

“Hang on, Z, your lips. . .” she says, suddenly grabbing the sleeve of his charcoal raincoat.

They both stand still in the middle of the street, barely visible from a distance amidst the fog that is silently covering the city.

“There’s a little bit of blood in the corner of your lips,” she says, “just here,” and points at her lips to indicate the location of the blood.

Z intuitively mimics her movement.

A few small, thick drops of blood are sliding down the corner of Z’s lip. The drops are utterly black. Z’s lips are a bit purple, as always. He wipes the drops away with his fingers and takes a moment to observe the stark contrast that the black substance creates against the pale texture of his skin.

“Take this,” she hands him a tissue paper.

“Thanks.”

“Anytime,” she gives him a brief, worried look.

“And I-I’m sorry. . .” he stutters a bit, “I didn’t even notice it.”

“No worries,” a little smile flickers on her face. “It’s been happening to me too recently.”

She wraps his arm around his. They continue walking toward the park.

“The flesh on my right cheek,” she resumes, “it’s getting thinner and thinner. Sometimes it just starts bleeding randomly. Well,” she tilts her head to the side and presses her lips together, “more like leaking.”

He unintentionally lets out a short, snorting giggle. “Yeah, I did notice you’ve been losing a bit of color on that side.”

She frowns.

They both fall silent for a moment.

She lightly tilts her head backward and observes a couple of leaves dancing in the wind. Her eyes are emotionlessly following the leaves.

“Say, Z. . .” she is chewing on her lips. “How did you feel when your flesh started decomposing? Could you feel all the little organisms and insects gnawing at your skin? Were they bugging you at first?” She asks curiously, without noticing the pun she just made.

“Not really,” he shakes his head. “The insects, they don’t really stick around that long, do they?” They momentarily lock their gazes as they walk. “Have you noticed how they disappear on their own as soon as they’ve chewed away enough skin for the fungi and plants to invade the flesh and grow?” He pauses, losing his train of thought for a second. “It’s such a strange process, don’t you think? It’s as if our flesh suddenly turned into soil, into something that gives birth to new vegetation and a new bacterial community.”

“I find the insects annoying,” she adds with an indifferent voice. “They wake me up at night.”

“Well, you started rotting a few months later than I did. You’ll get used to it.” Z teasingly squeezes her cheek. The one intact.

She frowns again.

“You won’t even notice the insects in a month or two,” his eyes look at her compassionately.

She gives him a long pause before responding.

“Do you think that, when the infection is over–” she starts.

“It won’t be over,” Z cuts in.

“Do you think people will ever remember the lessons learned from it?” she asks, ignoring his remark.

“No,” his voice is dead.

“Me neither.”

***

They are in front of the park. An ambulance rushing a group of newly infected patients to the hospital drives by. Its blue beam of light pierces through the thick fog and lights up a small portion of the surrounding residential buildings. They both follow the light with their eyes.

“I sometimes think that people just need something to fear. . . As if they’re dying to run from everything,” Z says after a short silence. “I mean, everyone’s still acting like we’re the plague,” his voice is becoming irritated. “I sometimes don’t understand it,” his glance is darting around, as if looking for answers. “We’re not dead. We’re not hurting anyone.”

“Well, not everyone wants to rot on a daily basis,” she says in a toneless voice.

“Well, I can’t say I miss my previous life that much.”

“You don’t?” She asks, showing a sudden glimmer of interest.

“No.”

“Why not?”

He gives this some thought.

“Don’t you. . . Don’t you feel more in harmony with nature, now that you’re living in symbiosis with the virus and with all the microbes that infest our flesh?” his eyes start radiating a certain zeal. “Our bodies suddenly host so much life as we continuously decay and regenerate thanks to the virus. It’s. . . It’s like we’ve become a living necrobiome.” He is now talking quickly, without taking a breath. “It’s like our previous life was a prison all this time and. . . Death is a new door.” He makes air quotes around the word ‘death.’

She is listening silently, captivated by his zeal.

“I do miss the taste of some food, I’m not going to lie about that,” he says. “It sucks a bit that we can only digest plants. And drink black tea. I don’t know what’s the deal with black tea.” A line forms between his eyebrows.

“I miss coffee,” she adds.

“Me too.”

There is a long, reflective silence. Both of them are staring down at the pavement, their minds wandering, drifting off to thoughts of freshly made coffee, whose taste is now only a distant memory of the past, of their life before the infection.

“Hang on,” he says suddenly, “check this out,” and gets down on his knees on a patch of grass.

“What is it?”

“Come here.”

She kneels beside him.

“It’s so beautiful,” he says silently, his voice softening. “She’s lying on the grass so peacefully. . . As if she’s asleep. And look here,” he points with his finger, “she’s infected. The fungi on her neck, and the little plant here. They couldn’t have grown without the virus.”

They both are now observing the carcass of a small black cat on the patch of grass.

“It stinks,” she says as the smell of mortified flesh penetrates her nose.

“Shit,” he says. “I’m so sorry. . . I completely forgot you can still smell things.” He turns down the corners of his lips and his face turns red. (As much as it could, at least.)

“No worries,” she replies, covering her nose with her hand.

Z rests his eyes on her face for a moment. She is still covering her nose from the smell, her eyes are slightly squinting. His expression becomes clouded with a sense of sadness.

Z tries to focus his attention back on the dead cat.

“I think people don’t see the beauty of life in all its forms. . .” he says silently. “We’re not dead. We’re just alive in a different way.”

Z gently strokes the black cat’s head. It is a long, lingering stroke, laden with compassion. Then he abruptly stands up and starts walking away.

She is still kneeling beside the cat, observing the process of decomposition in front of her that is equally affecting her and the carcass. Somehow, she feels an eerie, but at the same time warm, empathetic connection between herself and the rotting cat.

“Hey, didn’t you say you’ve never watched The Shining?” Z suddenly asks, standing a few steps behind her. “It’s Halloween Eve, I suggest we watch it tonight!”

“Right!” she stands up in confusion, looking as if she zoned out for a brief moment.

She makes a few quick steps toward Z and locks his arm around his. They continue walking.

The fog gradually swallows their silhouettes as they enter deeper and deeper into the park.

.

.

.

The small cat suddenly rises from the grass.

Leaving a trail of black blood on the ground behind it, she quickly marches toward them, disappearing amidst the fog.

Moss

Author’s note: Some of the sentences in the story are lyrics from the song Parasite Eve by Bring Me the Horizon.

The first installment of Z was published in Mosaïek: Bodies (2020).

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