The Library of Sorrows
a short story by Jeffrey Thomas
Nothing a murderer could tell MacDiaz in interview revealed so much as the decor of their apartment, he had found. Some proved dull, conventional, with nothing more unusual in their apartment than a pair or two of souvenir panties; their method of killing might be as blunt and to the point as a single bullet through the skull. Others proved far more imaginative, even whimsical, in their aesthetic tastes and in the dispatch of their prey. These people were both more fascinating to MacDiaz, and more frightening. They made the former seem merely like sharks, unthinkingly driven to glut a hunger. These others were like artists, surgeons, very black comedians all in one, and MacDiaz knew as soon as he entered the crime scene that this killer was one of the artistic types.
The walls of the living room abounded with the mounted skulls of humans, animals and aliens (the animals and aliens somewhat difficult to differentiate from one-another, at times; more species intermingled in the colony city of Punktown than one might encounter in a lifetime as a citizen). The walls had then been entirely covered with black glossy sheets of plastic that had been snugly vacuum-formed over the skulls, giving them all the aspect of fossils in obsidian. Knickers, the uniform in charge when MacDiaz arrived, told him, "I didn't think he could possibly be responsible for all the skulls...figured he got most of them from medical catalogs or the black market...until I went in his bedroom..."
Well, MacDiaz took that as his cue to examine the bedroom. He need not dwell on the museum-like displays any longer, in any case; the images were recorded indelibly in his mind to be replayed at his leisure, later. His memory was photographic; indeed, it was a museum of photographs, in itself...and contained more skulls even than this collector had amassed.
As Knickers led MacDiaz down the hall, he informed him how the killer had been taken into custody without a struggle, and that he was a thirty-three year old librarian at the Paxton Conservatory of Music and that he had the goddess Kali tattooed on his chest; the yellow ink used for her eyes glowed so brightly that he wore strips of dark tape over them, apparently so they wouldn't show through his clothing at work. MacDiaz thought the tattoo sounded tacky after the austere beauty of the parlor, but maybe the killer had gotten the tattoo as a younger man. In any case, they had reached the bedroom.
Here, the decor and the prey were one and the same. MacDiaz was put in mind of a dark cave with a ceiling dense with stalactites. He counted thirteen naked male bodies, all with their backs to him, hanging from the ceiling. At first he thought they were hanging in the conventional sense, their heads lost in shadow, until he saw that the ceiling was composed of some heavy dark fluid which gently rippled and lapped, perhaps because of the subtle swaying of the pensile bodies...or vice versa. The heads and necks of the bodies had been inserted into this ceiling of fluid, and thus suspended. Either the fluid or some other property of the room preserved the bodies, so that none looked to be in advanced decay; the most MacDiaz noted was some bloating, and discoloration in the lower portions where blood had settled, but the flesh and limbs appeared supple. He didn't touch any of this strange crop, however.
MacDiaz walked amongst them, slipped between them, ducking his head and doing his best not even to brush the pendulous cadavers. He observed them from the fronts, took in tattoos and rings, trendy ritual scars and brands that told him some of the victims were college kids, maybe from the conservatory. His eyes photographed it all, and when he was satisfied, he instructed Knickers and his men to take down one of the bodies.
There was some difficulty; in fact, when the body came suddenly free at last the officers tumbled to the floor with it splayed across them. It was headless, and for an irrational moment MacDiaz thought they might have tugged too hard at the body, dislodging the head and leaving it in the weird ceiling. But the bodies were all found to be headless, just their necks holding them securely in the inky liquid. MacDiaz would learn later that many of the skulls in the living room were indeed those of the victims.
Several hours later, when the last of the young men had been removed, MacDiaz again stood in the parlor. He noticed a violin case on the coffee table. Was the killer a frustrated musician, who played before the skulls of his captured audience, perhaps naked, tears running down his face at the beauty of his music, at the appreciative locked gaze of his fossilized admirers? The detective went abruptly to a window, drew aside the heavy black drapes. The light of day was refreshing, and he opened the window to let in the cool air and let out some of the poison in him. The city stretched before him in layers of paling gray, dense stalagmites to the stalactites of the bedroom, a tainted coral reef teeming with life, hovercars floating like swarms of fish. Like swarms of flies above the great misty carcass of Punktown.
He forced himself to submerge the image of the killer playing his violin, but he couldn't drown it; not only did he remember everything he saw via the sliver of a chip wired into his brain, but everything he thought or imagined. He could file the image away and leave it there. In theory, leave it there, and never have to see it again unless he sent fingers paging through his mental files for that folder. But in reality, the images seemed to swim up of their own volition. When he lay in bed, they were projected on his inner eyelids, and when he opened his eyes, they were projected on his dark bedroom ceiling. It was the imp of the perverse. His subconscious mind drew them out when his conscious mind wanted to turn away. It was like biting a nail until it bled; not something one consciously chose to do. When he had been a boy, he had picked at his scabs, and eaten the dead skin that came off, and been dismayed at the sudden welling of blood and had sucked at that, too, as if to drink it away. Summoning the pictures was like the need to kill a person. It was a call that one was compelled to obey, almost without hope of disobeying.
The Columbarium was the name of the full-care housing center where MacDiaz went once a week to see his mother. He called her, additionally, once or twice a week. On birthdays or holidays he took his wife and two young children to see her. Once his youngest daughter had awakened screaming in the night, and explained tearfully that she had dreamed she was trapped inside Nana's bed with her, and Nana was dead and she couldn't get out. She had asked to sleep with her parents, and MacDiaz had held her, staring at the dark ceiling while watching the pictures that came unbidden. His mother, younger, smiling, so pretty...her thick red hair which he had almost obsessively played with as a small boy, twirling the strands around and around his fingers in rings...
One of the attendants at the counter asked if he wanted her to accompany him. He told her he was all set, but she offered to buzz Mrs MacDiaz just to let her know her son was here to see her. That done, MacDiaz grunted his thanks and walked the familiar halls hung with bland artworks, his shoes squeaking against the too bright floor. His mother's number was 3-33, easy enough to remember but he knew the way by heart. His implant had recorded every minute stain on the floor or wall, every interchangeable mock-Impressionistic landscape framed on the walls, the scuffs or chipped paint on every one of the drawers set into the walls in rows of three. He came to the drawer stenciled 3-33, and stood staring at it, hesitating. It was in the uppermost row. He didn't bother selecting a folding chair from one of the receptacles spaced along the walls between each group of drawers, as he could seldom bring himself to remain long. He needn't worry that others would be impatient for him to move out of the way of the drawer they sought, however, since he was the only person in this lonely stretch of hallway.
At last he pushed a keypad, and said, "Hi, Mama, it's me." Then he lifted a latch, and pulled the drawer smoothly out of its niche in the wall, swinging it down on its arms to about the level of his waist.
He smiled down at her, and she smiled weakly through her bubble up at him. Her headset, on which she spoke with him when he called and on which she and the other tenants of this nursing home spent their days watching movies, soaps, talk and game shows, lifted out of her way so that she could see him with her naked eyes. She had to squint them to adjust. She was a skeleton which he doubt could have taken two steps, were it freed from its glass sarcophagus. Her face was a skull's, barely sheathed in skin. He thought of the skulls in the apartment he had just left. Her white hair was a few mere wisps like the smoky tendrils of her spirit, struggling to be free of her but trapped inside this bubble.
"What were you watching?" he asked, knowing her love of movies, a passion they had always shared.
"A gardening show," she told him, her voice creaky over the speaker.
"Don't you ever go on-net any more, Mama? It would be good for you. Talk to people..."
"Lie to some young man that I'm a sexy curvy redhead?" she joked. "I'm too tired to talk. I'd rather watch my movies...watch those people talk. I tried some of the VR channels, but I'm too tired even as a ghost in the machine. I just want to watch, not do. I'm just so tired...forever tired..."
MacDiaz would often imagine how it was for his mother when she was slid back into the wall, alone in her life-support cylinder, her womb, lost in her video dreams. Unable to escape. He thought he understood her prison. But in a way, she had inflicted his upon him. She and his father had wanted him to have that chip implanted in his boyhood. It would give him a better chance in life, a better job, give him more capabilities in a competitive world where such technology was equally accessible to every single person...who could afford it. He had had no choice; a parental decision, like circumcision of old. But he did not leave her alive in her prison as a vengeance. Her present condition was imposed upon them both by the laws he served; if he could, he would open her bubble right now and cut her snaking support cables so that she might pass at last into true rest.
"How are the girls?" she asked him, her favorite topic, and he told her. Sometimes he brought vid chips of them at play or on vacation for her to watch. Luckily, she did not ask him how his work was. His parents hadn't really approved of his becoming a policeman, and he didn't want to tell her now the pain it brought him. Tell her that he wasn't sure how much longer he could do it...how it wasn't getting better with time, but worse, as he saw more and more horror, until his mind seemed ready to burst with its burden, those images that never dissipated, only jockeyed for position. That the interior of his skull was one crime scene, limitless, stretching in all directions to a bloody infinity.
He sat at the kitchen table, glass of orange juice before him. His wife had come scuffing out from the bedroom a few minutes ago to see if he was all right; he had gently sent her back to bed. They had made love tonight. How could he ever tell her that more often than not these days while they were making love, he was dredging up the memory of another night of love-making, ten years ago, when she had been more slender, prettier, more in her bloom? It was as though he were cheating on her with an earlier version of herself. And then there were those times when he recollected a night spent with his old college girlfriend. Or recalled -- as if she stood before him then and there -- some nameless teen age girl who had stood in line in front of him when he was thirteen years old...waiting to get on a carnival ride...and he staring at her long legs, smooth as those of a plastic doll, and the tight shorts that gripped her buttocks.
It was a sweet memory, not just carnal -- he remembered the sparkle of sun on her long, rare blond hair as much as he remembered the flesh of her legs and the sparkle of gold down on them -- but it seemed too real, too immediate, so that it competed with the reality he was living now, the time he was living now, and made him feel displaced. Lost within himself. He should be accustomed to his memories; he had worn his chip for over thirty years. But as a boy, his mind had been spacious. He had had the room to move in it, to hold memories at arm's length and regard them properly. But the house was now full, a storage room, a warehouse, the windows obscured with piled debris and the pictures far more horrifying than any he had imagined as a child, or even as a novice policeman. The more time went on, and the more his life experiences accumulated to become immediately accessible to him, the more his life-long condition felt alien to him.
Even now, that picture of the golden girl rose up in him, simply because of the train of thought he was in. Angrily, he clubbed the image back down, and to replace it sent his mind scanning through his case files. He plucked one out, threw it open on the desk of his forward mind.
He thought it sad that he had to chase away the ghost of a blond, smooth-skinned girl with this ghost of a gang member whose eyes had been ritually shot out, but he sat there nevertheless sipping his orange juice and slowly taking in every detail of the scene in which the boy lay. He even saw again his own face, darkly reflected in the pool of blood widening and widening out from the kid's exploded head.
MacDiaz arrived at this crime scene only moments after the uniforms, and consequently all the bodies had not yet been discovered. He caught just a glimpse of one denuded, sprawled skeleton on the living room carpet before pressing deeper into the old apartment with its large rooms and high ceilings, his drawn handgun like a dog to lead him. He took note that all the shades were down and curtains drawn so that the place had a sepulchral feel and stink. While a uniform plunged into one bedroom, MacDiaz turned the knob of another.
The door budged but a few inches. Was someone leaning their weight against it, or barricading it shut? He ducked to one side, lest he be shot through the panel, trying to dart a glance through the crack. Only gloom beyond. Well...what was he to do? He had enough protective mesh woven into his coat and vest to stop half of the projectiles and rays one might encounter, so he backed up a bit to gather momentum and then was hurtling shoulder-first against the door. It gave half-way with a loud crackling and splintering sound before jamming again, and MacDiaz made himself a moving target, barreling through the opening with gun thrust blindly.
His feet crunched on an uneven surface and he nearly lost his balance. There was a body on the floor just in front of the door, nearly as skeletal as the one in the other room but still with the dregs of skin to it. He found no one else in the room, under the bed or in the closet. Putting on a light, he turned his attention back to the corpse, now anxious to find out if its head was really as large as it seemed in the murk...for it was this that he had shattered with the door and under his shoes.
The burst of light sent a swarm of insects scurrying. Startled and revolted, MacDiaz felt an irrational urge to point his pistol at them. But at the same time he saw that it wasn't the corpse's head he had shattered, he realized the scattering creatures weren't insects. "Oh great," he hissed, seeing that he had inadvertently squashed a good number of the tiny beings to death.
They were a race called the Mee'hi, and they knew better than to kill other intelligent species so as to feed off them and build their nests...they had been warned several times, and threatened with total expulsion from this world. The head of the wasted human had been turned into a nest like a sand castle made of some black extruded matter, a miniature city like a microcosm of Punktown, its rough but delicate spires and minarets now mostly crushed and toppled. The face of the cadaver was engulfed but for the mouth, its lips curled back to expose a terrible yellow grin.
"Damn you," MacDiaz growled at the darting creatures. No doubt they would raise a fuss about those he had trampled, claiming he had done it on purpose in retribution. Well, his eyes had recorded all, and if need be his memories could be extracted to show a jury that the killings had been accidental. Still, he knew he had just killed more beings in one step than had his last several murderers combined.
"Hey, guys," he called out the door to the uniforms, "get in here!" He was afraid the Mee'hi might all escape through chinks or cracks in the walls, and glanced around him for something to start catching them in.
A voice startled him, and his eyes jolted back to the figure on the floor. Whether man or woman he couldn't tell, but he saw the fingers curl ever-so-slightly, and a deep slurred sound came from between the clenched teeth, like a recording played at a very slow speed. The poor being was still barely alive, the last of its juices not yet wrung from it. Maybe it had even thought itself dead, its eyes covered in that black resin, until MacDiaz had burst in to awaken it.
Pitiful monstrosity. For another irrational moment, MacDiaz wanted to press his weapon to its caked skull and put it out of its suffering, but the uniformed officers had suddenly joined him. All he could do now was pray that once the thing was freed of the nest, which was both killing it and keeping it alive, it would pass at last into true death.
She had been failing. Part of him welcomed this, though not as large a part as he might have imagined, and where once he would have felt guilty secretly hoping she would soon die, now he felt guilty secretly hoping she would remain alive.
This time when he came to see her, she stared up at him through her bubble with suspicion and perhaps even fear, as if he had come to her bedside to murder her. She covered herself with her blanket to her chin and demanded, "Who are you? What do you want?"
"It's Roger -- your son," MacDiaz told her, and glanced around him for assistance. Couldn't they increase her medications? Inject something into one of the tiny ports along the wall to enter her artificial and then actual circulation to temporarily bring her back around, coax out from the dimming maze of her brain the frail soul that was lost there?
But at last, as her mind cleared a bit on its own -- maybe she had just awakened from a doze, or his face had cut through the fog -- she remembered him. But her voice was tiny like a child's and she kept asking every few minutes who was taking care of her dog, Lady...which had died five years ago.
MacDiaz was exhausted when he left her; she had fallen back into a doze and he had lingered a while, just staring at her face. As he threaded his way back through the halls, an elderly man shuffled up to him and lightly touched his arm. The man had tears in his eyes, and for a moment MacDiaz wondered if he might have escaped from one of the drawers in the walls.
"Excuse me, sir," the old man moaned, "I can't find my wife. She's in one of these things...but I can't find her. I can't remember her number..."
MacDiaz took the man back to the desk, and left him with a tech who would find his wife's number in her file. But as he left him in her care, MacDiaz was foolishly concerned that instead of finding the wife's drawer they would lock her husband in another one.
In his dream, MacDiaz was alive, but had been drugged or entranced, perhaps dazed by a blow, and he was dragged naked through a dark apartment, into a room where the ceiling was a gently rippling pool, too murky to see into. From this overhead pond, other nude figures hung by their necks, dangling as casually as coats tucked away in a closet...or more like carcasses hooked in a meat locker. With a grunt, the vague, shadowy person who had been dragging him along hoisted him up in his arms and then, straining, pressed MacDiaz's head into the chilly rippling pool.
Then he was left suspended there, and staring sightlessly into a black void. But his vision began to adjust; indeed, his eyes began to cast two yellow beams -- like Kali's eyes, he thought in the dream. Images came indistinctly at first: pale fluttering shapes, gray staggering forms...at a distance his beams of light couldn't reach. But these shades drew closer, moved in and out of his rays, which followed the weaving path of this one only to switch to illuminate another. The figures shambled ever closer, and in so doing, revealed the catastrophic condition of their apparitional forms. A shotgun suicide with his face blown open from the inside. A woman with her washed bare chest like a white sheet covered in a calligraphy of stab wounds...a profusion of small black dashes so clustered that they resembled a horde of insects feeding on her. He was seeing into the land of the dead, he realized, though he was still alive, though the other bodies with whom he dangled lacked their heads, and thus saw nothing. He was alone, and terrified, helpless to free himself...and worst of all, there were no mysteries revealed, there came no enlightenment from his privileged vision. There was only what he'd seen all along, but immortalized in a limbo where it never faded, where the dead could never find rest from their haunting.
A sharp pain just below his left eye awakened him, and instinctively he slapped at the spot. Sitting up in bed, he reached out to the lamp beside him; his wife groaned irritably at the sudden glare and rolled away from him.
On the blanket across his lap, MacDiaz spotted a grayish-translucent insect, wriggling on its back, injured by his swat. It was a Mee'hi, and he realized it had bitten him in his sleep.
From the bathroom he brought a plastic cup, and scooped it in there, and he took it back into the bathroom with him and closed the door. He contemplated the squirming creature. Had it stowed away in his shoe or clothing from that crime scene he had investigated several weeks ago; but why wait until now to attack him? Perhaps it was the first scout of an entire horde that was seeking him out in revenge. His temper rising, MacDiaz kicked open the lid of the toilet and began to tip the cup so as to dump the tiny alien into it. But he hesitated. It would be murder, and conscious this time. Though the evidence would be flushed away, the crime would be recorded in his mind, and his memories were routinely extracted and utilized for court cases. Whether out of a sense of morality or self preservation or both, he closed the toilet lid and transferred the wounded being into a capped pill bottle.
The next morning, he saw that the flesh around his eye had become pink and swollen; light made the eye burn so painfully and water so profusely that he could only find comfort in squinting it shut to block out light entirely. Even then, his right eye watered a bit, too -- either in sympathy or because the poison of the bite was spreading.
He slipped the vial with the still scrabbling being into his jacket pocket, and on his way to work stopped at the hospital to have the bite looked at...after first leaving his prisoner to be cared for as well. The physician who saw him (he was seen quickly when he revealed he was a policeman) informed him that male Mee'hi did indeed inject poison, though it was generally only dangerous when the bites were numerous. Further, this was a bite from an immature male, whose poison was not yet fully effective. "Maybe he escaped that crime scene," the doctor guessed, "and has spent these past few weeks hunting you down out of vengeance." He seemed to find the notion amusing. Somehow, though, this idea made MacDiaz pity the thing a bit. Immature...a child, perhaps. Filled with grief, maybe over the death of siblings, parents. Angrily lashing out, hopelessly seeking to defeat a far larger and stronger enemy.
"Doctor," MacDiaz said, slipping back on his jacket and then the dark glasses he had donned to soothe his tortured eyes, "I have a Mnemosyne-755 memory chip that I received at the age of ten, and I was thinking of...having it removed..."
"Yes, they have better chips than that available now, certainly..."
"I don't want it replaced...I just want it removed."
The doctor smiled, cocked his head a little, again as if amused. MacDiaz didn't like him. "Why?"
"I just don't want it any more," the detective replied somewhat testily.
"Well, I have a chip and I'm quite happy with it...I don't see how a doctor dealing with as many races as I do could do without one."
"I'm sure it's useful to you. But I'd like mine out, and I was wondering how involved and expensive such a procedure would be. Whether most insurances would cover it, or..."
"Well, see, you don't have to have it removed. It can be simply shut off, which is a very easy procedure, and doesn't require surgery."
"I would want it out."
"It wouldn't just suddenly turn itself back on, you know...unless you changed your mind later and wanted it switched back on. It's not going to reactivate if you bump your head," the doctor chuckled.
MacDiaz rose to leave. "Thank you," he said, more testily than before, and strode from the office.
"I'm sorry, Mr MacDiaz," the tech said, hurrying out from behind her desk as if to intercept him, "we haven't had a chance yet to move her...are you sure you don't want to wait?"
He wasn't sure, but he started along the familiar path, the tech scurrying to keep up. There was no one outside the drawer to indicate anything was out of the ordinary, and he was glad he hadn't come here to make this discovery on his own accidentally. Of course, that wasn't possible; the life support system had alerted the desk that there was a problem, so no one would have made any surprising discoveries. Still, the mental picture of opening the drawer to that discovery was unavoidable.
The tech moved around him to activate the drawer, and the bubble flowed out of its niche in the wall, lowered on its arms to proffer its solemn burden.
"Oh my God," MacDiaz whispered, as if there was still some surprise, after all. In the moments it took for the drawer to open and bubble to lower, he had imagined what his mother would look like dead. Her face twisted in a grimace, her eyes bulging from their sockets, her flesh purple and black. But there was calm...her mouth in that strange little smile of the dead. Her lids weren't entirely closed, however; a subtle thing, but subtly disturbing.
As he had on that visit when she hadn't remembered him, he took in her unmoving face for a long time, the tech waiting expectantly. Her hair -- once red and thick and which he had twined small fingers in -- just gray wisps; her cheeks -- once smooth and soft under boyhood kisses -- withered and concave. Her eyes -- which had taken in her movies -- half open and half shut. That small detail seemed to mock him. It was an undecided detail. An incomplete detail. They should be shut. She should be at peace, entirely.
"Close the door, please," he husked to the attendant, turning away, tears beginning to course down his own cheeks. He had seen enough. He had owed her one last visit. But he did not want to take in any more...he did not want to remember her this way.
"You know," this other doctor informed him, after she had finished her scan of the chip in his brain, "there are chips now that allow the user the option of singling out and erasing any memory you want to be rid of. You have complete control, and can even shut the chip off entirely during those times when you don't want it to be in use...just with a simple thought."
"I don't want a new chip," he reiterated. "Just this one out."
She sighed. "Well, of course that's your choice. I just wanted to make you aware of all your options...especially where it might have some impact on the kind of work you do."
"I'm very much aware of that," MacDiaz told her.
And so it was done that afternoon. As he lay resting, waiting for his wife to come pick him up, he thought that if his mother had had a memory chip, she would never have forgotten who her son was. In her small prison she could have spent happy hours reliving all the best parts of her life, liberated by and lost in those recollections...even their tastes and smells, the feel of a cool evening breeze against her face. In her delirium, she might even have come to believe they were her present. But then, it might have made her imprisonment all the more profound...knowing that despite sensation those were merely memories, however beautiful...times past and gone, not present experience. Further, there would be the bad memories trapped inside that small bubble with her...the disappointments and anxieties and fears of a long life, inescapable. The death of a pet dog sharply relived, perhaps over and over, each time like the first...
Lying there recovering, at first he wondered if the chip were indeed gone. Staring at the gloomy ceiling, he could still project his mother's face there...the half-lidded eyes. But when he pushed further back, searching for the scene of that room of hanging headless corpses, he found it was a softer image, more abstracted than precise. He closed his eyes and let out a shaky little breath. A kind of peace came over him, as if he had been exorcised. He didn't dare look for the face of his mother in her youth. He knew it wouldn't be there, not clearly. But he had photographs, and vids, to be briefly visited. It was a sacrifice he could live with. Anyway, he would find that feelings persisted when pictures did not.
His wife came to drive him home. And days passed, weeks, months, and the faces of the dead -- burst by bullets, grinning mysteriously at their own fates, bloated like the faces of pudgy plastic dolls and shriveled to crusted skulls -- began to fade to smoke and shadow. Gray and difficult to see. As elusive and vague as ghosts -- and memories -- should often remain.
This story appears in Jeff's collection Punktown, published in May 2000 by leading independent publisher The Ministry of Whimsy Press.
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