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Shewbread

by Jack Bennett

 

Dave had cancer. He could feel it snaking its fingers through his veins and nerves; with each belly cramp, he could see and smell the colostomy bag that would hang at his waist. (He had never seen or smelled a colostomy bag before, but he could imagine.) The pain in his thigh announced the tumor that coiled around his spine, silently strangling the nerves that fed his legs and genitals. The dull ache in his testicles asked if he would consent to the marginally life-extending surgery that would render him a eunuch at twenty-seven.


He worked in the windowless belly of an enormous five-story office complex, where he took the output generated by one financial reporting system, re-formatted it, and fed it into three other financial reporting systems. (There was software to do this, of course, but he was cheaper to license than the software.) Then, he sent those systems’ outputs to a planner, a manager, and a director, and needled them to approve the result by the end of the business day. This wasn’t the only thing he did, but everything he did was like it.


There’s a tranquility in repetitive, mechanical tasks: the body does the work and the mind is free to wander inward. This was not that kind of job. He had to be actively conscious of the movement of every penny through dozens of redundant processes - holding the exact dimensions of this towering, writhing, meaningless edifice of numbers in his mind as it transformed, over and over again. If his attention drifted at all, he would miss a step and the boulder would slip, and roll pitilessly back down the mountainside; so he was conscious and present for every moment of his nine-hour workday.

He hated it as if it were a person. No, he hated it more than he could ever hate a person. It was an only evil, a conscious blasphemy – his job an idolatry that he lacked the courage to refuse.


It could be worse, after all. He could be burning electronic waste for traces of gold and copper in a landfill in West Africa. He could be crawling on his hands and knees for three miles in the dark to reach a Victorian coal pit. No one else in the office seemed to hate their job, except in the ordinary sense that everyone hates their job - and when he joked about it with them (“I think this job might actually be a self-aware, soul-destroying moral evil, ha ha”), they’d say, “ha ha, yep, what are you gonna do”, and get back to work.


He looked up at the asbestos ceiling tiles, and thought about the fine film of dust that lay on every surface in the office. His cubicle was at the end of a three long, narrow hallways; he thought about how far he was from the outside of the building, and how much of the air ever escaped. He took slow, shallow breaths.


Ben was his boss -  short and soft-bodied, with thinning red hair and wide, serious blue eyes. He was always at his desk when Dave arrived at 8:15, and rarely left before 6:00. Ben lived with his fiancee of nine years, her son, and a glossy Weimaraner that he kissed on the mouth. The dog loved him unreservedly; he was “building a relationship of mutual respect” with the boy. He ate microwave dinners at his cubicle, and drank room-temperature cans of Diet Coke, because they had been stolen when he put them in the break room fridge. Dave was terrified of him.


“Hey Dave, got a minute?” Ben asked.


Dave felt those blank, moonlike eyes on him, and hurriedly opened the reporting interface. Of course he knew that Ben knew he had been doing nothing, but it would have been insolent to simply leave the blank desktop hanging there.


“Sorry - are you busy?”


Dave lied, of course - again, as a courtesy. It would have been a decent lie, if Ben hadn’t literally seen him staring at the ceiling. The corners of Ben’s mouth were slack, inscrutable. He didn’t like Dave, of course - why would he - but his face lacked the range of motion for clean, honest hatred.


“OK, good - hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”


They walked together, and Dave felt a hot coil of fear in his spine as they passed over Ben’s cubicle for the vacant office at the end of the hall - apparently Ben did not want to be overheard. Ben motioned to him to take a seat, and closed the heavy door so gently that it made no sound.


An operation in the algorithm had been performed out of order - Dave had updated a slide with the week-three numbers instead of the week-four numbers, which Ben’s boss had presented to senior management, to her great humiliation. (On her parents’ orders she had turned down a cello scholarship for a Master of Accounting at Vanderbilt - she was unaccustomed to humiliation, and loathing came easy to her face.)


Dave apologized, but Ben wanted to talk about what the numbers meant, and how they fit into the big picture - and how Dave would need to understand these basic operations in order to advance to Ben’s job, where much larger and more complex accounting structures would invade and dominate his mind. He slid a piece of paper labeled “Performance Improvement Plan” across the table. Dave felt a cold jet of pain in his sacral spine, and thought of losing his insurance - just feeling the tumor creep and grow invisibly for months, with nowhere to go and nothing to do about it.


He tried to get a little work done for the rest of the day, if only to distract himself, but by the time he made it home, he was soaked in cold sweat and fumbling for the last of the thirty Xanax the doctor had given him.


There had been only thirty because he had already had brain cancer, and skin cancer, and lung cancer, and stomach cancer, and the doctor had said that he should stop ordering tests and anxiety pills, and try talking with a therapist. The therapist had said he was a hypochondriac, which of course he knew - but it wasn’t as if hypochondriacs were immune to cancer. Sooner or later, at least some of them had to be cruelly vindicated.


He swallowed the last two pills dry, slumped in front of his computer, and shook the mouse to wake it. His fear didn’t subside, but the wash of static rose up to meet it, until his mind was warm and empty.


***


By 2:25 AM, Dave had finished putting down a ducal revolt in the Balkans, but it had taken a steep loan and two mercenary armies, and the kingdom was insolvent. He was old and syphilitic, and the heir to his throne was a debauchee who had openly cuckolded half the court; another rebellion was practically guaranteed upon Dave’s death, which would probably end with his son dying without issue in a usurper’s dungeon.


He pulled apart the foil of a pop tart, broke off a slab with his fingers, and laid it on his tongue. He knew he would be miserable in the morning if he didn’t go to bed, but he would be miserable in the morning anyway. His ass was numb in his desk chair, and the gristle in his knee popped uncomfortably as he adjusted to let the blood flow return. After a few more years the syphilis went to the king’s brain, forcing decisions that were increasingly erratic and unpopular.


Dave paused the game and looked around on the boards for a solution. He found that, if you performed the steps in the proper sequence, you could imprison your entire court so that rebellion was impossible. So he let the mad king do all the dirty work of assassination and banishment - and sure enough, his heir inherited a perfectly tranquil kingdom. All he had to worry about was which of his bastards to legitimize and which infidel lands to conquer next.


That was fun for about another hour – but the way he had done it gnawed at him. It wasn’t a cheat, exactly - but suddenly the game was trivial, algorithmic. He wasn’t outsmarting any scheming lesser nobles – he was just adjusting sliders in the proper sequence. His massive infantry levies and sprawling borders now looked like what they always had been: numbers to make bigger, so that he could make other numbers bigger. An end-run around his brain’s reward centers.


And when he failed to execute the algorithm correctly, and his continent-sprawling empire shattered in pieces, there was no narrative to give it meaning. It was just another incorrect input - the week-3 numbers on the week-4 slide. The financial reporting system had metastasized and found him here, in his last redoubt. He considered the decades it had been there, how much of his life it had consumed.


He was due at work in four hours. He could shower now, and go in early - then he could leave early. But the thought of breathing that dead air, and of generating any more inputs, ever again, raised bile in his throat. He would not go in early.


And now he saw that even if he stayed in his empty bedroom, to hide in the reek of his unwashed bedsheets, the machine-mind of the financial reporting system would find him again sooner or later, and give him another algorithm to execute. It was bigger than any office job, or all the office jobs put together; bigger than computers or corporations or “late capitalism”.


His awareness shrank back, and he saw the keyboard, mouse, and monitor which had, until that moment, been continuous components of himself. Some of his pop tart had mingled with the scabby flakes of skin and spilled soda between the keys. The surfaces he had touched were worn smooth, and ringed with yellow-brown grime. His palms and fingertips were damp with filth. His bowels seized.


Dave gathered up the console and monitor into his arms and walked out of his room. The wall sockets strained and popped as the power cables sheared out at irregular angles. The keyboard and mouse cracked numbly on the carpet and dragged behind him.


He vaguely expected that his mother and stepfather would wake up once the creature’s tendrils started to clatter on the kitchen tiles – that they would squint at him in their own benzodiazepine stupor, and tell him he had work in the morning, and that he was being theatrical (as, of course, he was). But there was no sound but himself.


The creature slithered out of his arms onto the lawn. His stepfather’s long-handled sledgehammer had seemed like the right tool, but with one hand on the wrecking bar, he could only haul it up awkwardly and let it fall. The first few swings glanced off and the chisel tip stuttered away - but eventually he pierced the aluminum, and he could hear the circuit boards splinter and fray underneath.


He swung until he heard the bar bite soil, then again, and again, driving the spike into the dirt so that it stiffened, and rang with each strike. Then with both hands high above his head, he brought the hammer down on the bar, the tower, the display, the keyboard. Shards of glass and black plastic cut his shins. He swung until he could no longer lift the weight above his shoulders, and the computer’s impaled remains were half-buried in the turf.


Warm, unclean sweat clung to his back as he leaned on the haft of the hammer. For the first time, he looked up, and held his breath to listen: there was no light in the windows, no sound but hot blood in his ears. The noise and shock of the hammer had been the only thing in the world - but now it had barely happened, if it had happened at all.


To the east he could see the night lights of their well-watered subdivision, and beyond that, the black desert peak against an empty purple void. Three red beacons from three radio towers atop the mountain winked slowly on and off in a peaceful music whose rhythm he could not catch.


Dave asked God to show him a sign. If he could move the light, or change its color - something small, something only Dave would notice - then there would be some Hope.


He watched a long time.


But who ever got a vision this way, at the bottom of a mountain? And if it turned out that there was no room to will, and no god but the financial reporting system, where else would he go? What difference did it make?


He let the hammer fall to the ground. In the fridge was a half-finished two-liter bottle of orange soda, and another of Coke; he poured them out into the sink, refilled them from the tap, and zipped them into his backpack. He locked the door on his way out.


***


The beacon on the central tower was the highest, and its pulse the slowest. Dave chose it, and walked toward it until the rising sun swallowed it. By then he was crossing the highway out of the subdivision, and tucked himself under a barbed wire fence to enter the state park.


A row of white and beige campers squatted across his path, awnings unfurled, careless. He followed the fence a long way north to avoid them, then turned back toward the tower. After that, he avoided nothing, scrambling over the tops of boulders, and slowly pushing through dead, bone-gray thickets in the wadi.


It felt good to fall down into the dry wash, out of sight of the road. The scrub was thicker there, but the spines and dry blades seemed to make way for him, only lightly feeling for his blood.


The sun forced his eyes low, and he walked headlong, unconscious, for what seemed like miles, until the granite wall of the mountain shocked him awake. He had not seen the tower or the sky in a long time - it was now full day, and the tower still lost, so he followed the sun.


Where the joint of the mountain walls met, there was a loose spill of scree that led further up. He measured it for a moment, then stretched out slothlike on the slope and began to climb slowly, testing the weight of each palm and toe. With his face so close, the mountain smelled like smoke and sparks, as if the rocks had been beaten together to kindle a fire.


He was halfway up the spill, his feet rooted; but every rock he reached for gave way under his hands. Then, as he stretched on tiptoe to make for a handhold farther up, the rock under his bottom foot rasped like a threatened animal.


Dave froze. Sweat bloomed like spores on his scalp, and melted down his spine. He allowed himself a slow twist to look down. It was hotter in the city, the shimmer of chrome and glass like white candles - and to the southwest, on the freeway circuiting downtown, a column of grey-brown smoke. It looked as if a bridge had collapsed - but there were more police cars than he had ever seen in one place, and pairs of blue-black helicopters flying strangely low and fast.


The center of his chest went cold as he looked down the jagged bed of rock below him. He wondered how badly he would hurt himself if he were to let go and give his back or abdomen to it, and then look for another way up from the bottom. After a moment, he decided that falling down a mountainside on purpose would be no less dangerous than doing it on accident, and turned his eyes back upward. He slowly shifted his weight off the slipping rock, and reached again for a higher handhold, and found it.


By the end, his hands were pinpricked and raw, but he made the top of the ridge - and at last he could see the tower. It was smaller and farther in the daylight than it had been six hours earlier. But the ridge behind him was miles long in either direction, and he could not go around, nor back down those rocks - nor further down, to the windowless five-story office building, nor to his mother’s face.


For lack of a degree, she had suffered decades of mid-level corporate hell, so she had poured herself out to pay his way through college. It had turned out not to be enough - not half - so she had asked him to stay at home until he paid off his loans. He wondered if she really meant for him to live in her house, with her husband, for the next eight years. He wondered if she was looking for him.


The heat of the day was up - not the stark burning on the surface of the skin, to be expected in a high and dry place - but a full, resonant heat that filled his whole body. His naked flesh glowed white in the sun, and he imagined the clusters of malignant tissue coming alive inside him, spreading out, winning proselytes.


He walked down into a hollow bowl of cracked earth and fat black flies. He could see no other life, no corpse, no trace of water, but here they were in thousands and ten-thousands, as bloated and eager as if there had been a herd of cattle, or a massacre; and he considered that they had been in that valley forever, and would be forever.


They thudded stupidly against his bare skin, and drank his sweat. They crawled beneath the edges of his collar and shirt-sleeves. He breathed as he had breathed the fibrous dust in his cubicle, unwilling to trouble the air, unwilling to fill his lungs.


On the far shore of the valley, on top of a rock, he ripped off his bag and his clothes and shook them furiously and smeared his hands against his skin and clawed at his hair and screamed through his teeth.


***


The sun was well in the west before his eyes began to drift and retreat into their sockets. He became aware of the hollow churning in his stomach, the radiant burn on his neck and forehead, the hot current in the wire of his hamstrings. He had not expected this to take a full day; really, he hadn’t expected anything at all. Now, the thought of laying his body down under the open sky for the ants  and snakes and scorpions filled him with dread - and he couldn’t walk all night. It would happen, one way or another.


He had drunk the first of the water bottles too quickly, and pissed it out against a creosote bush. Stupid. Now he was two-thirds of the way through the second, and his mouth was foul and sticky. He cast his eyes across the horizon, but there was nothing - nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nowhere to lie. He took a sip from the last bottle and held it carefully in his mouth.


By the time the red light bloomed open on the radio tower, it seemed to fill his vision; the dark had crept up on him. Now he shuffled and groped, listening blindly for a rattle or hiss. He imagined the hot lance of venom in his ankle, then fevered limping, then a fall - then suffering uselessly in the sun as the flesh swelled and split, and black necrosis crawled up his leg.


Or maybe there would be no snake, and he would simply stay lost, and collapse of exhaustion, and mummify in the hot wind. Either way, it would take a long time. Hours if he was lucky, days if not.


His breath began to pass through him in low, shallow moans. He thought of the computer smashed in his parents’ lawn, and his rank, humid bedroom - and even, for a moment, of his cubicle. He could have just skipped town - or he could have taken another fifteen minutes and stolen his stepfather’s camping gear, or at least a flashlight. Now he was buried in the hills; even if he had had the strength to cover the distance, he couldn’t hope to find his way back, even in daylight. He had been histrionic and stupid, and he was going to die stupidly in the desert.


“God help me,'' he whined - then with each step, “God help me, God help me, God help me” - and even as he did it, he felt himself performing.


He remembered when he was seven, and had been sent to his room - how he had fallen to his knees, and raised his fists high above his head, and pounded them on the carpet over and over, pantomiming rage and despair as he had seen it done on television, for no audience but himself.


And now here he was in the desert, miles from help, under a new moon: truly alone, truly afraid, and still only pretending to pray.


His shin caught the lip of a low slab of granite, and he toppled over across it.  Afraid of what his palms might land on, he held them away, and the rock struck his elbows instead, shooting white lightning into his wrists and fingertips. When the wave of pain subsided, and he saw that he was not stabbed or stung or bit, he collapsed onto his back and lay still.


***


There was a rattlesnake near his head, torn open, its pink guts baking in the sun. He turned his head, and there was another; and another, and another. His slab of rock was ringed with dead snakes, a few still straining in their death agony.


He put out the sun with his hands. Between his legs stood a great brown eagle, rooting furtively in his belly, tearing open his intestines and pouring them out on the rock.


Dave screamed and tried to strike out at it, but his hands were palsied and useless, and the bird took no notice. He tried to crawl backward on his elbows, but the eagle hopped forward to meet his movement, and, without taking its eyes off the horizon, latched its right foot around his spine in the pit of his abdominal cavity, and pinned him to the rock with hideous, impossible weight. It stooped down inside his ribs and tore out bladder, stomach, liver, and laid each out in the sun.


He waited to die, to go into shock, for the pain and panic to subside, but he was still screaming when the eagle pulled out his heart and lungs and splayed them out on either side of him.


The eagle raised its red beak and scanned the horizon, its right foot still buried in the muscles of his back. Dave howled and begged into the pitiless golden disks of its eyes - but for what? It was over. He was already dead. So then he merely sobbed for the pain, until his sobs flagged in exhaustion to moans, and then, finally, to silence.


Slowly, the eagle loosened its iron grip on his spine, and Dave sat up. All around him his body lay dissociate, bathed in blinding sun. He could see every inch of every part, and the harmony with which each had nourished all the rest - but it was all shattered and dead alone now, and he mourned for it.

For the first time, the eagle’s eyes met his. It delicately gathered Dave’s liver in its beak, craned back its neck, and swallowed it. Enough, Dave thought. The eagle stared at him, and scooped up his kidneys, and then his heart. Enough, he said. Enough! He flung himself at the bird, still weak and fumbling - but this time, the bird balked, and beat its wings until it caught the wind. He reached out for its leg, but missed, and watched helplessly as it soared toward the radio tower.


***


When he woke, everything hurt - but nothing was numb. With eyes closed, he knew the full dimensions of each muscle, a crisp line of pain between himself and not-himself. He did not have cancer. In the drunkenness of waking, he forgot that he was going to die in the desert, and he lay back and stretched, feeling the muscles tear pleasingly in his back and legs.


He brought the last of the water to his cracked lips, meaning only to take a mouthful - but in a moment it was empty. He wondered how he would find more, but only idly; that was not the question that mattered. Ahead was the tower. It was much closer now, hard to see in the glare of the morning sun.

The wind blew cooler up the slope, sweet and smoky from campfires. The desert scrub began to give way to pines and lichen. He took a winding course now, finding what shade there was to keep the sun off his blistered neck and forehead, and gentle paths for his swollen feet. In the sparse grass he found a rut of a hiking trail up the mountain, and cautiously followed it.


That morning, a well-fed cat preened on a rock above him, and he coaxed her down to loop around his feet and arch her back across his pant legs. Her coat was glossy blue-black, with splotches of copper; the medallion on her collar read “Daenerys”, but he was too glad of the company to make an issue of it, and scratched behind her ears.


She strutted alongside him for a long while, until he spotted a swatch of red nylon through the trees, and a smoldering fire pit. He hurried off the trail and looked around from behind a tree. The camp was still, and the fire seemed as if it had been left for several hours, so he crept up closer. Atop a small cooler sat a bagged loaf of bread and a tub of hummus.


Dave’s mother had named him for the great king of Israel who had crushed his enemies and thrown down their idols, bedded concubines, and sung poetry and prophecy - and when he was hungry, he had eaten the bread of the Presence, which was not lawful but for the priests. Dave wondered if the king had ever suffered the indignity of being called “Dave”. He looked down both ends of the trail and walked up to the campsite.


The cooler mostly contained iced coffees and microbrews, but he found three small, sweating bottles of cold water, and drank them so quickly that his head hurt. He rolled up a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a utility knife, a clean pair of socks - and the bread, which had cost someone nine dollars at an artisanal bakery that morning.


He was pouring the melted ice in the bottom of the cooler into the bottles to take with him, when he heard talk through the trees. He fumbled for the cap on the second bottle and stuffed it into his backpack.


“Hey!”


Two lean men in matching yellow Lycra jogged after him alongside ethereal carbon-fiber bicycles. For a moment, he thought about ducking into the trees and down the hill, but no - this was a raid, not a burglary, and spoiling these two in particular was holy and right. He thumbed open the utility knife, and charged.


***


The bread was worth every penny of nine dollars, he decided, as he lay on his back in his new sleeping bag, jamming huge torn chunks into his mouth. He probably could not have fought either one of them, even if he hadn’t been starving and dehydrated and punishingly sore - but when they saw his blade they had shrieked, and jumped onto the high, narrow seats of their bicycles, and fairly fallen down the mountain to get away.


Their cat - who, lacking her collar, was now simply “the cat” - nestled between his legs and purred with shameless disloyalty. Even the ice-melt was delicious. He had taken his time stripping their camp, and brought what he could use to a little alcove under a rock, further up the mountain. He was close enough to the tower to reach it in an hour or two - but the air on his face was cold, and with his belly full, and his body enveloped in goose down, he almost immediately fell asleep.


He awoke in the early dusk to the sound of screaming rotors, very near overhead. He thought of the helicopters that had been scouring downtown the previous morning, and of the destroyed bridge - and then he thought of his smashed computer, and his hasty pre-dawn flight from his mother’s house on the same morning.


But he couldn’t be bothered with that - he was too close. He waited for the noise to drift into the distance, then peeled his sore limbs painfully out of the sleeping bag, and began walking toward the radio tower.


He found it well after dark - dizzyingly tall when he stood directly underneath it. A chain link fence encircled the tower and its dark, empty outbuildings. The gate was unlocked, but with a large weatherbeaten white and yellow RF radiation warning.


Dave knew, in some part of himself, that there would be nothing up there - and he would go home, and in a few weeks he would get a headache or a nosebleed, and start reading obsessively about glioblastomas. He was equally certain that God was up there, or a demon.


His arms and legs protested fiercely as he hauled himself up the rungs, but now he knew their limits, and they were nowhere near them. He kept his eyes fixed upward, knowing that if he looked down he would not close the distance.


When he finally brought his head through the porthole, he allowed himself a look out over the horizon - but saw nothing but empty sky. The tower platform was like a raft in the middle of a black ocean, swaying and pitching in the wind. And above him, looking down imperiously from the guardrail in front of the beacon, was the eagle.


The beacon’s light washed over the two of them like hot blood. The eagle watched indifferently as he pulled himself bodily onto the platform. He sat and panted for a moment, and waited for the bird - but the bird clearly was waiting for him.


Dave stood, and stepped toward it;  it unfurled its wings and opened its beak with a hiss.  Then Dave lunged, catching hold of one wing, and then a claw, and then fumbling for its throat.


Dave wrung with all his strength. The bird stabbed his forearms with its beak and raked his chest with its talons, but the wounds were bloodless, almost painless - he was already dead. He squeezed until his head pounded, until he felt as if his teeth would shatter - and the bird’s struggle became feeble and distracted, and its sharp, cruel eyes began to drift, seeing through and beyond him, and finally seeing nothing. David opened his hands, and the bird fell limp across the tread-plated steel. He sat back on his heels, and laughed.


He barely noticed the sound of the rotor; and looking up from his knees, he saw a pillar of light.