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You have noticed that people are not who they say they are anymore. Carlos still says he’s Carlos, when you ask him over lunch who he is, but he clearly is not. There are differences, you say. The voice for one, and also his nose. And Ella as well. Most of your department in fact. It is really starting to affect your work. When not-Ella sends you an interdepartmental email about your top-secret project, you wonder how she has learned what she has learned, not being Ella, and if this not-Ella knows too much. You wonder if something should be done about it.
You decide to buy her a drink after work, put not-Ella’s guard down and then investigate her as thoroughly as possible. The first drink goes well, light conversation, chatting. The second drink better, weightier conversation, some physical contact. The third drink, heavy conversation, heavy petting. You end up at her place. You touch her clothes to better investigate her shape. You touch her hands to better investigate her skin. You kiss her mouth to better investigate her words. You take off her shirt to investigate her figure and her pants to investigate her thighs. You have done well. Not-Ella’s guard is now completely down. You discover: at the core of her being a primordial swamp in which small creatures move. It appears genuine. But would it have been the same if this were the real Ella? What would she have had at her center? A river, an estuary, a Great Lake?
It turns out you can hold your breath for a pretty long time. Ten minutes, twenty minutes. How are you doing this? You look at yourself in the mirror. Did the real you have so many freckles? You begin to count the freckles and realize that you are still holding your breath and therefore, technically dead. Could this be the reason for all the changes? You accost not-Carlos in the hallway. Are we underground? you ask him. Have our bodies merged with the red fires under the Earth? Yes, he says, your body and mine melted long ago, intermixing, before we were born. Since then we have not been parted, not even once, not even for a second. Take my hand. I like you better than the real Carlos, you say.
The river is flowing swiftly. Not-Ella and not-Carlos have accompanied you to its banks. See what I mean? you say to them. How everything is changing? You turn to not-Ella and ask her what she thinks. I can trace the river’s life, she says, back many thousands of years. It has changed paths three hundred and seventy-two times and been dammed fourteen. Lakes have arisen here and dried up. Fishes have evolved and gone extinct. In the ground you still find their bones. When crushed and mixed with fresh goat’s blood the bones take on special qualities, allowing the drinker a 20% increase in swim speed. You expose yourself at every corner, you tell not-Ella. The real Ella would never have known something like that. What do you think, not-Carlos? Nothing has changed, he says, the river has always been here. And like the river we have always been here.
Ah, the great lakes. You have always heard about their greatness, but now you are seeing it for yourself. The water is great, the beaches are great, the fish that jump in the water are great, shining in the sunlight. You meet a number of great people, including Martin, a small man who holds a cage of crickets. What are the crickets for? you ask. They’re for the lizard, he says. Where’s the lizard? In the lake, he says. The lizard in the lake eats crickets? you say. Martin looks down. We don’t know what he eats, actually. He showed up several weeks ago and we are all afraid he is starving to death. Show me, you say. He tells you that the only way to see the lizard is to swim as far as you can into the lake and then let yourself go under. Don’t worry, he says, the lizard will catch you and bring you to the surface. He has a really good heart. You notice that Martin has several scratches on his face and hands and his chest does not rise and fall when he breathes. Did you always have those scratches? you ask him, but he is looking far away. He hands you the cage of crickets. Since you are going anyway, he says, you might as well take these with you.
Ah yes, the good red stuff, it flows and flows, both you and not-Carlos are bleeding profusely, as was your plan. The two of you press your hands together and feel the change take place. It feels like carpentry. It feels like storms. You are no longer who you were. You’re plan has worked, you tell not-not-Carlos, who has changed again as well. I see now what you were after. Yes, he says, I did deceive you, but that does not mean the bond between us didn’t take place. That too, is binding. I would take a bullet for you, my brother. Just then a man with a gun opens the door and prepares to open fire. Prove it, you say.
You are given the task of warning the villagers of the next volcanic eruption. You take shifts day and night watching the instruments for the slightest tremor. Nothing happens. More time goes by. More nothing. You introduce beer into your daily routine. Not-Carlos begins playing cards with a group of locals you don’t like the look of. They come up the mountain every day and play on the porch. Their loud footsteps and shouts disturb the sensitive equipment. During a break in the game not-Carlos comes inside and takes your last six-pack out of the fridge, distributing it around. You decide things have gone too far. You walk out into the circle of players, ready to reclaim the station, but somehow instead you are dealt a hand of cards. You win. You play another game, you win again. One by one the other players drop out until it is just you and not-Carlos, vying for the top spot. The stakes are huge: the mountain cabin itself. The cards are falling, first your way then his then yours. When the final trump is turned, and your victory secured, not-Carlos tips his cap to you, and leaves with the other men, down into the jungle below, never to be seen again.
You take not-Carlos’ hand and sit by the bank, watching the river, which begins to grow before your eyes. Faraway you can see not-Ella’s red dress as she pushes over tall trees at the far end of the valley, damming the river. The water is at your knees, your waist, your neck. She is trying to prove you wrong, you tell not- Carlos. She was always the jealous type, he says. Soon you are on the bottom of the lake. Aquatic bears and wolves come swimming out of the woods, fully adapted to this new lifestyle, chasing herds of finned rabbits and squirrels. You decide that these changes are not what they seemed at first. Everything has been replaced, but you no longer mind. You look upon the new world and see that it is good. You flex your flippers and dive into the deep, your mother and father at your side, giving you your first hunting lesson.
You choose Antarctica. It turns out to be not quite as romantic as you thought. The cold gives ample opportunity for holding but not the distance that makes holding pleasurable. The ship drops anchor and you decide to take an excursion on your own so that your later rendezvous with not-Ella will be all the more enjoyable. You wear three pairs of gloves, six pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, a snow suit, seven t-shirts, nine hats of various styles, and two hoods. You can’t see anything. You wave goodbye and step out onto the mile deep sheet of ice. Or do you? In all your clothes you are feeling very warm. Hot even. It is unbearable. You struggle out of the many layers of clothes to find yourself standing in a sea of ferns, your bare feet sunk in the fresh earth, the boat gone, your memory erased. Everything has changed, but you no longer know it. From the sky a team of scientists arrive to study you, the last relic of a forgotten past.
Without a second thought you plunge into the dark water and begin swimming. You are a decent swimmer but the cage of crickets makes everything difficult. You are not going to make it very far like this. You wonder if you will even make it far enough for the lizard to save you, for it is clear, as you glance over your shoulder at the distant shoreline, that you will need saving. You swim until you can’t swim anymore, as per the instructions, and then let yourself sink. You open your eyes. You see a school of fish flash silver in the sunlight. You see long rows of algae growing in the dimness below. There is no sign of a lizard anywhere. The cage of crickets drifts away from you, the crickets pressed up to the bars, like you, waiting to be saved. Maybe there is no lizard you think. Or maybe the lizard doesn’t like me. Or maybe, you think as you swallow a mouthful of water into your burning lungs, the lizard is something that happens to you when you swim as far as you can into a Great Lake and then drown. You take in another mouthful of water, and another. Your vision goes red. Your ears fill with a loud roaring. The lizard is happening to you. You rise up from the depths, the water subsiding over your bulky mass, your head in the clouds. Far away, you see the beach-goers panicking. Don’t worry, you tell them, I am a friendly lizard, I only eat crickets, but they do not listen, they jump away from you on segmented legs and make chirping noises from beneath the boardwalk.
You escape into the forest. Once there you open the door to the cage of crickets, whispering you’re free, the lizard will never eat you now, but they just stay put, hopping all over each other, and silent. You go further into the forest and open the cage again, seeing if they like this location better, but it is the same. You try a variety of places, light and dark, trees and fields, to see if you can find a place they will like, but it does not seem to matter. You realize this is another change: the fundamental nature of crickets is different. They are no longer small jumping creatures that live in fields of dewy grass, but small jumping creatures that live in cages of shiny metal. You then discover that trees are no longer vertical pillars of bark, but shapely women made of rubber. You approach one to touch her shapes but after the smallest of caresses you are bounced away. You would be more disappointed but you bounce to another rubber woman who you momentarily caress before being bounced to another and another. You live the rest of your life like this, bouncing from tree to tree, never sticking, never stopping, dizzy with love.
True to his word Carlos takes a bullet for you, right in the chest. Oh shit, says the man with the gun, looking down the barrel, this was supposed to be a balloon gun. Its his birthday. Let me try again, he says, and fires straight at you, but it is the same as before, a real bullet leaves the gun and pierces you through your real heart. It hurts a lot. You fall to the floor. Oh no, not again, says the man, looking down at his gun. You crawl over to not-Carlos and hold his head in your lap. I tried, he says, blood in his mouth. Please forgive me, I tried. There is nothing to forgive, blood also coming out of your mouth. You did beautifully, we are all proud of you. Just then the entire board of directors walks into the room, applauding. A trophy is handed to you which you proudly present to Carlos who holds it up for all to see. Then the speeches begin. They are long and beautiful, filled with all the accomplishments of your lives. At some point during the speeches you both die, and you realize that this is another accomplishment. In death you are restored. You have become your true selves at last.
You watch Carlos fall into the street below and then turn to face the man. You can put that away now, Jack, you tell him. I’ve taken care of it. Jack puts his gun away. You’ve changed, he says. Haven’t we all, you reply. You notice something is different about Jack as well. His hands slightly shake as he holsters his gun. What have you seen? you ask him. I have seen a flock of owls carry away my first born son, he says. I have seen a tidal wave roll over the house I grew up in. I have seen a swarm of locust devour a forest my future-children were to play in. The world is changing, you say, who are we to oppose it? Look, I’m growing large scaly claws on my left arm. And I’ve got wings sprouting out of my back, he says. And look at my teeth, you say, look at these fangs I now have, but the truth is you don’t say this, you make no intelligible sounds. Your mouth is no longer conducive to human speech. The time for knowing has ended, and learning to begin.
Congratulations, they say. Who is this? they say. What’s the reading on the seismograph? You have completely forgotten your duties. 3.2, you tell them, and then sign off. You can do this. You pop 5-hour energy pills for three straight days, not sleeping at all. You are very conscientious. You don’t need Carlos. You fall into a deep sleep, your dreams filled with rumbling and explosions and heat. When you wake up you do not know where you are. The Earth has changed. You have been spared through some fluke occurrence – the hut was built on a rock which broke the wave of lava. You look down the mountain to the cities below, now wiped off the face of the earth, replaced by a smooth expanse of new rock. This is your fault, but you are not thinking about this. You aren’t thinking of anything at all. You stretch out your arms and lay claim to this new world, in which anything is possible. Why not: you fly from the mountaintop, breathing fire, looking with x-ray vision, completely invisible.
The butterflies are scarce in this part of the world, which makes the task all the more attractive. You stalk them among the steppes and canyons. Most of them are drab colors, but in the distance you see a bright yellow one, and decide to follow it. It leads you to a cave in the mountains. It is there that you find the dire wolf, thought to be extinct for millennia. It is encased in a placenta-like membrane, curled up and dreaming. You go further in and you also see Wolly Mammoths and Mastodons, Ground Sloths and Indricotheriums. Behind them you find pterodactyls and Brontosauruses, plesiosaurs and allosauruses. Down a side chamber there are species you don’t even recognize, giant and monstrous, small and sleek. These must be future creatures, you decide, not yet released upon the world. One creature in particular catches your eye. It has appendages you’ve never seen before, hollow tubes that serve a function you cannot imagine. You slip your hands through the membrane and the sac tears away at your touch. The creature falls wetly to the floor, a long red pulsing cord extending from its mouth. Turning around, you try to pull your hands out from the womb but there are other hands, pulling you in. It’s a one-for-one trade you realize, and you have chosen for all of humanity. As the membrane reknits itself over your head, and the red cord goes down your throat, all of mankind is wiped from the face of the Earth, returning to the dark-red cave violence from which it came, dreamt by a giant turtle swimming lazily through the universe, in search of its mate.
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