HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Melt With You
Even after being reincarnated as a plastic lawn flamingo, Irma still insisted that the scruffy panhandler on the I-95 off-ramp near our house had been Jesus. “We missed him,” she’d say, painted beak opening to reveal a mouth that did not lead to a windpipe or vocal chords or lungs. “We mistreated Jesus again and now we’re doomed.” Sometimes she got so agitated she’d gallop around on her two skinny metal legs until she fell over and it took both of us pushing and pulling with our beaks to right her.
And then I’d shake my long plastic neck and sigh. It was useless trying to explain to her that Jesus and reincarnation were from mutually exclusive religions. And anyway she was right about the second part: we were definitely doomed.
The gnomes were coming.
A little bird told me about it. His name was Jay and before the apocalypses he’d been our mailman. Now he was a blue jay. I shit you not, and not only because I am now made of plastic and incapable of shitting. But no matter how much we all giggled about it, Jay the blue jay had the last laugh, because he’d been reincarnated into a living being. Cindee, a one-time yoga instructor who was now a stone Buddha, said Jay must have been better than all of us in his last life. He was alive. Alive and able to fly.
And on a recent flight Jay had spotted an army of garden gnomes cutting a swath through what used to be an affluent Florida neighborhood, burning houses with cities’ worth of toys and action figures inside, spreading poison for the remaining rats and birds and insects, smashing anything smashable that might have a soul in it, and generally making a mess of things. Their advance was slow, but they were relentless. Some of them even had weapons, axes and other tools they’d been carrying when they were inanimate lawn decoration, or improvised slingshots and flamethrowers made of cast-off barbecue lighters and aerosol solvents.
Not only could Irma and I not fly away on our pink plastic wings—they barely peeled away from our bodies—I could hardly even hop. The body that God or Buddha or Cthulhu or whoever had seen fit to shove my soul into had only one skinny metal leg.
Jay warned us as he flew by, ducking into the broken windows of all the houses to warn the souls inside. And then he was gone, a blue dot against the always-cloudy sky, and those of us in the yard looked at each other with as much panic as our various inhuman faces could convey, which wasn’t much. But we felt it.
After a beat Chip the ceramic frog started hopping away. His legs worked better than I thought they had a right to, considering how useless my wings were, and he made decent time through the jungle of overgrown grass that had been a lawn. “He’s right!” another frog said, and most of the other amphibians and small mammals hopped and lurched after him.
“No,” twittered a weather-worn bird. “We should hide. They’ll never find us all.”
Some of the small critters paused then, a painted stone squirrel looking between factions much like a live one would have. It occurred to me, not for the first time, what a tacky neighborhood this had been. Even with some of the lawn art broken beyond repair, we were quite the menagerie.
Irma looked to me for an answer, just as she had in life. I tried to shrug, before remembering I didn’t have the shoulders for it. “You should run,” I said to her, twining my neck around hers by way of goodbye. “You have two legs, sort of; I think you’ve got a chance. As for me, I can’t outrun the gnomes, and I sure as a pink flamingo can’t hide from them. I guess I’m gonna fight.”
But Irma shook her head, which with that new neck of hers was quite the maneuver. “I’ll stay with you, Bubby. We fight.”
As it turned out, we only had about half an hour to prepare. We managed to contact some of the inhabitants of the house, about a million precious little ceramic figurines and human- and animal-shaped candles that had probably been the pride of the house’s owner. Most of them were so small it would take them all day to cross a room, but there were a few stuffed animals that were pretty mobile, and they helped us get the supplies we needed to mount a defense of the property. They also sent an envoy into the attic, where a taxidermied jackalope stood watch for us.
A great many of the fleeter of us did choose to flee, but when the jackalope cried its shrill rabbit’s wail, the rest of us took up arms.
The battle was bloodless. Many were killed.
Despite being made of concrete or whatever, gnome axes cut right through other stone beings. I watched as friends shattered, cleaved by those weapons or hit with slingshotted debris. A few pebbles hit me hard enough to dent, but they only knocked me over. I started to feel guilty about leading the menagerie into battle, when I was so much more shatterproof than most of the rest.
Our side gave as well as we got, for a while. We’d made very decent slingshots by staking fallen tree branches into the ground and stringing rubber bands between them. Irma and I even turned our own selves into a slingshot: she flipped over so her two metal legs were in the air and I used my beak to fire projectiles at the invading gnomes. We had pretty good aim, if I do say so, shattering quite a few gnomes with high-velocity nuts and bolts. The teddy bears from the house helped by shoving whatever heavy and seemingly inanimate things they could lift out the windows onto the gnomes’ pointy heads.
It was tough selecting projectiles in this new world, and we’d gone back and forth a lot about whether it was right to use bolts, or throw lamps and heavy tomes. One of the bears thought that everything had a soul now, anthropomorphic or not, and that to use anything was wrong. I tended to disagree. Once again, Cindee had settled it, saying that without a face there was no soul. She was Buddha, so we had to believe her.
So I was crouching on my one stupid leg, holding a lugnut in my plastic beak and tugging against the rubber band, sighting through Irma’s legs trying not to imagine how obscene her pose would be if she were still human, thinking the battle was going pretty well.
And then the flamethrowers came out. A big gnome with a cross painted on his red pointed cap came at us. “In Jesus’ name!” he shouted, and with the click of a big lighter unleashed hell. Flames shot from a nozzle in every direction, catching the grass and weeds on fire. The stone and ceramic animals rallied, trying to stomp out the spreading fire. A cherubic angel that had once held a birdbath had some success, being the largest. But Irma and me, we started to feel a little droopy.
“Come on!” I shouted, dropping the lugnut. I wished I had arms, hands, anything to reach out to her with. She struggled to right herself, flailing her metal legs in the air. I’d dropped the rubber band, but it was still stuck around her legs, and her neck seemed to be caught under her. I nipped at her with my plastic beak, but couldn’t get ahold of anything. And then, stomping through the flames and the high grass like an action hero, the cross-headed gnome came at me. I was staring down the nozzle of a WD-40 can, with the meanest face you ever saw glaring at me over it.
I ran. Or rather, I hopped, as fast as my one spindly leg would take me, feeling the heat at my tail.
Flames roared as the house caught, and all I could hear over it as I fled were the thousand tiny screams of melting candles, and then the jackalope’s anguished cry.
At some point, after the gnomes had moved on and the fires died down, while the remains of the house shuddered and smoked, I hopped sheepishly back toward the yard I’d lived in since the apocalypses.
It was a wasteland. What had been overgrown grass was now blackened. The trees were singed, and the house was rubble. All around were shards of friends and foes, chips of cement and ceramic that had broken apart. The cherub’s huge water dish lay upside-down atop a pair of cracked red gnome feet that stuck out from the thing like ruby slippers beneath a fallen house.
“Irma!” I shouted, knowing it was hopeless. No one was going back to Kansas.
Cindee hobbled out from behind a singed tree. Because she was a seated Buddha she had no feet. “She’s gone,” she said. Cindee led me in her limping gait to the last place I’d seen Irma. Amid the char and ash was a dirty pink puddle with two metal spires sticking up out of it like an old-fashioned TV antenna.
If I’d had knees, I’d have fallen onto them. Cindee put one stone hand on my flank. “You mustn’t weep for her; she’s in a new form now.”
“If the gnomes are right she’s dead.”
“The gnomes are not right. Her soul is free now.”
I looked up at her and the serenity on her ever-smiling face bugged the hell out of me. “You know you’re not really Buddha, right?” I snapped. “You’re not even Buddhist, are you? Not anymore than off-ramp guy was Jesus or I’m the pope.”
“Aren’t you Jewish?” Cindee asked mildly.
And then I was laughing. “I haven’t been to temple since my Bar Mitzvah. Irma and I went to Unitarian church a few times.”
A pair of singed teddy bears sidled up behind me. “Would you like to bury her?”
I nodded my long neck, almost laying it on the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the cherub searching dead gnomes, and before long he came up with a shovel. He was kind enough to dig the hole for me, and when it was done Cindee said a few words about the soul’s eternal nature. After that the survivors milled around for a bit, unsure what to do. There were only a handful of us: the two teddy bears, Rocky and Rowan; a few of the tiny figurines from the house; a tailless stone squirrel; and about half of a plastic barn owl that had been wired to the roof. The fire had freed her, but also melted her legs. She hobbled around using her wings like a pair of too-short crutches. Most of the dead were in so many pieces that burial seemed a futile task. But I was glad everyone had helped me with Irma’s remains.
For the first time since the apocalypses, I felt really adrift. Part of me hoped the gnomes, in their insane religious crusade, were right. If our souls could be killed, then maybe we could all finally go to heaven.
I said one more prayer over Irma’s grave: “Jesus, Shiva, Allah, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Yahweh, whoever’s out there. Give Irma’s spirit peace, and let us one day meet again.”
We found Rowan the next morning, cut to shreds.
We’d been adrift that night, each seeking a reason to go on and a place to go on in. Being inanimate, we didn’t need food or water or shelter. We didn’t sleep, so the nights were long. That one, without Irma, was the longest of my life or my afterlife. I’d hopped to the very edge of the lawn, where the cracked pavement began, and stood there looking into the scorched neighborhood for a long time. Standing on pavement was really hard for me, but I thought about trying to leave, crawling if I had to, to find a new home.
In the end I didn’t. I hopped back toward the house but stopped dead when I saw Rowan. It was an explosion of stuffing that dotted our charred lawn like snow. Strips of his brown faux fur were mixed in, and I stood there wondering what sort of animal could have done this—most of them had died along with the humans—when I found his head. Half of it anyway, the left side of his face from nose to ear. The stuffing was still attached, but the eyeball wasn’t. In its place, stabbed all the way through the head, was a long, sharp shard of ceramic. I leaned my long neck toward it and when I saw what it was I screamed like the jackalope.
The shard was a broken gnome leg.
My screams drew the attention of the others, who scrambled over as fast as their various locomotion would carry them. Rocky wailed when he saw, beating the blackened ground with furry fists. It struck me once again how the reincarnation machine had grouped us together, me and Irma, Rocky and Rowan. We hadn’t known them well before the apocalypses, but they’d lived in the neighborhood. We all had. So where had the gnomes come from? They were united by their psychotic belief in the true Christian apocalypse, the crusade they’d undertaken to kill everyone on earth to bring it about. I’m not sure what made them think the souls whose unusual bodies they eliminated didn’t just come back as someone else.
We burned the rest of Rowan’s body on a pyre made of broken house. While smoke still curled into the air I saw a blue speck that grew and resolved into Jay the blue jay. He circled the house and yard slowly before alighting on top of the overturned birdbath with the crushed gnome underneath. Still looking around in his new, flighty way, Jay whistled. But it wasn’t birdsong, it was one of those long “look how messed up this shit is” whistles.
I glared at him. I couldn’t help it. The little bastard could’ve helped us, but he’d flown.
“You broke a lot of gnomes,” he said.
It was true. Pieces of gnomes were scattered all around us, from shards barely visible to whole hands or feet. “Yes,” I said, feeling a little defensive. “We fought them.” After I said it I remembered that my fighting had been less than courageous, and if I hadn’t been bright pink already I swear even my plastic self would have blushed.
No one seemed to notice. Jay continued: “They seem mad about it.”
“What are you talking about?” Cindee asked, squinting her serene face.
In response, Jay flew up in the air a few feet. When he dropped back down he landed on the cherub’s head and immediately pooped on it. He gestured all around us with one wing. “They left you a message.”
The cherub stopped swatting at his head and looked around. He was by far the tallest of us, and I could tell from the look on his face he’d seen what Jay was talking about. He was made of bleached concrete, but the way his fat cheeks slackened made him look even paler. “It’s a cross,” he said.
“The pieces moved?” asked Rocky, perking up from his mourning. His black eyes looked wider than usual.
“They can’t move,” Cindee said. “They’re dead. Their souls have moved on into new hosts.”
I was standing as high as I could on my one leg—actually, everyone was trying to stretch upward—to try to see the effect Jay and the cherub had. I couldn’t really make it out, so I hopped to the nearest piece of gnome and peered at it with one eye at a time. “Actually it’s worse than that,” I said. “Obviously the gnomes have come back. The survivors, I mean.”
“Oh god,” Rocky said. “We’re all gonna die.”
I thought he was probably right. But we’d all died before, and it hadn’t been so bad.
I hopped down the length of the cross, following a trail of gnome bits. There was no pattern to it that I could see. A foot here, a chunk of torso there, a scrap of pointed hat. It was creepy as hell, looking at all those body parts. The eyes seemed to follow me.
Then I got to one fragment of gnome head that contained the thing’s whole mouth. It wasn’t much more than that—a half-inch-thick slab of face and chin with a pair of lips painted on. I wouldn’t have even noticed it, really.
Until it started talking. “Your end is at hand,” it said, lips moving. Another fragment a few inches away blinked its eye, pupil swiveling toward me. The eyes really were following me.
I jerked my head away from it as quickly as I could. The other survivors reacted predictably, with panic and frantic movement. They ran and hopped and scooted, but not knowing which way the danger was coming from they largely went in circles. I scanned the horizon for colorful pointy hats, but I didn’t see anything.
“In the name of the father!” the mouth shouted, and I backed away so fast I fell right on my tail. I was scrambling away using my stupid metal leg and my stumpy wings, and not getting very far at all, when the gnome pieces began to rise. I don’t know how they did it, since even if they were still imbued with spirit, most of the chunks had no physical way of moving, but they came together into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of pottery. Maybe it really was god’s will.
Before I knew it there were many of them, surrounding me. I had nothing to use as a weapon, nowhere to run. I couldn’t even get up on my foot, as it were.
I wish I could say the last thing I remember was the gnome’s club coming toward my head, the beast’s self-righteous, seamed grimace. But I remember the whole thing. I had no brain to concuss, no lights to go out. And whatever was creating my consciousness, it wasn’t going to let me off that easily.
On the other hand, it didn’t really hurt either, with no nerves. The first blow squished my head, and I guess it must have wiped the paint off my right eye, because after that I couldn’t see out of it. The gnome pounded me until I felt as flat as roadkill. And all the while, out of my left eye, I watched friends shatter.
Some time after the gnomes left I picked myself up and looked around. It wasn’t easy. The gnomes had pulled out my metal leg and used it to skewer Rocky. They’d also dented me all over, and part of my neck was so thin that the weight of my plastic head made it droop.
But I saw right away that I was the only one left. The others had been brittle; they had broken. Rocky the teddy bear had gone the way of Rowan. I couldn’t see the plastic half barn owl at all.
The worst part was the secret the gnomes had taught me: the fact of eternal life. It horrified me to think that the shards of my friends might still have consciousness, trapped in whatever powerless form they had left. The thought of Irma tormented me. She’d been melted into a shapeless blob of plastic with no eyes, no ears, no limbs, no mouth to scream. And then I’d buried her.
The gnomes’ behavior didn’t make any sense, in light of their ability to re-form and keep on going. If they knew that these forms we now inhabited were deathless, then why had they tried to kill us? I could only hope that they really had been divinely animated, and that my friends and family wouldn’t be. But in order to believe in that I had to believe in god, and those days were long, long behind me.
It took me a damn long time, broken as I was. First I had to gather the things I’d need, and they were hard to find in the wasteland the property had become. Then I needed to dig up my Irma. The gnome’s shovel was still where we’d dropped it, but it was hell to wield it without any hands. In the end I gave up and dug with my pathetic wings, one scraping millimeter at a time. But what did I have but time? I didn’t need to stop for food or sleep; I didn’t have muscles to fatigue. So I didn’t rest until I’d uncovered my love.
She was at the bottom of a shallow hole, a dingy pink puddle of plastic with two metal legs still sticking out at odd angles. God, I hoped she wasn’t in there. But if she was, it was where I wanted to be. I dropped my own mangled body on top of hers, then doused us both with the little bottle of lighter fluid I’d found.
“I’m coming, Irma,” I said.
And then I lit a match.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily C. Skaftun lives in Seattle with her husband and their child, a cat who thinks he’s a tiger. When she’s not teaching or writing, she dabbles in roller derby, flying trapeze, and any other absurd opportunities that come along. Emily has an MFA in Creative Writing and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, FLURB, and Every Day Fiction, with upcoming works in Daily Science Fiction and After Death, an anthology.
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ISSN 1937-7843 Clarkesworld Magazine © 2006-2014 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.