Haunted, p.36
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       Haunted, p.36

           Chuck Palahniuk

  We'd pushed fluoride and literacy on them, we could push emigration.

  If just one hillbilly couple stayed behind, you could become their filthy, ignorant baby. If just one rice-paddy band of Third World tribesmen didn't emigrate, your precious soul could be called back to live—swatting flies and eating spoiled mush studded with brown rat-turds under their sweating-hot Asian sun.

  And, yes, sure, this was a gamble. Getting everyone to Venus, together. But now that death was dead, humanity really had nothing to lose.

  That was the headline on the last issue of the New York Times: “Death Is Dead.”

  USA Today called it “The Death of Death.”

  Death had been debunked. Like Santa Claus. Or the Tooth Fairy.

  Now life was the only option . . . but now it felt like an endless . . . eternal . . . perpetual . . . trap.

  Larry and his rocker slut, Jessika, had been planning to run away. Hide out. Now that death had been co-opted by the mainstream, Larry and Jessika wanted to rebel by staying alive. They'd have a litter of kids. They'd fuck up the spiritual evolution of all humanity. But then Jessika's folks had spiked the milk in her breakfast cereal with ant poison. The End.

  After that, Larry went downtown every day to hunt for painkillers in the abandoned pharmacies. Taking Vicodins and breaking windows, Larry said, that was enough enlightenment for him. All day, he'd be stealing cars and driving them through abandoned china shops, coming home stoned and dusted with the white talcum powder from exploded driver-side air bags.

  Larry said he wanted to make sure this world was good and used up before he moved on to the next one.

  As his little sister, Eve, told him, Grow up. She told him Jessika wasn't the last slutty goth rocker chick in the world.

  And Larry had just looked at her, stoned and blinking in slow motion, and he'd said, “Yeah, Eve. Jesse pretty much was . . .”

  Poor Larry.

  That's why, when their dad said to pile into the car, Larry only shrugged and climbed in. He got in the back seat, carrying Risky, their Boston terrier. He didn't bother to fasten his seat belt. They weren't going anywhere. Not anywhere physical.

  Here was the New Age spiritual equivalent of any fix-all idea, from the metric system to the euro. To polio vaccinations . . . Christianity . . . reflexology . . . Esperanto . . .

  And it couldn't have come at a better time in history. Pollution, overpopulation, disease, war, political corruption, sexual perversion, murder, and drug addiction . . . Maybe they weren't any worse than they'd been in the past, but now we had television carping about them. A constant reminder. A culture of complaint. Of bitch, bitch, bitch . . . Most people would never admit it, but they'd been bitching since they were born. As soon as their head popped out into that bright delivery-room light, nothing had been right. Nothing had been as comfortable or felt so good.

  Just the effort it took to keep your stupid physical body alive, just the finding food and cooking it and dishwashing, the keeping warm and bathing and sleeping, the walking and bowel movements and ingrown hairs, it was all getting to be too much work.

  Sitting in the car, as the vents blow smoke in her face, Tracee reads, “As your heart beats faster and faster, your eyes close. You lose consciousness and black out . . .”

  Eve's dad and Tracee, they'd met at the gym and started doing couples bodybuilding. They won a contest, posing together, and got married to celebrate. The only reason we didn't emigrate months ago is, they were still at their contest peak. Never had they looked so good, felt so strong. It broke their hearts to find out that having a body—even a body of ripped, defined muscle with only 2 percent body fat—was like riding a mule while the rest of humanity was zipping around in Lear jets. It was smoke signals compared to cell phones.

  Most days, Tracee would still be pedaling her stationary bicycle, alone in the gym's big empty aerobics room, pedaling to disco music while she yelled encouragement to a spinning class not there anymore. In the weight room, Eve's dad would be lifting weights, but limited to machines or lighter free weights, since no one was around to spot him. Worse than that, there was nobody around for Dad and Tracee to compete against. Nobody for them to pose for. Nobody for them to beat.

  Eve's dad used to tell this joke:

  How many bodybuilders does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

  It takes four. One bodybuilder to screw in the bulb, and three others to watch and say, “Really, dude, you look huge!”

  With her dad and Tracee, it took hundreds of people applauding, watching them up onstage, pose and flex. Still, you couldn't deny it, no matter how perfected with vitamins and collagen and silicone, the human body was obsolete.

  What's funny is, the other thing Eve's dad used to say was: “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”

  Experts advised this was the only point in history when we could make mass emigration happen. We'd needed the space program to give us proof of the next life. We needed the mass media to take this proof around the world. We needed our weapons of mass destruction to ensure full compliance.

  If there were any future generations, they wouldn't know what we knew. They wouldn't have the tools we had to make this happen. They'd just live their horrible, miserable physical lives, eating rat turds, ignorant that we could all live in pleasure on Venus.

  Of course, a lot of people pushed to just nuclear-blast the noncompliant, but vaporizing every little tribal island in the South Pacific, that left our missile silos empty. The radiation didn't migrate the way you would hope. A nuclear winter settled over Australia, only for a couple months. Rain fell, and there was a huge fish die-off, but the weather and the tides had a shitty way of cleaning up our poisoned mess. All this emigration potential wasted, since Australia was 100 percent compliant in the first six months.

  All of our nerve gas and deadly viruses, all our nuclear and conventional bombs, they were all a disappointment. We weren't even close to erasing humanity. People hunkered in caves. People roamed on camels over vast, empty deserts. Any of these stupid, backward people could fuck. A sperm meets an egg, and your soul gets sucked back to live another tedious lifetime, eating, sleeping, getting sunburned. On Earth: Planet Hurt. Planet Conflict. Planet Pain.

  For the Emigration Assistance Squads, with their clean white machine guns, the Top-A priority targets were noncompliant females between the ages of fourteen and thirty-five. All other females were Top-B priority targets for assistance. All noncompliant males were Top-C priority. If bullets were running out, a white-suited team might leave a whole village of men and old women alive to grow old and emigrate naturally.

  Tracee always worried about being a Top-A priority target, about getting machine-gunned on her way to the gym. But most of the squads were in the countryside or the mountains, places where backward baby-having people might hide.

  The stupidest stupid people could completely sidetrack your spiritual evolution. It just wasn't fair.

  Everybody else, millions of souls, they were already at the party. On the Venus video, you could catch the faces of famous people who'd suffered enough on Earth and didn't have to come back for another life. You'd see Grace Kelly and Jim Morrison. Jackie Kennedy and John Lennon. Kurt Cobain. Those were ones Eve could recognize. They were all at the party, looking young and happy, forever.

  Among the dead celebrities roamed animals extinct on Earth: passenger pigeons, duck-billed platypuses, giant dodos.

  On the television news, big-name celebrities were applauded the moment they emigrated. If these people, movie stars and rock bands, could emigrate for the greater good of all humanity, these people with money and talent and fame, with everything to keep them here, if they could emigrate, everyone could.

  In the last issue of People magazine, the feature story was the “Celebrity Cruise to Nowhere.” Thousands of the best-dressed, most beautiful people, fashion designers and supermodels, software moguls and professional athletes, they boarded the Queen Mary II and sailed off, drinking and dan
cing, racing north across the Atlantic Ocean, looking, full speed ahead, for an iceberg to ram.

  Chartered jetliners slammed into mountaintops.

  Tour buses careened off towering ocean cliffs.

  Here in the United States, most people went to Wal-Mart or Rite Aid and bought the Going Away Kits. The first generation of kits were barbiturates packaged inside a head-sized plastic bag with a drawstring for around your neck. The next generation of kits were a cherry-flavored chewable cyanide pill. So many people were emigrating right there in the store aisle—emigrating without paying for their kits—that Wal-Mart put the kits behind the customer-service desk with the cigarettes and made you pay first before they'd hand one over. Every couple minutes, an announcment over the public-address speakers asked customers to be courteous and not to emigrate while on store property . . . Thank you.

  Early on, some people pushed what they called the French Method. Their idea was just to sterilize everyone. First by surgery, but this took too long. Then by exposing people's genitals to focused radiation. Still, by that time all the doctors had emigrated. Doctors were among the first to jump ship. Doctors, true, yes, death was their enemy, but without it they were lost. Brokenhearted. Without doctors, it was janitors shooting folks with radiation. People got burns. The power grid failed. The End.

  By then, all the beautiful, cool people had emigrated with cyanide in champagne at glamorous “Bon Voyage Parties.” They'd held hands and jumped from skyscraper penthouse parties. People already a little world-weary, all the movie stars and super-athletes and rock bands. The supermodels and software billionaires, they were gone after that first week.

  Every day, Eve's dad would come home saying who was gone from his office. Who in the neighborhood had emigrated. It was easy to tell. Their front lawn would get too tall. Their mail and newspapers would pile up on the doorstep. Their curtains were never open, their lights never came on, and you'd walk past and catch a whiff of something sweet, some kind of fruit or meat rotting inside the house. The air buzzed with black flies.

  The house next door, the Frinks' house, was like that. So was the house across the street.

  For the first few weeks, it was fun: Larry going downtown to pound his electric guitar alone on the stage of the Civic Theater auditorium. Eve getting to use the entire shopping mall as her own private closet. School was out, and it would never, ever start back up.

  But their dad, you could tell he was already over Tracee. Their dad was never good at the part after the romantic start. Normal times, this was when he'd start to cheat. He'd find some new squeeze at his office. Instead, he was watching the Venus footage on television, paying close attention, his nose almost touching the parts where you could make out people, groups of those beautiful supermodel people, piled together naked or linked in a long daisy chain. Licking red wine off each other. Humping without reproduction or disease or God's damnation.

  Tracee, she was making a list of celebrities she wanted to be best friends with once the family arrived. At the top of her list was Mother Teresa.

  By now even harried moms were rounding up their kids, shrieking for everybody to hurry up and drink their poisoned milk and get their asses the hell to the next step of spiritual evolution. Now even life and death would be phases to rush through, the way teachers hurried kids from grade to grade to graduation—no matter how much they did or didn't learn. A big rat race to enlightenment.

  In the car now, her voice getting deep and rough from breathing the smoke, Tracee reads, “As the cells of your heart valves begin to die, the two halves, called ventricles, get sloppy, pumping less and less blood through your body . . .”

  She coughs and reads, “Without blood, your brain stops functioning. Within minutes you'll emigrate.” And Tracee shuts the pamphlet. The End.

  Eve's dad says, “Good-bye, planet Earth.”

  And the Boston terrier, Risky, barfs up cheese popcorn all over the back seat.

  The smell of dog barf, and the sound of Risky gobbling it up, are even worse than the carbon monoxide.

  Larry looks at his sister, the black makeup smeared around his eyes, his eyes blinking in slow motion, he says, “Eve, take your dog outside to puke.”

  In case the family's gone when she gets back, her dad says there's a Going Away Kit on the counter in the kitchen. He tells Eve not to hang around too long. They'll be waiting for her at the big party.

  Eve's future ex-stepmom says, “Don't hold the door open and let out any smoke.” Tracee says, “I want to emigrate, not just be brain-damaged.”

  “Too late,” Eve says, and tugs the dog outside to the backyard. There, the sun is still shining. Birds build nests, too dumb to know this planet is out of fashion. Bees crawl around inside the open roses, not knowing their whole reality is obsolete.

  In the kitchen, on the counter next to the sink, is a Going Away Kit, the plastic blister card of cyanide pills. It was a new flavor, lemon. A family pack. Printed on the cardboard backing is a little cartoon. It shows an empty stomach. A clock face counts off three minutes. And then your cartoon soul would wake up in a world of pleasure and comfort. The next planet. Evolved.

  Eve punches one out, a bright-yellow pill printed with a smiling happy-face in red. It didn't matter if they'd used that toxic kind of red dye. Eve punches out all the pills. All eight, she takes into the bathroom and flushes down the toilet.

  The car's still running inside the garage. Through a window, standing on a lawn chair, Eve can see the heads slumped inside. Her dad. Her future ex-stepmom. Her brother.

  In the backyard, Risky is nosing at the crack under the garage door, sniffing the fumes from inside. Eve tells him, No. She calls him back away from the house, back into the sunshine. There, with the neighborhood quiet except for the birds, the buzz of the bees, the backyard already looks messy and needs mowing. With no roar of lawn mowers and airplanes and motorcycles, the birds singing sound as loud as traffic used to.

  After she lays down in the grass, Eve pulls up the bottom of her shirt and lets the sun warm her stomach. She closes her eyes and rubs the fingertips of one hand in slow circles around her bellybutton.

  Risky barks, once, twice.

  And a voice says, “Hey.”

  A face sticks over the fence from the backyard next door. Blond hair and pink pimples, a kid named Adam from school. From before all the schools shut down. Adam's fingers grip the top edge of the wood fence, and he pulls himself up until both elbows rest along the top. His chin hooked on his two hands, Adam says, “Did you hear about your brother's girlfriend?”

  Eve shuts her eyes and says, “This sounds weird, but I really miss death . . .”

  Adam kicks a leg sideways to hook his foot over the fence. He says, “Your folks emigrate yet?”

  In the garage, the car's engine coughs and misses a beat on one cylinder. A ventricle getting sloppy. Inside the window glass, the garage air is shifting gray clouds of smoke. The engine misses again and goes quiet. Nothing inside moves. Eve's family, now they're just their own left-behind luggage.

  And, spread out in the sunshine, feeling her skin turn tight and red, Eve says, “Poor Larry.” Still rubbing circles around her bellybutton.

  Risky goes to stand next to the fence, looking up, as Adam hauls one leg, then the other over the top, then jumps down into the yard. Adam stoops to pet the dog. Scratching under the dog's chin, Adam says, “Did you tell them we're pregnant?”

  And Eve, she doesn't say anything. She doesn't open her eyes.

  Adam says, “If we get the whole human race started again, our folks will be so pissed . . .”

  The sun is almost straight overhead. What sounds like cars is just wind blowing through the empty neighborhood.

  Material possessions are obsolete. Money is useless. Status is pointless.

  It would be summer for another three months, and there was a whole world of canned food to eat. That's if the Emigration Assistance Squad didn't machine-gun her for noncompliance. Top-A priority target that sh
e is. The End.

  Eve opens her eyes and looks at the white dot near the blue horizon. The Morning Star. Venus. “If I have this baby,” Eve says, “I hope it's going to be . . . Tracee.”


  Mr. Whittier leads Miss Sneezy to the door. To the world, outside. The two of them, hand in hand. Here is our world without a devil, our Villa Diodati without any monster to blame. He's hauled the alley door open a little, open enough so a ray of real sunlight angles in from the alley. That bright slot, the opposite of the black slot we found when we arrived.

  Miss Sneezy the same as Cassandra Clark, the bride of Mr. Whittier. The one he wants to save.

  The projector bulb has burned out. Or burned so hot so long—with something dramatic always happening, something horrible always happening, something exciting always happening—it's tripped a circuit breaker.

  The Baroness Frostbite is asleep in her pile of rags and lace, her greasy pink pucker, muttering. So is the Earl of Slander, sleep-talking, dream-rewinding the scenes in his head.

  We all look to be asleep or unconscious or dreaming awake, muttering about how none of this is our fault. We're the prey. Everything here has been done to us.

  Only Saint Gut-Free and Mother Nature whisper back and forth. He keeps sideways-eyeing the open door and the crack of light spilling inside. Mr. Whittier and Miss Sneezy, their dark skeletons outlined and dissolving in the glare of daylight.

  The rest of us, dissolving into our costumes, into the carpet, into the floor.

  Mother Nature keeps broken-record-saying, “Stop them . . . stop them . . .”

  It would make a good-enough happy ending, Saint Gut-Free says. Those two young lovers walking out into the light of a bright new day. They could find help and save the group. The two of them could be victims and heroes.

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