The grey slate windowed walls rose like cliffs on every side, a strip of sky traversed by flying spans, staircases to higher and lower levels, railcars weaving on steel beams. The man-boy was hungry and on every side were ground-level windowed gatherings where squat-faced men sat in rows at counters, staring out at him with full mouths.
The man-boy was in a strangest land. He had been in love with others’ memories of it, and so he had come.
He passed these places, and inside it seemed warm, he longed for a seat at one of those counters. But when he came to the door to the first of them, he saw a machine, blinking lights, four dozen buttons bearing strange symbols. He only recognized the numbers, one two three four.
He froze, just for a moment, his jaw dangling dumbly, and he felt the waves of quizzical malice from the eaters now just feet away from him. He could only tolerate it for a moment before retreating, continuing on, wandering the grey canyons and crossing aimless bridges, dodging vehicles and trying not to stare at the huddled shapes that might have been men or women or bags of garbage crowded against vast concrete pillars and green-enameled chainlink fences.
He saw a second place and again faced the machine, and saw that there were on the dozens of buttons here pictures, food-like but nonsensical, terrifying. Storms of damaged prawn pursued well-dressed businessmen across blasted plains of shredded cabbage. White sauce held the form of a grimacing face in a flat pool of grease. A roasted fish smiled from a plate, its eye sockets hollow and its hopes desiccated.
Again the man-boy retreated. He carried a small knapsack, and in it was a single nutrition bar. But this was all he had, and even as his stomach gnarled and protested and his legs became wobbly he pushed on, thinking that somewhere he would find something, something easy, this was a great city, a beautiful place, that was why he had come here. They had told him.
In another land, there had been dripping goat chunks and corn afloat in spicy reds all slathered in biting lime, and he wished he had gone back to that land, not come to this strangest land, where they ate parallelograms drizzled in canned cheese, where the hamburgers were topped with a fried egg and made entirely of hard plastic.
He followed a black delicious smell to a corner where men sitting on stacked crates huddled around smoking braziers. He stood diffidently at the edge of the loose congregation and saw grills laden with smoking miniature hearts and lungs and limbs covered in scales. The men speared these with long pointed gleaming wires and dipped them in bowls of brown sauce where floated red flecks in the perfect shape of six-pointed stars.
He moved on.
Then a man – they were all men here, he suddenly realized, where were the women in this starving place? – then a man plucked his sleeve and seemed to offer help. The man was not subservient but commanding and tall and with a plain unsmiling face, and he took the man-boy around the shoulders. He was lightheaded by now, in no condition to protest, and felt a warm reassurance in the man’s presence.
There were cracks in the grey cliff buildings, and they moved towards one of these. Just before they entered it the man-boy looked up and saw a figure crawling across the sheer vertical surface some two hundred feet above them. In the darkness of the small crack they passed banks of flickering fluorescent lights, and from foot-high alcoves carved into the aggregate stone he heard the traces of human movement. But when he glanced in, he saw only darkness receding.
Then the crack opened up, there was a space about fifteen feet long and just as wide, and somehow though it was closing in on evening, light came down in bold beams.
There was a single table at the center of this space. The man, who the man-boy now saw was tall and stark of appearance and manner and dressed in a grey suit as flat and sheer as sharkskin, reached forcibly into the man-boy’s pockets and removed the triangular bits of metal and shreds of paper that he had been worrying over all day with his dehydrated fingertips. He pushed the man-boy firmly forward to the single chair that waited at the table.
The man-boy sat, and as he sat the feeling of relief that washed over his legs was delicious. All day, for many days, they had been propelling him forward, always forward, searching for something amid the canyons and flying paths, calling on their stores, and the man-boy looked down and in the moment of relief he saw that he was gaunt, skeletal, starving.
And also as he looked down, he saw that in the center of the small square table sat a bowl of gold-tinged soup. Steam rose from it, and droplets of oil floating on its surface glistened in the column of descending light like precious jewels. Beside it sat one of the metal skewers.
The man-boy looked up, his hesitant face searching for his guide, but the charitable man in the suit was gone. Looking all around, the man-boy saw that he was entirely alone, that this alcove could be reached only by the long narrow passage, that it was somehow a space that had been missed in the construction of the canyon-city. It was a non-space, unobserved, free of judging and skeptical eyes.
He lifted the single skewer and delved into the depths of the steaming bowl, poking at something there that had the give and weight of rubber erasers or used chewing gum. And with the prod things floated to the surface of the glistening broth.
There were thinking parts, and touching parts that would touch no more, and gazing parts that saw nothing. There was a pinkish lip that seemed to hold the memory of a smile, and pads and toes that had never touched the earth. There were carefully carved slices and as he lifted them to his mouth he found they tasted of lightness and clarity, but drizzled with the juice of something deep and salty and worldly.
His hesitation and shame forgotten, he ate everything that he could pick out of the bowl with the skewer, crunched and chewed and threw away only a very few tough bits, and then he drank the broth. He found that he had missed one solid item – an intact eyeball, its blue iris flecked with green.
This he picked from the bottom of the bowl with his fingers. It slid intact across his tongue and down his throat.
Then he reached into his knapsack and found a few more of the triangular coins and strips of paper, and he left them on the table, hoping that in this place it would be taken as the compliment that was intended, and not as some incomprehensible insult.
He sat for a moment, and let the energy wash through him and replenish his starved and desperate limbs. His head cleared. Then he rose, and walked back out through the crack that had brought him in. He noticed that though the fluorescent lights still flickered, not even the slightest sound or sense of life now trickled from the strange low alcoves.
He emerged back into the broader canyon, and soon a sense something like contentment overcame him. His prior struggles and fears and anxieties melted away – melted so acutely, in fact, that he leaned against a wall, and slid down it, and came to rest there.
Over the coming months and years, he would accumulate flying bits of plastic sheeting and scraps of cloth and make from them a kind of nest. Still within his nest he would crawl, in the fashion of a worm and at the speed of a glacier, up and down the canyon floor. In the first year, he moved two blocks.
Through the seams and crevices of his nest he would watch the faces of the alien men as they passed, looking down on him. He searched them for the face of his guide, the man in the shark-flat suit, and was disappointed anew every day that he did not appear.
The hunger did not return.
David Z. Morris is the author of the surreal horror novella in night we coax things out of hidden shapes, available here.