Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 45
The Cloaca Maxima
by Rob Steiner
The Species of Least Concern
by Erica L. Satifka
Lost and Found
by Christian Heftel
IGMS Audio

Electricity Bill for a Darkling Plain
    by H.G. Parry

Electricity Bill for a Darkling Plain
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

There was a sombre mood over the flat when we returned from the funeral. There always is, even when it's one of ours.

"Do you think he'll come back?" Matilda asked, without much interest. She kicked off her heels in the hallway, and I went patiently to pick them up. I'm always asking them to stack their shoes neatly. I don't feel that this is an unreasonable request.

Alfie was the only one of the three of us who actually looked sad. He has very large, dark eyes, and they always show more feeling than I would expect from any living soul, or at least any living soul not soft in the head.

"I staked him through the heart when the funeral director wasn't looking," he said. "It's what he would have wanted."

"Why would that work?" Matilda snorted. She curled up into the armchair, tucking her stockinged feet up underneath her. I don't like people to put their feet on the chairs, but they never listen to me. "He really does need to accept facts. It's like the time he tried to drown himself in the bath. Water all over the floor, and we couldn't get in cleaning services because they'd have found the body . . ."

"At least that wasn't public," I reminded her. "I do loathe having to go through this charade."

"He thinks that if there's a stake through his heart, it won't heal," Alfie said sternly. "I think he got the idea from a book. It may work."

"It won't," I said.

Matilda turned the television on. Alfie went to change out of his suit. I decided that a good deal of the emptiness I seemed to be feeling was hunger, and made a sandwich. I was beginning to run out of peanut butter, and suspected the others of taking it, despite how clearly it was labeled.

He came back shortly before six the following evening, which did not please me. I like to have dinner at six o'clock, every day. The others roll their eyes, but I don't think that's unreasonable.

He was covered in mud and blood, which pleased me even less, especially when he threw himself onto the sofa with a groan. Still, I could hardly begin to boil potatoes without acknowledging him, and God knows I am not a man to complain, so I said, "Hello, Will."

"Septimus," he said dully, without opening his eyes. His long, prematurely grey hair lay in dirty clumps over the cushions. Prematurely grey for the time of his first death, that is, which is the age we seem to stick at. He was born in 1776, so in the normal order of things he would be fortunate to have hair at all.

"So the stake was not the answer?" Matilda called from her bedroom.

"No, Mattie my darling, it was not," Will sighed. He always calls Matilda his darling, but she is in fact dating a man named Roberto who is married. I know this because I saw her texts -- quite by accident, for I am far from interfering. She was applying make-up right then to go and meet him. "It was just painful, and messy. I think I died twice more pulling it out, and getting out of the coffin. I think. Might have only passed out. I thought I asked for vodka to be buried with me? And a shovel."

"Ask Alfie," I said, putting the pot on the stove. Politeness had been served; it was time for vegetables. "I had no part in your sordid funeral plans."

Will raised his voice and called "Alfie!" at the top of his lungs, still with his eyes closed. I swear he only does it to annoy me.

At least this time Matilda was annoyed too. "Oh stop bellowing, Will! He's in town picking up milk. It was your turn, but as you were noticeably absent . . ."

"I stepped in front of a bus!"

"Three buses," I corrected him. "The first two missed you."

"You shut up too, Septimus!" Matilda snapped, which was most unfair as none of this had anything to do with me. She came out of her bedroom, her eyes blazing. Matilda was thirty-two when she died for the first time. She's not quite handsome, but somehow I like to watch her when she's annoyed. "Will, for God's sake, you have to stop all this nonsense. You've been trying to die for sixty years. You can't. Why does that matter when you can do almost literally anything else?"

"I don't want to do anything else," he said blandly. "I've done it all. Two hundred and forty years of it. I'm tired of it all."

"Can't you just enjoy being immortal? No, not even that -- can't you just enjoy being alive?"

"No," he said. "I can't." He sat up. "Well. Being dead does make one sleepy. I think I'll grab a shower and go to bed."

That means leaves and dirt clogging up the drain, but I held my peace. I try to be considerate of my flatmates, and though I've only died once, I do remember that it makes one sleepy. Besides, I didn't want to draw Matilda's fire by speaking.

Matilda sighed. "Oh, fine. But I can't understand you. Being given a new life was the best thing that ever happened to me."

"Oh, me too," Will said, with an edge of bitterness. "It was about my seventh when it started to get old."

He stomped upstairs, and a few minutes later I heard the shower running. Matilda flounced out about ten minutes after that, her heels clicking on the footpath to the gate. So it was only Alfie and I for dinner when he returned from the shops, and he seemed preoccupied.

I wasn't dozing, whatever Alfie might say. I was reading War and Peace. I've been reading War and Peace on and off for the last fifty years, or at least reading the first chapter over and over. I do find the first chapter promising. After that, yes, sometimes my eyes do start to grow a little heavy, I'm not too proud to admit, especially on a rainy day by the fire. But not this time. I was wide awake when Alfie threw himself into the armchair next to me.

"Septimus?" he said. "Can I ask you something?"

I started and opened my eyes, which I had been resting for a moment. "Mm?"

Alfie sighed heavily.

The thing to understand about Alfie is that he takes everything very seriously; it's rather worrying at times. There seems to be perpetually one less skin between him and the world than there is for most people.

"How do you think this is working out?" he asked. "Our flatting together?"

I didn't need to ask what he meant. It was Alfie who brought us all together, some five years ago. The ad on the flatshare website asked for fellow immortals seeking a room in a four-bedroom flat in London. As he explained, in this day and age most would dismiss it as a joke -- except those of us lucky or unlucky enough to have come back from the dead. Until I saw it, I had assumed since my death in 1802 that I was the only one. I also, until I met my current flatmates, had no idea that it was not merely one death I would come back from, but as many as I cared to die. I was the only one of the four of us who had not tested the process, by accident or design.

"Well," I said, considering, "we all make the rent on time. Even Will had the decency to pay off last week in advance, when he knew he'd be dead. Of course, none of you keep things neat, certain people take all eternity in the bathroom and I know somebody ate the pickles I was saving for lunch on Thursday --"

"That's not quite what I meant," Alfie interrupted. "My point is . . . does it make it easier, living with others who will live forever, do you think? Or harder? I would very much like your opinion."

"I can't say that I've thought about it," I said with a yawn. I wanted to get back to my book. "It's convenient enough. I can hardly afford to live alone on my salary, and flatting with most of the world raises awkward questions. There are improvements I could wish for, but I'm not over-particular."

"I think it has a bad effect on Will," Alfie said.

I glanced instinctively at the stairs to Will's room, but he was out for a walk. In the rain. I think he was trying to drown again.

"And on Mattie," Alfie added. "It reminds them both that they can never die."

"Matilda loves that she can never die," I said dryly. She was out with somebody or other, so I didn't need to glance at her door. "She won't shut up about it."

"Yes, well." Alfie cleared his throat. "The option is up to extend the lease again next month. Will's officially dead, which makes it awkward. I thought we'd have a flat meeting about it soon. I just wanted to know your thoughts first."

"As I said," I said, turning my eyes back to my book, "I hadn't thought about it."

I couldn't quite concentrate on War and Peace after he was gone, so I went and tidied the pantry, and then I sorted the jumble of shoes into pairs and redid the weekly accounts. With all that, I didn't think anything more about what Alfie had said until the flat meeting on Wednesday.

Flat meetings usually take place on Wednesday nights, when Will has no evening work, Matilda has nothing to go out for and nobody has anything on the television. Alfie seems to do most of the talking, not because Alfie is in charge -- he certainly is not -- but because Alfie is usually the one who cares. This time, Matilda and I sat on the couch expectantly while Will sat stretched out in an armchair pretending to read a magazine. He wasn't, though: his eyes weren't moving. Alfie paced back and forth in front of us.

"So the question seems to be twofold," he said, holding up his hands to make the point. Alfie needs to talk with his hands when he's making a point. Will suggested once that we make him sit on them to shut him up. "Do we renew the lease, and if so how do we explain Will's return from the dead after his death was so public?"

"Did you really need to step out into the road?" Matilda asked him irritably. "Could you not have killed yourself in the flat?"

"No buses in the flat," Will said blithely.

Alfie was still going on. "Possibility: we could all shift to another flat."

"I don't want to," Matilda declared. "I like this flat."

"So do I," I agreed. I don't like this flat particularly, but I loathe moving. It takes so long to get things back just the way you need them.

"Very well," Alfie said with a quick smile. "Another possibility: Will can move in again as his own long-lost cousin. Nobody around the area knows each other anyway."

"I could clear off and never come back, you know," Will spoke up, without shifting his gaze from his magazine.

"Oh, and the rent goes up by a third," I said scathingly. "How very responsible."

Will shrugged. "Someone else could come in."

"Like who?" Matilda retorted. "Dorian Gray?"

Alfie seemed to hesitate for a moment, which caught my attention. He still sounded hesitant when he spoke, although I don't suppose the others noticed it. They were busy mutually glaring.

"No," he said. "No, I don't think that would work. I did try to get in touch with another one of us, who answered my ad. But she no longer seems to be with us."

"Another one like us?" Matilda said, with an eyebrow raised. It was rather startling news, even though we know they must exist and privately expect Alfie to know people. "Who is she?"

"What do you mean 'no longer with us'?" Will asked.

"Her name was Edith," Alfie said. "And I believe her to be dead."

"You've lost me completely," Matilda said flatly.

"Well, she was one of us," Alfie said. "She died in 1932. But when I tried to look for her recently, she seems to have vanished without trace. The last I could find, she'd died again in a fall, and . . . and was cremated."

There was silence.

"Why," Will said slowly, "did I never think of that?"

"It makes sense," Matilda said. "There has to be some limit to what your body can heal from. We've always assumed that. Houndini here makes a habit of pushing that limit."

"I've always been buried afterwards," Will said. The magazine was truly down now. "Everyone in my family has always been buried . . . I mean, there was no such thing as cremation . . . "

"Are you sure she hasn't merely changed her identity?" I asked. It felt like the first time I had spoken in a while, and I had to clear my throat.

"Of course I can't be certain," Alfie said. "But it doesn't seem likely. She has done that once before -- not after a death, just before her lack of aging became obvious -- and she stayed in touch then. I really can't find her now."

Will gave a dazed little laugh. "You're saying," he said, pointing at Alfie as if attempting to pin him down, "that we can die? That after all these years trapped with no end in sight, it's as simple as ticking the cremation box instead of adding to the endless gravestones I've been collecting?"

"I don't think there's an actual box," Alfie said cautiously, as if afraid Will would get carried away, "but yes. I strongly believe so."

Matilda swore. I should be used to women swearing by now, but I'm not.

"That's what I was going to say," said Will, who is.

There was a silence for thoughts to echo in.

I broke it after a while. My head was starting to throb with what wasn't being said. "Can we return to the lease? I have to clean the fridge after this."

Alfie shook himself -- quite literally. Alfie doesn't deal in metaphors. "Of course, sorry, Septimus."

There wasn't a great deal of discussion, though. We decided to renew the lease, with Will taking over as his own relative to explain the name. He'll need new bank accounts and so forth, but that's for him to deal with, thank God. We always leave our money to each other so that we can give it straight back. I've more than half a mind to keep some this time. Enough is enough.

The flat was very quiet afterwards, which suited me, because by the time I had finished with the fridge and reordered my books I wasn't feeling quite well. All of us went early to bed, except Will. He was sitting in his armchair, staring out at the wispy bit of back garden and the jumble of buildings in the moonlight. I woke several times that night, and each time saw the light from the lounge spilling under my door.

The flat stayed quiet the following morning, though I only saw Matilda at breakfast. She seemed deep in thought.

Will came in that afternoon when I was sorting my stamps on the kitchen table. I didn't particularly want him there, but he swung into a seat next to me anyway.

"Collecting stamps?" he said conversationally, picking one up and examining it on both sides -- as though there was ever anything on the back of a stamp. "You certainly do put the 'boring' into 'part-time filing clerk', don't you?"

A part-time filing clerk, by the way, is what I am at the moment. We tend to take jobs that stay under the radar, and mostly live off our investments.

"I," I answered Will in the same tone, "did not spend most of last week in a coffin."

I should explain that I know collecting stamps is something of a tragic pastime these days, but in my defense it was not when I began it many decades ago. And I like stamps. They're useful, attractive, and meticulous.

"Well, we know the solution to that now," Will said. He was going slightly cross-eyed examining the picture. "Cremation. I don't know why I never thought of it."

Neither do I. It would have occurred to me long ago, had I been in Will's position. "So when can we expect the funeral?" I asked. I looked at the stamp I'd just pasted, and took satisfaction in the knowledge that it was completely straight.

"Oh, I don't know," Will said vaguely. "Sooner or later. It's a bit different when you know it's definitely going to work, isn't it?"

"You didn't think it would work before?"

"No, I didn't," he said. "I knew I was stuck in this prison of a world for the rest of eternity. I'd failed every time I'd tried to top myself, including the first. I just couldn't not try."

"I see," I said. I held out my hand for my last stamp, and Will relinquished it. "And now the idea is more daunting?"

"Daunting?" He snorted. "Not at all. The pressure's off though. I can go whenever I want. It may as well be tomorrow. Or Thursday. Or in twenty years, if I don't get bored."

"Yes," I said. "Well, do remember to send us invites when you get around to it. Your funerals are always a good day out."

"Had you ever thought about what's going to happen when the world finally ends?" Will said. "The four of us all sitting in the ruins of the nations until the planet breaks apart or the sun explodes or something?"

"No," I said tightly. I pasted the stamp. "I had not."

"No. Well, I used to. That's one less load off my mind."

"I'm going to get a biscuit," I said, wiping my hands. They were shaking a little, but the last stamp looked satisfactory. "Do you want one?"

"No," Will said.

When I came back, he was looking at my stamps, which I resented. His hands didn't look clean.

"That's rather a nice one," he said. He unscrewed the lid of his hip-flask, and swilled a drink. "Venice, isn't it? I might go to Venice. Why not? See the world before I burn."

"Why not?" I agreed. "Please don't drink over my stamp album. You might spill it, and the pure alcohol would probably burn a hole through the page."

"Would you like to go to Venice, Septimus?"

"No," I said. "No, I would not."

Will smiled. "Excellent." He toasted me, drank, then got up and shambled off upstairs.

I was dozing a little when Matilda came bursting in a few days later, I will admit. It was our first true sunny afternoon for nine weeks, according to my weather log. I had been reading Great Expectations, which is in fact my favourite book that I usually save for when I am ill or on holiday, but for some reason I hadn't been sleeping well lately and couldn't keep my eyes entirely open. I don't suppose Matilda knew that, but she still might have been more considerate.

"I'm back!" she called at the top of her voice, which made me jump. She slammed the door shut behind her, and dropped the keys with a clatter in the fruit bowl. "Guess where I've been?"

"Um . . . somewhere wet, I assume," I said, glancing at her. Her hair was loose, and drying in stiff waves around her head.

"Dover Beach," she confirmed. "Good guess. Are you going to ask me why?"

"Would you refrain from telling me if I didn't?"

She dropped down onto the couch across from me, and leaned forward. At least she didn't draw her feet up, which were sandy. "I was going to throw myself off the cliffs."

"I think Will's probably tried that," I said, then her words caught up to me. I frowned, and looked at her more closely. "You were?"

"I was," she confirmed. Up close, her eyes were shining with something that could perhaps have been tears, and yet she looked radiantly happy. It was very confusing, and I was still drowsy. "I met with my solicitor early today, and made my new will, specifying that I desired to be cremated as soon as possible after my death. Then I caught the train up to Dover. There are safer and more certain ways to die and be cremated, I know, but I had always rather fancied the idea of throwing myself off a height onto the rocks and into the sea."

"Well, everyone should have something to aspire to," I said, stifling a yawn. I'm not insensitive, as you should know by now, but I really do wish people would stop telling me awkward things.

Matilda hardly heard me. "Well, anyway. I didn't do it."

There was a long pause, and I realised she was waiting for me. "Why not?"

Strangely, the pause continued, though it was of a different quality. "Can I tell you something, Septimus?"

"You are," I pointed out.

She smiled. "Hm. True. Well, you know I died for the first time in 1843, correct?"

"Of course."

"I'd been married since I was eighteen, and I'd had ten children. I kept thinking that it would kill me, or my husband would when he was drunk, but none of it did. After a while I grew tired of waiting, and stepped in front of a train."

"I see," I said, because she seemed to want me to say something.

"When I came back, I realised that I was free. I told myself I couldn't go back to my children anyway, and I didn't have to go back to my husband. I ran away, and I didn't care how hard it was, because nothing could kill me, and any pain was only temporary now. I've been living like that ever since. Desperately happy, not looking back. I'm not trying to paint this as bleak, by the way. It's been a blast."

I knew this, of course. "So why would you want to end it?" I asked, because I was expected to.

She shrugged. "I hardly know, really. I wasn't unhappy, I don't think. I was just starting to get tired, and I didn't want to admit it, because there was no way to stop. When Alfie told us about Edith, I felt so relieved. It took me a while to realise that this was because I could die, and once I realised it, I thought . . . Why not? Maybe this is right. I'd had a good, free and independent life. It had to end sometime."

"Possibly," I said.

"I wanted to make my peace with everything first. Go out with no regrets. So I spent last week tracking down what had happened to my children. I have to admit, I wasn't expecting very much. I left them alone with an alcoholic father before some of them could even walk. But you know something? They were fine. My sister took them away after the funeral - my sister who I'd thought hated children. Timothy and Victoria died of measles very young, but the rest grew up. Some had children of their own, some didn't. Harriet married into aristocracy, and Henry ended up running a factory. I didn't hurt them after all. Violet died in childbirth. I have descendants all over the country. I don't know why that made me cry so much."

Neither did I. Matilda never cries.

She took a deep breath. "Anyway. I got on the train to Dover today. I'd never seen the grass look so green or the sky look so blue. We passed a field of poppies next to an old stone farmhouse and I gasped out loud with how red they were. When I got out there, I walked up to the top of the cliffs. I could see the castle to my right, and the ocean stretching out to France. I was honestly prepared to jump. I leaned forward and closed my eyes."

Matilda stopped. I waited patiently.

"I don't really know," she said, with a laugh that could have been embarrassment, or just wonder. "I just couldn't do it. I loved it all too much. The sun, the smell of the grass and the sea, the feel of the sweat and the warmth and the breeze on my skin, the way the light caught the waves. I used to tell my children that the froth on the tide was white horses trying to reach the shore - I'd completely forgotten all of that until that moment."

"So you didn't jump," I finished.

"No," she said. "I didn't. Not today. I went down to the beach instead. I think I've got a good deal left to do."

She looked at me expectantly. I never know what to say when Matilda looks at me like that. Well, sometimes it's obvious, I admit, as it was a few moments ago. But often it's not.

"I see," I said again. "Well, that's . . . very interesting."

Matilda laughed. "I knew you'd understand," she said. She stood, and patted me on the shoulder. "Go back to your nap."

I felt for the next few weeks as though I were waiting for something to happen, but somehow nothing did. Or perhaps that was what happened. Will drank less, and smirked more, and then out of the blue announced that he had booked a trip to Venice and Rome for next year. Matilda left Roberto -- I accidentally saw the text -- and cancelled her package tour to Africa. Then she started to write a book. The electricity bill was paid on time, even though it was Will's turn. There were still fights, and my chocolate milk disappeared mysteriously from the fridge, and Alfie caught one of his colds that swiftly spread through the entire flat, but that all couldn't be helped, I suppose.

"Do you know," Alfie said one day as we sat around the dinner table at six, "it's been over a month since Will's funeral?"

I did know this. I keep track of dates, because of the bills.

"How about that?" Will said blandly.

"Mm. It'll be summer in three weeks."

When summer came, we went to the Lake District for a weekend. Alfie's always trying to get the flat to go on holiday together. The others agreed this time, so I agreed too.

It had been two months by then, and Will was still alive. So was Mattie.

I did get Alfie to admit it, of course. I thought about not, because I'm not a person who has to point out what they know all the time, but in the end I did.

It had rained our first day in Windermere, and we were all tired from the travel and the walk and ended up snapping at each other in the tiny B&B until the owners must have wished they hadn't taken our booking. But on the Saturday, the sun came out, and we went for a walk along the lake. Will and Matilda hired one of those pedalboat things, and Alfie and I got ice creams and walked up to sit on the hill and watch them.

"You made it up about Edith or whatever you called her, didn't you?" I said after a while of just sitting in the sun; perfectly conversationally, but making it clear that it was not a question.

Alfie blinked, and I saw his ice-cream wobble in his hand. "Why would you --?"

"My question is," I replied, "why would you?"

Alfie was silent for a moment. The breeze blew off Lake Windermere, and ruffled his curls in his face.

"Alright," he said finally, brushing them back. "Yes, I did make it up. I thought it might help. Will, in particular -- I thought that if he only thought he could end his life, someday, he wouldn't be trying to do it every second."

"He might have tried right then and there," I said.

Alfie shrugged. "He was doing that every month anyway. One more disappointment wouldn't hurt very much. But I strongly suspected he wouldn't. Neither of them would. It was the immortality that was weighing on them -- it weighs on all of us, sometimes."

"People who know they'll die someday do sometimes decide to die today," I said. "It happens all the time."

"Yes," Alfie said, a little quietly. "Yes, of course they do. Unhappy people, and unhealthy people. But neither Will nor Mattie were really that unhappy. And they're certainly not now! Look at them!"

I said nothing, but I looked at them. They were paddling in circles now, and I could see Matilda laughing. Actually, I think Will was too.

"There was a fourth person who contacted me about the flat," Alfie added. "One of us, I mean. She didn't want to join us, just to see if I was sincere. And I did read of her death in the papers; though months ago, and not of her cremation. Still, I haven't heard from her since, and she may well have been cremated. It's not entirely a lie."

"Except it is a lie, in fact," I said. "Because cremation does not prevent us from coming back."

Alfie shrugged, a little uncomfortably. "Well, I don't know that, do I?" he said. "I've never tested it. It may well work. In fact, I don't see how it couldn't."

"It doesn't," I said. "I happen to have been cremated."

Alfie looked at me in astonishment. "You?"

"Mm." I shifted on the bank. "A hundred years before it was legal, of course -- I don't believe my parents even knew the term. They merely disposed of my body. As the seventh son of the Earl of Maltby, firm patron of the Church of England, it could hardly be known that I had committed suicide. I suppose they could have hushed it all up and had me buried quietly, but they took what must have seemed the more expedient course. I'm not entirely sure where they did it, but I believe my ashes were scattered in the woods to the back of our lands."

"Good God. And you . . . "

"And," I finished for him, "I came back. It's not so surprising, when you think about it logically. When you return, there's no slow process of healing. It happens in a single burst, with the body remade -- even if some idiot like Will chooses to have a stake through a part of the anatomy. I came to myself in a flash like lightning, fully formed and naked. It hurt like anything, of course; far more, I think, than I've seen it hurt any of you since. When I started to move, the leaves and the dirt brushing against me were like sandpaper. But I was healthy enough."

"I'm so sorry," Alfie said. He really was, of course. Alfie is very sensitive. "If I had known, I would never have said that --"

"Oh, it's nothing to be sorry for," I said dismissively. "We all have to die somehow. It won't hurt them too much if they try it, at least not for long, and I think you're right that they won't for a long time. We'll have parted company by then, more than likely."

"What did your family say?" Alfie said. "When you came back out of the woods?"

"I didn't," I said. "I had no thought to what I was, at the time -- I only knew that they would force me back into my old life again. So I took some clothes from the washing line out in the servants' yard -- not mine, of course -- and never came back."

"I see," Alfie said, nodding. "Yes. Very wise, I suspect." He lapsed into thought for a moment. "Mine threw stones at me when I knocked on their door at night. They thought I was a vampire, or a spirit. For a while I thought the same. But I'm flesh and blood, the same as I ever was. I bleed and catch cold and all the rest of it. And then I thought: maybe I'm here for a purpose. Maybe I tried to end myself prematurely, and I'm not going to be allowed death until it's the right time. I still think that, you know. Maybe that's why we're all still here. Maybe we can earn our right to die by living very well."

This is why I told you about Alfie, and how seriously he takes things. Because it's very alarming, until you get to know him, and when you do you still feel rather embarrassed. I was embarrassed then, and I'm embarrassed again writing it down.

"When we get back," I said, "we need to get in touch with the landlord about replacing the washing machine. And it's your turn to pay the rent."

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