Crumpled, by Steve Toase

NOVEMBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 1500 WORDS

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We erupt into the world of ghosts like ink congealing through water. There is a moment when I think we won’t have any form before we become coarse grey fabric.

You’re probably imagining us hidden, memories of when you wore costume sheets as a child, but our bodies became the cloth, thread thin and creased when we moved. Our eyes are rough-cut holes edged in torn stitches. To look at us you might think the cloth hides death-whitened limbs. There are no limbs anymore. Jessica and I have become the garments of death in a place where the deceased gather.

I do not know if we are biodegradable, if we are linen and wool, or if we are woven through with polyester. Cut from Crimplene. I just know we are formed formless and have left the world of the living.

We see many others around us, nearby, huddled together in corners as if the proximity will bring some relief. Some are the same size as us, others smaller the size of napkins, swatches. Threads. We do not need anyone else. We find ourselves together, Jessica and I, and we need no one else.

When I discover we still have our voices, it comes as a shock in that quiet place. To begin with, I thought our speech had been robbed from us along with our bones and lungs and nerves and cartilage. Yet, we can still think, though there is nothing within the sheet to create thoughts. We see and feel the hollow of losing everything we left behind. The house, and our parents, and Ben sleeping in his room, undisturbed as we were despoiled from the world. I picture him curled up in his bed, duvet loosely thrown to one side, hands clasped as he sleeps silent, and I let out a sob.

The ghost that Jessica has become looks over. There is no face to show surprise, but the way she drapes against the floor changes, her hem rising slightly from the dirt-covered ground. I try to speak, and the words come though I have no mouth to shape them.

“Are, are you okay?” I say, though I know the answer and not for the first time wish I had arms to hold her. Some way to comfort her. I press against her, worn grey fabric against worn grey fabric. I barely feel her.

“No,” she says as truthful as ever. I have always been less honest. I do not think this reduction will change me. Maybe it will concentrate my deception.

“And you?” she asks. The words are like moths fluttering against me. I do not answer.

I can feel the weave of the sheet I have become, the threads rubbing against each other as I move. I wonder if they will erode away, leave me threadbare until the fabric falls apart and I am nothing but fibers lying in the dust. Will I still have thought when I am dispersed? Awareness? I look to the ground. It is bare stone. I wonder if it is cold, but I have no feet to sense the heat of the world, and my hem barely brushes against the ground.

Time passes like food rotting. We hear others talking. They stay in their clusters. I wonder if they are families or households. If they knew each other before, or if they gathered here like iron filings. I watch Jessica approach a group of four specters, all as grey as we are. They float from her as if repelled. Maybe what seems like fabric is magnetized. Fine weave of meteorite iron. Maybe we can only remain in the vicinity of those we loved in the living world. I do not feel the weight of being metallic. I only feel the weight of being lost.

There are traces of buildings, and I wonder if they too are ghosts. Echoes of the demolished. That is a good description of us too. I feel demolished, everything shattered and scraped away. I do not know what Jessica feels. She does not tell me. I move to brush against one of the walls. There is no sensation.

We both recognize Ben straight away. Though he has no limbs, he carries himself the same. Barely contained energy. Moving, his body, lack of body, trying to keep pace with his enthusiasm.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he says. There is joy in his voice, and when I answer there is joy in mine.

“Where were you?” Jessica says, her relief fading into absolute devastation.

“Nearby. For a while. Then somewhere else.” I notice that he isn’t uniform grey. There are threads of gold woven through the fabric. Hints of blue in the stitching around the eyeholes. His eyes were green. I do not know why they are different now.

“Do you know the worst thing about this place, Mum?”

I know Jessica is working through the answers to get to the child-appropriate one. I don’t know if it matters any more. Yet he’s still a child. He’s still just a child.

“What’s the worst thing, sweetheart?” she says.

“No toys!”

And I want to cry, and I want to laugh, but I don’t have eyes anymore, and I don’t think I have it in me to laugh.

“But it’s not all bad,” Ben says. His voice is relaxed. Maybe he’s too young to know where we are. What we are. Maybe I am too young. “Come with me.”

If it was before he would grab our hands, me on the right, Jessica on the left. Wrap his fingers around ours. I always worried I was stealing his heat from him, his vitality, because he did warm me. Now he can keep whatever remains for himself. We walk alongside him in silence. He talks for us.

“I’ve been here a while, but I couldn’t find you. Everyone looks the same, especially the grown-ups. The children talk to each other more than the grown-ups. I had no idea where to look for you.”

He continues, the monologue leading us on through the landscape. We pass other groups, and when the way is narrow, we somehow slip through. I don’t know if we pass through the other specters. If we do, I have no memory.

The landscape is more varied than I thought. There are rivers and hills, but no trees or grass. Just stone, everything living stripped back. Only us, but we’re not alive any more, are we?

I start to notice more details with the other figures. Some glitter like they are stitched with feldspar. I notice how sad Jessica looks, the rough-stitched eyeholes sagging as if they wish to close against the place we find ourselves. Ben shows none of this. If he had legs, he would be skipping. Instead he pushes against us, spins out in front, and never stops talking.

We stop and rest against a low wall. Not because we’re tired, but to create a moment. A moment that is just us. Me. Ben. Jessica. Ben leans against me, and I crumple a little. We stay like that longer than we need to. When we get up to leave, I notice a few of our threads stay caught on the brickwork. I wonder if this is how we will diminish. Fiber by fiber, until there is nothing left. If the wind doesn’t erode me, my own thoughts will.

Ben moves between us and goes in front, leading us on. We let him. Let him take us forward. Let his enthusiasm become our momentum.

The building is vague, barely present, but recognizable. The layout of the rooms. I watch Jessica to see if she is aware of where we are, and when she slumps a touch, I know she has sensed the familiarity.

Ben swirls around us. He seems more solid than I feel. I catch only a little of what he is saying, as I try to watch both him and Jessica at once. I wish I could hold them. Cocoon them. Enwrap them. Ben is too animated and Jessica too alone.

Ben comes to a stop in front of us. I get the feeling if he could, he would hold both our hands. Instead he waits until we are paying attention.

“When you get back, give my toys to my friend Paul. He always liked playing them.”

Then we are home, and even though I do not open my eyes, I know the weight of muscle wrapping around bone, the sensation of blood forcing itself through veins. The press of breath in my lungs. And I know Ben is not there with us and never will be again.

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Frankenwald, Germany. His fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Analog, Three Lobed Burning Eye, and Shimmer amongst others. Five of his stories have been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, and one for Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 3. He also likes bonsai forests, old motorbikes. and vintage cocktails. His debut short story collection To Drown in Dark Water is now out from Undertow Publications You can keep up to date with his work via Patreon and @stevetoase on Twitter

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