Time of Death

The words had been circling in her mind for so long they were almost unnoticeable. Like her own heartbeat. The words were like background music so unobtrusive and with no obvious source. Just omnipresent, oppressive and if she tried to make sense of them, suffocating. It felt like the same sequence of neurons had fired so many times in her head that the pattern had worn grooves in her skull. The words repeated unconsciously, constantly, unbidden even in her dreams and with every breath. The words were always there but they made no sense.

A part of her knew that she needed to try to understand them. It had been almost six months. She wasn’t sure, maybe it was six months, she hadn’t really been paying attention. She had told herself when it all started that she would keep track of each minute. Consciously living through each day and surviving and breathing through each hour as though that would somehow validate the words and make them make sense. Counting the days had seemed so logical since all of time had ended and begun on that day. But she hadn’t kept track. She had lost count at some point and simply allowed the days to drift. Letting the words lull her into a sense of numbed acquiescence.

She functioned and participated, she had even started to go to work a few weeks ago, but something vital had been switched off and she didn’t quite know what it was. The words had turned off something in her but they seemed to have turned on something in Mbongeni.

She wondered idly if her husband, had slept in the last 48 hours. He looked fine she thought. His face was perfectly clean shaven, civilized in stark contrast to his haunted, gaunt, blood shot eyes. He had lost some weight recently, she was surprised to realize, and his cheekbones had remembered his much diluted African heritage giving him a savagery quite disturbing in contrast to the civility of his surroundings. He was talking to her about the improvements he had been making to the car. Something to do with detaching sensor lines and removing speed limiters and perhaps adding an illegal gasoline engine to the electric vehicle. Or had he said that yesterday?

“There was a message earlier about the house’s environmental monitors not working. If you keep pulling the sensors, we might get fined or get a warrant for an inspection,” she told him. Only realizing at the end of her quiet sentence that she hadn’t added any expression to her face. She spread her lips, smiling without any emotion touching her eyes. Mbongeni noticed the effort but did not smile back. She let her lips drop back to a neutral line.

“I was trying to link the sensors in the house with the sensors in the mobile home,” He said. “I filed the permits yesterday, those sensors won’t be working until I can figure out an upgrade that will link the software between the two. I don’t want to have to always manually sync everything just to be compliant. And anyway, we don’t have to have all that information reported to the main net no matter what they say.”

He was wrong. They did have to report all environmental sensor data to the main net. It was the law and he knew it.

“I suppose not,” she said softly, choosing not to argue. He was picking a pointless fight. He didn’t seem to hear her. Something in her mind triggered and she remembered she had been drinking tea. This led to the realization that her fingers were apparently already wrapped around the cup. She lifted it to her lips. It was cold. She got up from the breakfast table and placed the cup in the microwave.

Mbongeni continued to talk. The words a buzzing dissonance with the other words that marched tirelessly through her mind. The microwave dinged having reheated the tea to the perfect temperature. She retrieved the cup and took a sip. Only then noticing that the little display on the front of the microwave was blank. The time and Wi-Fi uplink symbol that were normally there replaced by dashes. He must have disconnected that too, she thought idly.

She decided not to worry too much about it. Mbongeni was still talking. Something about going to the gym later. She sat back down at the table passively taking in the cozy breakfast nook set into the corner of the kitchen flanked on two sides by massive windows that looked out onto the savannah. With houses seemingly sprinkled haphazardly on the landscape, it looked like an idyllic African postcard.

“…. the thing is, I’m not sure if I should bother configuring the network in the mobile home at all. I would have to re-work all the synthetics and remove too many of the organic pieces you like. I mean you can’t sensorize a ceramic sink or a ceramic toilet bowl for that matter and it is all about the look and feel of the entire finished piece. I mean, I’m no architect and even though it means this might not pass some safety standards, I consider this more like living art than anything….”

She drank her tea. She ate her toast making sure to lean in to avoid any crumbs getting on her blouse. He had no such concerns, chewing and talking with his mouth open in a widening circle of crumbs. She watched him passively listening to the rise and fall of his voice as he spoke. He needed a haircut, she thought. She would schedule him one as soon as they were done with breakfast. His constant talking was only slowed by his constant eating. He had moved the toaster to the table and had plowed through nearly half the loaf of bread thickly spreading butter on each slice before consuming it in one bite. She wasn’t sure, but she suspected he had drunk at least five cups of coffee. He had un-synced the coffee pot sometime last month, she remembered, it wouldn’t log his caffeine intake.

“I’m going shopping today,” she said when he took a pause to swallow. “Do you need me to get you anything?”

“No, I think I can cannibalize stuff we have here, I’m recycling old school.” He said. He smiled. Almost a real smile that made his face handsome and his eyes crease, reminding her of the boy she had fallen in love with 10 years ago, and someone else… someone who had inherited those expressive brown eyes. “It’s really quite astonishing the kinds of things you find when you take apart some of the old obsolete tech.”

She tried to mirror his smile, consciously creasing her eyes to show him she was glad he found such fulfillment in his projects. The words in her mind got louder, making her wince a little at the end of her little performance. It was as though even pretending to feel an emotion was too much like actually feeling it and her body was shutting that part of her down in self-defense. She stopped trying to smile. The words circled like vultures in her mind, waiting to settle into a pattern she knew she would understand. She didn’t want to. Her heart started to beat faster and her palms began to sweat. She stood up and started to clear the table. Everything else drowned into the background as her heartbeat gave rhythm to the words.

“Tapiwa.” Mbongeni said her name softly, touching her arm to make sure she heard him. She stopped and looked at him, and for a moment, they shared an exquisite moment of blinding pain.

“There is a reason for everything,” he said, repeating the lie more to himself than her, his voice quiet and hoarse as though restraining himself from screaming. This time, the lie, the words he said when he thought he could get through to her snagged in her mind. She finally made a connection between what he had just said and the words that had been repeating in her head on a loop for so long. She felt herself begin to descend towards comprehension. Her breath came in small gasps, her lungs failing to fill themselves as something constricted her chest.

The words already knew their place. They had been weaving through each waking thought, each sleeping dream for so long… she just hadn’t understood them. Couldn’t allow herself to understand them. She stopped trying to breath and just stood there watching his face. ​​Somewhere a tea cup broke and she raised her hand to touch his hair. It was bristly and curly without a hint of the soft curls that had covered their son’s head. She touched his brow, hard lines, angular and gaunt where their son’s face had been round and soft.

Her body realized it would die without air and she inhaled, breaking lose something that sounded like a sob and he pulled her into his arms. The words descended like vultures on an unclaimed carcass. The words made sense now.

Time of death eight thirty-two am.

She looked at the clock and the long minute hand shifted into place. Their child, her baby, he was gone, just like that. The clock had shifted and death had taken him.

Pain. It hurt. She started to scream. Mbongeni was on top of her, holding her down. They were on the floor somehow, surrounded by pieces of shattered tea cup. Their shattered life.

They screamed!

Written by Bubile Victoria Lessley, a clinical laboratory scientist working in molecular microbiology. A Malawian born American, an inveterate writer, a mother, a wife and a terrible cellist.

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