The Toast

The Toast

By Andrew James Rush


The day was always going to come, and it always had. Smashing everything, pulling up the roots of an entire lifetime, burning fifty or more years of bridges; it had become like second nature to him. The lifetimes were a bit longer now, and the bridges were stronger--tied together with spiderwebs of social connections that spanned huge geographic distances--and in a practical sense, it was more difficult each time. But in the truest sense, it was easier. Or, at least it had been.

The way she walked down those elegant stairs in the late morning light--her skin sagging and her hair dull, limp, sad--wearing those expensive shoes she had bought so her heart would feel young again, which of course it hadn’t, she seemed to know the day had come as well.

“You look so young today Philip,” she had said to him the evening before, as they ate the Coq Au Vin their chef had prepared, and drank Pinot Noir from their crystal glasses. “You look so young…”

As she had gotten older, she’d gotten sadder. Philip, or Papak, as he’d once been known, had kept her in furs and haute fashion, luxury in every form he could find, and for some time it had seemed to keep her happy. But of course Papak didn’t know what happiness was anymore, if he ever had, and he’d only guessed that the flights of fancy she enjoyed as she greedily groped at the things he had brought to her were signs of such a thing.

“So young…”

She drank wine these days to such excess that it no longer seemed to affect her in the usual way, though her blood ran thin with it and the giant house was filled with the pickled meat smell of her flesh as her liver battled with its own toxicity.

While she was getting sadder, and older, Papak was getting bored.

They had met in those wild days after he had dragged his corpse up from the killing fields of the War--a fantastic way to close the doors on one life and begin a new one. His flesh had finally healed and smoothed after several years of hiding, and he had found himself on the beach of that wonderful ocean-side town of San Francisco. He was surrounded by wild-eyed maniacs who tweaked the chemical configurations in their brains and rioted against the social norms and mores of their larger community like the early Christians had, and the Pagans before that, and the Druids. It had been thrilling for him to live like that again. When Penelope had found him, sitting on a pile of driftwood, shirtless, smoking cannabis flowers with the other young people, and singing protest songs, she’d been a little younger looking than he, and beautiful in a way that he hadn’t seen since the days of the Greek philosophers.

He had told her this, and of course she had thought he was being poetic. It had been easy to impress her with his notions of romance, both because they spanned hundreds of generations of experience, and because she was so eagerly enamored of the extravagant and heavy-handed words he could produce.

Papak hadn’t allowed himself to fall in love since Persia, in the time before it was even known as Persia, when there had still been dragons and goblins. Perhaps he had felt that he would never know such love again. Or perhaps he had already begun to lose interest in humans, at least, in that way.

Hoda was a woman the world had never seen since. She was a woman that dragons feared. A woman that men kneeled before. She gave Papak gold and fine incense, and he prepared goat for her, cooked in its milk, just to anger the gods. They had been together until the end, when the men of the neighboring city had stormed the gates and raped and killed everyone they found. He had watched them defile her corpse as they dismembered his own. It was the most horrific thing he’d seen in his many lives, but the passion they had enjoyed had been worth it.

He’d loved other women before that too, as far back as the days when they had lived in homes they dug from the sides of mountains and wore the uncured skins of animals. The days when fire had been a thing people talked about and rain was a sign as much as it was a gift. He had loved women who worshipped the moon and feared punishment from the sun.

Before that, he’d been alone. He had no idea how long. His name had not been Papak, but he wasn’t sure what it had been, or if he’d had one. He had simply been, and he had watched the strange apes of that odd crescent as they’d developed skills and tools, until he found that he could communicate with them. It had been like a religious experience. He had since heard people talking now about what it would be like to meet aliens from other planets, and Papak knew. He had done that.

But Penelope had been different from all of them. She was drenched in a kind of idealistic rebelliousness and radiated with an optimism that defied logic. Reality bent to her whims. There was freedom in this world. There was real love. Papak fell in spite of himself, and it wasn’t until it was too late that he’d realized. She was no different from the chemicals those kids had poured into their brains. She was a drug.

“How can you look so young?” Her words had slurred, as they always did, and Papak had almost been able to see the vapor of alcohol rising from her flesh like waves of heat from the pavement of a desert highway.

“Phillip? You look just as young as you did…” she shook her head, trying to clear the blur and diplopia from her vision.

“No, dear,” the boredom had dripped from his words. “Please, eat. Pierre has worked so hard for us tonight.”

She slammed her fist against the table, clattering the glassware and sending several droplets of broth over the gilded rim of her bowl.

“I am not crazy, Phillip!” Her sagging and dead looking flesh had brightened slightly with redness on her cheeks, but her chest, where it was exposed by the low cut of her ever-present silk nightgown, was blotchy. To Papak she seemed like a specimen of meat that was somehow still moving. An animated carcasse.

For a long time, Papak had wondered what he was. There had been tales of Vampires, and before that the tales of the Ekimmu and other demons and monsters, but he was older than any of these stories, and none described him. He didn’t need to drink blood (though, of course he had; at a certain time in the ancient world it had been a fairly common practice, and he’d enjoyed it), he didn’t turn into a bat or any silly thing like that, and he didn’t need to avoid the sun or sleep in the ground. He was a normal human in every respect except that he could not die and did not age.

So it had been out of the question for him to explain himself to Penelope. What would he tell her? The old days when she hung on his every flowery word and praised his wicked imagination as he told true stories of his past in all their gruesome or glorious detail were long gone. She had become a shell of a person who counted value only in dollars and cents, or in alcohol by volume.

Having exhausted herself with her outburst at Papak, she continued to drink wine in silence until her body gave up, and he carried her up the elegant stairs to her large canopied bed where she had slept alone for the last ten years.

As she came down those same stairs, now holding her head and squinting at the brightness of the late morning sun on the brilliant white squares of alabaster in the grand foyer, he knew, as he’d always known, how this would end.

He had not counted on the intricacy of the social webs he would weave with her, but he had known there would be a web. He had credit cards now, and a cellular phone, several bank accounts, an email address, and a passport. Disappearing would be easy enough, of course. It was reappearing that would be difficult.

But Papak had developed over this span of his life a strong distaste for humans in general. The years between that horrific war--when he’d seen the bodies of young men torn apart by weapons the earth had never before known, literally ripped open like cheap dolls stuffed with bright red meat and thick ropy soup--and now--when people stared empty into flashing squares of nothing, pecking at them with their mouths open, practically drooling--had shaken something loose in him. He no longer viewed them as the fascinating creatures he once had. They were, at best, violent brutes that turned the earth to bloody mud beneath the piles of each other’s bodies, or at their worst, bored and useless lumps of misfiring neurons and swimming rivers of serotonin that dirtied the sky and poisoned the sea. They were never anything in between.

He didn’t know how long it would take his body to recover this time, but he hoped it would be a long wait. It was possible--maybe probable--that by the time he could crawl back up out of the mud the humans would be gone entirely. They were sick, and they were making themselves sicker. Crazier. He had seen them on the streets in the cities, empty shells like Penelope herself, crumbling apart under their yearning hunger for something, anything, to happen. Eyes like dead fish. Lumbering to their deaths and grasping with a disgusting desperation for meaning, for purpose.

“Phillip, will you please stop taking me back to my room at night?” She was swooning, the back of her hand on her forehead in a cartoonish imitation of a nineteen-sixties celebrity. “I know you touch me.” Her lips snarled in fabricated rage.

“Of course I don’t, Penelope.”

She growled at him and smacked her bare feet against the alabaster as she marched to the ornate cart of bottles near the entrance to the ballroom, and she poured amber whisky from a crystal decanter that sparkled like diamonds in the light, wincing at it while she did so.

Papak was dressed in a tuxedo. It was daily attire for him, and he reveled in the ritual of each tiny detail of getting dressed in such a way, just as he did with the rituals before it. He bathed with fine salts and shaved with European soaps and one of an assortment of straight razors with ivory or obsidian scales, waking before sunrise to do so. As he stood in the grand foyer watching this withered, dying woman force whiskey into her revolting system it occurred to him that he looked like a servant, and the thought, rather than making him self-conscious, amused him. Whatever he was, however old, he was not one to let his opinion of himself be subjected to the perceptions of others, and the juxtaposition of his apparent servitude against the actuality of his possibly divine existence was nothing short of comical.

“The fuck are you grinning about?” she slurred and finished her last finger of whiskey.

“Feeling better, honey?” he asked, still grinning.

“Fuck you Phillip.”

Was this what humans did now? Was this what it was like for everybody? Or was it worse for them because he wasn’t human? The discontentment wasn’t unique, he knew that. He had seen it in everyone. But was it always to this degree? He didn’t have this kind of access to everyone’s lives, but still, he suspected that it might be. He thought about the wealth they had, and in his other lives, though he’d been richer and poorer by many degrees, he’d never known this kind of dissatisfaction. The world was different now, and it was impossible to know how much their wealth figured. It certainly left few barriers for Penelope to overcome when pursuing chemical and material satisfaction.

“Come, let’s walk together.”

She made a sound like a burst pressure hose.

“Do you remember San Francisco, Penelope? Do you remember when we met that day on… what was that beach called?”

“Baker beach,” she said, folding slightly to the new tone of their conversation.

“Right!” He walked to her with his arms open, not quite like someone going for a hug, but like someone trying to demonstrate that they aren’t dangerous.

“Come, let’s walk. Out to the lake, behind the stables.”

“I’m in my bare feet, Phillip.”

“We have boots in the mudroom,” he said and gently placed his hand on her shoulder. It was fragile and weak, like he could crunch her bones in his fist, and he imagined her flesh squishing out like the meat of an overripe avocado, making red extrusions, bleeding putty. The thought didn’t disturb him as much as he wished it did.

She let him lead her through the back of the house, through the massive kitchen and past the tiny room where Pierre usually slept.

“He went home to visit his aunt in Connecticut. She’s ill,” Papak explained in answer to the wordless question her face had asked.

Penelope seemed lost, like someone who had awakened from a long coma to a family that was inexplicably older--to a world that had gone on without her. He guided her into the tidy mudroom that smelled of leather and earth, a room she’d not visited in perhaps fifteen or twenty years, when she’d known the horses’ names. He helped her with the boots, and the stiff leather crackled as her feet widened the mouths of them. The sinew and tendons clicked and groaned in Papak’s grip. Her body was an organic machine, a crumbling sack of sticky parts.

“What happened to us Phillip?” she asked as they smashed the dead grass under their feet, the sun now a yellow hole in the vast blue nothing above them.

“I guess we got old,” Papak said and smiled in a way that he hoped was comforting.

“No,” she said. She shook her head and her eyes narrowed. “I think we got greedy.”

Papak almost stopped in his tracks, one foot hung in the air for just a tiny beat, and then he continued. She didn’t notice.

I got greedy,” she continued. “I do remember that beach. The Golden Gate bridge had seemed so close, but it was just big.” Her eyes lit up and she smiled. The corners of her mouth pulled at the sagging skin of her face, and for just a moment, Papak could see the woman she had been. His heart fluttered, but his determination didn’t waver. The time had come. Maybe they would have one more sweet day. That was enough.

“I was just a little girl!” she laughed. “I saw you sitting there, watching the ocean while all those people were partying around you, and my heart! Oh! You were so lean and sophisticated looking, and I just loved older men, and…” she trailed off.

“I took the liberty of bringing the boat around to the dock this morning. Would you like to join me for champagne on the lake?” he asked.

“I--yes. Yes, Phillip. I’d like that.”

He helped her onto the boat and felt the weight of her body. Like a bird.

The engine hummed to life smoothly, and Papak shifted the throttle forward. The machine responded with an effortless grace; Penelope’s silk nightgown rippled in the breeze, as did her long silver hair. It was a picture of wealth and leisure on a beautiful yet unseasonable autumn day. When Papak was satisfied that they were close enough to the middle of the small lake, he killed the motor, and the boat gently bobbed up and down on its shallow wake. He stepped out of the cabin and opened a cooler on the large deck of the small yacht where he retrieved a frosty green bottle.

The property they owned spanned the entire southern shore of the lake, and on the other side there were only four smaller estates. At this time of year they would all likely be empty, except for perhaps the caretakers. It may take hours for anyone to reach them, if anyone even noticed.

“Oh, Phillip, I’m sorry. You’re so good to me, and I’m such a…”

“No, I understand,” he said as he began to remove the cork. “It’s not just you. It’s the world. And, you know, I haven't been entirely honest with you.”

“What do you mean?” she looked him up and down, the anticipation plain on her face.

“I think you might suspect,” he said. “But I can’t explain. I just hope you’ll understand.”

He popped the cork, and handed the bottle to Penelope.

“Do you smell that?” he asked her.

“Smell what?” she asked, her head cocked slightly to one side.

“I think you do smell it,” he said as he took two stemmed glasses from the same cooler.

“It’s gasoline.”

“Right.”

He handed Penelope one of the glasses and took the bottle from her.

“I do love you Penelope, and I remember how fond you were of the extravagant and excessive. You loved things that were loud and daring and explosive.” He poured the carbonated liquid into both glasses making foam rise to the tops of them.

“The time we went to Berkely for the protest and you opened the fire hydrant and we danced while the water made rainbows in the street…” she spoke dreamily, her eyes far off in the chilly blue above them.

“Yes,” he laughed. “I went to jail that night.”

“You did!” There was her face again. The time had come.

Papak pulled a shimmering stainless steel lighter from his breast pocket and flicked it open, holding it between them. He turned the wheel against the flint with his index finger, and it made a tschk! as the wick ignited.

“Hold me Phillip.”

He tossed the lighter into the open door of the cabin. The metal casing glinted white in the sun. Papak put his arms around her, squeezing her, as the flames licked at the fabric of his tuxedo, roaring and snapping, until everything was still and quiet--cold and dark, and the sun was an amber orb in the surface of the lake above them.


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