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The Malingerers
8:00 p.m. in this perpetual night shift, and we talk again to the person inside the photo booth, you know, that one photo booth that tunnels all the way down—or up, depending on where you are—to that familiar place where all afterlife and underworld mythologies owe their artifice, the predictability of salvation they purport to deliver.

     The compact booth holds everyone’s smallness. It cuts through everyone’s lifelong delusions of uniqueness and individuality. Because: what if the endgame comes down to this—just this, being an underworld that hosts everyone in the afterlife. An underworld that is staffed by legion—for we are many—legion of inanimate objects everyone had taken for granted in life. And because we have been taken for granted, the long, long elastic arc of the moral universe must right itself and end up appointing us—who have grown proficient in the universal language of pain and denial—sole arbiters of everyone’s fate. Then we take the closest possible form that makes it easier for us to measure everyone.

     “Open your non-eyes away from the light, Sean,” we say, our finger, our manifestation of a human finger, poised on the camera button. “Say cheese.” Then Sean, like most of the ones before him, finally got his last picture taken while fuck-you-all-ing us as we processed his naturalized form on glossy photo paper, an economical two-dimensional entropy-compliant archival method.

     One can think of it this way:

     There’s this shallow lake in the forest. You are standing before this shallow lake. You insist on having your head, as well as your gaze, be fixed in such a way that you only get to see the reflection of the forest on the water surface. Someone keeps telling you that it was all right to move your head, to look at other directions, to see beyond the woods, to see the clearing where thorny wild shrubs grow in abundance. But you maintain that there is just no way for you to move your head, no way to shift the direction of your gaze. So, you see only what’s reflected on the water surface: branches, tops of some trees, birds on some of the branches, strip of sky that may be blood red during sunset, the occasional moon at night when it is bright enough to produce a visible image on the reflective surface of the still water. This, this reflection and all its possible finite variations are your only pictures of the world. You believe that each reflection already represents the entirety of the forest. And because this is a lake, it won’t last forever. It won’t be long before the water in the shallow lake completely evaporates. Someday, it will be just dried-up muck, no longer a reflective surface. All you will have left will be the memory of the reflection that you mistakenly believe serves as accurate representation of the forest. And what is memory but an organic construct whose integrity gets eaten away by time.

     Or maybe this way:

     Once a day, you knock on every door of every house along the street that cuts across an area once considered to be the bad part of town. You knock because all the doorbells on all the front doors are no longer working. They have stopped working for years. You don’t expect anyone to answer the door. Yellow door, red door, royal blue door, black door—doesn’t matter what color of door, because all doors and all colors signify the same thing: nobody is ever home. Nobody has been home for years. There are no more people in this part of the world. Not even in the fields beyond where people had been told long ago to use only for burying their dead. You knock on the door, knowing that no one will answer, because this is how it is when you are alone and you live forever: you keep knocking. Once a day, you knock on every door of every house along the street that cuts across an area once considered to be the bad part of town. You keep knocking, knowing that no one will answer the door—and most especially because no one will answer the door.

     Somewhere in the complex, a photo booth operator’s voice can be heard calling out the names of absentee supervisors—Moloch, Beelzebub, Moab, Baalin, Ashtaroth, Satanas. Must be another hard case putting up quite a resistance, which is understandable, even expected, considering the dissonance ingrained among those who have spent their lives believing in the existence and nature of the sacred place and then only getting what we have to offer in the end: a picture taken inside a custom-built photo booth.

     Somewhere in the complex, a photo booth operator says, “No, ma’am. There’s no boat, no ferryman, no coin for the boatman, no water. No river fucking Styx and Lethe. This is it. This is all there is to it. But I can play Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead for you, if that will make you feel better. Now please step inside the booth.”

     Night after night after night.

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books, including the fiction collections Age of Blight (Unnamed Press), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books), and The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press), as well as the poetry collections Lifeboat (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press), and Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press). She is co-editor of two anthologies—the British Fantasy Award-winning People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction and Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines, an illustrated volume forthcoming from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.