First, Last, and Always

This story is paired with Chapter 24 of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

I burned, but I did not die.

My last glimpse of Victor was of a man frozen. In the cold of the Arctic, his body would not decompose, his face stuck in the twisted agony he’d felt at dying with his mission unfulfilled, with the enemy of all humanity that he had unleashed still loose upon the world. He had perished terrified and guilty, and for that I felt some small satisfaction, but not enough. For my existence was untenable, as I told the captain. He had been forced to turn back from the roof of the world. I would proceed there, but was turning back in my own way. Turning back from any quest to live more, to be more. Unwanted by the man who created me, roaming a world where no one would accept me even if unaware of the wanton murders I had committed—where no one would even hear me speak before fleeing or attacking in terror—I chose to return my flesh to the death it had been jolted from when Victor harnessed the sky’s electricity.

Yes. That jolt. I had not counted on . . . the flesh died easily enough. I moored my ice-craft when all the world became ice, and set out walking to the top of the Earth. An arduous journey for a human, but nothing to me, who was not bothered by the cold, who did not face human limitations, the animating spark that Victor had discovered completely reversing final death to unlimited life. My mistake was in thinking that life was tied to my form. It would seem, instead, to reside in even the tiniest piece of me that remains whole, and possibly beyond even that, though I may never know. For when I doused myself in fuel, when I surrounded myself with rags and kindling, when I set myself alight, a hideous warning blazing all the way to the end of the horizon in the gleaming white emptiness—I did not die.

I felt nothing as I watched the flames consume my flesh. Beyond the lack of physical sensation, my mind did not deteriorate, my consciousness did not follow my skin up in smoke. Perhaps if I had had access to modern facilities I could have eliminated myself completely. Some years ago I interacted with vast swaths of cremated human remains, reduced to a far finer powder than I managed, and I have felt the like since, though in smaller quantities. Perhaps not—matter is neither created nor destroyed, after all, merely transformed, and it is possible that once those atoms were given life, my fate was sealed. At any rate, I had merely what was available at the time, and though my physical form was reduced to ashes, that was not enough. Hideously, I am still alive.

I can no longer see, for I have no eyes, nor process any other sensation than touch—and even that is dulled from the damage the fire did to my receptive cells. But from what I can tell, I can make some guesses. I swirl around the Earth now, millions of tiny points drifting in the air and swimming in the ocean. I cannot tell how much time has passed, but things have changed. The water is slowly going bad, as is the air. The quality of both sickens, and a nauseous feeling suffuses my consciousness. After who knows how long, I am finally feeling pain. I am in many places and all of them hurt, and it makes me wonder. If the Earth itself dies, as it seems to be doing, then may I finally, finally release my grip on life?

No. That is a vain hope. Atomized, I will exist as smaller particles. Further poisoned, I will merely live in still greater pain. Should the planet itself cease to exist, why should the cold vacuum of space prove any more inhospitable to my consciousness than the cold emptiness of the pole? No, I shall never die, the one easement to my pain denied. I sought death to end the pain, and the guilt, and every other horror of existence, but my creator was a man, and their flawed nature makes for flawed creations. Even immortality, sought in vain for themselves, is a terrible error for me. Imperfectly created by a creature of limited powers, my cosmology is absent a failsafe, it has no guaranteed judgment or ending. I will remain forever a sorry witness to the fate of mankind, unseeing, unable to report, but feeling it all too well.

Jeremy BergJeremy Berg is a writer and librarian who has called multiple parts of America home. In addition to fiction, he has presented and published scholarly articles on the Grateful Dead. He currently resides in Texas with his wife, their pets, and an unreasonable amount of vinyl records.