By Carlos Rafael Gomez
Desmond Marquez is half asleep when he reaches for Richard and hits a solid wall. Everything is dark, and when he blinks to make sure his eyes are open, a pair of contact lenses clatters to the floor. Desmond doesn’t wear contact lenses, and as he tries to sit up to find them, his forehead bumps the ceiling. Left, right, front, back. He palms and pedals to confirm that he’s lying in a box only just larger than himself.
He pushes against the top. He yells. He rips what feels like a line of adhesive between his lips. Each cry dies without echo. Silt falls from the topmost corners. He is already underground.
After banging and battering, dry sobs and heaves and belly cries to God, dear God, oh God, he folds back for death. He has spent most of his spare oxygen wailing, surely, and it cannot be long before he’ll choke on his own exhales.
As he sucks stale air in and out, he hears pops, like cracked knuckles. When he touches his chest, he finds a suit, shirt, and tie, fused together like dried paper, but no heartbeat.
“So then,” he thinks or speaks, for there is no difference. “I am already dead.”
He pads around for the contact lenses, finding one and rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. It’s large, plastic, and perforated, not a contact lens at all but a mortuary prop to keep his eyelids closed and domed. They are open now. Where his eyes used to be, he finds thin, wrinkled film that will rupture if he presses any harder, as he does with the right one, which leaks a cool liquid out of his ear.
A towel is offered, and he lays it down and tilts his head onto it, warm sand squeaking as the water drains with a whoosh and…
Golden yolk dribbles off toast, onto the blanket, wet, and…
Desmond tries to grab hold of these fragments, but they separate and scatter, like ash. Gray dust… Burnt dust…
The rest of his body is by turns too soft or too hard. There is nothing missing, so far as he can tell. Open wounds or marks. His sense of sound and smell are mostly intact, but he has sensation only in his hands, feet, and lips. When he touches his tongue, to test taste, it snaps neatly and painlessly in half, like a meringue. Desmond hesitates on the word.
Meringue. It’s a food, he thinks, or a color. Maybe a nationality.
Desmond’s brain, like his tongue, is desiccated, the once lubricated paths dusted over and forgotten. He knows some things instinctively—his name, that he does not wear contacts, the parts of his body and 297 other words, by his most recent count—but he can’t follow a train of thought farther than one car, at which point he forgets entirely the existence of trains. This makes him profoundly sad, and not being able to say why or from what makes him sadder.
Perhaps he will remember more if he does something new. He tries resting on his forearms, lifts his head several degrees. He draws his knees up, butterflying them at the crest to clear the top. He rolls to either side, assumes a fetal position. But none prove successful at sparking memory. He snaps off a second piece of his tongue.
Sherbet meringue. But what is meringue? Hello?
Desmond feels stifled and tries to take off his suit, which breaks apart in six pieces he nudges to his right side, adjoining them in the darkness. The husk holds its shape. He hovers his hand above the suit’s stomach, drawing a finger along the crease of the lapel. Finally, he buries his head in the chest and finds Richard.
Desmond recoils, horrified, then thrusts his face into another section, which collapses into dust as he remembers phone calls across time zones.
But now they’re together again, listening to the neighbor’s Victrola playing through the walls and along the patterned wallpaper, shifting arabesque reflections in the light and sound.
“Too garish,” Richard says. Richard, who throws himself a funeral-themed fortieth birthday party, everyone in black as he enters in a…
Cracking knuckles in the morning, Desmond’s hands outstretched. “Please?” he says, and Richard takes each knuckle, from the deep thumb joint to the wrist to the topmost bend of the pinky, and pops them before Desmond will consider getting up.
Richard has been up for hours, the sheets drenched in night sweat. He brings breakfast and pills that Des tries to swallow, crying as yolk runs onto the linens, the bite still sitting in his mouth, drying. But Richard has a glass of cold water to wash it down.
Then desserts, which Richard presents with a nervous smile. And Des can eat those, usually. Crème brûlée and budino, pavlova and baba au rhum and pot de crème. Meringues.
Like pulling a bedsheet from the closet and throwing out its folds, one image falls away to three to five hundred, then all at once in a pulsing billow across a freshly dressed mattress. Richard stands on the other side in his briefs, last night’s sheets stuffed, soaked, and soiled, in the hamper. He says this is why he bought extras.
Desmond has nothing more to press into when he hears crunching. A spade in dirt. A hungry worm. A scrawling pen.