You force the key into the lock and think, one day the mechanism will be caked with rust and I’ll die in the cold. But the latch clicks and the door slides open, jaw bones unclasped to admit the prey.
There is steel wool in your system, wedged in pinched tufts at the terminus of each axon—the pulses that communicate spatiality to your mind are scattered and strange: the corners of the room could be round, the walls could be breathing. Dreams are leaking into this reality. The beaker in the attic that holds the acid is cracked. When the words fungus is only a fractal pass through your head, you can only assume they are true and always will be.
You trudge up the stairs and into the bathroom. Why so many damn mirrors in this hellhole? Too late, you’ve seen your face and it isn’t yours. You open the cabinet, splitting your reflection in half. Pain killers, sleeping pills, fever reducers, vitamins. You swallow what you assume is just under a lethal dose of each with a glass of lukewarm water that tastes of limestone. The taste is familiar; you’ve been drinking the unfiltered milk of these mountains all your life. Somewhere in your kidneys a host of barbed spheres are growing, and somewhere in your frightened little soul you know they will have to find a way out one day.
You close the cabinet. The face again, the one you don’t recognize. The walls continue to convulse to the rhythm of your heartbeats. Are the contractions closer together? Is the symphony outpacing the conductor? You’re quaking on the cold tiles. A cruel deity has lit a block of ice on fire and placed it across your shoulders.
The saliva is pooling under your tongue. Every time you swallow an intangible boulder graces your esophagus with its roughest side, so you end up spitting instead. But you’re still thirsty.
You collapse onto your bed in a heap of cold sweat. Ice water flows over you, and your spine is lined with hot coals. You toss and turn until the sheets are wrapped in spiraling folds and pushed to the side. The mattress is damp and your skin porous. There is nowhere to spit so you swallow, and the familiar burning is there: you wince like a child as the fluid slides down into you. Every car that rolls by sounds like thunder between your ears, and the patterns of light on the wall that follow their departure are faces, bright and cruel and bursting with laughter.
Keep your distance from these guys, man. These guys carry knives. It was something your friend whispered in your ear at the fair under the sizzling ferris wheel, or it was only in your head, a part of the dream that begins to take shape.
It all happened so fast. There was fire, there was quiet, and then someone tried to tell you you had always been dead. One of his eyes was half closed and he breathed like the wind was trying to steal the air from his chest. They were lies, like everything else he had ever spoken. Yet his skull was so defined under the skin of his face, and his eyes so vacuous they could have been empty sockets. So maybe this was him, Death: not so imposing after all, just another tired old man with a point to make.
You are awake again and the sun is still under the earth. When your eyes open you see him for the last time, fading just as you try to focus on him like the spots of light that dance at the edge of your vision. Everything is like that now, flaring up and fading away. There is an insect crawling around in your head, telling you your time has come. No, not yet, not without a fight, not when there’s still a possibility that tomorrow you’ll be laughing at all of this, laughing at your own weakness. But for now the malady is very real—almost tangible, a twisted and beautiful witch slurring her way through incantations as old as life.
Standing on the floor now. You need to get back to the room with the mirror, you need to find the drugs. The floor is shifting beneath you. Gazing into the darkness outside your window, you know that discovering your dilapidated house adrift in the ocean would be no surprise. As you walk the boards sink, conforming to the arch of each step. When you get to the mirror and see the emotionless tears running down your cheeks you begin to choke, and out of your gut streams a substance that shouldn’t be part of you. The color of urine, viscosity of sludge, taste of fresh shell casings.
When there is no more, when the convulsions stop, you lift your head and wonder at the world around you, amazed that you are still here. Then you see the mirror. Drugs, there are drugs in the mirror. But your fingers won’t seep into it as they should. Should they?
Cowards, do you want to live forever?
Hell no. You plunge a clenched fist into your own face and it comes away bloody and filled with fragments of whatever-is-opposite-themselves. Maybe it’s wrong, but there are the drugs in translucent pharmaceutical bottles, lined in gleaming row, and you can already feel them in your bloodstream. You swallow them again, three at a time, followed by a chorus of pain in the throat. Your throat. Yes, it will belong to you until whatever is doing its work inside finds the sweet spot and ends you.
Back to the bed, trailing blood and reflective glass. The invention of mirrors was a terrible mistake. You lay down again, in a pool of your own diseased perspiration. When you turn in on yourself again, it is a hallucinated memory, identical to the event itself but for the way the horizon wavers.
The two of you sat on the balcony, watching the advance of the thundercloud. Miles high, formed of a soft black so deep it absorbed sight itself. You couldn’t look away, not even toward the blades of lightning. The old farmer you had met, master of forested land, a hater of clothing and lover of wisdom—she told you he had sensed darkness around you. You had been in his salty, brow-furrowed presence for all of ten minutes, yet you trusted his impressions. You were unnerved, but far from surprised.
You would hate the thing that’s making you feel this way, but you know enough basic biology to realize that your enemy is a godless molecule—it injects its lying poison and transforms your little bits into suicidal factories, wreaking havoc and making your bones ache not because it hates you, not because it dreams of finishing you off, but simply because that’s what the stuff does.
When you are awake again your wits have returned, and are shocked at what you’ve done in their absence. Sweat and blood are the mediums of the morning. When they are gone it is you and gauze and the brutal heat of sun filtered through a dusty window. The limbs of dead flies bristle in the light. While you were locked away in your opium den, dozing and dying and calling out for divine intervention, the world gave birth to spring.