by Tianna Grosch
The morning after Dex’s unraveling, he awoke with the taste of copper on his tongue. Not just the taste; there was something perfectly round and cold stuck there with his spit. He couldn’t think of any reason why seconds later, he pulled a shiny new penny from his mouth.
When he tried to lift his body from the bed, he could tell something was amiss. His limbs tingled. His whole body had gone numb, but the feeling returned with a stark rapidness close to pain. It started in the tips of his toes and flowed through him like a rising tide, reaching for his heart. A sensation like what he imagined cold mercury would feel like settled in his veins. He shivered, sparking a tidal wave of jitters.
Once he regained motor control he sat up, letting the sheet fall from him and onto the floor. He felt like a caterpillar splitting open the outer shell of his cocoon and climbing free, emerging into the same world as a new creature with wings. Except he didn’t have wings; all he had was the mystery of a penny in his palm and the feeling that everything was askew of how it should be, internally.
He lifted himself, arms shaking with the effort. Had he always been so weak?
A memory, perhaps a dream, came to mind as he dug deep. A man in a long white coat sat calmly across from him, a desk wedged between. “You may remember certain things,” the man had explained. “Things you’ll need to get on in the world. But everything else will be gone.”
There wasn’t much to the room Dex was in. The bed he lay on was more like a metal slab in the middle of white-washed walls. There was a counter on one side below a row of glass cabinets holding medical supplies. It smelled like antiseptic.
The last thing he could call to mind was being wheeled into surgery and there was an intense, burning pain. Something important was happening, something life-altering.
He just couldn’t remember what that was.
Dex had taken the subway to the procedure. It was in Lethe, a small city directly south of his apartment. He normally dreaded long subway rides, but he whistled to himself as he walked that morning. Soon he felt sure he would never feel any sort of burden again.
The day was bright and there were many people milling about, all dressed in fantastic clothes. That’s the thing about the city – everyone dresses like they have somewhere important to be, even if they’re just headed out for a bite to eat or to the shop. Everyone had something to prove in the city. In the whole world, Dex imagined. But here it was more evident in the tight jaws and forced smiles. Their gaudy faces and clothes, ears and arms covered in jewelry that seemed to sag with its weight.
He wondered how many of them had gone for the procedure. If it might cure that insatiable feeling of loss, always missing something, never able to fill the gap.
Dex took the stairs two at a time, focused on the bright tile leading down to the platform. He had to hurry. The memories would rush back soon. They always did. It was impossible to keep them at bay.
Keep her at bay. Elizabeth.
Other passengers waited on the platform, still as statues. When they looked over at Dex, he saw their faces were blank, their eyes like deep, black holes, outlined and indented above their sloping, high cheekbones.
Strangers bored their eyes through his skull as if they could look straight through him and see beyond what he would ever see.
He wondered how many of them were taking the same path as he, journeying on toward Lethe. The destination shone in metallic letters on the subway token which he’d relinquished at the gates.
There was a ringing, echoing hollowness to the tunnel awaiting the subway’s arrival. None of the other passengers spoke and Dex suddenly wished to connect with someone, anyone, in these perhaps final, fleeting moments of being himself. The man he’d known all his life would disappear and nobody would miss him. Nobody would even notice.
He pictured somebody trying to reach him, the phone ringing to an empty house endlessly, each time the ringing becoming more frantic as the tune played. Receiving only the full voicemail box of a man long gone.
Now was not the time.
Dex pushed the thoughts away and turned to face the oncoming train as it pulled into the station. Its headlights momentarily blinded him, cutting off his sight with a flash of white.
How easy it would be, to step off the platform and open his arms to the train. Easier than the procedure. He imagined it might resemble flying as he released himself to bask inside the light. How long would it take for his mind to leave his body, he wondered.
In a flash, he was looking at her again. Elizabeth, lying splayed like a broken bird who’d forgotten to fly on the pavement at the bottom. His head hanging out the window, six stories above, straining to see but not wanting to look. Unable to stop. As if keeping his eyes on her might make her move, make her breathe again. As if staring would make him comprehend. Wishing he could rewind time and arrive five seconds earlier. To pull her inside. Why hadn’t he been there when she needed him? That was the pain of it – he’d left. He was to blame for her death. And not just her death.
The subway stopped in front of him with a screeching hiss. He climbed aboard, wishing he had a deck of cards to occupy his hands. It calmed him to flip through the suits, red and black eyes winking at him, speaking in a language only he could understand. The queens whispered secrets while their kings taught him how to reign.
The ride passed in a blinding stream of tunnel vision. Dim white bricks of the station swam and rushed past his eyes. He barely saw a thing as they moved forward.
Dex looked around at the other passengers. They gazed out their windows with expressionless stares. Why weren’t they looking at him?
“Next stop: Lethe,” a falsely cheerful voice chirped over the intercom.
As the train pulled to a halt, one passenger finally looked up to meet his gaze. She raised her eyebrows as if asking, “What are you waiting for?”
That, perhaps, was the question he’d been trying to answer all his life.
Dex stepped out of the carriage. For once, he wouldn’t wait around for someone else to make his decisions.
The woman stood but didn’t get off. She held his eyes. Emotionless. Her intense gaze stayed with him as the subway pulled away, carrying the others onward and leaving him to his destiny.
Though he knew it was impossible, Dex often tried to read the thoughts behind others’ eyes. He stared long enough to surpass the initial discomfort. He tried to catch a stranger’s eyes on the subway at least once a week.
Such a personal experience, surrendering one’s eyes to another. He had come to recognize emotions hidden in the depths of the iris. A profundity.
The doctors’ eyes were another matter—unreadable, fathomless as the depths of an ocean stretching far beneath him. His mother always told him that’s what rested deep beneath the city. The darkest depths of the ocean teeming with life, creatures who never saw the light of day.
Soon Dex wouldn’t be concerned with that anymore. He’d create a new life. A new man who didn’t worry about trivial things like what lay far below his feet.
The doctors’ infinite, empty eyes peered out above crisp white masks. Masks shrouding the remainder of their faces so the crown of heads surrounding him became nothing more than a sea of irises ranging in color and depth, but never in emotion.
How strange, Dex thought, to be mostly dead inside—blank like a canvas awaiting paint. Is that what he would be?
He had told himself he wouldn’t ask, but here he was, splayed out against the cold metal of the table (the least they could do was cover it with a blanket, offer him some moderate comfort), and he questioned the very things he didn’t want the answers to. Things he’d told himself were better to ignore.
“How will I feel?” he asked, “Once it’s over?”
“That’s the point,” one doctor said to him, her voice muffled by the mask. She leaned over to set crystalline blue eyes stark as an unmoving ocean upon him. “You won’t feel a thing anymore.”
Dex kept seeing the ocean before him. Or maybe it wasn’t the ocean. As he focused, he saw it was flowing freely, a long stream of water, jet-black and murky as octopi ink. It reminded him of his mother’s hair which had always been that deep, dark color. How he had loved to run his fingers through it, trapping the silky strands and then threading the smooth follicles around his fingers until the hair cascaded over his hand.
“That’s good,” one doctor said. “We’re getting a strong signal here.”
The crystalline blue eyes were back, hovering in his line of sight. “You’ll just feel a little discomfort,” she said.
A sharp flash of light struck behind his eyes and he slammed them shut. His whole head was on fire, burning and smoldering. The calm, happy image of his mother’s hair slipped away. Dex tried to grab it back but his mind’s eye closed against the pain.
The release was gradual, but when he could open his eyes again and breathe without a shooting fire streaking through his body, Dex couldn’t recall what he had tried to remember. This resistance, the wish to cling to whatever the memory had been, had brought on the worst of it. He felt weak, the world swimming in front of his eyes.
“The unraveling is underway,” Crystalline-blue said. He tried to decide how this should make him feel—relieved or happy or content, he guessed, but there was a slight sparkle in her eyes—the first he had seen. As if this piece of news pleased her enough to let some emotion slip.
Then her eyes widened. “The patient is going into shock.”
Dex heard these words but didn’t comprehend; he must be the patient, but he felt a million miles away, rocking on a small boat in the middle of an unfamiliar river, water flowing beneath him, and he knew this was supposed to mean something to him but he couldn’t figure out what.
The doctors began shouting instructions back and forth. “Continue with the next sequence.”
“He’s resisting, sir.”
“Do it anyway, before we lose him completely.”
“He might not wake up…the same.”
“Isn’t that why we do this? To change people?”
“Yes, but sir. You know what I mean. He’ll be sent away.”
“That’s none of our business. It’s an experiment, there’s no telling what will happen.”
Dex’s air choked off, struggling through his throat as voices flowed above like he was trapped underwater.
What felt like an electric shock coursed through his body, making his body quiver and buzzing deeper than the fluorescent lights above him. It zapped him all the way to his fingertips and the tips of his toes. Dex swore he could feel the electricity spiking through his head and out his ears.
He squeezed his eyes shut. An image came to his mind, filling Dex with reserved sorrow, something so familiar to him it was close to calming. It took him a moment to see the image. First the glistening hair, bright as the sun’s rays, contrasting sharply against something darker. Dex felt a zap, tingling through his brain.
The first image formed again, and he focused on shocking green eyes. Elizabeth, smiling at him. How long it had been since that smile was directed at him. When Dex looked again, he saw the bulge of her stomach, her fingers splayed across it. She took his hand and told him to feel the life they created together moving inside, kicking.
Dex opened his eyes to the burning fluorescents hanging overhead. He wasn’t even mad at her, he just wanted to let go. All of it. The past ten years, the past fifteen. The good with the bad. He knew all of it had to go if he wanted to move on. Forget. Become a new man.
He thought back to all the reasons why he hated himself and what he had become. A liar and a card shark. A man without confidence, gambling away their future. Maybe if he hadn’t, Elizabeth would still be alive. They would be two people raising a family together, as it should be, and things would feel good again. They would feel right again. He could go back to enjoying the things he had. But he’d thrown it all away like a stacked deck of cards, and he couldn’t remember how long ago he’d played his last hand.
“Imagine a life where the past doesn’t bog you down. Where you can become anyone you want, a fresh chance at the life of your dreams.” The TV advert had made all the promises. “A new beginning; a new you.”
Dex followed the adverts. To this very moment. His unraveling.
There was another sharp flash of pain, as if to remind him. All the reasons.
When this was over, the doctors said, he would feel nothing. If that was such a good thing, such a great bargain, why did Dex feel a sinking like quicksand in the center of his gut?
Before he could dwell, a familiar image appeared at the forefront of his mind and stirred a restlessness inside him. The same image that woke him up in a cold sweat most nights.
Six stories below the balcony, her body splayed beside the roof of a bright yellow taxi like a macabre portrait. Broken. He’d hung over that open space, struggling not to throw himself after her and join his other half. His mouth opened in a soundless scream and he heaved gulps of air.
When he finally did come in from the window he felt dizzy. There was a piece of stark-white paper on the table. He picked it up and saw his fingers were shaking as it quivered in front of his eyes. It was her neat, looping handwriting.
I can’t bring our child into the world you created. I don’t expect you to understand.
Her last words.
A blinding flash and the memory he’d struggled against all these years vanished. Deep silence filled his ears, as if his head was submerged at the bottom of a bathtub. He felt his strength leaving him, the electrical current zipping through his veins, each zap contracting the muscles throughout his body, leaving a deep tingling in his limbs and charging his heart, racing over a mile a minute to keep his body energized.
There was an empty space when he tried to recall the one image he always held so dear to him—but trying to think of what this image was gave him a considerable amount of strain. They had gone so deep, already. Pulled out his dearest memory, sucking it into non-existence and claiming it like a black hole does to a universe.
When he tried to think of all the things that had once bothered him, there was nothing. It had all disappeared. There was absolute nothingness in its place—a deep purity. What he had yearned for, all this time, had finally been granted.
Now was the question of what to do with such a gift.
The penny was so smooth in the palm of his hand. The weight of it held importance, though he couldn’t comprehend what was so important about it. Staring closer at the smooth, round piece of metal, Dex realized it wasn’t a coin at all. It was a subway token.
He found himself walking out of the examination room. There was a long, deserted hallway. It was too quiet, like it had been vacant for a long time, long enough for a film of dust to garnish the place. Dex walked towards the door, almost expecting someone to stop him, but nobody came forward so he stepped into the sunlight, the crisp, cool air greeting him. He didn’t know where he was headed but his feet moved down the sidewalk. White rosebushes lined the way – he couldn’t remember seeing them on his way in but he also couldn’t remember his journey to the building in the first place.
The sidewalk led to a sandy beach, which seemed abnormal. He had a faint, nagging memory of entering a long, dark tunnel. The place seemed uncharacteristically deserted without a single lone soul walking along their separate destinies.
For some reason, he felt there was a vast hole in his understanding. Where was he and who was he for that matter? His feet carried him to the end of the beach where it met a stream of dark water. Not the ocean but a long, winding river disappearing to an unknown destination.
An image surfaced, in a room with a sea of shifting eyes and masked faces. After that…everything else was blank. The world was new, raw and pink, as if he had just awoken from a long hibernation in his mother’s womb.
Something about that nagged at him, but when he thought of a mother, nothing came to mind. Did he have a mother? Surely, he had a mother. But there was a blank space where he knew something should be. A fuzziness like static on the TV when you can’t get the signal.
When he walked closer to the river, the air became dank and muggy, filled with an ancient scent of stale moisture. In the center of the river was a rowboat, fighting against the small tide, held in place with a long black rope. The small boat held a lone oarsman in a long cloak, leaning against his oar as if he were very tired. Perhaps it had taken him a long time to get here, or perhaps he hadn’t traveled far at all but was weighed down by the heavy burden of his passengers whom he ferried along.
Turnstiles stood in his path, and Dex fumbled around in his pockets until he pulled out the token. With a small feeling of inexplicable loss, he placed the coin in the slot and listened as it clinked to the bottom. The turnstile slid open and he moved his body through, feeling like a shadow in a dream pushing against deep fog that consumed his mind.
Everything felt as though he were dreaming and he couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, he was being watched. There were eyes on him that didn’t belong to the boatman – as he moved closer, he could see the boatman had no eyes. Just a long, dark hood covering his face so it appeared he was no more than a dark apparition that belonged in the nightmares of children, a gatekeeper to the Underworld.
Dex felt as though he’d been here before on the banks of this makeshift shore. As he stood gazing at the boatman who made no sound, a single image tugged at his mind, but it was something he had given up, a memory he could no longer grasp. The boatman lifted a hand and gestured at him, come forward. All he could do was shuffle his feet toward the boat, toward his destiny, he thought.
He climbed in and looked down at the water, so murky and dark; he couldn’t tell how deep, or what might lurk inside. As he gazed into the waves, there was an incessant tugging at his mind, more urgent. An image he had once held dear, a memory that had meant much to him. Without thinking, Dex reached into the water and trailed his fingers along, feeling the dance of the river against his skin as he braided the water between his fingers.
His hand trolled behind them as they began to move. The boatman ferried into the underbelly of a bridge. The river moved through his fingers as dark and silken as… the image he sought fell away as something caught in his hand. He pulled it out of the water.
A sodden piece of paper, dripping. A handwritten note of two lines, but the ink was no longer legible, letters bleeding and blotting into each other. For some reason, he found himself thinking of a broken bird who never learned to fly. A tear formed and ran down his cheek; he watched as it rippled into the river.