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Coral

Early one morning, you wake up with the smell of burnt sheets in your nose, the sheets that you singed in the industrial-strength dryers at the Laundromat, and it takes you a moment to clear your head of the dream you were having. Something about a fire.

 

According to your alarm clock, you only slept a few hours, but you feel alert. The dream slides away, and you inhale and exhale slowly. And again. And a third time, and this time you are not simply breathing, but you are aware of your breathing. Not shallow and struggling, but steady, relaxed, deep breaths. You had been so anxious about. About. The thought seems so clear when you don’t focus on it, but as soon as you try and grasp it directly, it dissipates. In its place, a heavy, foglike calm has settled, your highs and lows clipped to slight hills and shallow depressions reinforced with a rebar of incuriosity.

 

You put away the clean dishes from the drying rack and rinse the large pile of dirty ones; wipe down the kitchen countertops, the stove, the floor; start the coffee maker. After mopping the floors, you take a nap. When you wake up, you feel the same. The coffee is ready.

 

*

 

By the time you get to the office, Dan is already there. You and Dan work together at a long table, which serves as both your desks, in a small, cramped office located three floors below street level of a very large building downtown, where you stamp and highlight and staple together various documents and then file away said documents in manila folders that are stored in the massive, adjoining two-story file room filled with rows and rows of gunmetal grey filing cabinets. The nature of the files holds very little interest for you. The actual work you do all day is almost completely devoid of context; whatever job satisfaction you receive – outside of a paycheck – comes from the efficient completion of an enormous volume of what amounts to a handful of repetitive tasks that are just taxing enough to require your undivided attention throughout the course of the workday.

You have a recurring dream set in the room with the filing cabinets: you, kneeling over an open drawer, surrounded by stacks of folders waiting to be filed, flipping through the folders in the drawer, scanning the tabs, prising apart the tightly packed files so that you can jam in another fistful of files. No variation, no flights of fancy. Just the unspooling of your day’s work, the same day for most days, for going on some time now, like screen burn on a monitor. Last night, did you dream the files were on fire? Were you standing in that dream room, surrounded by flames shooting out of bubbling and melting and blackening file cabinets?

 

Normally, you are the first one in, and by the time Dan arrives, you would have already adjusted the date stamps, organised the loose documents and unfilled folders from the previous day, and arranged the pens and highlighters. But today, you find Dan already there, settled in and painting his nails with Liquid Paper. The left hand is done, but he seems to be struggling with the right-hand nails, judging by the smears of correction fluid on his fingers. He greets you with a big grin, but – maybe because he doesn’t look up – it seems more like the inward-facing smile of a mental patient receiving a piece of good news from one of the voices in his head than a responsorial smile to the arrival of a co-worker. The table is a mess.

 

Despite being in his early-twenties, Dan has a thick, well-groomed beard and a bald spot so severe it resembles a monk’s tonsure. His youth, however, is betrayed by an unearned and somehow endearing confidence that he is destined for greatness.

 

You hang your coat on the back of the chair, Dan having claimed the hook on the door, sling your messenger bag under the table, and begin to straighten up the desk. Out of the corner of your eye, you see Dan return the applicator wand to the Liquid Paper bottle. The two of you settle into the morning batch of mail, two cartons’ worth, which makes the division of labour pleasantly uncomplicated. For a couple of hours, the only sounds in the room are the zipping of Presto letter openers across the sealed flaps of envelopes, the shuffling of papers, and the periodic squeak of highlighters. The routine is, as always, comforting.

 

*

 

You stand on your back porch and smoke a cigarette. It’s eight p.m. and the night is as dark as it’s going to get. The sound of raking leaves crackles across the back yards, but you can’t see the raker for the darkness and fences. As you scan the windows across the way, you notice the same pattern of pulsing, lavender-tinted lights against three or four drawn curtains in different apartments and smile just a bit at the somehow comforting notion of these isolated units all tuned into the same primetime programming. The porch overlooks a park, and when you come out for a cigarette, you wonder if you’ll see a crime – an assault or mugging, perhaps. You wonder the same thing when you’re looking out an airplane porthole just after take-off, when you’re still low enough to clearly make out people on the ground. Something about that angle of observation, just enough height to feel removed from mortal concerns, enough distance that you might question how much responsibility, if any, you had to the victim, to report the crime, to get involved in the lives of others when you could just as easily turn away.

One of the neighbourhood stray cats wanders under a streetlight. You’ve seen it a couple of times before. One of those times, because you were bored, because things need names, because of its piebald coat, because you have no particular feelings for animals domesticated or otherwise, because you are that type of person who thinks it is amusing to call a thing what it isn’t, you named it ‘Cow’.

 

As you stand there, exhaling a billowing ribbon of smoke and watching Cow, a sudden and unbidden image comes into your head: You, securing a thick hawser to the porch rail, placing the other end – already looped into a noose – over your head and onto your neck like a garland, cinching it just as you would a tie, and gently rolling over the side. Your plunge earthward, the rope goes taut, but you can’t see over the edge, can’t see the body.

 

 

*

 

 

You begin to notice other details. For example, your face no longer crumples into brief masks of childlike grief. You stop grinding your teeth. Your hands no longer shake uncontrollably. Waves of pressure periodically roll down your back, slow, and painless. Sometimes, these waves seem to disassociate from your body, radiating outward as if you’re floating in a shallow tidal pool on a planet with heavy gravity, staring up into a roaring, thousand-year-old storm.

 

*

 

 

Ten days pass. You wake up with the fitted sheet on the bed stuck to your back. You separate yourself from the sheet and roll over onto your stomach. Damp, winglike shadows of your scapulae are impressed upon the fabric. Touching your back with your hands, you feel something wet and viscous soaking through your tee shirt. You wipe some of the fluid off and examine it. At first, it appears clear on your fingertips but quickly begins to cloud over, taking on a milky, syrupy, and opalescent – almost luminous – quality. Unthinking, you hold it up to your nose and inhale. Sweet but not cloyingly so, like the frankincense burned in those smoking, swinging thuribles at Sunday service.

You get out of bed and head to the bathroom, where bodily effluvia, contextualised by the proximity to plumbing, can be managed with clinical detachment. The air is cold, and a single, shuddering shiver radiates inward from your back, resonating against your lungs in a sharp report of consonants, Hngh.

 

It takes some work to get your shirt off, the fluid is so thick, glue-like, even, in spots. It’s difficult to get a clear look at your back in the bathroom mirror, but after some neck-craning, you can see streams of white tears slowly rolling down your back – like latex being bled from a rubber tree – in a radial pattern from the base of your skull, but clotty and drying around your upper trapezius.

 

You try to wipe off the fluid with toilet paper, but it mostly just smears, and bits of the toilet paper rip and get stuck to your back in the process. It takes around twenty minutes of vigorous scrubbing with soap and a washcloth in the shower under near-scalding water to slough off the fluid, with most of the work relegated to removing the dry, clotted –crystalline, really – segments that, when you are able to remove them, fracture into smaller mineral chunks and collect around the drain. You’re going to have to clean that up when you get home.

 

After a few seemingly interminable minutes, the mirror stops steaming up enough for you to assess the results of your clean-up job. There’s some residual tackiness, and in the area where the clots were thickest, you are now able to clearly make out a handful of glistening round nodules that have erupted in a T pattern across your shoulders and down your spine. The sense of pressure you had been feeling all the previous week is gone.

 

You once saw a photo of a pregnant female Surinam toad. Her back was honeycombed out by all the eggs that had embedded themselves in her back, and the baby frogs – not tadpoles, as they were passing through their larval stage while in her back – were visible, arms and legs and faces with froggy smiles poking through the skin. You felt ill for days after, periodically overcome by waves of nausea and an unstoppable creeping sensation (with attendant vivid images) of baby frogs tunnelling out of your back, your arms, your chest, your legs, even an almost comical one floating about in the vitreous humour of your right eye. Yet, your current emotional tenor could be best described as semi-detached interest, as opposed to, say, blind panic accompanied by dry heaving. A curious non-reaction reaction.

 

 

*

 

 

Because of the extra time spent in the shower and some structural adjustments to your work outfit, you miss the bus and have to wait until after nine for the next one. Once again, Dan has beaten you to the office. He raises his eyebrows when you enter and feigns engrossment in a complicated collation. The carton of mail next to your desk is noticeably fuller than his.

Around eleven, you begin to feel yourself sticking, ever so slightly, to the chair’s backrest. You grab your messenger bag and jog up three flights of stairs, (passing, at the base of the stairs, the once-ominous but now reassuringly familiar fallout shelter sign, complete with black-and-yellow trefoil and arrow indicating the general direction of the file room) to the single-occupancy handicapped bathroom, where, after locking the deadbolt, you quickly strip off your dress shirt, spotted with what you’re now thinking of as ‘the exudate’ (instead of ‘the fluid’, given that it appears to be expressing through those nodules on your back) and examine the layers of paper towels you strapped to your back using gauze bandages wound around your torso. The paper towels appear to be soaked through only around the nodules, and even in those areas, not excessively. You grab a stack of paper towels from the bathroom dispenser and stick them under the bandages, then change into a clean shirt from your messenger bag – which you filled with supplies to help you make it through the workday – and stuff the soiled one into a plastic bag. Dress shirts aren’t cheap; maybe the exudate will wash out in the laundry, but you’re not optimistic.

 

When you get back to the office, Dan has his earphones in; his brow is furrowed in concentration as he picks at the correction fluid on his fingernails. He glances over at you. His brow – itself one of the most dramatic, motile features on Dan’s face, lined with three deep transverse wrinkles and bounded to the south by two expressive eyebrows – first jumps, presumably at your deshabille, then furrows in concern. While you would not wish to enter into any potentially uncharitable speculation on the ratio of concern for you and for him, he does give his rolling chair a directional and rotational nudge away from you.

 

*

 

You take your lunch break on the second floor of the file room, in a shallow niche created by the intersection of three abutting file cabinets, fold your legs tailor style and assess, with no small amount of stoicism, the contents of the brown bag you prepared this morning before bolting out the door. A peanut butter sandwich made with a heel of bread sliced in half, a couple of wheat crackers, and four watery, fibrous baby carrots. The nearest vending machine is four flights up (five if you count the fact that you have to go down a flight from where you are just to get to the stairwell or elevator; the file room might make a great bomb shelter, but its layout would give a fire marshal pause), so not worth the time lost from the half hour you get for lunch. Periodically, the hesitant taps of Oxfords or pumps with conservative heels on the cement floor echo through the room, announcing a sweaty assistant from upstairs sent down to retrieve an urgently requested file.

You inhale deeply, a reverse sigh, and flinch. Frankincense. A cold sweat breaks out on your forehead. You wipe it away with your hand, and it comes away spotted with the exudate. It only takes a bit of searching with your fingers to find the newly sprouted nodule a couple of inches above your scalp line. The rest of the lunch break is spent locked in the handicap bathroom, washing your hair and the back of your neck in the sink and changing into your last clean shirt.

 

Back in the office, Dan is making a mess over a stack of folders with his lunch, even though you have repeatedly mentioned that it would be better to not eat food at the table. He’s on the phone with his girlfriend, who lives in another state, you forget where. While your baseline opinion of Dan is staunchly ‘con’, there are occasions when you look over at him and experience an unbidden parallax, like you’re staring at someone you haven’t seen in years, that you’re not even seeing right then, but rather like you’re reflecting on the memory of Dan, even though he’s right there in front of you. And in those brief windows, all the annoyances accrued over seven-point-five hours a day, five days a week, for more years than you care to admit, in this antechamber to a city-certified fallout shelter, all the slights real or suspected, slough away, and you can almost love Dan agape, beatifically. Like seeing a fat toddler with an ice cream cone, it makes your heart ache and stings your eyes with pregnant, unfalling tears.

 

You leave. Dan flips you a peace sign and goes back to stamping papers in time with his bobbing head. For all his enthusiasm, and considering the large pile of papers he’s already gone through, you can’t bring yourself to point out that each stamp mark is dated the previous Friday.

 

*

 

 

Upon returning to your apartment, you discover that the discharge has slowed, the topmost layers of exudate having dried over the nodules on your back, forming over each an onion-like and crystalline bulb with a short, thin, flexible spike or tail budding from the centre of the bulb. And while it’s hard to see in the mirror (what you would give for one of those handheld mirrors right now!), the facets of the bulbs seem to be – well, ‘scintillating’ is the word that comes to mind. Still, this permutation is certainly preferable to the previous oozing stage. So, with potential damage to your clothing and bedding at least temporarily mitigated and the rest of the afternoon off, you decide that a trip to the Laundromat down the street is not only warranted, but necessary.

When you enter, you find the Laundromat empty, save for yourself. You fill the medium-sized, front-loading, porthole-window washer to capacity and set it to ‘Whites’. The small television mounted high on a wall is tuned to a local network affiliate, and the volume is set just too loud for you to ignore the syndicated daytime talk show that you already know you’re going to wander over and halfheartedly watch after a couple of minutes of desultorily skimming through the tattered, old copies of women’s magazines. In the washer, your sheets and shirts stained with the exudate (and sundry dirty laundry that needed to be cleaned irrespective of your present situation) are roiling about in a froth of suds. The washer sounds like this: chugga chugga chugga chugga CLICK chugga chugga chugga chugga CLICK chugga chugga chugga chugga CLICK.

 

You have never seen another person in the Laundromat – neither customer nor employee, not even an attendant – when you are in here washing clothes or even just passing by. One evening when you were here, you noticed a small pile of clothes sitting in one of the dryers, and actually got nervous that your perfect streak of never encountering patrons for the Laundromat was about to come to an end, but, happily, no one came to claim the clothes, and the next time you came in, they were gone.

 

You have also never seen the Laundromat closed, neither when taking late-night walks during your not-infrequent bouts of insomnia nor on any observable major, minor, religious, secular, or bank holidays. There is, however, no sign indicating the hours of operation, just a dusty ‘Open’ plaque hanging from the front door. In fact, you’re not even sure if the Laundromat has a name.

 

The cycle finishes, and you split the wash between two industrial-strength dryers. Once the heavy drums begin heaving the laundry around, you put your hands on the glass doors and hold them there for a couple of beats after the heat becomes too great to bear. A rictal grimace dies on your lips as you lean back against a table and allow yourself to be hypnotised by the clothes and sheets spinning in the dryers. The noise, unlike the washers, is a low, threnodic seventy percent hummmmmm and thirty percent buzzzzzzz, music to tumble laundry to. Your thoughts collect in the basin of another familiar suicidal fantasy. At the crest of a hill just a couple of blocks away from your apartment, you see yourself standing on the walking path between the road and the river, staring across at the skyline on the other side. It is late at night, and the road that runs along the river is mostly empty. When you remember to hear it, you hear the susurrus of waves, but when you shift your focus away, it sounds like the dryer. The slope down to the water is steep, and at first, it’s difficult to see, but your eyes quickly adjust. You descend along a narrow path worn through the grass with your body turned almost sideways. And then you are at the river. You step in without hesitation. The water is black and so cold it burns. You hear a low, guttural, shuddering noise, and it takes a moment before you realise it’s coming from yourself. You wade in until you are chest-deep, then push off the muddy bottom, dog-paddling into the deeper waters (even in your imagination, you are a mediocre swimmer). Your wet clothes and shoes feel like lead weights twining around your body, dragging you under. As you struggle to keep your head above the waves, gasping and spitting, you realise that you’re struggling to keep your head above the waves.

 

 

*

 

 

By the time you get home, the sun has set, but you are able to navigate through your apartment by the attenuated light. You prefer to not turn on the lamps during the crepuscule of the day, a habit you’ve had since you were a child, when you would just lie in your bed as the shadows pooled around you and stare at the ceiling where the street lamp shining at an angle through the window made an interesting pattern of eight elongated quadrilaterals cut by the silhouette of the muntin bars, hands folded across your chest, waiting for your mother to call you down for dinner. Because of both your familiarity with the layout of your apartment and the leftover dusklight, you move naturally around the obstacles without being aware of a second source of illumination – faint and systolic – aiding your eyes. It’s not until you start to walk down the dark hallway to the bedroom that you notice it and realise.

It’s you.

 

*

 

You lean forward and stare into the bathroom mirror. Hair litters the sink and floor. It sticks singly and in clumps to your neck, shoulders, and back. It furs your hand holding the scissors. Much of the hair is covered with dried exudate. With the other hand, you rub your scalp, now irregularly close-cropped and superficially nicked in a half dozen spots. It took much longer than you expected, at least partly because you wanted to be careful around the silvery, faceted bulb that has formed over the nodule on your head, centred in the area where the frontal and parietal bones meet. Even with the lights on, you can just make out the glow coming off this excrescence. Though you can’t say for sure, they – the bulbs on your back – seem to be larger now than when you left for the Laundromat. The thin spikes have definitely grown and, while still flexible like before, they gave you some trouble when you were removing your shirt in preparation for the haircut. Smaller bulbs with commensurately smaller spikes have sprouted further down your spine along the vertebral column. The sweet, holy scent is quite strong now, intense to the border of malodourous.

You strip off the rest of your clothes and, with fingers that seem to wish they could tremble, reach for the light switch and flick it off. The sharp suck of your inhalation reaches your ears, but it’s just a reflex. Your only thought is, Oh.

 

A gentle, pulsing, pale indigo light fills the bathroom. A clear night sky’s worth of stars mapped against the celestial ceiling of your flesh. The bulbs glow the brightest, but all over your body, just under your skin, shine pricks of light sized anywhere between a grain of sand and a blackberry seed. Collectively, they seem to cluster together, forming small rashes in areas of muscle and fat and longer, thicker, branchlike striations where bone is close to the skin. You bring your face close to the mirror to examine the particularly visible network of lines along your cheeks and forehead, and that’s when you see the luminous violet coals that the dilated pupils in your eyes have become. Like the eyeshine of a cat at night. Transfixed by your own gaze, you tilt your head first to one side, then, lazily, the other. You exhale as if you were decompressing your lungs. The word beautiful rolls codeine-slow off your illuminated tongue, a phonetic rendition by a non-native speaker. Your mouth breaks into a toothy, backlit grin as a voice, my voice, unlike any sound you have ever heard on this earth, fires directly through your temporal lobe.

 

I am not in you. You are in me.

 

*

 

You get a new job doing the same work in a larger office. Your coworkers are young and serious and, from time to time, you miss Dan. The days there are the same; electrochemical communications pass back and forth through you like the ebb and flow of waves along a shoreline, and you file papers. The spikes have elongated and differentiated into hard spines and softer, segmented rays, and irregular, pebbly scutes run up and down your limbs and torso. You were one of the first, but now you see the transformed all around you, sprouting dazzling, polymorphous hard rimes. Even without the evidence of your eyes, you can feel, like a singly polyp thrilling dumbly at the undulation of the coral colony in which its existence is a mere mote, the envelopment of my multiplying and complexifying presence. Slowly, patiently, and inexorably, we all approach the next set of emergent characteristics, of which even I am incapable of anticipating.

At night, you stand on your back porch, smoke a few cigarettes, and iridesce in complex patterns of call-and-response pulses with the others on their porches or leaning out their windows or standing on the sidewalk and craning their necks skyward. Everything smells like a cathedral on Sunday.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He received his MFA in writing from Columbia University and was a David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Paper Darts, Foxing QuarterlyJohnny America, and elsewhere.


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