“What is that?” I point to a large splotch on the carpet. I’d noticed it before, but this is the first time I ask her about the stain. We smoke weed on the couch in her living room and listen to music as the sounds of traffic crawl in through the open window. On the coffee table there’s an ashtray, a grinder, a pile of dead or dying lighters, and a dangerous number of lit candles.
“I keep meaning to get something to cover that with,” she says. Thin threads of smoke escape between her lips.
“What is it?”
“My ex sliced his hand open.”
“No. He was opening something, I think. I don’t really remember.” She holds up the joint and I take a hit.
“Why didn’t you clean it?”
“I tried. It happened a while ago anyway.”
I try measuring the stain with my eyes but it pulses and waves in the candlelight.
“It looks worse than it was,” she says., “Plus, he’s fine. I usually forget it’s even there.”
“It looks like a lot of blood,” I say. She turns her back to me then lays her head in my lap. I put the joint between her lips and get a little hard when my fingertips brush against them. The cherry glows and her cheeks tighten as she sucks the smoke into her mouth.
“Blood looks like a lot when it’s not inside a body.”
I lie awake in her bed, staring at the ceiling. The gentle curve of her body sleeps under a thin sheet. Traffic sounds continue thrashing across the sky outside her open bedroom window. What kind of person was her ex? How did it happen? How long ago? Blood turns brown quickly, so it may not be old.
Behind my eyes a figure blooms from the stain, fleshing out in gory clots of filament. Moonlight glints off the edge of a blade flashing through the air and digging a trench into carpet-colored flesh spilling worlds of its truth into being.
In the morning I wake up to her rushing half-dressed around the apartment. She digs through the mess on top of her dresser, tubes of makeup colliding against one another. After finding the one she’s looking for, she leans into the mirror and applies it to her taut skin. Her skirt clings tightly to her ass and I imagine caressing her from behind, running my hands over the thin fabric separating me from her body.
“Hey,” she says. I see her reflection watching me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. I’m running late but you can hang out.” She moves away from the dresser and sits at her desk then closes her laptop and puts it in its case.
“You don’t mind?” I ask.
“Not at all,” she says. “We can get dinner later.”
“That sounds nice.”
I listen to her footsteps fade then disappear after she closes the front door. I wonder if she glanced at the stain as she passed it, remembering the way her mornings used to be.
I try going back to sleep after she leaves, but I just toss and turn for an hour before eventually moving to the couch.
Her tablet has an electronic pen and drawing software I’ve always wanted to try. A penis blooms to life on the digital canvas in my lap. At first a crude outline, the details slowly revealing themselves. Removed from its place of origin, an anatomical anomaly. Flaps and tatters of skin, veins spilling from the open base like a knotted heap of intestinal worms. A long, red slash splits the shaft, pulled apart and pinned open like the wings of a butterfly. A tentacle slides out of the urethra, barnacles on its surface shredding the head’s soft tissue to a stringy pulp.
Halfway through adding the details, I delete the drawing and put the tablet on the coffee table. I stare at the dark stain on the carpet then dig through the ashtray for a roach to smoke. After finding a few, I wipe the ash from my fingertips on the arm of the couch. I open the clips, take out the stale, resin-soaked weed, and pack it in a glass bowl. I take a hit. The smoke is harsh and tastes bitter. It sits, hot, in my lungs for a few seconds before escaping in a series of sharp coughs.
Someone in another apartment slams on the wall and yells, “Open a fucking window!”
Through my choking, I shout back “I’m sorry” and rush across the room to open a fucking window.
A humid breeze rushes in, carrying the sounds of chaos and the sickening stench of trash and urine from the street below. Cold sweat bursts onto my forehead. The coughing subsides and the sour root of nausea spirals through the lake of bile in my stomach. I turn away from the window, saliva flooding my mouth. My eyes blur with tears and I freeze. The stain, now a black pool with light shimmering across its rippled surface. Rancid tentacles scrape at my intestines. Sweat pours down my face and back, sucking my T-shirt against my skin. If I step into the darkness scarred into the floor, will I sink to the bottom? Or will it climb over me like a living shroud?
Another plume of hot, wet air blows in through the window. The living room is invaded by the cloying odor of seafood and piss. I run to the bathroom. The door bangs open against the wall and my knees slam the tile floor. The toilet’s rim is light yellow with brown speckles and stray pubic hairs. My retches echo inside the porcelain bowl. A slug of foamy bile crawls over my tongue and slides onto the water’s surface.
My stomach settles and my sweat begins to dry as I uncurl my body from the toilet. Tendrils of smoke swim through my lungs into my blood and cling to my brain’s receptors, waving in the flowing redness like strands of seaweed. The world lightens, the space between my lungs and ribs filling with calmness spreading through my limbs and sedating my head with static. Standing in front of the sink, I look into the mirrored surface of the medicine chest and realize I’m way higher than I expected to be.
The reflection is me and not-me. The man in the glass is fiction. Dark half-moons hang under his bloodshot eyes, gaping pores in his red cheeks, a string of bile stuck in his beard like semen in a cobweb.
I turn on the lamp above the mirror and the man inside turns yellow. Opening the cabinet, I’m greeted by rows of vibrant bottles, tubes, and vials. Everything with a prescription label is on the bottom shelf. I look for a man’s name but they’re all hers. Half are expired and nearly full. I take one out, read the label, don’t know it, and start to put it back when I notice the bottle hidden behind the others. Transparent orange with a white cap like the rest, but all that remains of the label is the peeling white paper stuck to the glue. Something inside rattles when I take the bottle off the shelf. After opening it, I see several yellow teeth smiling up at me. Small like a child’s. They could be hers, but it’s more likely her mother would have them. Does her ex have a kid? My teeth unconsciously prod at the lump of numb scar tissue inside my lower lip, teasing and pulling the skin until a thin, metallic taste leaks out. If these belong to her ex’s kid, that’s just as good as finding his prescriptions. Better, even.
What the fuck are you doing? It explodes into my head. I close my eyes. With my teeth clenched, I pull a sliver of skin away. I hear the crunch when I bite through the ridge on my lip and imagine the sound of skin tearing away. A sting radiates from the burning wound. After thumping my palm against the sink’s rim, I run my tongue over the bleeding sore, put the bottles back in their place, and wash my hands.
The smell fills the living room but it’s not as potent as before. That could just be my senses getting used to it, though. I wonder if it would be easier to accept if the source were visible.
A giant lobster writhing with parasites lies dead on the carpet, its torn exoskeleton dripping viscid seawater onto the floor. Fumes curl against the ceiling, spiraling upward in emerald ribbons. Dregs of its putrescence sink deep into the fibers, degrading the glue, wood, and whatever else is beneath.
In the corner of the room, a white plastic box fan sits on the floor. Careful to avoid the stain, I carry the fan to the window and wedge it facing outwards into the frame. I turn it on high then lower the window until it locks the fan in place. The glass rattles slightly as the rotten atmosphere blows back outside.
I pick up the tablet and search “how to get blood out of carpet.” In the kitchen, I open a cabinet under the sink and remove a bottle of dish soap and a half-full jug of ammonia. I fill an empty plastic container with cold water from the faucet then carry it into the living room. Placing it beside the stain, I return to the kitchen for the soap and ammonia. I head to the bathroom in search of a rag.
The medicine chest is still open. I close the cabinet and see my reflection rippling like it would on water. My eyes stick. Too late. I see the reflection trying to smash the glassy surface, erupting in an explosion of razor shards, the me and not-me wavering between states, sloshing back and forth in waves that break on the tile floor.
My ears ring and the inside of my head is swallowed by fog. I resurface, gripping the ledge of the sink with white-knuckled fists. A crater in the center of the mirror is surrounded by a spiderweb of thin cracks. Slivers fall off and clink into the basin. Sharp heat spreads through the fingers of my right hand, the swollen skin bleeding and speckled with glass dust. A small pool of blood curls up against my foot. I leave my stain on the floor and let my hand keep leaking.
She has no fucking clean rags anywhere. I could use a pillowcase but that seems like a bad idea and this room won’t let me leave empty-handed. I bounce from one foot to another, stare into the middle distance, tilt into the fog again, and slam the palm of my left hand into my cheek bone a dozen times. A flash of light shoots through my head and escapes through the cracks in the mirror like a flood of white neon.
I grab a hairbrush and return to the living room, leaving a trail of blood behind me. It’s my time now. My space to mark. Not his. Kneeling in front of the stain, I look at the soap and cold water. Mix a small amount of the first into the second. Apply solution to stain, then dab with a clean cloth.
This close, the stain is black, spiked with sharp clots of dried plasma and synthetic wool. I flick the thin white cap off the jug of ammonia and pour the remaining fluid onto the stain. The fumes burn my eyes and throat and pound nails into my brain.
The stain drinks in the chemical, shining wet, breathing noxious atmosphere into my face. Hairbrush clutched in my right hand, I lean over the splotch and begin to scrub. I choke on the fumes and feel ammonia splash onto my cheeks as it foams up and turns brown under the path of the brush.
I scrub until the carpet shifts with my movements. The fibers slough away from the glue and the floor where they sprouted, revealing what lies beneath: a patch of pale flesh, mottled with dark veins, warm to the touch. I press a fingernail into the soft surface and scrape, leaving behind a thin furrow turning wet and red. A yellow tooth sprouts from the trench. I gently pick it out, roll it over in my palm, and carry it like a mouse with my other hand cupped over the top. Into the bathroom cabinet in the bottle with the others. I try to remember what time she’s supposed to be home, but I can’t. Maybe she didn’t tell me.
— Max Tanner Restaino is a writer living in Poughkeepsie, NY. He has a predilection for fiction that is dark, confusing, violent, or all three. He has had stories published by LIGEIA and Witch Craft Magazine.