First, the ring finger of his left hand, gone. The clatter of his wedding band rolling off the table and onto the linoleum floor of his new, one bedroom kitchenette. Ringing like a glass. There is the moon and its cheap light on his skin. The reheated macaroni on his tongue tastes like microwaves and plastic. He opens his mouth and lets the mush fall out onto his chest and dollar sign boxer shorts. Tina had found those hilarious, and she used to peel them off him with her teeth.
He examines his new stump. The classic uneven edges. The lack of pain. The pop, like an air bubble breaking, that had preceded it. It’s hard to focus on, this absence, but that’s a part of it too. He recalls an old woman on the city bus with a patch of her cheek missing. The hollowed out section of her face covered in a fine film of television snow. The skin of reality spasming across the edges of her missing places. Across his too. The top of his stump is a soft gray shifting. It feels warm and staticy. And if he stares hard enough, he can just make out, through the static, the tiny veins in his finger pumping blood to nowhere.
He walks to a liquor store with his hand in his pocket. He gets vodka and rum and mixes them in a blue Dixie cup. The bathtub is narrow and short, but he crams himself into it. He opens the tap full blast. He’s still in his shoes and socks and all his other useless scraps. His underwear, his skin, his skull. He sips at his gasoline cocktail and dials Tina’s number while the water rises all around him.
“I’ve got Absentia,” he says.
“I’ll miss you,” she says.
“I don’t believe you,” he says, then, after a pause in which he thinks he can hear a man’s voice or maybe a TV, “Is that all you’ve got to say? I’m dying here and that’s all you’ve got to say?”
“Nobody knows where people go. Maybe it’s somewhere better. And they get put back together.” She sounds drunk, or maybe he’s projecting. His clothes feel heavy, and they float sluggishly around him like the skins of animals. The water is tepid and grimy and looks yellow under brittle forty watt bulbs.
“I still think about you,” he says.
She says nothing for a long time, and then he hangs up. He imagines that it’s not the water that’s rising, but him that’s sinking. Like Atlantis, a lost wonder.
“I am Atlantis,” he says into the vicious swirl of his drink. It tastes of spice and fumes and charcoal filters.
“What?” Tina says over the phone. “Are you still there, Will?” Opps, he thinks. Hadn’t he shut that off? He opens his hand and lets the phone slide out. It cracks open on the linoleum floor, silver battery spinning. He wants to float, but gravity’s crawling all over him like a horde of ants. And he feels so heavy.
In the morning, his hand is gone to the wrist. Static like a new kind of skin over the absence. Quantum foam. Where had he heard that? His tongue feels swollen and so does his brain.
He cruises the sites. He feels like a voyeur looking in on himself. “Absentia: Quantum Sicknesses of the early 21rst Century.” Incomprehensible. Mirage equations squirming under his eyes like they’re alive. “Absentee!” A company that specializes in making realistic dolls for the funerals of people who popped out of existence and left their families with nothing to bury. They use a kind of treated pig skin on the faces. It all feels very real. News articles on rising rates in the cities versus the country, “More Absence in the City: CDC Reclassifies as Low-Communicable? Mode Still Unknown.” Pictures of headless bodies with static bubbling out of their necks. A video of an Absentee, almost her entire body missing below the chest, swinging herself along the ground with long, toned arms like some kind of soft crab. People young and old cut exactly in half trying to speak with half-tongues and half-lips and half-brains. Coming out all garbled and strokey. People with holes in their chests. In their genitals. In their faces.
Will pokes at the stump of his arm with his good hand. It feels springy and alive, like dipping his fingers into a bowl of warm, carbonated water.
Pockets of Absentia have appeared on other parts of his body. A patch of static on his thigh like gray hair. A dime sized hole through his lower rib cage. Sticking his pinky in there’s a weird sensation, but not, entirely, unpleasant. A little sexual and vaguely shameful and numbing, like masturbating while drunk. He hasn’t been outside in days. His apartment is sticky with sunlight and the residue of spilled rum and brown soda. All his furniture, the folding table, the futon, the scuffed up dresser, is used, and feels temporary. His skin feels temporary. He wears his wedding band on his right hand now. Soon he won’t have fingers. That’s okay, he’ll wear it on his toes. His arm is gone to the shoulder.
He decides to spend his last few hundred dollars on a woman, why not? Tina’s not answering her phone, how many times had he called her in the last weeks? No matter. He contacts a place called, “Abby’s Fantasy Club,” but when he sends them a picture of himself as per their post-Absentia policy, a chunk of his neck and jaw is missing now and a good portion of his chest and leg too, they tell him to get lost. That’s okay. Next on the list, “Alice’s Wonderland.” They’ll only offer him a girl who’s already got Absentia, but that’s fine with him.
“A girl is a girl is a girl is a girl,” he says.
“You high?” the girl on the phone says. She sounds about ten-thousand cigarettes old.
“Baby,” he says scratching at his chest, trying to peel off some bit of gravity or light or space-time foam or skin. “I only wish.”
The girl’s name is Four of Spades, AKA Honey Lemon. She is a survivor of the experimental heart-stop treatment trials for Absentia. The logic? If you die while suffering from Absentia, your body stops evaporating. So induce death. Will tries to imagine these moments of outer space silence in a body with no beating heart, and can’t. In hindsight, the treatment was almost too desperate for words, and seemed to have no effect.
Honey Lemon had suffered a tiny bit of brain damage from lack of oxygen while under the lights, so when she smiles it’s lopsided, and her painted eyelid sags like a wilted flower petal. Will’s heart breaks all over her. On red silk sheets, in one of many rooms, he gently unhooks her prosthetic leg, which covers the patch of Absentia that’s slowly eating her from the ground up with little pops like kisses. He leans in and presses his lips to the quantum foam and it tickles his nose and his teeth. He thinks he can hear something like a whisper from it. Wordless. Voiceless. Very distant.
“What’s it feel like?” she says, lightly tracing the borders of absence on his cheek and neck. Like I’m being eaten while I sleep.
“Don’t you know?” he says, sliding his good hand up her thigh. She smells like rosewater and smoke, and her skin feels very real and warm under his hand.
“Not really,” she says. “I can’t feel much from the waist down.”
What a creep his is. What a weirdo. A sicko. The Absentia, with a pop, has crept up his cheek and into his eye. He sees in silver and static. He has a vicious strain, not like hers. Maybe it’s his heart. But Honey Lemon tells him it’s okay, and he helps her into her wheelchair, and she strokes his hair and his other parts, until he is soft and all strength has fled his body like the lace patterns of the stars fleeing the sun.
They are drinking beer from cans on the roof of Alice’s Wonderland with a bouncer named Federico. He is criminally handsome and whole, and his skin is the color of ancient, sunbaked clay. Meanwhile, Will’s one remaining eye reflects the eye of the moon in a grotesque staring contest that he can only lose, and his beer tastes like space-time piss. Where is the rest of him?
“Maybe that’s not the right question, you know?” Federico says. He’s got an accent that makes Will think of old movies and tangerines along the side of the highway.
Honey Lemon says, “What else is there?” And a golden strand of beer leaks out the slack side of her mouth. Will would like to lick it off her cheek, if only this were that kind of world.
There’s a pop, then the ringing metal sound of his wedding band hitting the roof, also his beer spitting aluminum, and Will suddenly can’t feel his right hand. Absence makes the heart grow heavy, and the body light. Who had said that? He wants to punch them with his invisible fists and bite them with his disintegrating mouth.
Honey Lemon leans down out of her chair and picks the ring from the ground. Holds it up to the light, thick with mosquitos and gnats and fluffy moths like bits of lint. They cast fliting, anomalous shadows that are impossible for Will to track with his one, moon eye. “Who’s Tina?” she says.
“Toss me another beer,” Will says, he suddenly feels very tired and light. As if he has just run a very long way. Federico obliges, and Will does his best to catch it with no hands.
Later, he’s a holey ribcage and a beating heart covered in static on the sidewalk. And people inch around him or take pictures with their phones until a garbage man scoops him up with a snow shovel. He’s placed in a thick plastic bag designed for medical waste. Lub-dub goes the heart. Lub-dub. There’s light in here like glass. And on and on.
Ryan Row lives in Oakland California with a beautiful and mysterious woman. His short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Bayou Magazine, Shimmer Magazine, The Sierra Nevada Review, and elsewhere. He is a winner of The Writers of the Future Award and holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. You can find him online at ryanrow.com.