The Epicurean

by Adam Vine

Glug, glug.

The glass fills up again, sanguine liquid roiling like a beating heart. You take a sip. The notes of leather and smoke roll up your tongue to your nose, then back again, warming your throat as the wine slips down to your belly.

It is, without a doubt, the best wine you’ve ever tasted.

You nearly married that girl. But who cares? Love? Kids? A family? A career you never crashed and burned from? Why? What’s the point, when you’ve got this apartment, this view of the city, the parades every morning, a different woman every night?

The wine makes it all okay.

Glug, glug.

You pour another glass.

How did you get into this apartment? You can’t remember.

The red couch. Where did it come from? The shitty Ikea table. The portraits of people you’ve never met; or at least, can’t recall meeting.

AirBnB? Maybe. But you don’t recall that either. Something about the wine makes you forget. Or is that just another cope? Making excuses for your forgetting?

There are some things you still do remember.

Partying every night. The shots. The cool bars in the city center, alive like the home fires with bass that shook your ear drums from your skull.

The women. The dancing: the vertical, then the horizontal. So many women you forgot what they looked like. Their names. How many of them were beautiful, or if you cared.

Waking up to watch the parades from your balcony. The crimson costumes like brilliant phoenixes winding along the narrow European streets below; the sunlight stinging you through the steam rising off your coffee.

The hangovers. Oh god. They get worse every year, don’t they? That empty ache in your brain cavity, equal only to the one in your stomach. Your asshole wanting to explode with the dead rot the booze carved out of you.

Not feeling human until five PM, when you pour yourself another glass and do it all over again.

Glug, glug.

But the good times don’t feel so fun anymore, do they? Where did they go?

Where are those women now?

Your friends?

Your family?

Who are you? You’re not even sure you remember that anymore.

And who the fuck are the people in those pictures?

You instinctively gaze down at your wrists.

No.

You slam your eyes shut.

Don’t look at them.

Don’t even think it.

Just don’t.

You’re not. You can’t be. Neither heaven nor hell could be this…

What? Mundane? Diminishing? Repetitive? Passé?

But if this isn’t the afterlife, why can’t you go outside during daylight hours? Why can you only drink your way through the brick-laden music clubs of the city’s deep, medieval basements after nightfall, when no one can see the pallor of your skin, how thin you’ve become under your knee-length black duster and tall leather boots?

Why can’t you go down there and join the parade?

The same parade every morning. It never changes. Always the same crimson coats and top hats, the trumpeters all blasting their 19th century nationalistic marches.

The thought prompts you to try the front door. You walk across your apartment and jiggle the handle, but the door doesn’t budge.

You gaze again at your wrists where they peek out from the long sleeves of your shirt. You never roll them up anymore.

Two moribund helixes peer back at you, so gleaming white they look like they’ve been picked clean by vultures.

Bones. Where your wrists should be there are only bones.

Not skin. Not pale, mottled flesh that has gone too long without seeing sun. No tendons or muscle, no sinew; no meat at all, not even the rotten kind.

Only bones.

But no. That’s impossible. You’re drunk again. Already, after only two glasses? Or was it three?

When was the last time you left this apartment?

Suddenly you can’t remember that, either. Worse, you can’t remember why you can’t remember.

Or why it always smells like old trash in here no matter how many times you empty the bin into the chute.

Or why there’s never any food in your fridge but that spicy chicken you cooked a week ago — always a week ago, never a day more or less.

Or the last time you ate.

Or drank water.

Or defecated.

Or had sex.

Or slept.

Or cried.

Or had any human contact except watching the crowd walk past, far below you in the parade.

Or when you —

A woman’s voice interrupts you from the other side of the door.

“I’m going to ask you to lie down,” she says.

Startled, your fingers slide off the door handle. Where is she, you wonder? Standing out in the hall?

What does the outside of this apartment even look like?

Sir,” the woman says again.

Definitely out in the hall.

Slowly, you back away.

Lie down, please,” she says.

Heart racing, you turn and head for the balcony (though any escape will do), but a mirror stops you in your tracks.

The face you expect to see isn’t yours at all.

Or, maybe it was, long ago when you were still alive.

The face not quite looking back at you in the mirror is rotten and full of maggots. The blue flaps of skin hang from sockets where the eyes have long since melted to a snot-like substance and drained out of your skull, leaving only black abysses. Your lips, taut as leather, peel back in a telltale, permanent grin.

The word flashes again through a brain you now know to be deleted.

No. Don’t think it.

You have to think it. It’s the truth.

You’re dead.

Dead, dead, dead. Dead as a doornail. Dead.

That’s why you can’t remember.

That’s why you’re trapped here, unable to leave this apartment building, in this cruel tenement for ghosts. Why you haunt the midnight streets like something that shouldn’t be.

Because you shouldn’t.

Dead things aren’t supposed to think, or drink wine, or watch parades.

Bones should only be animated by the living.

Lie down, sir,” the voice says again.

Like pushing a stone up a mountain, you force a foul burst of air through your lips and ask, “Where?”

Barely more than a whisper, but she hears you. “On the bed.

Whoever she is, she sounds impatient. You gaze first at the wine bottle on the windowsill.

The wine. Of course. You just need a little more wine.

Wine, the only elixir that can make a ghost forget.

You run to it, pick it up in the hope of shaking out a few last drops…

Glug. Glug.

The wine bottle is empty now.

You cannot run from that reality anymore. Cannot hide from it. There is nothing left to do but face it head-on.

You turn from the window to head across the studio toward your bed. But your own bed isn’t there.

It’s been replaced by a hospital bed: metal bars and a starched, white pillow too thin to ever be comfortable; a single blue sheet that could never hope to keep anyone warm, much less a sad corpse like you.

You slide under the covers anyway and lie down. You close your eyes.

Sir?

You open them. There is a nurse standing over you. She is smiling, not frustrated or firm or unpleasant at all.

Time for your medicine. Open sesame!” the nurse says.

She gives you a cup of pills.

“Where am I?” you ask, glancing around the room as you swallow them.

There is no balcony, no wine bottle; no European skyline, or fanfare-filled parades. Only sterile walls, stainless steel, and the smell of urine and slow dying. The symbol of biohazards printed on every surface.

This isn’t your apartment. You’re in the hospital.

When did you come here? And what for?

But you already know, a voice inside insists. You already know what she’s going to say.

“Am I dead?” you ask.

We’ve been over this,” the nurse says. You feel a gentle hand on your wrist. Flesh again, you see when you look down. Flesh on flesh. Hers feels warm. So warm. A lifeline back to the thing you thought you’d lost forever.

Your own flesh is brittle, used up, but there are veins there. Not bones. Only weak, trembling flesh.

Something horrible rises in the fog of your memory, clarifies for an instant, then is gone.

“Been over what?” you ask.

You’re confused again,” the nurse says.

“I am?”

Yes. You have a condition. You believe you’re deceased; that you’re a ghost trapped inside a rotting, dead body. But you’re not. Do those hands look dead to you?

Terrified, you force yourself to look. To really look.

She’s right. And that truth is too humiliating to bear. So, you don’t.

You look away. When your gaze returns to your wrists, they are only bones again. All of you: nothing but dead, falsely animated bones.

Maybe she won’t notice, you think, and try to sit up.

“Can I leave? I want to leave. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

The nurse raises a hand to stop you. She doesn’t lower it until you slide back down to the pillow. “You can, once you’re well,” she says. There is pity in her eyes.

“What? What does that mean?” you ask.

When you admit you’re still alive.

Glug, glug.

Adam Vine’s fiction and poetry have previously appeared (or will soon appear) in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Abyss & Apex Magazine, Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Along Harrowed Trails, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @authoradamvine

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The Pixelated Shroud

The Pixelated Shroud

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Art / Exploitation / Ontological Terrorism / homebase: Detroit, MI