“So? What’s the verdict?”
“Still can’t taste shit,” Darren Sinclair replies grumpily. He glugs down half a glass of water then shovels in another forkful of spaghetti.
Evelyn conceals a moue of distaste as she watches the noodles slurp into her husband’s mouth. His chewing is louder than usual. Beast-like. Droplets of red sauce fling across the tabletop. Others land on Darren’s shirt. Evelyn takes a long swallow of red wine and slowly spins a neat bite of spaghetti onto her fork, raises it to her mouth. “Sorry, honey. At least you seem to have an appetite…” she says, wondering if she’ll keep her own.
“Ith hodt ath leath…” Darren says with a mouthful, sauce smeared around his mouth like a toddler. He scratches at his chest, eyes jutting toward Evelyn like a skittish dog worried someone’s going to steal his unfinished dinner.
Evelyn chews. Her homemade sauce is delicious. The extra red pepper did it, she thinks. She dips a piece of garlic bread in the sauce and bites. Excellent. The sound of Darren scraping his plate clean distracts her from the appreciation of her culinary prowess. The brow under Darren’s brown bedhead is laced in sweat. Evelyn begins to fret. This is not a typical illness. His behavior is worrisome. Evelyn’s fork clinks down on her plate. “Can I get you more, babe?”
Darren wipes up the sauce with a piece of bread. Shakes his head no as he crams it all into his mouth in a single bite—his chair whines across the hardwood as he scoots away from the table and stands. Evelyn watches a few beads of sweat dribble off Darren’s brow onto the bowl of uncovered bread and cringes.
Footfalls thud up the stairs, and the Sportcenter jingle blasts for a moment as the bedroom door slams shut. Then Evelyn is alone, her dinner virtually untouched. She sighs heavily and begins swirling her wine glass. Looking into its purple depths for answers.
The doctor had told Darren he couldn’t find anything wrong. Nothing came up in the tests they’d ran. No Covid, thank God. What was the explanation? He didn’t have a fever but was sweating profusely. Said he couldn’t taste anything yet was constantly ravenous. His only complaints were headaches, which seemed to subside with Advil, and he was complaining of his limbs going numb. Also, the incessant lethargy. He’d slept at least twelve hours every night for the past two days since this began, with a two- to three-hour nap in the afternoons for good measure. Did Darren need to go to a specialist? Get a second opinion? Perhaps he had other symptoms he was keeping to himself. But why?
Evelyn drains her wine glass and pours another. Maybe Darren will feel better tomorrow, she thinks. She takes two more bites of her spaghetti, then moves into the kitchen to clean up. The bottle of wine comes with her.
Darren groans as the pulse of pain returns, throbbing in his temples and behind his eyes. It pulls him from his doze. His nightstand light is brighter than the midday sun, and he holds up a palm to shield it from his eyes. The clock reads 1:13 a.m. The TV is off. The other side of the bed is empty. Had Evelyn said she was going to sleep in the guest room? Is she still up?
The glass on his nightstand is empty. Darren grumbles some more as he sits up, and the room spins. Is that an alarm going off? Or just a ringing in my head? The sound is piercing, seems to ride an invisible shifting wave, some razor-edged Doppler effect happening only in his perception. Finally, he gains his feet and makes his way to the bathroom with his empty glass in hand.
“Gaaahhhrrr…” The sound of the running faucet brings Darren to his knees. The vice around his head squeezes tighter. Grimacing, he fills his glass and brings it to his lips. He can feel the cool liquid go all the way down, feel it instantly being carried away to dehydrated cells. After downing the fourth glass while still upon his knees, the ringing subsides. He fills the cup one last time and shuts off the faucet, stands shakily. Darren opens his eyes enough to appraise his own disheveled reflection. “You look like shit…” he mutters.
For the first time, Darren realizes that he’s drenched. His shirt and sweatpants are clinging to his skin like he just came in from a violent downpour. His hair is soaked, dripping. Walking back to his bed, Darren sees the dark spot on his comforter and pillow. It looks like someone threw a whole bucket of water upon the bed. “What the hell?” It hadn’t been like this the last two nights. Had it? He sets the full cup of water on the nightstand and returns to the bathroom, peeling off his wet t-shirt.
“Jesus! Fuck!” Darren leaps backward as he sees the massive shape upon his bare chest. He crashes into the half-open door of the linen closet, slamming it shut as he frantically tries to wipe the creature off of himself. But it doesn’t come off. There’s nothing on him.
“Oh. God. Oh. God,” he says, the adrenaline swell of the initial shock subsiding as he slowly approaches the mirror again. What Darren had taken for a black serpentine starfish-thing latched upon his chest like a massive leech was actually his own swollen and distended flesh. A spiderweb of thick varicose-like veins spirals out from the middle of his chest. They hadn’t been there when he’d showered in the morning. He would have noticed.
Slowly, Darren raises his finger to the dark star emblazoned upon him like a super villain’s maniacal chest tattoo. He presses down but feels nothing. Suddenly he realizes he has no feeling in his fingertips or in his chest. He can see the black raised flesh, the curving ribbed ridges, but he cannot feel it. Darren begins to panic.
The ringing sound returns. Blood rushes in his ears. His heart hammers so violently Darren believes he can see it actually pounding in his chest, making the wormy star shape vibrate like the rear window of a car with a subwoofer in its trunk. Quickly, Darren struggles out of his sweats and boxer briefs, begins scanning his naked body for more marks. His front is clear. His penis is still attached, hanging flaccidly over a shrunken, retracted scrotum. He grabs his package gratefully as if to say, “at least you’re ok, boy.”
Darren positions himself awkwardly in the corner of the mirrors to look at his backside and relinquishes an awful, high-pitched, gurgling scream. “Hello, Darren” is scrawled upon his bare flesh in wriggling black letters, written in reflection to be discernable in the mirror. His head slams against the bathroom counter as he loses consciousness and crumbles to the floor.
His prostrate form sprawled upon the tile, the inky shapes upon Darren Sinclair’s back begin to shift, then slowly fade away.
Evelyn stirs upon the couch at the sound of Darren’s scream from upstairs. She snorts, shifts, but does not wake. The TV has shut off on its own after Evelyn failed to start the next episode of Big Little Lies. Her wine glass is empty upon the coffee table; she’d made it one glass into the second bottle.
Her breathing is heavy. Every third or fourth exhalation comes out with a small, tremulous snore––more of purr, really. The wine-induced sleep keeps Evelyn firmly in its grasp until 3:42 a.m. She awakes disoriented and thirsty, feels the pressure of an approaching headache.
“Uggg,” Evelyn says and stretches out the crick in her kneck from her odd angle on the couch. She stands, and her stomach lurches. Way too much wine, not enough dinner, she thinks. Woozily she stops at the fridge and retrieves a liter of bottled water before making her way upstairs.
The sight of the light on under the bedroom door is curious. Surely Darren is fast asleep. Evelyn turns the nob as quietly as she can and slides into the bedroom.
“Darren?” she says at the sight of the empty bed. “Honey?”
She rounds the corner of the bathroom doorway, and her scream comes close to shattering the glass; the open liter of water falls from her hand and floods upon the carpet into a dark pool. Darren is lying naked, facedown upon the bathroom floor in what Evelyn at first believes is a massive puddle of blood. “Darren! Darren!” she shrieks, rushing into the bathroom to fall to her knees at his side.
His skin is ice cold as she grabs his shoulders and shakes, yelling his name over and over. The pool isn’t red but black, yet Evelyn is too shocked to notice this trivial detail at the moment. Flipping Darren over, Evelyn is met by her husband’s withered visage frozen in a death rictus grin. His eyes are sunken and rolled up, only the veiny whites visible. The dark liquid pool leaves no remnants on Darren’s skin even though his face had been lying directly in it moments ago––another detail not cataloged by Evelyn Sinclair.
Evelyn throws her head back in a shuddering wail of abject terror, unable to process the sight of her dead husband. The tears cascade down her cheeks as her body crinkles into twisted, grief-stricken shapes. Her eyes are still clenched shut as the obsidian pool cleanly withdraws from around Darren’s shriveled form. Her body too aflame by nerves and emotion to discern to cool smooth runnels of tar rising up her knees, her chest, mingling with the tears now streaming down her throat.
As Evelyn takes a final convulsive breath to prepare for more anguished caterwauling, the black substance floods into her open maw. Her eyes shoot open, hands fling to her neck as all her throat’s passageways are filled.
Evelyn Sinclair’s brain registers one final thing before it all fades away. A squiggle of black letters slowly dissolving away upon Darren’s lifeless chest.