“All men dream, but not equally.”
He was standing in a room. It was bare, absolutely bare, with a white floor that seamlessly transitioned into four white walls that, in turn, seamlessly transitioned into a white roof. He might have thought himself lost in an void, had not there been the sense of terra firma beneath his feet and an unshakable, instinctual inkling of constriction. He was inside something. His mind had embraced the default ‘room’, because the only alternative it could alight upon was ‘cage’.
Absence gave way to substance. Surfacing from the white near-nothingness of the walls, there came picture frames of stark and sharp construction. The writing on the documents therein framed was minute, and in a looping anachronistic script only used by those who thought too much of themselves.
He thought about peering closer, then found himself transposed across the room so that he might do so. University degrees in Criminology and Psychology, qualifications from a police academy, commendations, distinctions. Across every mark of merit, the name had been smudged out, as if by an elbow while the ink was still drying.
Turning, or, at least, thinking about turning and it becoming so, he found a metal table had been placed in his absence, a man in a black suit sitting at the far side. His face had been smudged out, as if by an elbow while the ink was still drying. The besuited man gestured to the second chair. He thought about sitting, and was.
Muscles tensed, trying to contract his lungs and twist his lips into words, but nothing came out. There was nothing to take in to begin with, he realised – he had not taken a single breath since appearing within the white room. The revelation flashed across the space, an alarum of klaxon-red, then black, then red once more. Even without breath, he could feel his chest tighten, his body panic in the absence of its most basic of survival functions.
Between the pulsing emergency flares, when the white room was blackened to oblivion, a simple polystyrene cup became sat upon the table before him. He snatched at it, bringing it to his lips and tipping back. Cool, calming water eased down his throat, giving his body a task to complete – a physiological slap across the face to pull itself together. The besuited man gave him a quizzical thumbs-up, the starkness of his jacket momentarily faded to a more calming blue. When he replied with a nod, the stern black reasserted itself and the besuited man straightened in his seat.
With a gesture, the besuited man sent a ripple across the surface of the table. Like mercury, it roiled and rose, cohering from a globulent mass into, indeed, a room where two men sat at a table. Beyond the thin walls of the quicksilver’s representation of the white room, men with notepads clustered in a group so tight they seemed to be one single, hydrian form. The besuited man cocked his head, and he nodded.
The model sunk back into the table which, in turn, sunk back into the floor. All that was left was a fading grey stain between the two men. Slowly at first, the stain began to spread, washing across the blank canvas of the room. The grey mass split, forming into long strips, the colour festering into an off-brown.
He blinked, and when his eyes reopened there was a body lying on the floorboards.
The besuited man remained motionless, that smudged, sightless face nevertheless watching as he thought-lurched away from the corpse, his entire being twisting and arching in an attempt to put as much distance between him and it as possible. But there was only so far he was allowed to go before the white wall stopped him. Not this. Not her.
His skin was crawling, thick, congealed ripples of flesh washing from the tips of his fingers – up over his arms, but equally out across the wall-that-wasn’t-there. Hair grew just so it could stand on end, a bilious swirl of greens and blues spreading out to stain where he cowered.
The body appeared to be at peace, at least. Her eyes closed, arms and legs straightened, the only sign that anything was amiss coming from the protuberance down one side of her neck. Quick and painless. It seemed. From her feet, the floorboards rose, clicking and slotting together, forming higher and higher blocks until an entire staircase rose to the white room’s ceiling. The green swirled thicker around him.
Silhouettes passed around the body, kneeling and examining and noting and detailing. There were other seated figures in other rooms with other besuited men facing them. They rose, amalgamating back into the lone besuited man, his besuited man, who raised a hand and beckoned him over to the corpse.
Even with her eyes closed, he could not bring himself to look at her face. All that beauty, that love, that hate. The besuited man seemed, at least, to not be without mercy, for his interest was not in her face. It was her neck – at this distance patently mis-angled – over which the searchlight of his attention was focussed. There, rolling down both sides towards the top of her sternum in a gentle V, was an absence. A memory tan-line. An impression in what should have been there but wasn’t.
He could feel himself tightening, hardening, the writhing of his skin replaced by a numb hardness as it prepared itself for the inevitability. He knew and, eyes darting to the impassive besuited man, he knew that his interrogator knew also. An itch arose in one arm and his hand came away from scratching it thick with stone dust.
It was coming. So unashamedly big and brazen that he could see it happen a hundred times in his inner-inner mind before it actually did. The besuited man reached for an inner pocket, revealing only yet another suit beneath, and produced a necklace. A simple, fake-gold, mass-produced, heart-shaped necklace that might be bought from one of a dozen accessory chains. He should know: he had. Her necklace. His necklace.
The besuited man offered it out on a too-long arm. Clearly, he did not appear concerned about evidence being tampered with. But then, was this evidence? The matter of the necklace seemed to waver for a moment under the strain of his question, the faux-gilding sublimating into the rare burst of sunshine that had illuminated the churchyard on the day she’d first worn it. He could feel leathery hands run along his body as he affixed it around her neck, kneading the smile upon his face for traces of sincerity or deception, squeezing any drop of ulterior motive from his pores. No, this was his memory of her, the best, his alone.
With a silent cry, he lashed out at the besuited man. The back of his hand brushed his interrogator’s palm for a moment, feeling the same gentle, cold caress from his glove, and both the memory and the necklace shattered into atoms. The besuited man returned to his seat, clothes and demeanour equally unruffled, and gestured once more at the body.
He had tried to hold them back. He knew how they’d look. The besuited man would see them, and that would be the end of it. Of him. But regardless the memories came, unbidden, at least as far as he was aware, but relentless. The tears still burning his cheeks had cracked the dam, and the weight of a seven year relationship long-contained would not be denied. Spasms crushed his spine into a foetal crouch like an orange in the grip of an unruly child, his eyelids distending at the flood of holidays, nights-in, nights-out, time together, anniversaries, parties and blissful hours of nothing together. Every droplet was a mirror, a crystal, reflecting around the curvature of time – if, indeed, time even existed here – to show smiles over drinks and laughter on sofas. But to see one memory, even through bleary, teary eyes, brought a dozen more, and to see the happy times instinctively brought the unhappy ones to the surface.
He tried to screw his eyes as tightly shut as possible. He squeezed so hard he was sure that his eyelids became seamless, a watertight plaster to seal up the onrush. He could feel them, a final hellish year where the drinks had been many and the smiles few, and the sofa had grown not long enough for the both of them. They threatened to crush his eyes, or burst their lids, but he could not bare to have the besuited man witness them.
They were private, personal, and so very damning.
When he finally managed to reopen his eyes, the besuited man was as impassive as only the faceless can be. But he was watching, that much was obvious, and his blind gaze didn’t miss a single detail. Especially the after-image still lingering in the corner of his eye. A man, tall and insufferably handsome, and a woman, happier than she’d been in months, walking along the street, passing him without a single iota of awareness, turning the corner to leave him alone at his table with his coffee.
The necklace was in the besuited man’s hand once more. He let it dangle from a cold leather finger for a moment before he let it slip. When it hit the floor, it was not the pristine blankness of the white room it bounced upon, but the distinctly dirty, off-white of his sock drawer’s contents. A second gloved hand, attached to a second besuited man, brought it up to be inspected by a second smudged face. The cuff of his suit was tugged back, but there was no ruffling in the flat fabric, as if he was meant to see the watch upon the investigator’s wrist. The time spelled out in lines of bloody red made little sense in the white room, but he knew that this was after the corpse. After the finding. After they had noticed the necklace’s absence.
The table was gone, and the besuited man wasn’t sitting any more. Neither was he. They were face-to-face, or rather face-to-smudge, but the longer he stared the less it seemed to be something as clumsy as a smudge. It whorled and spun, a black hole at the centre of the white room. He could feel it tugging at the lines along his cheeks, threatening to prolapse the bags around his eyes, tear his entire face off to better study the interplay of muscles beneath as he inevitably denied the silent accusation that hung again from his leather fingertip. There would be nothing left untouched by the besuited man’s devouring mind; it was going to consume and understand until the truth was the only thing left lying on the ground like bones after the vultures.
He rallied, or tried to manage some semblance of the next best thing in the face of the unrelenting demand before him. If the besuited man wanted his face gone to better vivisect what hid beneath, he could have it. But it wasn’t muscle waiting for that singularity-intellect, just another face. The face of a man half glimpsed by eyes too busy staring at someone else from the window of a coffee shop. And an alien hand jamming the necklace between the rolled-up socks.
The besuited man did not accept that. He grabbed the arms of the chair, dragged himself closer. The vortex pulled harder, insistent that there was more beneath. And of course there was: bone and blood and the meat of the matter, but the face remained stretched over it all. Half-formed and half-remembered, lumpy like a clay pot halfway through fabrication. But the lumps grew red, welting and suppurating with uniform, heart-shaped wounds. If the memories had burned his own face, surely, surely, the besuited man had to believe that the last vestige of them would burn this new man’s too. Like sleeping in the mattress indentation of another person.
The besuited man remained unmoving and unmoved. His Charybdian facial feature heaved, a fragment of some previously-consumed, still-digesting fact surfacing for a moment amidst the bottomless tides. Another man’s face, that man’s face, fully formed and perfectly reflecting his own. Reflecting it right down to the same defence.
It was not enough. The besuited man still hungered, yawning wider, shaking him down to his core with an echoing bellow for more. So that’s what he gave his interrogator. He returned to that sunlit churchyard and stripped himself down to his muscles, pulling aside the gory slabs to show the besuited man just how hard his heart had beat for her. How every fibre from his fingers to his toes had quivered as he put his hands around her neck. The razor-sharp memory of his mouth moving, forming those three little letters everyone wants to hear.
He forced those memories down the besuited man’s throat. The bastard could choke on them. And with them, trailing like indigestion and heartburn, came all the thwarted hopes and dreams he’d had for them. White dresses and two-point-five kids and a house with a garage. All the things they might have been, had they not fallen apart, had she not-
And there he stopped, snatched himself back, gripped his seat and sealed everything in once again. He wanted to remember only the good times. He wanted the besuited man to remember him remembering only the good times.
Whether satiated, or simply aware he would consume no more that evening, the besuited man’s vortex grew shallow, slowed its swirling, until it was once more a consistently flat smudge across his face. He adjusted his suit and there was a chair waiting for him as he sat back down. There was a feeling of finality to his posture, chin held pensively in the crook of his hand, side turned towards his subject as if he had already been dispensed with – codified and classified within whatever twisted library of stolen thoughts lurked behind the facade of that smudge.
The white room grew whiter, blurring and then dissolving the chair and his own then-body. The only thing that remained was the besuited man, his own body twisting beneath the all-encroaching light until, like his face, it was only a monolithic smear in an otherwise empty void. It would remain there, he knew. Thinking, waiting and watching.