by James McGirk
You never look directly at the face. Catch only glimpses of it and those glimpses are ever changing. One moment he is a she. The next there is a hissing void where a face should be. The only constant is an hourglass that hangs above its pillow, a cartoonish thing with the year 2011 stamped on one side and only five grains remaining and one of those grains is about to fall.
The patient is dying, that much is clear; fugues of stroboscopic flickers consume the body like a florescent light bar about to sputter out. He or she or whatever it is reaches for you and the flesh of its hand is mottled and moving, seven billion pixels buzzing, dots of different shades of brown that pale slightly at its northern extremities. A grain slips through the tip of the timer’s cone to fall among its three hundred and sixty brethren below. Only four remain.
He opens his mouth and static rushes out, a wave of white noise cascades around you and tumbles apart into twitter feeds and crumpled newspaper and television signals and radio waves; and it tries again, fills its lungs beneath its strange cloak – a garment that is mostly rotten rags and plain cotton but woven with silk thread and buttoned with diamond chips – and wheezes out the words, “There is still time.” You take in the detritus discarded beneath its bed; a layer of tinsel, the Chanukah candles melted down to nubs just below, the gnawed drumstick, the soggy firecrackers and drooping birthday hats wonder what could possibly surprise you after this.
A second grain tumbles through the timer. A new form shudders into view. This new manifestation contains larger pieces than its previous form, two hundred and four of them, some enormous, encompassing entire organs, others covering only sliver of nail. The face is a jagged diamond – flat on top with a gnarled bottom that is almost a beard. One facet is a black, another red, the third white, while its mouth is a green triangle that falls open to a smile that widens and splits its face into two pieces, and as you watch, the southern, bearded half blossoms into a new color scheme: a blue triangle, its expression squeezed into a yellow star.
The third grain drops. You catch whiffs of gunsmoke and your eyes tear up as you inhale puffs of riot gas. Angry green boils erupt all over the patient's body. Even the shards that seemed the most stolid appear inflamed with activity. Seven red elephants stare up at a blue donkey with bat-like ears and they bare their tusks before stampeding toward one another. The patchwork skin begins to bubble and melt away, in the spots where it seemed the most solid, it sags and rots and tears open. Beneath the carapace there is mostly emptiness. But the space crisscrossed by thin wires, some crackling with sparks; others simply hanging, little strings of tinsel, gold and silver and bubbling veins of black crude.
The patient winks out of existence and in his place you catch sight of a howling hollow crowded with people. Some you recognize. A tyrant clutches his bloody buttocks, a terrorist mastermind and a despot murmur and plot as a tech tycoon in a turtleneck stands beside legions of Japanese who glow despite the absence of light and a violet-eyed movie star who winks her doubled rows of lashes. Then the void fills and you can see them no more. In its place you see nothing at first only the color red until that coagulates too, into a mass of squirming babies then back into a single human being – of a sort.
Another grain wobbles and falls through. The patient hiccups and coughs and is again an old man lying on a bed. Only a single grain remains in the timer. His breathing is rough. There are flecks of foam at the corners of his mouth. His chest barely rises and falls. He tries to speak again but his body shudders and he can’t form the words. He kicks his blankets loose and opens his mouth and you can see his gummy pink innards and you think of your own, think of all the thoughts that oozed through your head, the things unuttered, the unsayable things secreted, a year’s worth of dreams, fantasies and eruptions of hate, greed and lust all compressed into a silent scream.
And then the last grain rolls toward the hole, and the body begins to crumple and you watch it coalesce smaller and smaller until it is a single spot of brown and then even that gets smaller and smaller until an instant before it disappears entirely the last grain begins to drop and you hear the pop of champagne corks and someone begins to sing Auld Lang Syne and there is a tiny dot of light where the patient disappeared and it’s growing. And the timer has turned and the label now reads 2012.