That day the cough started was the same day the first black spots appeared. Celeste didn’t draw any connection between the two events because the spots weren’t noticeable at first; two were the size of pencil dots, near the interior of the underside of her left wrist, and one was behind her right ear, at the tip of the cartilage. But the cough was blatant in its arrival, loud and so wet droplets of spittle landed on her arm and hand when she tried to cover her mouth. She might have called into work sick, if it weren’t for her mortgage and mountain of credit card debt and the lack of anything substantial in her bank account. Things being what they were, and her paycheck being what it wasn’t, a sick day simply wasn’t something Celeste could afford, so she dragged herself up out of bed and walked with heavy legs to the shower that she turned to scalding in an effort to clear her lungs.
Showered and with her long brown hair tied back neatly in a ponytail, Celeste slipped on her faded black work uniform and an apron and headed to the diner that she both hated and needed. With her hands jammed into the pockets of her puffy green coat, she ducked her head against the brutally cold wind as she walked. Fat white flakes of snow drifted from the sky and peppered her dark hair with winter delight. As she pushed the door with the “Welcome to Simon’s” sign and a bright red Christmas bow on the front, the scent and feel of grease assaulted her senses. No more had she walked in and removed her coat than she could feel it in the air, sticking to her skin. She grabbed her pad and pen to walk over and take her first order of the day, stopping twice to cough into her elbow. Catching her breath, Celeste detected a faint wheeze in her chest.
A week after the cough began, Celeste had a fever and more spots had sprouted, though so clandestine were they in their appearance she was able to tell herself they had always been there, yes, she remembered, those three spots on her knee had been there since childhood, she was certain. When they began to creep up her neck and onto her face, she noted people looking at her oddly when she was out and about. In retaliation, Celeste muttered obscenities at the mirror while she applied more foundation and face powder. She vigorously rubbed chapstick on lips so dry they had begun to crack and smiled at her reflection. Something seemed not quite right, but she wasn’t able to put a finger on it. The cough was so brutal at times it left her breathless, and she determined if, after another week, it hadn’t settled down, she would see the doctor.
Celeste was in the kitchen heating soup on the stove when she first noticed the large splatter of black on the wall above the sink. It felt mushy to her finger when she pressed it, soft but full. Various attempts at scrubbing the stain with different cleaners yielded no results, and after awhile Celeste became so used to the sight of it, she left it alone. Besides, her energy was all but drained and most days she felt as motivated as a worn, limp dishrag. The fever had become her constant companion, and the cough had morphed into a living thing, controlling Celeste’s body in a way that seemed unimaginable. The cough determined when she would eat and sleep, when she could work and when she would not be able to drag herself up from the bed. She had developed an unquenchable thirst that sometimes came upon her so abruptly she felt utterly panicked and dry, which is when she started drinking again.
Three years and two months sober, and she shook as she counted out dollar bills and quarters for the cashier at the corner store. The paper sack of alcohol was heavy and she struggled to carry it by herself to her car. Her work shift at Simon’s had started two hours ago, and Celeste wondered briefly who they’d gotten to cover it. A cold wind blew stringy brown hair into her face and she swatted at it as she balanced the sack of liquid anesthetic against the car, and then fumbled in her pocked for the keys to unlock it. The drive home was blessedly short, though she worried the entire way and continuously flicked nervous glances in the rearview and side mirrors. Once home, she carried her bounty in through the back door.
Celeste didn’t bother pouring the vodka into any fancy receptacle; instead, she wrapped herself in two fat comforters on the couch, turned the television to a channel she favored and drank straight from the bottle. Guilt over her failed sobriety lessened as the sensation of falling through warm honey overtook her. Celeste stared at the wall behind the television and watched through a drunken haze as black creeped up the once-white paint that had been slightly yellowed by cigarette smoke. She blinked slowly as the darkness began to run upward and felt a cold pierce of fear at the sight. Fatigue enveloped her as the rattle in her lungs became more and more audible. Another coughing fit attacked her and she held the side of the couch for comfort as it burned her chest and throat and caused her exhausted abdominal muscles to spasm. Celeste covered her mouth with her hand as the harsh, barking sounds erupted. Once the cough had settled to a mere whimper she pulled her hand back and looked at the blackness that had covered her palm and fingers. She shoved her hand beneath the blankets and squeezed her eyes shut until she escaped into a nightmare infested slumber.
Celeste dreamed of drowning in thick, black water.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to work. Fogginess muddied her thoughts and her vision, and when Celeste attempted any sort of movement, she found her limbs felt so weighted the effort was wasted. Misery etched into her skin like shards of glass and she wanted to weep with the pain of it, but tears would not come. The cough had hold of her entire body now: every thought, every action was related to the hacking, wheezing beast. It filled her up with its poison and she could taste the evil of it on her tongue. Her only recourse was to continue the consistent dribble of alcohol down her burning throat, and she welcomed the partial sense of sedation this action brought. The black had spread until it covered all of the walls in the house, and had begun to crawl across the carpet like fuzzy, creeping moss.
Celeste knew it wasn’t right, the blackness. But it seemed suitable, somehow. It felt like… home.
She reached toward the floor and curled her fingers around the cool glass neck of the bottle, languidly bringing it up to her dry lips. Closing her eyes as the liquid burned its way down her throat, Celeste dug her elbows into the couch cushion in an attempt to drag herself to a sitting position. Despite her effort, her deadened legs refused to move. She tried it again, hot drops of sweat beading across her forehead and dripping down her face with the struggle. Celeste coughed; a hoarse, barking sound that rattled in her brain, echoing in her ears. Weakened arms like limp spaghetti reached down, fingers gripping into the cold, wasted pale flesh of her thighs; digging, squeezing, trying to force the legs up, concentrating on bending her knees, to no avail. She dragged a thick, rasping breath through congested lungs, and tried again. No movement. Black and bloody spittle dripped from her nose and mouth as she continued to struggle, grabbing her thighs tighter, reaching deeper until she felt the curve of muscle as her thigh narrowed to the knee. And she felt something else – a thick, viscous residue that at first tickled her fingertips, but then began to sting, a hot shooting strike of lightning up each finger, into her hands and arms, paralyzing those limbs. Sickness boiled in her gut, lurching, heaving; bile rose up her throat and washed across her parched tongue, heated waves rolling softly up on a sandy shore.
Lucidity fought through the fogginess in her mind; strikes of bright light slicing through the muddy haze and she recognized with horror the upward creep of darkness that had overtaken the blanket, effectively suturing her between the fabric of the couch and the quilt above her. Heavy black webbing bound her, wrapping around her body, tightening about her chest in a miserable vice. The unbearable weight of it was crushing.
Celeste opened her mouth to scream, but the cough swallowed it whole.