Start with the eyes. Forget the way they sink back into their sockets like shipwrecks, the way her clouded pupils mushroom toward the sapphire horizon of her irises. Don’t look. Concentrate. Inhale the caustic odour of bleach-scrubbed tile. Hear the drone of the exhaust fan behind you. Grip the burnished stainless steel table. Tighter. Don’t slip away. Don’t—
—let go. You tread water. Your legs are lead weights. The current coils around your hips, your arms, your throat, and drags you beneath the surface. You pound your fist into the waves. Foaming crests leap overhead and maul your face like a rabid dog. Keep going. Just—
—focus. Pack the sockets with gel-soaked cotton and place ridged caps like coins over her eyes. Pinch the lids together with a seam of glue. Next, the mouth.
Leave the injector gun; you need to do this right. Pick up the needle. Use the black string. Pull her jaw open and puncture the base of her bruised, swollen tongue. Push the needle through the digastric muscle between her chin and throat and thread it back through the exit point. Scrape the suture along the lower jaw and out in front of her bottom teeth. Wind the wire around your index fingers and slice through the soft tissue of her gum until you hit bone.
Place your palm beneath her jaw and push. Harder, until the oral cavity clamps shut. Drop your mask. Take a deep breath. Okay, keep going. Peel back her upper lip and puncture the maxilla. Steer the needle into her nasal cavity and through the septum. Hold the mandible in place, gather the string, and—
—pull. Pull. Again. And again. Water pummels your ears and spills over her prone body. You hook your arm around her chest and kick your legs against the current. The tide beats back, relentless, inexorable, tugging you further out. Don’t—
—stop. It’s only a dream. A nightmare. Clench your fists. Your hands are shaking. That’s it. Squeeze and stretch. Squeeze and stretch. Take the scalpel. Prick its razor-sharp edge into your thumb. Stay with me.
Slash a small incision across her neck. Incise the artery and slide a cannula towards her heart. Insert a drain tube into her jugular and tighten the ligatures. Good. Now switch on the machine. Tip formaldehyde mixture into the reservoir and watch the fluid pulse around her vascular system. See her veins bulge and her flesh flush with coloured dye as blood spurts and spirals into the waste sink.
Wait. Massage her limbs. Make sure the carcinogenic cocktail runs through her entire body until the blood thins and runs clear. Okay, turn off the cylinder. Take the tubes out and close the vessels. Suture the incision and move on.
Cut the skin above her naval and plunge the trocar into her abdomen. Puncture the internal organs one by one like you’re a kid at a birthday party stamping balloons. Kidney—pop. Spleen—pop. Bladder—pop. Bowels—pop-pop. Suck out every drop of putrid liquefied decay. Connect the trocar to another gallon of formaldehyde solution. Pierce the organs again and fill the body with fluid. Done. Now pack the incision and sew it shut with a baseball stitch. Tight, precise, invisible.
Step back. Take a moment to admire your work. You could almost believe she’s asleep. You could lie next to her, huddle into the curved comfort of her shape, cup her hand into yours and close your eyes. You—
—can’t take her weight. You dip under the water and snatch her hand as it drifts away. You dive, pull her towards you, and hold her until your head spins and your throat spasms; until you can no longer—
—think. This isn’t her. Where’s the butterfly birthmark on her thigh? The shallow dimple nipped into her cheek? The single freckle in the centre of her wrist? Look. See. She isn’t her.
Bathe her with disinfectant and sponge away the remnants of blood and chemicals. Remove any sign of death. Wash and dry her hair. Keep the curls loose and layered. Natural. Now the nails. File, polish, paint. No colour, use the clear varnish. Buff them until they shine. Finally, the makeup. Use the airbrush. Not too much, just a hint, enough to mask the sores and abrasions on her face, neck, and hands. Open the hot chocolate powder and paint the canvas of her skin with crescents of contoured shadows.
Cover her body. Perfect. A work of art.
Don’t look at her. Walk away. Don’t scoop the stray golden ringlet from her cheek. Don’t lean in and inhale her coconut scent.
Don’t press your lips to hers. She—
—slips away from you like a whisper. The swollen surface bursts like a blister as you emerge and gasp for air. You dip your face into the water and see her shimmering silhouette spread like sin beneath you and dissolve into darkness. You should turn around and swim for your life, but all you can do is lie capsized in the water, licked by the rolling tongue of the tide. You let the ocean carry you away until all that remains is the sea and the sky pressed together like a kiss—
—and the bright bluish infinity between.