Lauren du Plessis
Store Me in a Cool, Dark Place
Louise Cavendish, wet preparation, that’s what her label would read. Lou’s champagne-pale reflection stares back from the syrup, unlaughing. Her foot hovers, moon-luminous, over the tank. It’s silly, because there’s nothing out here worth hesitating for. Air whistles through her teeth, like she’s stepping into a hotel pool after sauna heat. One toe at a time. It’s eerie, lukewarm. She eases down from the ladder, and stands on the wide step before the deep. This was an afterthought in the design: she’s in no hurry to leave again.
As the concoction reaches waist-height, a two year-old memory bobs like a jewel of body oil on bathwater. Just before the world changed, Lou met Charlotte and Emily for a much-needed spa day at The Grand. After a swim and massages, she noted their voucher included thirty minutes in the sensory deprivation pod: a silver pill that might shoot them to Mars. It was only on Emily’s dare that she clambered in. Darkness closed over, under, everywhere. She squealed, then fell silent. Something whispered through her fibres. Flirted with her soul for what felt like hours. When the lid opened, she blinked several times before finding her lips and a quip about twee spiritual enlightenment. They all giggled. Reality snapped back into place like a bag buckle. But when the others toasted the future with prosecco later that day, the whisper tickled Lou’s ear. It wanted her back. The beginning of a love story.
Now, she smiles and slides petrol-smooth to the edge of the step. A final check of the air filter. A tightening of the mask. Then, freedom. Surface tension suspends her, embryonic, floating towards the centre of the tank. The dark is waiting here. She pushes her head below.
Of course, had the lockdowns not happened, Lou’s romance with nothingness might never have gone beyond the pod. Back then, she had a wholesome, stable relationship with life. The museum overflowed with tourists. Front of house, in a pressed red dress, she was in charge of directing lost souls and displaying interesting jars to lure others in. It never occurred to her to join the ten thousand specimens they preserved so well you could see tiny claws and delicate alveoli. Instead, there were guards to chatter with, and sun that beamed down from the atrium onto her skin.
Will she feel it again? For just a moment her legs kick, panicked, and she’s touching her face and feeling her realness. She’s remembering sunshine, chocolate, beach reads, paychecks, sex. But the solution is too viscous to fight for long. Besides, all that goodness was simply a honeymoon phase. The truth came out, didn’t it? When she was banished home and saw the real nature of the world through the unnatural blue of a screen. When she had to work in the storeroom in PPE, labelling rather than talking. When she began to envy the little creatures, and found herself dipping her fingers into chemicals like kisses.
Surrender. This is better. Her limbs drift gently downwards and her fingers stir the solution. So gently. This would not have been possible had she stuck with formaldehyde, of course. Those early potions burned hives and welts on her skin, requiring a week’s wage of aloe vera to heal. She tinkered with the mixture for months—stole from the storeroom with a smile and wink above her mask—and the other employees were so relieved to see another face they never questioned. Junior researchers sought her out for banter that took the edge off the death tolls. They said things like, “I’m swamped”, and she said, “how'd you think that kitten foetus feels.” And all the time, she stared at the kittens and wondered herself. The elixir was perfect by December: a precious balance of formalin, minerals, and pricey salts from an Instagram ad. She took two-hour baths each night, and her skin glowed like bioluminescence.
Brighter now, even as the cold sets in. No hands and feet, they’re gone. Initial preservation will take a few days. Once complete, a lever will trigger the alcohol level to climb until it reaches an optimum. Equilibrium, numb and safe, untouched by a world that wants to suck her dry. No more. She will stay plump with energy and moisture, indefinitely. Her thoughts fray at the edges. The nothing is eating her up, at last. She missed it so much. The last memory is a soft vignette of lentil and split-pea stew on a Tuesday evening in January. Cooking for yourself had become de rigueur online, so long as you photographed the process. The phone rang as a pan of water boiled.
“The museum, Lou. It’s closing. I’m sorry. We can’t go on without the funding.” She ended the call without a goodbye and picked up the lentil pack. Years, they’d been in her cupboard. Years, she’d worked at the museum. She read the label aloud. "Store me in a cool, dark place.”
There it was, the whisper, now a shout. She negotiated the sale of her flat with a city-hungry couple, and moved here, to the dim cottage in nowhere-town on the border. She so needed to get away—that’s the story everyone heard. They gradually accepted it as one of her more extravagant impulses. She didn’t tell them about the cellar, or the bulk order of Perspex, industrial chemicals, and a tool kit.
Her heart softens, slows. Enough that her senses bubble away to a smooth brine, a divine emptiness. She is done remembering. No reports, no statistics, no faking, no thought. Only the sweet nothing’s embrace, and the soothing rhythm of life. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
About the Author
Lauren du Plessis is a writer based in a patch of bluebells in the British countryside. Her short stories have appeared in Menacing Hedge, Shooter, and Litro Online. She writes about chaotic minds and transforming bodies, and is currently working on her first novel. (laurenduplessis.com)