This story also appears in WHAT THE #@&% IS THAT? edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen. Available Nov. 1, 2016 from Saga Press.
When she comes into the loft, she glares at me with the bright-eyed, serpentine resentment of the dead. In the dry attic, water drips from her hair and pools at her feet. Her lips pull back. I’d forgotten that I used to grimace like that—teeth bared like an animal’s.
I’m not her and she isn’t me. When I say “I,” I might mean either one of us, but that’s not precise. I have no past, so I took her memories. I have no name, so I took her name. I had no body, but I have hers now, and she’s the one languishing in a puddle, snarling, hungry and hating.
She went by R. I go by R. R names us both.
I’m still sorting things out.
• • • •
This is a murder story. It’s the story of how I killed myself.
• • • •
A memory, before I made these memories mine:
I walked into a life drawing class and there she was, Selene—more comfortable in her naked skin than I was in my jeans and bomber jacket. She sat on a table in the center of the room. Her legs were held tensely together, but her shoulders were relaxed. She sat with her head thrown back so that I could see the foreshortened lines of her face: the way the point of her chin angled up to her cheekbones, the flash and flutter of reddish lashes over hazel eyes.
After class ended, she shrugged into a robe and walked a circuit of the easels as the students packed their things. I tried not to watch as she made her way past one sketch and then another, but even with my focus firmly on my charcoal pencils, I knew the instant she neared. I held my breath until she approached me. Or possibly it happened in reverse; she began to approach and nervousness stole my breath.
My lines were clumsy and architectural, slicing Selene’s figure into angular planes. I’d used a gray stripe to replicate the slant of illumination that the skylight cast across her. I wanted to capture something of the building we were in, its mood if not its essence: the old walls, the clouded glass windows, the crown molding that belonged in a more prestigious university.
None of my angles were as sharp as Selene’s. Standing there, she looked like a brass detail. Hard-edged and honed.
Without speaking, she put out her thumb and smeared the charcoal under the triangle I’d drawn for her left breast. She worked the smudge down the line of her stomach and hip, blending my lines into effortless chiaroscuro.
One gesture and the meaning of the work changed. Object became artist. “There,” she said with a nod.
She gave me a stare edged with challenge. She was prodding me, I thought, seeing if I would just let her get away with the casual violation of my page. Part of me wanted to meet her gaze with equal strength, to assert that even though she was the one who’d initiated contact, I was still equally in control. The bulk of me, however—the part that was nineteen and unsure—barely managed to meet her gaze at all.
“You’ve caught something real, I think,” she said. “I’m Selene.”
“R,” I said automatically. “I go by R.”
“For… Rebecca? Roseanne? Radioactive?”
R for “Are you going to stop asking me that?” I would have said to someone else. “Just R.” As an afterthought, I stuck out my hand.
She glanced at it; shook her head. “Left-handed.”
I switched immediately. She took my left hand and held it hard, leaving a smear of charcoal over my wrist.
Someone told me once that wedding rings go on the left hand because it’s the most direct arterial path to the heart. I’ve read that slitting the wrists kills you because the hands are hungry for blood: all that fine motor control, fed by little capillaries, drinks a mortal quantity. I used to rest my fingers on my pulse point as a child, to experience the thrill of my own fragility. I’d scare myself with the thought that I’d crush my arteries if I pressed too hard.
That childhood obsession left me with a few odd tics. I always needed to be able to see my wrists, to know my blood was safe. I couldn’t stick my hands into dark places or opaque containers. I needed clarity.
“You remind me of someone,” Selene said. “Coffee?”
“I don’t—” I started, then I said, “Sure.”
Whether it was because of her confidence, or the aphrodisiac of art, or the ghost sensation of her fingers on my skin, I took a chance on her. I took a chance in the café a block away from campus, sitting beside her on a worn red leather loveseat, inhaling the smoke embedded in the walls. She took her coffee black, and I scanned the menu for a drink I could see through, all the way to the bottom.
She pushed a napkin and pencil in my direction. “I like your style,” she lied. “Draw for me.”
• • • •
I call it a memory from before my time, but is it?
Memory, they say, is more like notes scribbled in a journal than a video recorded for playback. One part of the brain jots notes in shorthand and leaves them behind. Later, in the process of recall, another part of the mind reads the notes and constructs a scene to fit them, conjuring or editing details at its convenience.
If I trawl her mind (my mind) for notes written long ago, and then turn them over to my mind (her mind) to be staged as vignettes, whose memories are they? Do they belong to her, who drew the original charcoal strokes, whose wrist really trembled beneath Selene’s touch? Or to me, who, for all I know, could have confabulated that grand old hall to replace a real, unromantic, cramped classroom?
Everyone’s brain is a liar. Mine (hers, mine) is more duplicitous than most.
• • • •
This is a ghost story. Did I say that?
No. It’s a love story. But all love stories become ghost stories if you watch them long enough.
• • • •
James’s footsteps pound on the stair and I look up in time to see him leaning over the railing. “Hey sweet,” he says with a leer. “How about making me some coffee?”
“Sure,” I say.
I don’t ask how he takes it. James is predictable. That’s why he tells me anyway.
“Black as the devil,” he says, drawing his eyes up and down my skin. “And hot as hell.”
That girl, who called herself R and vanished years ago, wouldn’t have liked this any more than I do. She told the world to fuck off with her bomber jacket and shit-kicking boots.
Me, I wrap my chest in compression bandages, buy baggy T-shirts that come in plastic-wrapped three-packs, and wear my loose painter’s jeans from the days I did house-painting for cash. First things I did in this body were crop my hair short and throw away her long-lasting mascara.
All that, and James still pushes his eyes into me, still has to remind me that under all my clothing is a body he wants to control.
Likes to brag, James. Likes to brag about how many lesbians he’s fucked. How they dance a different jig once they’ve had a ride on his cock carousel. All talk. I’ve seen him pick a girl I know he’s never seen before and spin a tale for his buddies about how he pushed her against the bed and made her beg. Four shots and he’ll brag about me even when I’m in the room. This black maid girl living in the house? Suh-weet, isn’t she? Bro, lemme tell you. You don’t even know.
Free rent is free rent, even from a douche.
I go into the kitchen and displace the morning’s dishes from the counter to the sink. The coffee pot has yesterday’s dregs in it and I don’t care enough about James’ comfort to rinse them out. I just dump out the old grounds and dump in the new, toss a couple of mugs’ worth of water into the tank, and jab the thing on. The maker pisses black. It’s as dark as Selene’s coffee, but bitter. I imagine both of them drinking down the impenetrable murk. Anything could be hiding there, sliding anonymously into their stomachs, invading their organs, their skins.
James is sitting at the coffee table when I return. “Hey, take a look at this,” he says, and turns his laptop so I can see the screen.
A woodcut of the devil stares back at me, grin ghastly in oil-slick skin. Naked witches cavort around him. His huge erection casts a shadow the length of a witch’s arm.
“Black as the devil,” he repeats. His gaze trails me, searching for signs he’s made me uncomfortable. He glances down at the devil’s enormous cock and then back at me again, hoping to see me flinch.
I put the mug down beside him. “Coffee.” I turn back toward the kitchen. He yells something after me and laughs, but I don’t bother to make it out.
Take a goddamn joke, why don’t you, he probably said.
Or, Do you fuck your girlfriend with a strap-on that size?
Or, Come sit in my lap and I’ll show you my devil.
The black liquid that remains in the coffee maker roils as if something is swimming through it. A woman’s hand, I think, and imagine I can see fingers breaking through the surface, her old pulse still hidden in the dark.
• • • •
Memories of Selene:
Starving artist, thinned to the bone, a beauty of fragile and skeletal proportions. She was an apprentice tattoo artist. While everyone else in the shop wore leather and torn denim, she dressed in scarves and diaphanous skirts, and wore her hair waist-length. Unless you slid your hand along that smooth forearm, nudged the lacy sleeve upward to reveal the iron of her bicep, you’d never know she had the strength to hold a tattoo gun for an hour.
Tattooed on her inner right thigh: a serpent.
On her inner left: a devil.
Between, she was Eve, tempted and temptation.
She could open me up like a gate with fingertips that had been trained to a needle’s precision. She drew pleasure in shapes I imagined as the tattoos I’d seen from her sketches: coiled dragons, cherry blossoms, angel’s wings.
When she wrapped herself around me, I imagined she was the boa of her ink, all smooth skin and constricting muscle. A woman like that unhinges her jaw and swallows you down.
“I,” Selene would whisper, “can take you places you’ve never been before.”
I was too robbed of breath to whisper back, You wouldn’t understand the places I’ve been.
• • • •
Memories. Not entirely mine:
I used to have dreams. Cocooned in blankets like a spider’s brood, I dreamed of the entryway, the basement, the overgrown hedges in the yard.
The house where I grew up was palatial. Four stories of niches and hideaways and secret treasures and doors I could never remember. But it was a demon-haunted palace, with windows that admitted the arid night, and dust that had resided there for generations, and the growling of a furnace that could no longer keep the building warm.
In the basement, one whole wall was dominated by the painting of a train tunnel. Garish ambient light sparked across the tracks. The hint of a vast shape lurked in the far, dark distance.
If I wedged my hand behind the frame and felt behind the painting, I could locate a handle that pulled the whole wall aside, revealing a space behind it as large as a warehouse. It was populated by forgotten things: rocking horses and broken dollhouses, old claw-footed bed tables and rolled-up rugs.
Water—stale and clouded with mud—pressed down on the room, threatening to rupture the walls and drown everything. Somewhere, that vast and vague presence from the painting swam through it, always moving nearer.
A dream, I think: impossible, set against the reality of plots of land and blueprints. And how could I have watched my hand disappear beneath the frame as I searched for the switch? I, who couldn’t even drink tea?
Still, I have more memories there than of most real places.
• • • •
A memory that isn’t:
Waiting on the outside, listening through the water, pushing nothingness through nothingness, feeling and seeing only the forward, only the toward.
• • • •
When the brain senses a void, it struggles to fill it. Where there are no shorthands for memories, it will jot some, and then forget their authorship, aver their authenticity.
Do I remember water and waiting?
I may be wrong.
• • • •
Now, in the kitchen:
James comes down with his heavy tread. “Jesus Christ. Might as well be eating out of a toilet for all the shit lying around.”
He picks up a bowl I haven’t yet moved from the counter and throws it into the sink so hard that the pile of dishes beneath it jumps. I keep my attention on the even sweep of the broom across the tile.
I like having a broom handle in my grip when James comes through. He likes to scare people. Best to put him in his place.
A girl comes out of the game room in the back. She was there for the party last night, one of the ones who’s always there at the parties. The red glaze in her eyes implies she was probably too drunk to drive home. She goes for the purse lying on a barstool. James catches her wrist and presses her against the wall, holding her there with the full weight of his body. He laughs as she tries to push him off. She complains about the smell of his cologne and how she’s got to be somewhere and he just stands there. Even when she giggles and tries to play it off as a joke, he keeps her pinned, until she finally droops.
He presses harder just for a second before he lets up. “There you go, Linds.”
She rubs her wrist. “Thanks.”
He has never done that to me.
He will never do that to me.
Lindsay starts opening random kitchen cabinets in search of a coffee mug. No matter that she was in a hurry to leave the house while James was holding her, she pauses to wrinkle her nose at the work I’m doing. “She’s really your maid?” she asks, flashing a look at James.
“Yes, ma’am,” James says with a put-on Southern accent.
“Like, she has to do all her chores, or you’ll spank her?”
James’ grin widens, but he’s not drunk enough to answer with a bald lie. His sober self knows just enough to be wary of me and my broom handle.
Both of them are watching me to see if I’ll get upset, but I keep on sweeping with perfect measure.
Lindsay says, in a voice as sweet and malicious as a drugged daiquiri, “Think you’ll get all that done?”
“I finish my work,” I say. And I will.
The deal was light housekeeping, cooking dinners, and handling the administrative business of the house—intercepting calls from the landlord, scheduling service and maintenance—and I could live in the unfurnished attic and use it as my studio for a while. The deal didn’t include the seven parties James had thrown this month. Didn’t include his insults and humiliation. Didn’t include picking up the panties of the girls he’d bullied into having sex with him, and listening to his trash talk the morning after.
James and Lindsay head out. When the sweeping’s done, I open the corner cabinet and regard my supply of mason jars filled with vinegar. If James asked, I’d say they were natural cleaners. They are, too—I keep a piece of citrus or a sweet-smelling herb in each one to make the rooms smell good after scrubbing. But their real purpose is to camouflage the outlaw jar I hide behind them, the one crammed with habanero. James would notice the smell if he shoved his nose into the cabinet, but that’s one thing I know he’ll never do. He might pry into every other aspect of my personal life, but cleaning is beneath him.
I take the moment of freedom from James’ gaze to go out into the summer sun, squinting against the glass-sharp shards of light tossed at me by the pool. A careless excess in the local drought, but James is like that. Today there’s a shadow occluding the turquoise, and I think of the painting of the distant train, and the water pressing on the secret basement room, and what it was like to float and listen. I shade my eyes with my hand and return inside to get away from shadows that don’t belong.
• • • •
Late night, in the bathroom, walking in on Selene as she gazed, red-eyed and insomniac, into the mirror. “What is it?” I asked, ready to step in, to save her. That was always my mistake: thinking I could save anyone.
She stared into her own eyes. “I don’t know if I can love you anymore,” she said. “I love you. But you make me hate myself. And you refuse to admit that anyone could hate me. You’re so goddamn noble I can’t fucking breathe.”
Bitter night when she shoved through the door to my one-room apartment, one scarf over her head and another wrapped around her shoulders. Cold swirled behind her as she sneered at the gallery I’d made of my walls with my sketches, sketches, sketches of her.
“You make me too fucking pretty. Stop dolling me up. You’re good enough to make me look real. Stop emulating this bullshit pop-art Photoshop crap.”
She grabbed my hand, which already clutched a charcoal pencil, in the midst of creating another version of her. She forced my fist up, down, sideways, slashing her drawn self until it was black with fury.
Blackout swallowing my apartment, no light but our flickering cell phones. Panting, she came, and then collapsed on top of me, breasts slick with sweat.
Suddenly, like the snake on her thigh, she struck. She jammed her thumb into my neck, almost hard enough to make me choke. “We’d both be better off if you were dead. Just look at you. What good are you if you can’t even see through me?” She leaned close, the lines of her body catching the barely-there light. “What the hell kind of person would lead you on, pretend to love you for so long? You’re a piece of shit to fall for a piece of shit like me.”
Me, swallowing the pain, even as she still pushed on my windpipe.
“Go to hell,” she said when I did nothing. “Go to hell and I’ll follow.”
• • • •
What if hell isn’t a pit of fire and fumes? What if it’s water instead, cold, motionless, and eternally pressing in?
• • • •
I believed—she believed:
Selene’s an addict. A cutter. She burns herself up like a match and throws herself on the ground. I’m stronger than she is. I’m a good person. I can hold her. I can keep her. If I love her enough, all of this will go away.
• • • •
I was once nothing and now I am someone. Let Selene drive herself into frenzy; let James leer and boast; let memories haunt me; let the world’s shit pile up in the kitchen where I can demolish it with my broom. I used to be outside and now I’m in. At the end of the tunnel, there was me.
• • • •
Should clean the windows today, but there’s a free hour when I know James won’t be home. I’ve got to take the time to paint when I can. I can finish the windows after my break.
As I approach the stairs, I feel a sudden tug. I glance upward toward my attic studio, but the pull isn’t coming from there. I take a step toward the descending stairs instead, and there it is, a mental string pulled taut.
I put my foot on the top stair and sudden knowledge swims through me: If I walk the stairs, if I go down into the shadows below, I’ll find the painting from my parents’ house. It will loom over me, orange light grinning over tracks that stretch toward the shadowed leviathan.
Will it smell like old dust and chipped paint and rusting tin toys? Will there be a handle beneath it that will slide away a wall?
No, because I’ve cleaned that basement a hundred times, and it isn’t there. Train tracks don’t go with James’ tits-and-ass décor.
I will not go look.
I take the stairs up to my studio two, three steps at a time. I push open the red-painted door and it slams shut behind me.
James lets me have the attic loft because it’s got no carpet and no insulation, because the window doesn’t open, and because the duct from the air conditioner forgets all about it. It’s too hot and too humid and my paints turn out tacky and are slow to dry, but it’s my space, mine.
My canvasses cover the walls, some hanging unframed, others propped against whatever surfaces I could find. Seen all together, they are a blur of blue and brown, loneliness and perdition.
I’m a better artist than she was. She was always pulling herself in multiple directions: toward the naïve sentimentality that she couldn’t shed, and toward the intellectual abstraction she couldn’t emulate.
I paint what I paint. The swirls, the jaws, the geometries, the realistic figures that shade themselves in when I’m not paying attention, the bloody eyes, the listing trees. I close my eyes and paint nothing I remember.
Today, the paintings stand in half a foot of impossible water. It surges around my feet, but my shoes stay dry even as I kick a sodden clod and watch it break apart and churn away. The air tastes like murk: restless, muddy incipience.
Something is coming.
I try to remember what caused it before, what let me through. I’ve thought on this a hundred times, trying to think of another answer, but there’s only one: it was coalescing death.
I remember the habanero in the kitchen. I note which canvases have frames that I can break down most easily into weapons. I mentally inventory every mirror in the house that could yield dagger shards, every knife in its drawer, every hammer and bat and nail gun.
I will not be the one to die.
• • • •
Standing in the bathroom and staring at the bruise Selene’s thumb left on my throat.
She’s gone this time, really gone. Car missing, phone service dropped, handwriting scrawled across the painting of her that I hung above my bed: Goodbye R, should have killed you, I’m sorry.
I looked into my reflection, bruised and grieving, and I saw
this red-eyed girl
stranger girl’s hands pouring a bath. testing the water to see if it’s warm enough. digging through old drawers until she finds a straight razor. laying the metal on the edge of the tub where it glints under the bathroom’s fluorescents. she gets in without taking off her clothes. she submerges her wrists. the water quickens to match her pulse as
I look down and I can see all the way to the bottom of the tub. This is good water. This is clear water. I pick up the razor from where it lies beside me. I drag it across my wrist—vertically, I’ve done my homework—but my hand is shaking and I know it’s too shallow before I’ve even finished the stroke. Pink spills out and I watch it cloud into the bath, making it red and impenetrable and bad.
The sight of myself disappearing shocks me into doubt and I stare at the razor before moving again and
there, like a switch, behind her eyes. now I see my hand (stranger girl’s hand) aloft with the blade in it. now I feel the warm water squishing into my jeans (stranger girl’s jeans). now I
Two minds suckling at the same senses, two thinkers pouring over the same memories and preoccupations and pain.
Diluted blood washes against our submerged body. Someone says, Help me.
The other, I’ll take over now.
What if people—
They’ll never know.
Can I? the one asks, hesitant, wary. Are you sure?
And the other, Go.
• • • •
Now, in the kitchen:
It’s the only middle ground between the impossible painting in the basement and the impossible flood in the attic. I’m drinking ginger ale. I’m pacing. James is not supposed to be home yet.
He is, though, slamming in like a tidal wave, stinking of liquor. When he catches me in the kitchen, his face goes red to purple. “What the hell are you doing? You think this is what I pay you for? Why the fuck is the house still a garbage pit?”
“I needed a break,” I say.
I am doing the wrong things. I should put down the bottle and get out of his way. I should go clean something, even if it’s already clean, keep him at bay with diligence. I shouldn’t stand here calmly by the sink, sipping my drink as if I’m his equal, entitled to my own time and space.
He gives me that lustful, disdainful up-and-down. This time, there are an extra thousand needles in it. His color goes pinker as he smiles, eyes still hard as pebbles.
“I ran into this chick named Selene today,” he says.
I answer flatly. “Okay.” As if the name doesn’t mean anything to me. As if my gut isn’t turning to ice.
“Lesbian. Smoking hot. She was wearing this see-through top and you could see this tattoo on her tit of a—”
I’m not the one who loved Selene, but the memories are mine. My grip tightens on the bottle. James grins at my tense hands. I’ve shown that he got to me. Now he’ll try to escalate.
“She used to fuck this other chick, called herself R. A black coffee babe. Perfect miniature titties. Good fuck, she said. Crazy fuck.”
I put the bottle on the counter. It’s time to go. I should be in motion; I should be prowling the tracks.
James blocks my way into the hall. “Is R a common name, you think?”
I growl at him. “I need to go up to the attic.”
“I told her, she should see you now. How hot you are when I’ve got you bent over, scrubbing the floor. How I bought you this little French maid costume that goes up to your ass—”
I put my hands on his shoulders and shove. “Get out of my way.”
“You act like you’re too good to fuck anyone. But you sure fucked her.” The anger is back on the surface now, his smile a grimace, his teeth too wide and too white. “You think you’re too good to be a maid? Let me tell you something. No one else is going to hire a black dyke like you. If you’re going to let my house go to shit, you need to come up with another way to pay me.”
For months, I’ve been telling myself, free rent is free rent. He’s a douche. He’s all bluff. Stupid, stupid.
He grabs for my wrist and I duck under his arm. I jump backwards into the kitchen and go for the corner cupboard. He could catch me faster than I could run away, but he thinks he has me trapped.
Mason jars of vinegar clatter as I grab for the one in back. Its lid is loose and ready.
Pepper spray, you can’t use indoors. Tasers, he’d grab me before I could stick him. But this is good capsaicin. James screams like a skinned rabbit when it hits his eyes, the whole hot quart of time-pickled habaneros.
He claws at his face, spreading the capsaicin, only making it worse.
I grab another jar. It’s not more peppers, but he doesn’t know that. “Lie down on the floor,” I say. “I’m going to the attic and I’m going to pack and I’m going to go.” Go. “You’re going to leave me alone. Got it?”
James makes a strangled noise of rage and pain. I make a show of loosening the lid on the new jar.
“On the floor,” I say again. “Now.”
One of us may think he has the guts to kill, but the other actually has. Even though James doesn’t know that, some spark of survival instinct must guess. He lowers himself onto the tile.
• • • •
It wasn’t a bathtub. It was a lake. She walked out in the late fall frost, just before the first snow of the year. It was nighttime which made the waters black, but they were filthy anyway, choked with seaweed and pollution. She wore her shit-kicking boots with their steel toes to help her sink and took one sloshing step into the water and then another until she was buried to the ankle, knee, thigh.
It was a bathtub, but the water was cold, ice cold, and she kept a hairdryer beside it, because she thought it would be artistically beautiful to die as a spark, to make herself into fire and ash. Her hand slid out and her fingers were about to touch the cord.
I’ll take over now.
It was the waters beyond the world, which God once divided into the heaven and the Earth, and we were both swimming, and one of us was a ghost and the other one was in love, and our dirty, muddy thoughts hid us in sinister eddies.
Can I? Are you sure?
It was nothing. It was nowhere. These are all lies from my duplicitous brain. The past is a fracture, the future a mist. Only the waters of the present are certain, but even they are so opaque.
• • • •
I ended what needed ending. Like a surgeon. That’s not the same thing as murder.
I tell myself an awful lot of lies.
• • • •
The attic. Now:
My things disappear into the duffel I came here with, one after another, and I try to ignore the sucking sounds of the mud-water around my dry feet. The paintings won’t fit. I’ll leave them. He always said they were crap. If he doesn’t give them back, he’ll throw them out. I’m not too proud to steal from the garbage. I’ve stolen worse.
Wood creaks, and a wall bows in, and I stumble back just as the flood bursts through. And there she is, the dark shape resolving into my younger self. She’s bloated and discolored as though drowned. Her clothing hangs in wet folds and she reeks of stagnant water, of algae and fish and forgotten things.
Her eyes cast about the room, but it’s perfunctory. When she looks back, she has only eyes for me.
“He’s going to come after you,” she says. “As soon as he talks himself into believing that he’s the big, strong man and you’re the itty bitty girl.”
“So let me pack,” I say, but I stand there, staring at her, not returning to my duffel.
Her eyes want to butcher me and wear my skin, want to steal the air from my lungs and pull it back into hers. “You thought you could do better than me?”
I shrug. It wasn’t a matter of better or worse. I thought there was life for the taking.
“Did anyone miss me? Did anyone even fucking know?”
She blinks, as if she’d forgotten her isolation, her total reliance on the sun that was Selene. “My parents—”
“I didn’t go back.”
“That’s it? You just let everything die?”
No, I don’t say, You let yourself die.
“And what the hell have you done with my life? Who am I now? Who is this jackass you’re living with?”
“Craigslist,” I say. “Free rent.”
She scoffs, a wet, choking noise. “You could have finished college. You could have done things. You could have—” She stops, surveying the room again, taking in the paintings this time with her expressions darkening. “What shit is this?”
“You made art,” I say. “So do I.”
This reference to continuity doesn’t seem to appease her. It’s clear that she disagrees with my assessment of our relative talents. What did she think? That I would keep tracing her charcoal portraits, frame all her vignettes, draw Selene and Selene and Selene until arthritis got too bad for me to hold a pencil?
She approaches. I hold my ground. Up close, cool air rolls off of her like fog. A long, low, hidden sound echoes up from her throat, as if traveling from another dimension. Vibrations shudder through my bones.
She exhales breath like rotting fish. “You did think you could do better. How much better, huh?”
“I’m still alive.”
The muscles in her neck bunch. I expect to see her jaw open to reveal row on row of jutting, dagger teeth. “Maybe not for long.”
I have years and strength training on my side. I know everything in the room that can be turned into a weapon. “Try it and you’ll regret it.”
Like you never did? is the question in the air.
There’s a crash below us, and then swearing. The echo of James’s footsteps is louder than it has any right to be.
“Here comes James,” the dead me says conversationally. “Better run.”
These are seconds I don’t have, but I waste them, warning her. “If you kill me now, you won’t know how to fit back in. You’ll never get your old life back. You’ll be a shambling corpse trying to fit into a life that left you behind.”
She grins and the muddy water around her rises, churning. There are more sounds below us, of creaking, straining, foulness rushing in. What will happen to me if she attacks? The younger, dead me probably doesn’t care. No more than I cared what would become of her.
Muddy water surges through the attic floor. I grab the half-packed duffel. I’m out of time. I run ahead of the lashing wave, my steps smacking against the stairs as I flee downward.
Suddenly, I’m thrown backward, toward the water pouring from the attic. I stretch out my arms, pushing against the wall to slow my fall. When I blink away the fear, I expect to see R in front of me, corralling me back into her domain, but it’s James instead, his eyes blood-streaked from rubbing.
“You little bitch,” he says. “You think you can just do this to my house?”
I don’t know what he means, but more importantly, I’m not sure what to do. I can’t back up into the water, and James is a wall of rage between me and the bottom of the stairs. He may be stupid, but he’s stronger than I am, and I only have one weapon I can think of.
I draw back the duffel to swing at him. Then I see that James’s gaze is no longer on me. He’s staring behind me, his jaw slack, his red eyes round.
With fear so icy that it cracks his voice, he whispers, “What the fuck is that!”
I turn and see what he sees: the dead me, rising, grinning like the damned.
“It’s—she’s—” I hear his hands scrabbling against the wall as he braces himself. “It’s the devil!”
How must she look to his burning eyes? Dark as the woodcut he showed me earlier, the waves cavorting around her like witches. Black as the devil and cold as hell.
R rears up in a mockery of Aphrodite from the shell. She launches toward us. She and her water pass through me, and I expect the cold, I expect the twinning of our minds, but instead there’s nothing but the sensation of rushing and then she’s on the other side, roaring down the stairway as if it were a tunnel studded with tracks.
“Jesus fuck—” are the last words I hear from James, then a wave reaches upward from below. It smashes him against the stairs, and he cries out in pain. His second shout is drowned as the undertow pulls him down.
Behind me, I can hear the water roaring in the attic. Beneath me, James’s swagger sinks below turbulent waves. I’m trapped between oceans above and below, alone on the tiny island of these steps, and I don’t know how high the tide will rise.
• • • •
What made way for me? Turn the question over and over and there’s still only the one answer. Someone is going to die.
• • • •
After I killed myself, I dried my skin, and I went to sit by the window in the kitchen of my apartment. It was a small, bleak place, all I could afford.
But outside the window grew a persimmon tree, its leaves limned in sunlight. I stared at the patterns of the leaf-shadows on its bark; I stared at the heavy fruits among the green. I stared at the way a leaf had fallen against the window and stuck there by the fragile adhesive of dew. Its veins were defined like brass details.
I put my hand on the glass and watched my own veins, flowing toward my knuckles, toward my fingertips, all those hungry capillaries.
Glutted on detail, I walked out under the light-polluted skies. I breathed the city air. I strode across asphalt and carpets and grass. I wasn’t her, but I was.
• • • •
Frozen in place:
I remain while the noises surge below, the crash of waters, and wordless screams whose echoes grow weaker. The dead girl’s long, distorted calls hang lonely in the air, distorted by the measureless fathoms she swam through to reach this world.
The tide lowers as the noise quiets. It recedes to the bottom of the stairs, then further. I secure my grip on the duffel and make my way down.
The ocean has vanished, but the floor is a foot deep in sewage. Real sewage this time. Sewage that sticks to my shoes, that stings with its foul stench. The dead me stands in the worst of it, shit streaking the calves of her jeans.
“You burst a pipe,” I accuse her. There’s more than a pipe’s worth of sewage, but what does that matter to a dead girl?
She smiles a smile I know. A confession.
“He thought I did it,” I say. “He was coming after me because of this.”
She shrugs. “Did he really need a reason?”
James lies on his back in the water, his face as red as a blister, eyes and nose both leaking. Drying vomit crusts the side of his face.
With shock, I see that he’s still alive. I don’t know how he survived, but how is a strange question at the moment. A breath rattles his lungs. He peddles his arms uselessly, trying to push himself up.
“You could take him,” I say.
R raises her lip at me in a snarl. There’s nothing in her gaze but disdain for the suggestion.
When R gave her life for Selene, baring her wrists, drinking electricity, stumbling into the lake, she made herself a fragile creature, easy to treasure and easy to break. Now it won’t happen the same way. Watching the echo of my past gather herself to spring, her wrists invisible beneath the filthy water, her shoulders hunched like the wings of a buzzard, I think maybe we’ve both learned something.
The water doesn’t take James. Not entirely. He rises back to the surface when she stops holding him down, his body discolored and starting to bloat. The stench of him surpasses even that of the sewage.
There’s something missing in me: the space where I should feel joy or satisfaction or outrage or dread is polished smooth and empty. I am like the day I came into the world. All I can see is detail, the intricate spray of droplets as dead-me raises her hand away from his skin, how well-defined the thrashing ripples are around her ankles as she backs out of the water and onto the stairs.
“Did I look like that?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “You wanted to go.”
She stares at him. “It’s so gruesome.”
I say, “If it helps, I thought you were beautiful.”
She gives me a cold look. She hasn’t gotten older, but she’s not the nineteen-year-old she used to be. She won’t be drawn in by the romance of leaving a beautiful corpse.
“Why did you come?” she asks. “Who the hell were you?”
“I don’t remember. Why did you come back?”
She looks up, at the walls, at the ceiling, at all the places where we can both feel the water-not-water pressing in. Goosebumps prickle along her skin, and she slides crossed arms over her chest, trying for warmth.
She won’t meet my gaze. “I don’t remember either.”
And we both know, without saying, that it’s the not knowing that’s terrible. The water, the cold, they’re no more inherently frightening than what’s left for us in this world. The serpentine girlfriends who wrap themselves around our throats. The landlords whose bravery comes in whiskey shots. The coldness of being a girl who was once alive and is now dead, or of being a dead girl who’s come back to life.
Curious, I reach for her hand. I can do this, can’t I? Touch my own skin? Look to myself for comfort?
She startles, and her eyes are angry, but she doesn’t break my grip.
• • • •
Soft in mine, and waterlogged, like a piece of driftwood that’s been floating alone too long. I pull her palm toward me in the dim light. I can see her pulse point, the life that was extinguished in her, changed but still there.
“Back?” she asks.
I didn’t say it first, but did I have to? What is it but a thought alighting in my mind (her mind, my mind)?
“Maybe,” I say, tightening my fingers around her wrist.
We pull each other up with our mutual strength. Before us, the basement stairs stretch downward, drowned in sewage. Simultaneously, we set our feet on the top stair. In the waters that wait we will swim as leviathans, vast and inexorable, and come to know what death and life and death has made us.
• • • •
Those few moments, when we were in the body together, when my face was my face and a stranger’s face, when my mind was my mind and a stranger’s mind—what did they mean? Grief pulled me down. Desire pushed me up.
This is a ghost story. I said that. But we are both ghosts now.
And it’s a love story. I said that, too.
I’m still sorting it out.
Editor’s Note: This story was co-edited by Douglas Cohen and will also be appearing in the new anthology, What the #@&% Is That? edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, out November 1 from Saga Press. Visit johnjosephadams.com/wtf to learn more.