Death has been standing outside my house all night.
Last night I wiped my eyes against the cool glass and I watched him out the leaves of my window; watched while he circled the perimeter, his hands dancing near my rosebushes, giving light touches to the leaves and breaking them off along the neon vein lines. I touch the patches on my face and I try to make out the lines on his body: hooknose frame, dark lidded eyes, nailed mouth. The ceiling of nighttime rushed over him like a blanket and a smile, and I fell asleep with the crook of my head against the sill, images of his dead-star hands floating on my eyelashes, dripping off onto my cheeks.
And when I opened my eyes and saw morning stretch its back in a curved imitation of blue and white clouds like drippy wings, I knew who he was.
Now it's midmorning, and I take the knife and shiver until it cracks against the board. I bring the end dangerously close to my fingers, until it's not on apple skin with shiny, spit apple blood dreaming around it, until it's almost onto my own blush flesh. It leaves a little emboldened mark and I eat apple wedges while I observe my dead roses out the window, the color having left like a thrown-out lover, the thorns fallen listlessly off their stems, and I know he took them with him.
I grit my teeth, burrowing my tongue into a pocket in my mouth, all gums and warmth and a spitty pulse, while I pour myself a glass of white-tissue milk. If he thinks he's going to make it, he's wrong, I tell myself, and I swear I can almost see him in the branches of an elderly tree, clawing at the sky with pale limbs.
I taste the words with my tongue. I vow, lonely, my mouth half-full and muffled: "If he thinks he's going to get inside, he's wrong."
When I stand I can feel the blood, warm on my face. He raises his head and I figure it's his silent acknowledgement.
I am on the porch swing and he finds me. He pauses out front on a crack in the sidewalk, his legs like empty jars, and his eyes are a glass casing for something deeper. He rubs one arm over the other and leaves his fingers in the pit of his mouth, between his tongue and his jaw, and I stare, shocked that he would be so bold, so open. My blood freezes and my heart makes its presence known, and I watch.
I watch him fondle the roses all the way down to their barbed feet, and his fingers are stretched, bleached mosaic glass. I watch, afraid of the subtle nuances of elements on his face; the puffy trails of ant-bites, the pastel whites on his skull, the sunsets on his frozen-water face, maimed by the framework of bubbles and iced champagne. I watch him swallow me without opening his mouth and I close my eyes and will myself up.
Inside my house, I bite bullets and rock my cardboard legs. I tell myself, over and over, trees breathe flowers breathe wood breathes colors breathe paper breathes animals breathe people breathe I breathe I breathe I breathe, until there is a roaring crescendo of breath around me, as loud as the color white on daises and the Sun with all his red-yellow batting eyelashes, as terrifying as spiders walking against the water and checking closets twice for darker spots.
Quietly, I move to throw away the apple cores, littering my hands with seeds like marbles, and I figure that maybe it was a challenge.
There is bile on my pillow in the morning. I wipe the stain until it's red against the embroidered moons with their half-crescent smiles and two-faced wonder, clouds made of cotton and webs and stars like cut pennies.
When my sister calls I answer the phone and I close my eyes against the seven million horrible things she tells me, packed in-between biblical messages and deep-seated anxiety.
"Did you know Aaron has leukemia, oh Aaron the poor dear I made him three casseroles but when I sent them to his house this weird woman answered the door, I didn't know Aaron got a maid can cancer patients afford to have maids, oh leukemia is a form of cancer right, I don't know I think so, I mean I'm not a doctor but I know a little bit, hey did you hear Anna's marrying again, yeah I know you haven't heard from her in a while, well, by your choice anyway, and I don't blame you but I have to keep talking to her you know, keep up appearances for the kids, oh Matthew, Matthew my Matthew, did I tell you about my Matthew, well Matthew made this friend the other day and he gothe got, well, hit by a bus, and Matthew was standing on the corner andwe take him to therapy now, didn't I tell you that, I was pretty sure I told you that, sometimes you know Matthew tells me he has dreams about it, I just don't know what to do with him, he's started wetting the bed and vomiting and I hope the therapist can do something for him, oh, it's all just so hard, you know?"
I tell her I know. Death raises his eyebrows at me, all crystal and smoke filing up to Heaven, a Heaven for heathens and a Heaven for big yellow buses like dogs, a Heaven for cruel dentists and a Heaven for blind pedophiles, and I pull the shades down with a shudder.
No one calls me by my name anymore. Daphne. Daphne. I write, the ink following my pen, a willing color: Daphne. It's not an ugly name, meant for ugly mouths injecting ugly syrup into the arms on dank ugly street corners. Nevertheless, no one will call me Daphne.
I consider calling Sarah. Her name conjures up the color baby blue in my mind, her constricted and light voice, her airy and freeing smile. She lives with her small dog, a scratchy thing that lives for the sound of her voice, and every once in a while I will look at her sideways and see a bit of blackness I hadn't seen in her before, a spot of depression. Sometimes her infectious smiles are scary; sometimes her words are more scarred than I will comprehend. Sometimes I have to put the phone down and stop speaking to her.
What? Call Sarah and what? Ask her to tell me if she can see a strange man standing outside? Wouldn't she have commented if she did? It's been a week. A week, a week since the first night I saw him, darker than black against a nighttime that turned to liquid inside his fists. Call Sarah and invite her to save me? Call Sarah and beg her to say my name?
No, I think. No, not Sarah.
I click the pen against my teeth and bite down onto the cap, until I leave miniature inflictions, tooth-shaped and dented. The garbage can is full and when I close my eyes I can picture myself walking outside, making my way over to the bin, throwing the plastic bag insidewhen two hands like moth carcasses cover my eyes, a coldness weeps on my back, a crinkling and an ache in my spine, and when I close my eyes I can see him taking me away, a loitering teenager in his eyes, a serial killer in his smile.
I need groceries anyway, I tell myself. In a scattered moment where I can't see him, I leave, jumping into my car and going zero to sixty. I race to put the groceries away when I come home, a skid mark on my knee from the place I fell, tears abandoning my eyes in desperation to leave.
I can see Sarah's face in her window as I run inside. She waves like a replicated, joint doll. I can't meet her eyes.
Today, I tell myself, I will keep track of the sky instead. Instead. Instead of
I sit by the window and I start to record on Post-Its in cherry pen: 9:56 a.m. Sun (a yellow, bashful blush from space). Cloudy (scattered, white rubies thrown to the wind). 76 degrees Fahrenheit (enough to calm the sweat lurking inside your pores, but not enough to work up a brave shiver).
I scrawl, and when I run out of Post-Its, I write on my arms. My handwriting loops, tracing new bloodied veins on my arms, up and down and between the hairs. I suck on my skin and doze off at 10:21 a.m.
When I wake up my eyes are glazed with sugar and my stomach reaches up a hungry, empty arm and throttles my throat. Purple overtakes my vision as I stumble upwards, and I pause right before I leave for the kitchen: outside the window, in-between single-file blinds, he twists my eyes with his gaze, the taste of silver leaping onto my tongue.
I freeze and he inclines his head, slightly.
She calls and her voice is made of needles and pinwheels. I close my eyes at the rainbow of her voice over the receiver.
"Hey, neighbor," she says.
"Of course. Or are you seeing the creepy man on the other side of your house?" Her dog yips faintly, in the background, and I can hear her shush it with a muttered I'll feed you later. "Because if you are, I can hang up right now."
I hesitate and forget to laugh. "No."
"Don't see you around anymore," she says, after a pause.
"We used to talk," I say, but it's mostly to fill in the static silence, awkward electricity and positioned nerves inside us, pulsing in our voices.
"Yeah. Yeah, we did. I don't see you outside anymoregardening, I mean. Your rosebushes look awful. I mean, Isorry, just being honest, you know?" She giggles and it's nervous, disjointed. "You know me. Brutally honest. Open about everything."
"Oh, yeah, um. They've, uhthey've been wilting lately. I noticed."
"They look a mess. Are"
"Have you seen a man, outside? Outside my house?" I blurt. "Hangs around my rosebushes? He's been here forweeks, it feels like. Tall, wiry? Looks like murder?" I blink at my unintentional joke, but I don't let a smile escape. I can't.
"No, no I haven't," she says. "Are you okay? Maybe we should talk. You're like, the only friend I have left."
My voice is dry, stalagmite and worries. "Sure," I say. "Talk. Sometime."
"Where have you been?" she says, and a skinny laugh escapes the receiver, a shaky disguise for her eagerness.
Words surface on my tongue. What do I say? I don't know where I've been? I don't go outside anymore? I live at the window? I eat less these days; I sleep more? I thought about calling you last weekhow long ago was it, actually? I'm afraid to go get groceries? I'm lucky I can support myself, all alone and frightened? I miss you, my only friend, I miss you?
"Here and there," I say. "Mostly here."
He's gone. II swear. I glance lazily out the window and my eyes meet nothing, simply the neutral background tones of a wealthy suburb. His frame, long-limbed and skinny, is no longer there to cast shadows on the surrounding concrete; the rosebushes wave, distantly, and I can see the Sun clearer than I have ever been able to, like it has been unmasked from some invisible doom.
Downstairs I wonder what to do, now. At the refrigerator I search: milk cartons heavy with white burdens, slabs of quietly-melting butter, a carton of two-month-old coffee creamer, a skeletal head bruising under soft light, a detached arm wilting under harsh cold, smelling like damp hair and moldy
At my desk I do not know what to do. I grab a pencil and turn on the computer and make to write something; I sip empty glasses and I chew on distant eraser stubs and I make my skeletal imprints on selfless paper. I ran out of Post-Its yesterday. The sky is blank and waiting for something to jumpstart the weather, bending the stars into a cloaked submission.
Should I celebrate? I reach for the phone, to call Sarahlet's talk, neighborand I smile into my fist, a smile of security and safety and wonder.
When I reach to dial the beginning of her number, a 5-8-7, something catches the corner of my eye and holds onto it. A dyed blackness. A sharp intake of white breath. A hunched, unsupported figure, juxtaposed next to stable trees and preened grass. Him. Death.
I drop the phone. It searches for signal. I run from my desk and make my way to my room, my legs like bent and aching hunger. I curl into my bed and close my eyes and sleep waits just beyond my fingertips, telling me to stop, to think.
Sarah arrives in my eyelid. I wonder if she worries about me. I wonder if she, too, lives at her window, observing. I wonder if she ever gets too tired for her eyes to comprehend, too starving for food to be stomached, hungry for something else, something more. I wonder if she watches me watch him, while he fakes unconcern, while he slowly strokes flowers that have never known his corrupting touch.
I wonder if she's okay, with her submissive dog and soccer-mom clothing, clean house and untouched bedspreads. If she's all right, alone and alive.
He is driving me insane. Death.
When I close my eyes he dances on the backs of my lids; my darkness becomes his stage and my eyes, his batons, twirled in his miniature-ribcage hands until they ache and I force myself to wake up. When I take a shower I rub my arms like I saw him do, delicately, gingerly, until I can feel the bullets of water drop off my skin, clinging onto the last hair. I can feel him come up behind me, take a silver knife to my back, whip me over the head with a bony and overused hand; I can sense my death in his starry, solid gaze.
I use a dull fork to cut things now, and I've considered throwing away all of my sharp utensils. The spare plants littered around my house that I used to tend to, twirl their leaves in love, now wilt with a half-hearted vengeance. The patterns on my ceiling look like his face, his legs, his arms touching my forehead, making a mockery of my mouth, inhaling and letting go.
"He will not have me, because I will not let him," I say, spooning green beans and mushrooms into my mouth, tugging at my ears, watching sitcoms rage wars on my television.
"He will not have me, in mind or in body," I say, chewing my lip down to the base of my jaw, because I like to feel strong.
"He will not have me," I say, and I lock my door twice.
I feel like I have lost Sarah, quietly, without effort. The window has become my new best friend. I caress its cheek and look out of its eyes, in love with the sky, afraid of the ground. I stare at my hands until I can see ribbons stashed around my arteries.
I wonder if, at some point, every sky in the world was raining. If all the water from the galaxy (or the oceans or the ground of some other planet or wherever it comes from; I never paid attention in science) fell down and capsized the stars and cried bullets on our roofs.
If, all at once, everyone looked out their windows and raised their hands to caress the sides of their faces, and let their hair down and turned the lights off and cupped their palms in silence. If, suddenly, everyone was one whole, a kinship bound together by elusive ropes of water, tumbling down to rest on their shoulders and never quite hitting their faces.
If, someday burrowed deep in the folds of silent past, the entire world was enshrouded in dark rain clouds, and we lived under it, together, everyone in a silent prayer to the gods that did not wait for a question to deliver their answer.
Death appears at my window. Vomit rises in my throat. I think about the people who would die that day and wanted their last vision to be of clear skies. I think about all the babies who were born and the rain washed over their cries, sitting in their throats like dormant animals. I think about all the sports games, all the weddings, all the funerals, and I think about all the boys in their backyards, toying with guns as mud colors their shoes anew, and a whistle tells them who to shoot.
I think about everyone stuck under the same shadowy, murky blanket and trying to look up and only finding misery, and I think about what a terrible person I am to dream instead of worry.
Death grins, a faint mark on a face like a sweet bruise on an apple. I close the window and leave.
Today, I decide to stand up to him. In the morning before the sky dares to break out in shivers and gold, I write it on a piece of gray construction paper. DEATH, I write, all in capitals, my scribble uneven and unhappy. DEATH, YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. DO NOT LOITOR ANYMORE. GO HOME. SINCEERLY, DAPHNE SIMMONS.
I hesitate. I spelled something wrong, I think. I bite my bottom lip and I can feel the color surge around my teeth, pooling around like an indignant blush. Would he laugh at my sign? Can he have a sense of humor, even? Could a giggle lurk in those dark eyes, could a smirk taunt his face, pulling at the strings inside his cheeks?
"No," I whisper, and I put the cap on a marker with a decisive motion. Something full grumbles in my throat. "No, he can'tand no, he won't."
I tape it onto my garage door, big and bold and highlighted in blue and red Sharpies. I turn around confidently and he's there, suddenly, behind my car, standing innocently on the sidewalk. My tongue lapses in defeat. Something moves around his chest and I think he's crossed his arms, black worms trailing across his chest, white at the tips.
I attempt to swallow my teeth and before I feel like I can retch, he looks like he might say something. "Don't," I break. "I don't know what you're doing here, and I don't know if you can read, but" I motion to the sign on my garage, "but don't."
I think he nods. I'm not sure. I run back inside and dream skeleton dreams, see skeletons in my spoons and watch bone marrow drip down my shower, before he can begin.
I know I have to have my first conversation with him today. A real one; words exchanged, my point made clear. I shuffle the scratches in my throat and attempt to banish the angry, panicked thoughts from my brain. They hide in the corners, waiting for an opportune moment to escape.
Over the phone last night I drank wine until, in the mirror, I was convinced my skin was the same color red, the same liquid in texture, the same slosh in the back of stomach fitted all over my flesh. "There's a teenage boy," I say, "loitering around my house, and II can't get him to leave. I told him to once but maybemaybe I wasn't forceful enough? Sis? What do you think, sis? Tell me what you think."
When I walk outside I repeat it to myself, letting her voice create a stream in my head, a faint whispering. Make it clear, she had said, intoxicated with my pain, and I could hear the itch behind her voice to get back to discussing David's new diagnosis, Mary's upturned secret, the scandals involving Father Paul, the way Simon hit her for the first time last week, his hand a big shadow across her face, inside her eyes. Make it clear, she said. So clear he can't argue.
"Hey," I say, opening the door, elevating my voice until it morphs into a wobbly shout. "Hey!"
He glances up from the rosebushes, a finger poised above one petal, turning layers grayer with contact.
"Hey! What are you still doing here? Hmm?"
I wonder if maybe I'm still a little drunk, if I've ever had a hangover this easy, if I know what exactly I'm doing. I wonder what his voice sounds like, if I'll get to hear it. I wonder if I should've worn something more protective, more provocative. I wonder what color the flames are in Hell; all blue like the scorned murmur of my stove, or all red licks and anger, like fire should be.
"I know who you are," I speak, drunk on words, drunk on nerves, drunk on the feel of power, imagining him under my thumb, pressed like a dead autumn leaf. "I know who you are and I don't want you around here. You hear me? You saw the sign."
He reaches inside his black bodice and pulls out a piece of cardboard paper, and I can't make out the words, all crumpled and in faint blotches of crimson and tears. I can almost see his cheeks puff up; I can almost see the welling in his eyes, the beauty crinkled around his jaw. For a second I can almost see a spill of human, a drop of mystified, flabbergasted and horrified love, drumming around his face.
"Youyou took my sign," I stutter, and I'm faintly surprised it's not an angry shout or intensified stage whisper. "You took my sign off my garage door."
I steel my feet against the cement, keeping my car between us. He dawdles around my grass, and he looks anxious, irritated, tired, calm and attentive.
"What're youeven doing here? I know who you are. So what do you think exexactly that you're going to achieve, by being here? Hmm? I know whowho youWhat are you even doing"
"Nothing," he says, and I think of metal, I think of suicide, I think of bone. "Goodbye, Daphne."
Daphne, I think, my name a crescendo of magenta and arms akimbo, of moldy school lunches and a chorus of chipper knees, of breath stolen from my lungs by pavement and lost wind, and of the birth of tired, weepy eyes, out of a cavern of red and black. No one in the Bible is called Daphne. No kid on the playground was ever a Daphne. No one except old diehard Scooby-Doo fans would name their newborn Daphne anymore.
He called me Daphne. Death called me Daphne.
Back inside I ate baby apples, shoving them one by one into my mouth, shaving off their thin green flesh to reveal something white and gold beneath, letting the blood soak into my gums, down through the cavern of my tonsils.
I try to remember what his voice sounds like, the silk and sandpaper against my ears, the chills and the clamor, the whispering and the silence, the contradictions and metaphors and symbols I swore for a moment I could understand, the way the universe clicked and the way the sky shuffled a little to the left in its skin.
And I realize, slowly, regretfully, that I can't remember.
He's gone. He left.
I sit around and I pace and I cross my toes and I crack my knuckles and I bite my lips until the blood turns my teeth pink and orange, and I feel the sunrise glimmer inside of my mouth and I wait and he's gone and he hasn't, didn't, won't come back.
I open the door and the light falls into my eyes like Christmas lights, filling in the white spots; the clouds touch down on brick as they fall; a wind tickles my shoulders and elbows past me to make its way inside my house; and the front of my house looks beautifully blank, graciously empty. A tree climbs to the sky, hungry, and the leaves fall down in closed-palm shame. The grass clamors with black and silver and an insect gives birth before me, tiny little babies sprouting out of legs like bound hairs and the dew makes mud out of nothing, out of everything.
And then something flickers in the edge of my eye, a scarce bit of déjà-vu, a this has happened before: a twinge of black, a sparkle of something painfully white. I turn my head to the right and the lie comes crashing down from my head, out of my ears, resting on the crooks and bends of my arms. My body cringes; I become an instrument unwilling to be played, bending under the secretive fingers of a musician. Morning has picked up her wilting fingers and stitched me, lacy bones and thick-rimmed eyes, and now her thread has been unraveled, a windy and skinny skein revealed. I shy away in embarrassment and horror.
He's not gone. He's still here. He's not gone. He's not in front of my house but he hasn't left, either. Relocated. Moved. Displaced.
My breath hitches in my throat, caught inside a scratchy booby trap at the base of my neck. Sarah, I think. I've sent him to Sarah.
"You should tell her about it I mean it's technically your fault anyway, right, I mean you didn't ask for him to be hanging around, right, I mean life is cruel and you should help out your neighbors not curse them with strangewhat did you say he was just some weird kid who hangs around threateningly what did you say he was, oh I don't remember, but if he freaked you out so much think about how she must feel, I mean if you were strong enough to get through it honey, I mean, hic!, oh dear I think I just spilled something, um, hold onanyway, um, I mean, if you could get through it, you should help her out, too, because not only is it thethehic!the least she deserves but you guys were friends, right, talked and everything and oh, my god, that reminds me, did I tell you what Jonah did yesterday, I mean you have not heard anything like this beforehic!oh, oh dear, oh crap, ohhhhold on, sislet me get this stain outif Jacob sees he'll"
"You're drunk," I say, not as an accusatory reprimand or a giggly observation, but as a hissed, envious murmur.
I hold my mouth closed, mentally shutting my nostrils down. I take in as much air as my body will allow and I swallow, a stomach of emptiness in my throat.
I stare at the telephone. Its black buttons and blank screen make it look faintly like a monster, compact and machine. I bite my kneecap-knuckle, breaching out of my skin with a strong bony kick.
I turn around and run upstairs, where there are no hooks, receivers and dials, and I close my eyes when the bathroom mirror tries to convey something.
"Whowho is this?"
"The very same. Are you?"
"Oh, thank god! I thoughtwell, I thought that maybe"
"You thought someone else was calling?"
"Oh, gods, yesI don't even know where to beginI, I"
"Do you still want to talk?"
The coffee shakes in her hands, a personal earthquake lurking somewhere in the ephemeral white ribbons of steam. She makes eye contact with the ripples and crosses her legs insecurely. "I first saw him a few nights ago," she says, and her tone is quiet and portentous, a thing made of bloodless storms and trees bent by time. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't know ifif"
She bites the corner of her lip and attempts to swallow her cheek. She brings the coffee up to her face and hides.
"I was just laying theretrying to sleep, you know, and it doesn't help that I had insominsomnia problems before, and I justI saw him and I thought he was some teenager, outside smoking or just hanging around or just, you know, andand then I saw him in the morning and I dropped the plates I waswell, you know, because I was washing the dishes when I saw him in the morning, andand look, you can still see the scar, a piece of china scratched my foot, it's real bad, and"
I have to coax her out of removing her sandals to show me the mark. I can see the scattered red thorns of blood and imprints, faint remnants of pain, and I tell her that I believe her.
"You sayyou say you've seen him? Know him? Do you know who he is? You saidyou said youthink you sent him to me? You made him leave, then! Youcan make him do that, can't you? Can you do it for me? I can't take itif I see him around another day, I swearit's almost been a week now, and he's outside my door, every morning, and I know he's plotting something mean and horrible and terrible, and oh, I'm so scared, I"
"Sarah," I say.
When all the tears are done leaving shiny star trails on her cheeks, she asks if she can stay the night. She motions to the couch and says something about being comfortable sleeping in jeans. She tugs all the threads out of her sweater and wipes imaginary dew from the corners of her eyes and tells me she thinks my rosebushes are looking better and I sigh and I say, sure, Sarah, take as long as you need, and she leans forward and rests her head on her jeans.
"I'm scared," she says. "I don't want to die."
I bite my lip and something tightens in my chest. Neither did I, I answer.
I walk forward and rest a hand on her back. "No one does," I say.
It's not yet four a.m. when she comes in, turning on the light in my bedroom, glowing white to my adjusted pupil. The light takes her hair and plays with it like the torn, threaded smile of a rag doll. She burns with heaven at her back, an angelic figure against the glow, and my limbs look like silver slabs of darkness under her illuminated presence.
"My baby," she explains.
We walk outside and we don't see him. We run quickly down to her doorstep, my legs flecked with dew and the cool night air whipping my breath to skinny, hastened shreds. My stomach feels like an oven, storing all the warmth of my body inside, leaving my hands and feet bitter with cold.
"I can't believe he's not here," she yells over her shoulder as we make our way up the stone walkway. "He's out here every night. Always. Always!"
You've stopped talking in fragments, I want to say. You can form whole sentences, I want to say. Your voice is normal, I want to say. You sound all right, I want to say, you sound healed.
"Strange," I say, instead.
We step over a fallen-over sign, adorned with elongated, scrawny urine stains. It reads a dog is a (wo)man's best friend, and Sarah smiles when she catches me observing it. She smiles and says, "My dog'Tunia," as if to explain, and then thinks better and turns to her front door.
She searches for her keys inside her stale jean pockets and I shiver in my pajama capris. "Sorry," she says, inclining her head. "I know it's cold out." I nod and my nose looks like a sharp, saluting hand, flickering in my view for moments before it is swallowed by blue darkness.
As soon as we open the door we can hear her dog, 'Tunia, rattling her collar on the floor. The pug sniffs my feet delicately before she retreats to Sarah, who coos and turns her ears inside-out and mimics her face with soft, pale features. 'Tunia tilts her head in confusion and Sarah laughs like she has never known a frown, like her window has never been flecked with spots of black and bone, like she has never feared for her life.
When she comes to me with an open mouth my growling stomach fills the silence. She giggles and I blanch with embarrassment and abdominal discomfort. "I haven't eaten," I mutter, and I refute the need to apologize welling up in my throat.
She grins. "Go ahead," she points. "Kitchen is that-a way."
As I weigh a skinny milk carton in one hand, the doorbell rings, a sound that choruses down the hallways and makes itself known in the expanse of her kitchen. Sarah freezes, halfway through pouring 'Tunia some kibble, and the dog cowers in the shadows behind the couch, whispering faint dog sounds low in her throat. I check the clock: four-fourteen a.m.
"Don't suppose that's the mailman," she says shakily, and the joke is lost on ears that refuse to comprehend anything beyond the screech of a bell that knows us far too well. My nerves jump into my throat and she says, "I'll go, uh, get that, I suppose."
As a little girl I wanted to be stable. I was happy being untalented and unloved if it meant I was solid, wholebuilt, established. Comfortable. Strong.
I did not want to be Juliet if it meant losing my life for a man who didn't understand the meaning of time; I did not want to be Rapunzel if it meant having hair like a trail of unshaven gold yarn; I did not want to be the beggar who was secretly a princess if it meant going through years of malnutrition and sweat and odor to discover my identity.
I had nightmares of waking up in public places undressed, my skin like a skinned dove, and in those dreams I was acutely aware that everything was black or white and my skin looked a faint eggshell. I had ideas of being a plump, gray rock the ocean reached out and held onto, shaping with curved and liquid fingers. I wanted to be a sturdy shoulder and I wanted to be the cross Jesus draped his arms and let go on, his hands stapled and my shoulders, wooden.
Once when I was ten-years-old I went to my best friend's birthday party and she began to cry halfway through. I found her in the bathroom and I turned on the light and I told her that she could take as long as she needed to, and when I brought my head close to the blond cusp of her head she frowned and sobbed and told me I was the only person she'd ever loved, and when a nosy green-eyed boy knocked on the door I opened it a crack and yelled every four-letter one-syllable word I could think at him, hoping to thrash his ears with an adult and brave language; and I turned around back to her and I waited for her to call me her hero for keeping her safe when she was vulnerable.
She had pinched the cobwebby area between my thumb and my forefinger and yelled at me for scaring off Bryan, the boy she loved more than anything, and she slammed the door behind her. I clicked the lock and sat on the toilet seat and bit the scared skin fitted loosely around hiding bone.
I had gnawed at my lip then, much as I do now, concentrating my teeth on one skinny patch of mouth. It had never occurred to me that Juliet was a girl in love, that Rapunzel was a girl with destiny, that the princess-in-disguise had a life.
So when Sarah screams, a sound to fend off the night and keep the Sun bloody and whole in the sky, I trip on my feet as I run to her. She's single, short-haired and identified, but it's the best I can do.
She closes the door and 'Tunia rushes to her feet, fitfully concerned with all that happens to her counterpart, her better half, her owner. I open my mouth and swallow the planet and Sarah looks at me, her eyes wide with something more intense, more vivid than fear.
"He left something," she says.
"I can't read it," I say, unable to adjust to four a.m. light. She holds up a piece of shriveled, gray cardboard paper. I can make out blurry, scabby lettering, but no real words.
"It's a message," she says, haunted. "He's coming."
My eyes burrow deep into their sockets and the crust rings my lashes red. I scan the paper once, twice. "He's coming," I repeat. My name rings out in blue: SINCEERLY, DAPHNE SIMMONS.
"He's coming," she whispers, "for us."
She paces before me, walking from the couch to the fireplace and back again, her feet like awkward, inflexible wood. She curls her toes and I chew on my lip, wincing when the blood taints the tips of my teeth, making my spit musty and sick.
"Five a.m.," she says. "Five a.m. Five a.m. Five a.m. It's five a.m. and we're awake, waiting for him. Death. At five a.m."
I mutter into the tips of my thumbs, chewing now on nails, their jagged presence thick with calcium in my teeth. "What time did you say it was, Sarah? I don't think I heard."
She can't hear me. "He came to the door. He rang the doorbell. I swear, when I went to answer it, for a second III saw him. I swear to god, I swear, I saw him. He came to the door; he was brave enough to come to the door. Did you hear me? I said he"
"Sarah," I say, twisting my hands, one sheathed inside the other, my palms sweaty with perspiring tears.
"If he's brave enough to come to the door, what's next? I mean, really? What's next? He's going to come inside next time. Next timehe won't spare us a doorbell. Nextnext time, he'llhe'll"
"Sarah," I say, louder, pinching the skin around my wrist bone.
"You said you figured it out. Death, you said. Death. You think he'syou thinkyou said, you said that he's"
"Yeah," I say, and I press my warm forehead against a couch pillow, running my hands anxiously over my knees. I grit my teeth and breathe through the cracks. "Death. I believe so."
"Death. Death. What a heck of an observation! Death! Death is outside, waiting for us! Hehe canhe could do anything to us. Anything. Aren't you scared? Aren't you scared? Why aren't you scared? Panic a little! Panic some! Look at us! We're two middle-aged women, all alone in a dark house, and thethe physical embodiment ofofisoutside"
"I heard you, Sarah."
"Be scared. Be scared. He's waiting. No, who am I kiddinghe's not waiting! Why would he wait when he doesn't need to? This is torture. This is torture." She kicks a dust bunny and it skitters off near my feet, touching on my big toe. Hair falls in my face and I close my eyes, fidgeting. "You should be scared. You should fear for your life. We might not evenlive, past this night, we probably won't"
"I said I heard you, Sarah!"
The silence falls on us like a translucent white sheet. She stares at me, open-mouthed, and the awkwardness of the quiet presses me to say something. My face, somewhat numbed, stretches to make sentences, piling uncomfortable words one on top of the other.
"Sarah," I say. "I said he wouldn't get to meor to us. The firstthe day I saw him, I said he wasn't going to get inside. And I meant it, Sarah, and I still do."
She breathes and I let the irony loose. "Have a little faith, Sarah," I say.
The sobbing wracks my legs. She tells me she's scared. She tells me she can't see straight. She finds the bones inside my ankles and tells me that she knows she is going to die alone, not even 'Tunia at her side, 'Tunia who exists for and because of her. She tells me she is an atheist and that no one prepared her for Hell. She tells me she can't breathe.
She scratches my knee and I hold her hand there, on top of the cap, and the sun begins to yawn, stretching to make it over the top of the universe, peeking over at us, laying on its surface.
"Cereal is all right with you?"
I nod into the table. At five forty-five a.m. she is smoothing milk onto a bed of rice crispies, 'Tunia is sleeping with her eyes open, and I am rubbing wet stains off my legs.
She lays the bowl in front of me and I take a spoonful. She's halfway sitting when she stops, something alarmed passing violently over her face, and the bowl slips out of her hands. Cascades of tan ant-shaped bodies fall down the table legs, and the milk forms between the cracks on the floor, winding like white ivy over the dirt and dust.
I open my mouth, my jaw like tight, screwed metal, and I close it, a clicking in my fingers. She looks at me, horrified.
"You don't think he'sthat he'sgotten tothat he could"
She makes no move to finish her sentence and motions to clean up her mess. Wordlessly, I put my spoon down and push the bowl away.
I wake up when the doorbell rings again. My eyes adjust to the brown in my face and my forehead aches from sleeping on the table. Something in my back cracks and I make an effort to sit up.
Sarah looks at me, leaning against the hallway wall for support, a fish resorted to a puddle. I hold my breath, a fist in my mouth. "Do you want to...?"
"I can't," she whispers.
I almost ask her why, but I catch myself before I do. I nod, slowly, something detached pulsing in my heart. I lean my head back onto the table. "Don't, then," I offer.
She leans against the wall and begins to sob, enfolding her face in a butterfly of hands, rubbing inside her head with her knuckles. "I just can't," she sobs, and I sense something deeper in her voice.
It begins to rain and she wakes me up again. This time my head is layered on the couch and my vision is slathered thick with sleep. I stretch to remember how I got here when something interrupts my ears.
"Hey," she says. "Hey."
I grumble. The fireplace looks like stones and gray frowns and ribcages and stomach tucks and I let my eyes close.
"It's okay," she says. "You don't have to say anything. Just listen, ookay?"
I nod and my nose scratches harshly against the pillow fabric.
"I'm scared, but I'm kind of excited, too," she tells me, and her voice descends, coiling inside my head. I let my eyes rest. "I can't explain it, but I feel like I've been waiting. For this. I mean, he's here. Death. Death is here. And I'm scared. But I'm also..."
"Excited," I mumble in finish, turning my head onto its side, watching her through a narrowed jungle of parted eyelashes.
"Yes," she says. "Yes, exactly. I'm all alone. I've... never told anyone this, but I've never been kissed. Not once. It just... never happened. I went to weddings and it didn't happen. I went to dances and it didn't happen. I went to parties and it didn't happen. I got 'Tunia and no one came any closer. It just..."
She trails off and I let my lids lower all the way, enclosing my world in a darkness soupy with color. Red flashes where her face should be and the green constricts as her voice picks up again.
"I haven't fought. My whole life. I've never been fussy. Assertive. Youyou've known me for years now, have I ever been assertive? No, I haven't. I don't stand up for myself. I don't take what should be mine. I... I wait around, with puckered lips, and I... nothing ever..."
She looks down at her hands. I can't see her anymore, but I can feel it; the shift in body language, the silent speech of her eyes, the remorseful tingling in her palms. I know it's there and sleep comes closer, the ocean picking up its feet and shifting underneath my eyelids, bidding me away.
"I thought about it. For a long time, you know. Suicide. The Big S. Killing myself. But it all seemed so... dramatic, so..."
She pauses to breathe. Something in my head breaks off and I meet her with a disinterested grunt.
"I would always think about you. When I came close. You know. Close. Alone my whole life, never really living... but I would talk with you, and I'd be all right, and I'd feed 'Tunia, and I'd be all right, but then I would have to fall asleep, and... and I wouldn't be all right, and I'd have to wait, until..."
Air shuffles into her throat dutifully. She hesitates.
"I probably sound ridiculous and dramatic and silly, but... These past few weeksmonths, evenwhen it was like you had dropped off the face of the Earth... stopped answering your phone calls, stopped going outside... I came really close. Really close. Once, I was... and there were all these... and..."
Something smoothes down the hair on the side of my face. Her hands are cool slices of moon. I smile in spite of myself, and the corners of my mouth meet the wrinkles on her hands, and I can sense her returning grin.
"I don't want to let him get me," she whispers. "I don't want it to be him who finally"
She does not finish. The rain clatters pots and pans, dogs and cats, tearing down the sky with liquid, grabby hands, and for a minute, it sounds like the house is being torn apart. I don't hear it stop. I fall asleep to the sound of Sarah's footsteps, creaking up the stairs.
I'm sorry you have to face it alone, she had written, a heart over her i and a crossed-out section before alone that clearly reads "all by yourself." When I turn the piece of paper over, my name screams out at me, blue on gray, DAPHNE SIMMONS, spattered with water drops, and my brain malfunctions: tears, rain, big drops of transparent blood.
I run downstairs and 'Tunia is still sleeping with open eyes, the left one flickering, the pupil failing to focus. I remember wondering how stupid and scared we must look to her, I remember observing how much of herself she devoted to Sarah's presence, I remember looking at her and noting how sad it was to have your existence lowered to kibble and ear-scratches, fading legs and appreciative coos.
'Tunia snores and manages to close the other eye.
I know I must have our last conversation now. The rain has broken up into pits of blue-black in the sky, an agitated, fading gaze lit up by streaks of painter's lightning. It falls steadily, but lightly, a soft caress dampening my pajamas. I shiver.
"Death," I say, my voice fumbling for footing as I stumble out her door. "Death. Death." I say it over and over again as I stand in her green front lawn, my tongue adjusting to the th, a thick puddle on the dea.
And then I spot him. He stands on the line between my house and hers, and I can see his planted, white feet, his ghost face mirrored in the shimmering rain.
He turns to me.
"Death," I say, "what did you do to her?"
"Death," he says, slowly, and it all comes back: copper thick in my mouth, a layer of sponge and buildup in my teeth, a hard-hat for a jaw. My body tenses up with recognition.
"Sarah," I repeat. "Death, what did you do to her?"
"Death," he says, again.
"You killed her!" I curl my palm and I feel the cardboard paper thick inside it, crumpling under the intensity of my fingers. "I saw her! You killed her! You killed Sarah!"
"You think I killed Sarah?" he says, and my ears peel, aching with cartilage, severe with life.
"Don't you say her name!" I shove my hands into the other and they share the paper, rough with skin and blood moving too quickly, too hotly for my veins. "No one said you werethat you were allowed to say her name!"
"Did you listen to her before she suicided?" he asks, and I cringe at the way his whole body turns to me, dark eyes and open skin. "Or at all, in the past months? Ever, even?"
"Shut up! You shut up! God, I can't believe I'm speaking to you. Death! I'm speaking to"
"Death," he repeats. "That's who you think I am? Death?"
My mouth falls open and dries. He shakes his head, and for a second, the bone disappears; for a second, I can't see the blood in his untouched veins, I can't see the pupils in his unspotted eyes, I can't see the skin on his fleshless body.
For a second, I can't see him, for a second I am watching the sky and I am watching birds that evaporate into blue and gray and black. For a second I am watching trees that wish they could breathe more clearly, I am watching little girls painting black strings on their Barbies and I am watching little boys knock their heads together until the red shows. For a second I can see my father and my mother and my brother sitting in Heaven with eyes like haunting circles and their skin pink from a Sun we have never known. For a second, I can see my life, before my eyes, scratches on pale skin and moths attracted to dim lights.
For a moment, I am not alone.
"You have a lot to learn," he says.
I blink, lingering in the air bordering the sky as a thin, diluted Sun fidgets and tries to find its spot in the sky.
"Be glad that you still have time, Daphne," he says, intense with acknowledgement and challenge and love and hatred, and my throat constricts, all bodily functions and kinship with the air, the wind, the sky.
My name, I think. He said my name.
My sister has left four messages, all of them with assorted information about people with colorful names: Deborah and her adverbs and her promises, Joel and her adjectives and her abortions, Philip and his verbs and his companies, Samuel and his prepositions and his mysteries, and as she makes her way down the list I realize I have no idea how she's doing, where exactly she lives, who she's married to, what she does for a living. I realize that I do not know my sister, even as she tells me about Joshua and the bodies he thought were hearts, stomachs and organs.
I delete my sister's messages. I lock the door and close the window when I hear 'Tunia whimpering, realizing she must have gotten out the front door I left open. I stop to watch her scatter herself in the street, dodging angry truck drivers and running with her eyes closed.
"Death," I say, testing it out on my tongue. I say it over and over and the deas and the ths blend together and eventually I can't say it anymore, because if you say something enough it all falls apart and suddenly syllables feel strange, letters dig in like spare nerves, and the word becomes a string of Christmas lights alive in a tense, patriotic July.
I observe the way my hands bend, harsh knuckles and stringy bones, peeking from their thin, veiled homes. Blue veins pour red blood into a stream of pink and white. I think.
My family is deceased, sending me prophetic dreams and messages in dying stars. Sarah killed herself, her hands making red tree-trunk rings across her throat on the toilet seat. My sister was never alive, enwrapped in a thousand different stories of a thousand different people who inhabit a thousand different crystal bodies. 'Tunia lived and now wanders the empty streets with her eyes like untrained magnets, looking for someone long and newly gone.
I close my mouth in reverence and horror.
When the doorbell rings my feet melt gray and brown into the kitchen tile. I run my fingers over the stem of a knife, the ears of a milk glass, and I wait until he has had enough time to leave.
I bite my lip and out the window he has left me a pile of white roses, their bodies bent at the ends, torn up and bleeding slick green blood. When God ran out of the color red, He had closed His eyes and had to draw with the lashes of nature. I open the fruit drawer and I throw out every last one of my apples.
I said he wouldn't get inside. I said that if he thought he was going to get inside, he was wrong. I clenched my fists and I slid my teeth together and I created sparks of life and death in the negative space between stopping and holding, between letting go and hesitating. I had said he wouldn't get in with every beginning and end, head and tail of my body, and he didn't. He didn't.
"DetDeahDeh" I say, something desperate and distant creeping up in the back of my throat. "I can't sayI can't"
I never let him.