What Happened in Dad’s Office
I first met Lily at a dumb fourth of July party. I met Ethan about fifteen feet away from her. Lily was, what, six months pregnant then? Yeah, because Isaiah was born in October. Anyway, they had returned from their brief honeymoon only a week earlier. They couldn’t go anywhere too exotic, you know; too much risk of catching “some strange tropical disease,” was how my Mom put it. We only went because Ethan was Dad’s accountant. It was only the polite thing to do. What would’ve been even more polite, was if Dad had even bothered to show up. I suppose Mom and I were adequate scions. That’s how I ended up there. All I had wanted to do was light off firecrackers in my driveway and drink some whiskey I didn’t steal.
Their place is a cute little cottage right on the lake, with a big backyard, full of lawn chairs, cornhole boards, and empty cans of Yuengling. They have a nice new boat and a nice new deck, and nice new everything. Worst part is, it’s all farmhouse rustic chic–that white chipped paint, weird rooster sculpture, faded cornucopia wallpaper, lace over burlap aesthetic, even though not one of these people, me included, had ever even been inside a barn. Jerks. They do have the best spot to see the fireworks though, so Mom and I rolled up to their doorstep hours before, with a big bowl of mac and cheese and a high pitched “oh my gooood, hiiiiii!”
“This must be Dinah! Your dad just talks so much about you,” she said. Dinah in her lips sounded like pink frosting. I didn’t want to taste like Willy Wonka’s asshole. I was seventeen and wanted to taste like an adult, like, I don’t know, wine and designer sunglasses. I hated her from that first moment. Her lips were red and shiny from eating strawberries.
“Oh, um,” I said, pointing to a nonexistent pink dot on her white dress, “I think you spilled a little something on you?”
She hadn’t. “Oh my!” she said, “thaaank you. Everyone’s just been trying to get my attention so much.” What a bitch, right?
Wisely, Mom took over the socializing. I pretended to eat at the potluck, sliding the macaroni salad and pork chops into the trash when no one was looking. I went to the bathroom a lot, to reapply lipstick that had smeared off on solo cups, and to see what products Lily used to make her stupid hair so shiny and manageable. I was perfectly, thoroughly bored in the most adolescent way, until I saw him. Ethan.
The men, the husbands, they had all gone off on the boat to fuck around and drink on the lake. The women and the wives had gathered by the dock, awaiting their return. The sun was just beginning to set, and was draped on Lily’s shoulders like a silk scarf while her margarita-sipping adherents gathered around. I could see her neon pink toenails all the way from inside the house. Just outside of the group was Ethan, looking on from the outside as bored as I was. I don’t think I felt a thing for him until that moment, until he looked less like the grown up football captain or the fresh out of school accounting major. The sun was catching in his blonde hair, and the beer was making his cheeks rosy. If Lily was a bright star, then he was a sun god, ferrying her across the heavens.
Look, I know that now, I’m just bursting with self confidence and hotness; I’m a fruit gusher of assurance. But back then? Walking down to the dock terrified me. I swear, at the time, my intentions were not nefarious. I was a teenage girl with a crush on an older guy who, let’s be honest, wasn’t that much older than me.
I took my ass down there. I stood just close enough to him, and just far enough away from Lily, and I said: “She really looks great.”
“Doesn’t she?” Ethan said. “You’re Jacob’s kid, right?”
Kid. The word hung in my mind until I fucked him two years later.
“Yeah,” I said, “have been for a while now.”
He chuckled, and looked everywhere but me. This pissed me off at the time, but in retrospect…I’d have ignored me too. Together, they were the Earth, and I was the asteroid. I’m what killed the dinosaurs.
“How long you been working for my dad?” I knew perfectly well already. 11 months.
“Have been for a while now,” he said, with a dumb, cute little smile. “Where is he?”
Before I could say “at work,” Mom must have suddenly remembered something of
great importance. She walked over to me, and said: “Dinah, I think I left my purse inside. Would you mind running and grabbing it for me?”
“Sure,” I said, “do you know where it is?”
“I saw it,” Ethan said. “I’ll show you.”
There a flicker in Mom’s face just then–a subtle narrowing of the drawn-on eyebrows, a gentle pursing of her greige lips. Then it was gone, replaced with a Maybelline smile.
The inside of their house is even more annoying. First of all, all the throw pillows have mounted deer silhouettes or shiplap patterns on them. There’s too many windmill decorations. A wooden plank sitting beside the TV says: “hey y’all!” And dear God, everything is in Mason jars.
The remains of the potluck still covered the living room–stained paper plates, plastic utensils sticky from baked beans, store-bought cookie crumbs. The kitchen was a wreck of strawberries and pineapples and limes. Flies were beginning to explore them. The smell of coffee grounds and banana peels was seeping out the overfilled trash can. Mom’s nude Michael Kors bag was sitting right on the kitchen table.
I asked about their picture frames, and got him talking about the football scholarship he lost after he tore his Achilles’ tendon, and the grad program he was totally going to after the kid was in school. He once dreamed of majoring in mortuary science and becoming a funeral director, but Lily convinced him otherwise–something more practical really was smarter, especially if they wanted to have kids. He always wondered what his life would be like, if he had just pursued that dream, if he had never gotten injured–especially because he met Lily in the physical therapist’s office.
I don’t know what in the goddamn came over me then. I’d always been a degenerate, but in a cloistered way–just whenever my idiot friends and I stole their little brother’s Adderall or something. But my ass looked up at him and said: “You’re gonna be such a good daddy.”
It wasn’t my voice that came out. I wouldn’t know this for some time, but this was the first time She spoke through me. She sounds like the serpent and the apple, like the hiss of the sea foam, like the scythe that shears the grain.
It ruffled him a bit, and I decided to think that the flush in his cheeks was from me and not the craft beers he had sipped all day. You should’ve seen him. He was flustered, but so flattered, so proud, like a temporarily embarrassed goose. He looked over to the remains of the margarita station and asked if I’d had one yet.
At least it was something I was familiar with. I grabbed a bottle of tequila and said: “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“You’re what, seventeen? You ever even do a shot of tequila before? The right way?”
I had. “No.”
“Well,” he sighed, “I can’t have you going off to college unprepared.” He sat down a salt shaker in the shape of–surprise–an anchor. “Here’s what you’re gonna do,” he said, “you’re going to lick your hand–,”
“Lick my hand?”
“Yes,” he said, “you know where it’s been, right?”
“You never know,” I said, licking the back of my hand a little bit too slowly.
He snorted. “You sprinkle some salt on there, lick it off, then pound it, and shove this lime in your mouth like an orange slice. Got it?” I still think about his little crooked eyebrow then.
I did so, the whole time looking right into his eyes, unflinching. And he looked back, and he laughed, and said: “You’re crazy, kid.”
Kid. “Your turn,” I said.
I got him to take two shots before we headed back. The sun was lower now, and the fireworks were starting soon. As we headed down the staircase, he stumbled a bit, leaning against me. He was warm and solid, like school bus seats warmed up in the winter sun. Lily glanced over at one point, then glanced away as quick and slender as a fawn. My mother’s gaze was not so graceful. We rejoined the group, and I sat through the polite discussions and the mosquito bites. I sat far from Ethan, but close enough to watch the lights of the fireworks dance on his face.
I went back to the house a little before the grand finale. The mix of sweat and mosquito bites made me squirm; I just wanted to get out of there before the traffic got too bad. I didn’t know where the lightswitch was, so I left it off. More flies were flitting about the leftovers, and every surface felt sticky. Even though the grand finale was going on, I could hardly hear it. All I could hear were the flies buzzing.
Lily came in. I could only see her by the dim light of the oven and the green numbers on the microwave. Her eye makeup was beginning to smear, and there were shards of cut grass on her bare feet.
She asked me: “Trying to duck out early?”
“You caught me,” I said.
“Did I?” She said it like a question. Her blue eyes narrowed, her head cocked to the side, and her silky hair tickled her cheek, and even though she had to look up at me, I couldn’t make myself breathe.
A fly buzzed into my face, and I waved it away. In an attempt to break the tension, I said that “those pork chops were dank.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded. “I’ll see you around,” she said, “Dinah.”
That pause. That’s what pissed me off. Like she couldn’t remember my name, and had to think for a second, when she knew it so quickly earlier. As she walked away, I couldn’t help but think anyone looking at us right now would assume she was the kid. She was 5’2, a former gymnast, slender and compact. I was 5’10 and had tits that entered the room before I did. The only difference between us was a couple years of getting a Communications degree and many, many decorative throw pillows.
Lily went off to say bye to other people, and then I saw Ethan. I went to say goodbye, among other things, but Mom grabbed my arm. She had her leftover mac and cheese in one hand and my elbow clenched with the other, and was gently yanking me towards the door. I looked back at Ethan, who looked at me, then at Mom, then back at me.
For a good fifteen seconds, I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything. There was the smell of pomegranates, and then a sound like thousands of feathers in my head, and the cawing of crows, but distant, as if far across an empty field. The sound of a massive flock of birds became one set of horrid wings, and then I saw Her. She didn’t let me see her in totality yet, but I saw a silhouette, a tall, curvaceous woman standing in a forest, lit only by the moon. I tasted wine, and smelled sulfur and myrrh and cinnamon. Then, it was all gone, but something was different.
I looked at Ethan. I smiled, waved, and winked.
I followed Mom outside and into the car. She didn’t talk and I didn’t mind. We sat out in their driveway for about 10 minutes, waiting for the traffic to move. I spent the whole time staring into the dark trees, at a screech owl watching me from a weeping willow, who looked back with steady yellow eyes and didn’t flinch until we drove away.
In Ethan and Lily’s stupid rustic chic kitchen, something chose me. The midnight after, I dreamt of my room, upside down but still right-side up. I dreamt of black snakes coating the floor like a living oil spill, and I heard hideous chanting–low male voices gibbering beneath incoherent sopranos. I woke with the sky still dark. Outside, barefoot on the concrete porch, I watched the sun rise over the forest, and for the first time, heard the noise.
It was the noise of dropped wind chimes, of beads, ripped off a neck, clattering on the ground. It was a phone screen cracking, waves chomping at a too-small boat. It was the noise of crinkling candy wrappers and styrofoam cups melting and popping in a fire, sneakers grinding on a gym floor, wine glasses shattering on the pavement.
It was reciting the periodic table to drive away those thoughts, to fill the spaces in my head left empty and hungry–hungry for the collars of men’s shirts, for the top button so easy to just slide–hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Beryllium. Boron. Always, always, Lily would be there, pointing and laughing from beneath a spotlight, atop a stage by herself, and her laughter would seep out of my ears like strawberry jam. It was the noise of people chewing, people breathing, people tap tap tap tap tapping their feet, of their tongue and saliva and throat and teeth while they talked on and on and on while all I could think of is thick thighs straining against basketball shorts, of veiny hands so calloused, so rough, how they’d feel closing around my throat. Carbon. Nitrogen. Oxygen. It was the sloppy wet smack of Lily’s lips against Ethan’s cheek, louder even than the fireworks. It was bits and pieces of poetry, of what myghte or may the sely lark seye/whan that the sperhawk hath him in his foote? Now more than ever seems it rich to die. The crawling reptiles of the nameless city. Fluorine. Neon. Sodium. Magnesium. It was my voice. You’re a failure. You let everyone around you down. You ruin everything you touch. “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island.” Now more than ever seems it rich to die. Don’t you know they all hate you? Every last one of them hates you. Mom hates you. She wishes Lily were her daughter instead. Aluminium. Silicon. Phosphorus. It was the noise of making men smile, of the high trill of my giggle, fake as Kevlar, echoing in my head like a kazoo. Sulfur. Chlorine. Argon. “The satyr shall cry to his fellow.” You ruin everything. Potassium. Calcium. Scandium. You’re a dumb whore and want to fuck every man that’s nice to you; that’s why no one loves you. Titanium. Vanadium. Manganese. “The screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.”
For a year, my brain was like that, a cacophonous scramble. In class, I’d draw endless patterns of cryptic swirls and lines that felt like they meant something, but I never knew what. I’d write the same phrase over and over again, like “I shouldn’t be alive,” or “this is wrong,” until the page was filled. This was the only way to keep my brain from straying, from imagining every man around me exhausted and satisfied, spread out on my flannel sheets, smiling up at me and talking about “next time,” as if there’d ever actually be a next time.
I found a temporary solution, aside from day-drinking: seeing someone naked for the first time, shattering the mask they wear for you. It made the noise stop for a bit. Once the mask is broken, no amount of bubblegum can make it whole again. After the thrill was gone, my brain would start circling the drain again. There’d be more strange symbols, more wandering around my neighborhood at midnight with a water bottle full of $7 moscato, more calling out to any ghosts that may be around to reveal themselves to me.
I tried to get help once, you know. I went up to Mom on a Saturday, during a rare time when Dad was actually home. She was in her bathroom, following along with a video on curling short hair. She’d always had hair damn near to her ass, but it curiously started falling out six months ago. This culminated in a very stereotypical “cutting hair in the bathroom mirror while crying” scene. It’s been an ugly hack job since, but she refused to go get it done.
I went in and sat beside her on the toilet lid and said: “Mom, I’ve got a bit of a problem.”
“Oh God,” she sighed, pausing the video.“What?”
“I’m really struggling with focus,” I said. “My head is too loud. I can’t think straight.”
She started the video again with the volume turned down. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, it’s like…hyperactive, but exhausting.”
“It’s all that coffee you drink,” she said, a dyed blonde wave landing across her forehead.
“I don’t think so,” I said, though she was probably not entirely wrong.
“People just have trouble focusing sometimes. Doesn’t mean you have some disease.”
“I didn’t say–,”
“Adults just have to find ways to deal with their problems, themselves. I think you’re old enough for me to let you handle this.”
“No, no,” I said, “you’re right. Kind of like how you cut your own hair now, no?”
She turned the volume on the video up a bit. “Look, Dinah, I don’t know what you’re needing here. You need to communicate.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, “complaining is fine and all sometimes.” She ran her fingers through her curls and over her bald spot, pouting at herself in the mirror. “But what about the solutions? What are you going to do to solve the problem?”
“I have an idea,” I said, “but I’m not sure if it’s the right move.” All I wanted in the world was for someone to stop me from what I was going to do. Say, no, you’re going to a therapist, or hell, even, no, you’re going to a camp for disgruntled teenagers, I didn’t care, I just wanted an out.
“Well,” she said, “then you need to figure that out.”
And there it was. The final nail.
I started to twitch a bit, to draw my legs close to my chest, to feel cold. “Well,” I said, just the way she did, “how do you propose I’d do that?”
“Isn’t there some girl you could ask?” she said. “Someone closer to your age who’d get all this stuff? I don’t know, maybe Lily? She’s older than you, but I guess she’d know better than me.”
Lily. Lily. Lily. Lily. Lily. Lily. “Why Lily?!”
“Well, look at her,” she said, “she’s got her life in order, a good job, a great husband, she’s about to be the mother. Actually, I’m sure she’d be a great guide for you. Now, your father and I are going to dinner. Would you like to come?”
“Nah,” I said. “You two go and have fun.” Hopefully, they’d get in a fatal car accident on the way. At least they’d finally be doing something together.
I went to leave, but she grabbed me by my elbow. Her fingers felt like cockroach feet to me. “No reason to be upset,” she said, “just talking to you like you’re a mature adult young woman.” She then cloaked herself with a layer of heavy, sticky hairspray.
Kid. Adult. I was either/or. With Mom’s knock-off Chanel No.5 filling my lungs, I decided I would choose which one I was. “Have fun tonight, Mom,” I said, and left.
If you were so inclined, you could hop on Amazon or eBay, and buy the following herbs: datura, belladonna, henbane, mandrake root, wormwood, tansy, mugwort, and clary sage. What you’re wanting out of these is the atropine, the hyoscyamine, the scopolamine, the thujone. You’d also want to get some sort of tallow–animal fats sink into your skin best. On Sunday, when the resulting salve is cooling down in your room, you could go to Church with your mom for the first time in years. It’ll make her so happy. When the priest gives you the cracker, don’t eat it. Slip it into your pocket and ignore how wretched and weak poor Jesus looks on his cross. You don’t worship weak gods anymore.
On the way home, you could ask Mom to stop at Wal-Mart, and then go in and buy a cheap wooden cross, and giggle and flirt with the dead-eyed cashier, knowing full well that you’d never touch him without getting paid for it. Once you’re at home, you could prepare by checking the astral chart for the day, and see if Mars is in Scorpio, if Pluto is transiting your twelfth house, if Algol is cruelly twinkling next to the Moon. You could prepare by reciting the Orphic Hymn to Hekate thrice, downing some of Mom’s cabernet between each time. When Mom finally passes out at 11:36 pm (and Dad is still “stuck at work”), you could dress in all black and sneak out the sliding glass door. Remember to grab the salve, the cross, the Eucharist, and a steak knife!
You could go to the place in the woods behind your house, where the ATV trail and the old worn footpath that marks the property line intersect. You could sit down at the crossroads. You could rub the salve on the bottoms of your feet. You could recite the Lord’s prayer three times backwards from memory, and then renounce your baptism, and put your left hand on the crown of your head and your right hand on your feet, and swear that everything in between belongs to someone other than God. The salve should be sinking in around this point. If you made it right, it should make you dizzy and hot, and your eyesight should start to flicker like an old movie. You’d then spring to your feet, crush the cross and the Eucharist into the ground, and make a demure little cut on the palm of your hand with the knife. You could rub the blood on your forehead and declare that blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb, and thus washes it away.
If you did it right, the wind will pick up at this point, and you’ll hear crows yelling in the night. The salve will make you fall onto your back and stare up at the world circling around you, like when you’d play Ring Around the Rosie and collapse and giggle at the spinning sky. You’ll be both lying in the mud and gracing the tops of the trees with your toes, flying and not flying. While you’re far, far away, you’ll notice Her approaching your body, melting out of the dark gaps between the trees. You’ll notice her black clothes, her black hooves, the black snakes that follow her, and then you’ll forget everything after.
You’ll wake up on the ground, shivering, in pain, the sun filling your dilated pupils. You’ll pull yourself out of the mud and hobble back home around 6:02 am. Mom will already be up, an old habit from waking up to make Dad breakfast before work. She’ll be sitting in the dark, in a thin pink robe at the kitchen table, with a cup of coffee in her hands and a blanket around her shoulders. You’ll think she would be angry, or at least confused, but it’ll be even worse. She won’t care at all.
You could do all of this, if you wanted. I however, did not have a choice. Remember that.
The place where the noise was in my head became a rain-swept windowpane. Something on the other side of the window began to show me secrets. I wanted money, so I mixed olive oil with gold leaf from Hobby Lobby, and rubbed it on a golden necklace I wore. I mysteriously found $200 on the ground outside an ATM. I wanted sex, so beneath the full moon, I gave rose incense and red wine to Her, and told her, finally, I see you, I understand what you have been trying to teach me, I know that you have chosen me! The very next day, I had whichever boy it was that I lusted after at the time, in my room, alone. What was his name again? Michael? Gabriel? I forgot my gym clothes at home once, so the next class, the teacher made me run laps. He broke his leg two days later.
Let me tell you, though, what truly proved it all to me. One day, Mom and I got into a bitter argument. Glasses were shattered and a slurry of gendered insults were flung from both sides, all because I teased her for having 54 apps open on her phone. I counted. 12 of them were Gardenscapes.
Afterwards, I was crying in my closet and I got a vision of a box full of eyes, with Mom inside it. There was a little cardboard jewelry box sitting on my desk. Years ago, Mom had bought me earrings for Christmas, tiny little reindeers with tiny little Santa hats. I threw them across the room. I hot-glued googly eyes to the inside. I made a little paper doll stuffed with some of her hair from her hairbrush. So much was still falling out. I bound it shut with a black ribbon and buried it beneath my bed.
Later that night, I was in bed when my door creaked open, and Mom tiptoed in. I shut off my phone screen and pretended to be asleep. Mom sat at the foot of my bed, and then wrapped her hand around my foot and squeezed it. I didn’t stir. She whispered: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Then, she pulled my blanket up onto my shoulders, and closed my door more gently than she had ever spoken to me. I felt like crying, but instead, I laughed.
It’s a shame, in retrospect. She didn’t deserve what I did to her, but it worked well then.
The next year, my freshman year, was full of rampant longings, non-taxable income, and fancy shoes. Whatever I wanted, I found some way to get. An A on my Entomology midterm? Got it. For that one cute guy I pass in the hall every day to say hi to me? Done. A professor to like me a little too much, maybe round up that grade two or three percent? All mine.
Well, I went home for Thanksgiving, and we spent more time talking about Lily and Ethan’s new baby than me. Whatever, fine. I don’t beg people for love anymore. When I got back to campus, I brought Jaime into my life. Jaime was tall-ish. Jaime had pale skin and dark hair and these thick rimmed glasses that I’ll be honest, I still have a thing for. He smelled like Versace cologne and seemed to have a bottomless supply of NASA t-shirts. Typically, men show a bit of resistance the first time I ask them to hit me in bed, but he just went right for it, and I loved him for that. Afterwards, he’d kiss my shoulder, ask if I was alright, and hand me a bottle of water, and I loved him for that too.
His binder was always messy, and his backpack had a layer of crumpled papers, granola bar wrappers, and broken pencil lead. He would show up at my last class of the day with a latte and ask me about my homework. I would repay him by sucking the life out of his body. All in all, a lovely arrangement, but at the end of the spring semester, I set him free. I thought it’d be as simple as snipping the little red ribbon, but there were…some consequences. I never meant for that to happen. His parents still blame me, and I guess I understand that. I still think about him, everyday.
As to why I broke up with him, it wasn’t a matter of being unhappy. Once the time came to go back home for the summer, the windowpane in my head started to rattle, like behind it something was trapped. All I could see was Lily, pregnant and adored, down by her dock, getting pushed into the lake with cinder blocks around her ankles. I saw her at the bottom of an oubliette, fruitlessly dragging her bloody, once-manicured nails along the smooth stone walls. I saw her beset by men made of shadows, and I saw her drifting into the vast expanse of space. Nothing I did ever made these images go away. None of the banishings, none of the bottles, none of the prayers, nothing. So what other conclusion was I supposed to draw? My queen was calling upon me, to do this one little thing. How could I refuse, after she had given me so much? I had to destroy Lily, and I knew just how to do it.
Home was different when I got back. There’s usually some sort of background noise: the grumble of the fridge, the 24 hour news cycle, the clack of a mechanical keyboard, or the rolling of a desk chair over the wood floors. It was completely silent–no wash in the washing machine, no dishes in the dishwasher, no commercials on the television. All the blinds were drawn and all the lamps were off, leaving the house hazy and blue, like time wouldn’t bother to come home either. There were half-empty coffee cups, the rotting dairy congealing into runny disks on the top, and plastic plates with desiccated crumbs and old grease slicks. I crept into Mom’s room. She was in bed, with her back to the door. Her room was already nighttime dark. I whispered to her that I was home.
“Oh, hi honey,” she yawned and stretched, pretending to have been napping. No one who just slept could’ve had eyes that tired. “How was the drive?”
I went and sat on the edge of her bed. “Not bad. You take a nap?”
She nodded, hiding a half empty plastic bottle of rum beside her, thinking she’s slick.
“Hey, um, do you wanna go get lunch or something? They finally opened a Panera Bread.”
“I’m good, hun,” she said, fake yawning again. “I’m still pretty sleepy. Might nap for a while longer. I was up late watching Ethan and Lily’s baby. But we’ll do something later on, ok?”
We didn’t go and do something later. In my room, I lit a couple of sticks of frankincense and turned on all the lamps. In the mirror I watched myself grow up in, I looked at my face, my body, at my long legs I hated in middle school when I was taller than all the boys. Something was different. There was something sharper in my features and lusher in my lips. My waist was smaller and my hair was thicker. Something was strange about my eyes; more than ever before, they were wider open.
One day, Lily was just in my damn house with her damn kid. Didn’t she have a job or something? I stumbled out of my room at noon, as usual, and there she is, all bright-eyed and awake with her un-frizzy hair and even eyeliner. Mom was still in her pajamas, stirring a boiling pot on the stove.
“Well look who’s alive!” Lily said. “Long night?”
I very much wanted to say: “yeah, your Dad wanted to go all night,” but I restrained myself. I told her I had been reading and went to the coffeemaker.
“Whatcha reading?” she asked.
The Book of Enoch. “The Da Vinci Code.”
Mom stirred the boiling water, around and around, staring at the wall. Isaiah was gnawing on a set of plastic keys, his drool dripping onto the floor.
“So, um,” I asked while pouring water into the machine, “what are you doing here?”
“Dinah!” Mom said, flinching like she’d stuck her hand in the pot.
Lily laughed. “Your mom’s keeping an eye on Isaiah for me while I get some work done.”
Yeah, I’m sure she’s gotten a lot of work done.
Mom poured a good half cup of salt into the water, and continued her staring. I wouldn’t have left Mom in charge of a succulent. “That’s sweet of her,” I said, “but are you sure he’ll have fun here? It’s not very…kid-friendly.”
She looked around, and wrinkled her nose just a bit. “I mean, you could straighten up a little bit.” She leaned in closer and whispered, “Usually, your mom has the place a bit cleaner.”
Lily did have a point. The carpets had a layer of dust and scraps of food wrappers. A pan from two weeks ago was still sitting in the sink. Flowers from Mother’s Day were rotting away in a vase, and the fridge was full of Tupperware growing furry carpets. Mom pretended to not hear, but I saw her look at the ground in shame.
Oh, fuuuuck you, Lily. I’m gonna fuck your husband.
I smiled all cute, and said: “Sure! Soon as I finish my coffee.”
“Thanks,” she said, flipping her hair over her shoulder, “you’re the best. So how’s college going?”
“It’s going,” I shrugged. “I miss it a lot already though.”
“What are you majoring in?”
“History and Philosophy.”
“Oh.” she said, “well, I guess you could teach?”
I laughed. “I have very little interest in that.”
“Well, what are you going to do with that then?”
Yup. Definitely fucking her husband. “Maybe law school.”
“It just seems like such a bloated field,” she shrugged.
“Well, you’d be a good judge, I guess. I’m sure you use your Architecture degree a lot nowadays.”
She works at a jewelry store.
She ignored me, and asked Mom if she needed anything before she went. Mom said no, and Lily, thankfully, left.
“You didn’t have to be so rude,” Mom said.
I said “your sweatpants are on backwards” and left.
Fucking Ethan was surprisingly easy. To be fair, I had about ten things working in the background–talismans, charms, petitions, spirits–to break him. I waited for a day when she dropped Isaiah off. Mom was asleep on the couch. There were crumbled chocolate wrappers everywhere. She had been wearing the same Tweety t-shirt for three days. I threw some dinosaur nuggets in the oven, made Mom a cup of coffee, and woke her up.
I left her slumped over the coffee, and put on the same red sundress I wore last fourth of July. It wasn’t too far of a walk, but of course my hoe ass wore heels. Plenty of grandpas tending to their lawns watched me stumble over the gravel, and I almost lost my nerve. Working in the dark, in the hushed corners of my room or beneath the Moon, that was easy. Then, the Sun watched every action I took, illuminated every step for whoever was watching close enough.
Eventually, I knocked on their blue front door. He answered still wet from a shower, in gym shorts and a white t-shirt. I told him, hey, I was out for a walk and wanted to see how Isaiah was doing. He stammered that Isaiah was gone and that Lily was at a friend’s. I didn’t ask to come in; he just let me. I strolled around their place, looking at all the toys and blocks strewn about, and asked about the kid like I actually cared. I mean, I did and still do, the kid’s cute and all, but the spirit that was moving me cared not for children.
Eventually, I asked if I could have a drink. He handed me a beer from the fridge. Too many calories, but I burned them off soon after. I flopped down on his couch and asked what he was up to, and he said that he was just relaxing. Lily had been gone a lot lately, and he enjoyed the peace and quiet.
You know the game. You chit-chat about bullshit and make each other laugh. You inch closer and closer until the space between you feels alive, like a semipermeable membrane just begging to be penetrated. We bonded over our hatred of grapefruit White Claws–raspberry is the true patrician’s choice–and how we suspected that the real Matthew McConaughey was killed by Big Automotive in 2015, and replaced with an industry shill. The actual conversation is never important. What matters in the moment you’ve wormed yourself close enough that he puts his hand on your thigh while laughing at a joke. I felt so powerful, then. I could smell pomegranates and cinnamon and myrrh and sulfur just like before. Crows began to caw outside.
Was it everything I dreamed? Nah. It was rushed and awkward, and he was much too quiet, too restrained. I moved his hand to my throat and he halfheartedly choked me for only 30 seconds. He said “ow!” when I bit him. Afterwards, he had that doting disgust–oh, you’re just so weird! So quirky! I was a fun little oddity, a sideshow act to tell people about. I was perfectly willing to be his unicorn. Even unicorns have pointy parts.
Throughout the summer, I visited him at least once a week. Each time, it was a new excuse. Lily doesn’t want to touch him anymore. Lily is too busy with her volunteering. Lily doesn’t like his hobbies. Lily doesn’t want to listen to his opinions on the creative direction of the DC Universe. Lily got mad at him for leaving a bowl in the sink. Lily is never home. Why doesn’t Lily kiss him anymore? Why doesn’t Lily love him anymore?
I don’t know if I played any part in that, but I loved it. I listened to every sordid detail and led him closer and closer as deftly as I could to the D word. He never mentioned it, but I could see it in his eyes when he talked about college before he met her. I’d tell him he deserved someone who appreciated him, who would talk to him about anything, who would support his dreams.
But let me tell you a little secret. It’s going to mean fuck-all to you, but try and trust me here. There’s more going on with Lily than any of you thought. One time, I went a-wandering around their house, waiting for him to finish cleaning up in the bathroom. There was a closet in their house that reeked of roses. I looked inside, and there’s a black sheet, chalk, and a bunch of jars, some pink and full of dried flowers, some full of dirt and ash and nails. I saw one full of beads painted like eyes, with a little purple figurine in the middle of it, drowning. There’s a paper circle with seven candles on it, and in the middle, two small rocks, one painted red, one painted gold. The rocks were holding down a little slip of paper that I was just about to read when Ethan came back.
At the time, though, I was convinced that I was the one in control, or better yet, She was in control, the spirit who had let me to what I wanted, who smelled of pomegranates and mud. Whatever Lily was doing obviously paled in comparison to my work; otherwise, why wouldn’t she have found out about Ethan and I? So, I let it happen. I let it keep going.
The first time I came home, I was certain someone would know. Mom would spring up from the couch and call me a whore, or Lily would be there, arms crossed, fake nails tapping against her tan, smooth skin as I tried to explain where I’d been. Nothing happened, though, and that was worse. It was worse to come home and see their child crawling on our dirty floor, to startle Mom from her 3rd nap of the day which she quickly returned to. For hours I waited for anything to happen, a consequence, or a sign from the spirits, from Her, that they were pleased. Instead, there was nothing but stillness. No matter how many windows I opened, it stayed too dark, too cold, too cramped. It was worse that I was getting away with it. It was worse that no one stopped me.
One day, Dad was home and relaxing, a rather rare occurrence. Usually, he was plotting the next reason to be gone. There he was, though, in jeans as old as I was, cooking ramen in the kitchen.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked, sitting down at the island.
“What do you mean?” He said, sprinkling the shrimp flavor packet in.
“Usually you eat lunch at work,” I said, “so why are you home?”
“I can be in my own home! I fucking pay for the place,” he said, and I knew he meant it to be funny, but it wasn’t. “A man should be able to cook some damn noodles in the peace and quiet of his own home.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He sighed, and began to angrily chop some green onions on the cusp of going bad. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve been antsy recently. Can I ask you something?”
“Do you ever feel…watched? My skin is just crawling.”
I thought about the shadows that clung in every corner of the house, of the constant smell of rotten fruit. “How long has this been going on?” I asked.
“About a year or two, to be honest,” he said.
“Is that why you’re gone so much?”
He froze, and looked at the noodles swimming in their bowl. He sighed, and ran his fingers through his hair that somehow hadn’t started to thin. Finally, he said: “Yeah. That’s why.”
He took his ramen into his office and closed the door.
Mom was on the couch, staring at the black TV screen. A stack of empty string cheese wrappers and sugar-free Jello cups sat beside her. They were from yesterday. I hadn’t heard her voice in three days. The carpets now had a visible, shiny sheet of human hair sitting daintily on the top, like the crunchy layer on a creme brulee.
In the kitchen, the marble countertops hid a coating of bread crumbs, salt, and bits of dried up food. At least six glasses were sitting beside the sink, the contents of each dehydrated until all that remained was brown sludge. Greasy fingerprints covered the stainless steel fridge.
I opened the front door. Mom muttered a protest, shrinking away from the sunlight. Outside, it was bright, and clean, and clear. I stepped back inside, and it was dark again. Bright. There were kids skateboarding down the road. A cardinal was chirping in the magnolia tree. The air reeked of lilacs. Back inside, the air felt oily, sticky, like a wet bathing suit gripping at your skin.
That’s why Dad used the flashlight on his phone to walk around the house at night. That’s why I had to fumigate the living room with air freshener or else it smelled like moldy strawberries. That’s why they started going to Church more often, that’s why they’re leaving the lights on, that’s why Mom never leaves her room, that’s why Dad never leaves the office, I didn’t contain it, I let it spread, and it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault.
I closed the door, and looked again at Mom, slack-jawed and watching the blank screen intently. I still have the afterimage of what happened next stuck inside my pupils. It watches from behind my eyelids when I’m trying to sleep. I feel it just past my spine when I run up the stairs at night. I see it in the corners of rooms, and sometimes in the sky, or in the dark gaps between the trees.
Mom didn’t even flinch, but across the black TV screen flashed a large, bloodshot eye.
I ran to my room and spent three hours searching for the cardboard box full of googly eyes that were staring eternally at my mother. It was in a box under my bed, beneath a stack of old high school worksheets and dried out watercolors. I snipped the black ribbon with iron scissors. I held the paper doll in the smoke of copal, benzoin, and dragon’s blood. I had a funeral service for it in the backyard, and covered it’s grave with wildflowers and acorns. I said Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, and then spent an hour making and bathing in holy water. I called out to the archangels, and they did not answer–but why would they? The demon I worshipped had begun to leak out of my pores like a dumpster on a summer afternoon. I bought an abundance of white candles and memorized an exorcism. I learned every dumb banishing ritual I could and did each nine times. I went around the house sprinkling salt on every windowsill, on every doorway. For three days, I fasted, and abstained from alcohol, from masturbation, from the company of men. I called upon all the forces of divinity I knew: the god-names of the Lord kept unuttered, the archangels, Zeus and Jupiter…but still, the rot in me remained. I renounced the mother of demons, the screech owl, but images of Lily still crept into my mind. I still wanted nothing more than to destroy her.
The first time I left my room, I noticed that it smelled decent; it smelled dimly of a cinnamon candle. I went downstairs, and the kitchen was clean and the dishwasher was churning softly. Dad was rummaging through the fridge for a grape soda. Mom was curled up on the couch beneath a blanket, watching some nature documentary on Netflix. He went and sat next to her, and kissed her forehead.
“Hey, you two,” I said, smiling like an idiot, sitting down in a recliner.
“Hi, hun,” Mom said. “What have you been up to? It feels like I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“Just been preoccupied.”
We sat and watched wild dogs hunting wildebeest, whales nursing their young, and birds of paradise dancing and singing. Mom got up and made popcorn at one point. Dad threw it in the air and caught it in his mouth, and then I tried to do it, and repeatedly failed, and we all laughed. I went back upstairs and cried for an hour.
The last time we all sat together like that was on my 13th birthday when we went out to O’Charley’s. Mom got the wrong order, ate half of it, and then asked the waitress if she knew how to read. Dad had four Mai Tais. They did not sing me happy birthday.
The next morning, I was making tea to stave off a caffeine headache and Mom waltzed into the kitchen. Her hair was done, her nails were painted, and she was wearing a pretty purple dress. She smiled, and rubbed my shoulder, and said: “That looks good.”
It was like those videos of dogs before and after getting adopted. She was clean. She was alive. I had left her in that box for two years–and worse, wasting away in her room, staring into the abyss. How long had it taken to remove the stinger I left in her?
“You look great today,” I said.
She smiled. I almost cried again. “Thanks, hun. I’m thinking about heading over to my sister’s for the weekend. Would you like to come?”
I wanted to. I wanted to so bad, but she had spent two years burdened by my influence. Maybe being away from me, away from this house would be good for her. Besides, what had I done to deserve to go? I need you to understand–in that moment, my decision to stay was entirely, completely unselfish. I was punishing myself.
“Nah, I have plans with some friends,” I said, “but you go and have fun. You deserve it.” And I meant it.
We sat and ate breakfast together, and she told me about how sorry she was that she had been so preoccupied, but something beautiful happened about three nights ago. A weight just lifted, and she had dreams for the first time in ages–dreams of golden cherubs and sunflowers. All the while, Lily smirked and danced in my head, smelling like daiquiris and department stores. The harder I tried to distance myself from her, the more I craved Ethan. Actually, not Ethan, I guess. It was never Ethan on my mind. It was always her.
Mom packed her things and left later on, and I went up to Dad’s office. He was sitting back in his chair, scrolling through the news with a cup of coffee. I hadn’t seen him truly relaxed at home for a long time. I told him that I’d be spending the night at a friend’s house. That wasn’t my actual plan, but that’s what I told him. I didn’t say it to have an alibi. I said it because my existence had briefly destroyed my family.
The final thing for me to do was end things with Ethan and come clean to Lily. Maybe then, I’d stop seeing her face in my head with a smile much too wide, and teeth far too long. Since Dad deserved a calm weekend to himself, I’d go and stay at a cheap motel and spend the weekend meditating in a room devoid of anything but stock paintings of mountains.
For the last time, I went over to Ethan and Lily’s. I sat out in their driveway reciting the Lord’s prayer (forwards) and went up to the front door. Ethan answered, and I asked: “Where’s Lily?”
“You must’ve just missed her,” he shrugged. “I don’t know what her fucking problem is. We had plans. She just bailed out of nowhere. Why’d you drive your car here? People might see.”
“I’m not staying long,” I said, “and I was actually hoping Lily was here.”
He knew what I wanted to do; I saw that flicker of displeasure so quickly replaced, just like Mom’s on the fourth of July. “Why would you want to see her?”
“I can’t keep doing this,” I said, “and it only feels right for her to know.”
Isaiah stumbled out of the living room, and Ethan reached down and picked him up. As he turned to look at me, I heard a flock of crows in my head.
All he said was: “I’ll deny it.” There was no, “please don’t go,” no “wait, I love you.” I didn’t actually expect any of that, but it would’ve been nice if he at least pretended.
It all rushed back, the feathers, the horrific woman in the moonlight, the smell of myrrh and cinnamon and sulfur. The edges of my vision began to blur, and I began to shiver and laugh. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
I went to leave, and caught a glimpse of a picture frame with Ethan and Lily and all their lovely family, and I swear to God, her eyes were black. I slammed the door behind me, and got in my car. That’s when I realized I left my wallet at home.
It’s hilarious, isn’t it? You wouldn’t have heard a bit of this, if I had just had my wallet.
I go back home. It’s dark again. There’s pomegranates on the kitchen table. The smell is back, and worse than ever, like old potatoes, and that creamy, musky smell old melons get. I’m hoping I can sneak in and out before Dad notices, but it’s so, so quiet, except for distant whispers. I thought I took care of that.
The same greasy, prickly feeling is back. The same old noise is back. The crawling reptiles of the nameless city. You can’t do anything right. Tie Lily to a tree in the woods and leave her there. The screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. I go up the stairs. I swear, in the dark, there were lines of eyes.
I’m at the top of the stairs. I hear: Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. There was ragged breathing and high pitched groans. I look down the hall. There’s too many shadows for it to be midday. The one bright spot was the door to Dad’s office. As I crept closer, I figured out what the sound was–but Mom was gone.
I peek through the cracked door. Lily is bouncing up and down on top of Dad, holding him down, her perky little gymnast’s ass hardly even jiggling with every thrust, her hair fluttering around her. She turned and looked at me, and she didn’t look embarrassed or remorseful. She smiled. What myghte or may the sely lark seye/Whan that the sperhawk hath him in his foote?
I don’t know what happened next. I mean, you’ve shown me the pictures, but there’s no way I could’ve done that.
There was this wild pressure in my head, and then a blast of light, golden and stinging at first, and then smooth, like cherubs and sunflowers. Whatever deity I’d given my soul to was gone, whatever queen I had worshipped was false. That moment, my body was gone, irrelevant, human and frail and weak. I became what we are supposed to become.
I don’t know if it was God or some archangel or what, but it drove me to do what I had to do. I had just gotten my family back. Literally, just the other night was the first time my Dad said “I love you” to my Mom in years! I finally, finally erased my mistakes. And I was supposed to just let her ruin it again? When she already has everything?
She got what she deserved. She’s a fucking demon. A witch. Something. I don’t know anymore. Does it even matter what she is? Some things just can’t be allowed to stay alive. So, I beat the everloving fuck out of her with my dad’s golf clubs at the behest of Yahweh or some shit.
I know none of you will believe me, but I’ve told this same story to three of your guys tonight. Aren’t you starting to doubt yourself? Aren’t you starting to wonder if there’s anything more?