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I’m housesitting for my friend, Raimy, and her husband. They’re going to Italy for a second honeymoon, leaving behind a small Austin house in a ‘hip’, ‘transitional’ neighborhood. Raimy used the air quotes when she first described it to me via Skype. She doesn’t appreciate feeling like the White Plague, as she calls it, but here she is anyway. Here I am.
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Inside their house, they’re leaving behind a black-and-white cat, an assortment of cactus-type plants, and a recent roach infestation that needs dealing with. (Raimy knows I’ve never been afraid of bugs.) There’s a young pomegranate tree out front that requires watering every other day. Raimy’s husband planted it himself. It’s not a Texas native, he explained, but well-suited to the climate. He showed me the tiny pomegranates just beginning to pop up—now, in the triple-digit height of summer. The buds are an angry, pinched-looking red, like so many fat baby lips puckered against something distasteful. There’s also a gigantic tree out back with two tiny owls roosting in it. No watering necessary.
Raimy trusts me implicitly. This is why she put me in charge of her entire physical home life, everything material that matters to her, for a full ten days. This, and because I have no pets or plants or house or marriage of my own. Just an apartment. The top floor of a Baltimore rowhome, last renovated sometime in the sixties. The ceilings are still made of those long, speckled office tiles, the kind pencils cling to if you spear them up at the right angle.
Raimy trusts me because we’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve cried on the phone together, reliably hated all the same people, shared secrets, and agreed we’ll move in together once we’re old and she’s inevitably outlived this (her third) marriage. And I agree, we’re close. But this doesn’t mean I’d trust me to housesit.
Raimy and her husband—Brad; I think this one’s name is Brad—both kept reassuring me that I’m welcome to anything in the house while they’re gone. Any food, any booze, any—they both paused, as if only then realizing the true extent of what they were offering. Really, they kept assuring me, I should help myself to anything, everything. But it isn’t reassurance I need. It’s boundaries. Like, Bluebeard-level boundaries. Because as they toured me around, I was already helping myself to everything in my head. My fingers curling to sift through drawers and closets, to rearrange the furniture just slightly, to stop showering and rub my oily face against the walls. I was ready for them to be gone. I only had ten days.
But people shouldn’t feel welcome to everything in a house, even when it’s their own.
Lots of people joke about snooping through drawers and medicine cabinets when they get the chance, but then when the chance appears, smirking at them from inside the darkened room, the cracked door, they keep their hands to themselves. They act normal, like they’re being watched.
This isn’t me. There’s no guilt for me, no fear. Guilt for what? Breaking some invisible, unsigned social contract? Maybe if I didn’t have my key, I’d feel more conflicted. But I do have it. What more is there to say?
As girls, we played over at Raimy’s house. Her parents were rich, her house was big; my parents weren’t, my house wasn’t. This caused only very occasional periods of smiling, friendly hatred. Big, though, isn’t really the word for her folks’ place. Cavernous is the word. Cavernous.
Hyper-modern, it felt like a giant’s shoebox that had been turned into a diorama, weighted down by random chunks of blocky, wooden furniture. Raimy and I were forever crawling under or inside of these chunks, carving them full of hearts, names, and other cave drawings. Her dad was a surgeon of some kind and, on the rare afternoons he was home with us, he always took a moment alone with me to lean in close and make me kiss his hands, his dry palms and knuckles, the webbing at his thumbs, whispering, “You see these hands, little girl? These are golden hands.”
I have only one full, clear memory of her mother, and it’s where I got my key, the reason I’m entitled to Raimy and her things, to cross any social dotted-lines that people haven’t bothered to color into hard, dark walls.
We were playing Zombie Hunter, which usually devolved into regular hide-and-seek, but with a romantic subplot. In this session, I was the lone human survivor of the zombie apocalypse, a tragic hero hunted by the freshly zombified Persephone, my one great love. To us, zombies were a bit like vampires: they could only be killed by being stabbed through the heart. Or, in our case, tagged by one of the horns from her dad’s tacky, plastic Minnesota Vikings hat. The hunter’s tools: the horned hat, an old magnifying glass stolen from Raimy’s dad’s study, and every leather belt we could find in his closet. The belts were worn around the arms, legs, neck, waist, head, everywhere, to protect from infectious bites. The magnifying glass was the only way for the hunter to see the zombie for what she was. Without it, she could appear utterly normal, a regular girl just having lunch, a T-O, doing homework. This is the true power of the zombie: to hide in plain sight.
Not so heroically, I had ducked into a back room to gather my scattered wits. (It can be hard to think when you’re heartbroken and conflicted about obliterating all that’s left of your beloved.) I thought the room was a closet at first—we’d have explored it already if it was anything more than that—but it wasn’t. Even in the windowless dark I could tell, it was a bedroom. A bedroom that wasn’t supposed to be there. That hadn’t existed only the day before.
It wasn’t like the rest of the house. The room looked old, like from a British period drama. It dripped with oil paintings set in thick, gilded frames. Beneath them, the walls were ribboned with dark, elaborately carved furniture, including a wide, canopied bed as for a princess.
The room was quiet, the lights off. I was sure no one else was there. But there was a funny smell. Funny like something was burning, except not in a bad, on-fire kind of way.
My heart crammed up into my mouth and my hands went itchy-slick. I turned to the bed and there she was, Mrs. Davies, Raimy’s mom, sitting up from under the covers. She had a pair of earbuds slung down around her neck and a silk sleep-mask pushed up into her dark hairline. It was her shoulders, though, that grabbed me by the throat and had me staring. Her exposed, moon-white shoulders, the tuck of her armpits, the bones in her throat, all sloping downward like some ancient cursive script into the heart-shaped neckline of a nightgown. A nightgown. We hadn’t even had dinner yet.
Mrs. Davies looked surprised rather than upset at my barging in. Surprised, or maybe worried because of how I was crouched in the dark wearing eight belts and a stupid hat. And it almost got me crying, right there, out of nowhere, because I suddenly couldn’t remember the last time my own mom had looked at me that way. Concerned. Gentle.
“Maya,” she said again, like a hug, “what’s wrong?” Then, in a stage whisper, “Are there men in the house?”
The question startled me and I didn’t know what to say. No? I don’t think so? How would I know? Apparently there were whole rooms I’d managed never to notice.
I shook my head—No, there aren’t any men.—and Mrs. Davies relaxed so dramatically that I wondered for a moment if she was making fun of me, or if maybe she wasn’t a ploy set by Raimy, a new Zombie Hunter twist. I held up the magnifying glass to make sure she wasn’t a monster. Clear. She was clear. Her relief was real. All I’d done was tell her she was safe, everything was alright, and she believed me. All she’d wanted was for someone to say those things so she could be free to believe them.
I made a face, embarrassed at the idea of getting teary over a person like this, someone who could be convinced of things by children, but Mrs. Davies must’ve mistaken it for something else, because she said,
“It’s sage you’re smelling.” She turned in bed and pointed to a wide seashell on her nightstand. From inside the shell, a thin string of smoke curled upward.
“This place,” I said, surprised at my own voice. I’d never thought I sounded like a girl before. “What is it?”
She sat up straighter, her chin, her shoulders. “It’s my room.” She held herself. “No one’s ever come into my room before.” She squinted at me, maybe remembering that she was the adult between the two of us. “What are you supposed to be dressed as? A beetle?” I looked down at my segmented body, self-consciously touched my horns. “Why are you squatting like that? Are you hurt? Did you and Raimy have a fight?”
I nodded, lying. I didn’t know what to say.
Mrs. Davies sighed as she took off her sleep-mask and earbuds. If she was dim or gullible, I still envied her. She was one of those women who will always be beautiful. Those rare sentient lilies. “Maya,” she said, “would you like to come get under the covers with me?”
She pulled the comforter back in invitation. Her nightgown was hemmed with lace, falling all the way to her calves. It wasn’t clingy or tight, but I could see the curves of her heavy breasts and hips as clearly as if she were naked. At that angle, the way she slouched against the pillows, her breasts were pushed into her belly, her body cuddling itself. A body someone touched with golden, girl-kissed hands.
“It’s alright,” she said, and I wondered if she knew about me and Dr. Davies. “It’s alright if you just want somebody to hold you for a while.”
I don’t remember deciding to leave, but I remember the hurt look in her eyes, the sound of the door clicking shut behind me.
We never spoke about it. Her invitation. Her secret room that wasn’t there the next day after school. But this, I knew immediately, was my key into every part of Raimy’s life. Because what could be more intimate than this thing her mother and I had shared?—a diary? A bottle of oxycontin? Please.
My first night alone in Raimy’s hipster dream home. It isn’t eerie at all. I’m not suddenly afraid of the dark just because it’s hanging around in someone else’s rooms. I’ve already made my inventory of everything that’s normal and typical and boring. I checked all the closets, no roaches or monsters to be seen. I put my dishes away in the washer instead of leaving them out in the sink. I checked every lock. I checked every faucet. Normal. It’s all normal.
I texted Raimy photos of the cat sleeping on their bed: She misses you already! which earned me three heart-eyed smiley faces in return. She texts me to let me know about this pig her next-door neighbors are planning to roast tomorrow night, how I could join them if I wanted. Her neighbors are just another thing I’m welcome to help myself to. I know she’s worried about me being lonely, about cabin fever, especially since I don’t drive and there’s nothing walking distance of anything in Texas.
But I won’t go and I won’t get lonely. For as long as she’s known me, this is something she’s never fully grasped: I don’t just love being alone. I am Alone. I’m the thing witnessing every empty room. Hearing all the trees fall. The lone survivor of every monster apocalypse. It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I know how to do.
Day three and I’ve already tried on all Raimy’s clothes, including her underwear and the garters she kept from her first and third weddings.
In her clothes, her silk and cotton against me, I can almost pretend it’s skin. It’s her. I’m Raimy, clean and whole and admiring myself in my full-length mirror in my bedroom where my husband sleeps curled against me.
I found Raimy’s vibrators: one in a box on the floor behind her nightstand (a big one that Brad likely doesn’t know about), and one in a black satin bag inside her sock drawer. I haven’t used them yet, but I’m considering it. It’s mostly the roaches giving me pause.
I don’t mind if the cat’s around, but there’s something unsettling about the idea that roaches might be lurking nearby, watching with who-knows-how-many eyes, maybe through little peepholes they’ve drilled, maybe pleasuring themselves to the sight of me, eating each other, balancing one on top of the other on top of the other. Endless writhing towers of dark, winged screwing.
I’ve been researching my new nemesis, The Roach. The options range from exterminators to thimbles of boric acid to bailing on this world completely and moving to outer space.
One particularly angry and poorly spelled Reddit thread explains how a person might use roaches for shooting practice. g0ldf*cker8 suggests bringing in natural roach hunters, of which I was surprised to learn I already had two: the owls and the cat. BBQ_Dad14 suggests I invite stray teenagers into the house, inducing them with the offer to let them smoke whatever they catch. (P1ngB0ng, a little too politely, has already informed the grill-master that these are a different kind of roach.) And though it doesn’t surprise me, it honestly kind of surprises me that no one’s suggested simply learning to live with them. Because of all the vile things we’re willing to live with, these little creatures, apparently, are where we draw the line.
They’re called nymphs when they’re young and rewarded with wings when they mature. It almost sounds romantic. Nymphs. Wings. Not at all like something that teems or swarms or cannibalizes. Something that breaks into cribs to eat babies’ eyelashes. Something that sneaks onto pillows to chew people’s sleeping lips, sucking away the moisture. A decidedly meaner goal than a cat sucking away your soul.
Some female roaches are even capable of birthing other females without being inseminated. Parthenogenic, they’re called.
Lying back on the sofa, the cat asleep at my feet (some hunter), my braless boobs spilling into my armpits, I prod at my soft middle. It seems unlikely that I could be a nesting doll. Do the lady roaches have any choice, I wonder. Is it consciously done? An act of loneliness and desire, or of a body overtaken as if by some Greek god?—a shining hand squeezing until a fresh nymph comes shooting out.
I close my eyes and see an endless supply of women made by women made by women. Their bodies quietly gigantic, doubling and redoubling as if they’ve been lined with mirrors.
My hand itches, burns. I scratch it and my skin breaks open beneath my nails. This isn’t so unusual; my skin is often dry. I stand to get a band-aid, only to realize I’m not bleeding. It isn’t blood underneath my skin. For a moment, I’m sure it’s the back of a mirror. But it isn’t. It’s a wing. A papery, rust-colored wing.
I look down at the cat, who is now losing all her fur. It’s falling out in clumps like chemotherapy in fast-forward. But I’ve been feeding her. It’s only been three days. (Has it really only been three?) Her left eye falls out with a wet pinch of fur and the raw skin of her empty socket puffs up around the edges like a tiny, red mouth.
Two wings are now fluttering out the back of my hand, a hard abdomen wriggling. I stoop to pick up the cat’s eye, to try and put it back inside her head, but it isn’t hers. Rolling on the floor. It isn’t hers. It’s his.
“Is it working?” His eye blinks up at me, reflected in a mirror. Sparkling blue. I can hear him smiling. “Well, is it working?”
The roach, at last, pulls free from my hand only to nestle back in once more. Not trying to get out, I realize, but to get comfortable.
I wake up, of course. The cat prances past where I’ve been sleeping on the sofa. She has all her fur and both eyes. I’m awake. If I keep repeating it, it’ll be true. I’ll believe it. I’m awake. I’m definitely awake. Is it working?
Day four: I thought I’d try the boric acid method. It’s supposed to lure the roaches in to steal a deathly bite, like leaving out dummy brains for a zombie. Brains that’ll scratch the zombie’s insides to jelly. Except then I remembered: Hey, the cat. What if the cat gets into it? I also considered just calling an exterminator, but there’s something about having strangers in the house, strangers who come ready to spew poison—I decided against it. Instead, I’m taking the advice of N0tY0M0ther63, burning a combination of sage and bay leaves, a little in every room. It’ll repel all kinds of pests, Not My Mother promises. Even ghosts.
I haven’t seen any dead bodies so far, but I haven’t seen any live ones either.
Raimy’s house isn’t large, certainly isn’t cavernous, but there’s still plenty of space. Trendy concrete floors, some exposed brick, and other touches of HGTV-esque ‘character’. All the blinds aren’t actually blinds but sheets of thin bamboo slats that you raise up and down like a projector screen. I hate these blinds. They’re sheer, like phantom hair, which means you can see things moving outside but none of it clearly, everything reduced to that flicker just out of the corner of your eye. And who’s to say how well the people outside can see me at any given moment? They know I’m here. They at least can see that, and that’s already too much.
The house next door is abandoned and seems to have been for some time. The paint is curling away from its exterior like your dead aunt’s skin creeping back from her skull. Several of the windows are cracked in a way that suggests either a shifting foundation or kids with rocks or both. The window facing Raimy’s house, the one that can be seen best from inside her guestroom, my room, is still hung with a bit of old drapery, faded white cloth that’s cinched in the middle so that, if you look quickly enough, it appears as though a woman is standing there, looking back at you.
In the den, on their main wall opposite the television, Raimy has created a sort of collage: A sketch of the Eiffel Tower, a typewriter, a hedgehog. A sad-looking woman done in watercolor, her limbs like branches, drinking tea. There’s no reflection in her cup. There’s even a mounted display box of a taxidermied mink. The look on his little mink face—he hates the sad woman. He hates how openly vulnerable she is. He hates his glass box; an eternity of being caught, of having nowhere safe to hide.
Family photos tick alongside these things, thick frames gripping the little four-by-six’s by their cheeks. Raimy’s mother laughs in one, sitting alone in her pajamas, holding herself, and I do a double-take because I recognize those pajamas, that nightgown. The one she’d worn in her secret bedroom. Studying her there, trapped in that gray frame, as if behind bars, I wonder if she ever knew about Raimy’s and my game. How the entire world outside her door had been infected with a deathless violence.
Until now, I’d convinced myself it was all a kind of half-dream, seeing her in that room that didn’t exist. Yes, I’d seen her—she’s my key, after all—but it wasn’t in any secret chamber. It was just the master. I’d surprised myself by ending up in the master because normally I avoided that room at all costs. But the nightgown—I can’t shake the feeling that this nightgown came from inside that secret room. She hadn’t bought it. She’d unpacked it from one of those heavy, ornate drawers. It was something the room had given her.
I pinch my forehead. I need to lie down.
Say the room did exist, what kind of married woman has her own separate bedroom where not even her husband is allowed? Where her husband would actually respect such a boundary? No one’s ever come into my room before, she’d said. I know heterosexuals are weird and mostly unhappy, but I don’t think separate bedrooms are normal even for them.
Real or not, if no one had ever come in before, if no one else even knew it existed, then how the hell had I found it? Why had I been able to see it, open it, and enter in? What could I possibly have in common with a person like her?
Day five. Water the plants, feed the cat, burn some sage, all the same. Go through the drawers again. Look in every corner. Open all the cabinets—I thought, for a moment, I might’ve heard a skittering in one of them. Not that I’m nervous or anything. Raimy’s right; bugs don’t bother me. What bothers me is this house with see-through blinds. A house that was supposed to be infested with roaches, yet I haven’t seen a single one. And what?—I’m supposed to believe sage and bay leaves are true miracle roach-aways? Or did they all just skip town as soon as I rolled in?
I watch the cat slink past, ignoring me. She doesn’t seem concerned by the lack of bugs. Maybe she’s even congratulating herself, taking credit. If there was something coming, something that’d managed to scare off even the roaches, surely the cat would be feeling it, too. Right? Definitely. The cat wouldn’t be acting like nothing was wrong.
Texting Raimy about it is pointless. The connection’s bad and been getting worse all week. Her messages have started coming in scrambled, a load of autocorrected gibberish. Blurry photos of her pocket, the ground, one of a blue sky cut by a plane’s sputtering, white contrail. At this angle, it looks like it’s headed for a crash. The internet’s been getting shittier, too. So much so that I’ve stopped using my laptop altogether and been reduced to watching what few DVDs they keep stowed inside the coffee table. Love Actually, Hope Floats, Sixteen Candles, and, weirdest of all, Where The Red Fern Grows.
I look to the smoldering crumbles of sage. Was it keeping the internet away, too?
I close back all the cabinets. I kick my own foot. I look at the stove. The sink. I open the pantry and close it again. I want to punch things but settle for slamming the door as I go out to check on the owls. Maybe they know something.
Outside five minutes and I’m already dripping. Because Texas is a great place to live.
From the ground, I can’t see the owls in the high knothole they’ve hunkered down in, so I get the ladder. (I’m not afraid of heights, either.)
On the ladder, I catch a beige glimpse of them nestled back in the brown darkness of their little den. A gentle haven they’ve claimed in one another. I call them Olive and Matilda. They’re in love. You can tell by the way they huddle together as they sleep. The entire tree could rot out beneath them, but they’d never lose their grip on each other.
It’s day seven, and the man across the street is yelling again. He’s an older black man from what I can tell through the stupid blinds. The neighborhood seems to be a fairly even black/brown racial split, now with some whites thrown in as ‘trendiness’ claws its way farther and farther out, more invasive than any species of roach. More relentless than the yellow, pressing heat.
The shouting man is the only neighbor I’ve seen at home every day, all day, like me. Everyone else gets in their cars after breakfast and goes to work, showered and dressed and expected. This man gets up early, but he doesn’t go anywhere. Some days he just stands on his porch and stares into the road, as if waiting for something to materialize up from the asphalt. Other days, he hauls out an electric fan, a six-pack, and what I can only assume is a karaoke machine based on the shittiness of the sound quality as he shouts into the mic.
It’s sermons, mostly. Hell and demons, sinners who’ll be combed out like lice, the world overrun by insidious forces, worms in the brain, rats in the walls, all manner of disease-spreading things.
Part of me hates seeing him like that, sweat running out of him, arms shaking, his thin crust of hair gone a hard, abandoned white. He doesn’t have any family? No one to take his hand and lead him gently back inside, into the shade, to sit him down and get him a glass of water? But there’s also part of me that enjoys watching him suffer alone out there, so desperate to be heard, so desperate to be taken seriously that he’d make himself ridiculous. There’s a part of me that hates everyone.
It isn’t all sermons, though. Sometimes he sings, old hymns like prayers, and there’s a haunting beauty to his voice then. You can tell he believes every word. He truly believes every word, and it’s breaking his heart.
Day eight: The house is full of smoke. I fell asleep with three different smudge sticks burning. I’m lucky Raimy didn’t have any smoke detectors, though I wish she’d told me so at the beginning. For all she knows, I’m already dead. For all she knows, her entire house has burned to the ground, her books, her plants, that little windmill sculpture I got her in Amsterdam, the one that’s made out of condoms.
I haven’t heard from her in days. My laptop isn’t even plugged in. What’s the point without internet? The TV looks at me blankly. The door in its frame. No one’s driven past the house for a full five hours. I open the windows to let the smoke out. No point in texting her again.
I can tell I’m dreaming. The first dream I’ve ever had where I know I’m dreaming. I can tell because it’s blacker than velvet outside, so black you could pet the blackness if you wanted. I lean against the wall, I’m tired, but the wall gives under my hand, pushing outward. I follow the wall a moment, pushing it out and out until an entirely new room has been created, right there in the side of the guestroom. It’s then that I realize: it’s me. I’m the roach. The one forced to tunnel secret safe spaces out of the walls. The one everyone else finds it so easy to hate. I look down at my hands, half-expecting to see antennae or a pair of spiny forelegs, but they’re still only my hands.
Because I can, I make the room bigger, rounding the walls as if it were a castle’s turret. The house fills with extra furniture for me to drag inside the new room. I expect it to be a chore carting in all this stuff, but it turns out to be easy as a click-and-drag. In this way, I flesh out my room with pre-stocked cherry wood bookshelves, a set of matching dressers, a vanity, a desk, a standing full-length mirror, and a wide sleigh bed.
An afterthought, I add a mini-fridge, an en suite bathroom, a pair of heavy double doors, and the final touch: sage burning in a wide, brass dish. Pests won’t find me in here, I know, but I’ve gotten used to the smell.
When I’m finished and curled up beside my fireplace—yes, it’s summer in Texas, but the AC is cranked up to something called “Winterfell” and the flames are mesmerizing—the pounding begins. It’s so powerful, the double doors start shaking even though it isn’t them that’s being beaten. —I know this somehow, the way a person knows everything in dreams.
It’s the woman next door. For a moment, I’m sure it’s the woman next door. The woman in the window, in the abandoned house. The drapery suddenly a rope, something no longer cinched about her waist but at her throat. She’s pounding at the window. She’s hanged. She’s kicking against the glass, the pane, the wall. She’s Mrs. Davies. She’s me. She isn’t real. She isn’t real. (Is it working?)
I burst out the double doors. I’m in the den, standing at the edge of the sofa—the front door shivers in its frame. I step toward it but then freeze, wait. I shouldn’t answer. I’m alone. I’m a woman alone in this empty house, the dead mink gone tharn in its glass box. There’s nowhere to run. But then I remember: I’m not afraid of the dead woman next door. I’m not afraid of her or the shouting man across the street. I’m not afraid of bugs or heights or being alone. There’s only one thing that’s ever frightened me, and he was white as presumed innocence. White as the shine on a knight’s armor. White as the teeth that chewed my ear as he whispered, Well, is it working?
Raimy’s first husband was your classic case of young love. Nauseating. Their love was like a pet, something soft and adorable they occasionally stroked in order to keep quiet. They still call each other on holidays.
Her second had a mansion, the ability to don a truly convincing British accent, and a pair of thick, manicured hands. She was with him for a full two years, but the only thing I remember clearly about that time, about that gigantic house, is the downstairs guest bathroom where the sink’s faucet was shaped like a dolphin. Flecks of blue crystal for eyes.
The way we’d all been drinking, it was my third piss break of the night, but I still wasn’t used to that dolphin’s crystal stare. I still wasn’t used to the way you had to really tug at the door to get it closed behind you. He helped me pull it shut that third time, following me in like a cat, a shadow, like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to accompany guests as they peed. It was his house, wasn’t it? Even though I’d thought of it as Raimy’s. Raimy’s house. Raimy’s husband. Raimy’s cold dolphin faucet that watched as he stepped up behind me, pressed himself against me, his tailored Zegna slacks, his smile, his slinking whisper,
“Well, is it working? Are you straight yet?”
“Please!” The voice comes from outside the door. “Please, God! Help me!”
My hand is on the knob before I realize I’m awake and this is real. I’ve opened the door to this man. This man is real. It’s Mr. Karaoke.
His fist flies out ahead of him, seemingly of its own accord, swerving and shaking like a moth; he misses me by a country mile. I don’t even have to dodge. Instead I jerk forward to catch him as he teeters, his entire body trembling. His teeth clatter as if he were freezing, but he’s burning up. His sweat shines in the porchlight and I lead him over to the couch even as he struggles against me, muttering something. He’s wearing a t-shirt with a breast pocket and a faded pair of elastic-waisted shorts. His graying tennis shoes have Velcro straps instead of laces. He’s so old, his legs are hairless as a boy’s. Once he’s on the sofa, a mug of water in his hands—the handle, I thought, might make it easier for him to grip—he finally looks up at me with something like recognition.
“You aren’t one of them,” he says, and that’s the first time anyone has ever said that to me. Because I’ve always been one of them. People figure it out eventually. But here he is looking up at me with watery eyes that have searched all their life for the sight of God, saying again, “You aren’t one of them. Thank the Lord.”
“Who is ‘them’?” I ask, suddenly remembering a time all too well back home in Baltimore, the first night I’d had a date stay over in a long, long time. We’d fooled around and fucked and fallen asleep on the couch watching Angry Beavers reruns, when a knock woke me up. Still half-drunk, I answered it and let a rando homeless guy in to piss. He could’ve had a knife, I realized later, talking him down as he tried making off with all my extra toilet paper. He could’ve had a gun. He could’ve been the last person I ever saw alive, and all because I’d opened a door. All because I’d let him inside the bathroom.
“What’s your name?” I ask, hoping it might calm him.
The old man coughs, gulping water. His chapped lips crackle against each other. “Russell.”
“Russell. Are you alright? Who’s ‘them’?” I take the mug back before he can choke himself.
“Them,” he says. “But you aren’t infected.” He grabs me, his hands quivering like doves. He squeezes my shoulders as if testing fruit at the H-E-B. “You aren’t infected,” he says again, convincing himself. Giving himself permission to believe it.
I nearly ask him infected with what when a car alarm starts shrieking. The cat snarls somewhere in the backyard. A window shatters down the street. A scream. A series of aching moans. And I know. I know. I can almost see them through the blinds.
I pull Russell up from the couch. It isn’t safe here in the open. I don’t bother explaining anything as I haul him out of the den, into the guestroom, past the double doors.
“You’ll be safe here,” I tell him. But he grasps at his heart and I worry it’s failing him. It’s running away from him, leaving him for his god. “You’ll be alright,” I tell him, because I know he’ll believe me and maybe that’ll be enough to make it true. He takes a deep breath, then another, and his eyes seem to clear a little. “You’ll be alright. I’ll find help. Just hold on.”
I cast a final, longing look over the walls of my hidden dream place. My room. My nest.
I pull my shield and horned helmet from their mount above the fireplace, armor passed down for generations of hunters. My shield, polished brighter than a lake, will show me who is a monster and who is merely in pain. Whose mouth is drawn open in a plea or in an urge to take a bite.
The doors seal shut behind me, a clenched jaw. And though I can hear the world falling into ruin outside, the mink now a fetid green terror in its box, clawing at the glass, the cat staggering toward me, its fur sloughing away in rotten clumps, I’m not afraid.
My wings crack open at last, a mere nymph no longer. My horns are undeadly weapons. My chance bellows for me just outside the door. No, I’m not afraid. Even if it’s only me in the end, the lone survivor. I’ll use my beloved’s memory to keep me strong. And when all is said and done, I’ll settle down with myself somewhere quiet and clean and cold. Repopulating the planet won’t require any help at all.