He had his mother’s prejudices and his father’s shoulders. She liked float and specialized in drift-prone ideas, but her walk had lateral power. The first time he saw her, walking down the street right in front of him, her hips delivered a direct message right to the target. They did not swing or flick back and forth—they rolled, like the sea, and he wanted nothing more than to be a sailor on that big blue. He caught up in two steps, grinned down at her and put his supplicant hands together. He did not crowd her or speak, and she said “what?” in a tone that meant beginning.
He bought her no rings or flowers, wrote her no notes. He relied on his hands and a certain kind of winking smile. His shoulders knew what to do. The fact that she cooked for him seemed another piece of the right news. But she was not glide-right-in easy. Often, she didn’t look directly at him when she talked, as though she were directing her remarks to someone standing beyond his shoulder, an alternative zone of importance just behind him. When she spoke of lottery tickets, feline memory, the aurora borealis, the way some furniture sagged too much, her glance would go galactic. Though he didn’t really listen to the details, he did buy a new couch, so the hips would have a firm backing, come any high water.
So it started and continued. Nothing went wrong, though she became more quiet. A step in the right direction, as far as he was concerned. His days developed an expectation of rhythm, a slow tide of beginning, middle and end, while the nights, once darkness fell into their bedroom, flew in rumpled and wild, full of juice and feathers.
Then one day she was gone. Nobody there when he came home. No sign at all. Her things cleared out, even her kitchen stuff. He stood still in front of the couch, staring into its firm cushions. Something he didn’t recognize and couldn’t explain fell out of him on to the floor, and though it was invisible, he knew it was there. When he could move, he banged on the next-door neighbor’s door. That leering jerk had managed to stand just a little too close and talk a little too long every time he ran into her in the hallway. Maybe she’d told him something; maybe she was even over there, just a temporary . . . But no go, despite how right it felt that she would be there, or in the closet, or on the fire escape. The guy was too relaxed to be lying, so he didn’t barge into the apartment, despite how much his shoulders advised it. He went back home and sat on the couch and called her best friend, a woman with hair that stood out from her head as though electrified, shocked into aureole. But Betts hadn’t heard anything. “Really?” she said. “Just like that?” He could hear her long red nails clicking on some surface as she talked. He felt the blood rush into his scalp. Maybe it was those nails, the tapping. Maybe it was that goddamn exploding hair.
That night, when he finally went to bed, he found a note under his pillow. The note said I’m sorry, don’t worry, I’m not mad. That’s all. He stared at it, kneeling on the bed. How could she . . . .what? What did she have to be mad about? He tore the note in pieces, pounded the pieces into the pillow and put his face in his hands. When he went to bed, he put the phone in another room, point of pride. During the night he could have sworn he heard the phone ring, twice, but when he ran to get it, nobody, and the call record showed no one. He didn’t call her. No. The next morning, he found a note in the egg carton. It said nobody could tell you anything. What the flying fuck did that mean? What kind of idiot leaves a note in an egg carton in the refrigerator? Those were his second and third thoughts. His first, as he slammed his hand against the side of the refrigerator, was all barbed wire bruise. He looked all over for the third note, but apparently the rule of three did not apply.
He began to hear mice scrabble in the wall at night and said out loud to himself we have vermin. He did not correct the pronoun. He called Betts again, and again. Then he turned up at her door, and when she opened it, he saw that her nails were short and unpolished. He couldn’t help staring at her hands. He invited her over to his place, and after she had cooked dinner, they sat down on the couch. “Do you hear the mice?” he asked. “We’re gonna have a stinking dead body in the walls one of these days.” He didn’t notice the pronoun. He stared at her. Betts looked back at him, her hair springing out like fireworks, like ragged tumbleweed, like revelation. “That’s not mice,” she said. “Mice thump and patter. It’s willow branches scratching against the wall. Outside.” Maybe it was the good news about the mice that made him kiss her. Her hair closed, a gold tickle, around his face, and whether it made a bramble or a nest or just a rest stop on a highway without road signs, his heart, still beating with the volcanic blood of yesterday, didn’t know.
It was a dark and stormy noon. Lightning struck the front door. It flamed and crumbled to ash. In he walked. He towered, he stuck out his lower lip, he reached out a surprisingly small hand with gilt fingertips. His blond pompadour obscured his eyes.
-You’re going to love me. I know everything about you. Which is your deepest crevice?-
Breathing seemed the best option, despite the stench. It had been years since she’d eaten a pomegranate, but she remembered the taste, red as blood.
-Come over here.- She patted the couch and smiled, demure curve. Behind the couch—it had been there a long time—was the stairway down. She’d kept her kids from going back there, but now . . .
He sat down, grinning, and reached for her right breast with his gilded hand.
-Wait. Follow me! I know a better place.- And she rounded the couch, just shy of his plucking hand, and ran down the dark stairway. No stumbles, she whispered to her feet, no stumbles. Ruthless, quick. (Whose words were that?) He panted behind her, surprisingly agile despite his paunch, his fat ass. Some mutter, then the roar: do you know who I AM? Gravel, a dark wind against her face. She would shut the door as he rushed past; she saw it ahead now. And then. She’d call the guard, the one with 3 heads (one head understood forest maneuver, one counted circles of hell, and the third had mapped the maze at the center of the earth). She remembered his name still: Caliban. Though half-covered in bark and tattooed by scorn and history’s ugliness, this guardian was faithful to light.
She ran, at each step a seed sprouting.
Tobey Hiller writes fiction, flash and poetry. She’s widely published in journals and anthologies. She’s the author of one novel and 3 collections of poetry; her next book of poetry, Crow Mind (Finishing Line Press), will appear this summer. Her stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals, and three of her stories (The Seventh Blue, Splinter, and Blue, Wide and Very Cold) have been short-listed for prizes. She recommends, to keep breathing, Rainforest Action Network.