by Luke Boyd
Parts 1-3 appeared|
in issue 236.
|part 4 of 5|
Over the course of the next few weeks, you do start sleeping in the same bed as Chloe, but you never try anything with her. It just isn’t like that. She’s more like an injured bird or a rare artifact — something you know you can’t keep, but at the same time can’t turn over to the careless hands of a stranger.
So she becomes an entity that exists only in your presence, a shadow that flits through your apartment, keeping things cleaner than they’ve ever been, putting fresh flowers on the kitchen table each week, and never complaining about you working so many hours or coming home drunk after a double-shift. She absorbs Sachaa’s space and clothing first, then little by little her looks become less ethereal and more striking.
A little more Sachaa and a little less Chloe.
In less than a month her porcelain skin burnishes to a golden cream, then she dyes her hair to a rich chestnut brown and a week later chops it to shoulder length. She asks you questions about Sachaa — her hobbies, quirks, favorite foods — and each time you come home from work something is different about your apartment. Little things like new dishes and some framed sketches of Sachaa’s back up on the walls, and the tapping sound you hear is Chloe rinsing Sachaa’s paintbrushes in a coffee mug of thinner. The liquid is muddy brown and she swirls them around until a little whirlpool forms.
Stretched across the desk with the corners pinned down is a piece of parchment — a nighttime scene overlooking the city from Westmount Cemetery. At first glance you recognize the watercolor because it’s almost identical to one of Sachaa’s that used to be up in the hallway but is now missing.
The thing that bothers you most is that none of this bothers you. Not the way her looks seem to change from day to day, or the way she won’t answer the phone when you try to call her from the hospital. It doesn’t occur to you as strange the way she disappears for hours or sometimes days on end when you’re busy, then comes gliding through the front door in the mid-morning when the sunlight filters through the blinds and makes the whole apartment seem very film noir and lonely. The way her fingers trace across the nape of your neck when you’re sitting at the kitchen table looking at old pictures of you and Sachaa.
You and Sachaa:
At the hospital Christmas party.
Tailgating in the parking lot outside the Canadiens game.
Under a rain-soaked canvas tent, camping across Lake Michigan.
These are the oddities and loose ends that your mind never wants to deal with — the way Chloe will make food for the two of you, yet you can’t ever recall her eating anything, or the way there are fewer and fewer pictures of Sachaa in your old envelopes but more pictures of yourself.
And pictures of Sachaa’s artwork taken by Chloe — or maybe they’re Chloe’s drawings photographed by you, or by Chloe. Or your photos of Chloe’s drawings of Sachaa’s old photos — reflections of reflections of blurry Polaroids you never took.
The camera behind the camera.
It starts to get confusing like that, your apartment becomes a shapeless landscape of whispered confidences and understanding, linen scented bath salts and candles that burn for days on end until you come home from work to find them melted all over the coffee table and you know that Chloe is gone again and won’t be back until you start to wonder about her.
Then she’ll be in the bedroom brushing her hair and you’ll hear her humming and counting the strokes backwards from ninety-nine. You feel like you’re eating better and not feeling so fatalistic, and certainly the apartment has never been neater, and you’ve begun to get on a regular schedule for paying bills so there’s tv again. All in all the tradeoffs don’t seem so bad.
Then you’re eating cold vodka penne and sharing a bottle of pinot grigio with Chloe on a warm June afternoon when you tell her you would like to take some pictures of the two of you, maybe make a framed collage to hang in the entranceway.
She wraps her hair nervously around her fingers and stares down at her plate of untouched pasta and tries to explain to you how photos never capture what’s real. As you listen, your eyes go in and out of focus and for a second there is only an empty chair across from you and you’re gripping the edge of the table with quivering arms and telling yourself over and over that photos have no depth and no beauty.
Then Chloe is telling you she would rather draw the two of you and that she’s actually already started a project, but she’s not so eager to say what it is. She’s there again across the table with her wine glass in both hands, blowing across the rim of it and creating a low steady hum. The tapping sound you hear is her angel-pink fingertips drumming delicately on the glass.
You look down at your vodka penne and instead there’s a cereal bowl of pills — different sizes and shapes and colors swimming in milk. A huge ice cream spoon is fastened into your left hand but you ignore all this and ask, What kind of project?
No answer, just the wine glass like a chess piece across the table from you and from the bedroom a woman humming Somewhere Over the Rainbow and before this even registers you’re in the doorway cringing at the horror show that is covering the walls.
Photographs — every one you had of yourself, Sachaa, your parents, your soccer team from high school, old news clippings you were saving — they’re pinned to the walls of your bedroom, sideways, upside down, and covering each other. The ones near the window flutter noisily from the breeze and every photo that you can see in your first sweep of the room looks the same — they’ve all had the eyes gouged out. Some of the cuts are razor-precise and look almost surgical, others are slashed, taking halves of heads and entire faces with them.
You’re sure you’ve felt like this recently — like you should be upset or threatened — but somehow it’s just not sinking in. Chloe is on the bed and for some reason wearing your paramedic jumpsuit. She’s resting a tall cup of steaming coffee in her lap and holding an unlit clove cigarette.
Next to her on the bed is a laptop computer. She giggles obscenely and asks you if you’ve seen her jewelry. You don’t know what she’s talking about but you slowly answer no and ask her why she ruined all of your pictures.
She looks up at you over the top of the coffee cup and sips loudly from the brim, answers full of sarcasm, Our partnership is a fragile ecosystem.
Somehow it doesn’t seem right coming from her and she knows you know it, so then her attitude changes and she crawls forward on the bed like a cat stretching. At the edge she reaches out to you and touches your hands that you realize are clenched into fists — you must be really angry somewhere inside.
She wraps her thin fingers around your shaking fists and asks very quietly for her jewelry. Then she pries open your cramped fingers and releases a confetti shower of cut-out eyes. They fall to the carpet in eddies like delicate snowflakes and a few stick to your sweaty palms.
Chloe is hushing you — as if you have some protest to make — but you just watch the last of the eyes flutter to the floor and start nervously humming a little snatch of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. You shrink away from her and think back to something stable — home.
The snow is falling lazily in steady waves as far as you can see into the darkness. It’s November in Wisconsin and the bitter cold hasn’t yet set in. It’s premature night, maybe five or six o’clock, and you’re standing under a streetlight looking up into the dull orange glow and watching the snow coming like forever.
When you stand there long enough you start to see individual flakes and you can follow their paths from the darkness of the sky through the halo of vague orange light, then silently to the padded bed at your feet. Your eyes lose focus and you can’t make out the individual flakes anymore, it’s just a sheet of static, blank snow.
The tapping sound you hear is a loose chain hitting the wheel-well of a truck that is slowly coming towards you down the empty street. An orange siren atop the cab throws cold beams out into the falling silence.
You move to the side as the truck glides through and when it’s next to you the window squeaks down and a bearded man leans out. Hey kid, you’d better get home. The snow’s only going to get worse.
You count and every three seconds the light from his siren pans slowly across your face. As he moves on past you he holds out his closed fist and drops something from his gloved hand into yours, a starlight mint.
When he’s gone you unwrap it and the profanity of the noisy cellophane against the muffled night makes you feel like you’ve sinned. You tuck the sticky mint in your cheek and drop the wrapper in the packed snow of the tire tracks...
You keep running your tongue along the inside of your cheeks but your mouth is dry and nervous and the taste of the mint is definitely gone. You will yourself to open your eyes but Chloe is still crouched in front of you on the bed. There is a growing compulsion to smother her but the eyeless faces plastered everywhere make too grim an audience.
At your feet is a pile of photo snippets and you feel like you’re glued to the carpet. Chloe rubs your forehead and brushes your hair away and hushes you like a little boy and you still haven’t said anything yet, then one of her hands is holding your chin very rigidly and she’s looking right at you or maybe through you as she lightly presses your eyelids shut.
She begins to hum again Somewhere Over the Rainbow but it’s more of a song in your head than a noise in the room, and you smile tightly between her firm fingers and ask her why she always hums that. She doesn’t answer but she keeps humming and carefully tilts your head to the side like she’s appraising the lines of your face.
The humming stops and your face muscles flinch instinctively — your eyes open of their own accord.
Chloe’s face is just inches from yours and she would be staring at you except she has two empty black and blood-dried craters where her eyes should be. There is no facial expression but she speaks with compassion, You don’t need them anymore.
Her grip on your chin tightens and you’re afraid she might dislocate your jaw. You take two steps back and you’re against the wall and she’s right there against you.
Tap, tap, tap.
You can’t move your face enough to see where the noise is coming from and everything in front of you — the whole room — seems like it’s being sucked into the black pits of her eyes. Somehow they don’t even look all that unpleasant, just vacant.
She says again in the same imploring tone, You don’t need them anymore.
This time you manage to croak out the question, Need what?
The tapping you hear is the shears clicking as your peripheral vision catches the arcing flash of sewing scissors.
This is not real; this is a bad dream, a delusion — someone else’s deranged photo album. In your picture of right now the sewing scissors are lying on the kitchen table when you suddenly jerk to consciousness. You don’t feel like you were asleep, but then again, most of the time you don’t really feel like you’re awake either.
There is an untouched plate of pasta across the table and you can smell candles burning from the living room.
Chloe is not here — she must have left when you dozed off at the table. Time seems indeterminate right now — your watch says four-thirty but what four-thirty really means is anyone’s guess. You look at your work schedule and see an “Open” marked for today — you can show up if you want to, it’s time-and-a-half. For some reason you suddenly want to be out of your apartment anyway so you slop the leftover penne into a Tupperware bowl and go to your room to get your uniform and bag.
There’s confetti all over the tile leading from the kitchen and you inwardly cringe as you peer around the corner of your doorway.
The rustling of thick photo paper in the breeze of the open window.
Tiny elliptical cutouts litter the carpeting at the foot of the bed and two of the four walls are plastered with butchered photos. You tell yourself out loud, This is not real. Something Poe had written about the dream within the dream floats to the surface of your thoughts like a bloated corpse.
This is not real.
Patient and staring. Purple around the eyes and fingers.
This is not real.
Your jumpsuit is positioned on the bed as if you were lying in it — arms and legs spread wide, the front zipper all the way up.
Panic registers as: the feeling of your mental tectonics slipping. You dig through your nightstand for a bag of pills — Darbocets and Percodans and other odds-and-ends pick me ups — but it’s not where it used to be. Instead there’s a sandwich bag of trail mix with a note attached that reads, Try these. Love, Chloe.
You snatch the jumpsuit and your bag and run out the door but you’ve forgotten to blow out the candles in the living room.
The rent is overdue.
Run the dishwasher.
More art bond paper.
Leave a key under the mat for Chloe — just in case.
Don’t forget the vodka penne on the counter.
Chloe needs more charcoal.
Put the wine back in the fridge.
Where is your work phone?
All of these things at one time and you blow out the candles, scribble out a check, and scamper down the stairs with your jumpsuit trailing behind you — you can feel the heaviness of your phone in the leg pocket. You slide the check under your landlord’s door and there are tiny glossy eyes stuck to the sweaty palms of your hands. They don’t interpret or judge — they just see.
In the building trash bin out front you spot something familiar as you rush by — one of Sachaa’s sweaters — so you go back and there’s a whole garbage bag full of her stuff. Mostly clothing, but also some drawings, and her makeup from the bathroom cabinet. Tucked into the side of the bag is your high school yearbook with mangled pages sticking out on all sides.
The question isn’t that she did it — it’s why. You must have said something to her, probably something you didn’t even realize. Just like with Sachaa — always the minute details. You’re vaguely angry with her but more disgusted with yourself and you violently crush the bag back into the bin.
There’s an index card stapled to the side of the bag. In black magic marker: TRASH.
The handwriting is yours.
Copyright © 2007 by Luke Boyd