The first time he saw her he didn’t think much of her. In fact, he barely noticed her at all. She moved through his vision like a fleck of dust dances through a ray, swirling in the sunlight, hardly there, intangible, unsettled and unsettling. He was in line for his medicine, in line for tiny bits of chalk he hoped would actually slide down his throat this time. She was at the other end of the room, looking slightly perturbed, neurotic. Everyone there suffered from some sort of neuroticism, some little tremor or tick. His hands hadn’t stopped shaking since the crash. Her gaze never stayed on one spot for more than five seconds.
He was recovering from a suicide attempt.
She was leaving the next day.
His diagnosis: depression. Hers: paranoid schizophrenia.
But he didn’t know this at the time. He was too busy shuffling, groaning, sighing, gulping down little pills that always stuck at the back of his throat, examining the slowly vanishing scrapes and nicks on his hands, wondering why he couldn’t have just died in that goddamn car.
First the dark room, the dark office, the nighttime blackness that filled the room except for one bubble of light. Light so bright it hurt his eyes. Fluorescence that filled the workspace with, not holiday cheer, but dread. Dread that told him he was sure to lose his job any day. Not producing they said. Not producing work that was “up to par.” What happened to him, they wanted to know? What happened to that good work he did for so long? He had no answer for them. He wasn’t sure what had happened, where he’d misplaced his talent. It was so much more than writer’s block. It was despair. A sinking, painful feeling in the pit of his stomach and a throbbing in the back of his throat.
Dark. Dread. Despair.
Driving. He wanted to run the car off the road. It was December; it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal for a disgraced journalist to have a car wreck when the roads were so icy and slick. He could just drive head on into oncoming traffic, he thought more lights burning in his eyes, then pain burning in his limbs, in his struggling heart.
Dead. Was it even beating anymore? Or had he already moved past that? Past not caring and past the depression? Was he already dead inside?
Yes, he thought. He was dead, and everyone could tell. They were all probably just waiting for him to actually die.
I suppose I ought to, he thought.
Driving. Depression. Death.
Then the bright room, the bright hospital bed, the light so white they singed his vision. He saw spots for minutes, feared brain damage, and then feared heaven.
The place he’d come to was anything but divine, however, practically celestial. Always moving through a cloud, through a haze, the people around him hardly visible, nearly blind. That was his life then.
The second time he saw her, the setting was not much different; random, obtrusive people milling about, making faces and noises, muttering to themselves and twiddling their thumbs, counting through lists and tracing familiar paths, feet scuffling against linoleum. He was there, right along with them, staring pointedly at his fingers. The thumb represented milk, the index finger: eggs, and the familiar rhythm of the supermarket plugging on around him, keeping the memory salient.
Ah yes, bread, the last thing on his list, his pinky, so to speak. He strolled down the aisle, cart clattering ahead of him, eyes fixed on his aim, averted from those around him. That’s how you behaved in the psych ward anyway; avoidance versus socialization, hospitalization versus civilization.
He wasn’t sure what made him notice her. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the place he was in, the atmosphere, the space; perhaps he merely recognized her tortured face.
Perhaps it was just fate.
She was there, ahead of him on the aisle, strolling, looking lost. They headed towards each other, some sort of collision course, carts rattling like roller-coaster cars in preparation of some grand display, some acknowledgement of terror or dismay. But they only passed each other by, separate yet conjoined. She completely unaware of his stare; his eyes affixed to her, her feet, her hands, the back of her hair. When she had passed he wasn’t entirely sure that what he had just seen was true, whether it was a hallucination, brought on by these peculiar circumstances, an apparition of a memory, a ghost of life un-lived. It made, in his mind, very little sense.
But there she was again in line to check out. He placed himself in line behind her so that he could watch, so that he could wonder. He remembered her vaguely, knew he’d seen her before. It took him a moment to figure out where, and when he had he was appalled. What was she doing here, he wondered? Why was she out, free, loosed upon the uncertain world?
She looked completely normal, or as normal as everyone else, as normal as he did. She paid for her groceries, water, saltines, and ramen, without casting so much as a glance in his direction. She kept her eyes downcast, her lips taught across teeth that were never displayed. She moved awkwardly through the throng of shoppers, short, jerking quick movements and a posture that expressed a specific external and internal rigidity.
He was curious about her, this ex-patient, ex-schizophrenic, ex-acquaintance; had they been acquainted? He wasn’t sure. No, they definitely were. He’d met her once, the first day he was there, he thought. Yes, she was sitting in the commons, and one of the nurses had brought him to her. That was really the first time he’d seen her, the day before she was preparing to leave the hospital for the first time. She’d come back later, been re-admitted. He sort of remembered overhearing some of the orderlies talk about it. They’d said things like, “If she would just accept her situation,” and “god, won’t the cook be unhappy to hear that.” He actually didn’t really remember their words, only the negative tones and connotations, the annotations they would put on her sheet about bad behavior, refusal to eat, violent outbursts etc.
But when he had met her, she had been friendly, lucid. She smiled when she saw him, forced a smile really, but it was a smile nonetheless. He remembered thinking that her teeth were sort of big for her face. Maybe that was why she no longer smiled; someone had come out and told her that her mouth belonged in a horse’s head and she now spent all of her days trying despairingly to keep her well-formed lips pulled over them.
She wasn’t bad looking though, he thought, watching her traipse through the parking lot, single plastic bag in hand. Not bad looking at all.
A moment later he found himself hurrying after her, gaining on her, trying, as nonchalantly as he could, to catch up with her. She wasn’t walking very fast; it wasn’t a difficult chase, and yet he found himself out of breath when he caught up to her. He touched her shoulder and they both paused, she looking a little stunned, he nervous and exhausted. He feigned being tired, placing his hands on his knees, exaggerating his breath. He didn’t know why he did it, but he did. She didn’t seem to know why either, and eyed him with such disdain, he nearly couldn’t bring himself to speak.
And then when he tried, he realized he had no idea what to say, no clue how to start. Should he re-introduce himself? Should he just jump in, assume she knew who he was?
In the end, he just said, “Hi.”
“Hi?” she repeated, somewhat quizzically.
“Do you remember me?” he asked, and immediately felt he should have started somewhere else.
She frowned at him blankly.
“From Kirkwood,” he said, and was happy he actually remembered the name of the hospital. He was pretty sure he hadn’t known it until the day he left. “We were in–”
“Oh yes!” she said. “Of course! How are you? When did you get out?”
“A few months ago,” he said, and smile burst across his face. He was so relieved that she knew him. “You left before I was released.”
“Oh, well good for you,” she said cheerily, and smiled without her teeth.
“Do you live around here?” he asked. “I’ve never seen you at this grocery store before.”
“I just moved here a month ago,” she said with a nod. “I’m actually quite a ways outside of town, and I usually go to a supermarket that closer, but it was closed today, and I needed Ramen, so…here I am.”
He chuckled lightly, “I see. You’re back on the college diet.”
She shook her head, “Oh no, I never ate Ramen in college. It’s just now.”
“Now?” he said curiously.
“Yes,” she replied, “now that I’m finally living on my own, having to support myself and all that, I mean, I have a job, and I’m working on commission and stuff, but–”
“Wait,” he interrupted, “I’m sorry. What do you do again?” He wasn’t sure he’d ever known before.
“I’m a sculptor,” she answered with a patient grin. “You remember the classes at Kirkwood?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. He thought he remembered seeing her there, making little people out of Model Magic. Or maybe they were monkeys. It had been so hard to tell.
“Yeah, so that’s what I do really. I also work as a teacher’s aid at an elementary school near here.”
“Teaching art?” he guessed teasingly.
“Naturally,” she said with a light laugh. “Between that and the commissioned work I do, I do okay for myself I guess.”
“So you’re a starving artist,” he said.
“Nearly starving,” she agreed, gesturing to her bag of ramen.
Then another idea took hold of him, one almost as insane as chasing her through the parking lot, or perhaps insane is the wrong word. Perhaps it is perfect.
“What if I took you out to dinner some night?” he asked, breathless again. “Just to save you from the ramen diet for one evening.”
She blinked at him, considering, questioning, cautious.
“Or, if you don’t like restaurants,” he personally was not a fan of them, “I could cook you dinner. I’m a great cook, actually. What if I made you dinner?”
She blinked again.
“You could come over to my place? I live like…fifteen minutes that way,” he gestured. “I could give you the address, or if you don’t want to drive all the way down here, I could come to you? You could show off your new house, and um…I’d love to see some of your work, you know, some of your sculp–?”
“That would be nice,” she finally stopped him. “I would love for you to come over and make me dinner.”
“Really?” he said with surprise, and realized he hadn’t been expecting her to accept. “Great. When should we–?”
“Would you like to come over tonight?” she offered. “There’s a piece I’m nearly finished with, if you’d like to see that?”
“Sure.” he said happily, excitedly. It’d been a while since he’d felt really excited about something.
“Okay, let me give you my address,” she said readily, digging through her purse for paper and pen.
“What time do you want me?” he asked, observing how her hair fell over eyes when she bent to write.
“Eight o’clock work for you?” she inquired without looking up.
“Yeah, eight’s perfect,” he said.
Then, her hair flew up, her eyes brightened, and with the tiniest flash of teeth imaginable, she handed him the sufficiently wrinkled slip of paper and said, “Perfect. I’ll see you then.” and turned to go. He watched her walk to her car, watched the back of her stoic head vanish behind tinted windows, watched it peel out and down the street, clutching ever so tightly to the page in his hand, that tiny rectangle of information that he would, ultimately, regret accepting.
The third time he saw her, really the fourth time counting their first introduction, which neither of them truly did recall, she had just swung the front door open and the movement of her arms and legs, the slow strands of her hair, the way her lips pulled completely back from her teeth when she saw him, that was how he wanted to remember her. That was how he wished he’d first seen her all those years ago. He wished, oh he wished, that this were their first meeting.
But there were large, overflowing grocery sacks in his arms, and she recognized him far too easily, and led him into the kitchen, and sat at the island while he cooked, and ate the food too eagerly. No, it was clear that they had met before, under much less desirable circumstances, but circumstances nevertheless, and this meant that they were doomed to repetition, and so like broken records they went through the same questions and the same answers, and both of them felt quite out of place.
When the food was gone they sat around the table and drank and laughed for close to an hour.
“Thank you so much for dinner,” she said gratefully. “I can’t tell you how much better it was than ramen!”
“And you get to keep the leftovers too.” he said kindly. She laughed reluctantly. They sipped. He wanted so terribly for this to work.
“Where did you learn to cook?” she asked.
“From my dad, actually,” he said. “cooking was one of his passions. He always said that when he retired, he wanted to open a restaurant.”
“So he didn’t really want to retire.” she joked.
“No,” he agreed. “Not really, I guess.”
“Did he ever get to?” she asked. “Did he ever open his restaurant?”
He shook his head. “He died before he got the chance.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know how that is. I lost my parents when I was in college.”
He nodded with a sad but resigned smile. For him, this was just another part of life, another thing to deal with, another situation, circumstance, experience. Just another death.
“What do you say we go take a look at the sculpture you promised to show me?” he suggested after a quiet moment. He’d sensed it was time to change the subject, and he’d been right.
“Oh of course!” she said keenly, rising from the table. “I can show you around the house while we’re up.”
“Great,” he said, and proceeded to follow her through the small dwelling. It wasn’t very big, but it wasn’t cramped either.
She had a nice kitchen and living room downstairs; simple furniture, nothing too gaudy or overstated. The upstairs contained her bedroom, bathroom and work studio, all of which he barely glimpsed. He’d wished to stay longer in the studio, look around at all of her little tools and supplies. The place was littered with those tiny human-like figurines, the ones he remembered from the hospital. They were posed all over the furniture in there, standing on all of the tables in various positions and forms.
He was fascinated by them and wanted to examine them closer, but she hurried him downstairs again, claiming, “There’s nothing in there really to look at.”
“So where’s this sculpture your working on then?” he asked, confused.
“Oh, down in the basement,” she said. “It’s sort of a secret.”
“Ah,” he said as if he understood, but he definitely did not.
“Oh, and sorry by the way, about Miles,” she said as a sort of disclaimer. “He doesn’t really like visitors.”
“Miles?” he said quizzically. “Is that your dog or something?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t have any pets. Miles lives below me.”
She had opened the door to what he had assumed was a coat closet. Instead, it opened onto a dark staircase. She flicked a switch inside the door that brightened the black room below. He gazed down into the suspiciously. Despite the comforting illumination of the overhead light, it still felt foreboding. He realized he was nervous.
She grinned back at him and started down into the basement. He followed her slowly, cautious of his steps. As he ducked below, he saw how broadly the room fanned out, how open the space was down there. He noticed that it was absolutely empty, apart from one large spot in the middle, which was occupied by an exceedingly large statue. It was as tall as a man, and looked mostly like one as well. In fact, at first he believed it was a man; at a glance he had seen it was so. A second later he had decided on its gender. Upon his third glimpse he realized that it was not, in fact, really a human man.
He had hardly noticed, hardly seen, the slight delineation of hairs along the forearms and legs, the cold lifeless eyes and the bared, snarling teeth. It was more animalistic than any man he’d ever seen, more like an ape, some type of quasi-human primate, like an image from lectures on evolution he’d seen in college.
It was formed entirely of clay. When he got close to it he could see the tiny indentation spots from her fingers, the smear marks where she’d pushed the clay, shaped it just how she wanted. He focused on these so he wouldn’t have to look up at the thing’s face. The more he thought about it, the more horrific it became.
“Wow,” he said in surprise. “This is…impressive.”
“Thanks.” she said. “We like it.”
“You and…Miles?” he inquired, scratching his chin contemplatively.
“Yes,” she said. “Miles particularly likes it. It’s his favorite of my sculptures.”
“Really?” he said. “Well, where is he anyway? I thought you said he was down here?”
She frowned heavily at him, “Of course he’s down here, and you really shouldn’t be rude to him. He has a temper.”
“I’m not trying to be rude,” he said defensively. “I just…really don’t see him.” He looked all around the room again, searching for this foreign form, this invisible Miles, half expecting him to appear as the ape-man, the model of whom the statue had been made. He was nowhere to be found.
“How can you not see him?” she asked. “He’s right–” she stopped mid-sentence, eyes wild, face suddenly pale.
“What?” he said in puzzled frustration.
She was gazing terrifically up at the face of the sculpture; her hands had begun to shake.
“What is it?” he asked, stepping towards her.
She made no reply, and it was probably good that she did not. She could not have really explained herself to him anyway. There was no way to convey to him what she was experiencing in that moment, what holy epiphanies she was receiving from above, what great commission her god had just given her. In her mind, it was just like she’d always imagined it.
“How dare you bring him down here.” the great ape chastised her, the ape with Miles’s voice. It rebuked her for breaking his rule, his only rule, and she did indeed feel guilty.
But this was how redemption worked, was it not? First she must do something terrible and then be allowed to atone for it. She had done the terrible thing, and now atonement was her only option. She only needed him to tell her what to do.
“He must not know about me,” Miles insisted. “You must make sure he will forget.”
“How should I do that?” she asked, knowing what the answer would be.
He watched on from beside the statue, beginning to feel very frightened indeed, very much like he was back in the hospital, very much confused about what strange world he had just descended into. And when she went to the basement stairs and pulled from a corner the very large shotgun she kept there, he suddenly knew exactly where he was.
But we can only know how much he knew until that moment, because very quickly after that, he knew nothing. Very soon after this final influx of knowledge, the brain he depended on was scattered across the floor, and she was screaming over him, shrieking at the statue as it looked down over the gruesome scene.
She didn’t know why she’d done it, why he’d told her to. And then she did the only thing she could think of to do, and who knows what gives us these hair-brained ideas, but she aimed the gun at the ape-man, and blew several large, explosive holes in its face and abdomen.
The next afternoon, police were on the premises. She had been taken back to Kirkwood for testing, having phoned the station a few hours before claiming to have two dead bodies in her basement, claiming to have murdered two men in cold blood.
“Sir, I’m sorry to tell you, but there’s no bodies down here.” one said to the other.
“What do you mean there are no bodies down here? That’s where she said they’d be didn’t she?” the other protested.
“Yes, but all that’s down here is a big sculpture of a man,” the first argued. “We even got the cadaver dogs down here. All they did was bark at the thing though.”
“What dog wouldn’t?” the second snorted. “That thing is ugly.”
“I kind of like it, you know.” the first observed.
“Just more proof this chick is a nut,” the second said. “When I called Kirkwood to send her over there, you know what they said? They said she was due back for a checkup.”
“Yeah. She’d been there before, and more than once. She’s a paranoid schizophrenic for Christ’s sake! But you know what she said when I asked her about Kirkwood? She said she used to volunteer there. She used to teach art classes to the crazies! That’s what she told me! Can you believe that?”
“Man,” the first sighed. “What were they thinking letting her out? Poor girl; now she’s gone and convinced herself that she’s killed two men. Thinks there are two bodies just rotting away in her basement. I feel kind of bad for her.”
“Yeah,” the second said, less than sorrowfully. “I wouldn’t feel too bad though. She’ll figure it out sooner or later. I mean seriously, how long can you be crazy without realizing it?” He laughed to himself and exited the basement with his partner, leaving the sculpture right where they’d found it.
[Image by Marijn Van Braak]