Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Dirty Golden Yellow House

On the first floor of a Colonial-style house constructed last century out of planks of old growth cedar, a monster is dragging a woman’s husband from room to room. The specific path this monster takes will be evident the next morning from the gashes in the wood floors and the splattering of the husband’s innards upon the plaster walls. Blood on the ceiling. The woman herself is hiding in the upstairs bedroom in her closet, face buried in the nylon hems of her patterned dresses, hands to her ears, a washcloth between her teeth so she can bite down hard on something that isn’t her tongue. It’s her fault this is happening, certainly, she would not deny it, though I think she was justified. The husband’s screams are muffled yet still audible as if his face has been swaddled by a tentacle. He is about to be eaten. Due to the monster’s narrow mouth opening, the act of eating him will be protracted and noisy and will take all night. The woman hiding in the closet amid the dresses is not a bad person though she is not a good person either. She had asked for this to happen but, at the same time, in the dark, in the night, with a monster scavenging the first floor, it is difficult for her to exude confidence about her decision. She is aware, were this the opening scene of a story, that her choice regarding her husband’s end would look indecent. But what is she supposed to do about that? Directly before sunrise, in the morning twilight, she creeps to the window and watches the summoned creature, whatever it is, burst through the screen door and escape, something limp and husband-shaped and dead dangling from its murderous jaws—

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

• • • •

He, being of the husband persuasion, never called what happened between them r— but favored alternate terminology such as making love or pokey poke. Part of being a fundamental human being, he explained, is to have intercourse where an orifice is penetrated on a regular basis, minimum once a week, by another human being, in this (his) case a husband, on a comfortable natural latex pillowtop mattress, penetrating an orifice of his legal wife, although he allowed for other combinations and other mattress types. I realize this is not the most fun paragraph to read but try and stick with me here. This is important. He has said this is important. The husband (such as he) cannot himself be guilty of an actual r— or r— like behaviors upon the wife (such as she) on account of the matrimonial consent which she has given and which she cannot retract. He has said, “Everybody appears to know this except for you.” It’s not that r— doesn’t exist, he argued. Of course it does. Unfortunately! But it exists only outside of their bedroom, in, for example, the industrial park on the far side of the city, or in the back alleys of the downtown, or in other foreign nations. In addition, he has faced real consequences to his health whenever the minimum conjugal responsibility wasn’t met. His heart muscle has hurt. He has felt his blood pressure skyrocket and his risk increase for depression as well as prostate cancer which, he further explains, can cause discomfort in the pelvic area. He talks a lot. I think he is entitled. It can be difficult, in the chronically turned-on shadow of his monologues, to spot what is naked and face down on the pillow. “A wife,” he says, “wants her husband to explore her inside and out with his fingers and make it an adventure for the two of them.” He is quoting somebody. “Shut up,” I say. He continues: “If you are not making love you are not in love.” I temporarily tape his mouth. He breathes through his nose and doesn’t care—

Let me try this again. This is to be a horror story, in case that isn’t clear. A husband and a wife of many years live together in a home that is metaphorically dim and cavernous. What I mean is—there is the feeling of caverns in the corners of the rooms and dimness matted in the composite crown molding that borders the doorways. The lights are all allegorically broken: lamps appear to blaze on in the morning and turn off at dusk. Along the floorboards it is as if wild rodents have smeared their urine in dust while the feral children swing symbolically in the closets from the high-quality magic pants hangers that guarantee the multiplication of space by 80%. I haven’t even mentioned the master bedroom, which might as well be draped in light abrasions and cheap matador curtains. The curtains which go flap flap flap in the cross breeze: they’ll be proverbially ripped to pieces within the year. As for the wife’s bathrobe, it has been confiscated again, hung in the attic rafters, out of reach. As long as she allows her husband whenever he wants, everything is fine for him. Remember that horror is relative and will depend on who is being scared. What scares her most is a room in the house. For him: a monosyllabic word. For me: domestic realism—

Too vague. Let me try this again. There have been conversations, though she, the wife, would call them monologues or ultimatums. She remains in charge of the picky children, the production of whole-grain meals, and the house. There is palladium light throughout the house, partly her doing. He is in charge of leaving for work in the morning and coming home in the dark. When he comes home at dark, he cocks his finger at her. The children are in the bedroom closet playing What Happens Next. “They’ll hear us,” she says, mistaking this for a choice. “I’ll shut the closet door,” he says. It’s not a choice. He shuts and latches the closet door. “I love you,” he says. There are some funny jokes about r—. I am saving them for later. “What is happening to you isn’t technically r—,” says the wife’s therapist and hold on, hold on, this is beginning to sound a little too familiar, like a part of my life I thought I had buried hundreds of feet below ground, beneath a concrete cap and a clay buffer and some dirt. Which I had buried multiple times, by the way, always at night, under a new moon, using a shovel and occasionally a backhoe, without artificial light of any kind, knowing what such a scene would look like to the neighbors if I turned on a light. Though no matter how deeply I dug, how deep I dig, my past each time has clawed her way out using her jackhammer elbows and her yellow teeth, this time emerging backlit to an industrial soundtrack, bloodworms in her hair, a straight razor in her hands.

I try my best to make small talk with her—what a dreary day, why won’t my neighbors’ dogs stop barking, they are always barking, let’s go poison the dogs, shall we—though conversation falters, as it always does, whenever she appears like this, holding a razor with accusation in her eyes.

I was joking about the dogs, I have to explain.

She rummages in her roomy pockets anyway for a pint of antifreeze.

The gray clouds lower. I’m not sure whether she intends for me to drink the antifreeze or for the dogs.

I wonder, I say using my gentlest voice, the voice reserved for my children when they’re hysterical, whether it might be time for me, for us, to move on?

Certain reviewers and readers have already started complaining about my recent stories, both their thematic similarities and their very specific view of relationships. I have examples. From one reviewer: Other than the overt political addition to the obvious social metaphors which helps extend this to novelette length, this [one of my stories] is exactly like the same author’s [another one of my stories] in being an overlong underplotted offputtingly narrated story of a repugnant asexual wife and a repugnant husband and their repugnant relationship. From another reviewer: It [one of my stories] is probably sending a message about something—menopause maybe? . . . I have no clue what the ending is supposed to mean. From a reader: My takeaway is that the story [one of my stories] was an exercise in catharsis for the author, and has no real value as a morality tale beyond—

My past self slams her (our?) body against the window glass. Has she not been clear enough. Here is what she expects in my writing: revenge, on me, on him, on them, on the structure of the story itself, and if I ever consider not placing her at the bloody heart of whatever I write, she will do this to me. She acts out what she will do to me. There is so much blood. In case I don’t understand her point, she smears my attic window with our blood, so our blood is dripping off the window onto the unfinished deck, onto my children who are trying to read library copies of graphic novels on the deck, who look up, I would rather them not see this, not to mention the neighbors—

I clean up the mess. I get the point. I’ll keep writing this story despite the similarities to my other stories. Though I would like a break. The wife in this story needs a break. We need some good advice and a break! “I need a road trip,” she tells her husband, who approves her request, so the next morning she drives herself and her kids to Indiana to her childhood home whose windows are painted shut, making the interior stuffy and recirculating. In the family room, in the evening, her mother delivers a lecture: “You can’t change people. You can only change your reaction to them. Just like people can’t change you. Only you can change you. People can make their own happiness by looking at things in a different way. Haven’t you made love before with your husband? Your husband is a heterosexual who needs and wants to make love with his wife. How is this situation different now than before?” The woman requests her mother replace the term making love with the term vaginal intercourse. “Why would I do that?” her mother replies. The woman’s husband texts hourly. Just checking in. She deletes his texts. At night in her childhood bedroom, the children bounce on the mattress and bite the furniture. Nobody sleeps. A study by a sociologist—a sociologist who, let me note, is also a woman—has proved it is more difficult to leave one’s husband after marital r— when one is economically dependent on him. The economically dependent wife in this story would like to replace the phrase more difficult with the phrase impossible. Statistics are interesting. “Don’t think of it as a choice, dear,” says her mother in parting after a breakfast of multi-grain toast and bitter coffee.

The wife loads her children into the family vehicle and drives back along I-90 east past the lake and the bird sanctuary and the county park with the water features while the kids play the memory game in the rear seat and gobble generic Pringles. “Various factors may temporarily impede this solution [of leaving a husband after r—], particularly the problem of where she is to live, and how she is to finance the break-up and her own life afterwards,” agrees a legal scholar. She takes exit 34a and pays her toll, which is exorbitant. The stomata open. While she was away, the neighbors staked colorful rainbow signs into their front yard: We believe Love is Love and Kindness is Everything. “Did you get my texts?” asks the husband. “No,” she lies outright. Her husband believes her. He thinks she wouldn’t lie about something. Oh my, all the trouble, it’s in your head, isn’t it dear? All we need to do is fix that dear little head. That last bit of dialogue is one of the therapists talking.

I’d like to provide some background and statistics on marital r— now. Please skip the next two paragraphs, resuming your reading with the phrase Later that month, if any of the following apply:

  • You consider interruptions like these an affront to your personal fictional escapism.
  • You think marital r— in a story is stupid because why doesn’t she just get a divorce so can we stop talking about it.
  • You are a marital r— expert.

In the U.S., between 10% and 14% of married women experience marital r—, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Yet I will bet my buttons that 10% to 14% of American literature does not contain marital r— scenes. Does even 5%? 1%? The only novel I can think of with a marital r— scene right now is Gone With The Wind; that was supposed to be romantic. Only in 1993 did marital r— become a crime in all fifty states. The reason it took so long: certain people, some of them lawmakers, didn’t believe marital r— was possible. Or, if it was possible, they believed the state certainly shouldn’t get involved (“These are personal things . . .”). Outside of the U.S., in forty-nine other countries, r—ing one’s wife is still not considered a criminal act. There are only 195 countries. In addition there are “r—like behaviors” (see researcher and sociologist Diana E.H. Russel’s R— In Marriage) as well as Andrea Medea and Kathleen Thompson’s idea of “little r—s,” none of which are technically illegal but still contribute to an atmosphere of compulsory and/or coercive sex in relationships and should be cause for concern.

Legally, for a sexual encounter to be r—, there must be physical force or threat of force, or else the victim must be unable to give consent, such as she is sleeping or unconscious. The proper term for what happened in the previous pages is more likely to be called, by the authorities, sexual coercion (defined by the Office on Women’s Health as “unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way. Coercion can make you think you owe sex to someone”). Though this also depends on who is defining the words “r—” and “sexual coercion” and “consent.” Advocates like author Louise McOrmond Plummer have argued that sexual coercion is a form of r—, and r— should be redefined as any sexual act without consent. “Submission is not consent,” Plummer writes. The boundaries of where consent ends and r— begins are still under debate and still broadening.

• • • •

Later that month, the woman we are following enrolls in nursing school. She never wanted to be a nurse. There are blogs where stay-at-home mothers such as herself in marriages such as hers attend nursing school then finish nursing school then become independent and employable.

Her name is Lacey Balan. That isn’t her real name. I’m trying to protect her identity. She carries the nursing textbook in her arms. Whenever the phrase situational influences is used in the textbook, she highlights that sentence. The textbook is heavy. “I need to study,” she tells her husband, highlighting situational influences, this time on page 127. She does not complete her assignments. Her husband says there is a difference between want and need. Her therapist’s advice: focus on his love which will radiate green out of his eye sockets, yellow out the pores of his shoulders, pink out of his chest brightly at that moment like everybody says it should. “What if I hate those colors?” Lacey asks. “Don’t be a picky bitch,” her therapist replies. Here’s that joke I promised. The husband says, “If you can’t r— your wife, who can you r—?” The wife says, “But you can r— your wife.” The husband says the joke again. It’s funnier the second time around. Other funny r— jokes can be found by googling funny r— jokes. A less successful search is funny marital r— jokes. Only two jokes came up. There is a definite comedic need. If we can’t laugh about it, then it’s not real. If it’s not real, then what is Lacey’s problem? This is the end of the humor section. “What is the worst thing that would happen if you let your husband enjoy your body?” asks a therapist. “The worst thing that might happen is I’ll kill myself,” says Lacey. “I meant your husband. What is the worst thing that would happen to him,” clarifies the therapist. “Oh. The worst thing that might happen to him is he would be happy,” says Lacey.

She is kicked out of nursing school. In their king-size Logan industrial rough-hewn bed, beside the velvet brushstroke decorative pillows in storm/silver that she chose and they weren’t even on sale, all bought using her husband’s income, she pretends to be someone else. The therapist, any one of them, suggests not doing that. Perhaps they misheard her: she doesn’t pretend to be anybody bad. For example, she doesn’t pretend to be a murderer—a woman who murders—in a suspense novel also called a thriller who is about to kill her husband out of either sociopathic tendencies or else revenge. She pretends, instead, to be a woman in a story (not this story, another story). While he pretends to be Humphrey Bogart, sad eyed and dead. He tells her to take off her clothes. He squints, tilting his head, holds her hands, mimes lighting a cigarette. Lacey’s therapist, one of them, has confirmed that gazing upon one’s naked spouse is a legitimate and common form of love. “Sweetheart, I know you’re scared,” the husband says. “Come on, I’ll be quick. I promise. Lacey, you used to.” He drops the act. “Here,” he says, “if you do not right now open your pretty leggy-legs, these are your consequences, which are legal to the best of my ability.” There is a relevant stack of documentation. Her consequences may include dissolution, dissolvement, disintegration, disappearance, impoverishment, and dispersedness. The man who is her husband considers himself a feminist in most if not all situations so he has offered other positions, so it is okay. “Why doesn’t she want to have sex with him why why why?” chants the chorus of women. “A medical condition? A hormonal imbalance? A species classification error? Why why why why why?”

If you are as confused as the chorus because you have never felt like Lacey feels in bed, and you can only relate to what you yourself have felt, let’s get down on the bed with her, so that you can better understand! If you already understand, please skip the below paragraph and resume your reading with The therapist would like.

We Are On The Bed With Her

Do as I say. Smell the sheets. The sheets smell of night sweats and lavender spray. Look at the sheets. The sheets are the color of ash and will not wrinkle no matter what is done upon them. Touch the sheets. The sheets are a satin weave for maximum softness. An embroidered hem adds poise. On top of the satin ashy sheets, a man is mounting her (us) from behind. The man is her (our) husband. To him, this fact that he is her (our) husband makes a difference. To her (us), he can be her (our) husband, or a stranger, or a distant acquaintance, or a relative. It would feel the same and as unwanted. As I am trying to explain how it felt to her (us), not him, let’s forget that he is her (our) husband. The important detail here: a man is mounting her (us) from behind and she (we) does (do) not want it to be happening. It should feel as if he has fur and fangs. It should feel as if he has fur and fangs and a rope. With a rope in his hands, he would have a few options. Those options should help us understand how the woman on the bed is feeling. It should feel like someone, anyone, is shoving something, anything, unwanted into her (our) orifice. It should hurt and not for any multisyllabic-medical-reason-with-a-pharmaceutical-cure either. It should hurt because it hurts when someone, anyone, is shoving something, anything, into one’s orifice that one does not want there. I am using words I hope you can relate to. “I love you,” the man whispers in her (our) ear under these frantic and suspicious circumstances.

This marks the end of the We Are On The Bed With Her section. Resume your usual distance.

• • • •

The therapist would like to be helpful. “Had you, as a child, ever been sexually molested?” she asks. Lacey says no, never. The therapist confirms it would have been easier had Lacey been sexually molested because that would help explain a lot of things. The other therapist is also helpful, saying essentially the same thing. Another therapist that Lacey and her husband both see for the wife’s marital problems says the same thing. She is an expert with the most comfortable and expensive leather chairs so. Together these women form the chorus of women I previously mentioned, linking arms stage left in the carpeted hallways of the counseling center, under the fluorescent lighting, lecturing in singsong about the importance of the male gaze love touch hormones lubrication love sensate masters johnson arousal pretend disorder one two three four five la la la. They’re entranced by their own professionalism that sounds like the territorial noises of the squirrels. At night, after her husband r—s her (not legally but using that alternate definition I mentioned above, “tell me if I’m really hurting you,” he says), he falls asleep deeply, his hot love arm of love draped heavily over her shoulder. The air in the room smells not of her but of him. He smells of crawl spaces and storage onions.

This cannot go on.

Or, rather, this can only go on for so long.

Lacey considers the red rope hidden in her drawer of underwear.

Should she finally hang herself in the bathroom.

She reads in bed for the next hour.

This seems like a good time to check your reading comprehension thus far.

Keeping in mind the last few pages, what would you have Lacey do next?

  1. She should go to the doctor and get her hormones checked then she should get her hormones adjusted so they fall within the range of normal then she should start anti-depressants. Then she should go to another doctor and sign up for therapy with vaginal dilators, which are (according to the Cleveland Clinic) tube-shaped devices that come in various sizes. Their primary purpose is to stretch the vagina. People with vaginismus use dilators to become more comfortable with, and less sensitive to, vaginal penetration then everything will probably be fine for the husband.
  2. She should take the kids and put the kids in the family car and she should drive west to the next state over which is Ohio and her husband will cancel the credit cards and she has no money.
  3. She should leave the kids and take the family car and she should drive the car north, without a map or destination, and her husband again cancels the credit cards, and she has no money and is alone.
  4. This is a ridiculous story and she should act like you would act, meaning she would act very believably.

I don’t care which decision you chose.

The question I asked wasn’t a real question.

I only wanted to remind you of what it feels like to be asked a question that isn’t a real question.

Other examples of questions that, in my experience, aren’t real questions: “Is this okay?” And, “Do you want to do this?”

But enough about me! I will do my best, from this point on, to be a proper narrator and stay out of my own story.

• • • •

Lately Lacey has been reading thrillers which involve a murder.

She likes the thrillers because the murderer is rarely who the reader has expected.

In one thriller, the narrator (a woman) was the murderer. In another, the narrator’s cousin (a woman) was the murderer though she had some help from a male cousin. In that book the woman was sociopathic though other times women murderers are not sociopathic. In another book, the crime is never solved.

These books offer her an idea: in this unbearable situation, why must she be the one to go?

She dreams of floods, wakes sweating. Her husband insists on knowing what she dreamed. “In my dream I went on a vacation in the mountains, then a bird flew down to me, a brown bird with an orange beak, and pecked my shoulder until it bled,” she lies. He believes her again, biting the skin of her shoulder playfully. “Like this?” he asks. He does what he did. Let’s repeat that exercise. Get on the bed with her. Lie on your stomach. Remember the fangs, the fur, the rope. There were men looking down from the sky, men in the moon and men’s faces in the sun. A lot of people were looking at her. Not, like, literally. But that’s how it felt. “I feel so loved right now,” the husband says, having always hated that word coercive. She had one twenty-dollar bill in her wallet. The credit cards, the bank account were in his name. “Is there something wrong with me?” Lacey asks one of the therapists during her next appointment. “Yes but that’s understandable,” replies the therapist, any one of them with sympathetic eyes. Lacey would have rather murdered the institution of marriage or at least its grammar but there were concrete difficulties with that plan. Please know that up until recently she had been very good, “good” being defined as allowing her husband to do what he wanted to her and not murdering him.

Before Lacey’s husband wakes, she slips out of the master bed and down the stairs and out the front door. Walking east, she pretends she is on a morning stroll, passing by abandoned tricycles and sidewalk chalk and lawns covered in the reproduction of broadleaf plantain. These residential blocks are long and shaded from the sun; it takes an hour to get anywhere. When she finally arrives at the house where Ms. Imogen Shea lives, she feigns surprise to have ever arrived there, though all along this had been her intent. Beyond the house is the woods, both allegorical and actual. There aren’t paths in the woods, there are wolves. We’ll save the woods for another day. The house is ominous enough: yellow, looming, dirty yet golden, covered in pollen and other sticky particles and overshadowed by semi-precious trees. Emotional women are known to wander in and out of Ms. Shea’s foyer at all hours, tissues to their noses, heads down, weeping about marital problems, their eyes crusty with inflammation. At night, stubby wax candles burn like fire hazards in the upper windows.

Lacey knocks on the old-world style front door.

A breeze kicks up. The silver and ruby leaves bang against the silver and ruby branches. The noise wakes the neighborhood attack dogs who start to salivate.

Lacey knocks again, louder and harder.

The door blows open.

• • • •

Ms. Shea is an older woman, gray hair, crow’s feet, a lack of collagen in her lips, loose wrinkled pockets in her calico dress. She does not call herself a witch, though every year of late she has accumulated a new and witchy quality so what else would she be. Last year, the smell of cedar resin on her skin. This year, an iris freckle. Before that a white hair curling from her chin. She is in menopause, in case that isn’t obvious, has been for decades, a state of being caused, in her case, by a ceremony of her own doing, her power based not on fertility or mothering or lactation but on the opposites: aridity, conclusions, and destruction. This brief mention of menopause does not, metaphorically or otherwise, make this story about menopause. I am saying this to clear things up for that male reviewer and any others who thought a previous story of mine, also about a sex-repulsed asexual wife and mother, was metaphorically about menopause. “Come in,” whispers Ms. Shea, motioning with urgency, her fingernails flickering with reflections of orange-red flame.

The interior of the dirty golden yellow house is dusty and cluttered, bottles of supplements stacked on the windowsills, succulents on the countertops, luminescent jars of non-perishables lined up on the shelves. In between stockpiling expeditions into town, Ms. Shea spends her time helping married women untraditionally with their intimacy problems. She leads Lacey to the living room, which is her helping room. They sit on matching armchairs. The room smells of autumn harvest air freshener though it is not yet that spicy cinnamon time of year. Lacey describes her ongoing bedroom situation. “I want you to kill my husband,” she says.

Ms. Shea offers an embarrassed chuckle. “Oh my! There are much nicer ways to say that.” She suggests neutralized, deleted, erased, or snuffed out—“Let’s go with deleted”—but wonders aloud if Lacey can afford her help. As these acts are never cheap. Though a bucket of uncut sapphires might suffice. Or a diamond pickaxe. The full moon? Or hurricane-force winds—

Lacey does not have access to such items.

“Then your daughter.”

“What?”

“Give her to me.”

Lacey laughs.

“Give your daughter to me and I will delete your husband,” Ms. Shea says.

“No.”

“Now don’t be stupid, dear.”

Lacey tastes bile in her mouth. Even if I did not get around to explaining this earlier, Lacey loves her daughter deeply. They take walks together. They read books to each other.

“What kind of woman are you?” Lacey asks.

“I’m not going to eat her.”

“No, wait. What kind of monster are you? Are you a monster that eats other people’s children?”

“I can give her a different life.”

“No!”

“I can give your daughter a better life.”

“No no no no no no no!”

Ms. Shea rises from the chair. She is taller than she was before, at least seven inches taller. Perhaps she has grown or perhaps she is now hovering off the ground. Lacey is afraid to look beneath Ms. Shea’s feet to see what is going on. “You are not the first woman,” accuses Ms. Shea, “to presume I work for the sole benefit of my heart.” She shoves the front door open. Already, in the haze of early morning, a dozen other needy women wait on the sidewalk. They glimpse Lacey through the doorway; they clench and unclench their hands. “Time for you to go home, make love to your husband, then take your own life,” says Ms. Shea, motioning to the door.

A flock of crows settle at the edge of the woods, filling the trees with bright energy and feathers.

When the crows scream, the sidewalk women scream back although at a higher frequency.

“Go,” says Ms. Shea, pointing.

The minute hand of the floor clock ticks forward.

Lacey shakes her head.

She gets down on her knees and shakes her head.

“Oh my god, get up,” orders Ms. Shea.

Lacey does not get up. On her knees, she asks, “Different from who? From what?”

“What are you talking about.”

“You can give my daughter a life different from what?”

“I think you know.”

The gray fingerprints of invisible and histrionic women color the crown molding of the doorway. The minute hand of the clock ticks forward again.

“I am not judging,” informs Ms. Shea. “Although if you can’t, on your own, for yourself, put your own affairs in order, if you cannot control what happens in the bedroom, your bedroom, to your own body, to your private internal areas—how do you plan to give your daughter what is of worth?”

In the intimate dimness of the foyer, Lacey begins to cry.

Mothers’ tears are worthless and commonplace and, generally, Ms. Shea would have ignored them, only today’s transaction, she realizes, will go more smoothly should Lacey feel valued and productive. So she goes through the ritual motions of tear collection, the choosing of the crystal vial, the sampling, the stoppering and the labeling. After which the two women return to the helping room, where a tea tray has been set on a low table between the armchairs, petite lady fingers arranged on a doily on a plate.

“I don’t want my daughter to have a life like mine,” whispers Lacey.

“Of course you don’t.”

Ms. Shea offers the plate of cookies; it is like eating a child’s finger.

Unfortunately the tea tastes like tannin and gore.

Lacey stares down at the coagulating liquid in her porcelain cup. She hopes she is dreaming.

“You’re not dreaming,” clarifies Ms. Shea.

“How will you raise her?” asks Lacey.

“I will raise her to be angry,” promises Ms. Shea.

“Will you raise her to be powerful as well?”

“I will raise her to be angry and powerful and towering and untouchable.”

“And violent?”

“Violent, oh yes.”

“And vengeful.”

“Of course.”

“And if anyone asks her to do something she doesn’t want to do, something that feels wrong, or feels worse, if anyone pressures her or threatens her or threatens to withhold—

“I will teach her to say no.”

“You will teach her to destroy whoever is asking?”

“I will teach her to destroy whoever is asking.”

“So if she is ever in my situation—”

“I promise she will never be in your situation.”

“But if she is?”

“I promise.”

“And you will get rid of my husband?”

Ms. Shea sips her thickened tea. “I will solve the problem of your husband.”

“Because I cannot seem to solve that problem myself.”

“I know, dear.”

There is no need to turn over the daughter now. Later is fine. The promissory note is a quick prick of a ring finger, a smear of Lacey’s blood on Ms. Shea’s dress. “That blood will stain,” Lacey warned. Well, that’s where the power comes from. Bring a photograph of your husband the following morning, Ms. Shea instructs. Lacey shows herself out. She is blinded by the light of the sun which has risen. The women lined up and waiting in the increasing heat look tired and crazy like they are about to play with fire.

The next morning Lacey rises early, before her husband or daughter or son wakes, and she walks again to the edge of the city and knocks on the dirty golden yellow house. Ms. Shea opens the door wearing the same dress spotted at the hem with Lacey’s delicate rusty blood. “I brought the picture,” says Lacey though she does not hand the picture over. As she is having second thoughts. She is having a new idea! Like what about turning Arlo into a different animal, like a bird! If her husband was a bird, he could perch, no problem, on her shoulder during the dinner hour. She could clip his wings every one to three months avoiding the blood feathers.

“I’m not that kind of witch,” explains Ms. Shea.

“I don’t believe you,” says Lacey. After all, Ms. Shea has semi-precious trees all over her yard, like in a made-up story where a woman with semi-precious trees has special powers such as, for starters, the power to turn a man into a winged—

“Enough,” mutters Ms. Shea and the clouds surround the sun. She snatches the photograph out of Lacey’s pocket and strides into the kitchen. Really she should be wearing her neoprene gloves. Such pictures, in such situations, have been known to dissolve into a splattering of acid. She puts on the yellow gloves and busies herself filling pots, adjusting the gas stove, turning on the fan. In the photo, Lacey’s husband, Arlo Balan, not his real name, poses in front of their automatic garage door, left eye larger than his right. “I don’t want this,” whimpers Lacey who has followed Ms. Shea into the kitchen, which is frightening, jars of pickled skin, and preserved hearts, and braided smoke, and bloody shirts, and a child’s left shoe alone on the linoleum floor. “Yes, you do,” says Ms. Shea. She’s probably right. After that, the older woman ignores her. There are fewer women waiting outside today. Only one woman, in fact, on her stomach, asleep beneath a silver maple, not that urban species of tree notorious for brittle splintering after storms, but a maple hammered out of silver metal. Silver bark, silver roots, silver cambium, silver branches. The heavy silver leaves fall upon the sleeping woman until she is covered. Covered and suffocated. Unable to claw her way out. What a strange and exhausting act this is, to arrange the disappearance of someone we love or loved or could have loved! What a loss of appetite.

Over breakfast the following morning Lacey claims a sudden contagious sickness so she cannot, for the rest of the day, take care of anyone or any living thing.

“Wait. I’m sick too,” Arlo says.

“Why don’t you lie down on the couch and get some rest,” suggests Lacey.

He seizes her wrist. “Why don’t you lie down with me and we won’t rest?”

She forces herself to cough until she coughs up something red. A piece of her heart or lung.

“Jesus,” he says, for once letting her go though he is unhappy about it, unsatisfied, his chest hurts, and so on.

Temporarily she moves into the attic and sits at the desk, not hers, a metal desk with a locked drawer on the right, the desk could belong to anyone, and she listens to her husband below stomping around the floorboards of the house. He does not consider himself to be a man of menacing bulk, so he is not menacing. She counts the storage boxes in front of her. There are twenty-seven. She counts them again. There are twenty-seven. She counts them again. There are twenty-seven. She counts them again. There are twenty-six. That has never happened before. A mockingbird lands on the skylight above her head. That has never happened before either. Two mockingbirds. They fight over a fat red berry. She practices expressions in the mirror. Look surprised! She looks surprised. Look shocked! She looks shocked. Look sad. She looks sad. Not that far away, Ms. Shea is talking to herself in her kitchen in that sing-song voice. The medium stockpot boils vigorously, its ingredients rising to the surface and bobbing in the turbulent water, the songbird feather, the moth wing, the paper scrap, the mouth cut from a photograph, the ear, the hand, the eye. “Why do you think your husband wants to see you naked?” one of the therapists had asked at Lacey’s last appointment. “I think we’re well past that point,” Lacey had said. The chorus of women therapists dance grimly in the attic, hitting the crowns of their heads on the sloped ceiling.

• • • •

“Okay, what exactly is going on downstairs?” asks Arlo Balan. It is late in the evening and Arlo and Lacey are in the second-floor bedroom together because Lacey had to leave the attic because Arlo made her, despite the fake coughing, because they are married and married people sleep naked together in the same bed every night so he can rub whatever parts of her he wanted. Her therapists have confirmed this as normal. Arlo is naked, Lacey wearing only her blue-green panties, which will have to come off, which is not unreasonable. She is on her back, under the satin-weave bedsheet, which will also have to come off. There are noises downstairs. The noise of a window or patio door smashing. The noise of a heavy wide mass moving deliberately across the kitchen floor. Such noises are probably what Ms. Shea meant when she talked of solving Lacey’s husband problem. “I have no idea what’s going on down there,” she replies convincingly. She practiced that line too, practiced looking honest and inquisitive. She tells Arlo she loves him. This declaration of love will hopefully negate whatever she is about to do. That’s how love works. Generally she is not one for violence. “Neither am I,” Arlo would say if they, together, were discussing a propensity for violence. The low tonality of the wind. Something breaks. A bone cracks. A wet weight continues to be dragged—or drag itself?—across the ceramic tile. “You should really get downstairs and make sure we’re safe,” Lacey suggests. She has an overactive imagination. “It’s probably the fridge,” Arlo argues. Instead of going downstairs, he tugs the bedsheet from Lacey’s body then removes her panties tossing them onto the floor with pleasure and he rolls heavily on top of her. He weighs fifteen stone. “I love you too,” he says. Lots of women want this done to them. The patio door will need to be repaired.

The next night the noises begin again, this time insistent and closer, not in the kitchen but in the foyer and on the stairs. Lacey repeats herself: is it not the husband’s job to leave the bedroom, thereby ensuring the family’s primal safety? The beating of insect wings, the rattle of a metal cart or carts—it is more difficult to attribute that evening’s performance to a kitchen appliance. “I’ll be back soon,” Arlo says softly, kissing her cheek with his chapped lips, his fingertips sliding across the skin on her neck. He leaves the room. There is, obviously, a monster in the house. The children are deeply sleeping, sound machines jacked up on rainfall, beach towels stuffed under the doors, so they don’t hear what happens, what is happening. Each sound intensifies. Not wings but claws, thuds. Arlo is screaming in his own unique way. Lacey, in the closet now, closes her eyes and sees patterns of light. Gray, gold.

• • • •

“My heart is broken,” repeats Lacey to whatever neighbor or relative comes to sit with her outside in the deck chairs in the coming days. That is not necessarily a lie. It’s not like this is a joyous occasion for her either. She, too, had imagined a different definition of love. Now she is not going to get that definition. Instead, she is going to become haunted. It’s only a matter of time. “I hope Arlo is happy, wherever he is,” Lacey repeats to whomever. This is the lie. She would not mind him suffering a little. If there are monsters, she would not mind them holding him down from time to time and toying with his kidneys or declaring enthusiastic love for his urethra. “You don’t really mean that,” says a therapist. There is no body. She exfoliates daily. The neighbors deliver plastic containers of soups that are tasty and freeze well. Her skin has never looked so good.

Her husband’s parents are comforting and sad. They send a series of sympathy cards, all of them containing the same message: He will always be with you. He’ll forever be a part of you. This sounds like a threat. She burns the cards, scatters the ashes. “He’ll come back,” insists Lacey’s mother. Another threat? She sells her husband’s business, a lawyer deals with the paperwork, and Arlo’s parents, who have the means to send monthly checks, send monthly checks. She opens a savings account in her name. At night, she can hear him, Arlo, in the bedroom, breathing through his mouth. It is difficult to get back to sleep after that. “I’m sorry,” she announces to the dark; this isn’t how she imagined marriage either. At the same time, there are improvements. Ghosts generally (85% of the time, according to a 1975 British study) do not touch a human being’s body, not in the same way that humans touch each other at least. When Arlo’s ghost approaches her at night, it is more of a temperature change mixed with the scent of burning charcoal.

Lacey continues seeing her therapists out of habit. One of them leans forward in her leather chair featuring an underutilized 360-degree swivel and asks how things are at home. This is the therapist who had wanted Lacey to understand her husband’s urges. All the therapists wanted this. If Lacey could have understood her husband’s urges, tragedies could have been averted. There is less to talk about now. “I’m fine,” Lacey says, not lying, only leaving certain pieces out. Arlo used to tell Lacey, “I know you’re scared.” Her fear tasted like a fancy French salt, according to him. She feels a pressure on her trapezius. He used to lick her. He said it felt every time like he was making love to a virgin which he did not mind. Even after multiple washings involving vinegar and Borax, the sheets smell like him. She washes the sheets again. Before she falls asleep, she feels his dead weight pressing onto the mattress. The next morning she washes the sheets again and, in addition, hangs circular mirrors from the doorways, burns sage, sprinkles salt, rings a bell. Part of the problem may be that Arlo’s hair still clogs the shower drain. She buys a bottle of Drano Max Gel from the hardware store, and though this product has been noted to contain potentially significant hazards to health and/or the local watershed, she dumps all eighty fluid ounces down the shower. His hair dissolves in a wash of sulfurous chemicals.

Still, she hears a light tapping beneath her bed, a scrape behind the wall, a bit of disembodied laughter that escapes in the evening from the corner of the closet. The chorus of therapists chides her for worrying about such sounds. Worry is the stupidest emotion. She is tired of being followed by a chorus. Let’s get rid of the chorus. She would like to know what happened. Is her husband in pain or not, is his body somewhere or not. Will she always be haunted. The woman in the dirty golden yellow house probably knows but she will not answer the door. The days are wonderful. She takes whatever the neighbors give her, piles of black tourmaline, a used bicycle, casseroles. Her daughter brushes her lips against Lacey’s skin in an animalistic nuzzle, and if there are occasional unexplained shifts in the house interior, it is easy enough to return the displaced chairs to the breakfast nook or straighten the fireplace tools after they topple over. Water ripples in a glass from unexplained vibrations. “Hello, Arlo,” Lacey whispers, swallowing the water. Their relationship is complicated. Her daughter climbs into bed with her. She will not sleep unless Lacey’s arms are wrapped around the girl’s body, and the girl’s little arms are wrapped around Lacey’s body, and the girl’s breath is on her face. They breathe together, the same air, in and out and in and out and in and out. I love your knees. I love your shoulder. I love your nose. I love your ear. I love your fingers. I love your elbow. I love your teeth. I love you! Her son creeps into the bedroom and vacuums the dust off Arlo’s suits, and actually this would be a happy enough ending should I stop the story here, only this is not the ending. When Lacey lifts the sheet to remake the bed, the rectangle of fabric holds suspended above the mattress, and her daughter laughs and laughs. “We are witches!” her daughter laughs. Lacey slaps the girl’s face. Not yet. Too soon. The sheet deflates. That night the girl is back to sleeping in Lacey’s arms, a child again, impotent and dependent, and Lacey thinks, incorrectly, that she will have more time.

A letter from Miss Shea arrives in a gory envelope which Lacey incinerates in the fireplace. It wasn’t a letter but a bill. The bill becomes due. Past-due. Dead birds rain down like fleshy stones upon the deck. Lacey sweeps them up before either child wakes. There are contractor bags of dead birds in the garage. The neighbor Carol complains. The smell is driving her dogs crazy. Plus other signs, the flaming comets, the hail, locusts, drownings, war, bloodshed, murder, looting, tyranny. Lacey barely notices her husband’s ghost anymore, she is so busy cataloging the forebringers and the portents. She finds a needle and an eggshell under her daughter’s sheets. She finds a water basin on her daughter’s shelf meant to hold the power of the moon. “What are you doing?” Lacey asks her. The girl, unemotional and curious, watches the sky in the east with clear gray eyes. Her eyes used to be brown. On the bathroom window, the words CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION appear as barbed lettering in the shower steam. Lacey rubs the words away. There are threats made of blood. I WILL KILL HER AND HIM AND spells the new words on the glass and these don’t erase.

• • • •

“We’re going on an adventure!” Lacey tells her daughter, best always to do these things in the morning at dawn, when the sky is red and threatening.

“Where?” the girl asks sleepily, her eyes like silver coins, her lips like bloodflowers.

“To a witch’s house,” Lacey replies. The girl startles awake and runs into her room to dress. Lacey follows. From the doorway, she studies her daughter’s body for what will be the last time. She is like a creature from another world, another undeveloped place. I am giving her a gift, Lacey reminds herself. This is an act of love. Anything done for love is good. “What do you even bring to a witch’s house?” asks the girl. “I don’t think you need to bring anything,” Lacey says, assembling a bag for the girl anyway, a set of polka dot underwear, leggings, shirts, a plush penguin stuffie, a photograph of the two of them in June. The wind stops blowing on the walk over. In the stillness they talk about starlight, and growing up, and losing teeth, and double digits, and love.

“Were you in love once?” asks the girl.

“Oh, once or twice before,” says Lacey.

“Will you be in love again?”

“I don’t think so. Not after today.”

They arrive at the dirty golden yellow house. “This is it?” asks the daughter with obvious disappointment, having expected a cottage built at the very center of the forest with a wishing well and a thatched roof. “But wait until you see inside,” says Lacey. They walk, holding hands, up the crumbling pathway. The door opens before Lacey can knock. “You got my messages,” says Ms. Shea. “What messages?” asks the girl. “I got your messages,” says Lacey. “I can take it from here,” says Ms. Shea. “I would like to come inside,” says Lacey, trying to get inside. Ms. Shea blocks her way. “You can’t come inside anymore,” Ms. Shea says. The girl tugs on her mother’s arm. “Let’s go, Mom,” the girl says. “I’m talking about your mother, not you. I’m glad you’re here,” says Ms. Shea. “Let’s go home,” says the girl. “You must be hungry,” says Ms. Shea. “Let’s go now,” says the girl. “I have porridge inside with a pitcher of cream,” says Ms. Shea. “Or scones. Do you like scones? And strawberries in crystalized sugar. And all sorts of mushrooms and eggs.” The house smells like soil and berries today. It smells like a burial. The girl tugs harder on Lacey’s arm and turns to go. Ms. Shea grabs the girl’s shoulders. “Mom?” asks the girl. Already Lacey has taken a step backward. She takes another step. This second step is harder than the first. The third step will be harder than the second, and so on. Ms. Shea keeps her arms secured around the girl’s chest. “Mom!” The girl is screaming. Ms. Shea holds a crystal vial to the girl’s cheek and catches every tear. The tears of a girl whose mother is leaving her are so valuable. “Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!” Lacey turns and runs. The morning newspapers are delivered into the neighbors’ driveways as if this is typical. Thump thump thump thump.

The first night after Lacey loses her daughter, she doesn’t wash the sheets. Her bed smells like her daughter’s hair. Then, as before, she washes the sheets multiple times in hot water using more than the recommended amount of bleach. In the fireplace, she burns the puberty guides she had bought the girl, as good as fantasies now, burns also any children’s book that ever showed a child eventually coming home. When her son returns—from where?—he will notice the flames and the smoke and will continue loping up the stairs. He misses his dad. The master bed explodes in the yard.

• • • •

Every day after that Lacey takes an afternoon walk. Really such walks are runs. Really, they are sprints. On her sprints, she races past the neighborhood landmarks, the friendly market, the transportation service, the maplewood garden, ending at the dirty golden yellow house. More specifically, her run ends at the rustic ladder at the edge of the woods beside the yellow house. The ladder leads to an observation platform in the trees that someone, a mother, most likely, in a situation similar to Lacey’s, built long ago. Such a platform, when paired with binoculars, offers an adequate perspective of Ms. Shea’s yard, which is fenced, private, overgrown, and impenetrable, green somehow even in the late fall. This is the only way Lacey can glimpse her daughter, if the girl can still be called her daughter (I am going to continue to call the girl her daughter), who is now on her knees in the yard, pulling plants out of the ground by their roots. Of course there will be more repercussions soon. Of course Lacey will have to pay more for what she did. She doesn’t mind. For now, she sits cross-legged and cold on the tree stand, content to watch the girl, this is on a Tuesday, pluck the ruby red leaves off the deciduous shrubs. On a Wednesday, Lacey watches her daughter grind the leaves with a stone into a coarse red dust the consistency of pulverized human bone. Already the girl looks different: older, straighter, taller, sharper. If Lacey did not have a son, she would spend the rest of her life on that platform in the trees, watching her daughter’s transformation through the pair of binoculars.

But, remember, she has a son! So, from time to time, Lacey drags herself home. He is less interesting to her. He is silent, hard to see, often gone. She leaves a plate of dinner food for him on the kitchen island. In the morning, flies circle the buttered corn and the untouched tomatoes. Apparently he does not eat food anymore. He is hiding objects under his mattress. The bulges are spherical, oblong. Organic material is growing in his room either in the cracks of light between the blinds or else it is something that grows perfectly fine in the dark. On the rare days when a clear sky and the sun keep him inside, he lurks around the hallways and the closets with an unsettling electric power of his own that Lacey really should be developing into a different direction, but she has a lot on her mind. Also, admittedly, she knows nothing of male development, other than there is hair and growth. She would ask her husband for advice only ghosts can’t talk. What a ghost can do: make the kitchen sconces flicker. The sconces flicker and keep flickering. Perhaps this boy child of hers needed saving too. Oh well, too late. Eventually, inevitably, not long from now, in the space between this paragraph and the next, he will join a family of wolverines and run, naked and aggressive, through the surrounding state forest land attacking rodents with his canine teeth and marking his territory, behaviors Lacey will have to live with. She continues her daily visits to the platform beside Ms. Shea’s house. Her daughter destroys another life in the backyard.

Spring arrives! The neighbors hang up their tulip signs and their smiling bunny flags, the birds are singing like this, la la la la la, and the pointed green tips of other people’s perennials push upwards through the cedar mulch. A package, wrapped with last week’s newspaper, appears on Lacey’s front stoop in a puddle of coagulated blood. Inside the package: a pair of tiny ovaries, each no more than an inch, containing hundreds of thousands of eggs. Lacey holds the ovaries in her hands for a while. It is like holding her daughter again. It is not like holding her daughter. It is like holding one future of her daughter, the future that isn’t going to occur. She buries her daughter’s reproductive organs behind the garage, where she used to bury her children’s pets. The vertebrae of a cat, the skull of a gerbil. The number of days left to her are dwindling fast. There are plants, trees even, growing in the house gutters, and it doesn’t matter. Her ghost husband makes the lights flicker again. It was always complicated with him, though at least, now, there is a sense of companionship. She is, at least, not alone, even if he does want this story to be more about his feelings.

• • • •

Lacey is on the observation platform again watching her daughter. Today the girl is on her knees in Ms. Shea’s yard, her apron pockets bulging with robin feathers, feathers in her hair, blood on her arms. She is humming to herself. She looks well-fed. She looks like she is taking up more room. Her hands are competent and quick and decisive and unsympathetic as she plucks more feathers from the pile of birds to her right. Not all the birds in the pile are dead. Behind her, the yellow house appears to be breathing, the walls contracting and expanding like a yellow lung. Later Lacey will not remember making a sudden movement or a startling sound but she must have done something because the girl startles and when she looks up, she looks in Lacey’s direction, and it is not a look of love. Unless this is what love looks like now. Lacey raises her hand. The girl doesn’t raise her hand. Instead she shoves wing feathers into her mouth then goes inside. The yellow house breathes in, breathes out, breathes in. Lacey’s feet and legs grow numb from the cold. When she leaves the platform, she takes the long way home.

The birds come late that afternoon.

A flock of starlings darken the sky around Lacey’s house, most of them streaming into the picture window in the attic then sinking to the ground, too hurt to get up again. Hurt birds pile on top of hurt birds. It is too bad for the birds. The neighborhood cats prowl the property line with blood on their tactile hairs. Lacey at first kills the damaged birds humanely with a hammer but there are too many. She stops trying and shovels any bird on the ground into a contractor bag and throws the bags in the back seat of her car. That neighbor Carol complains again. Her dogs are acting crazy. It’s only a matter of time. Lacey assures Carol of this: it is only a matter of time. She puts her affairs in order, meaning she stops the mail, cancels the newspaper, pours the remaining milk down the drain, then waits in the rocking chair beside the front windows, watching the dog walkers go by, the gray squirrels. Arlo’s ghost rocks beside her. He tries to be a flare of comfort to her, a floral scent. He isn’t all evil though he thinks she deserves what she is about to get because do you remember what she did to him? Do you remember what he did to her? She sits there for days and nights and hours and minutes, catching occasional glimpses of her son loping silvery through the borders of the yards like there are no borders at all.

Her daughter’s inevitable arrival is heralded by the sound of insects rubbing their wings together. Tiny thuds of winged bodies slam against the exterior of the house and fall into heaps upon the ground like a pestilence. Lacey hears bootsteps crushing the exoskeletons. The subsequent battering on the door is neither polite nor patient. She is proud to have played a role in the creation of this presence. She can picture eternal fire and granite. “Hold my hand,” she instructs Arlo’s ghost because endings in this story are always scary but he can’t hold onto her hand nor does he want to. There is the smell of cinnamon and sage when she opens the door willingly, allowing herself this final memory. Her daughter, in the city pool, learning to swim, wraps her terrified child legs intimately around Lacey’s waist before leaning back onto the water’s blue surface, eyes squinted closed, hands in fists. Lacey cradles the girl’s head, the girl’s back. If she lets go, her daughter will drown. She lets go. The girl is floating. “Look at what you can do!” Lacey tells her concentrating and terrifying daughter. Her daughter, floating in a cape made out of mica and male songbird feathers. She can’t be looked at right now without going blind. That’s how brightly this girl who is no longer a girl is flashing. This story is not going to end peacefully. Lacey, I’m sorry. I wish there could be a different ending for you or for me, one in which the annihilation of reality would not be necessary, but I can’t think of another way to reach the end. A defect of my imagination, sure, but I think it’s also a defect of the world. Here’s the best I can do: despite the intensity, you stare at your daughter anyway, her prodigal brightness the last thing that you will see or want to see. Your child nods, mouths thank you. How sweet. Actually, she doesn’t. If any familial gratitude is present, you, in the beginning of your final delirium, as your retinas burn, imagine it. Arms raised, palms open, crackling, the girl huffs and she puffs and we blow everything down.

Debbie Urbanski

Debbie Urbanski

Debbie Urbanski’s stories and essays have been published in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Best American Experimental Writing, Granta, The Sun, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her first novel, After World, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Find her at debbieurbanski.com or on Instagram at @debbieurbanski.