Fiction, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009
The house grew too quiet at night, holding its breath, anticipating a question Priya and I were afraid to ask. She took to pacing from the kitchen to the living room and back again, disrupting the silence with clacks of her walking stick against the wood floor. When she tired, there was always the hard cheeriness of the hucksters on QVC and HSN, extolling the virtues of skin rejuvenation creams, 4-minute ab workout machines, his-and-hers mittens. Finally, the sound like a sigh as she rose from the couch, made her way past the study where I hid beneath the pretense of work, into the bedroom.
Bumby scratched at the study door, begging to be let out. She could hear the muffled sound of the television through the walls, and knew the giver of treats was close. Shaggy orange and white fur hung slack around a massive belly. Her tail swished in precise arcs, displaying a nimbleness the rest of her body had sacrificed to my wife’s cooing.
I waved the tickler I’d been trying to engage her in vigorously, causing the little bell at its base to chime. She turned her head and fixed me with a look of withering blame.
I sighed. “Join the club, pal.”
That’s when I heard Priya scream.
I ran into the living room and saw her balled up on the floor. A sick, cold feeling blossomed in my stomach and tentacled outward.
“What is it?” I shouted, trying to pry an arm away from her face.
Bumby raced up the stairs towards the mezzanine rafters. I succeeded in revealing a terrified eye, a whimpering mouth.
“Up,” she whispered, as high-pitched screeching filled the air.
“Christ!” I yelled as an awkwardly flying brown creature swooped in towards us. I grabbed Priya’s wrist and hauled her up, taking her walking stick with my free hand and waving it wildly as we stumbled down the hall to the bedroom.
“What was that?” I asked, slamming the door behind us. “A bird?”
Priya bent over her knees, breaths coming shallow and fast. Her hair looked matted and dirty, brown roots mounting a fledgling resistance against black.
“Too leathery,” she said, hugging herself.
My arms knew how to comfort her. They understood the language of her body as intimately as the braille of a blind man’s favorite text. But the coldness was everywhere now, pulsating in waves. I just stood there.
“Sit down,” I said, motioning toward the bed when she finally straightened up.
“I don’t want to sit. I want that thing out of my house.”
The heavy makeup she wore had smudged, revealing lobster-pink trails of scar tissue along her cheek and chin. Loose powder clustered like a ring along the edges of her turtleneck sweater.
I felt her noticing and looked away. “It’ll get out the same way it came in,” I said.
“How did it come in?”
I shrugged. “It’s the country. I checked the windows,”
“Not well enough.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed, willing myself to not rise to the bait.
“I asked you to hire a professional,” she said. “I even got the numbers,”
“It’s not a hard job, okay? A little tape, some insulation,”
Priya breathed out sharply and went over to the nightstand. She picked up the phone and called her father, describing the situation succinctly, taking care not to mention its effects, only hard facts and a request for a solution. The man was a prick.
“Well?” I asked after she’d hung up.
She shook her head. “He said we should spend the night at their house.”
“I doubt he said we.”
She flashed me a lopsided grin, there and gone. I’d seen it the first time I tried asking her out, deploying an ill-advised style somewhere between college casual and the formality required when courting a good Indian girl. She waited until I trailed off, squinting prettily against the glare coming off the Columbia commons, then gave me a look both acknowledging the effort while softening the refusal. Somehow it had also given me the courage to try again.
“That’s the Colonel’s advice? Retreat?”
“Do you have a better idea?” she asked.
My eyes fell on her walking stick. A solid hunk of carved wood, with a piece of reinforced steel at its bottom.
“Actually, I do.”
I began rooting through her closet for protective items of clothing. Unable to bear my meddling in the sacred area, Priya pushed me aside and took over, sorting through the slinky, shimmering slips of a siren with a braying laugh, who winked a lot, who stayed past closing time and strolled down rain-slicked Manhattan streets with the air of someone wanting to breathe in its entirety. Lingering in the back were a few chunky sweatshirts. I pulled on the hood of mine, tying the strings tightly beneath my chin. She had trouble putting her arms through, so I helped. She accepted this with the resignation of a child enduring a haircut.
“How do I look?” she asked, slapping a sun hat with a ridiculously large brim atop her head.
“Beautiful,” I answered, understanding the joke, wanting to play into it, but she winced just the same.
“Lying and flattery aren’t the same things, you know,” she said.
I picked up the walking stick, feeling its comforting heft. “It wasn’t meant as either, Pri.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Don’t forget to grab water,” I said.
We stepped out into the hall and froze, listening for any untoward sounds. Then Priya began to creep forward, stepping gingerly on her left leg. I raised the stick over my head and followed, usual shadows taking on a sinister aspect. As we neared the living room I wondered how I had ever fooled myself into believing this was our home. It was still haunted by the former tenants, from the faded sky-blue paint on the walls to the swollen light fixtures that looked like Spanish onions. We had moved in and taken residence, cowering in our respective holes, yet never taken the time to imprint our presence. I suppose we hadn’t wanted to, knowing somehow that doing so would mean placing the last brick in the hastily-mortared wall we’d erected around our former life in New York.
The television was still on. She moved toward the kitchen as I shut it off, plunging the room into silence. She picked up a decanter, rinsed it out, and filled it with water. I glanced up toward the rafters, tension making my arms ache.
“Chips?” she asked, in a whisper that carried.
“Sure, just hurry,” I muttered.
There was the sharp crinkling of plastic as she grabbed the bag, followed by the faintest flicker of movement by the window.
I inhaled sharply. Priya stopped what she was doing and stared at me.
“Do you see it?” she asked.
I motioned for her to leave the room and stepped towards the window, squinting to make out every inch of the night-obscured glass. I rubbed my eyes and tightened my grip on the walking stick. A gust of wind rattled the panes. And then I saw, in the top corner, nearly obscured by the lintel, a round black ball shift, and settle into itself.
It was a bat. A disgusting brown and spotted black one, curled up for safety inches away from the sheltering darkness it had somehow gotten separated from. I began to slowly swing the stick in the air to see if it would react.
“Leave it,” Priya whispered from the doorway. “Tomorrow we’ll—”
“What?” I asked, suddenly sick of the whole ordeal. “What’ll we do tomorrow?”
Outside the wind shrieked, a madwoman’s defense against an old horror. She laughed at our attempts to pretend that horror didn’t exist, that it didn’t reside in every molecule of the food we ate, or affect every word spoken between lovers.
I bent my legs and brought the stick back as far as it would go.
“Wait,” Priya said as I brought it down a full foot away from the creature. A crack like a starter’s pistol, and a spider web pattern rapidly spread out on the glass. I saw its wings part, glimpsing beady idiot predator eyes, then a click and it was in the air.
“Run!” I screamed, dropping the stick.
Once back in the bedroom, Priya collapsed onto the bed, laughing.
“Damn,” I muttered, taking a sip from the decanter. “Should’ve aimed better.”
“Please,” she begged, entire body shaking with the effort. “No more.”
It went on too long, the laughter mingling with impossible levels of tension until what came out bordered on the convulsions of a hysteric. Still, I welcomed it, lying down beside her, ceding to a love that had always made me feel both weaker and beyond the limits of my body.
“I’ll call Animal Control in the morning,” she said, hesitating for just a breath before curling up against me. “I guess we can manage one night.”
Her face was obscured by my chest. I could make out little whorls of hair along the border between forehead and scalp. I smelt the faint musk of her underarms.
I was a tightrope walker, extending out a moment of grace for as long as courage held.
“Do you remember the first time we slept together?” I asked. “The apartment on 175 th?”
“I remember the bars of your futon pressing into my back,” she mumbled.
“Is that all?”
She nuzzled her nose in slightly. “I remember it being over quickly.”
The rush of blood pounded in my ears. My body felt twitchy, electric. “You started getting dressed not ten minutes later. Making up one lame excuse after another…”
“Hmph! I was a good girl! If daddy had found out, ssst,” she said, running a finger across my neck.
“And then a mouse crept out from behind the door and stared right at you,” I said.
She worked hard not to stiffen.
“I thought you’d freak out. I’d heard them in the walls, but prayed nothing would happen while you were there.”
I kissed her forehead. She continued to breathe, steady as a metronome.
“Do you remember what you said?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said softly.
“We’ll call this one Mickey,” I said, feeling the warmth of her skin against my lips. “Then you spent the next five minutes looking for Minnie so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed.”
She pulled away. The rope snapped, sending me tumbling through thin night air. I couldn’t see the ground below, but felt it rushing up to meet me, claws outstretched.
“I didn’t think so much in those days,” she said, fingers absently feeling their way along the damaged parts of her face.
Sleep was the only time Priya let her guard down. From a hard plastic folding chair beside her hospital bed I waited for her face to twitch, for her mind to churn the beeping medical instruments and grinding of passing stretchers into a twisted retelling of the attack. I wished for her hands to tighten into fists and her body stiffen. I imagined catching movement behind her eyelids, a precursor to waking up, scream caught between her lips, the fluorescent reality of the room flooding back in as she touched her face expecting to feel blood, running blood. I wanted the blame for sitting at her bedside like a neutered pet while outside a monster roamed free. But she would just lie there, breaths shallow and terribly even, sleeping a little less each day as the wounds I could see began to harden, and slowly heal.
When I woke up the next morning her bedside lamp was still on, the pillows arranged for sitting back against the headboard. A dog-eared Nora Roberts paperback obscured the last two digits following 11: on the alarm clock. There was a smell of stale flesh in the air which I recognized from the hospital.
“Did you sleep?” I asked, watching from the study doorway as Priya typed away on the computer. Bumby purred on her lap, the tickler lying forgotten less than a foot away.
She didn’t turn around. “Animal Control can’t come for at least a week. There’s an infestation in Brighton, two other houses on this street alone.”
“What about regular exterminators?”
She wore a tattered brown bathrobe. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. From behind, she might have been anyone. “They don’t do bats,” she said. “Mammals.”
“Have you been taking the pills? Dr. Hartley said they’d help.”
“What else did Dr. Hartley say?” she asked, making the words lilt like she was curious.
“Don’t be like that.”
“Did he tell you about not being able to breathe when you wake up? Or feeling like your head’s been jammed onto someone else’s body, someone who doesn’t do what you do or like what you like?”
“Anil,” she answered, mocking the fact that I’d called her by name. A fresh coating of makeup obscured her face. Her eyes were bloodshot pits sunk deep into her skull. “Next it’ll be sweetheart, darling, like the goras you used to date.”
I looked away, confirming her worst fears. “I’ll make some coffee.”
“White girls were easier, weren’t they? Lighter.”
“What can I do? Tell me.”
She shook her head. “You can pack a few things. Get ready for the drive to my parents.”
“No,” I said, and because it sounded weak, added, “we’re not doing that.”
The house had been selected through scouring internet ads during long days in the hospital. Price wasn’t an issue, neither were specifics beyond the staticky video tour that had played on my laptop. It wasn’t the old apartment, didn’t carry its weight, and that was key. As I explored the second floor rafters, I found gaps in the wood filled with cobwebs and telltale black pellets. I ripped out foot after foot of soggy insulation, and began gluing in strips of rope around the edges of the windows. My hands quickly became soiled and ached with the effort. I dug in harder, wanting them rubbed raw, wishing they possessed the power to knock down walls and pull the roof down close about us like an impenetrable barrier.
Priya handed me a sandwich as I finished taping up the glass doors of the fireplace, forever trapping the logs artfully displayed within. Two slices of white bread, salami and swiss, a dab of mustard. That was all, and that was something.
“The place is falling down about our ears,” I said, taking a bite.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” she said, sitting on the block of concrete separating the fireplace from the living room carpet. “I used to dream about living in a house like this. Army houses felt like rented bunkers.”
“If you hadn’t moved around so much,” I began, sitting down next to her.
“I wouldn’t have ended up in New York and we wouldn’t have met,” she finished, wiping a speck off my bottom lip. “I don’t believe that anymore.”
“The way we are together. How you find things like my cheapness and bad driving charming, which no gora ever did by the way,”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I could see rugrats running around here. I’d make cookies.”
“The way I could even you out. The happiness.” I put the plate down and pressed my hand to the back of her neck. “We could start a new life.”
“I’d spoil them,” she whispered. “I’d read to them. I’d hold them close when it stormed outside. I’d be a cool Mom.”
I applied pressure and brought her into me.
“I don’t want a new life,” she said. “I want what we had.”
I imagined her coming out of the shower dripping wet, biting my lip as she whispered, “Just this.” I rattled the plate, moving us to the floor—the click of her wedding band against the bathroom tiles as she cried out with the release of it.
She flinched as I opened up her shirt, revealing the body she’d worked so hard to hide. Ugly purple blotches floated beneath the surface of her pale brown skin. A four-inch scar at the base of her neck, differentiated from the others by a hideous precision.
“Don’t,” she moaned as I traced it, breathing quickly despite herself.
“I like you better this way,” I said. “You were too perfect before. Like I had to wash my hands before touching you.”
“Don’t ask me to stay here,” she said as I undid my pants. “Not with that thing. Please, janu.”
I spread her legs apart and pushed into her, knowing with an awful certainty that it wouldn’t happen even as I tried. “I’m not asking,” I said, trying, trying, trying, trying. “Your father didn’t stay with you in the hospital. He didn’t live with the shame, stealing scissors from your room afraid of what you might do to yourself.”
I rolled off her. Six years of her body entwined with mine, and none of it mattered. Not when compared to the blotches, the scars, the grit of a stranger ground into her skin.
“You coward,” she said, raising herself up slowly and painfully. “You just don’t want to face it alone.”
I listened as she went into the bedroom and slammed the door. I tried to discern the sound of zipping luggage as Bumby sniffed my face for a reason why I was down on the floor. She moved down to my legs, then on to the living room, nose low to the ground. I got up, grabbed Priya’s walking stick, and followed.
As it grew dark outside, I swept a flashlight beam into the darkest crannies of the house, entering storage rooms which looked as though they hadn’t been used in years. Water dripped freely here, turning what remained of the insulation into moist cotton candy. I discovered artifacts left by the previous tenants—a wood-carved boomerang and a child’s plastic mobile—and tried to piece together what their lives must have been like. I saw a crackling wood fire and stew bubbling on the stove. I saw Reading Time and Quiet Time. I saw tears and laughter and sighs expelled within the walls of the house, and absorbed, strengthening both it and the family it hosted against a world that did not care, save to ravage. But no matter how closely I looked, I couldn’t find the bat.
Through it all Bumby remained cheerful, considering it a brilliant game from an owner who’d been increasingly distant in recent weeks. When I slogged my way up from the basement for the second time that night she was three steps ahead, waiting until I neared before bolting up three more. When I reached the top, I chucked a roll of masking tape down the stairs, shutting the door as Bumby raced after it.
I listened outside the bedroom door for a sound of something. Light spilled out onto my toes. I touched the doorknob, but that’s as far as I got.
“14 karats,” the host said, holding up a ring cut like a rhinoceros head. Her voice blared from the television, pushing back the shadows surrounding where I sat on the couch. “And I’m frankly having trouble containing my excitement,”
“It’s exciting, Jillian,” a perky redhead chimed in.
“I mean the craftsmanship, the sheer romance of this item,”
“Boggles the mind.”
“It really does. If you’re a woman searching for that knockout, stop-traffic piece. If you’re a man…”
“I am, Jillian,” I muttered. “I really am.”
“Who wants to reach a special place in that relationship…”
“Trust,” the redhead chirped.
“All that good stuff. Look no further.”
At some point I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew Priya was shaking me awake. I’d sunk deeply into the cushions. Morning light dappled the carpet.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, not realizing until the words left my mouth how badly I’d wanted to say them. “I should have stopped you from going. It was too late for a party. For anything other than staying with me.”
“Ssssh,” she whispered, pulling me to my feet.
I followed her down the hall. She stopped a few feet away from the basement door, which stood ajar.
“Go on,” she said softly, handing me her walking stick.
Bumby stood on the top step, head down, tail wagging. I took a step closer. She emitted a low growl. Then I heard a squeaking noise from the stair below her.
“She got it,” Priya said wonderingly.
As though hearing the praise, Bumby raised a paw and took a swipe. Weak screeching rang out, a pathetic imitation of what had filled the living room two nights ago.
I raised the walking stick above my head and leaned forward.
The bat was staring intently at Bumby and screeching to ward her off, wings outstretched, one of them crumpled and punctured with holes I could only assume were made by the cat’s claws. I’d unwittingly locked Bumby with it overnight, where she had leisurely tortured the creature before finally bringing it up the steps like a kind of offering.
Bumby took another swipe and the bat tried to bite the paw, movements sluggish with pain. It began shifting sideways, dragging its damaged wing.
I poked Bumby with my foot. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Go on!” I said.
The bat, having apparently given up on escape, pulled its wings in close to protect its exposed body. Its unseeing eyes stared fixedly at me.
“Come on, girl,” Priya said, rubbing a palm against her pajamas. Bumby craned her neck toward the sound. “That’s it.”
Reluctantly, the cat padded over to Priya, who scooped her up.
“Stay back,” I said, fear making my heart pulse at the back of my throat.
“I’ll get a towel,” Priya said. “It’ll be easier if you cover it,”
The bat hopped onto the top stair and I brought the stick down, crushing part of its head and causing it to topple several steps down. I followed as it spread its wings out, insect-like mouth open in a stuttering screech as I brought it down again and again, obliterating whatever dim spark had given it life, until the stair was stained with blood and matted fur. I think I was screaming.
When Priya touched my shoulder, I started. She took the stick out of my hands.
“Breathe, janu,” she said, leading me out of the stairwell.
We slept through the rest of the day, and much of the evening. She stayed in my arms through all of it, getting up only to use the bathroom and drink some water. The more I slept, the more exhausted I felt. It occurred to me, feeling the warmth of my wife’s body for what would be the last time, that I hadn’t really had a good night’s sleep since the call had come at 3:46 in the morning telling me that she had been taken to St. Vincent’s, and could I please come as soon as possible, the police had a few questions. In the weeks since I had slept but my body still sought out her warmth. I had dreamt, but all my mind could produce were pale reimaginings of the horror I’d failed to protect her from. I’d walked around and eaten and killed something, but in reality I was still in our old bedroom, the neon red sign for Stever’s Pharmacy glaring through the window, holding the telephone as a stranger informed me she would not be coming home.
When the last trickles of dusk had left the room and there was only the oppressive, waiting silence, she stirred. Her eyelids fluttered, and then opened. Her eyes, seeing a world I couldn’t, showed a clean, dazzling joy. She smiled.
“I had the most wonderful dream,” she whispered.
I held her. “I know.”