It feels like meditation, an out of body experience. Astral projection to nowhere in particular. Moonwalking. Her sister drives, and in the back is everything she cares to keep: a suitcase, a lamp shaped like a turtle, two pairs of shoes, a sachet of pills, and a Spider-Man coffee mug her nephew gave her before he could really pick out anything that wasn’t for him. The car is one of those new, quiet models, soundproofed against itself and the world. She twists the gold band on her finger, false and feigning, and watches people on mute: mowing their lawns, trimming their hedges, walking their frantic dogs. Twist. Everything is slow. Everything but her sister, amped and rattling away at the wheel, outlining the next six months like the last six never happened. A slow, inevitable kind of degeneration.
“We can get the rest of your stuff, the heavy stuff, when you feel better. There’s no hurry to get back to work. Your boss has been plenty understanding through all this and is extending your leave. So whenever you feel like it, Mike or I can drive you until you can start driving again.”
Sheila has fallen back into concerned big sister like a welcome trap. Next to her sister she feels dark and small like she’s been quarantined. She inspects her frayed cuticles, listening with mild obedience, her mind in a mute white room.
Mike isn’t home, but Conner, now old enough to not evaluate the world by how it relates to Peter Parker, is. He acts like he’s never seen her in his life, and she realizes, as Sheila tries to jog his memory, that he most likely hasn’t. Three-months-old doesn’t count, and she sent all his birthday presents FedEx. She wonders if Sheila would have shown the same disinterest had their places been reversed.
Sheila finally gives up in classic TV Land style, hands in the air and a shake of her head.
“Okay, fine, whatever. Conner, you better not leave that table until you finish your homework. I’m going to go settle Lena into the guest room, then I’ll be back to make dinner.” He rolls his eyes, too old and too cool to be polite. She doesn’t know if he is especially advanced or if all fifth graders are like this. She trails after her sister, thumb smoothing over the lamp’s turtle head. She’ll probably never know.
The room is small and square and every inch a guest bedroom. It tells her pleasant hellos, mumbles polite limitations, hints at comfortable stays of time, both for you and me. It says, considerately, I have other things to do as well, and you have a life you need to get back to, don’t you?
She sticks her lamp on the nightstand and leaves it unplugged.
The way to the hall bathroom is a tunnel of bizarre masks and strange fetishes, foreign faces peering blankly at travelers. She’s snagged by bulging eyes and a grin of thick teeth.
If this is anyone’s fault, it says, a pleasant growl, it’s his.
The rest of the alien faces stay mum, but they agree. She agrees.
“The mask?” Her sister echoes, eyebrow cocked in that genetic way only she was ever able to master. It takes Sheila a moment to sort through her memory of the hallway décor and find the one her sister is talking about. They’re at the dinner table, eating a quick meal before Conner has to go back to doing homework. Mike still isn’t home yet. She wonders if maybe her sister isn’t in such a different place from her after all. “Oh. Right. One of the ugly ones. Uncle Jaime, you remember Jaime, right? The one with the loud voice and the rosacea on his neck? He went to some Indonesian country one summer and gave me that mask when he came back.” She quirks her mouth and shrugs. “He gave me just about everything in that hall. Never told him not to, so the things just kept coming.”
She remembers Uncle Jaime. She had never liked him, and he had never tried to change that. She toys with her box linguini and waits for her sister to continue. Sheila doesn’t disappoint. “I think it’s part of a good and evil ritual. The evil god terrorizes the villagers until the good god comes out and sends it packing. Anyway, that mask is the evil god. I forgot the name, Raida, Rawanda, I don’t know, something like that, I’m terrible at names. I guess that applies to names of heathen gods too.”
She asks if maybe Sheila could ask Jaime more about it, and Sheila waves her fork around noncommittally and badgers her son into sitting up straight.
Mike comes home hours later, nods at her as she sits in one of their strategically placed easy chairs, and goes to rummage for leftovers in the kitchen. Conner and Sheila had gone to bed a long time ago. She had tried and failed, laid under the politely hostile coverlet and traced shadows streaking across the ceiling, traced ridges and surgical stitches across her belly, traced the past into a future that would never happen.
When Mike goes to bed she takes her turn in the kitchen, filling a glass with water from the tap. Half-blind in the dark, she carefully pops the lid on the bottle, rolls a pill out, and places it dead center on her tongue. She drains the glass, leaves it on the counter, and wanders back towards the guest room, changes her mind and goes to the bathroom instead. She hovers by the mask, tries pinpointing where its eyes would be, imagines black holes hiding on the walls.
You’re mopey, it tells her, smooth and humming. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. He didn’t.
Its entourage hums her out of the hallway and she goes to bed without peeing, hands curled close around her stitched and aching belly.
Sheila is bullying Conner around the kitchen in the morning, hounding him at every pause. Mike is still asleep, and she can’t remember what it is he does that keeps him out so late and lets him sleep in so long. She’s sitting at the kitchen island, hands wrapped around her Spider-Man mug full of coffee, watching Sheila be a machine of a mom. She wonders where her sister picked that up. Conner’s eyes seem to be in perma-roll, and the only sounds he makes are irritated sighs. She thinks if Sheila doesn’t lay off soon, she’s going to degenerate into one of those mothers that never sever the cord.
The only time Sheila stops her rampage is to inform her that, while she has to run some errands, she’ll be home just after nine-ish–ten-ish–eleven-ish–something like that. Mike will be up in an hour or two. Don’t try to talk to him until he has something to eat, has shaved, has resumed his human status.
“Just relax,” her sister says, fighting with Conner and a backpack, “Just sit back and don’t worry about anything. No extraneous activity, doctor’s orders. Literally, Lena. You seem to have a problem with this.”
She flexes her fingers around Spider-Man and nods.
Just as Sheila’s stepping out the door, she adds, “I remember, about the mask now. It’s a witch, I think. A child-eating widow.”
And then her sister’s gone, and the house is muffled and she is alone. She twists her ring, takes her prescriptions dry this time, and ignores the dull throb in her pelvis.
Drumming in her ears, her tremulous tribal heartbeat. She watches the mask out of the corner of her eye, face averted, incognito. It knows she’s watching anyway, smiles, calls to her.
You never took the time to appreciate what you had, it sings with its backup chorus. But neither did he.
She’s back at the island when Mike shuffles into the kitchen, hands wrapped around Spider-Man again, only now the coffee in it, untouched, is dead cold. She is in orbit right now. Mike drains the coffee pot and starts it up again, and while that’s going, he grabs ice cream from the freezer, Cheetos from behind the cereal, and Pop-Tarts from the cabinet above the fridge.
She dislodges from her space station and watches, in strange fascination, as he eats a quarter of the Mint Madness carton and two foil packages of fudge Pop-Tarts. He refills his coffee cup and tugs Spider-Man out of her fingers. He dumps the old and fills it with new and nestles it easy and soft back into her palms. He leaves and she stares at the cup in her hands, steaming into the slightly colder air.
There are still some Cheetos left, and she wonders if that was on purpose.
Sounds of Sheila’s homecoming filter in from the living room front entrance. Soft curses and the rustling of plastic grocery bags. The coffee has grown cold again. She hears her sister talking in furtive whispers with her husband in the living room, low tones for nosy guests. She can hear the slow, sly beating of her sluggish heart in her ears. She can hear the soft warning chuckle drifting from the dark hallway. She hears nothing from the nothingness in her pelvis.
Sheila troops into the kitchen and unloads her treasures. Wordless, Mike follows, helping the least amount possible. He refreshes her coffee a second time and drifts back out of the kitchen. Sheila stays in the kitchen even after everything is put away, puttering around in an alienly maternal fashion.
She is miles away, a stranger looking in, watching a woman in her kitchen and a girl made of clay beside her. She is fathoms deep, taking in water.
Mike has left for work, Sheila on another short–I–promise errand and now everything hurts. The black hole at her center is eating up what she is, what she was, and spilling out throbbing pain in return. She is unraveling, and she is doing the unraveling. She twists her ring, pops the top on her bottle.
The coffee is still warm, so she drinks that and three pills.
At some point she manages to wander into the hallway bathroom. She stares at her reflection, gaunt and flat in the mirror. Her hair hasn’t been brushed in weeks (days months years), and her skin is smeared dark under her eyes, a mark of her plasticky stasis of unbeing; her nails are long and curved or short and saw-toothed. She scowls at her other self, draws her tongue out long, scrapes at the film covering it, and thinks about the mask in the hallway.
You know, it whispers through its chunky-toothed smile, he was just waiting for an excuse to get rid of you.
It comes off the wall with a moment of resistance, easy and eager in her hands. The strap fits against the curve of her skull, tucked behind her ears. She looks out through bulging eyes and tusked grimace, and agrees, agrees, agrees.
She smashes the cup onto the countertop— hot, black coffee dribbling over the edge onto the floor. Shards sliver-slip into her hand. Her ring flashes false in the light and she thinks about what a uterus looks like, what hers looks like, scarred and broken. What her husband’s future wife’s will look like, what their kids will look like, what their life will look like.
She smashes another cup, Mike’s, left out like everything else, and twists twiststwists her ring right off. She drops it down into the black hole void of the garbage disposal and flips the switch. It sputters the mangled ring up and out; the disposal in electro-humming semi-sentience, knowing it is on, but it is broken.
She starts laughing, the sound muffled and low through the mask, and by the time her sister comes home, her bottle of pills is empty and she’s digging through her stitches to see what her uterus really looks like now that it’s useless.