Her dreams were of a single flame. No source or base or anything else – a single flame in darkness. Flickering slowly as if a slight breeze chased an invisible pattern in the air. It wasn’t calming. It wasn’t frightening. It was nothing. She felt nothing – not anxious or happy or at peace or any other feeling someone might get from meditating. She thought once that something moved in the darkness. Moved as if it had always been there, watching and then decided to walk away. As if it had been there before she fell asleep. The quality of the darkness changed and moved and that was the only way she could tell something perhaps was there from before.
She woke to silence. A pale gray light showed around the edges of her cheap window blinds. She could almost smell the coldness from outside. It seemed to be the kind of cold that surprises you into a quick gasp and then makes you feel as if you’d never be warm again. No birds greeted her as she turned over. No cheerful little tweets to other birds nearby. Her bedside alarm clock told her she still had another 10 minutes before she needed to wake up. She could remember her dream clearly but she had no idea what to make of it. Most of her dreams were scattered things – little awkward stories of her embarrassing herself in some impossible way or other nonsense. This was the first dream she’d ever had like that and she felt like something had changed in some significant way.
With her eyes closed, Lily breathed in the world around her. The smell of a house where she barely lived – existing from moment to moment. Coming home to nothing. Feeding herself, washing the dishes, putting them away and then watching television. No paintings hung on the wall and no plants sat in pots to add their tiny, fragile existence to the world around them. It was a nothing life. The air was cool and dry and empty. Her grandmother’s blanket was the only thing with character – the only thing with a scent not like a hospital room. It alone evoked feelings and emotions in her. She felt otherwise detached. Every little creak of the wood shifting in the house, every car quietly passing by with other people going about their lives – it was all open to her. The air filled her lungs, nearly burning with the chill of winter.
The blare of her alarm clock barely registered to her. She could hear it but it felt miles away and slow. Like the heartbeat of a dying mechanical beast. She thought of the past two days. Of Michael and his sister. Of the man on the bench. Things stirred in her but she ignored them. She’d felt alive then. With Michael’s soul screaming deep inside. For some reason, her mind kept replaying Michael’s death at the bus stop. Over and over. The way his face contorted. The blood on his lips. His stagger. Over and over. Still she felt nothing. No pity. No horror. No guilt. He deserved it. His sister died alone. A shell of the little girl she used to be.
Would it have bothered you if he’d never raped his sister? The thought came to her, unbidden. If he were a decent man, would the pleasures you felt from his death have eaten away at you? There were unseen ripples in the air around her as she contemplated the thought. Of course it would have. He was a terrible man. He deserved to die. She told herself. She could almost hear the laughter at the edge of her core being. At the edge yet everywhere. Oh, very good. Very fine. You tell- Her eyes snapped open. The voice was not hers. It was very male and had a slight accent and it vanished as soon as she’d opened her eyes. Lily shivered and it wasn’t entirely due to the cold creeping into the room. She pulled the blanket up to her chin as she sat up, reaching a quick hand out to turn off her alarm.
“I’m not going into work today.” She told herself out loud. She turned to look through the small windows set in the top of her front door. Two tiny snowflakes danced a spiral through the air, disappearing behind the door. She closed her eyes and rubbed them again. She could still see clearly. No glasses and she could still see perfectly. “No,” she repeated. “Definitely not going in to work.” She didn’t know why she wasn’t going to go in but she just decided she wouldn’t. On a whim. When she felt a slight ache in her stomach, she realized she hadn’t eaten since the day before yesterday. She stood, wincing at the cold wood on her bare feet. Her thermostat was a short dash into the hallway and the old heater wheezed to life when she clicked up the temperature.
A quick shower and then breakfast, she decided. A quick warm shower. The hot water steamed in the cold air as she turned over and over, relishing the way the solid stream felt on her skin. It was when she was using her body wash that she realized her stomach was back to what she remembered. Fat. She couldn’t stop running her hands along her front, feeling the skin. It took another twinge of pain from her stomach to pull her away from what she was doing.
The small house had warmed up nicely while she showered but she stayed in the humid, misty bathroom until she’d mostly toweled off. Breakfast was a bowl of Lucky Charms. Her ex-boyfriend used to make fun of her for eating the sugary cereal but she couldn’t help it – one of these few odd addictions she had growing up.
There were little rivers of melted frost from the inside of her window and a small pile of snow built up around the outside of the same window. A few scrawny flakes fell from enormous clouds in the deep gray sky.
She’d never felt more alone than right at that moment.
Everything was the same. It was a typical morning for her – breakfast before work. Hair drying in clumps on her shoulders. Soon she would get up and blow dry the hair in the bathroom and then put on a hopeless bit of makeup and earrings for work. She’d had the same routine for the past year, nearly. She liked routine. She enjoyed her plain little life. Normally. Before. But, here she sat at her small little table with an empty bowl in her gray apartment in a gray world and she felt a great absence in herself. In her life. She always wondered how people could commit suicide. Even with her boring life, she never understood the motivations. Now. Now she could see it. She felt crushed and alone and it was as if nothing would ever make her feel better.
With a mental sigh, Lily brought her bowl to the sink and finished her morning routine. Seeing herself in the mirror with her hair now drying, she remembered yesterday. As Michael. How he felt trying to see himself in the same mirror. The memories of his life with his… she paused. The memories were fading. She couldn’t remember what the sister looked like. She couldn’t remember the mother or his childhood or anything beyond shortly after him getting his stupid old car from… from… from who?
“All gone,” she whispered. “All gone.” She couldn’t be in the house any more. Lily grabbed her little boots and coat from the front door, rushed putting them on and then stepped outside, breathing quickly in the sudden freezing air. It’d felt like the house was closing up on her. Shrinking. She shivered and crunched through the light snow, making her way to the bus stop. With her hands deep in her pockets she waited for the bus. It’d be late, she knew. Always late in bad weather.
Her mind wandered to her grandmother. Her gentle old grandmother that seemed to never leave her rocking chair. The basket of yarn next to the chair fed the needles that clicked and clacked over whatever her grandmother was working on at the moment. Humming and nodding quietly to herself until she looked up to see her young granddaughter sitting and reading nearby. The old woman’s accent was so thick that Lily could sometimes not understand what she was saying but she would always nod and smile along the way. She never learned what accent it was – her grandmother died when she was 7 and she had no other family. It sounded like some vague Russian accent in her memory. Sometimes thick, sometimes not. Was anything Russian any more? She wondered. But there’s no Russia, right? She hadn’t be a particularly good history student while she was growing up and there were some things her grandmother wouldn’t talk about.
Listen, child, her grandmother would say, pointing at her with one of her needles. Listen well. The wind shook the house in this memory. Snow in harsh flurries, scratching at the windows. They’d lived close to New York when she was young. Her grandparents had immigrated before she was born. Weather like this. Is alive. A thing alive. Wind howling, reaching, wanting your warmth. You stay here with me and I keep you safe. From the storm, little child. I keep you safe and warm. And then she was back to her humming. She died less than 2 months later and they never told her how or why. Just one day she was late coming back from the market. Always late in bad weather, Lily thought again. The storm was so fierce that day. She couldn’t remember the words the adults told her or their faces or anything else except how thick the snow was and how it felt like daggers driving into her face from the wind. The storm took her, she remembered thinking. And now I have no one to protect me.
She blinked tears away as the bus arrived. Her bus driver, Sandra, watched her warily but Lily just gave her a quiet little “Good morning” as she made her way to the back. The bus was completely empty and that suited her just fine. Traffic was sparse along the way. She watched them pass her work and Lily wondered briefly if she should call in but couldn’t work up enough energy for it. She should. She knew she should. And then the feeling passed. A few minutes later she pulled the cord to signal her stop and then slowly walked to the front. She felt like Michael did yesterday. Heavy in her own body. Heavy and slow and old and stupid. Thankfully, it was a short walk from the bus stop to the little coffee shop on the corner. Lotta Latte – her favorite of the two coffee places in town. Also nearly empty.
Her server (she could never remember the girl’s name without looking) made her her regular (16 ounce soy latte with whip cream) drink without asking. She seemed to be acting odd – stuttering and not looking Lily in the face. Normally she was one of the few people that would genuinely smile at Lily. Lily used the restroom while waiting for her drink to make sure she didn’t have anything odd on her face. There was nothing – same old pimply face with the extra chin. No worse or better than usual. Simple brown eyes with plain brown hair loose around her face. She kept her hair loose to hide as much of her face as possible – something she would never admit to anyone. With nothing out of place, she went out, grabbed her drink and sat down near the large windows at the front of the building. Normally, she’d people-watch but there was nobody walking along the small sidewalk this morning.
She didn’t realize the man was standing next to her until she noticed his reflection in the window. She turned. “Can I help you with something?” She asked. The man looked concerned. Or confused. Or both. He was slightly older, perhaps in his mid forties with thinning black hair. He reminded her slightly of a middle aged Sean Connery but without the charm. He had a small white coffee cup in his left hand, held to his side.
“I,” he stopped. More wrinkles appeared on his forehead. “I don’t know. May I sit?”
Lily looked around slowly. There was nobody else in the entire place except for the barista. “There are plenty of other tables,” she told him.
“I know. I know that. But…” He looked her over from head to chest to toes. “Look. Can I just sit with you for a moment?”
She blinked rapidly at the strange man. He had an old plain gold wedding ring on his left hand, nearly hidden under the thick black hairs on his knuckles. He probably looked fairly handsome when he was younger but he didn’t seem to have aged especially well. Not like a lot of men who seem to get more handsome in a refined way as they got older. “I…” she started. He sat down, opposite her.
“I don’t know why I’m here.” He told her. “You’re ugly.” Lily’s face darkened. She couldn’t decide whether to be shocked, angry, ashamed or something else entirely. The man seemed not to notice how much he’d just insulted her. “But, there’s something about you. I’ve been trying to figure it out. Something… you don’t remind me of my daughter. She’s happily married and quite pretty, by the way. No, you don’t remind me of her. Or my wife. Oh, good lord no. Even at 40 she’s much more attractive. But… but… You have something.” He leaned forward and she could smell the old cigarettes and stale coffee on his breath. His face was open. Matter-of-fact. “I’m quite hard at the moment, by the way. My penis. It’s quite hard. Normally I have to take something for it. But not now. Why? Why would a girl like you do that to me? Can I touch you?” He reached for her arm but Lily jerked back. The man cocked his head to the side as if she were the one being strange.
Lily’s voice dropped to a fierce whisper. Nearly a hiss. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are but…” She stopped. Over his shoulder. Across the room. Another man sitting at a table. Facing her. Grinning widely. Slicked back black hair. Checkered scarf laying on the small round table in front of him. Perfect teeth. Striking eyes. Cultured looking. Something about him was familiar but she couldn’t place it. He hadn’t been there a moment ago. Nobody had come in and nobody had walked from the bathroom. Yet, there he was. The older man turned to look at what she was looking at. Lily blinked. The other man was gone. Vanished. Just like that.
The older man turned back to her. “I could pay you, you know. I haven’t felt this randy for a long time but I want to see you naked. I want to-”
Lily stood. “I’ll call the police,” she warned through clenched teeth. The man looked quickly at the oblivious barista and then reached into his pocket to pull out a small business card. He placed the card on the table in front of her, sliding it closer.
“I’m sorry. I… I don’t know… I’ll go. There’s no need to call the police.” Lily looked down. The man was fondling himself, his hand rubbing the outside of his black slacks over and over, groping and pulling and rubbing. Incredibly, she felt herself grow wet and, as she did, the man moaned slightly. His hand sped up as he masturbated himself until he shook, gasping slightly. She could smell it on the air. His cum. A very slightly darker spot grew on the fabric of his pants. He was still touching himself as he stood up. His eyes were nearly pleading. “Please. Please call me? Promise me?” When she didn’t answer him, he turned and left, leaving his coffee and card. Still rubbing himself and muttering under his breath.
Lily felt a slight ache deep inside of herself. She felt that certain need for sex it actually physically hurt. It didn’t hurt badly but it was enough. Enough to bother her. She’d been horny before but never painfully. She grabbed the man’s card, resolving to call the police or to at least have it in case he found her again and bothered her again. She could still smell his cum. That peculiar little scent of a man’s sperm lingering in the air. She wanted to touch herself but the memory of the man masturbating awkwardly in front of her turned her stomach. She found another table far away and finished her drink.
She was nearly ready to go when a large crow landed on the round metal table bolted to the ground outside. There was no food for it to peck it and no shiny thing for it to steal. It hopped slightly to stand neatly in front of her. She watched its ugly little feet grip the lattice pattern on top of the table, holding itself steady against the wind. Feathers ruffled slightly as it cocked its head left and then right to regard her. Its eyes were huge. The large, beady black eyes slightly reflected the inside light – a silver crescent moon of light on large, perfectly smooth black eyes. She felt hypnotized by it. Slowly, she reached out, fingers splaying against the cold, clear window.
The crow spread its wings suddenly, holding them open against the wind, swaying slightly with the extra drag. And then, in a very purposeful manner, it leaned back, pulled its wings down and dipped its head to her in a mock bow. Before she could react, it let go of the table and took the next gust of wind to pull itself into the sky. And then it was gone.
Lily took her cup to the front to throw it away. “Did you see that?” She asked the girl. Sarah. Her name tag said her name was Sarah. Lily swore to remember it this time. “Did you see what that-”
“You have pretty eyes.” The girl (Sarah) told her. Lily slowly turned to look at her. The girl’s face was flushed and she was staring at the counter in front of herself. “And you smell really good. I… I’m not gay. I’m not. But you… I…” Tears crept into the girls eyes. She stuttered something incomprehensible and then dashed into the back. Lily could hear her sobbing from where she stood. The world has gone mad, She decided.
The bus ride home was uneventful. Lily felt in a trance and simply went through the motions until she was inside her warm house and sitting on her couch. She still felt the slight ache from the coffee shop. Briefly, she considered masturbating but the visual of the stain on the man’s pants wouldn’t go away. He liked me, she told herself. When was the last time a man sat with me and told me he was attracted to me? Never mind the other stuff. He said I was attractive. He did. When was the last time that happened? The lie made her feel good. Happier. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been complimented on anything other than her work. Certainly not her appearance. Even her boyfriend (who was larger than herself) had never said she was pretty. It’d taken her months after he left to realize that – to realize that he’d never said much of anything nice to her at all.
She felt tired. Her whole body felt enormously heavy and dull and just… weary. Using the one threadbare cushion as a pillow, Lily lay down and fell asleep. Dreamless. The only way she knew she’d slept at all was because it was nearly pitch black outside now. She looked for the clock but everything was a blurry mess. No, she thought. No, please. Not that too. She fumbled in the dark to turn on the light and look for her glasses.
Finally, she sat on the couch. Her glasses were heavy and somehow awkward on her nose. Her head hurt. Behind the eyes. A dull warning of a stronger one to come. She no longer felt horny exactly but the aching was still there. Stronger than before she fell asleep. It reminded her of a menstrual cramp. The snow fall was getting heavier. Nothing was right. Since yesterday nothing has been right. Not since…
Lily went to her jacket and reached into her pocket. Next, she found her old cordless phone and dialed a number.
“Hello, Mr… Folstrum? Yes. No, you do know me. The girl from the coffee shop. Yes. That girl. Yes, I… no. Would… would you like to take me out for drinks? Yes, now. No. Just drinks. Just drinks, Mr. Folstrum. Yes, in an hour would be fine. I’ll see you then.”
For the first time that day, Lily smiled and the ache in her lower stomach faded slightly.