Jennifer’s Veil

 

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In and out of the darkness, she slithers and skips.

I can’t keep up. My flesh weighs me down. I slosh and churn with blood and bile and something black and infinite that I can’t give a name to. It runs its fingers beneath my skin; a thin coating of decay to hold all the shapeless wetness in, and I don’t mind.

It’s wearing her face. Red eyes flicker in the milk white sockets with the peeling edges and unblinking shaved meat lids and I think of her trapped inside of me all those years ago as it runs its tongue along the inside of my skull.

They say birth begins the process of dying, that we are born rotting, but what begins when we die?

Something vast and unknowable.

My daughter knows, but she doesn’t tell.

I don’t mind. She came back.

For me. Only for me.

Back through the veil, back through the gates, back through whatever treacherous portal separates her world from this, back and that is all that matters.

She came back with some of the pieces missing, but I don’t mind.

She fills up the holes with dragonfly bones. Her teeth are sharper now; she smiles through a mouthful of broken wings. Her mouth is damp with colorless blood.

I try to smile back, but it’s not so easy now.

She doesn’t mind.

She disappears into the other world, and I am alone, slowly rotting in the middle of the night.

I keep walking.

I don’t mind.

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I come to the water’s edge, still alone and patiently waiting, and I watch the fish.

Watch them destroy the peaceful calm of the water’s surface, careless as they leap into breathless space after the dragonflies that hover above them in halting, stuttering flight.

I want to kneel in the dirt, get my knees wet, put my hands in the water and feel my flesh go cold numb until I can’t breathe from it.

I want to open my mouth and vomit, thick stream of red-black sludge, purge myself of the guilt and the ache and the gray-blue sadness, that bitter glittering poison that writhes within me, until it’s all gone and finally, finally I am empty, a hollow shell of skin, and I can be rebuilt.

I want to grab the first fish naive enough to come near me and tear it apart. Slice it open with my nails and pull out its little frantic heart.

I want to feel it fluttering against my fingertips as she opens her quivering, greedy mouth to accept it.

The thought of it makes me sick.

I stand at the water’s edge, still alone and patiently waiting, and I watch the fish.

Inside, I am white hot and screaming.

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The girl in the park watches me as I walk past.

Every night, she watches me.

She doesn’t wave, or say hello. She doesn’t move at all.

But she watches.

I wonder what she sees.

I try to lift my arm to wave, but it hangs at my side, heavy and dead. Only my fingers remain, curling themselves into a tight fist.

The girl in the park watches, her face a flaccid unreadable mask. She might be smiling. She might be growling.

She might not be there at all.

As if though somehow sensing my question, even in the vague, unspoken dream mist of its infancy, she lifts her hand for the first time and touches two fingers to the right side of her brow. A slow, sarcastic salute.

Lucy pauses at the edge of a glistening puddle of moon beam and smiles.

Her mouth is filled with teeth, much more than there used to be. So much sharper than I remembered. I can barely see the black slash of her tongue behind them.

“Last night she fed me a koi from her mother’s pond,” she says, and turns away. She skips and stumbles and hobbles, and my heart both breaks and swells at the grotesque display.

The girl in the park watches, watches and watches and watches, and then, finally, looks away.

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She meets me at the park the next afternoon, though she is no longer interested in the play equipment, or other children.

“I’m tired,” she says, swinging her feet slowly beneath the bench. “I’m hungry.”

I feel such intense relief at these simple and familiar requests that I fear I might fall off my seat. “What would you like to eat?”

She looks up at the clouds. “Nothing you would give me.”

The shadows sway around us, and Lucy shifts uncomfortably beside me.

“Ice cream?” I try for conspiratorial. My voice breaks a little, unable to bend around the words I know she doesn’t want to hear. “Doughnuts?”

“There’s nothing to eat over there,” she complains. She doesn’t acknowledge my offers. “I’m hungry all the time.”

“Please, let me at least try.”

She shifts her gaze from the clouds to the water, shakes her head and sighs wearily. “I don’t want food.”

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John is watching TV.

John never turns it off.

I don’t watch, but I dream about it sometimes, when sleep drags me limp and numb onto the cold, shell-smothered shores of a third world where even Lucy doesn’t venture.

The third world is small. There is nowhere to go but the circle. There I sit and watch TV.

There are no movies, no sitcoms, no documentaries.

It only plays the secret channels.

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John doesn’t turn around when I come in.

“Your brother called,” he says through the back of his head. “He got full custody of the girls.”

He changes the channel. Changes the channel. Changes the channel.

“They’re moving to Willow Creek, just as soon as they can find a rental.”

He changes the channel.

“Won’t that be nice? We’ll get to see the girls more.” He waits for a response, but I am thinking about the dream TV, and how it changes the channels for me. “He even said that Angela might be interested in going on those walks with you. She used to do the same thing back in Pleasantview. Remember?”

The TV starts screaming. It reminds me of the secret channels.

“I think it would be good for you, Jen. Then you won’t always be alone.”

The TV starts crying, but it isn’t like the dream TV, with its secret channels, with its dirty screen and sad, frightening images.

It isn’t like John’s TV. The TV in the third world has a long, fleshy cord that it plugs into me.

John doesn’t turn around when I leave the room.

He just changes the channel.

Changes the channel.

Changes the channel.

Jennifer’s Veil

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So you’ve come back for Jennifer
You know, she hides her face behind a veil
And I’m warning you, Frankie, leave on the next train
Your Jennifer, she just ain’t the same
– The Birthday Party

Today’s voice is a whisper, a whimper, a red, wet noise. It twists and staggers through the ruins left by last night’s screams.

Somewhere in my head, the nightmares are waiting. At night, they slither and writhe through the darkness, all fingertips and teeth.

At night I see my daughter’s face beneath the shadows that shimmer and glisten.

At night I crawl to the edge and reach, stretching until it burns, but she never reaches back. On my knees I beg her, don’t leave me. On my knees, I pray, don’t leave me… don’t leave me.

At night she turns and swims away, serpentine in the cold, black rivers, and the shadows hiss and swallow hard.

I watch as the dragonflies drift by, lazy and aimless and impossibly blue. I hold out my hand until one settles in my palm. Seconds go by, only seconds, and then I curl my fingers into a fist, squeezing until my knuckles turn white.

Tonight’s screams are already building.

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We came to Willow Creek to escape the inescapable. To “start over”, as if there were some new beginning awaiting us on the other side of the pain.

Pleasantview is world’s away now, an already fading memory. I remember it in moments and fragments, the way I remember bits of stories I used to enjoy.

If I try, I can remember the weather, heat and leaves and snow… the sound of dogs barking… Lucy laughing as she skipped ahead, a bright flash of yellow and blue dancing in the cold light of the sun… None of that exists in Willow Creek. It’s so quiet here. Days go by and all I can hear is the wind.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, not even that.

Today is lucky; I walk the empty streets and not even my shoes scraping the sidewalk can penetrate the thick layer of silence that smothers this town.

Pleasantview falls away. It is a phantom, haunting a forgotten life.

Back then, I used to wander.

Now, I’m just lost.

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Everything in this town is so beautiful and bright. Everything is fresh and green and alive.

I wish we had moved to the desert; a barren wasteland where I could trudge through the hot sand in any direction and never know for certain which way is home. I could have disappeared…

Our new house has a large tree in the backyard. It sprouts from a silky pool of impenetrable darkness. I am drenched with it.

Lucy lays beside me on the cold grass, pointing out interesting shapes in the leaves. She sees dogs and fish and butterflies. Only she can see them; that’s part of the fun. I try to only see her.

An eternity drifts by, creaking and moaning beneath its own terrible weight. An ugly and bloated forever. It’s gone now, though. I take a deep breath and feel the darkness in my lungs.

“Look.”

My dragonfly floats past, little body broken and destroyed. One wing is bent and torn. The other is still smeared across my pants.

“He came back,” she says, sounding delighted. “He must have followed me.”

I tell her: “I want to follow you, too.”

She says: “Not yet.”

The wind returns from wherever it goes and the leaves shiver and the branches sway. The sound is the dry bone rattle of my nightmares.

“Look.”

The dragonfly is gone.

Lucy is laughing beside me.

A tiny ragged wing is caught in the corner of her smiling mouth.

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All the lights are out inside. John has given up and gone to bed. How long ago was it that he asked me to come in? A minute? An hour? Did I even see him today? It’s getting harder to remember.

I sit outside and wait for the night to expand.

I remember Lucy when she was four. Her little beating heart, and her little sugared bones. We used to tell her that we’d pieced her together out of moon beams and lullabies and wishes. That the darkness couldn’t touch her.

Now she hides within it, dancing on the blackened shores that cradle a bright sea of moonlight. Now the light can’t reach her.

Sometimes, if I look hard enough, I can find her. I can see the whites of her teeth as she bares them at me from under bushes, ducking around trees, sharp little pearls flashing behind windows that look upon darkened living rooms as she darts up stairs and disappears down empty halls.

The night unfolds around me, and I wait.

And I wait.

And I wait.

Down by the sidewalk, the bushes start to whisper.

And I wait.