Her husband started shaking. His fork hit the ceramic plate, dislodging a tooth sized sliver. He stared at his hand suspended above the table, moving as if caught by seismic waves. Their daughter screamed in her high chair. Their son (his from a previous marriage) let a pork chop dangle from his mouth like an oily clay pipe. Helen took his hand and forced it onto the tabletop. They went to the hospital that night.
He lay in the bed, scrawny as a piece of burnt chicken. His son had his face illuminated under covers, his earbuds in so as not to wake his sister in the crib. Helen sits on the couch and lets her saliva take the crunch out of a bag of Cheetos. She looks at the tv screen, the sound on mute. With each curled, orange piece of cornmeal, she tells herself it will be the last. She can feel the skin under her heavy breasts sweating, and when she stands there’s a sound like a peeling adhesive.
She will do better, she tells herself, as she lets thrumming bristles glide over her teeth. She thinks about Minneapolis.
Helen was strong in Minneapolis. She went with her friend Kim after school. They listened to the Replacements and smoked cigarettes out her bedroom window. She flirted innocently with Kim’s brother. He was two years older, and unusually polite. He even told Helen she looked pretty once.
They were snooping through her brother’s room in the afternoon. He arrived home a half-hour early. They hid in his closet, stifling snickers. He didn’t come home alone. Helen’s sister, Syrn, followed him in. After closing the door, she sunk to her knees in front of him. Helen closed her eyes like bank vaults.
Now, Helen is heavy and slow; a sick husband, a daughter chiseled out of her, and a near mute stepson. She is certain that for Syrn it was all just like Minneapolis, always getting everything she wanted.
Helen lifts the skin flaps over her eyeballs. She is no longer inside the twice mortgaged townhouse. The couch she is on is hard leather. The carpet is plush green. She touches it with purple toe nails. She hasn’t painted her toes since she got pregnant.
Standing, her thighs don’t touch. She walks along the carpet, which yields to shiny brown wood. She walks on her toes. Three windows stretch to the ceiling. The center one reflects a busy street, and vegetable like tree tops. She gathers the skin on her wrist, wrenching it sharply.
Exploring the rest of the space, there is an open kitchen area with gleaming silver appliances. Down the hall is a bedroom with a small, sturdy looking mattress on the floor. Through the bedroom is the narrow bathroom with a tub and toilet. She touches the porcelain. Above the sink, the mirror. It doesn’t surprise Helen that the purplish blot they called a birthmark is no longer occupying that section of her chin, or that the skin below her eyes no longer sacks of ink, or especially, how closely she resembles her own sister.
She turns on the water. It’s hard and instantly warm. She removes the shorts and ribbed tank top she woke in. She feels oddly unencumbered, but then her breasts are no longer ballooned counter weights. Now, they are small and hard as tennis balls. She feels masculine.
Under the water, she studies all the other differences.
She clears the steam from the mirror with a knife like hand. She tips her head from side to side as if draining water. Then there is the chirping of a cell phone from a distant room.
Walking out naked into the cool room, she wishes someone were there to see her. She has never felt comfortable naked. Even with the men who purported to find her attractive, she would change in the bathroom, and request the lights out when she emerged.
“Are you ready?” a man asks somewhat impatiently once she is able to locate the phone. It’s a model uncannily like her own, just a screen without any road map like cracks in it.
“No,” she says puzzled, and the silence that follows forces her to add, “not yet.”
“Wear something red.”
Everything in the closet is colorful and expensive smelling. She had never become accustomed to just a strip of fabric between the cheeks of her ass before. Now she feels streamlined.
Helen hasn’t worn make-up in what feels like ten years. It’s all elaborately laid out in a three drawer, painted wooden storage chest in the bedroom. She doesn’t put it on like she used to in Minneapolis; bright blue on the eyelids, red slash marks on the cheeks, black lipstick.
The dark mascara accentuates her green eyes, eyes that had been the dullest of blue. She mouths the words of Jame Gumb at her own reflection.
She stands in the spacious kitchen. She’s used to waiting in sterile offices, and for phone calls from specialists. On the weekends, she stood in the kitchen while her husband and daughter took feverish naps in the early afternoon. She would undo a folded bag of potato chips and stuff the yellow particles into her mouth slowly so as not to make much noise. Sometimes a sharp ridge would cut into a soft, pink gum.
She feels like a hungry snake in her sleek red dress. It is all so wonderful because she knows it’s all just an incredible hallucination; a sick dream conjured from years of having an absence of them.
The phone again. The same male voice. He says there’s a car outside.
She giggles, walking the stairs in her heels, which were the only shoes in the closet. Pushing open the door, it’s warm and humid. The heat moves with familiarity up her weightless dress to her no longer kissing thighs.
A black Lincoln is on the street. A man exits the drivers’ side and walks around the vehicle with a courteous smile. He opens the back door. She walks toward him confidently, even though she’s not. She thanks him as she ducks into the vehicle. He doesn’t respond.
The leather upholstery is hard as stone. She smooths out her dress, wishing it were longer. The driver adjusts the rear mirror. “Are you the one I spoke to on the phone?” she asks. His eyes move in reflection. His lips don’t.
She sees a pattern, holding like a plane waiting to be told to land. The vehicle moves languidly. The scenery is almost black from window tinting. Her phone makes its noises.
“Are you inebriated?”
“No.” she remembers how she must have appeared when she emerged from the apartment in the awkward heels.
“Count backward from twenty, please.”
“No.” she says without hesitation, because she is unsure if she could. There is a pause. She doesn’t want it to be over.
“Banquet hall B,” he says. “He should approach you first, but in the event that doesn’t happen ‒ blond hair, curls, Freudian glasses, black tie thin as a mint. Text back with the room number. That’s what’s important. That is the only thing.”
The hotel sits like a castle on a small carpeted hill. Helen had seen photos of such places, but never would allow herself a fantasy of going inside. Now she walks in just like her sister would have, like they were lucky to be in her presence.
There is a sudden warmth with the instant attention she receives. She’s overdressed. None of the other women have any color save dark blue and black. None of them wear heels. She is half a foot taller than them all, height is something she and Sryn both shared. She always thought it was nice to be able to look down on people.
There is a mobile bar; a little table on wheels. She walks up just like the rest of them, but orders a soda water. She waits like the rest of them, but tries not to look as desperate as they seem, as she knows she would be, if not for the altered appearance.
He’s tall. His hair looks like a poodle just shaved and the droppings formed into a hairpiece. His eyes behind tiny rounded frames are smug. His words seem effortless. “Such a pretty girl.” he says when she agrees to accompany him up to his room. She looks away, battling the urge to laugh.
He holds the door open for her. He directs her toward the elevators. She slips her hand into her small purse, fondles her phone, deftly finding the button to make the call to the last number dialed. “Twelve floor?” she asks loudly as they step into the elevator. “Are those suites?”
“I always stay in suites, not that these actually qualify.”
She walks behind him down the quiet hallway. She stares at the back of his neck; the hairs crawling over the lip of his collar, the width of his shoulders. She imagines the body free, sees it as cracked and creased like an old receipt on the floor of your car.
Helen hadn’t had sex in years, and even before it was infrequent. After her daughter and all the horrific things a growing fetus can do to the female form, she didn’t want to be touched, and when she did, her husband took sick.
She had been brought up to believe that desire of anything was something to defend against. She wondered who it was that had raised her sister.
There is no number on the door. “There’s no room numbers?” she asks, sounding slightly panicked.
The room is not impressive. Smudged windows display rooftops of neighboring buildings that appear ringed in grime.
“Such a pretty face. You know this, don’t you? How can you not? Pretty little bitch. Pretty little mouth. You know how to use that, don’t you?” he doesn’t want a response. He wants to say more things, and she watches him struggle with what words to let out until placing his hands on her shoulders. With his touch, there is a realization that she is not in the confines of her own head. Something has taken place. His hands are solid and warm, there is real blood with-in them. She doesn’t struggle. She drops to her knees just as she had seen Syrn do in that bedroom in Minneapolis.
She is looking up, but not at him, not like he wanted. She’s looking at the almond-shaped hole in his forehead, and then the small cutout in the opposite window.
After some indeterminable length of time the door opens. Two men enter and collect the body without engaging her. She follows them down the hall to a service elevator, silently. When the button is illuminated she opens her mouth, words caught in her teeth. She wants permanence, even though she’s supposed to be thinking of her children, and sick husband.
Helen’s not supposed to want to be pretty and strong forever. She’s supposed to have realized that the only important thing in life is family.
Mika Nadolsky has published one novel It Rises and will be gone. His short works have appeared in The Piker Press and Bound.
Hannah Mathis received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Art with a focus in Drawing, Painting and Printmaking at DePaul University. Her work focuses on human connection with others and the environment. Mathis has exhibited work throughout the Midwest, in Nashville, Tennessee, and Reykjavik, Iceland. She completed a SIM residency in Reykjavik, Iceland beginning in February 2020.