She was silent when my finger curled around the full breadth of the trigger.
Bathed in shadow where she lay on the cold concrete of the closet floor, her soft shape was hidden entirely save for the vertical razor of fluorescent light that cut through the partly open door and sliced gently across the left side of her face. The knot had loosened and the handkerchief had fallen easily onto the hard bridge of her nose.
Her exposed eye glimmered with enough force to cause a rolling, sinking twist in my belly and a fearful tightness in my hand. The hardness of her pupil and the hooking, unnervingly still curve of her eyebrow set me off inside. I was taken away instantly from the hissing of pipes and the gaping emptiness of the parking deck behind me.
She was watching and she did not scream.
The hotel room.
I wake and the hair on the back of my head sticks to the pillow in a damp mass of sweat and stringy, brown darkness. My focus returns in a draining blur and I expect to see the soft whiteness of a ceiling, the golden-brown of an overhead light, the blue glow of a television screen. I see nothing and my vision swims uncontrollably, shapes running into lines, until I realize that I have been sleeping upright with the pillow wedged between my back and the bed’s firm headboard.
The sharp form of her body sinks into the far end of the bed with the subtle force of a knife falling quietly into soft flesh. I breathe slowly, rhythmically. She has to sense the rising and falling of my chest, I think. She shows no knowledge in her dagger poise and in the draping harshness of her shoulders.
Don’t look at her face, kid. Whatever you do, kid, don’t look at her face.
The room is hazy, under-lit. It’s so square and so nondescript that everything, the bed, the walls, the dresser, the large mirror, they all pale into one single storm of lifelessness that is dispelled immediately by her impossible presence. I open my mouth as if to speak but think better of it. My mind informs me that I am dreaming and that speech would be fatal. Speech would mean waking. The muscles in my jaw and throat relax with my own guided apprehension. She’s not there. She’s not really there but I watch her, I take her in.
Her dress is cavernously black. It is so tight and so formfitting that I know, even without her turning, that it costs more than I can afford in a month. Her spine is an arcing, curving snake of rippled bone that slinks between her shoulders, falling to the lowest, crudest rip in the dress. I notice this immediately, this split in her dress that exists all the way down to the small, inward shadow of skin on her lower back.
And never touch her, kid. Don’t let her touch get on you, whatever you do.
She is so beautiful that for a moment I dare not to look, focusing instead on the heavy wooden door that marks the entrance to the room. It is locked, no doubt, but not by my hand.
By hers? She’s in a deserted parking garage four blocks from here, hands bound by wire, her broken face and bits of skull covered in the cloth of the patterned handkerchief. The cold is deafening there. Still is, judging by the chill of the dirty night air that washes in from a crack in the curtained window at the bedside. I will need to go back but for now she is here, she is dead and the door is locked.
It’s good money, John.
Her hand. It twitches with a deliberate slightness as she presses her fingers into the deep green and maroon pattern of the bedspread. The tendons in the back of her hand curl and weave in cresting circles, following each finger as they trace the flowers and vines printed crudely on the soft material.
My feet fall onto the sea of carpet without control. I’m moving slowly, circling the bedside.
Her hand continues, faster now, moving with an increasing speed that betrays the paths printed on the bedspread’s cottony surface. I’m walking painfully slow as she does this, not wanting to see her face just yet, focusing on her hand and on the widening spill of black dress. She is silent. I sidestep more and more with the inching growth of each step until I am almost directly in front of her.
Her hand stops abruptly.
She’s not wearing a face. The lighting-quick snap in my neck grabs hold and prevents me from screaming but I try anyway and I wince as a scathing hiss of choked air escapes my mouth. I’m looking at a hollow, a great swirling mass of black where her eyes and nose and mouth should be.
Before I can back away she has my hand in hers and I’m cold all over, I’m cold and her hand has stopped and the fingernail on the index finger is digging hard into the mattress. I fall backwards and my hand slides from hers in a sick slip. I trip, falling backwards with all my weight and tripping into the bathroom.
The lights, bright and yellow. They hit me on the way in and sting the pulsing redness that’s beating abrasively in the lower whites of my eyes. My feet are hurried, uneasy. I half expect to fall down some hidden step. I fumble like this for a moment, realizing that I’m barefoot, listening to the dry bottoms of my heels crackling against the carpet-less white floor. The door is open. I can’t hear her behind me but I pivot against the weakness of my ankles and I slam it shut with sloppy force.
There’s tile everywhere, green, black, white. It wraps around the tiny rectangle of the room in a sea of glaring sheen and translucently cracked sickness. For the heart of a second the muted darkness of the other room seems comforting. The bed, the ceiling, the cave of her gaze all wind up into one spiral of immediacy that gnarls its way into the corner of my rushing mind. I panic and I dry heave as I my eyes finally adjust to the glaring enclosure of my surroundings.
I dip my hands and face in the cold water that’s rushing in a thick jet from the silver faucet. I let the liquid ice run over my lips and cheeks and chin. I’m aware instantly of how dirty the sink itself is, of how crusted over the rust of the still metal had become over time. It doesn’t matter.
I close my eyes.
Five hours ago. The van. The sun hitting her hair and neck. Jenny. Her heels clicking on the ground. Grabbing her, carefully, quickly. Her screams vibrating against the nervous palm of my hand. I don’t know her. Jenny. I’m being paid. The sound of the empty lot. Jenny, he called her. Don’t look at her face. I’m not looking. Her heels dragging on pavement. I don’t know her. Her weight in my arms, limp now, asleep. The cloth falling to the ground. I’m being paid well. Her back to me, her spine, her hair. I’m not looking. The van. The doors slamming.
I snap back and taste rust, deep and brown, sputtering from the faucet. The insides of my mouth recoil from the rank thickness of the taste and I spit heavily into the sink. While bending forward I twist the crystal knob, cutting the water. There is an elongated, resounding gush that channels down the drain and reverberates in the cresting whiteness of the sink. I stay there for a moment until the sound is gone.
There’s quiet. I look up and see her image in the mirror. The thumping weight in my chest freefalls into my belly and I’m seeing it all over again, that mass of churning black where her head should be. The air tightens as her image moves closer and closer to mine. I lean forward just far enough to cloud the mirror with my breath and obscure her image over my shoulder. The breath gathers and fades. I blink with force and she’s still there.
I don’t think of running. I reach back, not turning but reaching with my hands to where she should be, where she would be if she were anything but a ghost of the last few hours. I swallow hard against the back of my sore throat as I grope the emptiness of the air.
She’s not there. She’s in the mirror but she’s not really there, she can’t be.
In the mirror I watch as shapes, hints of cheekbone and complexion pulse out of her empty face. Her pupils go green, red, blue, orange, settling on the brown darkness of that one exposed eye. There’s lips now, obscured. Her face is piecing itself together but before it does the lights go out and there’s nothing, nothing now but the vertical razor of fluorescent light and that eye.
She’s gone. She’s dead. I don’t know her. I won’t know her. She’s dead.
She’s probably frozen by now. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead.
She’s bleeding from one eye, black blood and the mirror is cracked and I can’t . . .
Don’t look at her eyes, kid.
The lobby. It’s still dark outside. I’m seated and my breath gathers in a wet haze on the full length window that exposes the street and the night and the glimmering dampness of the city. My back is gnarled and stiff against the orange leather of the chair and I’m afraid to stand. My eyelids are heavy with a weight that can be brought on only by nightmare.
“Will you be staying with us tonight?” a woman asks.
The gun, a sinking weight in my cheap jacket, drags the left side of my body numb. My hands are nervous now, minutes after waking, and I’m still sweating underneath all the layers of clothing. Hours after pulling the trigger, my wrist is still aching from the lasting tingle of the gun’s recoil. I reach for it instinctively, as if I had known for years how to use it. I shudder at its touch.
“No,” I tell her, and she looks down again as if I were never there at all.
I don’t look at her on the way out. My fingers drift from the grip of the weapon and into my pocket, to my keys.
5 AM now and the first light blue of daylight refuses to break through the widening absence of cloud and star. The hotel sign is a glistening speck of neon that echoes down the dark street as I look over my shoulder. I’m alone. A car passes every now and then, coasting by with the beat of my steps and the sidewalk cracks but I am alone. I will get the money I left.
Under the streetlights I pass a man in tattered clothes. His hands are covered in torn grey socks and he’s shaking a hollow Quaker Oats jar in front of me, his lips moving. I’m at the parking garage.
“Do you know Jenny?” I imagine him asking. “Do you know Jenny?”
I walk on and when I turn he is still holding the jar, still mumbling, still asking.
I hesitate before opening the door to the closet. When I do it swings open with a creaking finality that rings out her absence across the landscape of abandoned concrete. The darkness remains untouched. No handkerchief, no blood. The piercing howl of an auto accident fills the street outside and I’m tempted, if only for a moment, to step into the black and feel my way around.
I dare not. I think better, leaving, walking fast now, wiping the gun ferociously and sliding it, clip and all, into the nearest grate on my way out to the street. It’s cold. Somewhere in the garage is a section of pipe holding a damp paper bag stuffed with cash. I don’t even think about going back.