Tina May Hall


When you wake up, you are one hundred forty-five years old.

The last you remember, you were fifteen and in your parents' yard, turning the spigot for the hose. The boy you thought you loved was coming toward you from the street, his hair a waxed lily curving from his forehead, and all you could smell was metal.

Now, your blood worms under paper skin. You are something no one would recognize.

The last you remember you were twenty-two and sitting on a dumpster behind a bar with your friends. Your tattoos fizzed in the halogen lights. A cloud of mosquitoes formed a halo, dragged your DNA upward.

In the dark room, upon your waking, your heart stirs, furtively, a moth unfolding a wet wing. Beauty is the sound in your ears, the faintest drumbeat.

The last you remember, you had cut yourself with the paring knife. Onions wept milky pus. Your husband handed you a towel. Not the monogrammed one, you said. Pale blue of your wedding. Not the one your grandmother appliquéd with drooping mushrooms. Not the one stained with tomato sauce. Not the one used to mop up the spilled bug spray. The bees would not budge from the window frames. They wanted excitement. Honey seeped out of the walls. You could slice all the way to the wax and see the larvae tucked like pearls. This was not as pleasant as it sounds.

Can you move? Testing this takes a long time. Crocodiles hatch and die. Eventually, you determine yes, movement is possible. And it is not all dark. There is a doorway if you turn your head. Every so often dawn moves across this aperture, and midday, and dusk. The sun goes by as quickly as headlights flashed across a black room. And then night resumes.

The last you remember, you were in a pie-eating contest, entered accidentally by your four-year-old. The crust exploded and cherry juice ran down your chin. The man next to you had his face buried in the pie plate. For some reason you all had your hands tied behind your backs and people were cheering. The man next to you began to choke on meringue. Children in the front row laughed like steam engines. A never-ending series of surprises, you thought as you cracked a molar on a pit. All you wanted was to win a ribbon made of polyester and a coupon for a free car wash. You didn't care what you had to destroy to do it.

By the time you finally figure out how to get up and to the doorway and that the shining razor of the sun must be rejected for the long dark night, you have aged another score of years. My god, did you ever think you were bored before? Maybe while doing the dishes? Or waiting for the deli slicer to be free? It was nothing compared to this painstaking journey traversing damp floor, marble dust, scent of camphor.

You remember holding the baby to your breast, three in the morning, watching true crime shows. Every hair and splatter was tagged and labeled. The baby wouldn't latch; you had to force his head down, shove the nipple in deep. It was a balancing act. There was a big slice of pound cake on the coffee table, but to reach it, you'd have to dislodge the baby. Another stupid girl got into a stranger's car. The men were uniformly unattractive, pockmarked, covered in rank denim and yellowed shirts. There was a lesson here, but no one who might benefit from it was awake. The baby was round as a loaf of bread, sweet as a gumball, deeply sleeping, sucking hard, dreaming who-knows-what as dawn rumbled on the horizon.

Outside, you can hardly believe you are still standing. You must be nearly two hundred years old. Oh! The honeysuckle, a veil of scent. The night breeze across your shins rouses you, reminds you how hungry you are.

Once upon a time, you remember--no, every morning it was--the sun came up and burnt a nimbus in your window screen. The coffeepot cracked for no reason. The basement flooded. The school bus was late and half the windows were stuck open so that in the winter snow drifted across the green vinyl seats and the driver lit a fire in the center aisle for warmth. One child never did sleep past six o'clock. One child always woke up wet. One child had a nightmare about a spotted dog every night and told you about it in detail. No one liked their toast burnt. No one wanted to drink the last two inches of milk. When the butter went rancid, you ate it. When the bread was down to the heel you made it into a million crumbs and mixed it with flesh to make the groceries last longer. Meatloaf, you called it and it was dry as sand. Your mother had made it and her mother before her and maybe a few more mothers before that. There was a whole box of these family treasures chronicled on index cards, grease-stained, written in ballpoint pen from when those still existed, annotations in different ink, conversions into the metric system, into Arabic, into Sanskrit. Bits of daily wisdom. Don't use the generic vanilla. Boiling sugar scars worst. Keep the lid tightly on; don't be tempted to peek, no matter how bad it smells.

Your pulse is a thousand bees droning. Time moves so slowly now, each molecule swollen, fat and smooth as the ditch rocks you used to suck for their swampy weed taste. You are so thirsty you would drink anything.

You remember summers, camping, car packed with corn chips and vials of pharmaceutical-grade DEET. The tent always took four hours to put up. You nearly got divorced trying to rig the tarp over the picnic table. The kids fell in the lake and impaled themselves on saplings and only wanted to eat ramen. Before nightfall there would invariably be a snake bite, a beer bottle stepped upon, a rip in the rain fly, the shampoo spilled in the backseat. You were chewed up by deerflies, skin burned, feet cut and calloused. Nothing haunted you then. The moon was just the moon, the stars exactly what you made of them. Sparks from the campfire flew up like metal shavings to the magnet of the arching sky. Big dipper, the hunter's belt, seven sisters laughing. All that light showered down on you, and you closed your eyes to it, dreamt all night to the sounds of small animals dying.

The first time you try to drink, it comes back up in a sludge of black ooze and ash. It has taken you fifty years or so to make your way to the stream at the edge of the graveyard, and you lap the water in great gasps, feeling it seep into your tissues, plumping your cells. But almost immediately, your stomach contracts and wrings itself out, expelling the muck of ages onto the muddy bank. It takes a few more tries to figure out that water is not what your body is demanding. You lie on your side for a while, arm trailing in the current, snails crawling into your hair and attaching to your scalp like barnacles. Morning is coming and you must return to the dark room. A silver crack on the horizon; a needle buries itself at the base of your skull.

A long time ago, your daughter borrowed your favorite sweater and left it at her friend's house where there had been dancing to hipster folk/punk medleys and the drinking of schnapps. You yelled at her until your throat was raw. You yelled until pictures fell off of the walls. The pans dented. The water purifier stopped working. The neighbors whispered in their drywall shells. Your other children tugged at your hands to pull you back to earth. They all piled on top of you to keep you there, with them, in your own fragile house, where the toilets backed up every other Sunday and you ate popcorn on the new couch and the ratty sneakers mated and spewed forth in the entryway. Under this pile of bodies, you were warm and content, even though you were sweaterless and your oldest daughter, your favorite one, the one who looked like you, was taking a chair to the windows, trying to smash through the bulletproof glass, looking for a way out.

When you find blood, it is a relief. It is not so easy to search out, but it goes the way these matters usually do. First the small things, then the large. Mice, rabbits, stray dogs, handymen. There used to be something called honor. There used to be something called moral compunction. You illegally downloaded movies about these. Now there is just smell and taste. Some blood tastes like urine, some like shit, some like honeydew melon. There is no way to tell from looking.

You remember the first six weeks of your firstborn's life were the longest you'd ever known. Time slowed down into a milky trickle, stretched out, thinned. Then the rubber band snapped and everything accelerated. An entire lacrosse season took place over the course of one rainy afternoon. Your knees sagged, wrinkled, tightened up again, grew bulbous as wormy apples in the time it took to walk to the ATM. One child was engaged, pregnant out of wedlock, married by an internet-ordained minister, retired, and divorced before you had finished the free tiramisu that came with your early-bird special.

Around you are a thousand hearts pumping, but most are too far away to reach before daylight. Not many people wander by the graveyard at night, especially in the winter. You subsist on timid chipmunks and naps. A whole group of twenty-somethings appears one night to shoot atmosphere for their independent film. It seems to be a horror movie starring obscure historical figures. The flannel and fleece are hard to get out from between your teeth, but goodness, their blood. It is all Jack Daniels and locally-sourced ham sandwiches, buckwheat pancakes and agave nectar. You try not to sleep too long. The dreams are the worst. Everything moves too fast and is too bright.  The glare off a cheek blinds you. Your son leans in to kiss you and you feel his skull, bare bone beneath your hand.

You remember date nights with your husband when you sat awkwardly in a bar hours before anyone else felt like drinking and tallied up the per minute ratio of babysitter wages to fun. You always ended up at the grocery store, gleefully cart-free, recklessly holding the frozen food doors open, bathing in the gelid air, reading calorie counts on pocket meals. At home, the kids were not really asleep. They had drugged the babysitter with your Tylenol PM, microwaved a box of garbage bags, used your holey old pantyhose to tie up a jogger they'd dragged off the street. When you pulled into the driveway, the house was quiet, still as a grave, all the kids blinking in the happy glow of nightlights, waiting to be tucked in.

After a bit, maybe two or three decades, the blood starts to get to you. Before you were undead, you used to have a cellophane packet of wipes to clean up these kinds of situations, but now there is only the flowing white dress some fool has buried you in that is growing ever stiffer and browner with the ages. You try to be discreet, to use restraint, to subsist on the smell of breath alone, tic tac yearning in the mouths of shy teenagers who use the mausoleums to neck, sad mix of violets and chicken noodle soup on the old woman bearing flowers for her mother. But after awhile it all gets messy again, a drop here or there, an arterial fountain or two, a quart of gore, the occasional massacre.

When the kids went away to college you provided them with all the essentials, extra-long sheets, body wash, a basket to carry the body wash to the showers, the injunction to never talk to wolves on the way to the showers, condoms to show what a cool parent you were and because you knew those condoms were the best deterrent to sex any kid ever had, a little box of discomfort broadcasting parentally-condoned sex, the worst kind! The box lay unopened the desk drawer for four years; you knew because you checked when you visited, while your child was navigating the dorm halls with his or her little plastic basket of toiletries. Somehow this did not reassure you. Two or three times a semester you summoned up the energy to send a flat-rate mailer of beef jerky and pixie sticks, a baby photo you'd found stuck to the underside of the coffee table, a twenty-dollar bill, and some freeze-dried peach slices. No one ever thanked you for this. You wished you knew how to make cookies or brownies and how in the world you would package them so they would arrive intact, but after the kids left for college, you were so busy with amateur rockhound meetings and tropical-themed bunko parties and returning things to department stores the day after you bought them that you had no time to take up baking.

You wonder how you got here. You wonder if there is anything in this world you would not kill. You try to think back to the point of infection, but it was so long ago now. It is growing warmer and warmer. There is no more winter. Nights last forever and the stars have disappeared. You've grown so old you think maybe you no longer need to eat. For a few weeks, you try to go without feeding. No, blood is the constant. You still hear heartbeats in the distance, but the creatures you catch now you've never seen before. Scales, barbed tails, warts--nothing deters you. No matter the origin, the heat slides from your mouth down the center of your body, flushing skin you try not to think about anymore, filling your fingertips again so they are smooth as grapes. Just after eating, you could play a Beethoven sonata. You could darn a sock. You could perform gallbladder surgery with a robot arm and a microscopic camera. Unfortunately, this fades and you turn crepuscular again all too quickly, the world fogged. Cataract, you think, the waterfall at the end of the wooded path, a wall of fluid shifting over your vision, another hundred dark years, opaque as scar tissue, blind as tar.

The last you remember, your child held out her arms to be picked up. Your sons kissed your sunburnt shoulders as they climbed you like monkeys. Your husband whacked you on the leg when there was a mildly funny part in the movie. A coworker cornered you at the mandated happy hour and lapped at your ear lobe. Grandchildren burrowed into your thighs, stabbed you with twig swords, then ran away from your hugs no matter how many lollipops you waved. A well-meaning nurse shoved morphine under your tongue, before you were ready. Someone was holding your hand, trying to pull you back. Someone was praying near you, bargaining, telling you a secret about love. Someone was ordering pizza, flipping the channels, complaining about yard work. It really had seemed like any other day. It really had seemed as if it would never end.