Monday
Nov032014

Even Quieter Than This

Meredith Luby


 

I woke with flower petals where my eyelids were. They sucked at the moisture in my tear ducts. My lashes balanced carefully on their edges. All I had to do was peel them off. It only hurt for a moment. When considering the state of the furniture it must be noted I didn't have perfect vision. The rooms of the apartment, there are only two if you don't count the kitchen, were small. Small enough to easily notice any differences from the previous night. That was always my assumption. And despite the changes to my face, despite my inability to comfortably close my eyes, I knew the furniture had been moved five inches to the left.

The streets filled with coyotes at night. Their cries pulsated into our sleep in such a way that everyone thought they were a dream and never mentioned them to anyone else. I slept in their sounds until the last few skirted back to hiding places. Under cars and in bramble thickets.

I did not hear the couch or coffee table squeak across the wood floor. If only I had carpet. The depressions in the surface could have told me. It was barely morning when the fire alarm went off and I crashed a knee into the floral chair. The trucks came and went by the time I stopped staring at the edges. I wasn't concerned about flames. Our alarm was faulty. It goes off with little reason. There was always time to pull on clothes and dress for the weather, always time to measure in hand-lengths from wall to table to chair to wall. I wasn't a believer in the supernatural. Humans are capable of more than we give them credit for. Someone had been here. Someone heard my sleeping breath through the walls or windows and invited himself in. I looked for a note, for a footprint. For some sign to read too deeply into.

After hanging up my winter coat I did what anyone would do. I moved everything back and returned to bed. I tried so hard to listen carefully. There was still a little night left. Still time for the interloper to return, again. But quiet places make it harder. I know there are rooms even quieter than this. Rooms where you can hear the blood travel from your heart to the edges of your fingers through the smallest capillaries. There are few noises here I cannot recognize. An echo of footsteps, the bass reverberations of passing cars, my neighbor's wind-chimes, heat bouncing through the rusted pipes. I can pull these from one another and hold them far enough away to find sleep. Any foreign sound, any that came closer, I like to think I'd know it immediately. But I hadn't heard it the first time. My mattress gave way to the curve of a spine that no longer seemed to belong to me. I don't remember closing my eyes. Their lids were skin but still felt tight. Too tight to open so soon. Each of my bones flattened and every noise sounded like footsteps.

But it's impossible to say which noises were real and which ones I hallucinated. I was hoping to find a mask, a shoelace, or a glove. I expected the sound of a lock being picked. Little clicks followed by a long exhale and metal sighing into place.

The petals covered my eyes and mouth. All I had to do this time was wipe them away with the sheets. Even after showering my face was sticky and soft. Like the underbelly of a discarded peach peel. If the furniture had moved again it was not enough that I noticed. Even if it had, in daylight everything seems less sinister. I wrote it off as a dream. Except there was a shallow scrape on the bottom of my foot and an angry welt on my knee. I rinsed the dried blood under warm water. Pink lingered around the edge of the drain. Later, the wound throbbed under my jeans.

 

My neighbors laughed through the wall. Before leaving I opened the windows despite the cold. The apartment is high enough that no one could climb in. And anyway, the windows closed themselves by the time I returned. They're old in an unremarkable way. No original panes. Only rotting wood and cracked locks. Like the quiet echo of a piano key after it is pressed or the sound of toe shoes on wood just behind the orchestra's noise, my bruised bone distracted from everything else I needed to pay attention to. Even waiting for the coyotes, looking for the dirty brown fur blurred around a corner or behind a tree didn't distract me.

I pressed the stiff fabric against it with my palm. By evening the surrounding skin was raw and peeling. It is better to leave a wound to heal on its own, not to touch it, contaminate it. But I'm stubborn that way. I don't sit idly by. I was once so convinced I was pregnant I stopped my period from coming that month. The doctor did a blood test. I'd already told the potential father how much money we'd need to find and that I expected him to go with me to the clinic.

The morning's petals dusted the floor, shriveled small, and browning at the edges. I used my feet to push them together. When there is still daylight, quiet is serene. The ambient noises become a low hum to cook dinner to. I rubbed my eyes and sneezed from the flowers. Living alone was different than I thought. And living alone in many cities became indistinguishable, each one just another version of the one I came from. It coats your mouth in cold coffee. Food expires quickly and there are never enough trash bags. The buildings have differences. Height and number of windows. Materials used. Age. But they all collect smog and snow. I have found other ways to tell places apart.

 

In the morning the petals covered my face from forehead to mouth. They were arranged like scales but not nearly so sharp. My tongue reached and pulled a few to my teeth. It only sounds like a lie when I say I spit them out and the rest fell when I sat up. They tasted waxy and overcooked. They tasted, like everything, faintly of blood and dirt.

It would have been obvious immediately even to someone who'd never set foot in my apartment. The couch blocked the window and the chair was in the middle of the room. The coffee table was shoved into a corner.

Maybe the petals should have made me afraid. They didn't. I assumed my skin was telling me something about how we are all made of dirt. How pieces can't exist without their ugly counterparts to hold them up. At first, it didn't occur to me that another person could have placed them, arranged them like I was a corpse. Wouldn't they have put coins on my eyes? Or kissed the top of my head? What a waste, flowers. It made me think it wasn't a stranger. Only someone who knew me would have come so close with something so frivolous.

The last man I loved didn't know I loved him. He left and would have taken me if I'd wanted to go. But everyone needs a good heartbreak. I thought it would serve us both well. He didn't agree with me. He was never violent, though, nor cunning. Not the sort of person who'd own the tools needed to pick a lock. Or the sort of person who would break in only to watch someone sleep.

None of the locks were broken on the windows. The glass and the screens stayed intact. The deadbolt and the chain were latched. Two days in a row showed the beginning of a pattern. But three would be needed to prove it. And that it happened twice in one night meant the culprit was staying nearby. Or so I thought. I started to understand why people read true crime books and watch those forensics shows. I didn't know what to look for. There didn't seem to be a crime to report. And anyway, how would I explain the petals? I sat on each of the items, coffee table included. Nothing about the objects themselves was different. It was the same hand-me-down furniture that had come with the apartment.

 

Overripe nectarines tumbled into a drawer in the fridge. Why did the market have a fruit that was so far out of season? Grown in a greenhouse near a city sprayed with the thing that almost got rid of bedbugs for good. It was banned before they all died. Everything else would have died too. Stone fruits are best in the summer. I should have stuck with citrus. Or melon.

An afternoon sun glared against the knife I used to split the fruit. Its soggy flesh flattened to a pulp. The smell lingered until after dinner. I don't miss eating with other people. That is the best part of living alone. Another person would only have tried to reassure me that the furniture never moved. That there is no way a person who could slip so easily into a locked room would waste his talents on moving tables. Maybe it was a thief. Just one who is very deliberate and slow about what he takes, wanting to make sure he has surveyed everything before choosing an item. In other words: a careful shopper. But what use, another person could argue, is care when you aren't paying for anything?

 

I tried staying up all night. I lay on top of the sheets and distracted myself while it got dark and then light again. But my cracked heels grew weary and my hands stopped supporting my head. It couldn't have been more than a couple of hours. The sun was still low in the sky. I opened the bedroom door and let the hinge creak and the wood snap. It all looked new and clean. Everything was where I left it, down to the previous morning's coffee cup and dirty tennis shoes. I pulled the books from their shelves. I flipped through the pages. There had to be something. This was an even bigger trick than the petals. My teeth were sticky with sleep and I sucked them with my lips. I missed the taste of the flowers even though I hadn't liked it at the time. Teeth are only small bones. So fragile and important. The last way to figure out who is who when all the other pieces are gone.

I felt the corners of the tables for bite marks, scratches. People always say animals are more afraid of us than we are of them. But this cannot possibly be true. One look at a snarling canine face will set anyone straight. Soon everyone will have to realize that this danger is our fault.

The alarm blared again but I didn't smell smoke. I watched from the window as my neighbors collected on the sidewalk, barefooted and with arms crossed. They touched one another's elbows and straightened their shirts. I pressed my fingers to the place where the shelf and the wall met. It was sticky. The firemen in heavy boots held the door for one another. They laughed as they checked the stairwell. They came every time there was no fire. But what were they doing about the coyotes? Everyone had seen them. It wasn't only at night anymore. And the sticky residue on my shelf was enough to count, to be a part of this.

 

The last person to have been in the apartment was a bartender from a place a few blocks away. I wasn't a regular there. Not exactly, anyway. But when I did go I stayed until closing so he'd walk me home. I invited him in and when I finished washing my hands I turned to find he'd taken his shirt off. It seems bolder than it was, in retrospect. That was always the inevitable conclusion. His shoulders were tattooed and his hands were calloused. He was kind in the morning, but we didn't talk much. He didn't seem the type to buy flowers. For anyone. And though his hands resembled those of a painter I doubt he knew how to use them so delicately. He left a belt behind last time I saw him. I kept it curled on top of my shoes in a corner of the closet. Were it him, you'd think he would have at least taken it back.

 

I got my own petals and left them on my nightstand. I closed my eyes in the middle of the afternoon. Kids laughed on the street and I wondered how they didn't know. Why didn't anyone tell them it wasn't safe, even in daylight? Their little faces and hands were dirt-smeared and wet. Sleeping in the day didn't fix anything, only made me unsure of how my body fit into the space it was allotted. I couldn't tell if it had been many days or if I had only woken on the same day many times.

With my cheek against the cold glass of the window I decided to leave everything where it was. The next morning I woke with a clean face. Not a single petal. And everything was where it had been when I moved in. Only. Only I was sure my books were in a different order. And an empty picture frame was face down on the chair. The kind without a stand you'd hang on the wall. It didn't even have the filler picture of the blond family, just the cardboard backing pressed against the glass.

My face and neck grew dry without the petals. The coyotes' cries grew louder, earsplitting in their pain. It was so dark that even if you tried to find them the street wouldn't betray their fuzzy outlines, their stiff backs. I heard people at the grocery store mention the animals digging through their trash and scaring their dogs on evening walks. I didn't see them when I took my trash out or when I woke early. I was not naïve enough to believe a wild animal would listen to reason. But it would be a lie to say I didn't feel responsible.

The events seemed unconnected at first. Scenes from separate movies.

But whoever did this must have known at least a little about animals. Not in a Pied Piper sort of way. In the clinical sense. Carefully researched and practiced. And they'd have to be better than most people at distinguishing dreams from reality. To be so certain that the coyotes were real, that they'd follow the instinct all animals have to take what's theirs. What they think is theirs.

I didn't know any men like that.

Most of the ones I knew moved to warmer climates. To places closer to the coast. I didn't like looking off that ragged edge. I wanted the security of walls, of streets that extend for miles and only end in more land. But there was no safety in those things either.

I duct taped the locks on my windows and saw a coyote sniffing the bottom of my fire escape. Nectarine pits dried on the counter keeping the dripping faucet company. The coyote wasn't much bigger than a cat. Maybe the whole time I was wrong and all I'd been hearing were the cries of housecats trying to get back inside. No, that couldn't be right. There was something distinctly canine about the animals I heard. About the one I saw. Its outline looked ripped. But that one was a baby so it's possible it would grow out of that. I'd yet to see one full grown. They are unpredictable and mean. Or so I'd heard.

Each night before bed I moved my furniture an inch and put pieces of tape on each right side. I cleared my nightstand. Either nothing moved or whoever moved it moved the tape as well. I slept on my stomach. I kept my hair in a braid. Even when I was sure nothing happened I woke up tasting rose water and feeling a fine dust like pollen on my skin. The signs were so small it wouldn't have been wrong to think I'd made it up. Or made up parts of it. If someone else relayed these events, if someone else suggested a person would break and enter only to move things around, only to watch someone sleep, only to waste flowers by pulling them apart, I wouldn't believe them. But the petals weren't just on my face: they were stuck to it. Almost growing roots into my skin until I pulled them off. That wasn't the worst part. The worst part was waking up without really being awake. Without being able to move my legs or open my mouth until I brought my hands to my face and found them again. It was almost sweet. Some people don't know there are easier ways to communicate.

 

After a time the growls quieted. And the cold in the day sent the animals back to their hiding places in the few wooded areas left. I let myself believe I had nothing to do with it. Coyotes aren't drawn to the smell of flowers, but to that of rotting things and of living flesh. I went through a list of sorts in my head, arranged by increasing geographic distance, of men I'd known who might be capable of this almost crime. I didn't flatter myself in thinking someone would travel very far. The truth was I didn't know any of them well enough to say for sure. The most likely source was the boy who had stalked me when I was fourteen. But too many years and states had passed for that to be truly plausible. Plus, he always favored pocketknives and flesh when it came to telling me something. He lacked the subtlety to be so careful with objects so delicate.

The problem with sleep, for me, was even when it came easy I couldn't get very deep. The sounds of weather or people woke me if they weren't quiet enough or similar enough to whatever dream I was in. That's why the coyote's paws felt familiar. Why her howls and cries weren't frightening or jarring if I really thought about it. I was sad for her. Though she was part of a pack she seemed so lonesome in the day, walking like she had a secret she was ashamed of. I used to have those kinds of secrets too. You have to pull them from your blood in pieces and let them stain your clothes.

I would wait all night if I need be. I could feign sleep for hours to find someone out. I worried whoever it was would be able to tell the difference between what was real and what was not. But from outside a building no human has that ability. I'd missed it before but I wouldn't this time. They were waiting until I forgot, until I convinced myself that none of it was real.

I am not fooled so easily. I can bide my time like everyone else who has had to wait.

I turned the heat low so the radiators wouldn't distract me. It was raining but there wasn't much I could do about that. The cold kept me awake. I let my muscles fall asleep one at a time. When my body was numb I turned to my stomach and all at once my skin tightened and each of my arm hairs stood on end. It was like falling asleep in high school and waking when your face crashed into the wooden desk. It was like being reminded all the smallest parts of you are alive and breathing. The air was stiff. I filled it with my breath. When I inhaled I tasted nothing except my own tongue. And I was so used to its taste I couldn't separate out what it reminded me of.

Neither door nor window opened. There were not footsteps, at least not ones from shoes. But I heard someone else's lungs. They didn't match with mine. I imagined his ribs holding them in. Each webbed breathing tube getting smaller and smaller as they branched out.

The whole time, during all of it, the coyotes, the flowers, the furniture, I assumed he moved the pieces first and finished with the petals. It made sense in terms of saving energy. In terms of moving through the apartment efficiently. Of all the things I thought I would be wrong about, this was not one of them. I'd taken it for granted. And that is why it took me so long to discover.

I felt him by my bed only a moment after I'd felt him enter the apartment. How he entered I still do not know. Because I kept my eyes closed I cannot say for sure, but since I didn't hear the snap of a stem or the crinkling of a bag I've come to assume he pulled the petals from his pockets. He brushed the hair from my face and started at the crest of my forehead. My own breathing was louder than his and I felt sure he knew I was awake. If he did he decided to ignore it. If he did he must have decided he wanted it that way. He layered the petals down my face, over my eyes, my nose, my cheeks. He placed them in my hair and around the border of my head. I inhaled sharply. There was a soft finger on my upper lip, followed only by the faint taste of shampoo. The flower was smooth against my mouth. I wanted to swallow it but I couldn't miss my chance. This was it. All I had left. I should have opened my mouth, sat up, let the petals fall away or peeled them off. But there, in the quiet dark all I could manage was to grasp into the air with one hand. I let my wrist hang until I felt another hand in mine.