I take a few steps up to my apartment when the stack of books I’m holding onto tumbles out of my arms, hard and soft covers flying in every direction. On the next landing, an Asian woman in her sixties or seventies, wearing an apron, picks one of them up and flips through the pages.
“Um, hi,” I say.
She glances up, startled, but doesn’t respond, so I reach for what’s mine. She hugs it to her chest and stares at me with eyes covered in the slightest haze from cataracts.
I try again as I finish picking up the mess I made. “So… Are you Grace? Maid service?”
She nods. “I clean free… for this?”
As if she thinks the request wasn’t clear, she taps the cover with her index finger again, “For this?”
“Do you work for Faereview Maid Cleaning?” I ask, ignoring her question. What kind of person trades a hundred-dollar service for a book that’s written in gibberish? Her interest in it is strange, almost as strange as the homeless person who gave it to me when I was eight—a person with the most memorable eyes I’ve ever seen: one blue, the other green. Yet, I still shudder when I think of what he whispered in my ear: You must protect against yourself.
Perhaps this is the opportunity to give it away, to leave memories of that day behind.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “My sister is manager. I clean. I trade with you?”
I reluctantly nod and usher her upstairs. She flips through the book again and starts muttering to herself. Peeking from behind, I see her on the first page, running her fingertips over my name that’s scrawled in cursive with a marker: “Belongs to Elysia Beth Daghan.”
I was nine when I did that. During one of my mother’s rage-filled attacks, she threatened to take away what I cherished—books, clothes, art supplies. I thought scribbling my name on this would shelter it from her threats. Looking back, it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but I guess that’s just what a nine-year-old would do. It was the only thing I could do.
“What’s your name?” I ask in an attempt to break the awkward silence.
“Grace,” she says.
A minute of small talk about the weather later, Grace grows silent, but not for long.
She’s murmuring some sort of chant in a language I don’t recognize.
“What did you say?”
“Cittam sreyah kuru hum.”
Sit on… what? I continue to stare at her, while breathing in the slow-fading scent of bleach. She moves on to disinfecting the microwave splattered with remnants of exploded meals. I should’ve known better that the guy who was in such a rush to move out of this place wouldn’t bother scrubbing the toilet or wiping down the kitchen.
“Grace, would you like a glass of water?” I ask. I still haven’t mastered the art of icebreakers. And I haven’t unpacked my glasses or cups yet, so what am I doing offering water when I don’t even have the means to?
She doesn’t respond or pause. She continues to whisper under her breath without missing a beat, except this time, I hear my dad’s name. Viggo. Why, why would I hear his name unless I am beginning to relive the past again?
Finally, with nothing left for her to clean, I swallow the lump in my throat and try to engage her in a conversation. I need to know if she knew him. Not many in this world are named Viggo Daghan and I’m pretty sure no one here in Faereview carries it.
“Grace. Did you say his name? Did you know V-Viggo?” Fourteen years after his death and I still can’t say it without a stutter.
Grace’s eyes, shift to me. They quiver ever so slightly. Maybe she’s studying my eyes – one’s gold, the other blue. Her chanting continues to escape her dry, cracked lips.
Instead of answering my question, she stares at her hands.
The chanting stops.
I want to tell her to leave, but some remnant of my ingrained belief in southern hospitality prevents me from doing so. Between the storm and my miniature pinscher, Ronan, yelping in the other room, I’m uncertain if she said my dad’s name. If I misheard, then why is my scalp tingling as if every strand of hair is charged by the lightning outside? The last time I felt this way was when I watched him die.
The tightness in my chest commands me to wait. After what feels like an hour, she strolls back to the living room to pack her cleaning supplies.
I follow her, letting out a breath as I hand over the book. She snatches it from my fingers and turns around, heading for the door.
“I need to know.” I hear how crazy I sound and wince, but the rest of the words tumble from my lips before I can stop them. “Did you say his name?”
She stops walking. The refrigerator suddenly hums louder. Ronan sniffs under the door, desperate to get out of the bedroom.
She turns around. Her milky eyes are whiter and brighter than fresh snow. Her rough hands grab my arms. I try to pull away but her hands are like steel. I struggle harder, every muscle fighting against her grip. It’s useless. She’s too strong. I use my own weight to push into her, hoping to knock her down, but I have no leverage. Grace doesn’t even flinch.
My fingertips begin to melt against her skin.
At least, that’s what it feels like.
My screams only reach the bottom of my lungs before a searing pain rips through my bones, stealing my strength. Her right hand twists. She carves my wrist with her fingernails. They look more like claws.
I feel the burning, hear the sizzling, smell my flesh cooking under her grip, but my eyes tell me nothing is wrong. I don’t see my skin melting and falling onto the carpet like softened wax. I don’t see my bones being exposed to the humid air.
I just want to stop the feeling of my skin peeling back, revealing tender flesh. I feel, hear, taste, and smell the consuming pain. Please! I beg, but nothing escapes my lips.
Come on. Come on. Keep your eyes open. If they close, they may stay closed forever. I ignore the scent of my arms smoldering sweetly, clogging my lungs like honey being poured down my throat. I yank hard again, one last time.
It’s not my effort that sets me free. She lets go and I lose my balance. Tripping over unpacked boxes, my head breaks my fall. A sharp pain punctures the nape of my neck.
The bitter smell of bleach and the sweet smell of cooked flesh remind me I am still alive. Warm liquid pools through my hair as Grace bends over me. Her face comes close to mine, watching as my eyelids begin to close.
“He has found you,” she says.
We’re driving down Highway 59, heading to some restaurant in the city to celebrate my seventh birthday, when it happened. Something catches my mother off guard. She turns around with her eyes squinted, lips pressed tight into a straight line. She’s really mad at me, but I don’t know why.
Before a word can escape, she loses control of the car and sends us rolling into a ditch. The driver’s side slams into a light pole that finally stops us.
The windshield shatters, glass sprays into the air, shimmering like diamonds, right before it slices my skin.
I dangle inside the overturned SUV. Warm tears pour down my face and sting the cuts on my chin.
My ribs dig into my chest with every breath and I struggle against my seatbelt, but it’s stuck. I look over and see my mother, perfectly still, with blood dripping down her fingertips and hair. She looks peaceful, like Sleeping Beauty, with her head dangling over the steering wheel. My dad is awake, grunting and hacking up what sounds like blood or spit. I call out for him, ignoring the pervasive smell of iron that floods my sinuses.
He can’t move either. The jagged door is crushing him into the seat. All I can do is stare. Blood is smeared across the dash in front of him like abstract art. I struggle some more, hoping I can free myself to save him. He can’t die. The one person that understands me can’t die.
“Ely, you’ll be okay, sweetie. We’re okay.” His cough is worse than mine. Nothing’s okay.
We’re surrounded by the empty highway that connects Meadeville to Houston. No one will rescue us. Not in time.
“Listen, Ely. Stay with me,” my father says.
“I’m scared,” I whisper in between coughs.
“It’s okay. Help will come.”
The quiet roads give way to the grass blades that whistle in mockery as the wind picks up. A reminder that I can hear everything. There won’t be any help. Not in time.
My father turns his head back to see me one last time. I can only imagine the pain he’s in as he strains his body that’s pinned to the car. It breaks my heart.
His eyes shine furiously bright, a clear blue sky erasing the darkness as we spend our last night together as a family.
“No matter what they say, you’re good.” His eyes suddenly glow a golden hue as he takes his last breath. His final words to me and I have no idea what he means.
At that moment, my left eye turns gold; the other stays blue like his. I know, because I can feel it.
This is when I should wake up.
Come on! I’m back. I know I’m dreaming of the past.
Knowing this isn’t real doesn’t mean it isn’t real at all. That’s what haunted me at first; every restless night, I relived the day my father died, the day my mother learned just how cruel she could be to me. I used to pray that God or something magical could grant my wish to kill my mother in exchange for my father. But it dawned upon me one night, after being dreamless for months, that I actually welcomed, even yearned for this. It’s the only clear memory I have left of him.
I no longer see myself reliving this trauma as a nightmare, even if it was a horrific tragedy. I’ve kept my memories, the way I perceived that night, tucked away.
Now I’m a prisoner in the car, forced to stare at my father’s corpse.
The air stops feeling cool and breezy. It’s too still.
I need to get out.
Rocking back and forth in my seat, I try to dislodge myself despite every ounce of pain resisting my effort.
Then—my father’s body comes to life, crackling as the broken ribs and spine are forced to rise.
“Dad?” I ask. A part of me clings to the hope that there is life after death. That he can come back to be the parent I have lost.
Golden rays spew out from his body, flooding the inside of the car, lighting it up brighter than the sun.
“Save us,” he says as he breaks his neck to turn and face me. The light quickly fades and reveals to me what my father looks like when his face struck the car panel.
His eyes are half open as blood rolls off his ruined face, sliced open from his left earlobe all the way to the lower right eye. His nose, torn in half, flares out like a wilted flower.
“Elysia, stay with me, babe. Stay with me.”
“Mason,” I croak. I try to pry open my eyes with willpower, but it hurts just to speak.
“You’re alive.” He whispers like he’s afraid I can hear him worry. His muscles dig into mine as he hugs me and lifts me up. I wince, trying to downplay the pain coming from my arms, hands, head, and just about everywhere else.
The scent of rosemary, lavender and Great Values dryer sheets brings me back to reality. My boyfriend, heir to a family business in transporting goods worldwide, worth more than I can wrap my mind around, is frugal when I least expect it. What can I say? He likes his generic brand of dryer sheets. This peculiar man is my anchor. He keeps me sane. And he, once again, helps me when I need him. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks the same about me. Probably not.
“Mmm… You smell delicious.” My throat aches as I speak. I open my eyes to see little beads of nervous sweat forming on his hairline.
“My scent is indescribable… like if you can combine the smell of lavender with a one handed push up.” He gives me a wink.
His face grows serious again as he gives me a kiss on the cheek. It’s so gentle, so sweet. My love for him alleviates my fear of Grace. But I wonder if she will she come back for me. Why didn’t she kill me if she wanted to hurt me so badly? And why am I not visibly damaged by her attack?
“So what the hell happened to you? I thought you were murdered when I saw you through the window.” He nods at a pool of blood drying on the floor. “You’re lucky the door was unlocked.”
Yes, I should thank Grace for leaving the door safely unlocked. That Grace, she’s so considerate.
“Do you see my book anywhere? That leather one?” I ask.
“Why are you worried about a book? What happened to you?”
I must’ve hit the corner of the coffee table. I run my fingers through my hair searching for an open wound and glance at my arms for any missing or melted skin. Nothing’s there except for chunks of dried blood sticking to my tangled hair. How was Grace so strong when she looks a day away from meeting her maker? What did she attack me with? There’s blood, but no wound.
“She attacked me.”
“The cleaning lady. Grace.”
“You spend how much money hiring someone to clean up this shit hole that you insist on moving into, because you’re against letting your boyfriend lend you some money to live in a safer, nicer neighborhood? And now look at this!” He points to my blood, all dried up on the laminate wood floor. “I could’ve lost you. And for what? I psychopathic maid?”
I try not to giggle at what clearly shouldn’t be funny. But how many people get to say “psychopathic maid?” Anyways, I don’t want to justify my decision. Not now. Not again. I’m just happy to be alive. What I wish I can do is figure out why Grace attacked me.
“I wanted her to clean up this ‘shit hole’ so that you won’t give me crap about it.”
“We’ll need to report this.” He brushes away the matted, bloodied hair from my face.
“I don’t know her last name. I don’t know anything about her. She offered to clean my place when she saw me.”
“Why would you invite a stranger into your home?” He checks my head and neck for injuries. I shake him off. Any kind of damage Grace caused is gone by now.
“I’m fine! Just a little cut is all. I doubt anyone can find her,” I say as I inch closer to him, feeling pretty stupid for not thinking about stranger danger, but who thinks about danger with a half-blind old lady?
“I will have people swipe this place for her fingerprints if we have to! I’ll be damned if we can’t find her.”
“I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong with me.” What charges can I press? Getting attacked by someone who leaves no trace of burnt skin or melted bone?
“I told you before, this place isn’t safe.”
“This place is affordable. She offered to help me clean before you got here and something crazy happened. It’s all over now.”
But it isn’t over for Mason. He rambles on about how I should do the right thing and let him take care of me and how he doesn’t want me to feel like I need to impress him, because it isn’t about that. Of course, it’s about that. He believes he’s above the rest of his wealthy friends by remaining humble, but he’s still someone born into a world that can’t understand mine. Yet, who am I to talk? I have a weakness for beautiful creatures like him. If I don’t want to deal with feebly trying to keep up with him, I should’ve never played with fire, a very sexy fire… with smoldering amber eyes and lips that curl up in a mysterious smile even when he’s annoyed.
He helps me get up. “Why don’t we just crash at my place? I’ll get someone to clean this crime scene, and we’ll come back tomorrow to unpack, together. Not like anyone would steal anything from this dump anyway.”
I try not to be offended by that comment. Before I can tell him no, Ronan yelps.
I give him a sheepish look. “Can I bring Ronan?”
“I thought you were going to wait until you got yourself settled in before you brought him home?” he asks.
“The shelter rescued a dozen dogs yesterday from another unlicensed breeder. They needed the space, so I picked him up after my last final. You know I can’t risk a chance that he can be put to sleep. We—”
“— have a connection. I know, babe.”
My heart was set on rescuing Ronan since the day he came to the shelter, six months ago, tortured to near death. The breeder, charged with aggravated assault years before she got into the breeding business, is now in prison for abusing her own child.
I remember the first day I helped Ronan get acquainted at the shelter. His dark gold eyes, pulsating with ferocity, reminded me of my own. They hold the desire to survive at any cost. That day, I promised him that I would give him the best life possible, even if it meant I had to live like a hippie to take care of him.
I crack open the door and peer into the bedroom, “Ronan, do you remember Mason?”
His tail wags faster. Mason volunteered with me a couple of times last month, so hopefully he still remembers the man I love. The only one I trust.
I look back at Mason. “Alright, get ready for Ronan. He leaves victims in the wake of his cuteness.”
“I think I can survive cute.” He drags a finger down my arm and I shiver. “After all, I’ve managed to be around you for four years.” He manages to deliver the line with a straight face.
“Ugh, stop it.” I give him a playful shove and open the bedroom door. There’s something so innocent and sweet about his cheesy jokes.
Ronan bursts from the room, thrilled to be released from captivity. His black tail whips back and forth, working off his pent up energy. He bows at my feet in an attempt for a game of chase before getting distracted by the pool of my blood drying on the floor. He sniffs it and steals a quick lick. Before I can stop him, he scrambles back and lets out a deep, guttural howl.
“Ronan!” I interrupt. “Remember Mason?”
Ronan follows my head nod and looks at him. He runs over, stands up, vying for his attention.
Mason gently nudges him back down. “He really does listen to you, doesn’t he?”
“It’s how I prefer my boys,” I say as I lean in for a kiss.
Mason rolls his eyes as he lets out a heavy sigh. His full lips graze my neck, pulling a startled breath from me. I reach for him, but before I can do more than that, muffled laughter interrupts us, followed by glass shattering and music blasting through my walls.
Construction in this 1970s apartment complex is cheap, but I wasn’t expecting to hear my neighbor from another building ten or fifteen feet away. I figured with both the downstairs and the next door units empty, I would have a pretty quiet place to myself to get some sleep. I need it, especially now that junior year is behind me and I’m ready to take on a summer internship for the first time.
Back in Meadeville, I spent an entire winter once insisting a mysterious, high-pitched hum was following me. My mother never heard it. She resorted to the cane she “must” use, a gift she bought for herself after the car wreck. She thought I caused it, even though I didn’t. The proof was in the police report. Mechanical failure. The beatings didn’t make the humming go away. It didn’t undo my father’s death.
I nearly took out my eardrum with a Q-tip on a different night and I cried and screamed so much she couldn’t stand it any longer. Out of frustration, she took me to the doctor, after she made sure my bruises were nicely covered up. My hearing? It was perfectly fine, in fact, better than normal. I also learned that day that my two different colored eyes are called heterochromia. The doctor seemed to think they were pretty, but I l knew them as an aberration and an ugly reminder of his death. My mother named them “demon eyes.”
On my birthday, the ringing disappeared. Just like that.
Lately, I can’t seem to block out an ounce of noise, my senses, and my body have newfound energy. Every touch, smell, and taste grows more intense than the week before. I don’t need meds to feel less like death, not anymore.
Mason shakes his head, his playful demeanor wiped away. “Come on, let’s head over to my place and relax.”
Lines of tension spread from his mouth and eyes. I look to the wall like I can see through it to the rowdy neighbors.
“I’m only here for a year.” I’m not sure if I’m reminding him of that fact, or myself.
He ignores it.
“It’s not raining anymore. We can have lunch outside and get some fresh air.”
His condo manages the most beautiful private park for its community. When he first moved in to his place a couple years ago, we dined al fresco under this rarely used pagoda nestled amongst oak trees. Then we stopped doing it. We grew comfortable with staying in, eating take out and watching TV.
“Maybe I should stay here tonight and unpack.” I pick at the blood particles in my hair. What I really want to tell him is that I don’t want one night of crashing over at his place turning into weeks, then months, then we find ourselves living together with him paying the mortgage.
Mason sighs. “You have this obsession with proving yourself. ‘The girl who can make it on her own.’ I just don’t get it Ely. Are you auditioning for some Lifetime movie?” He only calls me Ely, which sounds like Ellie, when he’s annoyed with me. It makes me feel like a twenty one-year-old going on ten. My best friend, Samantha, calls me Ely as well, but it sounds more endearing coming from her.
“All I want is some time tonight to spruce up this place, so it’ll look as good as new.” I grab his hand. He doesn’t pull away.
“It’s okay to have stuff and it’s okay to accept help,” he says.
“And some want to test their strength, make things happen for themselves, without hand outs. That should be okay too.”
He gives me the look. The “quit keeping your guard up or else I’ll smash through it” look.
I fake a smile to end the start of an argument. “You’re right, let’s go. I need a break from this mess.” I grab an umbrella to block the unusually chilly, wet weather, and we head over to his place. Ronan happily tags along.
This should’ve been a great day, a day focused on the future: an amazing internship, a year away from graduating college, a place to call my own—a place that isn’t filled with judgment or pain, and most important of all, an opportunity to show people that I can stand on my own two feet, that I’m not a gold-digging opportunist.
But, all I can think about is Grace.