Flush



“Here’s a ghost story,” I say when it’s my turn. “A true one.” This happened not far from here, on a cliffside road pinned by rusty metal railing on one side and woods on the other. The woods were so thick and dense and fog-webbed that people were always getting lost. Beyond the rail was a steep drop. White crosses wrapped in silk flowers clustered along its length like strange plants. A man was driving home. We’ll call him John. It was raining hard, sheets of water so thick against the glass that the car felt submarine. John was in a hurry. His wife Susan made dinner every night at 6 p.m. and she expected John to be there, but lately he’d been cutting it close. There was a woman from his office, Miranda. She was going through a breakup. “I like talking to you,” she told John, her breasts resting on the edge of their shared cubicle wall, skewing the magnet that held his nameplate. One huddled break room chat turned into lunch a few times a week turned into a meet-up today. It wasn’t cheating, but Susan was starting to get suspicious. Last night she pored through John’s phone while he watched, but he and Miranda always made plans at work. He didn’t keep her number. John rounded the curve. A dark fringe of trees lined the road along his right side. A tide of pale fog slipped across the road. A shape ahead. John braked. The back end of his car loosened on the road and swung out. John’s mind flared bright, blank with panic. The car hydroplaned. The tires skidded along the dirt and by some miracle stopped before he felt a crash. He sat gripping the wheel. When he realized he was trembling, he laughed. He could hardly hear himself over the rain. The tires spun uselessly against the mud when John tried to accelerate. John turned off the car. He listened to the engine tick as it cooled. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. Now he had a ready-made excuse. Wouldn’t Susan feel guilty when she realized that John had been stuck through no fault of his own? He glanced at himself in the mirror, hoping for a bruise to sell his case. This more than saved his evening, but it felt like an answer to a question he didn’t realize he was asking, because the universe wouldn’t reward him if he was doing something wrong with Miranda, even if he wondered about her nipples from time to time and how pink they might be.

Minutes passed before he remembered the shape on the road. John got out of the car. He looked at the road behind him. Empty. John walked down the road, and there, standing near a tree, he found a woman. She was pale, wearing a white dress that had gone translucent in the rain. He could see the round, dark disks of her nipples and the triangle of hair between her legs. She looked like she might be sixteen. “Are you okay?” John asked. He couldn’t make out what she said. Maybe the word “lost.” “Are you lost?” he asked. There was something strange about her eyes. They were blue with a milky, corrugated layer over them, as if she had been sprayed with something caustic. She didn’t blink. Her lips were full and red as a wound. John wondered what would happen if he could get her into his car. He took a step closer. She didn’t move away. “Lost it.” That’s what she was saying. “What did you lose?” She held up her hand. There was an absence where her middle finger should be. Blood ran down her arm and dripped onto the dirt. The slick, white knot of her bone was visible. John did not feel alarmed. “Where did you lose it?” He didn’t realize he had taken another step toward her. He was close enough now to touch her. She smiled. “Yours.” “Mine?” He held up his hand and looked at it. When she reached with her blood-gloved hand, John didn’t resist. She pushed his middle finger through the tight, wet grip of her lips. John felt a twitch low in his stomach. Slowly she pushed the finger as far as it would go. He felt her uvula as his finger went into her throat, felt her suckling. He got an erection. When she bit down there was a bright flash of pain. He didn’t move. She gave him back his hand. She chewed his finger. He heard the crunch of it in her jaws. He watched her throat ripple as she swallowed. She grinned. Her teeth were the color and texture of tree bark, something mossy and dark in the spaces between. Her breath smelled like the deepest part of a lake. John cupped her breast in one hand. He didn’t think of Susan or even Miranda. He rubbed his thumb over her nipple. Her body was cold and hard as marble. “What happened?” he asked, gesturing to her teeth as he stroked her with one hand and himself with the other. She pushed her teeth until they broke off at the root. Something dark and thick flooded her mouth. She swallowed and then gave a black-gummed smile. When John kissed her, he dipped his tongue to taste it.

She moved away. John followed her but stumbled. He remembered his hand. He looked at the missing finger, the dark blood soaking his sleeve. He felt weak. He stopped and wondered if he should do something, a tourniquet. When he turned back, the woman was gone. He looked around him. The road was nowhere in sight. There were only trees—trees so tall and tightly clustered that they blocked any light above. John began walking. He needed to find the woman. He headed deeper into the woods but had to stop. Something rooted in his mouth. He gagged and reached in with his healthy hand. He pulled out a tooth, mossy and dark. His tongue probed the open space in his gumline. He spit out teeth as he walked until there were none left. Then he sat down, too light-headed to walk farther. He vomited something black and oily and then began to tremble. When he laughed this time he could hear it. It was the only sound in the dark, empty woods. They never found his body. They searched after someone drove by and found the car abandoned, the blood not far from it. That was all they found of him—that puddle of blood. That and a few spare, brown teeth.

§

“You lied,” Marcus says after I’m finished. We’re sitting at the fire pit he built in front of his camper, which he lives in year-round. I stay there with him most nights. Mom doesn’t like him, mostly because of the age difference. I’m sixteen and he’s thirty-four. “What does he do to you?” she used to ask when she thought he was twenty-four, like I claimed. “What does he ask you to do?” Now she doesn’t say anything. Last week she came home early from work and caught him dropping me off in his truck. “Don’t get pregnant” is all she’ll say now, but she doesn’t believe me when I tell her I won’t. Marcus already has a kid. A boy with another woman. Aaron. He’s in my art class. He’s not bad at drawing. He has Marcus’s reddish-brown hair and broad, pale hands. “My dad’s a dick,” is the only thing I’ve ever heard him say about his family, but I think he was talking about his stepdad, the man who lives with him. Marcus doesn’t see him much. I don’t think Aaron knows that I’m Marcus’s girlfriend. Marcus told me not to tell anyone. “They won’t understand.” Sometimes he thinks I’m stupid. I know he could get in trouble for being with me. He tells me he loves me, sometimes. I know he must mean it if he’s still here. We’ve been together nearly a year. “I didn’t lie,” I say. The fire’s going low and I want to throw another log on, but I know if I ask then Marcus will snuff it out. He says I’m wasteful, that I don’t know the value of things because I don’t work. I had a job for a couple of weeks at our local McDonald's, but Marcus didn’t like how the smell stayed in my hair afterwards. He said it made him feel like he was fucking a deep fryer. “Don’t bullshit me.” Marcus pokes the fire, stirring the bright golden heart of it. I’m shivering even though Marcus gave me his coat. It smells like him, his sweat. I close the folds over my nose. “I know every street in Cheyenne better than you and there isn’t a street like that one. And if he was never found, then how do you know what happened to him?” “Why does that matter?” “You’re nuts,” he says. It’s something he always says. He kicks dirt over the fire and then pours the rest of his beer into it. “Well, it was a good story, I guess.” I follow him into the camper. It’s narrow and always smells like stagnant water. Marcus has a full-sized bed at one end and a makeshift kitchen through the center. The bathroom is in a cupboard. I’m allowed to use it as long as I only have to pee. Marcus kisses me. He tastes like beer and cigarettes. His tongue forces my teeth apart. I like the way he kisses me, the way he does everything. He never asks, so I don’t have to decide what I want or don’t want. After we’re naked, he slides his long warm body over mine. I feel his dick against my thighs and let them fall open, but he doesn’t move into me. He pulls up on his elbow and wraps one hand around the back of my skull. He moves his other hand over my face, rubbing my lips before sticking his finger deep into my throat. I try not to gag. Marcus watches my face. His eyes look navy in the light. I’m going to gag if he doesn’t take his hand away. He doesn’t. He slides his finger in and out, fucking my mouth with his hand. I can’t gag. I relax my jaw and breathe through my nose and try not to think about dying. It helps. “Bite,” Marcus says, moving his finger deep into my throat, his knuckles pulling back the corners of my lips. His face has no expression at all. I bite down lightly, then harder. Finally he moves inside me. He keeps his finger in my mouth until he comes. Afterward he rolls over and pulls the blanket over both of us. He wipes the spit off my mouth with his palm. He’s gentle when he does it, and I know that I did something good. Usually after sex Marcus goes outside to smoke, but today he rolls over onto his back. He lets me rest my head on his chest. The coarse hair itches my cheek, but I don’t scratch it. I haven’t told him that my mom found out about his real age. I’m not sure what he would do. Probably kick me out, for good this time. “Let me try again,” I say.

“Try what?” “Another story. I have a better one.” “I’m tired.” We’re silent for a long time. I think he’s sleeping when he finally sighs. “Fine. Tell me.” There was once a woman in an unhappy marriage. Her name was Susan. Susan was a good wife. She did all the things a wife should do. She cleaned. She cooked dinner, adjusting her recipes to her husband John’s tastes—barely any salt, no spice at all, no seafood—and she shaved her legs every other day. She slicked her body with sweet-smelling lotion and tidied her eyebrow hair. She tried not to nag, much. She tried not to ask too many questions. When John got home from work she let him have an hour to himself in front of television. It was his preference. Susan lurked in the kitchen, pretending dinner required more work than it ever did, waiting for time to be up. She felt like a ghost haunting her own home. She wondered, sometimes, why wives had to do so many things. She wondered what was required of husbands. When John was late for dinner, Susan scraped it into the trash. She knew he was interested in some other woman, but she had no proof. She went to the mirror and lifted her shirt to look at her slim but soft stomach. She bunched the skin hard enough to bruise and then dropped her shirt. She did the dishes. It took hours for the police to show up. They explained that John’s car had been found on the side of the road. Susan went to join the search party. They found nothing—just some blood and an incisor, which the cops said might not be his. Susan went home. She tried to cry. There were arrangements to make, people to call, services to plan. She didn’t do any of these things. She walked out to her backyard and dug her fingernails into the earth. She buried the tooth and smoothed the soil back over it. The next day, a new husband grew. He looked almost exactly like John, which was disappointing. “What should I call you?” Susan asked him, helping him off the vine. “You choose,” he said. His voice was deeper than John’s. It gave her a lovely shiver to hear it. She called him David. She'd loved a David in high school before she met John, and she’d felt fond of the name ever since. She helped David into the house. She showed him how to work the shower. She left him to shower himself, surprised when he reached for her. John had never liked sharing showers. He found it wasteful. Susan had to undress herself. David couldn’t figure out the buttons. When she was fully naked, David knelt before her and dipped his tongue between her thighs—another thing John was never particularly good at and so didn’t prefer. David was different. Susan cried after she came. John had a scar on his collarbone from an old accident on a bicycle. David was scarless, smooth. She ran her hands over his body. She tried ironing shirts but David tugged the fabric from her fingers. He pulled her onto the bed. They ate ice cream there, like children, not caring if they dirtied the sheets. The next day John appeared. His clothing was a mess and his hands were dirty. He barged into the house to find Susan in David’s lap. He was cradling her, gently. No one had ever touched her like that before, like she was breakable, like they cared if she broke. John was angry. He screamed that he had been lost. Why hadn’t she looked for him? Why hadn’t she worried? Instead he found her here with some other man. He didn’t notice that the man looked so much like him. When John moved to strike him, David rose and they fought. Susan couldn’t tell the difference between them with all the movement. She couldn’t tell who was knocked to the ground, or which one stood over him with the fire poker. Susan watched without speaking as one of them raised the fire poker and hefted it down onto the other’s skull. The skull split like old fruit. Glossy, bright blood was everywhere, and bits of pinkish clots that Susan realized were brains. She plucked some out of her hair. The one remaining looked at her. Susan stood and peeled back his shirt. When she saw the lack of scar, she kissed him. She was happy.

§

“What about his finger?” Marcus asks. “What about it?” He shifts the blankets down to his waist. I’m suddenly cold.

“The first one was better.”

§

The next day Marcus takes me shooting. There are still fields here that you can disappear in, even though Marcus says Cheyenne is going to hell. When he was a kid there was land everywhere. Now everything has been ripped apart for developments. Manufactured homes are arranged in rows, identical and evenly spaced, like a well-planned garden. Sometimes, when he doesn’t expect to run into anyone, he drives me around and points out the history of places. He tells me where he used to play as a kid. “I had a brother,” he told me once when he was drunk. He’s never said what happened to him. I don’t think he remembers telling me anything, and I know better than to ask. As long as I don’t say anything, Marcus will talk. He needs to forget I’m there. He will drive and point out places and describe how they once looked, the animals that used to run there, the salamanders he pulled squirming from cold creeks. Our side of Cheyenne is an ugly place, especially in fall once all the leaves are gone and the thirsty ground has gone gray-yellow with dying, but when he talks I can imagine how it used to be beautiful. The field is a far drive from his camper. I don’t tell Mom where I’m going. I’m not home most nights now. I used to lie and say I was staying with friends, girls named Sabrina and Rebecca, but she’s never believed me. She knows I don’t have any friends. There’s just Marcus. Lately Mom spends most nights Facebook-stalking my dad’s new girlfriend Janine. She uses a fake account to like all of Janine’s posts. She doesn’t really miss my dad, I don’t think. Being lonely gives her something to do since she’s given up on raising me. Marcus parks outside of a barbed wire fence. I follow him to the back of the truck where he keeps his rifle and old milk jugs filled with water. He puts two jugs in the duffel bag and gives one to me to carry. He tosses in three cans of beer, tearing them from the plastic rings. He rips the plastic rings apart with his fingers before throwing them with the other junk he keeps in his truck. It’s times like this I can’t help but love him. I’m the one who told him about fish in the ocean and how they get caught in rings like that. “Wyoming’s too far to worry about the ocean, Jess,” he said, but after I went through the trash cutting up rings, he started doing it, too. I want to touch his hand, tell him I love him, but I never say it first. Sometimes I think it, hard