She slept through the promise and joy of the early morning into the no man’s land of strange, hot summer canyon afternoons. She was that tired, exhausted from crying all night. Sometimes she felt so lonely and lost she cried for a whole day, cried so much she couldn’t eat or drink water. This had been one of those nights. All she had before bed was ice from the freezer, cubes that stung the insides of her cheeks, cooled her off and proved to her that there were still sensations that could provoke her other than loneliness. This comforted her, lulled her straight into a dreamless state. By now the melted ice on her pillow had long since dried up. Nearby on the taupe linen a warm calico purred, stretched its paw towards her face with one claw extended, a loving but somehow ominous gesture. An ex lover she never spoke to had sent her a text as she slept that linked her to an article about a serial killer in a California state park just miles from where she was staying. Something inside her body twisted, but she was too hot for real concern. Everything had felt a little off, a little strange since she’d arrived here, but the canyon views from the balcony, the peppery-blue ridges of the mountain range in the evenings, were so nice to stare at that she’d almost fallen into the luxury of feeling safe. This text provoked her from this luxury, but lethargically. A slow push, not a jilt. This wasn’t her home. It was a stranger’s. A woman she didn’t know well enough to housesit for, but she was broke and needed an escape. A free place to stay in a remote part of Los Angeles that didn’t feel like the Los Angeles most bothered to know.
Have you seen anything sketchy? Her ex lover asked along with the article.
No, she wrote back, but this wasn’t true.
At night there was a home that beamed a strobe light across the canyon, the green light like a UFO descending on the patio outside her bedroom, the branches of the eucalyptus lit up intermittingly by flashing neon orbs. This may or may not have been emitted from the tiki house, as she’d named it, the house with giant tiki torches and carved wooden heads framing the driveway. Between the torches, bamboo strained high and shadowy above the road, jumping across the asphalt and spreading to the other side. She knew bamboo was an invasive species, and one day this whole canyon would be filled with thick green stalks of it, swallowing the hills.
The serial killer in the canyon had been acting for over a year now, according to the article, but had not been caught. No leads, no forensics, at least nothing the Malibu police department bothered to make public. She had thought about them a few nights in the abstract even before she’d read this article, serial killers. Summer nights as dark and soft as black velvet, coyote howls mixed in with the constant noise of crickets. Somehow the crickets in her hometown just an hour south seemed smoother, quieter. These ones shrieked like furies in a Greek drama. She’d thought about them mostly because the delicate hinges and locks of the sage French doors surrounding this bedroom did not make her feel secure. They seemed to promise something more sinister, the allure of the pretty and breakable, like the urge to rip a flower from its stem. An easy torment, a target, a way to cause a ripple in the universe. And that’s what these killers wanted, wasn’t it? To cause a ripple. To make something real. To confirm that if nothing else, these things are certain, life and death. Stakes we only ever dream about and when we’re really faced with them are too precarious, too dangerous, too unearthly to mull over for long without risking sanity. We drop fresh corpses into the ground, pretend we’re laying them to rest instead of our own repulsions. We talk about the politics of a raped and murdered teenage girl instead of staring at the cuts, the bruises, the blood staining her underwear. The mortician cleans her up, and at the funeral everyone pretends she died just like this: clean and pretty, if not a little pallid. The words may be there on the page: This happened, but if we aren’t facing it, staring it right in the eyes, did it really happen, she’d wonder, can our brains make this leap and do it justice? She doesn’t mean sensationalizing it. She’s talking about making it real. Sensationalizing, hiding it. These things aren’t real. But the same nights these thoughts would drift through her head, she would inevitably succumb to other more selfish thoughts, the bone-deep sadness that prefaced her bouts of numb loneliness, petty and self-indulgent compared to these dead victims, but somehow still real.
She forced herself to stop thinking about the killer. She still had another week here alone. She unstuck the sheets from her skin, sweat and linen, and threw them off, exposing her body, disturbing the cats. Both the calico and her sister, a gray and beige mottled cat that resembled a small mountain lion pushed their ears back and lowered their necks, judging her movements. In her sleep she had itched her body uncontrollably, irritating all the little pus-filled pink wounds that dotted her arms and legs and back.
On her ankle a new bite had erupted overnight. It was different than the others, the first one of its kind. Large and red with a white circle inside of it, a bull’s eye. More spider-bite than mosquito. It was possible, not likely, but possible that it was a black widow bite. After all there were black widows in California, native to the grape vines. They crawled inside crates of fresh-picked bunches, on vineyards and in trucks driving to grocery stores, surprising pickers and sorters and stompers and mothers who poured their store-bought fruit into colanders to wash away the dust for their children’s lunches, surprised when a shiny black round thing with a red belly crawled out from under a dark, taut corner of the bunch and bit a finger. Soon they’d be rolling around on the floor with abdominal pain so bad they’d think they’d burst an appendix.
Perched at the edge of the mattress, she felt around her stomach with her hands, pressing on the muscles and the flesh where the muscles had started to turn soft. This feeling, that her core was turning to butter, was the worst feeling. She needed to start doing sit-ups again. The mountain lion cat sat up straight, staring at her with big unblinking green eyes like the marbles she rolled between her fingers as a kid. It was almost like it knew something she didn’t. She always felt this way about cats, that they could sense things she couldn’t, feel presences she couldn’t, anything ghostly or spectral that crept into the room. The ridges of skin inside her belly button felt a little swollen, she was a little bloated, but nothing else was wrong. Nothing hurt. Not even the bite on her ankle, which was the weirdest thing about it. All her other mosquito bites itched like a bitch, but this bite just felt vaguely warm. Numb.
It must have been a delayed immune response, something wrong with her body’s ability to register pain, because an hour later the bite began to hurt. Throb, burn, inflame, grow larger.
And now that she’d forced down two cups of coffee and her blood was hyped a little with caffeine, she couldn’t stop thinking about the killer. She imagined where he was right now, this very instant. Was he five miles from her? One mile? In this very backyard, a hilly expanse that led down onto the street below and was scalable through a torn down fence, a backyard that was wild enough to trod through without anyone really noticing you? The more she thought about the killer, the more her ankle burned. Soon it wasn’t just localized pain. The burning spread the length of her ankle and made the top of her foot tender and stiff. The killer had shot a man in a tent with his two children at close range. He didn’t shoot the children, but he killed the father. She lay down on the chaise overlooking the patio where the ridges turn blue at dusk and propped up pillows to elevate her foot. Maybe she could drain the blood out of it, stop the throbbing, nip the spreading poison in the bud. The killer had shot a woman who was sleeping in the trunk of her car. Luckily she hadn’t died, the metal exterior sculpted towards her and a bullet melted inside. Did she keep the bullet in there? Was it a lucky bullet, or did it remind her that everything was so precarious all the time, even when you’re soul-searching and camping in the back of your car probably dreaming about the stars, or an ex lover, or a current lover, or your dad’s death or whatever? Luckily her abdomen didn’t hurt yet, and if it was a black widow, she knew it would. Then there was a fifty-year-old woman whose body was found in the gutter of a Hindu temple nearby. The Hindu temple claimed the death was unaffiliated. This killer was not chivalrous, but he was something. Women and children first went the saying, but the saying was archaic. Women were not on the same page as children these days. Not even close. These days, women could save themselves. Except when they couldn’t. Except when they showed up in hot gutters of temples, their flesh straining under the drought sun while inside air-conditioned walls above them, people worshiped in silence.
When she woke up, the calico was leaning over her meowing, wanting dinner. She had slept through dusk, slept through the shifting blues of the mountain range, straight into pure night. The A/C had turned itself off, and when she checked the lights, they didn’t turn on. She almost panicked until she remembered the construction truck on the nearby highway two days ago, the only highway that carves straight through the valley in between the canyons and leads to this house. The workers had been taking down a power line. So that explains the blackout. Her phone told her it was 9:00 p.m., but without the transition of the sunset, it could have been any time of night.
She scrambled around the kitchen in the semi-light of the moon with her phone’s flashlight to find a match in the drawer and some candles on the kitchen island, intentionally limping to relieve pressure from her right ankle. She lit them and fed the cats, who ate voraciously, pushing their noses into the wet brown tuna that always made her want to vomit. Even if it made her feel sick to smell and look at, she watched the cats eat in the darkened room, their shadows lurching forward into ceramic bowls swallowing their heads, fascinated by how something so grotesque to her gave them so much pleasure.
Her ankle no longer felt like anything. The burning, itching pain had stopped. Elevating it must have worked, but she couldn’t see it properly in the dark. She propped herself against the bar stool and took a candle off the island to hold down near her ankle. She almost screamed, but lost her voice. Her hand softened around the candle. The cylinder of wax and glass hung limp, nearly falling to the wooden floor. She tightened her grip but her whole body was already scaled with sweat, fat ovals squeezing through her pores like animals burrowing out from underground. From her toes all the way up to her shin her entire foot and leg were purple, the discoloring stopping just below her knee like a two-toned popsicle, the flavors bleeding into each other uncleanly. The red on her ankle had darkened to purple to match the rest of it, and the white bull’s eye had disappeared. She was too scared to touch her skin with her hand out of fear whatever was happening might be contagious, so she used the first thing she could find on the counter, a wooden sauce spoon to prod her leg, testing it. She barely felt it. She pressed it harder into her leg, angry, scared, trying to provoke any kind of feeling. Nothing beyond a distant pressure, like she was asleep, dreaming and someone was prodding her awake.
She thought about driving herself to the doctor, but this was a dumb thought, it was her right leg, so of course she couldn’t drive. Should she call 9/11? Should she call her family? She had a habit of not telling her family about these kinds of things, serious things like her depression and now this bite. She could call a guy she knew, but the only way he’d drive over here would be out of hope that she would fuck him, and even if her leg wasn’t numb and purple, she didn’t want to fuck him. She had a few good friends, but they were out of town. Greece, Hawaii, Italy. Wherever people went during the summer when they weren’t unemployed and had vacation days saved up and money to spend. She had always been sort of allergic to bites. She had a few from Mexico when she was a teenager that swelled up like golf balls, and then subsided. But this seemed worse. How much worse?
She convinced herself to wait. She hated being dramatic. It made her cringe. The self-importance of it. She lay back down on the chaise again, and this time didn’t elevate anything.
Limb by limb the skin covering her body turned purple and died, and slowly or quickly she became catatonic. It wasn’t physically painful. Nothing hurt after that first day. But the disease crept upward, migrating towards her face, which she feared only second to the thought of this thing taking over between her legs. How far inside her would it reach? Time was understood only in fear of which part of her body would go next. Day or night, she wasn’t sure. The light around her had frozen in a misty blue, the color of the sky in transition, dawn or twilight. The sight of her skin made her sick, bright plum-colored flesh that had developed blisters which would be excruciating if she could feel. She didn’t want to examine it closer, research why it was happening. She just wanted it to stop. Her legs went first, then her thighs, and what she feared most happened. She didn’t know how far inside her it reached. The numbness of it, the detachment, like it no longer belonged to her, pained her in some internal way that was more raw than if she’d felt it happen.
When everything was numb up to her belly button, she dragged herself down off the chaise. Her body hit the floor audibly like a massive lump of butcher’s meat thrown onto a grill, the cats scurrying under furniture, hiding from this strange new thing that moved in unfamiliar ways. She had to use her arms to propel herself, which was harder than she thought it’d be. The lower half of her body was heavy, heavier than she’d expected. Her arms strained. She moved in inches, sweating. Dehydrated, nauseous. Whatever was eating her from the outside had begun to eat her insides too. Her muscles had atrophied so quickly that either something otherworldly was happening to her or she’d been lying on the chaise for longer than she’d thought. Her fingernails gripped the floor as she pulled herself face-first down the two steps to the bedroom. The weight of her legs slid behind her, her feet oddly spongy and bouncing down each step like the stuffed animals she saw hanging off the bumpers of trucks, black asphalt scratched onto their backs, their heads sad and limp and noosed with twine.
She began to hallucinate, or worse. She saw hooded vultures before she heard them, swooping in and out of the ceiling above her, landing on the chandelier made of dried antler, their claws elegantly draped around the bone, bald heads and bloodied beaks turned in her direction, fastening their orange eyes on her like she was next. Maybe she really was dead. Maybe this is what it felt like, how she always was afraid death might feel. Trapped inside a body you can no longer move. Paralyzed while all the emotional responses to fear build up inside of you until you think for sure you must burst out of this skin at some point. All of this distress inside must cause movement inevitably, like a top exploding off a fizzy drink. But no, what was happening to her defied the laws of physics. She felt and felt and felt and could not move in tandem with these feelings.
This is worse than hell she thought. This is hell. What did I do deserving of hell? And the killer? Shouldn’t the killer be here, in hell? Trapped inside his body, not me inside mine?
Just like the woman in the gutter, the man inside his tent, but unlike the lucky woman in her car whose metal body cradled her organs, saving them, her body lay stiff and festering on the bedroom floor. Surrounded by the rusting of delicate pretty hinges. The aching of windowed doors exhausted of keeping her safe.
They’ve given up, seeing me like this. I was keeping out the outside and for what? The thing that bit me crawled under the cracks and into my own bed. Not my own, a stranger’s. Maybe this bite wasn’t meant for me, or maybe it followed me here.
The vultures disappeared, and reappeared, and disappeared. Soon she could move nothing, not an arm, not her head side to side. All she could do was stare straight up at the ceiling, a white ceiling cracked and splitting from the earthquake fault line that ran below the property. The cats licked her at first, their tongues distant pressure on her skin instead of rough love, their ghostly licks the only proof of an external world until the stench of her skin grew so awful it repelled them, and they kept their distance. They cowered in the corners of the room, flicking their tails, offended by her body’s decay. This seemed to indicate something very bad given the shitty smell of the tuna they’d loved to eat. Unlike vultures cats hate death, dying, sickness, grime. They hate it so much they sense it before it happens. A kind of clairvoyance. They’d meow incessantly but she couldn’t do anything to soothe them, to shut them up. She could no longer feed them and she knew that’s what they wanted. The fact that she disgusted them actually hurt her. They’d been her only company for weeks before the bite, but disgust was better than being eaten alive. Or dead.
All she could do was lay in wait for the strange woman to come home, or the vultures, whoever came back first. Then it hit her. The killer would come first. Of course he’d beat the stranger and the vultures. Like cats he’d sense impending death, lured to her by a sixth sense. But unlike cats this would appeal to him, seduced by rot, her catatonic vulnerability. Imagination was all she had left but it was torturing her, making the unbearable more unbearable. She tried to block her thoughts from moving in dangerous directions but they worked under a different logic than her body, stampeding over every stop sign, killing every good thought, every small hope that she might recover, that this was all a bad dream. Like the killer her own thoughts could sense death and were attracted to the most vulgar, most macabre possibilities. She imagined the killer finding her here, the things he could do to her in this state, the things he would certainly do to her. Why wouldn’t he? If she could imagine them, he could imagine worse.
In the distance there’s a noise. A scraping against the floor. An arrival. A possible stranger. Which stranger? Some are stranger than others. The woman? The killer? Or maybe just the claws of cats. Or was it only her imagination, and she really was alone? She felt even more alone than she’d been the night she’d stuffed ice into her mouth in order to sleep, in order to feel, and had been bitten. She’d wanted to feel something. She’d begged to feel something. She’d wanted someone to arrive, to keep her company. But she regretted it now. She’d felt a lot for one afternoon, her ankle burned for one afternoon. Too much maybe. Maybe it overpowered her, the bite. She wasn’t used to feeling. Now she might never feel again. It seemed she’d been waiting for a long time for this moment or no time at all, and she didn’t even know who or what she was waiting for. She wanted company, but some company is worse than being alone. This became clear to her now. Around her the hinges collapse, the windows fall down, there’s a shadow of a person on the cracks on the ceiling.
And why did I think it was a man? Why have I assumed this whole time it was a man, the killer?
Erin received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in Spring 2017, and her short fiction has been published in Momaya Short Story Review: Utopia / Dystopia and Palm Leaf, where she was featured as a writer of the month. Additionally, she wrote and co-produced an Oculus-funded virtual reality series, Playback. She is currently at work on her debut novel, a literary science fiction novel that explores how love and empathy exploited by technology can quickly descend into horror.