She comes in through the faucet. I’m pretty sure. Colin’s former lover. You’d think I’d know, that I’d notice something like that.
But I’m staring off out the window, a dish in one hand and a towel in the other, watching the October leaves fall off the neighbor’s backyard maple. The way I always am. The way I can never seem to focus on any one particular task.
We are having one of our arguments. He has stomped off because he “needs to cool down.” This is what he says. “I need a break from you,” is what I hear. I am washing dishes while he is in the shower. He is singing the “Serenity Prayer” to a tune of his own making. I am turning the hot water up as high as it can go.
All I know is I am startled by the rattling sound of bones grating on pipe one minute, and the next I turn to the side and she is standing there, her hair raggedy and wet, blinking back water droplets from her eyelashes.
Her name is Rachel. I know who she is instantly. I have seen her in old photographs. In the pictures, she has a power bob and glossy skin. She has grown her hair out now and it is hanging to her hip, though if it were dry I suppose it might be a bit shorter. She is blinking up at me. We stand there both of us blinking at each other, sizing up the competition. I wonder what she did with her spine so that she could slip out the spout without breaking any bones.
I am about to shoo her out the backdoor, before Colin can even see her, when the bathroom door is abruptly thrust open. He comes lead-footed from the bathroom, still damp, a pink towel wrapped around his waist.
“What is all this commotion? Has the garbage disposal backed up again?” he asks. He is holding a cup plunger.
“Your former lover has come to pay us a visit,” I say moving my eyes in her direction. He is stunned for a moment by her presence. Through the corner of my vision, I see her eyeing the strip of skin right above the towel from where it sits low on Colin’s waist.
“You really can’t stay. You know that, right?” He says, looking directly at her. His eyes are deep and imploring, like I’ve never seen them before.
“I can’t?” she asks, and her voice sounds underwater, like she hasn’t used it in awhile.
“No,” he says. “Tessa lives here now.”
She looks sad, but reluctantly tilts her neck towards the faucet, and goes back in headfirst. There is that terrible bone grating metal sound again as she stuffs her body through. She makes it look so graceful, all things considering. I know I wouldn’t be that graceful.
After her feet disappear into the faucet, we silently watch the second hand tick by on the clock over the window a few times before Colin tucks the plunger in the under-the-sink cabinet. As if that was going to do anything anyway.
We go to bed early that night, thinking that’s that. Though, I wake to the chill of the open window on my bare back, in the space between where my pajama top rides up from its bottom, and I notice that Colin isn’t there to warm it. He generates heat in his sleep, and sleeps on the side that blocks the window.
I reach around in the covers for him and, finding him not there, click on the bedside light. He is at the window, looking out. He turns at the sound of the light clicking on, blinking in surprise until his eyes settle into recognition, as if he is not expecting it to be me, as if any manner of creature might be in our bedroom.
“Can’t sleep?” I ask. I lean back on my elbow, trying to get the shoulder of my pajama top to fall, but it stubbornly stays up, stuck on my collarbone.
“Go back to bed,” he tells me. He turns back away and shuts the window. All might be restored again. All probably is restored. I can’t be sure since the lamp casts a bright, squinting light in an otherwise dim room, but I think perhaps I saw a wondering look on his face when he turned from the window. As if he had been searching for something that existed on the other side of the glass pane.
I have one of my blue days the next morning. I refuse to refer to them as anything other than blue. Deep-sea drowning blue perhaps. Blue like gasping for breath. Like living with only one lung. But nothing more than blue.
“Are you going to get up at all, today?” Colin returns to the bedroom and clicks on the high-hat that sits plumb over the center of the bed. He stands in the doorway with his cup of coffee still steaming.
“I am having one of my blue days,” I offer by way of explanation.
“Right,” he said. He never takes my blue days seriously. “Well, don’t stay in bed all day. You need to go back to looking for jobs.” Finished with his coffee, he goes to the closet and fetches out his sweatshirt and Dickies. “Looking for jobs should be your full time job now,” he says.
If he says so. He slips out of his tee-shirt and into his sweatshirt and from where I am lying I can see the muscles of his six pack stretching when he lifts his arm over his head. They worry me, those muscles. A girl shouldn’t be with a man with muscles like that.
“Are you going to wash your hair today?” he asks on his way out, which I guess means I am.
I suppose I’ve made it. He suggested I move in with him a few months ago when I lost my job at the library and another one didn’t seem to be on the way. It feels from time to time that I am not actually contributing anything to the relationship. I suppose this means I’ve made it. The love of a man I’ve done nothing to earn.
The thought is enough to stir me get out of bed and make my way to the bathroom for a shower, but when I go to run the water, nothing comes out. His former lover must have damaged the pipes when she crawled through.
On the way downstairs to the kitchen, I pass the spare bedrooms in their neat little rows. There are three of them. We use them for storage and keep the doors closed. Only opening them to clean. The door to one has come slightly open. I push it back in by the handle before I turn to go downstairs.
I am living inside their dream. The house is only seven years old. He bought the land, and they designed it together. They began drawing the layout on slips of yellow scrap paper, a napkin here and there, the backs of receipts, as a kind of joke. Eventually they began drawing in earnest on blueprint paper. I’ve gathered this piece by piece from the hints Colin has dropped.
Both the scraps of paper and the blueprints are in a box in the shed with Colin’s old high school Physics tests. I found them a few months ago when I was poking around out back. Because of the old tests, I’m ready to dismiss it as nothing, until I remember that before Colin became a carpenter, he had wanted to be an engineer, that he was one of those kids who found solace in the infinite combinations of Lincoln logs.
Colin built the house by himself, although he informs me pointedly that his former lover was good at handing him hammers when he was up on the ladder and stapling the Tyvek in a way that didn’t get it all bunched and crinkled up.
They drew and built these three extra bedrooms, smaller than the master bedroom, small enough to be cozy children’s rooms. Dreams that he hasn’t asked me yet to fill.
When I go into the kitchen sink, his former lover is by the toaster, fingering something in each hand. The door to one of the cupboards is open and there is a hole in its wooded back that splits clear through the back of the house. Bits of white paint chips have crumbled off onto the cereal and coffee grinds.
Upon my entry into the kitchen, she looks up at me, blinking, though if I didn’t know any better I’d say batting, her eyelashes. Her hair is dry now and sleek over her shoulders. When I get closer I see that she is holding the Dalmatian puppy salt and pepper shakers I bought at a flea market. She is pointing their noses towards one another.
One is a boy and one is a girl, which can be distinguished only by the fact that one has thick eyelashes and is wearing a red bow around its next while the other isn’t. They have magnetic strips in their noses so that when they got close together, their noses would press. But the boy one has lost the magnetism in his nose, and there is nothing but air between them.
“How cute,” she says, placing them back down again in front of the toasters, and because there is no longer attraction between them, it looks like they are turning their noses up at one another.
“They’re my favorite thing in the house,” I say.
“They’re different,” she says. What she leaves unsaid is that they are totally out of place in the décor of the house. I bought them to represent me in the apartment. As if a couple of quirky, anthropomorphous kitchen gadgets could stand in for the personality I was afraid I didn’t really have.
“Colin isn’t here,” I say. “He works, even on Saturdays.”
“Yes, I know,” she says. But of course she does.
“He’s always working.”
“Yes,” she says and when she looks at me a moment of understanding passes between us.
“Why are you back?” I ask her, but she doesn’t answer. “Where have you been?” I ask, although I’m not really expecting her to answer that either. It doesn’t seem like she is going to, when all of the sudden she pipes up.
“It’s wet where I come from. And helter-skelter. It’s like being lost at sea. I can hardly think straight.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Finding the house again is like being on dry land,” she says. “I feel steadied here.” At that she places her hands on the counter-top.
“You have to go back, though,” I say as gently as I can muster.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “I tried, but I can’t. It’s something in this house. Something keeps pulling me back in. Like magnets.” She takes the female pepper shaker and sticks her to the refrigerator. She still has it, the desire to pull and be pulled. She’ll still stick to almost anything.
“Something?” I ask. “Or someone?”
“I don’t know,” she says, and with that she walks towards the back door of the house. When she gets to the door, she turns her head slightly. “But I need peace, too,” she says before walking out.
I tell Colin about the faucet and cupboard when he comes home. Then stare at his feet and legs poking out from under the sink as he tries to fix the pipes.
“Why is she here?” I ask him, and it is an accusation. He throws the wrench in frustration and I know it is a lost cause. The pepper shaker, which is still stuck to the refrigerator, is too heavy for it and has been sliding down inch by inch. At the force of the wrench dropping, she tumbles to the floor. It’s pathetic to watch, really. Her cumbersome, delicate, ceramic body.
When we go to sleep, more space than usual that night splits us down the center of the bed.
The next day she comes up through the floorboards in the center of the living room, and they stick out like the top of a sea-saw in motion. The day after that she comes in off Kate Winslet on the television screen while we are watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a bowl of popcorn between us square in the middle of the couch. She doesn’t break the screen, but when we try to turn the television on after that, all we get is a hazy gray screen screeching back at us on every channel.
Once she has punched holes in the walls of every room, shattered the windows, unhinged the front and back storm doors, caused the china closet to fall face down on the floor, I decide it is time to call an exorcist. He assures me on the phone that it sounds like a minor haunting.
“You’re overreacting, “ Colin says in the background. He thinks we should be able to handle our problems on our own. “Come during the day when my boyfriend will be at work,” I say quietly into the phone. We sleep facing away from each other, our backs making the shape of wilted grass.
When he comes, the exorcist is able to walk through the man-sized hole she has made in the front door, though he rings the doorbell to announce his presence out of politeness.
By the time she and I get to the living room, he is already standing in the middle of the debris assessing the situation. He is youthful and collared. He has some kind of tester, a small square black box that he is waving around near the walls, and a thin book he keeps referencing.
When he sees Colin’s former lover, he walks behind her slowly, lifting one arm up and then the other, pushing away her hair.
She just stands there blinking up at him as he inspects her.
“And you said on the phone you don’t know whether she was born a demon or became one later?”
I don’t. I don’t even know if Colin would know the answer. Despite all my snooping, I don’t really know much about what their relationship was like.
“Well, it’s more severe than you described,” he said, looking around at all the damage. “But still very minor.” He recommends burning all of her stuff in the backyard and burying the ashes.
It takes me several wheelbarrows full, but I eventually cart up all the stuff and load it into the backyard later that night. Colin is annoyed about me taking the wheelbarrow back and forth into the house, and tracking in dirt, but I don’t care. I am on a mission.
She follows me around the house as I scavenge it for keepsakes, some evidence of a former life lived before me, like Bluebeard’s bride, the one that comes last, but that is another story altogether.
“Please,” she says. “Don’t make me go back.” As she trails me around the house, she rubs her dead skin remnants into the linens and coats, until her mark is everywhere.
I think I begin smelling her in Colin’s hair and skin but I can’t tell; we’re not getting close enough to each other.
“I thought you wanted to go back.”
She follows me into the backyard behind the shed.
“I did,” she says. “But I forgot how alive I felt here. This morning I saw a deer come through your neighbor’s back yard. It got startled when it saw me, but when it went to scurry off, it slipped on the wet leaves that had fallen from the maple, so I got to look at it a bit longer before it ran away.”
I begin digging a hole in the dirt to put my pyre in. She is silent a moment as I take my trowel to the soil.
“The day before that, when I wasn’t by the house, I wandered into town and had ice cream. Two whole scoops. Cotton-candy flavored. It was wonderful. I had forgotten how to lick.”
But now I’m done digging and I load all of her stuff inside.
“Please,” she says. “If it had been you, would you have been able to leave him?” I pause with the match and lighter in my hand.
“But what about me?” I ask, gesturing with them. “What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to be able to sleep at night with you here?” She hangs her head, seeming to understand. I might call this whole thing off. Then, she raises her head.
“But he wants me here,” she says. “He’s not ready to let me go. That’s why I’m here. It has to be.”
I light the match and toss it on top of their stuff, watch as it burns to the ground. When the fire dies down, she stands in the middle of the ashes, blinking back tears.
But it’s too late to go back now. Colin didn’t support my decision, but now that it is done, he seems glad for it. We both feel much calmer, as if we have confronted the past and laid it to rest in its grave, and it is only 10 o’clock. I even sleep in between Colin’s arms like I used to, and before I drift off, I admit that maybe it had been me that conjured her after all. I did used to lie up-side-down off the side of the bed when Colin wasn’t home staring endlessly at a photo of her I had found, trailing my finger along her cheek, imagining what his life before me must have been like. Maybe it had been me after all.
The next day it is like we are dating again. We are extra chipper and pleasant, calling each other “sweetheart” and “love.” Colin even pours my tea for me in the morning.
That night as we are laying snuggled on the couch after dinner about to get frisky, there being no other way to entertain ourselves with the TV out, there is a loud boom unlike anything I have ever heard of outside.
We go to the windows, which of course are now nothing but empty frames, and see that she has felled all of our trees and the trees of our neighbors, downed our power lines, and destroyed our driveway and stairs so that we are barricaded into the house with no way of getting out. When we try to switch on the lights, predictably, they don’t work. I call the exorcist from my cellphone.
“This is much graver than I thought,” he says, “You have to burn the whole house down.”
But even after we call the police and the fire department, and they come with heavy machinery and dig us out one tree trunk at a time, it seems pointless to try to get rid of her.
The house is her, but it is Colin too, and we would be burning it down. Besides, where would we go? She could follow us anywhere we went.
The insurance company won’t pay for any of the repairs. They don’t cover hauntings by former lovers, they say, since the homeowners are usually partially responsible. “It’s like being severely injured in a car accident when you weren’t wearing a seatbelt,” the adjuster says on the phone.
We live in a tiny, broken house, but I learn to move over and make room for her. We re-wallpaper the guest room according to her liking. I toss some of my coats from former seasons out, so hers can be lined up side by side with them. I learn her shower schedule –late in the morning — and make sure to leave plenty of hot water in the tank so that it’s there by the time she is ready.
She’s a help to me really. She’s company on the lonely walk to the post office. The cleaning gets done in half the time. At the grocery store, she pushes the cart while I take the boxes from the shelves. She digs for pennies when I don’t have exact change. Dinner is never late when she can peel the potatoes while I chop the carrots.
Colin is happier. We are both happier now that we accept it. And when we aren’t happy, when we say harsh words to each other, it is to her that I turn to quiet me. She understands better than anyone what it can be like.
It was, of course, only a matter of time before she went to bed with us. It starts with her sleeping in the space down the center of the bed between us, which is a source of tension. Then, we try with a girl on either side of Colin, which is another source of tension. He seems too peaceful, too smug as Lucky Pierre.
Things settle down when we work out a rotation schedule. This seems only fair somehow, though of course I am only at any real peace when it is me in the center.
But after awhile you get used to it. You know, it’s amazing what you can move over and make space for if you only try.
We don’t make love at first. We don’t even attempt to make love, not since our house guest uprooted our grounds. It seems more polite this way.
But a few weeks in, he turns to me.
At first, she sulkily throws tantrums about having to leave, remaining on the other side of the door, making such a fuss that it is near impossible to get much accomplished. Then, she starts flat out refusing to leave the room, her body wavy and wrapped around the baseboard of the bed like a ribbon of hair. After the tantrums, we oblige her. I lie awake worrying – the contortions she can move her body in that I can’t.
She gets braver the longer she stays. Now she’s anchored herself to me, like a changeling, and I’m the medium. I don’t understand. How he doesn’t notice. When we make love, he fucks right through me into her.