By Sarah Marie Kosch
Hem stares at the wall and wants to feel something more than pacing feet caught in her ribcage. It is as if everything inside her is in motion—urgent and jerky—restless—yearning. She needs to do something, move to run the fire out that is knotting into hard sparks in her intestines, smoking and scorching their way up her throat. But her body sits still. She is confined by skin and sitting alone on the couch in her living room. She stares at the wall in front of her, the smooth, flawless, unbroken blankness. There is nowhere to go. If the sun were out, she would open the door and leave—walk somewhere, see someone—but it is deep night now, and their shadows glide past the closed blinds of her patio door.
It angers Hem that they are there, keeping the night from being hers. It is a dirty thing that must not be touched. Mrs. T told her they have been here from the beginning. They have always kept the night separate.
Hem wonders what they look like. She has never seen their faces, but she imagines them watching with two black hole eyes through a burlap sack tied with a piece of knotted string. They wouldn’t need a nose or mouth. They breathe in the world through those cold eyes and taste the loneliness—sour sweet like old milk.
The moonlight is like milk as they walk—do they walk? Hem decides they must have legs. They are long and thin, crusted bark—hard patches with mold and mud over smooth, pale-green veins. They glide under streetlights and rustle weeds and twigs with their sharp bodies as the night air pumps through them. What are they? They must be someone or something, or nothing.
The night revolves around them. They keep all the space for themselves and shrink Hem’s room with protocols. The protocols of what is ordinary, what must be maintained, what is safe. She must stay inside at night, even though the walls move in around her couch, the lamps heat the air and suck at her edges. It is a small space. An unmovable space.
In the day it isn’t noticeable. In the day there are lessons with Mrs. T, there are errands, there are chores. Only when the sun goes down do the bones begin to writhe. Night is an empty room without distraction.
“It is better,” Mrs. T would say. “There is no shame in an empty room.”
“There is no promise in an empty room,” says Hem. Her voice startles her, the hiss ripping through the heavy air like fingernails. The words flare into flames, their traces shimmering. She reaches out the tips of her fingers and watches them dissipate, floating towards the patio door and swaying the white blinds with whispers.
They whine for release, but Hem does not move. She cannot. The shadows.
The words fade. The blinds settle.
The stillness resumes, heavier than before, suffocating and hot, gripping and slimy, squeezing until it hurts.
Sparks sizzle. Hem’s tears are leaking inwards, away from the gripping stillness, slipping along her ribs and evaporating on that fire, fire, fire. Tearing into steam, rising and sticking in her throat. She cannot breathe. The room sucks at her edges. The world tilts.
There is nothing but haze.
There is a latch.
There is a glass door sliding open.
There is the coolness after rain.
She lies across the threshold of the door, breathing it in with her head and chest lying against the cement of the patio, sucking in sweet coolness and coughing out charred phlegm. The roughness of the ground grinds against her cheek. What comes next? She has trespassed.
Nothing moves. There is not even a breeze. When Hem sits up—looking towards the parking lot, the dumpster, the trees—everything is as still as the room behind her.
A new fear wraps around her chest. Why am I still alone?
She crawls to her feet and begins to run, scraping the bottoms of her bare toes against cement. She runs to the path where the trees block the sky. She runs towards that blackness that matches their eyes.
But there is nothing. No figure looms in her path, and soon the tree line stops and she is running through silk grass. Where are they? She thinks they must be following her. She is something new, an anomaly. She is running free at night, and they are trailing, observing, their hooded heads cocked to the side. Hem is giddy with the thought. Let them follow. Let them watch.
She keeps running. The streets are empty except for flickers of florescent green fireflies and moths dancing madly around the hot bulbs of the lamps. She turns the corner and sees the bridge up ahead. The red and yellow lights of the city reflect like beacons under the surface of the river, that black, black water. Their eyes must be of the river. If she falls inside she could feel the chill dampen her hair, lick at her elbows and ears, fill her and cleanse her and pull her, deeper and deeper.
She slows and stares into the glass—that black mirror that shows the sky and eats the stars. The railing of the bridge presses into her stomach as she leans over, gripping it with outstretched hands.
In the black mirror, Hem sees a figure with outstretched arms. Two bark arms and a burlap sack tied with a knotted string. Hem’s breath catches and stills. The eyes looking back at her are blue and full of fright.
Sarah Marie Kosch is the publicity editor for Anomalous Press and lives in Iowa City writing fiction and poetry. Her goldfish, Lily Briscoe, is her biggest fan.