I’m not supposed to be riding at this hour.
Once the sun begins to set, I’m forbidden. And yet here I am, my hands wrapped around Jupiter’s neck and the horizon rushing toward us. I know if I turn around, I’ll see the farm receding, maybe hear Mom hurling curses from the porch. But for now, it’s just me and Jupiter and the world turning orange.
She won’t get you this time, I think. You’re safe with me.
It’s no surprise when the sky curdles red. I feel my hands becoming slick, the wind opening up into a howl. When Jupiter comes to a halt and I go flying over his head, I try to hold onto his mane. I won’t let go this time. I’ll save him. But as the world turns upside down, I spot my own bloody handprints wrapped around Jupiter like a necklace.
When I awake, the farm is gone. I’m back on the second floor of my house. The master bedroom. Jerry is still asleep. His mouth is wide open, as though a spider has just crawled under his tongue.
I can’t shake the smell of manure and the iron taste of blood as I help Sadie put on her shoes. It only dissipates once I feel Jerry’s breath on my neck. He’s waiting.
If I let the backs chafe against her heels, if she trips on her laces later, if I make a single mistake, he’ll remember. It won’t be my fault, of course. Not until I’m putting dishes away or I’m stepping out of the shower and he feels particularly cruel. That’s when the words will fly: negligence, ignorance, stupidity, spite.
“Thanks, Mom,” Sadie says. “Thank you, Dad.”
Daddy hasn’t so much as patted her on the head this morning, but I’ve taught Sadie to say these words anyway. Jerry doesn’t like the idea of favoritism. It’s a word he doesn’t so much say as he spits. And he’s especially touchy these days.
“Sweetie, can you buckle yourself in? I’ll be right there,” I say.
Sadie wrinkles her nose. “You don’t have to ask if I can buckle in anymore.”
As she bounds off, I hear the tea kettle start to whistle. I start gathering my things: my bag, my wallet, my hair ties. I am already late of course, so I might as well take my time. But that familiar gaze is roaming across my neck again.
“When will you be back?” Jerry asks. He hates secondhand smoke and doesn’t keep up with current events, but sometimes I imagine a cigar between his lips and a newspaper in his hands when he talks like this. A real master of the house.
“Late. As usual.”
Late enough to make sure you aren’t awake when I get back.
“I think the funeral parlor left you a message,” I say.
“If it’s about goddamn flowers again…”
I begin heading for the kettle, which has just achieved the sound quality of a train whistle.
“For God’s sake,” Jerry says.
My hand pauses in mid-air, and the kettle screams. I am ready to flinch.
“Maybe we should get the tea before it wakes the neighbors,” Jerry says, and he looks back to an invisible newspaper.
When I first started to work at the medical examiner’s office, I was worried about the smell. Jerry thought it was a tiny thing, but I spent a whole night looking up the exact odor of flesh in decay. Some article said that dead bodies share a particularly odorous chemical with zebra fish, although I don’t know what those smell like, either.
“I don’t care what any kind of fish smells like. You’re not going to be touching corpses or anything,” Jerry said. “You’re just doing the boring stuff, right? Vacuuming and mowing the lawn?”
“Yes, but I’ll be around it. Who knows?”
“You don’t have to go, you know. You can stay home, focus on Sadie. Maybe we can finally get this place cleaned up.”
I got an education before you whisked me away to the city, I thought. I think I’ll die if I don’t figure out what it was for.
“I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Jerry shrugged. “Just shower before you come to bed.”
My new supervisor shook my hand firmly. I remembered that his name was Richard. He wore a yellow tie. A strange color for a morgue, I thought.
It didn’t hit me when Richard showed me around the newly renovated office. It didn’t hit me when he pointed out the bathrooms. It only hit me when he opened the cooler. That was the first time the stench of rot rolled into my nose.
“That’s where we keep the decedents,” he said. He laughed; it must have been something on my face. “Don’t worry. Our longer-term residents do start to smell as they decompose, but it goes away real fast if the cooler doors stay shut. Which they usually do.”
That very day, a new resident was admitted to the building. A fitting welcome-gift for my first day on the job. I caught a brief glimpse of his face as they wheeled him down the hall. The body bag hadn’t been zipped completely shut, so I could catch pieces of him: an upper lip, a skinny nose, a gash across the forehead like bloody lightning. But the eyelids covered the iris color. Green, perhaps?
Then I spotted the hair. Deep brown, just like Jerry’s. I stared at it, considered the way fluorescent light leapt off. If only I had hair like that.
“You’ll get used to it,” Richard said, sidling up to me.
I watched the bag disappear around the corner. The wheels of the gurney creaked in the distance.
Are they always so handsome? I wanted to ask.
“I used to take meds. Sleeping pills. Prescribed, of course,” Richard said. “But I sleep like a baby now, all on my own. It’s just people, after all.”
Jerry seems to be asleep by the time I get home. I brush my teeth as quickly and quietly as I can before slipping beneath the covers. I keep an inch between our bodies and close my eyes, but it isn’t long before I hear sniffling, the kind he saves for when the lights are off.
“What is it?” I ask. I go to hold his hand, and he doesn’t resist.
“I didn’t even get to talk to him again,” Jerry says. He’s crying, but his voice still growls. “He got the last word. That asshole always, always gets the last word.”
I’ve never met Jerry’s father, and that’s a good thing. I know Jerry holds on to a couple family photos from his childhood, but I’m not allowed to look. It’s hard to picture them. There’s his mother, pretty perhaps, though I can’t imagine Jerry as a young boy. I can only imagine him as he is now, hulking and soft in the eyes. And when I think of his father, I don’t think of a person. No, I think of an ape, his fists pounding on his chest and his eyes feral.
“Are you sure you want to keep the open casket? There’s still time to change it,” I say. I’m hoping that Jerry finally has a change of heart. The whole thing seems too gruesome.
“No, I want to see his face. I want everyone to see it.”
Jerry rolls over to face me and cups my cheek in his palm. It’s a wisp of earlier days, when we went out to eat every week. He even smiles.
I’ve still got it.
“I love you, Buttercup. I love you so much,” he says.
Oh. He’s telling the truth, I think. Mist forms in the corners of my eyes. Hopefully the dark hides it well enough. There’s nothing like the feeling of being needed.
“I love you, too.”
There’s only an hour left until my shift is done, I realize. Perhaps time moves differently in a morgue. I hear approaching wheels: the sign of another resident coming in. I push myself against the wall to give them room to pass by.
I’m not ready for it. It’s a little girl this time. I shield my eyes with my hands before I can make out most of her features, but there are some things you just know in your gut. Her age probably isn’t even in the double digits. I look down at my shoelaces and squeeze my eyes shut; if there’s gore, I don’t want it to ruin my dreams. They’re already filled with enough blood and broken legs already.
Sadie is fine. Just fine, I tell myself. She’s in her bedroom, safe and alive. There’s no need to check the body bag. Don’t check it.
As the wheels squeak past, something almost non-existent brushes against my shoe. I am greeted with a lock of curled hair when I open my eyes. It’s long, maybe half a foot or so; I shudder at the thought of what injury led to this. I have no idea how this curl made its way out of the body bag.
Tell someone. Your boss, probably.
But I don’t. No, I simply reach down and pick up the lock between my index finger and thumb. It’s shiny, with a speck of red at the edges.
This is twisted. And probably illegal, too. Just throw it in the trash and pretend you didn’t see it.
But the hair is already in my pocket, and there it stays for the rest of the shift.
I stick it in a small plastic bag when I get home and shove it into my pillowcase. Is there still blood on it? Some type of horrible, flesh-eating disease? I take the longest, hottest shower of my life.
It’s okay, you’ve just had a long week. You saw it, panicked, and pocketed it. Just burn it outside and forget about it. This doesn’t have to mean anything. You can still be not crazy.
I don’t burn it.
When I lie down, sleep comes almost instantly. It’s like my linens have been traded out for silk. By the time the fog from the bathroom mirror clears, I am floating far away. I can barely even feel the plastic bag through the pillowcase.
When I brush Sadie’s hair, it reminds me of when I used to see Jupiter every day. It’s a though that might upset Sadie if I told her about it; she likes horses but not enough to be compared to one. His mane was darker than Sadie’s and thick as a forest. If I close my eyes, I can pretend that the brush isn’t there, that it’s just my hands wrapped around reins and the fields all whipping past.
“Will I have kids?” Sadie says. She’s been silent up to now.
“If you want, Sweetie.”
“How many?” she asks, grimacing as I untangle a knot.
“As many as you want. Stay still.”
“…And they’ll be just like me?”
I think before answering. Sadie looks a lot like me. Jerry disagrees, but it doesn’t change anything. Her hair is mine, as are her nose and her smile. The only thing to remind me of her father is her eyes, sparkling green.
I smile. “In some ways, yes. But in some ways, no. Why are you so curious? That’s years and years away.”
“I don’t know. Just wondering.”
I keep brushing. I remember the way my mother used to straighten my curls, and I hope my own movements are less violent than hers.
“Mom…” Sadie starts. From the way she stares at the carpet, I know she is worried. She thinks that I’m about to be mad, which is frustrating more than anything. “Are you okay?”
Oh, I think. You noticed?
“What? Why wouldn’t I be?”
Sadie does not respond. She clams up when she thinks she’s in trouble. I’ll have to continue the conversation myself.
“If I act sad, it’s only because your dad is going through a lot right now.”
Or maybe I’m just sad all the time. Wouldn’t that be a twist?
“But why are you so sad?” Sadie asks. “You didn’t even like Grandpa.”
“That’s not true. Don’t say that again.” The words come out harsher than I expected. “No matter what I feel, it doesn’t make this any easier on your dad. He has a lot to handle, and we have to be there to help him carry it all.”
Sadie nods. “It’s like flowers,” she says. Her words come out easy, like she’s been rehearsing her whole life. “It’s not something you keep to yourself. It’s something you pick up and give to other people.”
I sit still for a moment. I’m not sure what to do but stare at the back of Sadie’s head. Her hair seems to glow. I imagine a strand of it, shimmering, sailing through the air and coiling up on the carpet.
A few days later, I find myself standing in front of the cooler. It’s not so different from any other fridge.
This isn’t right, I think. Why do this? You can’t take it back.
I glance behind me to make sure that Richard is still in the bathroom. He usually takes his time, and everyone else should have clocked out by now. The lower drawer handle is slick and pulls out easily. I brace myself for a stench, but the smell that wafts out isn’t particularly strong. Must not be a decomp. There’s even a sweetness to the scent, a trace of burnt sugar.
Stop this. It’s not too late.
But my hand moves to the scissors in my boot, and I’m pulling out the tray from the cooler. Two pale feet stick out from beneath a familiar white sheet. I’ve never touched one of the bodies before. It isn’t part of my job.
Once more I make sure Richard isn’t about to enter the room and find my hands on the face of a corpse. Then I pull the cover down to reveal her head.
She’s pretty. Her hair is a similar length to mine and even a similar shade, but much softer. There are no marks on her face. I wonder how she died, if she ever sent a little girl to school or poured the morning tea.
I decide to take a lock from the back of her head to arouse less suspicion. The scissors shake in my hand. An inch? Two inches? How much will they notice? How long is an inch? When I finally decide on a length and cut, my blood goes cold.
What was that? Did her eyes just twitch?
Of course not. Corpses don’t open their eyes. They don’t miss stolen strands of hair. But nonetheless, as I slide the tray back into the cooler, I take care not to touch her skin.
On the way to the lobby, I run into Richard, who is wiping his hands on his jacket. He smiles as I approach.
“Hey, are you going to Linda’s barbeque on Friday?” he asks.
“Sorry, I’m still not sure if I can.”
My fingers curl around the new treasure in my pocket. There’s a rush to this that I’ve never felt before. It’s intoxicating. If I’m not careful, a smile will appear across my face.
“We’d love to see you,” Richard says. He points a finger gun at me, tries too hard to wink. “The morgue, the merrier!”
We laugh until tears begin to roll.
I’m with Jupiter again.
His mane is longer than I remember. I press my cheek to it, feel every fiber. But the sky is orange again. Most things are the same, of course: the farm to the back, the world stretching out ahead. But I won’t let it be the same.
“Run,” I whisper in Jupiter’s ear. “I’ll hold on this time. I won’t let her touch you.”
He moves more quickly than should be possible. When the sky starts to bleed and the air chokes, I wrap my arms as tightly as I can around Jupiter’s neck. I can feel his pulse. Each beat sends shivers rippling through me, and I resolve myself: I won’t leave him this time.
But there is no crash. Just the dark squelch of a bullet passing through flesh. I only hear the ringing of the gun when it’s all over. Jupiter buckles under me, and I am hurtling again. I reach for his mane, but every fistful of hair falls out from his head and scatters through the air like ashes.
Somebody is shaking my shoulder. I rub my eyes slowly as the fog of sleep lifts.
“Hello? You there, Buttercup? Got enough sleep yet?”
A blurry figure waves a hand in front of my face. I reach out limply to swat it away. Satisfied, the figure turns around and comes into focus.
“We’re late,” Jerry says.
He walks toward the bathroom and tosses me the carefully-hung dress I chose last night. It falls just short of the bed.
Something is off. It feels like a part of me has been warped, like someone has made off with my belongings. I reach up to untangle some of my hair, which is even messier than most mornings. It seems almost frayed, like rope splitting apart.
Jerry catches my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“I think you need a haircut,” he says.
Sadie sits as still as she can as I brush her hair out, but the fidget in her left leg always gives away the impatience. I put a hand on it to make her go still. It won’t look professional if she starts vibrating during a job interview a decade down the line.
The TV hums in the background: some mindless cartoon about horses. Ones that can talk and laugh and sing about friendship, of course. One of the larger stallions squints his impossibly round eyes and leaps over a fence with ease. The sky is completely clear; it looks like the animators forgot to draw clouds that day.
“My horse was a lot less distracting than these ones,” I say.
Sadie sits up straight, and her eyes go wide. “You had a horse?”
She has just finished breakfast. It’s hard for me to look at her straight-on when she bubbles like this, like she’s the sun emerging from behind a cloud. On some nights, it keeps me from sleeping.
“I never told you? No, I must have mentioned it.”
“What happened to him?”
I ran him into a fence, and he broke his front legs, is my first thought. I watched my mother put him down with a pistol.
“He got sick,” I say as Sadie tries to crane her neck toward me. “You have to sit still.”
“Do you have pictures?” Sadie is enraptured by my every word.
“No. I kept some of his mane, but I don’t think I have it anymore.”
“Oh,” Sadie says, clearly crestfallen. “I bet he was pretty, though.”
He was before I let my mother turn him into glue.
“Not as pretty as you, Sweetie.”
One of the horses on the TV trots in a circle around a little girl with pigtails. She claps her hands, and the horse times his steps to the beat. He smiles at her. It feels like I’m watching a courtship.
Sadie looks beautiful. I think black is her color.
She has me clearly beaten in the looks department. Everything is off today. My shoes apply pressure at all the wrong spots, like I’ve accidentally stuck each foot into the wrong one. My sleeves dangle a little too loosely, my buttons’ edges feel too sharp. Even my ponytail is wrong. I raise my hand to it. The ends feel ragged.
“Mom?” Sadie whispers. She doesn’t have to say anything after that. I can tell from the way she huddles close, her face practically buried in the folds of my dress. She doesn’t look away from the casket which is down the aisle.
We approach it slowly, like we’re afraid to wake the man inside. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so slowly in my life.
Hurry up, I want to scream, but I let Sadie take her quiet steps. Soon enough we’re standing over it, Jerry shivering at Sadie’s side.
When I look inside the coffin, I expect to see something hideous. Jerry has only used a few, carefully selected words to describe this creature: simple, ugly, hopeless, mean. But the man I look down at is quite handsome. He has a strong jawline and is dressed in a well-tailored suit. His hands are crossed over his chest almost daintily, like he’s waiting for true love’s kiss.
Jerry takes Sadie’s hand in his own, pushes a loose piece of hair behind her ear. He tilts his head toward the coffin.
“Don’t be afraid. Look.”
“I don’t think she should have to–” I start.
“Sadie.” Jerry doesn’t even look at us as he speaks. He stares directly at his own father’s face. “Look. Inside.”
For once, I cannot discern what Sadie is thinking. She has to get up on tiptoes to gaze into the maw, at which point she simply stares for a few moments before giving a tiny nod. Jerry only lets go of her hand to reach with it into the casket. Before I can protest, he is using his thumb and index finger to lift his father’s eyelid. The iris is green, like Jerry’s.
“Bastard,” Jerry whispers.
He latches back onto Sadie’s hand and walks down the aisle. He doesn’t look back.
I stare at the body. Its hair is grey now but still thick. I glance around the room, see that almost everyone has cleared out. A few stragglers are huddled in conversation by the back door. I reach down to my boot.
No no no no, I think. I try to scream, but my lips have sealed themselves shut. Why? Why are you like this?
There’s no stopping it. The scissors slide out easily, and I reach with them into the casket. I am ready for the tap on my shoulder, for handcuffs to slap down onto my wrists. But there is nobody to stop me as I squeeze the scissors down and a clump of hair falls into my palm. I don’t know what terrible things they’ve done to this body behind closed doors to make it presentable for viewing, but the hair still feels like hair. Softer than I expected.
A warmth floods my spine. It feels like I’m an explorer, like I’m discovering something new.
As I exit, Sadie finds me and grabs the side of my dress, and I have to stop myself from swatting her away. We stand at the periphery together while Jerry makes the rounds, shaking hands I don’t recognize. I feel a tug at my side. I try to look interested, but my mind isn’t particularly concerned with whatever trifle Sadie is about to bring up.
“Are those people giving Dad money?”
“What? No, what do you mean?”
“At school, Sarah said that when her grandma died, her mom and dad bought a new car.”
I realize Sadie is talking about her grandfather’s will. Has she heard me and Jerry whispering about it in the kitchen? We’re receiving a sizable amount, and I’ve convinced Jerry to go along with it even though he’d rather burn it all. It’s like blood diamonds to him.
“Your grandfather left us some money,” I say, and I let go of the secret in my pocket to stroke Sadie’s braids. It feels like I’m leaving a piece of myself behind to do so. “But it’s all going to be saved for you. For when you go to college. That’s what he wanted, Sweetie.”
“Oh,” Sadie says. A faint but unmistakable whiff of disappointment fills out her voice. “That’s good, I guess.”
Good? You guess?
My hand recoils and flies back to the treasure in my pocket. Sadie reaches up to pick her nose.
You’d rather have a shiny new car? Is that right? Maybe a tumor will pop in my head too, I think. Then you can have all of it to yourself.
The mirror must lie. Maybe we bought it from a funhouse. I look more jagged than ever, my hair not falling the same way it did yesterday. I compare two random locks and spot the difference: an inch, maybe more. It’s a strange feeling, not trusting your own follicles.
“Buttercup! Over here!” Jerry’s voice cuts through the moment.
My feet move on their own, but I stop them at the bathroom doorway. Maybe I can stay like this forever, caught between tile and carpet, my hair falling out in my hands. Then he calls again, and I am practically tripping over myself.
When I reach the kitchen, I see Jerry’s sitting at the dining table. He’s staring at his phone, cursing under his breath at the screen.
“Tea’s done,” he says.
I look at the kettle, which is whistling impatiently. It’s sitting on the counter a couple feet from Jerry. He would hardly have to stand up to start pouring.
Something inside me seethes. I do my best to tamp it down, but there’s only so much I can do against years of rot. Jupiter would always look me in the eye whenever I rounded the corner. It was like he had been waiting all night just for that moment, for the chance to see me in the flesh.
Jerry looks at me like I’m stupid.
He enunciates each word as if he’s teaching a dog to shake hands. “Can you get it?”
Jerry’s hair hasn’t been cut for over a month now. It looks almost matted, more belonging to a shaggy dog than a man who takes a briefcase to work. It would be so easy to pick up a pair of scissors and start taking chunks out of him. It would be so easy.
He speaks even slower. “Can you get it?”
I plant my feet. “Not yet.”
“I said not yet.”
And we wait.
I know that I will let my hands fall and pick up the kettle, and he will continue to misunderstand the spaces between words. I know there is no stopping the tide.
I imagine us standing here forever, perfect. I imagine the kettle shrinking into the distance and the wind rushing past me and my hands closing around his throat.
The kettle screams.
There’s not much to clean in Sadie’s bedroom. I’ve already swept up in the kitchen and master bedroom. I look up and try to spot any stray cobwebs that I can knock away with a broom, but that’s when one of my earrings slips, bounces across the carpet, and skids beneath Sadie’s bed. It’s one of Jerry’s more expensive gifts. I get down on all fours and paw in the darkness. I can’t lose this.
My hand presses down on something soft. An uncharacteristic piece of garbage? Perhaps Sadie knocked something down there by accident. I draw back my hand to see I’ve removed a plastic bag from beneath the bed.
Inside of it are clumps of human hair.
I don’t understand. I know it’s human; I just know it. But it should be anywhere but here in this house, in this room, under this bed. My mind is frantic, but something in my heart has already broken.
I can only stare at the bag still sitting limply in my hand. While I wonder where the hair came from, my hand instinctively rises, as though it wishes to deliver a message to me. It runs its fingers along the uneven ends of my ponytail, lays itself on the back of my neck.
It’s you, it seems to say. She got it from you.
“Sweetie?” I call in the dark. My voice is soft, like a siren call. I’m luring my own daughter out to sea. I catch her tiny silhouette rubbing its eyes.
“Here, put your coat on. It’s okay, you’re not in trouble.”
Helping her put her shoes on feels like placing her feet in stirrups. As we walk down the street, I watch my own breath swirl. Even in the darkness, I can observe my own life seeping out. Sadie grunts, and I realize I’ve been dragging her.
“Mom, stop,” Sadie says.
But I keep the pace.
Finally, we arrive. The park is completely empty of course, but the slides and swings and carousel are all in the same spots as always. Good. I spin Sadie around and grab her by the shoulders. I make sure she looks right into my eyes.
“We’re going to play hide and seek, sweetie. You like that game, right?”
“I’m scared,” Sadie says.
“I’m going to count to one hundred. Find a good spot.”
Sadie does not speak. She merely brings up her mittens to rub her eyes. Green irises. It makes me furious. I cannot stop.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry, I–”
I practically shove her away from me, and then she’s off. She pauses to wipe her face before moving faster than I’ve ever seen her, practically at a gallop. The last thing I see before she disappears into the dark is the moonlight reflecting off her hair.
Keep running, I think. Maybe it isn’t too late to be saved.
Andrew Zhou is a writer currently living in New York City whose work has previously been featured in The Tower. He studied chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and is now pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Columbia University.