by Michael Gardner
Esther sits straight-backed, hands in her lap. Across the table are three men, staring. Each has a first name for his last. Mr. Matthews, Mr. Neil, and Mr. James. She can’t remember which name goes with which face. They look the same—white men, black suits, gray hair. The scent of cologne is overpowering.
Esther wears her best skirt, a white silk blouse, a gray cardigan. The skirt is too tight. She’s conscious of the line it cuts across her abdomen, fleshy rolls spilling over the top. She fights the urge to smooth her stomach. She squeezes her hands together. They’re hot, clammy.
The man in the middle clears his throat. He tilts his head, appraises Esther over the top of his glasses. Esther swallows.
“I see you’ve had a twelve-month break from the workforce,” he says. The other two men are motionless. Their eyes unfocused, distant. They have pens and notepads in front of them, a copy of her CV, her references.
“Yes,” she says. What she doesn’t say is that caring for a dying mother is not a break.
“Typing speed?” the man asks.
“Eighty words a minute,” Esther says.
“You’re proficient with Microsoft Office?”
“Yes,” Esther says, “And iWork.”
He picks up one of her papers, pushes his glasses further up his nose. He scans the page. The man on the right glances briefly at the paper, then back at Esther. The man on the left just stares.
Finally, the man in the middle lowers the paper, appraises Esther again.
“I know Roger Cunnington. A tough man. If you can meet his needs,” he raises the paper, waggles it, “I expect you’ll be a good fit for us.”
The man pauses. Esther doesn’t know if she should say thank you or not. He hasn’t actually said she has the job. She decides to wait.
The man glances at his colleagues, left first, then right. The man sighs, turns back to Esther.
“Can you start Monday?”
Esther nods. “Of course.”
The man in the middle stands, extends his hand. Esther rises too, loosely clasps the man’s warm hand with her sweaty one. He grimaces, releases her quickly.
“Someone from HR will call you to finalize the contract.”
“Thank you,” Esther says, hesitates, then turns and hurries from the room.
• • •
Esther sits at a small, scratched table. It’s the only furniture in the room. She’s surrounded by packing boxes, still taped shut. The linoleum floor beneath her feet is clean, but warped.
It’s quiet. Just the sound of her soft breathing, the ticking of a clock, the intermittent creak of yellowed walls shifting in the heat. It feels good to be alone, in a place of her own. No one calling for her. No one to worry about. No pills to remember.
An old lady named Gladys lives in the apartment below. Esther met her briefly as she was moving in. Gladys poked her head out of her door and introduced herself as Esther maneuvered a box upstairs. Faded pink dressing gown, purple slippers. She reminded Esther of her mother.
Esther feels like a cup of tea. She’ll have to get up, search through the boxes in the kitchen. But before she moves, her front door bursts open, slams against the wall. Esther starts, raises a hand to her chest, presses it between her heavy breasts. Her first thought is Gladys. But then she sees, standing in the doorway, a lean woman in her late twenties. Her hair is long, brown, wispy. She’s almost pretty, until she smiles and then she isn’t. Her grin exposes gums, and long teeth.
“Welcome,” the stranger says. A voice like squeaking Styrofoam.
The woman stomps into Esther’s apartment, past the table, into the kitchenette.
“Cups?” she asks, opening and closing cupboards.
Esther freezes. She doesn’t understand who this woman is, or what she wants, or why she has imposed.
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
The stranger has given up on the cupboards, and rips opens the box nearest the kitchen bench.
“Ah, found you,” the stranger says, pulling a teacup from the box. Esther’s teacup. The one she was about to search for.
The woman fills it from the tap, takes a deep draw, gulps loudly.
“Oh, that’s better.” She slams the empty cup on the benchtop. Esther winces.
“I’m sorry, are you lost?” Esther asks, her hands clenching and unclenching in her lap. She should stand, she thinks, but doesn’t.
“No, silly,” the woman says, laughs. She leans on Esther’s kitchen bench, leers at Esther.
“You get the tour from the old bag already?” she asks.
Esther clears her throat. She doesn’t know what to say.
“Just kidding. Gladys is okay,” the stranger continues, apparently not interested in an answer. “Loud though. Can grate on someone used to the silence. Don’t think I’d like to live above her. Could set me off. Make me … overreact.”
Esther watches the stranger move from the kitchen toward Esther’s bedroom. Now Esther rises, opens her mouth to admonish the stranger. But the woman stops, turns abruptly, smiles. Esther freezes again.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
The woman turns back, pushes Esther’s bedroom door open, pokes her head inside.
“Excuse me,” Esther stammers. The woman spins around.
Esther doesn’t know. “Do you need something?”
The woman erupts in titters of high-pitched laughter that bounces around the room like laser fire.
“You’re funny. I like you.”
The woman stomps back through the kitchenette, past Esther. She halts at the front door, turns, regards Esther.
“I’m Stevie,” she says. “If you need anything, I live upstairs. I get the feeling we’re going to get along great.”
• • •
“Matthews, James and Neil. How may I direct your call?” Esther says into the phone.
The woman on the other ends says something about medical malfeasance. She talks about a doctor who misdiagnosed a husband. And now a second doctor. Esther zones out. She’s thinking of her mother. And her mother’s doctors. And the look each gave Esther when her mother refused their treatments. She didn’t want help. Just care until the end. And when they heard that, the doctors regarded Esther with pity.
“Are you still there?” says the voice, agitated.
“Sorry,” Esther says. “Yes, I’ll make an appointment with one of our solicitors. Does ten next Thursday work for you? It does? Great. See you then.”
• • •
Esther steps into the foyer of her apartment building, and Stevie materializes on the stairs.
“Did Gladys show you the laundry?” Stevie asks loudly. Stevie doesn’t close her mouth when she’s finished speaking. Her lips form a little slit, air whistling in and out.
“No,” Esther says, looking up at her.
“I’m just heading down to grab a load. I can show you.”
“I’m sure I can find it,” Esther says.
“This way,” Stevie says. She continues down the stairs, past Esther, toward the basement. She’s wearing a frayed pink dress that’s almost see through. Esther can see the outline of bony shoulders, and a black bra. Stevie doesn’t look back, and Esther feels compelled to follow.
Esther glances at Gladys’ door as she moves into the stairwell. It’s closed.
Her mother lived on the bottom floor of their house toward the end. Too weak to ascend the stairs and sleep in her own bed. So Esther made up a cot in the lounge room. She’d sleep in that sometimes. Other times she’d remain in her armchair. Sleep was a fleeting, temporary relief. And when she’d wake, she’d call to Esther in the night.
There’s a small alcove at the bottom of the stairs, with a metal door. The door squeals when Stevie wrenches it open.
“It’s a bit sticky,” Stevie says, before disappearing into the dark room. Esther peers inside. All she sees is black, and a shimmer of pink. But then there’s a click. A fluorescent bulb blinks on, off, on, shivers as a soft hum fills the room.
“Not much, but the washer works,” Stevie says, opening the front loader.
The room is small, adorned with checkered green and white tiles. Some are loose. Some have fallen, exposing cement beneath. The washing machine is in the far corner, adjacent to a deep, rusted sink. Next to it is a portable clothesline on which three pairs of underpants hang. They look like men’s underpants. Esther thinks they might have been hanging there a long time. Behind that is a second door.
“What’s that for?” Esther asks, pointing.
Stevie’s squatting in front of the washer filling her arms with damp clothes. She glances at the door, back at Esther, grins.
“Have a look,” she dares, still grinning.
Esther suddenly doesn’t want to open the door. But she moves forward, embarrassed not to. It opens easily, quietly, exposing a second room. It’s gloomy, but there’s a light switch inside the door. A naked bulb buzzes to life when Esther flips the switch. Esther surveys the room, confused.
“Creepy, huh,” Stevie says from close behind. Esther jumps, unsure how she snuck up on her.
The room has exposed red brick walls, and an earthen floor. There’s a furnace in the corner, its small, black door open. A pyramid of white ashes sits inside. Opposite the furnace is a pile of dummies, undressed, maybe eight or nine piled on top of each other like a parody of an orgy. They look like crash dummies. Heavy.
“No idea what they’re for. But they’ve been here since I moved in,” Stevie says.
In the near corner is a mud patch. The brick walls there are streaked with mold, and glisten with damp.
Esther’s eyes are drawn to the mud. It’s gray, viscous. The surface is uneven, mottled with shadows. The mud appears to be bubbling, slowly. Undulating. A trick of the light, Esther thinks.
In the middle of the mud there are five thimble-sized domes. She imagines them as fingertips reaching for the surface. Esther swallows.
“Come on, this is boring. Let’s go,” Stevie says. Esther turns and watches Stevie, arms full, stomp across the tiles.
Esther glances at the mud one last time, flicks the light off, then closes the door.
• • •
Esther stares at the open photo album. It smells musty, familiar. Inside is her mother’s smiling face. Full, not gaunt. Smooth, not wrinkled flaps of loose skin draped over a skull.
Her father is there too, wearing a suit. It’s the only photo she’s ever seen of him in a suit. They’re young, happy. Just married.
Esther notices that mother’s wedding dress is tight around the belly. She wonders if anyone else realized. Probably not then. But after, surely. Like Esther, people must have done the math.
She doesn’t remember her father. A bad heart. The lucky bastard skipped out before the real pain began. Before the love you in sickness and in health kicked in. Esther’s not sure how she inherited that vow.
Still, she misses her mother. The one in this photo. The one who worked two jobs, but still found time to make chocolate cake when Esther got good grades at school.
Esther sniffs, wipes roughly at the tear rolling down her cheek. She closes the album and sees, in her head, the wasted, frowning creature in her cot. The one who calls for meds in Esther’s dreams, startling her awake, even now in her own apartment.
Esther balls her fists against her temples, knuckles digging in hard, and she squeezes her eyes shut until she sees flashes of lightning behind the closed lids.
When she opens her eyes again she feels tired. It’s late. She has to get to work early tomorrow. She rises to her feet, steadies herself by leaning hard against the table, then shuffles to bed.
• • •
Esther’s keys jangle in her door as she struggles with the lock. Another day feeling less comfortable in her job than the last. Mr. Matthews is demanding, and forgetful. He stinks—his potent cologne doesn’t quite mask the acrid scent of body odor. If she didn’t need the money … but she does. And it’s nowhere near as hard as last year, she reminds herself.
The key turns suddenly, and the door eases inward like it has accepted a secret password. Enter, Ali Baba, she thinks.
There’s a man waiting at her table.
Esther jerks back, wrenching her keys from the door. She clutches them to her chest. But then her belly warms with anger. This is her house. Not Stevie’s, not Mr. Matthews’, hers.
“Who are you?” she snaps. “What are you doing here?”
The man doesn’t move, doesn’t turn, doesn’t flinch.
She steps into her home, eyes darting to the knives on the kitchen bench, back to the man. She thinks about running. She thinks about calling someone. She thinks about screaming.
And then she sees her mistake.
It isn’t a man.
Someone has brought one of the dummies from the basement into her house and dressed him in a suit, a hat, sunglasses. There’s a cup in front of him, as if he’s stopped by for a chat and hydration.
Esther approaches the dummy. It has a sharp, plastic scent. And just underneath, a note of putridness. Of mud, and old dirt. Esther wrinkles her nose.
A floorboard behind her squeaks, drawing her attention. Stevie’s standing at the front door, grinning. An oversized handbag dangles from her skinny shoulder.
“I didn’t know you had company,” she says, her high-pitched voice grating.
Esther frowns. “Why did you bring this here?”
“His name is Dennis,” Stevie says. “I thought we could do with a man’s company while we drink.” Stevie pulls a half-empty bottle of vodka from her bag, shakes it so the booze sloshes back and forth.
“It’s Tuesday. I’m not drinking.” Esther notices that the vodka bottle is the same brand she likes. She has another bottle in her top cupboard, over the fridge.
“That’s fine. More for me and Dennis.”
Stevie clomps past Esther, sits at the end of the table and places the bottle on it with a clink. She looks back at Esther, waits. Esther hesitates, then joins her, sitting across from Dennis.
Stevie takes Dennis’ cup, pulls it toward her. She uncaps the vodka and splashes a generous amount into the cup.
“Mmm,” she says as she pours.
Esther licks her lips. “Why did you bring that filthy dummy here?”
Stevie takes a draw from the cup, winces as she swallows, then smiles her horsey smile.
“Ah, geez. It’s a joke. You know? Company for us single gals.”
“Who said I’m single.”
Esther pauses. She thinks of Mike. Affable Mike who was patient for so long. But even he tired of waiting for her mother to die. She was angry when he left, but she didn’t blame him. Relationships take time, attention. All of hers was directed elsewhere. That was eight months ago. She’s acutely aware she hasn’t been with anyone since.
“None of your business,” she says.
Stevie laughs, tops up the cup, slides it across the table toward Esther. There’s an outline of lip gloss on the rim.
“Go on, don’t make me drink alone,” Stevie says.
“I thought you were drinking with Dennis.”
With an explosion of breath, Stevie wheezes laughter. “Esther, did you just make a joke?”
Esther finds herself grinning.
Stevie holds the bottle aloft, shakes it gently. Esther relents, twists the cup so the lip gloss is positioned away from her, then lifts it to her lips.
• • •
Esther’s mind floats three inches above her head, which makes the walk downstairs difficult. Her lips are numb, her nose tingles. She fights hard against the urge to giggle. She’s drunk. She should go to bed. But she’s following Stevie, who’s sniggering.
Stevie pulls up outside Gladys’ door. Esther nearly runs up the back of her. Stevie makes a fist, raises it to the door, turns to Esther, who shakes her head, no. With an impish grin, Stevie knocks loudly, runs.
Esther finds herself alone on Gladys’ landing. Then her brain catches up, and she rushes after Stevie, down to the basement. She glances back up before she slips into the laundry, and is relieved to see Gladys’ door still closed. Maybe she’s deaf, she thinks.
“Come on,” Stevie says from the darkness. Esther steps inside, her footsteps echoing. There’s a click, then dull light illuminates the doorway to the second room. Stevie’s nowhere to be seen. Esther smells dust motes burning on the bulb, hears the gentle hum of electricity. The apartment above remains silent. Esther realizes she’s disappointed.
“Come on,” Stevie says again, but from the furnace room. “I need a hand.”
Esther wobbles to the lighted doorway. Inside, Stevie is rolling on top of the pile of dummies. She looks like she’s wrestling them. Or fucking. Stevie’s sniggering again, a sharp hissing sound.
“What are you doing?” Esther asks.
“You got a Dennis, I need a Roger. Get it? A Roger.”
The hissing becomes tittering laughter. Esther grins.
The pile of dummies shifts, and Esther spies what looks like a purple slipper half hidden among them. Her smile fades. She takes a step forward, but then Stevie grunts, the pile shifts again and Stevie rolls free in the grips of a dummy. She crashes to the dirt floor, squealing with laughter.
“Shh,” Esther says, stifling her own giggles.
Stevie rises to her feet, dusts herself off. She grabs the dummy under the arms. “You grab his feet,” she says. Esther wobbles toward Stevie, stops.
Dripping draws her attention.
She appraises the muddy patch, eyes drawn to the five rounded peaks, the fingers. There’s a little pool of water next to them now. It’s rippling, like a drop has fallen from the ceiling and disturbed the surface.
Stevie’s huffing, grunting.
The small puddle ripples again. Esther glances at the ceiling, then back at the puddle. She tries to focus, eyes widening, trying to clear her head and see straight.
The fingers move, slowly. Just enough to disturb the water.
Esther jerks back, hissing hot breath. It leaves her in a rush, before the scream can build. She backs out of the room, into the laundry.
“Esther, what are you doing?” Stevie says.
The mud squelches. The sound instantly sobers Esther. She turns, runs.
• • •
Mr. Matthews screams. Esther cringes, head bent, eyes downcast. She’s hungover, and Mr. Matthews’ yelling isn’t helping her pounding head. Her mouth is dry, her throat parched. She can’t stop swallowing.
Mr. Matthews’ hot breath assails her, along with drops of spit. She resists the urge to wipe them from her forehead. She feels shame and embarrassment as he berates. She feels less. She knows she isn’t, but that’s how he makes her feel.
Her mother yelled at the end. When she wasn’t all there. Words she’d never heard from her mother’s mouth—filthy words. She blamed Esther for the pain.
Tears well in the corners of Esther’s eyes, but she blinks them away. She won’t cry. Not for him.
Finally, he runs out of anger. Esther glances up and notices his smug, red face. He has sweat on his brow, but his eyes glint with energy and excitement, like belittling her gives him pleasure.
“Sorry, Mr. Matthews,” Esther mumbles. “I won’t be late again.”
He huffs loudly, rolls his eyes. “Good. Now get back to work.”
Esther rises from her chair, but before she leaves, she sees Stevie standing outside Mr. Matthews’ office window, grinning. Stevie mouths something indecipherable, gives a ‘come on’ gesture with her hand.
Esther shakes her head, no.
Stevie pouts, sighs, disappears from view.
“Well?” Mr. Matthews says, staring at Esther through narrowed eyes, “Your work won’t do itself.”
“No, Mr. Matthews. Sorry, Mr. Matthews.”
Esther turns and leaves.
• • •
Esther hesitates outside her apartment door, hand in her purse, seeking her keys. She doesn’t really want to go in, she realizes. She doesn’t want to be alone. Not after the day she just had.
Esther listens. It’s quiet below. Quiet above. She glances up the stairs, wonders. She’s never been to Stevie’s apartment, she thinks.
Esther takes the stairs slowly, carefully. Outside Stevie’s door she halts, takes a breath, knocks. The door isn’t latched, and it swings inward under the pressure of her fist. The apartment smells musty, stale.
“Hello,” she says, pushing the door open further.
The apartment is sparse. The layout a mirror of Esther’s apartment below. A dusty sheet covers a couch in the lounge room, but the dining table is uncovered. In each of the six seats surrounding it is a dummy. They’re posed to look like they’re conversing.
Esther swallows. “Stevie?” Silence.
The floorboards creak in the heat. Esther’s eyes remain on the dummies.
“Stevie?” Esther calls again. Nothing.
Esther backs out of the room, pulls the door closed after her.
• • •
Esther wakes with a start. There’s a creaking noise. Someone groans. It’s close.
She leaps from her bed, sheets and comforter rustling loudly as her heart pounds in her chest. She flips on the lights and finds Stevie lying on the other side of her bed, hand shielding her eyes from the light.
“What were you doing in my house?” Stevie asks.
Esther exhales loudly, composes herself. “You’ve always invited yourself into mine.”
They pause, staring at each other.
“Why the dummies?” Esther asks.
“Dummies, humans, what’s the difference?”
Esther swallows. “They’re not real.”
Stevie laughs, lifts her head off of the pillow, leans on her elbow. “Nothing’s real.” With a subtle movement of her hand, she beckons Esther back to bed. Esther hesitates, then obeys. She slips in beside Stevie, pulls the comforter up over her, turns and faces Stevie.
Stevie leans closer. Her lips graze Esther’s. Esther closes her eyes, opens her mouth, feels Stevie’s tongue dart in, out.
The kiss is cold. Like mashing her lips against glass.
Esther opens her eyes. There’s no one there. She wonders if there ever was.
• • •
It’s past noon when Esther wakes. She panics briefly, recalling Mr. Matthews’ red, screaming face. But then it hits her that it’s Sunday. She relaxes, stares up at the ceiling, listening to the noises above. It sounds like a stampede of water buffalo, she thinks. How did she sleep through that?
As a contrast, the apartment below is silent. In fact, she hasn’t heard Gladys since she moved in.
Esther throws back the covers, eases from the bed and lies down on the hard wooden floor. She turns her head, presses her ear against the floorboards. She blocks out the clumping above, focuses on the apartment below.
Nothing. It’s silent. As silent as death.
At the very end, when her mother wouldn’t even leave her armchair at night, Esther would sleep upstairs and wonder if tonight was the night? She’d find herself listening for the moment when her mother’s breathing ceased. Craning to hear an absence of creaking, groaning, wheezing.
She imagines Gladys in an armchair, bloated, black tongue between her teeth. She imagines fetid gases escaping, rising to the ceiling, gathering just beneath her ear.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Stevie asks in her whiny voice. Esther pulls back from the floor like she’s been slapped. She pushes herself up onto her knees, and looks across at Stevie, who stands in the bedroom doorway looking down at her.
“Nothing,” Esther says, as she dusts her belly.
Stevie smirks. “You’re a strange one. Come on, it’s late. Get dressed. We’re going to get day drunk. There’s men waiting. Or women. Whatever you’re into.”
Esther opens her mouth to confirm her sexuality, but Stevie’s already gone. She thinks about closing her door, jamming a chair under the knob to keep Stevie out. But she doesn’t. She changes into fresh clothes, grabs her bag and heads out.
• • •
Esther’s four drinks in when Stevie returns with absinthe. It looks neon. Lethal. Like a blended frog in a shot glass.
Stevie grins as she places the tablespoon of poison on the table in front of Esther. Esther licks her lips. She looks into Stevie’s manic eyes, then surveys the gloomy bar. It’s full of old men sitting at tables like theirs, nursing whiskeys, beers, maybe bad memories. Esther feels out of place.
“Down the hatch,” Stevie says. She upends her shot glass, grinning as the green liquid slides down her throat.
Esther should refuse. She’s already drunk, and it’s not even dark yet. She should go home. Clean. Get ready for work tomorrow.
She stares at the green drink. She’s reminded of freshly mown lawns. A rectangular pit with dark earthen walls. A gum tree dripping rain over the open grave.
In a rush she snatches at the shot glass and raises it to her lips. It tastes bitter, sharp. But it warms her.
“Good girl,” Stevie says, grinning.
• • •
Esther’s leaning heavily on Stevie as they stumble into the apartment foyer.
“Shh,” Stevie says.
Esther nods, stifling laughter.
At Gladys’ door, Esther pulls free of Stevie.
“What are you doing?” Stevie asks.
Esther smiles, turns, knocks hard. “Gladys,” she yells. Knocks again. “Gladys, you in there, or dead?”
Stevie spews hysterical laugher, grabs Esther by the arm, yanks her hard and forces her up the stairs.
“You crazy bitch,” she says. “She’ll call the cops.”
But Esther doesn’t think the dead can make phone calls.
On the first floor, Esther reaches into her handbag for her keys, but Stevie somehow has her door open without them. Esther’s head is too hazy to question how. She follows Stevie inside.
“Come on, you drunk. Let’s get you to bed.”
And that’s where she is, suddenly. Her shirt is on the floor, skirt too. She folds into bed in bra and underpants. Stevie tucks her in, leans close. Esther’s head is spinning.
“Sleep tight, angel. Dream white dreams. Of good things.”
Esther opens her mouth to respond, but only an unintelligible mumble escapes.
“What?” Stevie says, moving closer, closer. Esther closes her eyes, purses her lips, but there’s nothing.
When she opens her eyes again, Stevie’s gone. It’s dark. Esther’s mouth is dry. The apartment below is silent. Not a single sound from Gladys. Esther imagines her in an armchair, sleeping, like her mother.
Esther feels sick. Closes her eyes again.
Esther sees the grave. Mike is standing nearby, avoiding eye contact. He’s come to pay his respects, but he doesn’t want her back. And does he know?
“Of course not,” whispers Stevie.
Esther’s eyes jerk open again, but she can’t see Stevie for the dark. It hangs between them like curtains.
“What did you give me?” she mumbles, her tongue thick in her mouth.
“Absinthe. And morphine.”
“From your stash. The one you stole from your mother. The medicine she needed to keep the pain at bay.”
“She was never in pain,” Esther slurs.
“No,” Stevie says, and it sounds like she’s smiling. “She wasn’t at the end, was she?”
Esther pushes herself up, her head spinning. She still can’t see Stevie, but she knows she’s there somewhere, in the dark, wearing shadows like a cloak.
Esther swings her legs out of bed, feet on the cold floorboards. She tries to rise, but she can’t hold her weight. She slumps to the floor. She hears footsteps coming closer, padding softly. Esther closes her eyes, anticipating a kick that never comes.
Esther dreams of the basement. Dummies rising to their feet, marching, jerkily, toward the laundry. The muddy patch is writhing, and from it something crawls. A corpse, covered in dirt, rising from the grave.
• • •
Loud knocking wakes her. Every thud is a nail in Esther’s eyes, an explosion in her aching head. It’s coming from downstairs.
She forces gummy eyes to open. She’s still lying on the floor, but surrounded by crusted vomit. She gags, pushes herself away from the mess. As she does, her head spins violently.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Mrs Wheeler. Are you in there? Your daughter is very worried.” It’s a male voice. Deep. Authoritative.
Next, a female voice. “Mum, please open the door.”
Silence. Esther eases herself into a sitting position, rests her back against the bedside table. She closes her eyes, listens. The acrid scent of vomit fills her nostrils, clings to her matted hair. She wants to be clean, to lie in the shower and let the water dissolve her, but she can’t move yet.
“Do I have your permission to enter, Miss Wheeler?” the man asks. Esther suspects he’s a cop. She doesn’t hear a response, but she imagines Gladys’ daughter nodding. She pictures Gladys’ daughter as a slight, mousy woman. Freckles and fear.
Keys jingle, Gladys’ door squeaks open. Esther swallows.
She sees what they see. It’s like she’s floated out of her aching body and now hovers just behind the policeman. He wrinkles his nose at the scent of decay. She watches him tentatively enter the apartment. She hears his muffled footsteps on the floral carpet as he moves from room to room. He stops abruptly, staring at Gladys’ bloated corpse. Esther feels tears on her cheeks. She can’t breathe.
“She’s not here, Miss Wheeler. Are you sure there’s nowhere she might have gone without telling you. To visit a friend, perhaps?”
Esther’s eyes snap open. Not there?
“No,” Miss Wheeler’s voice is soft, trembling.
“Okay. Well, I’ll check with the other tenants, see if they know anything. And then we’ll go back to the station and complete a missing person report.”
Esther hears heavy boots ascend the stairs. Her heart pounds in time with those footsteps. The knock startles her, even though she knew it was coming. She can’t answer it covered in vomit. She doesn’t want to answer it.
“So don’t,” Stevie says. She turns her head sharply, and it screams in pain. She doesn’t see anyone. She’s alone.
Bang, bang, bang.
She swallows, waits.
Eventually there’s more footsteps, this time moving back down the stairs. The policeman comforts Miss Wheeler. She imagines him taking her elbow, guiding her back outside, into the sun.
• • •
Esther’s standing in her bathroom, wrapped in a towel, drying her hair. She still feels awful, but cleaner. Above her are the bumps and clumps of Stevie. Where was she when the cops were here? Hiding maybe? Like Esther.
From her crumpled jeans in the corner of the bathroom comes the sound of her phone. She looks at the soiled clothes with distaste, hesitates, then rummages through them.
“Esther,” an angry male voice accuses.
“This is Mr. Matthews.”
Esther’s stomach drops.
“You were supposed to be at work hours ago. I took a chance on you.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Matthews,” she says, the words rushing from her. “I’m sick. I was just about to call to let you know, but—”
“Stop. Just stop. This isn’t working out.”
“Please, Mr. Matthews. One more chance.”
Mr. Matthews sighs on the other end. Pauses long enough for Esther to hope.
“No. Come collect your things tomorrow.”
The phone clicks. He’s gone.
Esther jumps when her bathroom door slides open. Standing in the doorway, wearing a sunflower dress a size too big, is Stevie. She grins her horsey grin.
“Good riddance. You don’t need him anyway,” she says. Esther smells freshly turned dirt, stale sweat. She notices Stevie’s fingernails are crusted with grime.
“Where’s Gladys?” Esther asks coolly.
Stevie’s grin widens. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“What did you do to her?”
Stevie’s silent. She raises a hand slowly, turns it to stare at her dirty nails. Muddy really. Dark, silky mud.
Esther storms past Stevie, across her lounge room, out into the stairwell. She tightens the towel around her, and rushes down the stairs, ignoring the protests from her weak stomach. She throws open the door to the laundry. Then the door to the furnace room. The single bulb buzzes to life when she hits the switch.
She heads for the mud, drops to her hands and knees and, swallowing her disgust, thrusts her hands into the cold muck next to the five little peaks.
She scoops mud, flicks it across the room, scoops some more. She keeps excavating until, with horror, the outline of the hand becomes clear. Its fingers are stained, and point to the ceiling.
Her own hands shake as she grasps the narrow wrist. It feels cold, gelatinous. She heaves, and slowly, very slowly, the arm comes free with a wet, sucking noise.
It’s a dummy’s arm.
Esther’s heart slows, calms. She drops the appendage with a plop back into the mud. She pushes herself to her feet, turns, expecting to find Stevie watching her, but she’s not there.
Esther moves quickly upstairs, past Gladys’ empty apartment, past her own, to the top. She tries the door, it’s unlocked. She pushes it open, leaving a dirty handprint on its surface. Inside are dummies. Everywhere. They’re lying on floors, they’re posed on the sheet-covered couch, they’re sitting on the kitchen bench.
Only one is dressed. It’s propped against the wall near the bedroom. It has a bedraggled wig and wears a faded pink dressing gown over a sunflower dress.
Esther swallows. Swallows again. But it isn’t enough. Her stomach turns, and she retches, spraying yellow bile across the dirty floor.
• • •
Esther dreams of her mother. Frail. Sick. Semi conscious.
“Time for your painkillers, Mum,” Esther says, tears blurring her vision.
“Already?” her Mum slurs. She’s sitting in her yellow armchair, a pink dressing gown wrapped tightly around her. Beside her is an IV stand, a thin tube connecting it to the cannula in her wrist.
Her mother regards Esther, smiles lopsidedly. Esther wipes at her cheeks, moves closer. She’s holding a needle, milky liquid inside.
“This will make you feel better,” she whispers, her throat dry and hoarse.
Her mother nods, closes her eyes.
Esther stabs the needle into the IV, depresses the plunger. Her mother’s smile widens. Her eyelids flutter. Her head lolls, then flops onto the back of the chair. She exhales deeply, once.
• • •
Esther wakes to more banging. But this time it’s her door. Her breathing quickens. It sounds harsh in her ears.
“Esther Ronston. Open up, please. It’s the police.”
Bang, bang, bang.
They’ll leave, she thinks.
“No, they won’t,” Stevie says.
Esther stifles a yelp with both hands, clamping them tightly over her mouth. Her eyes dart around the room, searching. And there she is, in the corner, upright, one leg rested against the wall.
“What are you doing here?” she hisses.
“I’m always here,” Stevie says, teeth bared. She lowers her leg, steps out of the shadows, sits on the edge of the bed. “What did you do, Esther?”
“I didn’t do a goddam thing.”
“Then why are the cops here?” Stevie says.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Ms. Ronston, we know you’re in there. We need you to come with us and answer some questions.”
“I don’t know,” Esther says. She closes her eyes tight, hoping Stevie will go away.
“The elderly can be so tiring, can’t they? Inconvenient. Sometimes it’s easier just to shut them up.” Stevie says.
She doesn’t know how Stevie knows. She thinks of denying it, but what would that achieve? “That was different,” Esther says quietly.
“Ms. Ronston,” says the policeman. “Last chance.”
“Last chance,” Stevie repeats.
“She was in pain.”
“No, she wasn’t.”
“What would you know? What would you fucking know about what she went through? What I went through? The hair, the weight loss, shitting blood and just fucking disappearing into something that was never my mother. What?” Esther screams.
The banging at her door grows louder, more insistent.
“Oh, I know more than you think,” Stevie says. “I know everything you did. Every horrible thing.” She pauses, smiling. “And now, so do they.” Her shifty eyes glance at Esther’s bedside table.
Esther follows her gaze, spies her phone. She grabs it, unlocks it, and there on the screen is her last call. 000 – emergency services.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Ms. Ronston, if you don’t cooperate, we’re permitted to enter by force.”
“I don’t understand?” Esther says.
Stevie cackles, a sound like ice in a blender.
“What did you do?” Esther accuses, holding the phone out like a dead rat. But there’s no one there. She scans the room anxiously, looking for Stevie, but she’s gone.
There’s a loud thud against the door, and it rattles in the frame. Esther squeals. She imagines a police battering ram. A heavy shoulder. A boot.
She’s shaking. Physically shaking as she hears the second thud, and wood crack. She balls up into the fetal position. Retreats into herself.
She’s falling. Falling into bright light. A light so white that there’s nothing else. It’s all-consuming, and she pours into it like cream into milk. She tries to scream, but the light rushes into her mouth like water into drowning lungs.
There’s something else, now. A streak of gray in the white. Marbling. Mud, Esther thinks. Mud from the grave. She tries to close her mouth against it, but she can’t. It comes in with all of that white, sliding inside of her. Filling her.
Esther hears grunting, splintered wood. Cursing and heavy footsteps. There’s laughter, too. She gulps, and spits, and chokes. And still, that high-pitched, nasal wheeze of laughter.
She hears her name. Senses someone close, reaching for her.
Copyright © 2021 by Michael Gardner