The landlord had gone to high school with Dorcas and her little circle and although it had been a while, they remained on friendly enough terms that after the funeral he let them in the house to see if they wanted any of Dorcas’s stuff. The family already had their pick, he explained, so they were welcome to whatever was left, which wasn’t much.
An unopened ream of multifunctional office paper.
A porcelain lion with one front paw broken off such that it could only lean, never stand.
Steak knives, a full set.
One children’s guitar (E and D strings missing) and four rolled-up posters – two art exhibits (Cartier-Bresson, Mucha), two movies (Billy Wilder, Wong Kar-Wai).
And with this final disbursement now out of the way, Dorcas felt an ethereal sort of relief. She took flight at a 0.5º slant from the living, a vector of pure brilliance. She felt free, like she could go anywhere now, only there wasn’t anywhere else to go, not really.
So, she stuck around.
Part of her stuck between the blank pages in the paper tray of Sandra’s printer.
To the lion propped up against Aaron’s old-timey alarm clock.
To the knives in Mitch’s kitchen drawer.
To the guitar strings and every ding and crease on the posters in Lilian’s guestroom.
The rest of her took refuge in curtains, on a breeze between the needles of a pine tree miles away, anywhere she might retain that freedom, that release. She was still hanging around nearly a year later when the four met for dinner at the old Japanese place, but it was not a visitation, she was just there in her diffuse, incorporeal way, near the giant fish tank, where the hostesses stood in their happy coats, teppanyaki to their left, sushi and booze on their right. Dorcas had tended bar there for a while in college, and some of her then-workmates were still soldiering on, though their names all escaped her. She forgot so many things now, but she’d also forgotten things while alive. She’d begun forgetting before she began dying, the process had started long ago and it remained ongoing.
Sandra was looking different – less wood nymph, more librarian – but she often did this, switching looks to match each new social circle which needed fitting into. When they were roommates, when both were still young and precarious and emotionally suited to the idea of having roommates, it had seemed like a self-esteem thing, this mutability of Sandra’s – she was one person at the thrift shops and flea markets, innocent, ready to be delighted, always browsing, seldom buying, but had a way of transforming into a whole other sort of person, someone secretive and slippery and unrecognizable, whenever she met some new guy. Then she’d become still another rueful, more worldly sort of person as she and Dorcas sat side by side on the old plaid sofa with cigarette burns like little blackened mouths, cursing the bastard’s name over wine and bad TV. Of everyone, Sandra was the most likely to get any use out of the office paper, although she rarely used the printer anymore; no one did.
Someone, she couldn’t recall who, had once explained to Dorcas that the faults we find in others are mere projections of faults we cannot recognize in ourselves. Had she, like Sandra, had such self-esteem issues? Or when Aaron, for example, used to say things like, This world fucking sucks and everyone in it is fucking stupid – did he mean he felt deep down like he fucking sucked and everything inside of him was stupid, and did he still feel that way? And why was Lilian so monosyllabic tonight, so absent, so self-contained? Do I do that, Dorcas thought, or rather: Did I?
Aaron had come in Sandra’s car and was pounding big cans of Sapporo and laughing loudly with Mitch about something Dorcas couldn’t quite make out, but this was OK. It was often like this. Aaron had long been given to making pronouncements both grim and snide about the current political situation or the fate of humanity or whatever and then laughing, gleeful and devious, much like he was laughing now. Back in freshman year of high school he and Sandra had been a couple, but the thing was tentative and short-lived, going no further than some impassioned phone conversations and (as Sandra had confided to Dorcas at the time) some hand stuff. As adults, the two had reconnected way beyond mere hand stuff and Aaron, the former spiky emo kid all doe eyes and dark circles, was now warmer, more voluble and generous in spirit, softer and rounder at the corners both physically and emotionally, which was (Dorcas had to imagine) in large part thanks to Sandra, but also thanks to all those cans of beer. The chef came and did his dance of knives and pepper shakers, an old-ish Filipino gentleman, nice guy, but Dorcas could not remember his name, and she knew what was coming when he constructed a volcano out of sliced onions and rice wine, but the eruption of flame startled her nevertheless, sending her zipping away in retreat on an updraft to continue her observations from a distance.
Mitch, meanwhile, seemed lost in his own observations of the teppan chef, sizing up the knifework. Like Dorcas’s ex-co-worker, Mitch was also a chef, and while he was normally careful about these things, he was wearing a ball of tape on his finger where he’d cut himself on one of Dorcas’s steak knives. She had watched from her vantage point in the exhaust hood of Mitch’s kitchen, had fluttered away to hide inside the paper towel tube as he ripped a sheet off and pressed it to the bleeding slit. She’d always liked Mitch, his shoulders and his tank tops. They’d fucked once. Just the one time, after a night at some bar not long before the accident, when Dorcas still had flesh and blood. An experience more gratifying than anything meted out by her lackluster handful of ex’s. Neither she nor Mitch had ever told anyone. There was like a tacit agreement. It was better that way. Even now, especially now. That night, Mitch had held his hand out to her and said, I ever tell you about the time Lilian read my palm? Told me my lifeline had a fork in it. See how it gets cut off by this other line that goes all the way across? That meant I was gonna have an accident. End up quadriplegic or some crazy shit like that. Yeah, that sounds like Lilian, Dorcas had said, or at least she remembered having said it, but she could not remember having a palm or what it looked like, or what the trajectory of her lifeline had predicted.
Lilian, for her part, had gone to college out of state, gotten super into performance art and, after thorough experimentation, had concluded she was asexual. Then she moved back to town and into a dilapidated fixer-upper that she was only halfway done fixing up, a house with good bones—durable hardwood floors still intact and exposed beams and other things that people like Lilian cared about—and out back there was a modest fishpond and a car with its roof beaten in and flames spray-painted on the hood and rusty silverware taped to the sides. Now she ran a business out of this home, making and selling ethically sourced hand-crafted brooms online, and it was this business she was constantly attending to on her phone, or so Dorcas assumed as the chef spun eggs on a spatula and tossed shrimp into Sandra and Aaron’s eager baby-chick mouths.
Then the show was over, and they split the check, and Dorcas wafted after them through the exit. They hugged and spoke, tearfully in Sandra’s case, but Dorcas could neither hear nor comprehend their exact words. (Again, it was OK. It was often like this.) Then everyone got into their cars and drove home.
Almost another year went by, three seasons. Autumn followed summer, and winter autumn. Dorcas sensed the motion of molecules slowing to near-stasis around her. She wanted to linger forever, studying her friends and their behavior, their low self-esteem and anxiety and aloofness and haughtiness, in the hope that it might reflect on her, give her some clue as to who she had been, or who she was, which was not something she had ever dedicated much conscious thought to, if any. But the novelty of the predicament was wearing off. Quite frankly, the individual goings-on of these four friends did little to occupy her attention.
Mitch and his hard-working, hard-drinking restaurant life.
Lilian, consecrated to her arts and crafts and no one else.
Sandra and Aaron, coming home from well-remunerated nine-to-fives to screw and squabble and screw some more.
She no longer recognized herself in any of them – their lifelines continued straight ahead but hers had been displaced onto this unheard-of trajectory, deep, deeper into forbidden territory. The angle of this trajectory with respect to theirs, this 0.5º, was so small. Negligible, really. Yet as time went on, they only got further and further away. She remained, then, at a distance, and perhaps she had been distant before, perhaps now was no different – she had no way of knowing. It was as if all distinction between life and death was gradually being erased, a sloppy smudge of erasure. She felt herself swim away in slow motion across the landscape. Clouds on a radar screen. A widespread alabaster swirl.
She coalesced, without meaning to, in Arizona, where her parents had gone to retire – her parents who, in the Jesus-freak phase that followed their acid-freak phase, had chosen for her this preposterous name: Dorcas, the Biblical widow who passed away and was brought back by Saint Somebody. Every so often now, her mom and dad paused while staring into a bowl of Caesar salad or a game of Solitaire on a computer screen, with hands over their nose and mouth as though they were praying and wanted no one to read their lips. Despite this, despite the monumental chasm that separated them, Dorcas heard every word. Poor Dory, they whispered. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Oh, what are you gonna do, Avery, what are you gonna do?
Dorcas forgot more things. She could remember a world, or parts of it, that had been full and lustrous in color once, but now the hue of everything was changing, one by one things were fading to monochrome, sky blue was extending its dominion over those below. She heard more whispers – poor Dory! – and followed them to their source.
The circles under Aaron’s eyes were darker, bluer.
A streak of Lilian’s bangs had gone bluish-gray.
Sandra had taken to dressing in blue athleisure, 24/7.
And Mitch was in the kitchen cutting off his own finger with a steel-blue steak knife.
From some secret recess amidst Dorcas’s ectoplasm, a phrase of Mitch’s suggested itself, a memory of him going on and on about that yakuza shit. Seriously, though, he used to say, that’s my shit right there. She’d heard him at a party once, explaining something he’d read or seen in a movie, something about how disgraced family members were made to cut their left pinky off at the first knuckle, then wrap the severed fingertip in elegant paper and offer it to their boss as a token of apology. Yubitsume, they called it. But wait, Dorcas wanted to scream, you’re not a yakuza and also, what are you apologizing for, and to whom? Did he feel guilty, perhaps, that hers was the lifeline that got cut off by accident, not his? Was she the witness here, or the cause? Was everything about her, or was nothing? Surely, Mitch owned sharper knives, knives more fit to the task, but instead he had chosen one of Dorcas’s knives, the blade of which had dulled some, and he had to saw away at himself, to put his weight into it, howling loud and open-throated, and still he could not follow all the way through to sever the flesh and tendons and bone. This time Dorcas did not hide inside the paper towels. In an instant she was inside him, sunken deep into his wound, and Mitch gave up cutting and brought the messy gash to his lips, sucking up blood, sucking up parts of Dorcas, sucking and sucking as he bled more and more, like he’d sucked on various parts of what had been her body that one night back when she had a body, but hold on, no, actually it was nothing like that, and when he spat into the sink, she stayed there, mingled with his spit and penitence, splotches of blood coagulating and drying against the blue-tinged background till it turned a rusty color that didn’t look like blood at all anymore.
The ether around her began to stir. In Mitch’s kitchen, in the streets. Some photochemical reaction to the otherworldly light refracting through her at that maddening, slightly askew angle like a pencil bending at the surface of water in a glass. There was no refuge now, no curtains, no breeze through the pine needles, no relief. Dorcas percolated in the blue air above an onion volcano set alight by a teppan chef, a recent hire she’d never met, an unfamiliar face that sweated and shimmered and wavered in the flame. She whipped around on a ceiling fan while Sandra and Aaron shouted beneath her, their voices choppy and distorted and robotic through the spinning blades.
The doctors said Mitch’s finger would heal, and it did.
Sandra became a new person, with a newer, sportier, more well-adjusted guy.
Lilian did a sage smudge in the guest room and pushed Aaron’s boxes into a corner.
And Aaron put on one of his neckties which he usually only wore for work and tied the other end of it around one of the beams in Lilian’s guestroom and got on a little stool and gave a little hop.
Meanwhile, out in the hall, Lilian called Aaron’s name and banged on the door, each bang resonating a soft A7 sus2 chord on the four open guitar strings, and Dorcas stared out from the eyes on the blue walls, Audrey Hepburn and Maggie Cheung and Sarah Bernhardt eyes, as Aaron’s blue face turned away from her then back again. The world fucking sucked and everything in it was fucking stupid. And she was in it, right? Still part of that stupid sucky world? She was, she decided, she had to be. She had to precipitate like condensation inside the lock and crystallize with the harsh metal architecture squeezing on all sides, had to push back with every molecule till the lock gave way and Lilian came stumbling into the room, whimpering Fuck, fuck, fuck. She positioned herself with Aaron’s legs on either side of her neck like a father with his infant child, maneuvered Aaron from her shoulders down to the hardwood floor, called the ambulance. And Dorcas seeped out of the other side of the keyhole and into the hallway, an auroral glow no one ever saw.
After that, things got murky. A great gray atmospheric blanket obscured the day and the night, obscured her parents, and Aaron in the hospital and rehab places, and Mitch in various shithole bars and Sandra at her new boyfriend’s place in the next town over. Only Lilian shone through, a blacklight beacon – she was good like that – and one day Dorcas focused in on her, sitting cross-legged in the guestroom of that creaky old house, stuffing dirt-cheap Top Menthol into a rolling paper. Sitting opposite, smoking, was Aaron. The whole project just felt bankrupt, he said. Lilian lit her cigarette. Bankrupt? she asked. Aaron got up and found an ashtray and brought it back and set it between them. Yeah, that’s dumb. I dunno. It seemed like it would be easier than dealing with everything. Not just the Sandra thing, that’s whatever. I mean, obviously it didn’t come at a great time. No, yeah, Lilian said, I mean, that’s not dumb. I don’t know, Aaron said, it was more, everything. It felt like maybe it would all stop mattering. Maybe none of the stupid, shameful shit I ever did would matter. The room filled with blue smoke. The guitar lay resting against the wall, strings tense, vibrating at frequencies only Dorcas could sense, and she wondered when or if it would all stop mattering, if she would stop, or if she had already stopped mattering, if in fact she ever had, in any real sense, mattered. Somewhere inside the boxes of Aaron’s stuff still stacked in one corner of the guestroom, there was a porcelain lion with its paw broken off. He began listing off names of people he’d wronged or disappointed, family and friends, all unfamiliar, even her own – to Dorcas, the names all sounded preposterous, like fictional characters, nonsense words, the names of demons. I know just the thing, Lilian said. She got up to fetch a slim paperback off a shelf: the famous Egyptian Book of the Dead, although the more literal translation of the title would be Book of Going Forth by Day, which Lilian was quick to point out she much preferred. So let’s pretend, she said, and paused to pick a shred of tobacco from her lower lip. Pretend for a second I came home five minutes later that day, and your immortal soul has landed feet-first in the Hall of Double Right and Truth and you’re on trial before this line of forty-four gods standing there with, like, cat and dog and bird heads, waiting for you to tell them what they want to hear. Aaron half-laughed and half-coughed, and a final puff of smoke escaped as he snuffed out his cigarette. Bah, what could it hurt, he said. Lilian smiled as she opened to a bookmarked page and began reading with her finger tracing down the page. Have you ever bidden any man to slay on your behalf? Have you filched what hath been offered in the temple, or purloined the cakes of the gods? Have you snared the waterfowl of the gods or caught fishes with bait of their own bodies? Have you turned back water at its springtide, or broken the channel of running water? Have you quenched the flame in its fullness? Have you disregarded the seasons for the offerings which are appointed, or thwarted the processions of the gods? The fuck is this, Never have I, ever? Aaron asked. No, no, I have not. In that case, Lilian continued, repeat after me: I am pure. I am pure. I am pure. I am pure with the purity of the great Bennu bird which is in Suten-henen; may no evil happen unto me in this land in the Hall of Double Right and Truth, because I know, even I, the names of the gods who live therein and who are the followers of the great god. Aaron listened, and repeated, and lighting another smoke, asked: Do you reckon Dory’s there? Oh, Aaron, Lilian sighed. It’s just pretend. But by this point Dorcas could not hear them, could not remember the specifics of her own Going Forth by Day. She could not remember dying. She could not remember anything. She was dead. The blue room was fading, her friends’ voices were running water, flames in their fullness, a rush and wash of white noise. She could not understand them, nor they her, but in that respect the distance between them closed.
NM Whitley is a writer, teacher, musician, and translator based in Barcelona. His work has appeared in venues such as Seize the Press, JAKE., The Café Irreal, and Body Fluids, among others. For more, go to linktr.ee/nmwhitley.