paradichlorobenzene

(jason kissed maddy for the first time before they did any clean up: he put his hands on her face and made it tilt up, then kissed her. he thought perhaps she would be surprised or upset, but instead she pressed herself closer to him and whispered that she did love him, and only him, and kissed him back. of all the things in his life, jason knew this would be the best and happiest of them all.)

The cat fights him as it dies, clawing his wrists and forearms into a network of scars. The bubbles move in clumps and nets in the pink-tinged water, but he can see its eyes anyway, glaring green and yellow like a bruise until the light in them goes out. It weighs more dead than it did alive; he wonders if it’s the water in its lungs. Maybe it swallowed some of his blood too. The thought bothers him so much that he finally lays it out and cuts its belly open, but at that point it’s impossible to tell what belongs to him and what belonged to the cat.

The smell is terrible, so he washes his hands–in a fresher part of the pond, not where the water is still cloudy muddy-pink–and bites his cheek when the water stings his cuts. The marks are bright pink on his skin and he pauses to trace them. Is there a pattern to them, he wonders; would another cat look at him and see, “here is a man who killed me, please beware”?

(there had been foaming: jason hadn’t expected that. the fact that it bubbled up like that had startled him, and for a moment he’d almost been afraid. that hadn’t gone like he’d expected at all. what else would go wrong?

but then maddy put her skinny arms around his waist and pressed her face into his shoulder, and she whispered to him, we’re free.)

He goes home with his hands still dripping. They dry as he walks. He goes inside and she is there, curled on the couch, staring at the TV, which is switched off. She doesn’t say anything as he sits on the other side of the couch and rests his elbows on his knees.

He asks, “Are you happy now?”

“You’re so stupid,” she says. She has a dull little voice, one that sounds like it has been worn down to a nub after years and years of quietly talking, but he knows she’s no older than him. She is him. They’re the same; they always have been. She doesn’t talk that much; she never has. “I’m thirsty.”

Since he is thirsty too, he gets to his feet and he goes to the kitchen. There is a melody in his head that feels like it’s tickling the back of his brain, but he can’t make it sound right when he tries to hum it. Instead he matches the beat of his footsteps to the drumming as he marches across the kitchen, as he gets glasses and pours juice–grape, it’s all they have, it’s all she’ll drink–and goes back to her. She lifts her head slowly to blink at him, then lifts her small hands out to take her drink. She doesn’t drink, though, just stares into it.

“Someone came by today,” she whispers to it. “They knocked and knocked and wouldn’t go away. I hid under the blankets and they still wouldn’t leave.”

He frowns. He was busy with the cat, he hadn’t thought about her. She was right, he was stupid. “They were gone when I came back.”

(it had been difficult to obtain what he needed: jason’s father did not like to lend out the car unless one thousand percent necessary. in the end, it was just because he offered to run errands for his mother that he even had the chance. he came back with the bags and with a bulge under his jacket that no one noticed except for maddy, who looked at him with glowing eyes and gave him a single private smile. he passed it off to her easily, just before dinner.

that night, she served drinks for everyone. it’s half tea, half lemonade, she said proudly, but his stomach was rolling with such excitement that he couldn’t make himself drink. he just watched.)

“But they’ll also come back,” she says wearily. She shrinks more into the blankets until she is a face and a pair of hands holding a glass of juice. “I think they were the same people as last week. Last month. Six months ago.”

“We’ll be fine,” he says. It is his promise to her, the same as before. It’s the same as it always is: if he says it so, then it must be truth. “Just don’t answer the door, and we’ll be fine.”

Her mouth twists a little. “I never do,” she says. “I don’t let them know someone is here, but they’re still looking. I’m really tired.”

He reaches over and takes the glass from her. She doesn’t fight him, even though she hasn’t had any of the juice. “We’ll be fine,” he repeats. “I’ll take care of it.”

She closes her eyes. She doesn’t say anything. He drinks his juice, then hers, and carries the glasses back to the kitchen, still marching: onetwothreefour-five-six, onetwothreefour-five-six. There is still a little sunlight coming in through the kitchen window, and he squints into it as he rinses the glasses out. He puts the glasses away and picks up the heavy dark-amber glass bottle sitting by the sink, weighing it in his hands. It is still about half full. She is very small, he thinks, from her thin little face and her child-sized hands.

He puts the bottle down and goes back to her. Her eyes are closed and do not open even when he sits down on the couch. He closes his eyes too.

(sometimes, maddy whispered to him, when it is dark and quiet and she has come to his bed or he has gone to hers, i hate them. i hate them all. i can’t think, i can’t breathe, i just hate.

i want them all to go away, jason answered. they’re never happy anyway. what’s the point?

there isn’t one, maddy said and he could taste the bitterness in her words like they had rested on his own tongue. never was. never will be. we’ll fight and struggle and die and it’ll never matter. no one will even notice. i hate that too.

i hate it all, said jason. i want them to go away. if they go away, then we’ll have our own world, and it will be as we make it.)

He opens his eyes. She is still asleep, her head tilted to one side. Some of her blanket cocoon has gaped open and he can see the long curled ends of her hair and the shadowy outline of her breast. It is completely dark in the house.

Someone knocks at the front door. She opens her eyes immediately, shrinking in on herself, becoming small and unhappy. He hates that look on her face, because it looks too much like his own. The knocking is strong and certain and breaks up the rhythm of the song that is still lurking at the back of his mind. They both sit very still as a man’s voice calls from the other side of the door, Hello, is anyone home, hello? The smell’s become so bad, please, I know you’re in there, we’ve heard you moving around.

Go away, he thinks, go away, and eventually the knocking does. His wrists hurt like they’re on fire. He wonders if maybe they’ll just drop off, like he’s read about injured limbs doing. He looks at her; she looks at him.

“I wish they’d all go away forever,” he says.

“Stupid,” she says, then, “Me too.”

He reaches out his hand, looking at the scratches criss-crossing the back of his hand. She reaches back for him, and she laces their fingers together, hers small and white and cool against his hot red ones. She kisses his knuckles like they’re still kids and that will magically make the pain go away. He does feel a little better. She pulls and he comes. Her breath tastes sour, he can still taste grape juice in his own throat. He closes his eyes.

In the morning, there is more knocking. This time the voices are loud and angry, this time they say they are the police, open up or else. He remains where he is, lying on top of her, accepted into her nest of blankets. She looks up at him with large eyes, and he thinks she never been so much his mirror, or so beautiful. He puts his head down on her breast and closes his eyes as she puts her arms around him.

(the little boy was named jason because that was the name of a hero his mother admired. he is an older brother by exactly twenty-seven and one-half minutes. the one-half is very important. his sister is madeline called maddy and she was the only person who was real to him. everyone else was just too strange: his sister was his mirror and himself, but it was like he could not make himself heard or understood. things that made perfect sense to him and to maddy seemed to confuse everyone else.

for example: one day he took the bowl full of his sister’s goldfish and dumped them out on the kitchen floor, then crouched to watch them gasp themselves still. it was interesting, he told his mother, when she asked him why. she slapped him for it, and then she had a screaming fight with his father, and the boy named jason stared at his feet and thought about how they were both very loud. that night, maddy crawled into his bed and kissed his cheek and she said, i thought it was pretty.)

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