Helen Marshall is a Canadian author, editor, and bibliophile. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. Her debut collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012) won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and her second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, will be released from ChiZine Publication in late 2014. She currently lives in Oxford.
The first time he stepped through the threshold of the door into their tiny two-bedroom apartment, Marissa felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stiffen like cilia. It wasn’t the way he smiled at her, or even the way his right hand brushed lightly against her mummy’s back as he passed her, suitcase in hand, easy-breezy gait like he owned the place. Marissa had seen those before. Those were fine, normal even. It was the way she felt her body start to tingle, like the whole floor had become charged with static. His fingers seemed to give off tiny blue sparks when they touched her mum, and her mummy, in turn, shivered in pleasure.
Marissa’s body shivered too, until she told it to stop.
Marissa knew her mummy very well. She had to when they lived in such close proximity. But she had never seen her like this: eyes glassy, fingers twitching like she wanted to touch something—him, probably, just to rub herself all over him like a cat.
It was new, and it disgusted her.
“Marissa, darling, I want you to meet someone,” her mummy cooed.
Marissa did not move.
“You can just put that over—Marissa, this is Sampson, the one I told you about?—no, don’t worry, I’ll just hang it up.”
The stranger was taking off his jacket, and Marissa watched with a strange kind of fascination. It was a normal jacket, the kind men had been wearing to the office for years, but on him it was transformed. It whispered like silk, slid off his arms making beautiful noises until—there—it was off, and only a jacket once again. Underneath was a tan dress shirt with tiny buttons, dark as mahogany. She wanted to rub her fingers along them, to slip the little nubs through the thread-lined slits and—pop!—there it would go, one, two, three, all the buttons through, and that shirt slipping off after the jacket. She wanted to . . . she wanted to . . .
Marissa shrunk away through the doorway.
Her mummy was already turning away from her, distracted. Her mouth hung open in mid-sentence. Marissa couldn’t remember what she’d been saying. Then her mouth closed, and her mummy touched the stranger’s wrist.
“I’ll just let you fetch dinner yourself, shall I, sweetie pie?” her mummy murmured. “I’ve got to—we need to . . .”
She didn’t finish the sentence. Her mummy turned her head, and met the stranger’s eyes. She smiled and electricity seemed to wind around the two of them like a Tesla coil.
Marissa said nothing.
In a moment, the two of them had slipped up the stairs.
Marissa stood in the doorway, clutching the frame until her knuckles were white, and she could feel the shape of it imprinting itself in her flesh.
Upstairs, she could hear the sound of a door closing, and then, after a few minutes, the sounds she hated hearing most.
“Marissa, honey, pass us the salt, would you? There’s a good girl.”
They were sitting at the dinner table, the three of them, Marissa, her mummy and the stranger. It might have looked like a proper family, had someone stumbled in from the street. A sleek silver fox of a man, his beautiful wife and daughter. Except it wasn’t quite right. Marissa was sitting on one side, by herself, while her mummy and the stranger shared the other. The table felt lopsided, all the weight shifting over to them like an overbalanced teeter-totter. She nudged the salt carelessly, half expecting it to slide the rest of the way under the combined force of geometry and gravity. It didn’t. She nudged it again until it was close enough that the stranger, with his perfectly clean, half-moon fingernails—beautiful those, she thought—could snatch it from the table.
Marissa moved a potato around her plate.
“How was school?”
“Did you learn anything interesting?”
“Did you . . .” And there it was again, her mummy turned idiot as the stranger did something with his hand. He didn’t speak, no, just touched her, briefly, like he was picking a stray hair off her shoulder. Her body arched, and she let out a little moan.Her fork clattered to the table.
What was she doing?
Marissa stared at the stranger’s face with all the menace she could muster. You don’t belong here, she yelled at him in her mind. This is our house and our dinner table and our salt, and you don’t belong here! She thought if she yelled it loud enough in her mind, he must be able to hear. But he wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were watching the place he had touched, watching the expression on her mummy’s face. And then he smiled, ever so softly, the way a cat purrs.
Get out get out get out, she shouted in her head. But her lips were frozen, and all she could say was: “Can I please be excused from the table?”
Once upon a time, Marissa had a proper family. If she squeezed her eyes hard enough, she could still remember her dad. He wasn’t a handsome man, not really, and she felt a little bit guilty thinking that, but his face was a bit squashed, like a melon or something that had fallen out of the bin at the grocery store. It wasn’t a bad face. Mostly it was kind and it liked to smile.
Marissa remembered her dad taking her to a fair once in the centre of town, where they had a Ferris wheel and cotton candy, and she got to ride a donkey for an extra ten minutes because her dad had slipped the handler a note.
Her dad had been a nice man, she remembered. Most of the time.
He’d have moods sometimes—dark, brooding, bruised moods when his face was slightly more squashed than usual and he didn’t smile at all.
He would say things like: “Marissa, daddy loves you but you must go play in your room now.” And then: “Marissa, go play somewhere else, kid.” And finally: “Just get the fuck out!”
Marissa knew her dad loved her, and so she padded silently up the stairs to her bedroom to draw. When she was younger, she always kept a box of pencil crayons and paper in the little desk next to her bed so that she could draw nice pictures of her dad, where his face was perfectly round and not squashed at all. Sometimes she’d draw pictures of her mummy too, but they never quite looked right. And she never drew pictures of them together, because then her dad’s face seemed even stranger, even more squashed, and her mummy wouldn’t smile properly and then she, Marissa—the drawing of her—wouldn’t fit properly between them. She’d have to tear up the whole picture and start again.
Marissa went to stay with her dad for the weekend, and as she packed up her suitcase, the one with the cartoon cat on it, she felt the lightest touch of relief feathering down her spine. The house had been uneven, like it was set badly on stilts, since the stranger came home and her feet didn’t feel quite right as she walked through the hallway.
When her mummy dropped her off with a quick peck on the cheek, Marissa managed to smile and say, “I love you.” She wanted to say more, but she was twelve, and she didn’t really know what else to say. As the silver Mazda drove off, and she stood on the stoop, hand hovering over the doorbell, she turned and thought for a moment about calling her mummy back. She wanted to, badly. But instead, she pressed the doorbell and waited through the chime, and the shuffling noises and footsteps.
When her dad opened the door, Marissa felt a little pulse of happiness, the barest one, because he was smiling and his face looked mostly normal.
But then Marissa saw that someone was with him. She was gorgeous, all long legs that glittered darkly in black stockings beneath a sleek black pencil skirt that whispered as it moved.
“Marissa, sweetie pie,” he said, “I’d like you to meet someone. Sorry, your mummy didn’t call beforehand—she normally does—and I nearly forgot it was the weekend at all.” And then: “This is Delilah.”
Marissa glared at the stranger, and her perfect, pointed breasts beneath their creamy, silk blouse, and her lips that seemed to draw up like a bow. Her hair, her hair was the worst of it, because it was so long and gorgeous that it seemed like silk too. Marissa wanted to touch it, to stroke it, but her dad was already doing that even though she was right there!
Marissa wanted to scream at him. At them both. You’re my parents, she said in her head, and I don’t care if you don’t love each other anymore, just not . . .
But it was too late. Her dad closed the door, and Marissa had to squeeze past him with her tiny kitty suitcase, past both of them. There was an electric shudder as her elbow bumped against the stranger. Her arm felt numb, but the rest of her felt on fire.
In her room, Marissa began to draw, but all she could draw were long legs, and black suits, and hair and half-moon fingernails—all those bits of body parts that didn’t seem to fit together properly. She stared at the picture, adding in lines to connect the pieces.
It wasn’t beautiful at all, she thought. It looked like some kind of monster.
Across the hallway, even though the house was bigger, Marissa could hear noises, and she tried to imagine him smiling, his squashed face next to that perfect one, that one with a perfect nose, and perfect eyelashes, and a mouth drawn on it like a bow.
And then Marissa began to cry.
For breakfast, Marissa had a bowl of cereal. Her dad hadn’t come down yet. He liked to sleep in late on the weekends. But then she was there, the stranger, walking elegantly in her black stockings to the breadbox where she took out one piece of bread, and buttered it, and sat down at the table.
Finally, the stranger picked up the piece of bread and dropped it into the garbage bin.
That night when Marissa fell asleep, she had a terrible dream, and she woke up with her muscles shaking and weary, her whole body covered in sweat, the blankets wrapped around her legs like knots.
And there was the stranger, staring at her from the doorway. Her eyes were very bright, and she was staring at Marissa the way she had stared at that piece of bread, not knowing what to do with it, but hungry, oh yes, very hungry. Marissa shrank into the covers, and a moment later her dad was there too, peering in through the doorway.
“Is everything alright, jellybean?” he called. “We heard something from the other room.”
She nodded her head warily, and began to untangle the blankets and set the bed right.
“I think I want to go home,” Marissa said after a moment. “I’m sick. I want mummy.”
Her dad looked nervous then, but he nodded his head. “I’ll call her, tell her to pick you up.” He disappeared from the doorway, and Marissa closed her eyes in relief, tears already forming behind her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, though, the stranger was at the foot of the bed. She sat down, tentatively, and Marissa could see, still, that she was wearing black stockings and that cream-coloured, silk blouse.
The stranger didn’t say anything, but simply put out a hand. Marissa, unthinking, put out hers in return, and they touched, their two fingers, just the barest of touches. She has the same fingernails, Marissa thought, and she wasn’t surprised. She wanted those fingers to touch her a little more. She edged closer, dragging herself across the feather duvet.
“I want you,” she said. “I don’t feel sick at all.”
The stranger smiled, though her lips weren’t kind, but Marissa felt happy anyway, sitting on the bed, touching the stranger’s hand. She wondered if that’s how her dad felt, and her mummy. The stranger nodded slightly. She took away her hand. For a moment, Marissa was sad, until the stranger began to stroke her hair. Lightly at first, and then her longer fingers begin to wind their way through like the teeth of a comb. Marissa wished her hair were longer, that it ran all the way down her back, and that she could feel like this forever, those fingers running through her hair.
But then her dad came into the room, and the stranger took away her hand, even though he seemed to smile more, to approve of the filial affection. “I’m going to drive you over,” he said. “I’ll just get your things.”
Marissa looked longingly at the stranger, and she looked back too, and Marissa pretended she saw kindness there though she knew it might just been a trick of the light.
“Daddy,” she said in the car. “Do you still love mummy?”
Her mummy put her to bed again, cooed over here and poured her a glass of water first. But the house felt odd, and so Marissa knew that the stranger was still there. She drank her water, promised her mummy that she was feeling much better, and it would be all right to turn off the light.
But Marissa didn’t fall asleep. She didn’t want to. She just waited, staring out her window and connecting the lines the bare tree branches made into different shapes. Finally, she had waited long enough, and she tiptoed out of the room and into the hallway.
She had to move slowly. She knew all the places where the floorboards creaked and even with the carpet to pad her way, she wanted to be noiseless, like a ghost.
She opened the door to her mummy’s bedroom, just a crack, and there was one hump in the covers, just one body. And he was standing next to the window, smoking a cigarette, the white plumes drifting out into the night air. He turned when the door opened, and he looked at her. She looked at him back. And then she shut the door, very softly, and went downstairs to wait.
Marissa was unsurprised when the stranger appeared in the living room some time later. He sat down on the couch next to her, and she felt the cushions dip with his weight, the world tilting just a little bit so that gravity pulled her toward him. He didn’t move, when she touched his hand, not at first, just waited to see what she would do next.
“Do you love my mummy?” Marissa asked, though she didn’t quite know why. The stranger said nothing, but his tongue flicked over his lips like he was tasting the air. She wanted him to smile, but he didn’t.
“Would you love me?” She paused and then continued, “If we were a family?”
The buttons of his shirt were brass nubs, and Marissa fingers tugged at them gently. His shirt whispered as it slid away. His body, underneath, was cool to the touch.
Finally, he did move, and his arms circled around her, and they were hot like the coils of an electric stove, burning against her skin. She didn’t move, but she let herself feel the heat, felt something rising with her.
She thought about her dad then, yelling at her to get the fuck out of the room, and she let her head come to rest against the stranger’s shoulder. The heat was so intense she could feel herself growing woozy with it, lightheaded.
“I think maybe I could love you.”
When his fingers stroked her arm, lightly at first, she felt the hair begin to rise like cilia, stiffening, pucker marks forming on the surface of her skin. Marissa wanted to rub herself all over him, like a cat, like her mother had. She opened her mouth to speak, but there was a kind of mist rising out of her. She thought, maybe he hadn’t been smoking in the room after all. She hadn’t smelled smoke, in the bedroom, and he didn’t smell like smoke now.
No, strangely, he smelled of nothing at all, and his face was perfect, so perfect, and she traced a finger across the line of his jaw, making the picture right in her head.
Fine, she thought, as the white stuff curled out from her mouth, you can have it. You can have me.
He opened his mouth, bent closer, and Marissa felt ready for him to kiss her. This was it, wasn’t it? The burning was so hot inside. But he didn’t kiss her. His mouth hovered inches away, and he caught the stuff coming out of her, like steam, she was so hot, boiling up.
Marissa let him do it.
“I love you,” she whispered, as her breath puffed out in a thin white mist. “And maybe they do too. Mostly. But you need to go somewhere else now.” And then, as she felt her body shuddering, emptying of everything that was left inside, she scowled horribly: “Just get the fuck out.”
The next morning, Marissa sat at the table and spooned mouthfuls of Rice Krispies into her mouth. She waited, ears pricked. Nothing. Then she rinsed her bowl and placed it in the drying rack very carefully before tiptoeing up the stairs, down the hallway to her mother’s room. When she peered through the doorway, opening it ever so slightly, there was only one lump in the bed. The window was open.
Her mummy rose late, as she always did on Sundays. They didn’t go to church. Marissa scribbled away at her homework, tackled some tricky math problems, and waited for her mummy to come down.
Her mummy slept later than normal, but she finally did come down, wrapped in a terrycloth bathrobe and looking a little green around the gills. Marissa offered to get her breakfast, but she declined. Her fingers tapped against the kitchen table.
“I’ve got something to tell you, Marissa.”
Marissa sat down. It was just the two of them.
“Your father and I . . . we’ve been seeing each other again.”
“No, you haven’t,” Marissa said.
“You haven’t,” Marissa repeated. “That’s not right at all.”
“Oh, my darling girl,” her mummy cooed, and wrapped her in a warm towel embrace, “oh, jellybean. I hope you’re not upset.”
“I’m not upset.”
The hug felt more fragile now, but finally Marissa sighed, and relaxed into it, let herself be hugged, and even reached up to squeeze, once, her mummy’s hand.
“It’ll be just like before,” her mummy whispered. Marissa wanted to smile, but already she was trying to draw lines in her head, trying to make room for herself between them, herself and the new one, the one just beginning.
“I love you, mummy,” she whispered back, and tried a little bit harder to feel something.
Copyright © Helen Marshall 2013
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.