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White Plaster Sky
The skittles squirm down my throat, dissolving onto my tongue in a sharp burst of artificial flavor before they vanish into the depths of my digestive system. I can imagine the bacteria writhing on the edges of my yellowing teeth, clamping onto the sugar and leaving waste behind, waste that will culminate in my mouth.
I stumble over to the bathroom, feeling my way through the door and touching the cold tile floor through the holes in my socks. I squint at my reflection in the mirror-- my hair falls greasy and clamped over my shoulders, my cheekbones are empty, my mouth quivers when I breathe, my heart threatens to shatter-- and then squeeze my eyes shut, trying to rid my mind of my reflection.
I don’t believe in supernatural ghosts. I believe in maggots laying eggs inside you even before you die, white and sticking to your skin. I believe in decomposition over time, of blue bodies laid into the unforgiving November soil, of skin withering to dust. I believe in excess fluid from the lungs leaking out of the mouth, of five stages, of green gas emitted from tissues, of bodies dropping two degrees every hour to meet the temperature of its surroundings, of gravity clumping blood together.
But despite my scientific searches at two AM whenever I can’t sleep, every time I catch a reflection of myself or stare at my hands for too long, I start seeing someone else in the too-sharp curve of my face or the hunger in the bags beneath my eyes.
I let the water run over my toothbrush and my hands until I remember toothpaste. I grip the container until it wrinkles, letting the unnatural green-blue substance plummet in plops towards the sink. Mint hits my teeth, causing the cavity in the back to shriek, but I ignore it. The bristles get caught in the spaces between, scratching against my gums. I spit it out, apply more toothpaste, and tear the brush against my mouth until I start spitting out blood.
The skittles are crawling back towards my tongue now; I throw up in the sink, letting the rainbow slush join the loose strands of hair and spit.
I try washing it out with water, but it clings to the edges and I give up.
The world flashes before me-- red, pink, blue, yellow, green, green eyes of a girl as she’s lifted out of the lake, seaweed wrapped around her dress like clammy hands, tongue spilling out and flopping lifelessly against her chin. And suddenly I hear my father screaming, tearing at my skin, asking me, why, why, why did you let her swim, she was your responsibility, why, why, why.
I lumber back over to my bed, running my fingertips against the wallpaper and counting my footsteps. The rumpled blanket smells like sleep and old things, but I pull it over my head anyway, covering my eyes and my ears and my mind with a blank white, almost like a layer of snow. The skittles are still on my bedside table, melting into each other, so I unstick a purple one from the pack and slide it between my cracked lips.
This one will be the last.
But there is nothing to do in this house that is too sad and too empty, so I keep eating. I toss the wrapper into the tiny garbage can by my door when I am done, and peer hopelessly into the misshapen bag from Halloween. All gone.
Naty’s bag is downstairs.
The thought flits away as soon as it arrives, but I can still feel its lingering, dark presence poisoning me. I stuff two crinkled bills into my sweatshirt pocket, and call into my mother’s room that I’m going for a walk.
“Really?” She says back. “That’s... great, Anita. Be careful, okay? I’m happy that you’re going out, doll. I really am. Just be careful.”
“Okay.” I close my fingers around the gold-glazed front door knob, guilt rushing through me. I ignore it, though. I could hear the relief in Mom’s voice when she spoke, that I wasn’t vanishing into the walls of my room and pretending not to live. Which is ridiculous, because I know that death is a thing that happens. 6,316 people die every hour. And on November first-- sometime between five and six in the afternoon, according to the police-- my sister drowned and that was it, she became one of those people. Because that is how life works. It goes on and on until it ends.
And I am still going on, so I might as well act like it.
I head up the block, not quite knowing where I am going. The soles of my feet drag against the pavement. Every house here looks the same. Little roofs stabbing the clouds. Three steps leading up to a door with a small diamond window and two metal numbers. Green trash cans lining the sidewalk. Curtains in the window, shielding passerby from the couches and televisions and pianos.
If you were to walk up Hanberry Lane, you would see all those identical houses and all the identical people. But when I do, I see number 53, curled in between 51 and 55 like a cat, the paint chipped on the right side where Naty carved her initials. I see the rust peeling off the fence where Naty and I used to swing back and forth on the gate, imagining that we could fly away. I see the emptiness beyond the curtains, where my father sits on the floor and stares up at the plaster sky.
There’s a Rite Aid just a few blocks away, so I keep wandering towards Main Street. It’s funny, how a place becomes so familiar to you. How you know which way to turn, who lives there, which tree loses its leaves first.
The mechanical doors beep and glide open to meet me. I step into the fourescent lights, into the tight air that smells of factories. The aisles blend into different shapes and colors and numbers, and I feel lost here. But that makes no sense because I have been here a thousand times before, Naty used to beg me to buy her mac and cheese--
Time stops; it’s impossible, I know, but I feel it stop, I feel it freeze in my palms. I can smell lake in the air, pungent and stinging, and I can hear the thump of Naty’s head against the diving board, her plunge towards the blue endlessness, my clothes sticking to my skin as I dived in after her, my hands wandering through nothingness as I searched for a glimpse of her.
Naty, where are you?
I can feel the skittles in my mouth again, burning, and I swallow them down. The candy aisle is just around the corner, I remember now.
The skittles are a dollar and sixty nine cents. I shuffle over to the cash register, trying to count prime numbers in my head.
2… 3… 5… 7…
“Do you have a Rite Aid card?” The lady asks. Her eyes are brown and looming, threatening to swallow her pupils whole. She adjusts her blue vest as she speaks, because it keeps slipping off her collar bone. 11… 13…
She nods, dropping some nickels and pennies into my sweaty hands. The pack of skittles falls into a plastic bag, crinkling as it lands. 17… 19… 23…
I’ve already opened the skittles before I step outside, shoving them into my mouth as if they might save me.
29… 31… 37… 41...
They’re sickly with sweetness, but I keep eating, I keep eating because it’s better than thinking. I try to list the other prime numbers, but for some reason I can’t remember the next one.
“Naty!” I screamed, gasping for air at the surface of the lake. One of my feet slammed against the dock, causing my toes to crack. I clawed through the water, searching for a girl that wasn’t there, and part of me kept hoping for this to be a dream, for this all to be some strange nightmare, but this terror was too real. This lake too cold. I screamed again, desperately hoping that Naty might appear, unharmed and laughing. “Naty!”
I tumbled under the water again, my arms flailing, my lungs crying, my eyes aflame. It was too dark underneath the water to see anything but my hands, which glowed pale yellow like sunshine. Bubbles floated around me, and I could almost imagine this moment being captured in a painting--
I’m back at my house, my memories blurring at the edges and threatening to implode.
53, the number was 53.
The skittles are all over my mouth now, and I tear one of the lids off the green garbage pails and throw up. Every bone in my body aches with sorrow and regurgitated skittles and insomnia.
The door is open, and when I walk inside my father is still there in the living room, humming to himself. He has been crying.
Mom is standing in the hallway, feet tapping on the floor as if she is unsure of what to do. “How was your walk?”
“Good,” I say, because that is what you are supposed to say when both of your parents are trying not to fall apart. That is what you are supposed to say when you are the reason why your sister is crawling with maggots. That is what you are supposed to say when you have only eaten skittles for the past three days and you haven’t taken a shower and you want to die. That is what you are supposed to say.
I lay down on the couch, breathing in and out, in and out, ashamed of my own heartbeat, seeing a dead girl with green eyes and mud on her skin in the cracks of the white plaster sky.