Issue 231, Winter 2019
There isn’t much in the house,” Mary said. “I’m sorry.”
Kayla looked around, shrugged. “I’m not even that hungry.”
Mary set the table, bright Fiestaware on place mats alongside fringed cloth napkins. They ate microwave pizzas.
“Gotta have something a little fresh,” Mary’s boyfriend, Dennis, said cheerily, heaping spinach leaves from a plastic bin onto his pizza. He seemed pleased by his ingenuity. Kayla ate the spinach, took a few bites of crust. Mary poured her more water.
When Kayla asked for a beer, she saw Mary and Dennis glance at each other.
“Sure, sweetie,” Mary said. “Dennis, do we have any beer? Maybe check the garage refrigerator?”
Kayla drank two over dinner, then a third out on the porch, her legs tucked up into the oversize hoodie she had taken from Mary’s son’s room. The wildness of the backyard made everything beyond it look fake: the city skyline, the stars. Reception was awful this high in the canyon. She could try to walk closer to the road again, out by the neighbor’s fence, but Mary would notice and say something. Kayla could feel Dennis and Mary watching her from inside the kitchen, tracking the glow of her screen. What would they do, take her phone away? She searched Rafe’s name, searched her own. The numbers had grown. Such nightmarish math, the frenzied tripling of results, and how strange to see her name like this, stuffing page after page, appearing in the midst of even foreign languages, hovering above photos of Rafe’s familiar face.
Before Tuesday there had been hardly any record of Kayla: an old fund-raising page from Students for a Free Tibet; a blog run by a second cousin with photos from a long-ago family reunion, teenage Kayla, mouth full of braces, holding a paper plate bent with barbecue. Her mother had called the cousin and asked her to take the photo down, but by then it had passed into the amber of the internet.
Were there any new ones? She looked through the image results again, in case. They had dug up photos of Kayla lagging behind Rafe and Jessica, holding Henry’s hand. Rafe in his button-down and jeans, surrounded by women and children. Kayla had no photos of her and Rafe together. That was strange, wasn’t it? She came across a new photo—she looked only okay. A certain pair of jeans she loved was not, she saw, as flattering as she’d imagined it to be. She saved the photo to her phone so she could zoom in on it later.
Kayla made herself close the search results, then let her text messages refresh. A split-second reprieve where she could believe that perhaps the forces in the universe were aligning and aiming something from Rafe in her direction. She knew before they finished loading that there would be nothing.
“You need anything, sweetie?”
Mary stood in the porch doorway, just a black shadow.
“I’d turn the light on for you,” Mary said, “but there’s no bulb out here, actually.”
Mary had been her mother’s college roommate, now a drug and alcohol counselor. Kayla’s mother had wanted her to fly home—I’ll buy the ticket, she said, please—but then the photographers had descended on her ranch house in Colorado Springs. Waiting for Kayla. So her mother called Mary, the witness at her small courthouse wedding, though the wedding had been followed quickly by divorce. It was easy to imagine what Mary thought of Kayla. A waste, she probably believed, Kayla just twenty-four years old and now this. Probably, Mary thought, this was just the result of an absent father, an overworked mother.
But how could Kayla explain? This felt correct, the correct scale of things. Kayla had always expected something like this to happen to her.
“I’m fine.” Kayla made her voice excessively polite.
“We’re about to start watching this documentary,” Mary said. “About a girl who was the first female falconer in Mongolia.” She paused. When Kayla didn’t respond, she kept on. “It’s supposed to be very good.”
Mary, with her loose linen shirts, her silver oxfords, was the kind of older woman that younger girls were always saying they wanted to be like. Mary, with her great house up in the canyons, all the seventies wood left untouched. She probably let her teenage son call her by her first name. Kayla understood that Mary was a nice person without really believing it; Mary irritated her.
“Actually,” Kayla said, “I’m pretty tired. I’m just gonna go to bed.”
Did Mary want to say something else? Almost certainly.
“Thanks again for letting me stay,” Kayla said. “I’m gonna try to sleep.”
“Of course,” Mary said, and hesitated, probably gathering herself to dispense some sober wisdom, some ex-junkie psalm. Before she could speak, Kayla smiled at her, a professional smile. Mary seemed taken aback, and Kayla took the opportunity to pick up her beer, her phone, to walk past Mary and make her way to the bedroom. Mary’s son had wrapped his door in caution tape, pinned up a danger: keep out sign, a sticker of a nuclear symbol. Yeah, yeah, we get it, Kayla thought, you’re a toxic little shit.
Mary’s son was with his dad for the school break, and Mary had obviously tried to make the room nice: she left Kayla a stack of fresh towels, a little wrapped hotel soap, The Best American Essays 1993 on the nightstand. Still, it smelled like a teenager, fumes of Old Spice and cheap jerk-off lotion, unwashed sports equipment lingering in the closet. Kayla lay on the neatly made bed. The surfing posters on every wall showed men, pink-nippled and tan, on boards in the middle of huge, almost translucent waves. The posters were like porn about the color blue.
Still nothing from Rafe. What to do but continue to exist? A sense of unreality thrummed under each second, a panic not altogether unpleasant. She found herself testing out the wording, imagining how she would characterize the feeling to Rafe if he called. She felt proud of the phrase It’s like I’ve been plucked out of my own life. She said it silently to herself and her heart pounded faster. Dramatic. As long as she was sleeping, she felt fine, as long as there was the option to blot things out—she still had a few of Rafe’s sleeping pills, prescribed to him under a different name. She pulled a ziplock from her backpack, and shook out a Sonata, nibbling off a bitter shard. Best to parcel them out, save some for later. She pressed a wet finger to the bag to pick up any residue, then gave up, swallowing the second half of the pill with the last sip of her beer.
There was nothing interesting to look at in Mary’s son’s drawers: boxers folded tightly, T-shirts from various summer camps, their specialties increasingly psychotic—rock star camp, fashion design camp. A cigar box of coins and a pair of cuff links made from typewriter keys, a yearbook in which only girls had written. She flipped through it: the kid appeared to go to the kind of school where everyone learned to knit in lieu of taking prescription amphetamines. A well-meaning missive from a teacher took up a whole page in the back. Maybe the boy had never even read it. Kayla did, though, sitting on the edge of the twin bed—it was moving, strangely, though maybe that was just the Sonata kicking in, the way her thoughts took on a slurred quality, the shutter speed starting to slow. “Max: I’m so proud of you and all you have accomplished this year. Can’t wait to see what you’ll do in this world! You are a very special person—never forget it!”
She could hear, from the living room, the sounds of the documentary, the swell of Mongolian music gaining in urgency. She would bet anything that Mary was tearing up right now, overcome by the sight of a soaring falcon or a close-up of an old man’s hands, wind whipping across a Mongolian plain. Kayla had known a girl in college who’d been adopted from Mongolia. Her name was Dee Dee and all Kayla remembered was that she had a tendency to shower with the curtain open, that she picked at her face at the sink, leaving behind tiny shrapnel of pus on the mirror. Where was Dee Dee now?
Kayla was getting tired. She knew she should get up and turn off the light, take her contacts out, take off her bra. She didn’t move.
Did Dee Dee remember her? Had she heard the news?
You are a very special person, Kayla thought to herself. A very. Special. Person.
Dennis had been the one to pick her up. Kayla didn’t have her own car, had used one of Rafe and Jessica’s. It had been one of the appealing things about the job, the car, though now it seemed very stupid, another way her life was tethered to those people. Kayla watched Dennis approach in the Volvo—he would have had to inch through the photographers at the main entrance. He stopped at the gate and waited to be buzzed in. He was wearing a visor whose brim was gnawed with age, a fleece vest embroidered with the logo of a vitamin company. He looked like a sad and tired animal, pulling through the security gates, and Kayla felt, briefly, that she had done something terrible. To summon someone like Dennis to a place like this. For reasons like this. But it wasn’t really true, was it, that she was terrible? Life is long, she told herself, opening the car door. People always said things like that, Life is long.
“Is this all your stuff?” Dennis said.
Just two suitcases, her backpack. She had taken all of it, even the earrings Jessica had given her, the dress with the tags still on. The contents of the endless gift bags, perfume and makeup, so many lotions, a microcurrent wand, items Kayla would search out online, finding the exact retail prices, adding up the numbers until she got a little drunk. Kayla didn’t feel guilty, not yet. Would she ever? The security cameras were recording her getting into Dennis’s car. Would Jessica watch this footage? Would Rafe? She tried to keep a mild smile on her face, in case.
The first time she met Jessica was at the interview, after the agency had already approved her. Jessica came in late, sitting down at the table. She was distracted: her necklace had caught on her sweater.
“Can you just—” Jessica gestured, and Kayla took over, gentling the latch, trying not to tug so the sweater wouldn’t stretch. She was bent close to Jessica’s face: her skin lightly tanned, her hair almost the same color, all her features so tiny and symmetrical that Kayla could hardly look away, absorbed in the seamlessness of Jessica’s beauty. Kayla felt a curious elation, a giddy feeling—how much time she had wasted trying to be beautiful, when it was obvious, now, how impossible that was. The knowledge was almost a relief.
“There.” Kayla dropped the necklace back in place, smoothing the sweater. It was cashmere, the color of root beer.
Jessica touched the chain absently, smiled at her. “You’re sweet.”
The latest news was that Rafe’s text messages were connected to the kid’s iPad, that’s how Jessica had found out, and it was amazing to imagine where this information came from, how these facts made their way to light. Because that part was true, anyway, she had gotten careless about texting Rafe, toward the end, and even if he rarely texted her back, Jessica would have seen right away what was happening.
Henry’s favorite game on the iPad had been set in some virtual diner where you made hot dogs and hamburgers, a clock ticking down to zero. Kayla tried playing it once and sweated through her shirt, it made her so agitated. The burgers kept burning, the soda machine kept breaking. Customers fumed and departed.
Henry took the iPad from her with exaggerated patience.
“It’s easy,” he said. “Just don’t pick up the coins right away. Then you have more time.”
“But,” she asked, “isn’t the point to get a lot of money?”
“Then it goes too fast,” Henry said. He seemed to feel sorry for her. “It’s tricking you.”
For Henry’s eighth birthday, Kayla got him a machine that carbonated water and a book she had loved as a child. She read it aloud while Henry stared at the ceiling. He seemed to like the book, though the ending surprised her; she had not remembered that the old man died so violently, that the orphan grew up and was not very happy. In the afternoons, when the housekeeper was gone and Henry was at school, the air seemed to go slack. In the empty house, sometimes she felt as though she were a ghost floating through the world of the living. It was strange to walk through the rooms, open the closets, touch the hanging dresses, Rafe’s pants, sweaters folded with tissue paper.
The thing was, she was a smart girl. She’d studied art history. Her first class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen, most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing.
How mysterious it seemed sometimes—that she had once been interested or capable enough to finish papers. Giotto and his reimaginings of De Voragine’s text in his frescoes. Rodin’s challenge to classical notions of fixed iconographic goals, Michelangelo’s bodies as vessels for God’s will. It was as if she’d once been fluent in another language, now forgotten.
Before he ate lunch, Henry got fish oil gummies in the shape of stars. Kayla liked them, too—one for him, two for her. They were covered in sugar but you were supposed to ignore that, focus instead on the fishy fat plumping your brain and making it pinker and brighter. A nice thought. For lunch, Kayla made grilled cheese sandwiches on brown bread and cut apple slices. They ate outside, off paper towels. After eating, they lay in the sun in silence, Henry still in his swim trunks, Kayla in her carefully sexless one-piece.
Rafe had once pulled the crotch of that one-piece to the side to stick a blunt finger inside her. Was that the second or the third time? Kayla imagined being the kind of person who recorded details like that in a journal. She had lots of them: Rafe liked to nap with one arm flung over his head. Rafe had scars on his back from teenage acne but told her they were from a rock climbing accident. Strange how these were facts that would mean something to other people, too, strangers who didn’t even know him. If you searched him, everything was there—his allergies, his approximate height, photos of him as a young man. She pretended to have never seen any of it. That was between them always, the pretended unknowing.
It must have been the third time, the time with the swimsuit. The sheets in the pool house bed smelled like sunscreen. Rafe had his hand on her under the sheet, his eyes closed. Kayla looked at his bland, handsome face—it was always strange to touch it, like touching the memory of someone.
“How’d you start acting?” she asked. Her voice was druggy and low, neither of them fully awake.
“I was actually pretty young,” Rafe said. There had been a visiting actor from Arts in Schools who came to perform for his class, he told her.
“You have to remember,” he said, “this was Iowa, in January.” It was before she had read all the articles—and Rafe told the story so haltingly, she’d assumed it was some kind of secret, something precious mined up from his psychic depths.
Apparently the visiting actor had opened all the windows of the classroom, maybe to call forth some appropriate level of drama, the freezing air gusting around while he paced in front of the desks, reciting Hamlet.
“It blew my mind,” Rafe said. “Truly.”
“Cute,” she said, imagining Rafe as a child, moved by adult things.
He’d had a piece of food in his teeth at dinner once—the sight had given her an almost erotic discomfort until Jessica finally reached over and flicked it away. This was what she couldn’t explain; Kayla hated him and loved him at the same time, and part of it was maybe that he was stupid.
Later she read the story about Hamlet almost word for word in many different interviews.
Rafe was away for almost a month, filming eight time zones away, but as soon as Henry was on winter break, he and Jessica flew to meet him, Kayla coming, too, her pay doubled. She had her own hotel room close to the set. Outside the window, beyond the hotel’s white walls, gasoline trucks made the rounds of the dirt streets.
After they’d arrived, Rafe had barely looked at her. But, she told herself, it made sense. Jessica was always around, or some PA with a walkie-talkie appearing to “invite” Rafe to set. People only ever “invited” Rafe to do the things he was supposed to do. At a dinner for the cast, he’d pinched her nipples, hard, in the back hallway of the restaurant, his breath fumy with the local beer, flavored with kola nuts and wormwood. She laughed at the time, though waiters seemed to have noticed, along with at least one of the producers, judging by his smirk. They were actually alone only once. Jessica had sent Kayla up to their room to grab sunscreen for Henry. She opened their door, using Jessica’s key card, and there was Rafe, watching a boxing match on television, the curtains drawn.
“Hi, you,” she’d said, going to kiss him, and he fumbled, kissing her back with tight lips. Was he blushing? It was strange. Still, they had sex, quickly, her dress pushed up, the bedcovers only slightly disturbed. She went to the bathroom to wipe herself, careful to flush the toilet paper. She was still being careful then. There was the sunscreen on the counter. When she returned to the bedroom, sunscreen in hand, Rafe was absorbed by the television, his face blank, the bedcovers smooth, as if nothing had happened at all.
It was Kayla’s day off; Jessica had taken Henry to one of the mountain towns for the afternoon. Kayla napped in her cool room under the mosquito netting that made everything look shrouded in smoke. The first few days, she felt fine, but Kayla had a delayed reaction to the required vaccines, the whites of her eyes going milky, dreams leaking into her waking life. She drank bottled water all day but still her urine was an unnatural brown color, sludgy and smelling like sulfur.
She woke groggy and hot from the nap, her sunburn pulsing. The on-set doctor had said to keep drinking water, to watch for cloudy thinking. Was this cloudy thinking, the glowy specter of Bugs Bunny in the hotel room?
You’re a beautiful girl, he said.
Bugs said these things without his mouth moving. They were thoughts beamed from his brain directly to Kayla’s, a shimmy in the air between them. Sometimes he did a sort of side-to-side shuffle, a slow-motion soft-shoe. Everything he did was slow. Bugs Bunny. She smiled from the bed. Bugs didn’t have anywhere else to be. He didn’t actually say this in so many words, but she understood it, the sentiment was there in his big, swimmy eyes—he would stay in this hotel room all day. If that was what she wanted.
I should go visit Rafe, don’t you think?
She said this, or thought this.
I don’t know. Bugs blinked. Is that what you want?
He was so smart.
I should go. She tried to eke out another thought from her inflamed brain. I’m gonna go. I gotta see Rafe.
Bugs bowed a little—a syrupy, slow bow. If that’s what you need to do.
Kayla changed into a dress and had a vodka and pineapple juice at the hotel bar. They were shooting by the cliffs that day, close enough that Kayla walked the ten minutes through the dunes, full of sand gnats and horseshit. Kayla sweated through her dress by the time she got to the set. Everyone was just standing around. Rafe nodded at her but didn’t come over to say hi. He looked grim. They’d made his eyebrows too dark and they read clownish. Maybe they would look fine onscreen. She could tell he was irritable, hungry, antsy, wanting a shower, wanting a drink. She sensed it before Rafe sneezed, before he scratched his nose. Would he ever know this feeling? This level of precise, almost psychotic attunement to another person? No, of course not.
“Why are they stopped?” she asked one of the lighting guys.
He barely acknowledged her. “They found something in the gate.”
“Oh. The gate?”
The guy squinted into the middle distance, shrugged. Was she imagining his curtness? No. The crew didn’t like talking to her anymore. That should have been the first sign. People had an animal instinct for power, could sense that her usefulness was at its end.
Kayla settled into one of the chairs under a temporary awning outside a trailer. The sun washed out everything so it looked sketchy, unfinished. Her sunburn made her skin feel tight. She scratched her right ankle, lightly. If she were just sunburned, it would be fine, but it was sores, too, these raised red bites. She rubbed her ankle against her other ankle. Gently, gently. Nothing seemed to be happening, but everyone was tense. A script supervisor was doing a crossword on his phone. She watched the makeup girl run in and press a tissue to Rafe’s forehead. He submitted himself to her with great patience. He was, after all, a good actor. Kayla plucked her dress away from her armpits, but it was futile—the fabric would stain, of course it would.
The actual filming was too far from the trailer for Kayla to hear anything. She watched Rafe say something, watched him tilt his face up at the sky. They ran the scene again. What scene was this? She was waiting for them to shoot the opening sequence. The director had told her, at that dinner when everyone was still being nice to her, when it was obvious she was sleeping with Rafe, to watch out for that.
“Some directors film it right away,” he said, “right off the bat. But the actors don’t jell yet, you see. If you wait too long everyone just hates each other, they’re rushing through it. Like senior year. You time it so they’re settled into their characters and still showing up.”
This was only the director’s second movie. The studio had given him so much money. He looked like he was twenty years old. He kept joking about how he didn’t know how to do anything.
The shoot had stopped again. Rafe was walking toward her. She straightened and got to her feet.
He was sweating, his face red.
“You’re sitting in my eye line,” Rafe said. “I can’t do the scene if I look up and keep seeing you there.”
“I’m not in your eye line,” she said. She could feel the makeup girl glancing at them.
“You don’t think you are, but it’s my eye line, that’s the point,” Rafe said. “It’s what I see. Not what you see. What I see. And I’m seeing you.”
He widened his eyes, about to say something, then seemed to soften.
“Why don’t you go swim in the pool at the hotel? Get some lunch?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was faint. “That’s a good idea.”
She knew Rafe didn’t want her to make a scene. And she wouldn’t. She smiled out to the nothingness, the empty horizon. The land was scrubby and not beautiful, not at all how she had imagined. In truth, it had been her first time outside the country.
Kayla hadn’t left Mary’s in three days. The one time she’d gone to the store, someone had taken photos of her filling up Mary’s car with gas on the way back. Kayla was wearing aviators and looked unhappy in the pictures, her lips thin, her hair brassy and overwashed. She wasn’t as pretty as Jessica. That was the obvious thing people were saying and it wasn’t as if Kayla didn’t also know that it was true, though she didn’t know why it made people so angry at her, so personally offended. Kayla had been offered a TV interview. Compensation to drink a brand of vitamin water the next time she went out in public. An interview in Playboy, too, though apparently they were no longer shooting nudes.
Mary knocked lightly on the doorframe.
Kayla sat up. “I’m fine,” she said. She put her phone on the bed, screen down.
“Dennis and I are going to a friend’s for dinner tonight,” Mary said. “You should come.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Kayla said. “Really. I can hang here.”
“You shouldn’t be alone,” Mary said. “I feel bad. Like you’re trapped.”
Mary wrinkled her brow, her mouth in a sad little frown. “You’ll feel better,” she said. “They’re sweet people. She writes cookbooks, he teaches at Occidental. It’ll be a good group.”
Her saying yes made Mary happy, and Dennis was beaming, too, when they piled into the car, even these minor plans animating him. He was scrubbed to a pink gleam, the short sleeves of his golf shirt hanging past his elbows. Mary drove down the narrow canyon roads, Dennis in the passenger seat, one arm around Mary. Had he been married before, did he have kids? Kayla didn’t know. He seemed to exist only in Mary’s orbit, the boyfriend harvesting lemons from the backyard to bring to the party. They kept glancing at Kayla in the rearview. She sat in the back seat next to the shopping bag full of lemons, a bottle of red wine. Kayla wore the dress Jessica had given her and Mary’s son’s sweatshirt, her hair in an unflattering ponytail. The dress was a nice fabric, a sort of linen and silk blend, the color of asphalt—she fingered the fabric, idly, where it draped across her knees. Jessica had been kind to her.
No one at the party paid her much attention. Everyone was older, busy with their own lives, with their kids who darted in and out, one wielding a plastic ukulele, another singing a counting song in French. It was the first time Kayla had thought of it—of course there were people in the world who did not know or care about Rafe and Jessica. The food was out on a table, guests hovering with their plates. She ate some lentil salad, had a watery margarita from a pitcher, a glass of white wine.
In the hallway, she passed someone dumping the dregs of their drink into a potted plant. She didn’t know these people.
Outside was nicer. The pool was still and gave off a floodlit shimmer. No one was around. The hills were a dark mass, occasionally marked with houses. Kayla could smell the earth cooling, the clumpy chaparral that rimmed the pool, the sound of a fountain she couldn’t see. She crouched down to dip her hand: the water was the same temperature as the air. Kayla sat cross-legged, her glass cradled in her lap.
She opened her texts. The final ones from Jessica were from two weeks ago, all logistical. She looked at her saved photos, paparazzi shots of Rafe, his arms crossed. She had not seen it before, how annoyed he looked, beleaguered, surrounded by Jessica and Kayla, Henry, people who needed things from him. Poor Henry. His little shoulders, his immaculate hair. His open, wanting face.
She finished the last of her wine.
Someone opened the door. It was the daughter of the hosts. Sophie, or Sophia.
“Hey,” Kayla said. Sophie crouched but didn’t sit. Kayla could smell her tangy child breath.
“Are you cold?” Sophie asked.
“Nah,” Kayla said. “Not yet.”
They were quiet for a long moment. The silence was fine. Sophie looked younger than Henry. Her nostrils had childish rims of snot.
“What grade are you in?” Kayla asked, finally.
Sophie shrugged, an adult shrug, and started to stand.
“Where you going?” Kayla touched one of Sophie’s knees. The girl shifted at the contact but didn’t seem bothered.
“Can I come?”
Sophie shrugged again.
Sophie’s room was cluttered, a paper lantern in the shape of a star hanging over the bed. Sophie gestured at two Barbies, nude and prone under a paper towel, their fingers fused and slightly fluted.
“I made this house for them,” Sophie said, indicating an empty bookshelf. One shelf had a Band-Aid box next to a Barbie lying on its side in a tight, shiny dress.
“This is the party room,” Sophie said. “Watch.” She flipped a switch on a plastic flower keychain and it started to cycle through different colored lights. “Wait,” she said, and ran to turn off the overhead light. Sophie and Kayla stood in silence, the noise of the party beyond, Sophie’s room easing from red to yellow to turquoise.
“It’s pretty,” Kayla said.
Sophie was businesslike. “I know.”
She flicked the plastic flower off and turned the ceiling light back on. When Kayla didn’t say anything, the girl busied herself with a box in the corner. She pulled out a paper mask and held it up to her face, the kind of surgical mask you were supposed to wear to prevent sars. Kayla knew Sophie would hold it there until she said something.
“What’s that?” Kayla said.
“I need it,” Sophie said. “’Cause I get claustrophobic.”
“That’s not true,” Kayla said.
“Yeah,” Sophie whined through the mask. “I even have to wear it at school.”
Sophie let the mask fall and smiled.
“It’s a good joke, though,” Kayla said.
Kayla sat on the edge of Sophie’s bed. The sheets seemed fresh, a chill coming off the good cotton. Sophie was moving the Barbies from shelf to shelf, whispering to herself. It was easy for Kayla to kick off her sandals. She tucked her bare legs in the sheets and pulled them up over herself.
“Are you going to sleep?” Sophie said.
“No. I’m cold.”
“You’re sick, and I’m the nurse,” Sophie said, brightening. “I’m actually a princess, but I was forced to be a nurse.”
“You’re my daughter. You’re very sick.”
“I might die.” Kayla closed her eyes.
“Unless I give you the medicine.” Kayla heard Sophie fumble in the room, the sound of drawers and boxes. She opened her eyes when she felt a soft object pressing against her mouth. It was a felt doughnut, dotted with felt sprinkles.
“I found this in the forest,” Sophie said. Her voice had a low, spooky quality. “You have to eat it.”
“Thank you,” Kayla said. She opened her mouth and tasted the bland felt.
“I think it’s working.”
“I don’t know,” Kayla said. “I think I should rest for a while.”
“Okay, honey,” Sophie said, and patted her cheek gently. It was nice. With her eyes closed, Kayla felt the girl lay a paper napkin over her face, the napkin getting hot with Kayla’s own breath. It was comforting, to hear Sophie moving in the room, to smell the smell of her own mouth.
Before she opened her eyes, she imagined the man’s voice was Professor Hunnison’s. Why did this comfort her? He knew she was here. She blinked heavily and smiled. He had come for her. He wished her well.
It was Dennis, Dennis with his blousy shirt, his hairy forearms.
“You should get up,” Dennis said. His voice was cold. “Mary’s been looking for you. We’re going home.”
Kayla looked past Dennis but Sophie was gone. The room was empty.
“Up we go,” Dennis said. He kept looking at the doorway. He wanted to leave.
Kayla felt strange. She’d been dreaming. “Where’s Sophie?”
“Time to get going, okay, let’s get a move on.”
She blinked at him from the pillow.
“Come on, Kayla,” Dennis said, pulling the covers back. Kayla’s dress had ridden up and her underwear was showing.
“Jesus,” he said, and tossed the blankets back over her. His face was red.
“I’m sorry,” Kayla said, getting up, searching out her sandals.
The tone of his voice surprised her—when she glanced at him, he looked intently at the floor.
Kayla felt the room around her, her cheap sandal in her hand. “I’m not ashamed, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Dennis started laughing, but it just seemed weary. “Jesus,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You’re a nice girl,” he said. “I know you’re a good person.
The anger she felt then, close to hatred—“Maybe I’m not.”
Dennis’s eyes were watery, pained. “Of course you are. You’re more than just this one thing.”
Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who she was. Dennis looked sad. He looked tired and sad and old. And the thing was, someday, she would be old, too. Her body would go. Her face. And what then? She knew, already, that she wouldn’t handle it well. She was a vain, silly girl. She wasn’t good at anything. The things she had once known—Rodin! Chartres!—all that was gone. Was there a world in which she returned to these things? She hadn’t been smart enough, really. Even then. Lazy, grasping for shortcuts. Her thesis moldering in her college library, a hundred labored pages on The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple. She’d messed with the margins and font sizes until she barely made the required page count. Professor Hunnison, she thought miserably, do you ever think of me?
Dennis steered Kayla through the last gasps of the party, toward the front door. Where had he found a brownie along the way? He held it out to her, wrapped in a napkin. Maybe he felt bad. Kayla shook her head.
Dennis started to say something, then stopped himself. He shrugged and took a bite of the brownie, chewing avidly. He checked his phone.
“Mary’s bringing the car around,” Dennis said. “So we can just wait here.” His mouth was full, and he was ignoring the crumbs falling down his front, gumming up his teeth. When he noticed Kayla was watching him, Dennis seemed to get self-conscious. He finished the brownie in one bite, wiping his lips with the napkin. At least he had given up on the idea of lecturing her. Convincing her there was some lesson in all this. That wasn’t how the world worked, and wasn’t it a little tragic that Dennis didn’t know that yet? No use feeling bad. There wasn’t anything to learn. Kayla smiled, sucked in her stomach, just in case—because who knew? Maybe there was a photographer hidden out there in the darkness, someone who’d been watching her, who’d followed her here, someone who had waited, patiently, for her to appear.