A dog is small comfort in a world full of men. Any car could open fire. Any stranger behind or ahead of me is a threat. Ethan is asleep upstairs, and maybe I don’t lock the door behind me because I’mdoing something dangerous, walking the dog at night, so it seems to even it out. I leave my keys on the dining room table. We’re just going around the block—ten minutes, tops. It’s a moderately-trafficked street in a nice neighborhood in a well-to-do city. There are many reasons to not be afraid.
Just as I pull the door closed I see a man in a green sweatshirt walking very slowly down the block. He’s outside our neighbors’ place. Maybe I’ll lock the front door after all, but then I don’t because I don’t want to get the keys from the dining room table. Small hassles are still hassles. I think about turning around, going back inside, waiting until he passes, but Karen is whimpering and I’m going to be fine. He’s just a drunk undergrad. They’re all over the place.
Still, Karen and I take our night walk at a fast clip. I’m less patient when she wants to linger over a patch of grass. The sidewalk is generously puddled from rain that only stopped an hour ago. The streetlights are on, though their light is limp and pinkish-orange. A car passes every ten breaths or so. Cars make me feel safer than other people; though, when there were not other people to worry about, then I worry about cars, and guns pointed from car windows.
I don’t want to look behind me at the guy, but of course I do. He’s walking so slow. His hands are stuffed in the kangaroo pouch of his hoodie. I worry that my looking back at him will bother him; that if he hadn’t planned on doing anything, perhaps my fear and mistrust will change his mind. Maybe he’s thinking: I’ll give her something to be afraid of.
We finally come to the first corner and I’m determined not to check over my shoulder until we’re out of his line of sight. Then, I keep my eyes on the road behind me, waiting to see his figure pass across the street. Karen tries to get an empty bag of Lays out from under a parked car and I tug her back to the sidewalk.
When he comes into view we are nearing the second corner – our block is a rectangle, two sides shorter than the others. We’re near the root-raised slab of cement I tripped on once when Karen took off after a squirrel. I expect him to cross the street. Karen’s leash is taut. We turn the corner. So does he.
This long stretch is where Karen likes to take her shit, right at the midway point. She leaps over the missing sidewalk square, mucked and brown with rainwater; I tug her off the lawn with the elevated flower garden; her fur arches like a mountain range down her spine when a cat darts across the street before us. The guy had turned the corner. My mouth is dry. Looking over my shoulder, I’m giving myself a headache. He was parked on that block, is all. If he’s drunk and about to drive home, that’s someone else’s problem. I won’t see him again.
Karen sniffs around a bit before crouching. I don’t want to stop for this. I want to get us home, to safety. I want a locked door between me and him. Her shit is yellow and soft because she ate a lot of Styrofoam, which is messing with her digestive system. I would be worried, except we already know what the problem is. She’ll be fine once it all passes through her. I stare behind me. He won’t come around the corner. His car will drive down the street. I’ll never see him again.
He comes around the corner.
I already have the baggie around my hand, Karen is already kicking up clumps of mud and grass behind her, my stomach drops out and sweat swamps my armpits. I didn’t bring my stupid cell phone. What, even, would I do with it? I think, while my hand curls around the hot soft lump of Karen’s Styrofoam-studded shit, about throwing a cell phone at the guy in the green hooded sweatshirt. Throw the cell phone and run. I tie a knot in the baggie and let Karen pull me away. I should have brought my keys. I think of my mother showing me how to hold them between my fingers.
Right past the place where Karen shits is a pine tree whose branches arch over the sidewalk. It’s lovely to step through at night when no one is following you, like for a moment you’re in the woods. But tonight, the two seconds it takes to get through the darker dark is unwelcome. The needles drip water onto my hair, the back of my palm, Karen’s nose. But then we’re on the other side, approaching the third corner. The night walk is almost over. I look behind me. He’s a healthy ways away. Why is he doing this? He’s just going to start running, I know – when he makes up his mind how to deal with the dog, maybe. Oh god, what if he does something to Karen?
Claw him in the eyes. Break his nose. Knee him in the groin. Round the corner. Put him behind you. Karen doesn’t care about anything but the loaf of bread that has been sitting beside the gutter for three days and which is now a soaked pale log. I want to put my boot through it, just feel the give. If I don’t come home, Ethan wouldn’t know for another six hours. Ethan wouldn’t know anything about this guy. No one would.
The second short side of the block is where I throw out Karen’s shit, because someone in one of those houses keeps their trash can out on the curb all the time. The laundromat on the corner puffs out plumes of warm, fragrant vapor. Spring Rain scented things rarely smell anything like spring rain, except on our block. Our block always smells like Spring Rain. I keep looking behind me at the corner. Waiting for him to never come back into view. Waiting for him to have realized he was scaring me, to let me get back into my house where it’s safe. Waiting for him to come running with a gun and kill my dog and rape me.
But the last corner is as good as home. Back to the main street, back to the many cars. The laundromat, open late though usually empty, casts plenty of light onto the sidewalk. I don’t see the guy behind me again until I’m already turning left towards our house. And then it’s safe to look ahead, to the porch light I’d left on, to the door I’d left unlocked with the keys inside.
In front of us is a guy in a dark green hoodie. He is walking slowly down the street, nearly but not quite pausing in front of our neighbors’ house. He is, undoubtably, the same guy that’s been following me. Another dog is emerging from our front door, leash like a fishing line, me at the end of it. I look behind me and there he is. I look ahead and he’s looking at our neighbor’s house. I struggle for a moment to keep Karen still, and watch myself do the same, holding the leash with one hand while closing the door with the other. And locking it. The other me glances down the block as other Karen pulls her down the steps, making a sharp right turn, speedwalking away from the man in the green sweatshirt and myself.
I think, firstly, that she’s a burglar who happens to be my twin and I think of Ethan with his throat slit in the bedroom but when I start running towards the steps I realize she locked the door and I don’t have keys or a cell phone and also she looked exactly like me even down to the clothes and suddenly green hoodie is standing on the sidewalk waiting for me to keep walking, which is all there is to do right now and so I do it, following the man following her down this street that is suddenly all dark except for the laundromat lights behind us.
If Evan didn’t work nights, I wouldn’t have to do this, stomp through all the puddles that Jennifer leaps over. She doesn’t get her paws wet, but my boots are leaky. And this asshole behind me – I keep looking back to make sure he’s keeping his distance. If he gets too close, I’ve got my keys in my pocket. Good to have keys.Jennifer would be no help. And now she’s got to stop and sniff another fucking patch of grass. Squat and piss: just a dribble.
It’s cold for spring, wet for any night, and I just want to go back inside and work on my puzzle and listen to my scary story podcast. But now I’ve got to make it to the corner, fast, so I can get away from this slow-ass creeper. Not a very nice night for a stroll, douchebag. Like I could ever say anything like that. Wouldn’t risk it. Used to be this walk would be nice, because I could smoke a cigarette, but I quit. I look over my shoulder again and he’s closer now but not too close. Hands in his pocket. I curl my fingers around the ridges of my keys. Feels nice and safe. Jennifer bounces ahead, we reach the corner and make the turn.
Halfway down the block, I look back and he is just coming into view. I expect him to keep going straight, across the street, but he turns my way instead. Fuck that. Yanking Jennifer out from something she’s sniffing under a car, I nearly jog us to the next corner. Fucking asshole is making me look like an asshole. Around the corner where he can’t see us, I full-jog to Jennifer’s delight. Jennifer yanking me towards her special shitting spot and I want it over with. I’m afraid of stopping long enough to let her shit but what am I gonna do?
Jennifer’s shit tonight is ideal. Firm and brown. No straining. Leftover raindrops come down on us as we pass under the pine branch, and it reminds me of how I need to take a shower. I hate showering. I hate standing up. If I could shower sitting down, I’d like it then. I could just put a chair in the bathtub, but I’m not going to do that, of course. I’m not a ridiculous person. I especially have to shower now that asshole chased me halfway around the block. Which, speaking of, I expect to see nothing when I turn my head. And instead I see him.
The keys won’t be enough. My toes curl wet in my leaky boots. He is following us.There’s no other explanation. He is just following us around the block, to scare me? Is he going to attack me? Is he going to break into a run, mow me down, bash my nose against the cement and kick my dog and stick his dick in me right in front of the blue-shuttered house with the TV flickering in the living room window?
That means someone’s home. That means someone will hear. This isn’t Queens. My aunt’s a nun named Kitty, so I always confused that story, thought Kitty Genovese was a nun. It didn’t make it worse, to me, what happened to her. Someone would hear me here and help. This isn’t New York. It’s Kansas.
This line of thinking, and the stiff tension of Jennifer’s leash in my hand, guides me around the third corner, past the house where the undergrads throw their beer cans on the lawn and every time I walk past I wonder why they don’t just tie a trash bag to the porch railing so people can throw their beer cans in there instead, little assholes. I drop the shit bag in the strangers’ trash and smell the smell coming off the laundromat. And the light coming through the laundromat windows.
I’m safe now, I think. He can’t do shit in the light. I’m so close to being back to my puzzle. It’s a mountain scene with big pines, an eagle, critters playing around a stream, a little cabin. I will manifest my destiny through puzzles. I want to live, me and Evan and Jennifer, in that cabin. Nothing in the cabin will smell like the hot fake floral of the laundromat’s steam. No one in the mountains will scare us.
Around the next corner, I turn my head back to see if the asshole is still there, trying to scare me. He is, but he’s not alone. Behind him is another girl, another dog. Another me, I realize. Like watching a video of what I just did, except she doesn’t throw a baggie into the trash can, and her dog’s tail curls where Jennifer’s is straight. Behind her, another shape. A bigger shadow. I think she’s raising her hand to wave at me. My sweatshirt guy is getting too close, and this feels like maybe I’m just feverish and forgetting that I’m actually asleep on the couch in front of the tv so I look forward up the block before me and see yet another sweatshirt guy, and another me leaving my house, and hell if I’m gonna let this shit catch up to me, so all I can do is keep walking.
I love the night walk most of all. I’ve always been a night person. Someone once told me that whether you’re a night person or a morning person depends on when your ancestors kept watch, back in hunter-gatherer times. That sounded, to me, like the kind of bullshit a philosophy bro would come up with after reading one book about social evolution. I like the phrase night person. Heidi is a night dog. She sleeps all day while Evan’s at school and stays up with me all night.
The problem with the night walk, of course, is other people. Like this guy. Why is he walking so slow? A night like this should be perfect: the streetlights, dully pink, making the wet concrete look like pastel black ice, the puddles fun for Heidi to splash through. The air is crisp, freshly washed. Winter is over. Spring is coming. Heidi and I are best friends. The world looks the prettiest it ever does, the big beating black heart, the grays and blues like blankets over everything. In the dark we are the most like everything else in the universe. But then there’s that guy, and he’s nearly ruining it all.
Typically, we’d stroll. Heidi is an old dog, she likes to take her time, sniff so deep she must get dirt up her nostrils. And I like to look at the sky, where there are very often at least a few stars. Stars are, of course, what everyone thinks the night is for. But a night without stars is nice, too. Then you are that much more a part of the earth, grounded hard as worms. If it were summer, this night would be moist, but it’s springtime, or very nearly so, and so I call it soggy. What’s the difference is a lot of things, all of which only exist in my own mind. We can’t stroll tonight, though, because of the guy in the green sweatshirt.
I keep looking back at him instead of forward or around, which are my preferred places to look. He isn’t getting much closer, thank goodness. And we’re very nearly at the corner. A part of me is all ready to panic if he turns it, too. Another part of me is remembering the town where I lived growing up. Nights just like this one, close enough to be cousins, and riding my bike down the empty streets. Puddles shoot skimmed water up, sliced by my tires. Stand up on the pedals, coast three blocks straight. Then make the turn so easy, like a hot knife in butter. But I can’t think about that without thinking about the accident, which is as much a distraction from the stranger still behind me as anything else, though now we are finally turning the corner, finally – hope, hope, hope – putting him behind us.
Halfway down the block I get the guts to look and am satisfied. I’ll never see that guy again. Our collision course is over. The hit-and-run left me upended with some of my shinbone coming through my skin. It was my fault; the brakes on my bike were bad, and I was listening to music, and didn’t notice that the light was still yellow and not red. You don’t have to stop on yellow, just slow down. But if you hit someone you should stop. Two girls came running down the block, probably from the field by the elementary school where teens still drink. A different car stopped. Many people sought to help me. All I remember thinking is that those two girls came from the same field where I used to drink, too.
We’re at the second corner. I look behind me just in case and there he is, walking so slow still but behind me all the same. This is not what I hoped for. I speed up my pace, thinking that he must be parked somewhere down this street but why not just get back to the house as fast as possible to be safe? Poor Heidi, I’m nearly dragging her behind me as I power-walk. But we don’t need to worry, now. That guy is going to be gone. When I look back again, he won’t be there. I slow down, let her sniff all she likes. I am asking the universe to please take care of me. I am trusting the universe to love me back.
I think about Evan in bed at home, how it would be nice, even though I’m a night person, to spend some nights of this life sleeping at the same time as him. Could I give up being a night person for him? Probably not. I could not give up the way you can still see how green the pine tree is, how the wind rustles through it and makes the kind of noise that makes your chest feel full, and moves all those dark different greens in one direction but only enough to seem like stirring. Heidi shits while I’m admiring this tree, and I don’t look back over my shoulder. I notice that Heidi’s poop is too runny to pick up. I send a silent apology to whosever lawn this is, and a louder silent prayer that Heidi will make it another three years, the upper limit of her life expectancy. Tonight is the night of universal favors. I look back over my shoulder and am shocked at the green hooded shape moving towards me. Slowly, though, still.
What does he want? I don’t have to be scared – what good would it do me? If he kills me – he won’t. Most people are good. He’s just out for a stroll. Heidi and me both have to duck under the overhanging pine bough, we come out tinkling water on the other side. It’s okay but it’s not useful to be scared. Heidi is a big dog. He will leave us alone.
We keep moving, around the third corner, as a purple cloud obscures the few stars visible in the sky. That loaf of bread has gone all the way to mush. We move past the trash can where I would usually throw out Heidi’s shit. Big heaving huffs of hot mist coming from a vent: Tropical Mist or Spring Rains? I don’t look behind me, but I walk fast. We turn the last corner and I see the green sweatshirt man, and I wonder how he got around the block before us before realizing he didn’t. The door to our house opens and I expect to see Evan but it’s me instead, and I’m walking a different dog. I look down at Heidi. She is sniffing a wet, smashed empty cigarette pack. I feel people approaching behind me. We should keep moving forward. We shouldn’t stop.
By midnight, as told by my watch, there are, like, forty of us, and there’s only about six feet of space between everyone. I know nothing more about the guy from looking at the back of his hooded head. I tried to talk to him, but he had nothing to say, which is creepy but also unhelpful. Maybe he’s the one doing this, making this happen. But why? Who would want this?
I’ve read a lot of scary internet stories. I know what’s happening. The laundromat is some sort of inter-dimensional portal that we’re all passing through, all our respective realities sewing together once we enter the light thrown through the laundromat windows. That’s why every new me coming out of her house doesn’t see all of us following her until she gets to the laundromat. I know this because they’re the only lights left now, except for the moon.
Usually in scary internet stories, there’s some kind of way out that gets introduced suddenly and doesn’t make much sense. I’m wondering if I should be looking for a break in the pattern. Men write the scary internet stories, mostly, so violence is usually the answer. Maybe I’m meant to kill the green sweatshirt guy. But I could never. The world still looks like the world, just darker. I will always be myself even if there are others of me, too. You don’t have to be a great person to not be someone capable of killing someone.
Maybe one of these other me’s could do it. Every one of them bothers me. Every one of them is wrong for existing. I overheard two others talking. The conversation ended when one talked about a mother who was still alive and the other started crying.
Every time I walk past our house, I look up into the window of our bedroom and know Ethan or somebody like him is asleep. If this keeps going forever, I’ll never see him again. He’ll wake up and wonder where I am. Maybe he’ll think I’m downstairs, because I do stay up late and sometimes am still up when he gets up for work. He gets a little pissed when he sees that. He wants me to try and get my schedule closer to his. That’s never going to happen. I can’t wake up early.
So maybe he’ll be pissed and go downstairs, expect me to be sitting on the couch with my computer in my lap or an empty bowl with popcorn kernels still soaked in butter on the coffee table, but I won’t be there. And I won’t be in the bathroom, and I won’t be in the kitchen. Where will he think I am? Will he realize something bad happened to me when I took the dog for her walk? She won’t be there either. Ethan will wake up in the house all alone. What’s the last thing I said to him? I love you, goodnight. But before that all I did was correct him. It’s not “mirror mirror” it’s “magic mirror”. If it were me, waking up with no husband or dog all of a sudden, and no answers, I’d probably kill myself.
Maybe that’s how I’m meant to get out of this. Maybe I should run into traffic, except there isn’t any traffic anymore. No traffic in the interdimensional reality burrito. Kill myself with what? Hang myself by my jeans from the low-hanging bough? Chew jagged edges into a beer can and slit my wrists? Has anyone brought a knife? Could another me kill me? Could I kill one of them?
I should tell someone about the interdimensional reality burrito, because maybe I’m the only one who knows. I turn around and can see the second me, with the dog that looks kinda like Karen. She is sulky, stompy, looks pissed. I’m pretty ugly, I think, but even uglier with that look on my face. Her eyes drift towards mine and I turn back fast. Alright. I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t want to hear her voice.
“Fuck me, this is some bullshit” my voice, higher and thicker than I ever hear in my head, reaches me from behind and my stomach turns over. That’s why I didn’t want to talk to her. Once, a long time ago, I was high and talking to myself on a cell phone. As in, speaking into my cellphone connected to my friend’s cellphone which she held up to my ear. I was so stoned it was funny. I’m glad I’m not stoned not because I doubt this would be very funny. Everyone is getting closer now. It occurs to me that at some point there will be no room at all between us.
“Yeah,” I answer. I don’t ask can you drive? I don’t ask did you get arrested for shoplifting? I don’t ask did you date Michael in high school? I don’t ask did he get you pregnant? Karen looks up at me. She’s happy the walk has lasted so long. There’s no such thing as a walk too long for her, though she must be getting tired of the same sights and smells. Maybe not, since she and all her others keep stopping to pee over each others’ pee. We probably won’t starve or thirst to death in the interdimensional reality burrito. That’s never a part of the story. I don’t even feel tired, not even at the knees. I don’t even feel scared at each inch closer the guy behind me gets.
I’ve left my inhaler inside. I haven’t used my inhaler in days. I can go around the block without it, for sure. If I don’t look, he won’t think I’m scared, and he won’t be more inspired to attack me. Samantha is the size of a house and scarier than that man could ever hope to be. My fear is an instinct that can’t be pushed down far enough to never come up, no matter how big my dog is. Too many humans altogether, some of them are bound to sink.
The thought of my missing inhaler circles around one side of my brain. My awareness of the slow-moving guy behind me circles around the other. I focus on what’s reflected in the puddles. My therapist tells me that some fear is good, but a lot of my fears are hurtful to me. Like my fear of being without my inhaler, which I don’t need. I don’t need it. I haven’t needed it in so long. I don’t need it, I don’t. Or my fear of overpopulation. That’s an easy train of thought for me to get on, but it usually doesn’t go anywhere good.
I steal another glance over my shoulder while Samantha plods her big paws down beside me. I pull her leash a little tighter to keep her closer so he knows, this dog is with me, and she will mess you up. If he’s planning anything, I hope he changes his mind. The wind blows through the branches and drops of water fall on us like it’s still raining, then we make the first turn and I expect relief. Surely, he will keep walking straight across the street.
We’re just stepping over the big crack in the sidewalk when I get the guts to look behind me and see him coming into view. And then he turns. I could get whiplash from turning my head so fast forward again. Samantha always knows when something’s wrong, and she looks back too, and I want her to growl.
“Speak,” I mutter to her, but she doesn’t. Her tail even wags. Jesus. I hustle us to the end of the block. Maybe he’s parked down this street. Maybe this will all be over soon. Samantha’s tags jingle as she keeps my pace, which for her means moving from a lumber to a trod. Her ears perk up when we get near to her favored pooping place, and I’m afraid to look back and see. I wish I had my inhaler. I wish Ethan were walking Samantha instead of me, but he’s fast asleep and good for him, that he can sleep so easily. I don’t know how anyone can ever sleep, knowing they might die and never wake up. I lie awake and think about overpopulation because it’s probably how we’re all going to die.
When we pause so Samantha can squat, I finally look behind me, trying to make it casual. And goddammit, he’s still following us. At this point, it has to be sinister. At this point, I’m scanning the houses for lights left on, television flicker through a window, anything to tell me someone’s awake and will see what happens when he gets close. I think about the experiments, the rat utopias, the rats following the females into their nests. This guy is a rat following me, trying to mate, determined to get his dick in me even though I don’t want it. Those rats, hounded to death, killing their babies, unable even to maintain a nest. This is a behavioral sink. Bad behavior comes from overcrowding.
If this were an experiment, then Samantha would be the variable. He must be insane to try anything with her beside me. What would my therapist have to say about this? How helpful is this fear, as I can’t take my eyes off the guy, the big shadow sauntering down – not even sauntering, not even, something else, slacking down the street towards me for no reason, a rat following another rat. I’m walking again, leaving the big pile behind us because I don’t even care I just need to get back inside, back where I’m safe, can I even breathe? Think about the rats, I can’t breathe, my inhaler, too many rats all together. He’ll kill me before I even die before he’ll even kill me I’ll die before it’s going to be over soon without my inhaler don’t follow me like the rats can’t even eat alone killing each other eating the babies the beer cans on the lawn the behavioral sink and Samantha how is this happening?
Everything, everyone, is getting closer and closer. A seismic shift. Everything has always been getting closer. That has always been the point. I’m the point. I’m the finest point. Everything has always gotten closer to me and now look at us. Every us gets closer. The Darling River is in Australia. The diner with the Pez dispensers. I can think of everything now, I can remember everything I ever knew. It’s not mirror mirror it’s magic mirror. Magic animal kingdom. Keep thinking, Suzie, keep thinking so it doesn’t end. It ends when you stop thinking. It ends when they get too close. Point Nemo is the middle of the ocean. A picture I once saw of a businessman standing on a rock with an umbrella in the middle of the ocean. Because Ethan told me to Google “middle of the ocean”. The laundromat again, he gets closer and I get closer to him. If this goes on forever eventually we will end up in the middle of the ocean. The world is going to go back to the ocean. It doesn’t end, ever. A scary story about a website. A scary story about the middle of the ocean. A scary story about getting stuck in a time loop. I’ve read a scary story I’ve read a lot of scary stories this time I’m tan and walking a dalmatian. Everyone wanted dalmatians after 101 Dalmatians but they aren’t good with kids. Put the dalmatians to sleep. The alarm clock that sang wake up, little Suzie. That’s me. I’m Suzie. If I fall asleep on my feet I’ll keep walking or be carried. Soon close enough to touch. Soon so squished our ribs will break. It’s over, Rebecca, I’m so sorry, it’s already over, I can’t think of anything else to think about, if someone starts screaming it’ll be me.
At this rate, I’ll never get back to Chip-chan. I know she knows I’m watching when I’m watching. I know she knows I’m there. Evan doesn’t know about Chip-chan, and Chip-chan doesn’t know about Evan. I can love two things. I love Evan and I love Chip-chan. Evan loves me back but Chip-chan doesn’t. She has bigger things on her mind, like making sure P doesn’t kill her.
Allison stops to sniff the Lay’s bag, again, as though this time – the fourth time around – I’ll let her eat it. Right before I clipped her leash on, I found her chewing used Q-tips from the bathroom trash bin. If this keeps going, eventually, she’ll poop out the Q-tips. Will I have to poop sometime? I haven’t had to pee yet. I haven’t seen anyone else stop to pee. Is Chip-chan peeing right now?
Four years I’ve been watching Chip-chan’s live stream from nine pm to three am. That’s eleven am to five pm in Seoul. The only time I don’t watch her is when I take Allison for her nightly walk. And every night I try and hurry her up so I don’t miss something. Chip-chan usually just lies around, but sometimes she gets up and changes the signs. When I left, the signs said: “Murder and abdominal pain. I think I'll die. Help me. When the cam is on, it stops broadcasting. Left and right penis. Mind Weapon, legs, thighs, ears, lips, nose, hands, arms, itching, murder, itching cell phone theft. Give me back what I stole.”
Once, I e-mailed Chip-chan and she begged me to help her. I want to help her, I do, but how can I help her now that I’m stuck in this loop? I’ll never sleep again, I’ll never see Evan or Chip-chan again. I would give up Allison any second to go back to them. Allison wasn’t worth it. Next time I’ll let her get the Lay’s bag. Nothing matters.
“I need to get back to Chip-chan,” I say, in English, because I have to say something.
“We all need to get back to someone,” I say back, scowling at me over my shoulder. I could cry. I will cry. I can hear someone else crying, another me, I cry with her and myself.
I wonder if I can get a game of leap-frog going. We’re close enough for that now. I giggle and look forward again. Actually, there’s not enough room. I’m already nearly on top of Green, and he’s nearly on top of me. We’ve just turned the second corner, following, this time, a me who seems scared. I want to tell her it’s okay. The new ones don’t hear anything from us. I’m not the only one who’s tried.
I realize now, of course, that this guy in the hoodie was never any harm to me or any other me. And it’s actually pretty sad, because he was just talking a walk around the block and then he got caught in this whatever-it-is, and then I came out and now we’re stuck in it together. Someone’s been muttering about reality collapses, someone else about rat universes, but it’s not so interesting to me, the why or how. More like the what next. I wonder why he won’t speak to me. I’ve seen a few of him wearing red or blue, but I haven’t heard his voice yet. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he won’t respond. And the other me’s around me don’t seem to like me. One of them didn’t have the accident but the other had it worse. The one who didn’t have the accident watched our best friend die and doesn’t want to hear about how well our best friend is doing in a world where she’s still alive.
In the back of my mind, I’m remembering what it’s like to be on a drug I’ve never done and thinking it’s nothing like this, that this is real. Sometimes I’m thinking thoughts I don’t recognize. Thinking about how Evan won’t water my plants, but we don’t have houseplants, and his name is Ethan.
I’ve come up with some compelling reasons why Green took this slow stroll around the block. For example: his girlfriend is on the phone with her drunk and recently-widowed mother. His boyfriend is on the phone with his drunk and recently-widowered father. His girlfriend is on the phone with her best friend, who just got off the phone with her abusive ex-boyfriend. Or, his partner is drunk and kicked him out for no good reason, and he’s circling the block because he knows they’ll let him back in soon. He and his boyfriend had Indian food, which his boyfriend was now painfully expelling in the bathroom, and Green was waiting it out, not wanting to bear witness to it. Green’s roommate was having extra noisy sex. Green’s a mathematician, and is trying to solve a very difficult problem. Or he’s a poet composing a poem, unwilling to go inside until it’s done.
We’re in this together, Green, I think, hoping he can feel my good vibes. I can feel us all getting closer, our minds straining to touch. I can feel his being pulled back like reins on a horse. He’s scared of me seeing him. My arms spread, I want to hug him, to show him he’s not alone. If I’m lucky, this will go on forever, and then it will always be night, and we will always be on our night walk, and Heidi will never die.
I want my puzzle. I want my future. I want my husband. I close my eyes and I can see puzzle pieces, and they bring me no comfort at all. I saw myself walking a raccoon. I heard myself wailing. I can remember myself going to rehab, getting kicked out of rehab.Why are so many of me like this? Am I like this, and don’t know it? I just want to live in a cabin under northern lights in a puzzle by Charles Wysocki. I’m a normal person. I’m a normal me.
“When is this going to end?” the me behind me asks, our voice cracking.
“Shut up,” I say, even though that’s not what I want to say, I want to say stop, everyone stop, and I want to turn around and hug her. Me. I want to comfort ourselves. I’m not cold, or tired, or hungry, or thirsty, and that must be because I’m dead. We’re dead. We’re dead, I want to say.
“We’re dead,” I say, but I don’t think I need to say it, because I think we’re starting to compress. Sometimes I’m thinking about rats in an experiment. Sometimes I’m thinking about a shinbone. My hair is soaked from another brush with the overhanging bough. Magic mirror, not mirror mirror.
“Shut up,” my voice says back. I’m not sure if what I’m doing is crying or sobbing but my hand hurts from clutching Jennifer’s leash so hard. She’s whining, too. We’re all dead. We stepped off the curb somewhere and got hit by a car and now we’re in hell. I’ve done so much wrong; is there still time? Every step, a sorry. Sorry for stealing the money from Mom. Sorry for stealing the money from Amy. Sorry for stealing the money from work. Sorry for lying about needing glasses. Sorry for stealing the money meant for my lunches. Sorry for putting the dog’s head in a pillowcase. I didn’t know what else to do after – I’m sorry, for stealing the library books. Please don’t let this keep going.
“We’re not dead,” the me in front of me says like I know she would.
“How the fuck would you know?” I want to know.
“We’re in an interdimensional reality burrito,” she says. A behavioral sink is what happens when too many rats live in the same space but rats aren’t humans, you dolt.
“That’s not a thing,” I say. Just because this bitch is essentially the head of the parade, she thinks she’s the head of us. “You don’t know what’s going on.”
“I do know,” she says, haughty as hell. Always right. I fucking hate that. Who is she to tell me what we know? I don’t know what she knows, even if we’re the same. We’re dead. All my blood is flowing headward and I’m boiling. If there weren’t this guy between us I’d push her, pull her hair, bite into the soft flesh of her neck. I stumble over the guy’s ankles. We’re so close, I could feel his heartbeat if I just leaned forward a little bit. Maybe I will. Maybe that’s just exactly what I’ll do.
Since there’s no room to do anything else, I drape my arms around the man in front of me and am lifted off my feet. Karen’s leash is too short for me to do this without choking her, so I drop it and she is free. All the hundreds of her are free at the same time, and they all run into the street. For one awful second I can see the car hitting her, them. But it’s just in my head. There hasn’t been a car in the street since the first revolution. It should be dawn but it’s dark as it was when I first opened that door. There’s no fitting any more of us. We’ll be crushed by each other.
Chip-chan sleeping in a dark room. Apocalypse Now DVD menu on repeat. Raccoons live twenty years in captivity. We’re thinking too much to think clearly for very long. There’s only one place for us to go.
We pass by the trash can, now full of shit baggies. My man hooks his arms under my thighs, holding me up. To take the pressure off his shoulders, I guess. I am still watching all the Karens running away. Now they’ve safely crossed the street and are making for the park. I stick my fingers in his mouth, hooking index fingers at the corners. I watch the end of the block. Wind in the trees and a flutter of leaves passes in front of one of the streetlights, and from up here I can see a spiderweb glistening at the top of a red wood slatted fence. I hear all the Karens barking. I want them to be happy. I want to be happy. I want us all to be happy.
We pass the house with the beer cans. I’ve seen men come and collect the cans for recycling. It’s a good system, then. Working together. All the me’s and hims in front of me are turning around the block.
My man makes the turn, too. I tug hard on his lips with my right finger. I tug him to the right. He resists only a moment, a tension I feel between my legs. I know he’s scared, this could be the wrong thing. But it’s the only thing. He goes right, opens the door to the laundromat.
The light is all smell: Spring Rain and bleach. None of the machines are in use. We’ve walked into a still life. My man has stopped, but we’re streaming in behind us. I kick him gently to get him moving, tug him lipwards towards the change machine. I don’t have any cash, but he does. I can tell because he’s let go of one of my thighs so he can reach into his back pocket. He pulls out his wallet, offers it up to me.
He’s got three fives, three singles. I feed a dollar into the machine and it starts spitting out quarters.
I know the industrial dryers cost a buck fifty to get them started, so I wait until my palms fill with six quarters then move over to let the next in line get their change. The me in the black jacket waits by the last machine, her man holding the door open. I kick my man gently and he carries us towards the back of the building. I give her my change and climb into the machine. He climbs in after me.
She closes the door and clinks all the quarters into the slot. I put my hand to the glass. He covers it with his hand. On the other side, she holds her palm to my palm. Please let this work, I think as she turns the machine on and the drum begins to roll. Please let everything be the same as I left it.
Me and him sit toe to toe as the rolling starts, sucking us to the sides like a Gravitron. They always played “Satisfaction” by Benny Benassi at the fair when I went. Or they did once, and then I thought they always did it. That’s how shit like that happens. That’s how your brain makes sense of the world. This isn’t the world where I heard Benny Benassi on the Gravitron, though. This isn’t my world at all. Maybe this world is better. Maybe my mother is still alive.
I’ve been out of coke for a long time now but it doesn’t matter as the speed picks up and my cheeks flap back, gums bleeding, my headache is gone and the heat blasts against my face, and I can see him across from me, his eyes closed. One of us will not be going home and maybe in his reality I’m not like this; maybe in his reality it never happened. If I wake up in a world where no one raped me, will I be able to orgasm again?
faster and faster and I’m so excited I’m worried that I’ll pee myself. Outside, through the glass, everything is blurry and melting like wet paint slopped onto a canvas. Nothing hurts but everything tingles. If I close my eyes it’s white white white nothing like night time nothing like the world I like the world I like myself I like my
We close the door on the last ones. The change machine keeps spitting out corners, making a mercurial puddle on the dirt-splotted linoleum. She’s crying but smiling as I hold my hand to her hand with the glass between us, and my man pushes the button that will send them spiraling back to wherever they’ve come from or deserve to be. At least one of them, anyway. When the white light comes from inside, the flash and then the machine turning off, I climb down from my man’s back and we look each other in the eye. His eyes are brown. Blonde bangs poke out from under his hood. This isn’t the man who was following me, and we don’t know whose world is around us. He leaves the laundromat with a spring in his step and his hands in his front pockets. He looks like he’s going to start whistling. Oh Suzanna.
Oh, Karen. I had no choice but to let her go, but what will Ethan think? He won’t understand what drove me to do what I did, and I’m a bad liar. Maybe this is my world, maybe she’s still here. Maybe all the dogs are still here somehow and it’s just a matter of calling her name.
It starts raining again while I walk the two blocks to the park. Just a drizzle, fine and thin as the sliver of moon finally peeking through the clouds. The clouds clearing enough for one, two, and a half stars to peek through. Some lights in some houses are lit yellow and white and hintless. A car goes past, fast, and no one rolls down the window and aims the barrel of a gun at me and shoots.
“Karen,” I call her name at the entrance to the park. The park is enclosed in chain-link, the gate a missing panel. Another spiderweb—bigger, but not better—is holding the ground and the fence together. I step into the grass, wet, and think about living in the city and the night we just wanted to feel grass. That was the first night I ever saw Nora smoke weed, and we went together down to the avenue and found the tiniest, thinnest strip of grass to lie down in—wet, wet grass. I keep calling for Karen but I know she’s not coming. I keep smelling the wet air like I could discern it from another but it smells undifferent from any other air that isn’t Spring Rain.
Something comes, though. It comes giggling and chittering out of the darkness and when I crouch to meet it, it comes right into my arms. Its fur is scratchy, but you can tell its softer underneath and—yes, it is, very soft. And so warm. Its little hands clutch at me, it almost crawls into my arms and asks to be cradled. So I do. The raccoon chitters at me, tangling five fingers into my hair. I walk us home and wonder her name. I climb into bed beside Ethan and wonder what he’ll say. She’s no Karen, but she could be better. In the dark, his face looks familiar—but so did mine. This may not be my bed. This may not be my husband. I decide to just keep calling her Karen and see what happens. She curls up behind my crooked knees. I check the clock; Ethan, if he’s mine, will be up in three hours. Up with the sun. Karen kind of snores. I feel like I can’t even remember daylight.