By Kathryn Morrill
She just hit me.
Cassie just fucking hit me.
I try to gather my senses. I try to focus. Look left. Look right. Look out the window where outside the snow is blinding white, and the day so sunny that it stings my eyes almost as much as the left side of my face hurts. She hit me so hard it cleared my sinuses. I look back at her and take a deep breath and I smell bleach in every corner. Underneath the astringent, I can still detect a faintness of dry white wine, lavender, and perfumed anger. My previous life.
I take one step back. So does Cassie. Above us the ceiling fan whirs, tires slosh in the distance. Outside a couple is walking their dog, a terrier with small knitted mittens on his paws. The woman is wearing the wrong shoes; the sidewalks are covered in snow and ice and she wears heels and she purposefully slides instead of taking steps. The man with her is wearing heavy boots and a Russian hat. If they glanced inside the first floor as they passed our window, they would think Cassie and I were sisters. Sisters talking in the kitchen. Same height, same blonde hair. Same squared-off stance. They would assume there is coffee brewing. They don’t look inside though when they pass; they are arguing. She wants a ring but won’t admit it. He wants her to wear the right shoes, make love to him more, but he won’t say it. They fight about cable television. The dog is happily eating snow and smiling, a beard of white powder adorning his furry snout.
Inside the apartment, I am beginning to bristle with tension, and shivers. The fan shouldn’t be on. It’s already cold in here. The wind is making it harder to breathe.
Why is his sister here? In my old apartment? Our old apartment.
I close my eyes. Just a moment.
When I first moved in with Mark, I used to complain this apartment was too hot, too stagnant, even with the air conditioner blowing at a consistent low of sixty-five degrees during the warm months. One afternoon I came home early and Mark was installing a ceiling fan, standing on a ladder in a suit while dried paint flecks fell and glittered his broad shoulders. His hands were busy working wires from the exposed hole in the ceiling, and he turned when I opened the door, and he smiled at me. A slow smile, like molasses, and I leaned against the doorframe and watched him and the earth stopped spinning. Mark is the kind of guy who could get me off not once, but three times. The kind of man who kisses babies and wins fantasy football. Every year. The man that solves crosswords, plays Trivial Pursuit, walks shelter dogs and reads Hemingway. And history books. The type who stands up when women leave or arrive, holds doors, holds your hand, gets into a bar fight and wins. Every time. The kind of man who fiercely adores his little sister.
Cassie is bracing herself. Straightening out and pushing backwards. Lips curled. I feel the air between us tensing. I mirror her at first and step back, but then feel myself pressing in. She fucking hit me. We have not said one word to each other. Not one audible noise since I walked through the front door and then froze when I saw her. She was standing behind the kitchen island and opening drawers, bare cupboards were open. What are you looking for? She appeared shocked, briefly, and then her eyes turned to slits.
My spare key set is cold in my hand. I am gripping it. I am thinking about how my dad taught me to hold keys in my hand like a sharp weapon when walking alone at night. He told me to hold them between my knuckles, the longest key like a knife, told me to go for the eyes first, the throat, and then the abdomen. I don’t drop the keys, nor relax my fist.
I draw in. She follows my lead. The air is sliced into paper-thin wafers.
Snow begins to fall outside. I know she wonders why I am here. I am supposed to be gone.
I can’t tell her. How would I say it? I just needed a few things, Cassie. I need to sit on the floor and cry. Run the hot water in the bathtub, sink myself into it, baptize myself of this place, drown myself of all the people I have been. That I needed to come here, into our old bedroom, and touch the walls we painted, and then touch myself. I needed to come here to scream by myself in the middle of a deserted living room and scare the ghosts away.
I know why she hit me. I know I should hit her back—it’s what she wants. Then she can hit me again, harder. She wants to rip my hair out. She is protecting her brother’s honor and she is almost panting. Feral.
I wish it was snowing inside the apartment. It could cover both of us in white and I would drop the key. We would drop to our knees and she would tell me about her father. She would tell me how Mark slept outside her bedroom door growing up. That Mark couldn’t stop him in the beginning because he was too little and their father was much bigger but he would try. I would pretend to not already know. I wouldn’t tell her how their father tried once to get in bed with me. The snowflakes would cling to our eyelashes. We could both forget our pasts. We would make snow angels together.
I should hit her and give her what she wants because she deserves to go to Mark with a handful of my hair, and a smile and rightfully say “Fuck that bitch.” We don’t know that he would take my hair, and when no one was looking, he would smell it, he would rub it against his cheek. We don’t know that.
I wonder if hugging her is at all like hugging him. Their blood is the same. The very same blood that is boiling in her eyes right now. Suppose I went to hug her, I could probably get one squeeze in, and pretend it’s him, Mark, and she would no doubt attack me, but I could give her a slow key in the side with my left hand, and draw blood, and it would be the same blood as his. I would ease her to the ground as she sunk, run my hands over her wound and share that with him. Her blood would taste like copper and smoked wood. Like him.
She looked me right in the eyes when she met my flesh. Without flinching. She seems delicate, but I know she’s not.
She called Mark one early humid August morning. She said she missed him. She missed having breakfast with him. Like when they were kids. Mark interrogated her, “Did someone hurt you?”
She told Mark she was having bad dreams. That she couldn’t stop thinking about the cat they had growing up. The one that drowned. She couldn’t shake the feeling that they mistakenly buried the cat alive. Mark listened; I disappeared. He was bound to the telephone. I watched his face. A violent black dust storm swept across his navy eyes. His teeth were clenched, his jaw muscles tight, and then he spoke into the phone with a voice I’d never heard him use before.
“Who the fuck hurt you, Cassandra? WHO?”
When he got off the phone and he told me what she said, I touched his hair, curled a brown lock around my finger at his temple. He muttered he knew who hurt her. “We all did.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The whole family.”
“Not you. You love her.”
“She doesn’t want to come home for the holiday.”
He trembled a little underneath his windbreaker which was slick with rain from his morning run, and the droplets shook with his shoulders and ran down the nylon. This is a man who doesn’t shake. Doesn’t tremble.
“She lit her boyfriend’s car on fire a few weeks ago.” He wasn’t really telling me, just talking out loud.
“I don’t understand.”
He set down his cell phone on the counter and knelt down to untie his shoes. Rain was knocking against the windows and I imagined it was the Grim Reaper’s fingers, and I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. Mark dropped the conversation, right next to his Nikes.
It was never brought up again. It didn’t need to be. Because I did understand.
“Kristina,” she whispered. It was Christmas Eve a year ago. Mark and I drove from Brooklyn to Connecticut to visit his father. It was their traditional holiday dinner. Expensive and lonely. Cassie was seated next to me; Mark was across from us. Everybody seemed porcelain and fragile and swallowed up by the long table covered in white linen, wine glasses, clove-stuffed oranges, pinecones and polished silver. Cinnamon sticks burned. Cassie repeated my name, “Kristina,” and touched my knee. Eventually I turned to her, and she lowered her chin and looked up at me.
“You have a brother right?”
“Almost, a little older than Mark. He’s thirty-three.”
“Don’t you wish you were with him on Christmas?”
I glanced up where Mark was standing opening champagne. “Santa Baby” rang out through the speakers.
The cork hissed, made a small pop.
“Do you ever think about him?” She looked right through me with Windex-colored eyes.
I was silent for a moment. She didn’t move, holding my gaze.
“About my brother?” I repeated her question.
“I think about Mark. I worry about him. Because of you.” Her voice was cold water that seeped into the pores on my body. “I’d like to meet your brother,” she finished.
I think that in another life, we could have been friends.
Her hand remained on my knee. Her teeth bared a bit. Her lashes fluttered. The snowflakes fell. She was coming undone. It was like watching an iceberg break and it was breathtaking in the way that nature is.
Mark’s hair was curly that night, casual, but his suit was pressed, and he had on a twinkling star pin. My ass was red under my dress from him spanking me. A lingering reminder of foreplay and festive lights.
Cassie stood up like a hungry polar bear and their aunt began talking on my left about a homeless man she watched her dog urinate on the last time she walked him unleashed. Their father sat silent in an armchair in the corner of the room, tapping his cane on the wooden floor. He tried to stand when Cassie did, but Mark was bigger than him now and set the champagne bottle down hard and my shoulder blades came together quickly behind me. Their father slipped back into the grey upholstery.
I know I should just hit her. We dance slow, back and forth. Locked in and scratching out. I lick my lips and the space between us is palpable. I can taste it. Touch it. The room is pulsating. I raise my right hand, and she steps in closer, and I step closer, and I am close enough to see her pupils dilating. I owe her this, and so out of some kind of debt I hit her as hard as I can across the face and it feels instead like someone punched me in the gut when I strike her. I draw in air sharply, and she takes it like I did earlier and moves in. Cars go past outside. It is not even noon.
She is instantly on top of me. The floor is wood and we both hit it hard. I feel a ripping and I think it’s the space between us, but it’s my hair, and so I’m pulling at her shirt, grabbing at her face and she knocks my head down once, twice, on the floor and spits on me, and still, still I wonder if her saliva tastes like him. She is twenty-two. I am twenty-four.
I pull my knee up and slam it into her back. She slides her forearm across my throat and leans into it, putting immense pressure on my windpipe. I wiggle and thrust an elbow into her lower belly, and she bends into the pain, her hair brushes my face and it smells like Moroccan oil.
The key is still in my hand and my father’s voice in my head, but this is not a criminal in the middle of the night. This is a girl who loves her brother. And I am a girl that also loves him, but differently, and I am a girl that made a very regretful decision with his best friend and I still regret. I regret, I regret…
My vision is blurry, and my mouth is full of blood. Cassie’s bottom lip is split and bleeding. Her face is contorted and beginning to bruise above me while her knees remain on my breasts, pinning me down and crushing into my chest cavity.
I came here for penance and maybe this is it. My eyes are watering, and I don’t know if it’s pain, or sadness, and she is snarling, and I realize something.
The realization empties my body.
I realize that somehow, we are all just trying to touch someone we lost. And we try through other people.
We all try. You. Me.
And I just touched Mark. I close my eyes and it could be him on top of me.
I got what I came here for.
I got what I needed.
It’s over now.
I will be alright when she gets up off me, when she backs away, and she touches her ribs tenderly, and then her lips. I will be alright when I ease myself up to a sitting position, knees up, feet planted. Blood on the bleached white floor. Cassie will be alright, standing up, about five feet away. A sliver of sunlight will pierce through the window, illuminating dust particles and the division between us.
I will be ok when I unclench my fist, and let the key drop.
I will be ok when she and I look at each other steady in the eyes from across the room.
Both of us holding up the weight of the entire world.
Listening to the church bells toll.
The sound that finally broke the silence.
Kathryn Morrill has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia College of Chicago. She tends to write about strange obsessions, power exchanges, disintegration, sex and birds. She has previously been published with WhiskeyPaper, Bluestockings, Criminal Class Press and Hair Trigger amongst others. Tweet @Morrilldilemma. Instagram: Morrilldilemma.