Second Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018
Rivka sees the girl before the girl sees anyone. The girl stands at the bus stop, dressed awkwardly. Not that her clothes are awkward, but rather that they seem as if they aren’t quite right upon her body. She tugs at the corners, caught between her fingers, holding so tightly that had the clothes been sharp, she’d be bleeding. Rivka stares. The girl walks up to the bus doors, one hand touching her side. Rivka thinks gun first. Then she thinks wound. Then she thinks baby, as if the girl is trying to hold something fragile and small inside herself. The bus isn’t going to the hospital. The girl asks. Quiet voice like humming low. She steps backwards from the doors. Tugging the cloth, pressing her side. Rivka stares at her, even after the bus pulls away taking Rivka with it.
Rivka believes in angels but not the pretty ones. She believes in the ones that destroy things. The ones that avenge without warning. The righteous ones. Sometimes she sees people and knows that they are angels. They are waiting for her. She thinks the girl might have been one of them.
Rivka gets to work where she is a no one. She works at a restaurant but isn’t a waitress. She is the cashier. She takes people’s payments when they don’t want to wait at their tables for their waitresses to return, or when they are just a little paranoid about the waiter who takes their credit card to swipe it. What if he takes a second too long and, in that second, he is busy writing down their numbers? Rivka always smiles at the customers, but she feels that it is the smile of one forced to smile out of duty to her job and it is reflected in the smile of the customers who are forced to smile at her out of duty to politeness. She works her shift that night with the smile even more forced. It seems to take her mouth a moment longer than usual to register that she requires it to turn upwards and all that ends up coming out is a sort of grimace.
Her boss takes her aside to talk.
“Are you alright?”
Rivka says, “Yes.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
She says, “I’m tired, not feeling well.” She doesn’t say that it feels as if ice is being forced down her throat and that it drips into her stomach and feels like a weight, feels like stones.
Her boss nods, understanding, thinking it is probably woman’s troubles. That’s what he calls it when talking about his wife, that she is having woman troubles, or sometimes he will say that she is on her feminine problems. He says, “Rivka, go home early. I don’t want to scare off the customers.” He laughs.
She tries to laugh. It comes out strange and sharp, like the wrong note being played at the wrong speed.
Rivka takes the bus home. She doesn’t like it at night, though. It isn’t annoying like it is during the day. It is just wrong at night. The reflections of people in the windows always look as if pieces of their faces are going missing, slowly being eaten up by the darkness of the night. She also doesn’t like the way that the city blinks in and out around her: the car lights and the street lights and the building lights. It is like the world isn’t there really; it is some light-up mockery that only is pretending to be her city and not very well since it flickers so often. She sits by herself on one of the side rows. People usually take the back and the front first and that suits her. She doesn’t like to sit too close to anyone. Sometimes the smell of someone’s perfume will send her into fits of weeping though she can’t quite name why.
Her sister had never worn much perfume. Yet, she always smelled of some slight sweetness, like flowers from a distance or like the violet syrup their mother made for their sore throats. The liquid light, sugary, and smelling of the first blades of summer.
Rivka arrives at home and doesn’t know what to do. She is so used to spending her nights at work that the apartment seems somehow foreign and uncomfortable. It is like she is intruding onto the life of the shadow-Rivka who lives the opposite life of her, the one who arrives home when it is early evening and who cooks her own meals and who curls up on the couch with a cop show and a partner and a dog who sleeps on her feet. Rivka tiptoes, though no one is there, not wishing to disturb the life she might have been living. She opens the fridge and drinks a glass of orange juice while standing by the sink. She rinses her glass as soon as it is empty, placing it onto the dish rack and wincing at the slight clink-sound it makes.
She goes to her bedroom and steps into her closet. There is a tiny box, one of those wooden cigar ones that even empty still retains the smell of richness, at the very back and she picks it up. There are things inside it which she usually does not think about.
Her sister was named Kat, short for Katarina. She was beautiful in the way that some girls are; it was unexplainable and there was no one feature to point to and say oh, well, her face was all about her eyes or her lips were just so full. Kat was beauty personified. She carried light. Not everyone noticed it—the way she glimmered and shone when the sun hit her—but everyone appreciated it even when they couldn’t quite put their finger on why she so captivated them. Rivka was younger, though she isn’t any longer. Her love for her sister used to consume her. She imagined Kat as a fire who could burn and burn but never quite turn Rivka to ashes. They came to this city when they were young. Her parents took the girls and little else from their old home. A few photos, a few trinkets, which in the years to come, would get sold or broken. All they wanted was the safety of somewhere new. The security that came with the blankness of starting over.
They shared a tiny apartment. Two bedrooms, which could have been closets. Her parents in one and the sisters in one. Rivka liked the warmth of Kat’s body at night. It reminded her that she was alive when she was woken from sleep by the nightmares. In her nightmares she was always buried under snow. There was always so much snow. She’d wake shivering, so hard her teeth chattered like a cup full of dice and Kat would always wake up with her. Kat would never say anything, just nod and wrap her light-filled arms around Rivka, letting the light wash over them until Rivka was warm. That was Kat’s power, she could bend the light, make it stronger, seep it into another person, if she wanted to. Rivka would snuggle closer to Kat. Then Kat would nod again, just once, as if to say that everything would be alright. It was always enough.
The pictures in the box all smell of tobacco. They smell warm like Rivka could put them under her pillow on the coldest night of the year and she wouldn’t need the heat on. They are all pictures of that in-between time: after they moved and before the end of her family. A man had once told her that families all end but in different ways. He said he was paraphrasing a book. He said that his family ended when his brother came out as gay. He said they couldn’t ever quite go back to what they had been when he was a child. She had stared at him, wondering at something so simple, so human, could make a family fall apart. He had still had his brother and should that not be enough for him? She had wondered at the ways that childhood ends. They must all be different as well.
The photo she is looking for is of her sister, the last time that she was her sister. Kat is standing at the park, she is sixteen, and her hair is cut short. She had liked the dramatic style of some actress in a television show that she watched, though Rivka found it boring and emotional and for moody girls and no one else. Kat’s bangs cut across her eyes and a lock of hair curls up under her chin. She is wearing shorts and a t-shirt that has a band’s name across the front. Rivka has never known the name of the band; it’s obscured by Kat’s arms. She wonders sometimes if she had even known it then. If she had ever actually studied a single piece of Kat’s clothing. Rivka has never cared for clothing. It is something to keep away the cold, not for looking at. Kat is being Kat in the photo. She is half-smiling, half-looking defiant. Rivka wants to reach into the picture and touch her sister’s face. To feel the smoothness of her skin, the perfection of it in that moment. Photographs do not show how Kat glowed. Rivka wonders why. If Kat was like a living optical illusion or if she was like the stars. In photos, stars just look like pinpricks of white.
It must have happened not so long after the photo was taken, Rivka thinks, trying to remember. Kat didn’t show up home one night. Rivka was worried. Her parents were not, or if they were they did not show it to Rivka. They believed in this new home. They believed in angels who helped people to escape, angels who protected those who asked for help. Kat was found the next day. Someone, a Good Samaritan who found her, took her to the hospital. They left her there, alone. Rivka hated them the most for this. She saw no good in this Good Samaritan. Her parents spoke in whispers. They spoke the language of home, the language that Rivka was already losing the flow of; it slipped from her tongue’s memory a little more each day, like fingernails growing so long that they broke. She went in to see Kat, though her parents did not want her to. Not yet, they said as if time could make a difference.
The cut ran across Kat’s face, starting at her hairline and travelling diagonally down to under her ear. It was jagged. It looked like a crack made by some earthquake of the skin. Kat was no longer Kat. She may have had the same body, but Rivka knew there was nothing of her sister there. Un-Kat looked up at her and tried to speak. She did not speak.
Rivka puts the photos away. She is certain that she was looking for something, that she had intended to find something out, but she isn’t sure what. She thinks it is because of the bus girl. The maybe-angel. Rivka rushes to the bathroom and vomits into the toilet. She is trying to get rid of everything that is inside her. She stays on the bathroom floor, cold tiles pressed into her legs until she can feel the sharp pangs of her muscles clenching in her legs. She pulls herself to her feet, dizzy. She brushes her teeth with too much toothpaste and ends up swallowing some, brushes until she can taste blood mixed in with the Mint Burst flavoring. She spits pink foam into the sink and rinses her mouth out until she tastes nothing.
She dreams again that she is falling. She dreamt this often as a child. She dreams that she is falling into snow. The snow isn’t really like snow. It’s hot like a bath just run. The snow perhaps is bubbles. Except that it cuts her skin. Scrapes against her until she is raw. This is where the dream used to end, but it doesn’t now. The snow bubbles begin to bleed with her. The red overtakes the white. The white disappears. There is only the red. The red. It slips into her mouth and she tries to spit it out. The red drips into her eyes. It stings. She fights against the weight of her own body falling. She doesn’t have the strength. She closes her eyes against the red and sees her sister. Her sister and the river. Rivka wakes up and the bed around her is cool.
Rivka never eats breakfast. She sometimes wonders, though, if this just means that she eats her breakfast at lunch time then her lunch at dinner and that she is perpetually behind by one meal and will never quite catch up. She goes to the grocery store. It is only a block away and she enjoys walking there. Her neighborhood is pleasant. There is a park across from her building and often she sees children playing and their parents are not bothered to come around and watch them. This is what safety in surroundings gives you, the ability to be absent-minded, to not watch your children growing because you think you will always be able to watch them. Rivka likes the children on the swings best. They always seem like they are about to take flight. If they just get high enough then they will be able to jump off and fly south.
She walks to the store and the sky outside seems extra blue. She wonders if she could fly, if the blue would feel colder than days when the sky has a tinge of pink to it. Does the sky know that it is changing?
The store is a small one, run by a family. They have many children who all take turns working at the counter. Rivka knows each of their names though she has never called any of them by name. She keeps their names, waiting one day for one of them to ask for hers. She wants to say, my name is Rivka and you are Peter or Lily or Aidan or Louisa. They range in age from fourteen-ish to mid-twenties and she marvels at the way this family has all stayed in one place. It is as if they are bound to each other by something. Maybe it is the place that they are kept together by. Maybe that is the key to every relationship, just to stay in one place.
She goes through each aisle slowly. She only goes shopping once every two weeks and refuses to return even if she has forgotten something. Rivka has always believed that doing without is a sign of some kind of strength of character, though she has never been sure what kind of sign exactly. She picks up a bottle of cranberry juice and studies it. She loves sour things, she loves the way that sour makes her tongue ache. It’s a quick kind of pain that goes away instantly. She sees the girl out of the corner of her eye. It is the girl from the bus stop, but not really. It is a girl who almost looks like she could be the maybe-angel, almost exactly. Rivka thinks it is her at first. That the maybe-angel’s power is to never look quite the same. Then she thinks it is her imagination. Then she thinks oh, sisters, and she knows that this is right. She knows it like the time she knew that the knocking on the door meant something terrible or the time that she knew that dirt covering a wooden box, that sound of shhpp-shhpp as the dirt hit the casket after slipping through her mother’s fingers, meant an eternity of doing without the thing she loved. She had almost howled at the box as it was lowered. But, she hadn’t, she had only almost, and the dirt she would not touch, she let her parents toss it down instead, their hands becoming stained with it. Rivka saw those stains on them for days. She wouldn’t eat anything her parents touched.
She walks up to the girl who is staring at something without really seeing it. “Excuse me,” Rivka says. The girl doesn’t hear her. Rivka is used to this, she speaks quietly. No one ever hears her on the first try. “Excuse me,” Rivka says it again just a little bit louder.
The girl turns to her, surprised, “Yes?”
Rivka isn’t sure how to ask the question so she just asks it, “You have a sister?"
The girl nods.
“She’s alright?” Rivka asks.
The girl shakes her head, confused, there are tears attempting to swallow her eyes, but they don’t fall. The girl says, “You know Elena?”
“I saw her waiting for the bus. She was…” Rivka says. She wants to say more. She wants to tell the girl how she knew immediately what was wrong. How she had wanted to run and grab Elena and hold her and tell her that this world is not as broken as it seems. But she hadn’t done that because she thought the girl may have been an angel, may have been coming for her, and so she feels that saying so will show her as the coward that she is.
“She’s in the hospital now,” the girl says. “I wanted to get her something but I don’t know what I should get her, you know? I thought something sweet because sweet seems like something she needs, but it also seems wrong because how could she even taste the sweet anymore?”
Rivka looks around. She wants to find the perfect object to give the girl for her sister. She wants to say This will make everything better. She sees nothing. Then she says, “Take her anything, she will know what you mean.”
The girl studies Rivka’s face. She doesn’t just look at her like everyone does, forgetting Rivka’s features the moment that they turn away from her. She actually studies her as if wanting to make sure to remember her. The girl tries to smile. It doesn’t quite come off as a smile but Rivka knows what the girl means. She tries to smile back and their smiles are reflections of one another.
Rivka watches the girl walking away. She wonders why she has never thought about how there are so many different ways for people to walk away. Her mother walking out of a room once and turning back to wave at her father. Her mother had been smiling, Rivka and Kat were young and curled up on the floor, and her father was telling stories to them. They were always stories about children finding magical objects which saved the day. Oh, that one story, about the mountain made of glass with the well at the top. And in the bottom of the well was the water of life. Rivka had loved that story. She had loved her father’s voice most when he was telling that story. Now when she thought of her father, his voice was the clearest that she remembered. There was the time that she saw her grandmother for the last time as they were leaving to their new home. Her grandmother would not come with them. She turned from them and walked back into the house. Her walk was like the walk of a warrior returning one last time to battle. There was Kat’s walk. The one Rivka never saw. The walk into the river at night, the water covering her slowly. There was Rivka’s own walk, away, away, away.
She pays for her groceries. The girl behind the counter smiles at her as she takes her money.
“Are you alright?” she asks Rivka. Rivka looks at the girl. She is the oldest of the children, the one probably the closest to Rivka’s own age, maybe a year younger or two. Lily.
She tries to never lie to people, she speaks around the truth, and so she just replies, “I’m tired, thank you for asking.”
Lily nods, but Rivka can tell she wants to ask more, and so leaves quickly.
She walks past the children on the swings. She wants to hear her mother’s voice, calling to her to come in. How long has it been since she has heard her mother’s voice? Her mother’s real voice, not the one which picks up the telephone and sounds like an empty room.
Rivka gets home and wants to shower. She wants to wash away the encounter she had with the girl whose sister lies in a hospital somewhere, wants to see the encounter come off in some sort of physical way, maybe the water will run into the drain and be a different color after it has been on her skin.
The shower runs hot. It always seems to waver between two options: icy and burning. She lets it burn this time. Her skin slowly turning red. She remembers how Kat came home from the hospital and took a shower that lasted three hours. Until their mother picked the bathroom lock, ca-chh ca-chh click, and went in to check on her. Her skin had actually been scalded. Red welts blossomed across her like bee stings. Rivka had wanted to get clay to spread across Kat. The clay would pull the stingers out, she had thought. But she did nothing. That was something she would have done for the old Kat, the real Kat. Maybe, Kat had thought the river was the only way to get clean.
Her mother later would ask her over and over again, how did you not feel when she left the bed? How did you not feel it? Rivka would not say how far into the corner of the mattress she had pressed herself, how she could not bear the thought of their skin meeting unexpectedly in the night. There was no one there for her to feel leave the bed. No one she wanted to feel.
Rivka steps out of the shower and examines herself in the mirror. Her body seems strangely foreign suddenly. She has no scars. She has never really cut herself. She has never broken anything. There is a cool sort of perfection to her skin. She realizes that no one outside of her family has ever seen her completely naked. Her mother used to bathe her and Kat together. They would sit in a tub of bubbles giggling wildly as each took turns getting their heads dunked under the water. She had always loved seeing Kat’s skin. The way it glowed so brightly, not enough to hurt the eyes but enough so that they never needed flashlights to walk outside at night. As a child this had made sense to her. There wasn’t anything strange about the light her sister gave off. She had assumed that this was something that some people were just able to do. Only later did she realize that Kat was the only one who did this. Only after Kat’s skin stopped beaming. She became so dull that even the river water couldn’t make her shimmer.
Rivka doesn’t notice that she’s doing it until after she has done it. She has made a single small cut at the front of her hairline with the file on her nail clippers. She doesn’t even remember picking up the clippers. The blood drips down her face. It feels warm and gentle. She rinses off her face, the blood turns the water a light pinkish color. It swirls down the drain.
Rivka dreams that night of running bare foot. Her legs ache even in her dream. She is running through hills of snow. She knows that she is looking for a mountain. She sees it always in the distance, the glass peaks sparkling under moonlight. The mountain glows.
Rivka wakes to silence. The sun is just rising and the light creeps through her window blinds. A slant of light falls across her bed, directly over her thighs. She can feel the warmth of the sun even through her blankets. It feels like someone lying across her. As a child, she had loved the moments when Kat would turn over in her sleep and her limbs would find themselves flung across Rivka. Rivka had always felt safest when she was touching someone else.
Before Rivka heads to work, she checks her face in the mirror, pulls the scab from the cut and lets it bleed for a second before carefully placing a Band-Aid on it. She already longs to be at home and ripping it off again.
The bus ride is uneventful. Though she feels a strange sort of jolt when they pass the stop where the girl had been. At work, no one asks about the Band-Aid. It’s highly likely that no one even notices. She takes payments, she nods at the customers, she thanks them, she puts a smile on.
“Hey, you’re the girl from the store.”
She doesn’t immediately recognize this woman away from where she was supposed to be. It’s Lily. Rivka doesn’t know how to respond.
“I work at the grocery store?” Lily says, as if prompting Rivka to know her.
“Yes,” Rivka says.
“I didn’t know you worked here. It’s a nice restaurant.”
“Yes,” Rivka says.
“I’m Lily, by the way.”
“I’m Rivka,” she says, feeling silly because her name tag has probably already let her know this. But there is something soothing about saying a name aloud. It’s a release that she hasn’t felt in a long time.
“I know. Your name comes up on your receipts. I always wanted to ask you how to pronounce it. It’s beautiful.”
Rivka stares at Lily. She wants to smile. She wants to smile but she knows that a smile can be dangerous. She heard her mother saying it, she must have smiled at them, you know that smile, she didn’t know any better! Her mother pleading with her father. They had to blame something, why not blame it all on the way that someone’s lips turned up?
“Would you ever want to maybe get something to eat or something?” Lily asks. She has a quiet voice. She sounds like telling stories before going to bed, like whispering in the library, like calm.
“Yes,” Rivka says, but wants to take the word back. She didn’t mean to let it escape.
Lily smiles. They exchange numbers. She has never given her number to anyone who has asked for it. She wants Lily to call her but hopes that she doesn’t; she doesn’t know what she would say. She is not sure that there is anything that she could say.
She rides the bus home after work. Everyone’s reflections seem to be staring at her. Their shapeless and dark eyes following her. She stares at her feet. Her shoes are scuffed. She’s never noticed how scuffed they are. The fabric is cracking.
“Miss, are you okay?” A man asks, his hand touching her shoulder.
She flinches away from him. The touch sent a feeling like bugs down her skin. Bugs with sharp little feet, like needles pricking her skin. She tries to say something, apologize to him, but it comes out as a strange sort of hiss. The man steps away from her.
At home, she has a message waiting for her. A woman’s voice, quiet, Lily’s. She listens to it and wonders how someone would want her. Can no one see how ugly her skin is? It’s so smooth. It’s marked by having no marks. It is the skin of a coward, of a fool, of the worst kind of person. The kind who betrays. Angels could see it. She is sure. The angels could see it and they would want to burn her, to bury her.
Rivka goes into the bathroom. She takes out her nail clippers, and places it to her face, she begins to cut. Then a hand on her shoulder. She turns. Kat stands behind her.
She stands and her face is still covered in a gaping wound. A fissure of red skin. “What are you doing, my sister?”
It has been a lifetime since she has heard her sister’s voice and the sound of it makes Rivka feel like falling, like listening to the sounds of night—all the insects and birds that no one knows are there.
“What I couldn’t before. So you will forgive me.”
“For what?” Kat asks. She is genuine. She is concerned.
“I never touched you.”
Kat shakes her head, she smiles, and says, “So touch me now.”
Rivka reaches out and touches the scar. It feels hot as fire.
“Your hands are so cool,” Kat says.
As Rivka moves her finger over the wound, the red skin begins to fall off. It leaves behind fresh skin, a little pink but smooth. “Oh,” she says.
The sisters stare at each other. They glow. And then, from Kat, a single nod, as if she is bowing her head to keep from staring at the sun.
Chloe N. Clark's work appears in Booth, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-editor-in-chief of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and her debut chapbook The Science of Unvanishing Objects is out from Finishing Line Press. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.
Second Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018