To celebrate tomorrow’s launch of Mangrove Journal‘s winter 2017 issue, here’s part of the story I wrote that wormed its way in. It’s incredibly long, so I’ll post it in two segments. This also happens to be the first part of my novella, Take of My Body. So to be dramatic: without further ado, I present my dearest story, “Hair.”
They’re out for a morning jog—I’ve been listening to their swishy athletic shorts and jaunty voices bouncing somewhere behind me for the last five minutes. The soles of their shoes tap-tap-tap against the worn asphalt. Then they leap neatly out of the empty street and up onto the sidewalk that I’m beating with the heels of my sneakers. I angle my shoulders forward, trying to fold my body in half, and let the hood hang further into my face.
They’re athletes, so they’ve wrangled their hair away from their sweaty foreheads with hair ties and headbands. Two have the typical high ponytails that generally float around campus, but the other one has woven her high pony into a thick braid. It wags, subdued, against the back of her skull, threaded with artificial highlights. They’re all pretty close to blonde, but Braid Girl’s hair is the darkest, a dusty almost-brown made dirtier by the bleach she drowned a few select strands in.
I shake my head a little. Damaged hair won’t do. She was adventurous enough with the braid. Best not to go too far.
They’re still close enough that I can study them, but in another block or so, it’ll be too suspicious for me to follow. I use this opportunity to let my eyes roll back toward the other girls’ high ponies. They’re nearly indistinguishable—as most blonde ponytails are—but their hair is fluttery and soft, feathery in a way that seems to propel their ‘tails from their backs. They stuck to simplicity and tradition.
Both will do.
The three of them charge across the street, heads pivoting to search for the glint of windshields in the tepid morning sunshine. Their hair swings, three metronomes to keep time with the beat of their tennis shoes. They pass an emergency kiosk and don’t look behind at where I stop, feet still against the textured tile at the edge of the curb, so I don’t duck my head or stifle my eyes. I let them burrow into the girls’ backs, dark and drowning in the hollows of my eye sockets. The hood slips back further, the threads grating against my ears. A few stubby strands of my hair quiver in the fresh air. I shove them back into the hood, drop my head, and stalk off.
There’s a soft smattering of raindrops across the window pane when I get back to my room that night. The streetlights play in it, dancing and splashing in the remnants of the rain that they’d strained against. I stand in the center of my room and stare, wide-eyed and out of focus, at the place where the floor slams into the wall. A car goes by, its wheezing exhaust raking fingers through the stagnant air. The molecules knock into one another, violent actors unknowingly tangled in a real-life Newton’s cradle. They tumble down the street.
The only sound in the world is the shrieking of the streetlights.
I pull my sweater off and let gravity take it. It collapses on the thin carpet, the hood deflated, and the arms thrown wide in a great shrug. We share a gaze.
Standing there in my bra and baggy jeans, I don’t know either.
I have a strong appreciation for mornings.
College campuses may flood with emotion and alcohol during the night, but once the world flips over, and the morning flops down upon the empty people and drooling cans, everything except the sun stops crawling for just a few hours. This is when I resume haunting the campus, picking up where I left off when the night trailed off into ellipsis.
This morning is much more curious. There’s a little more than the soft warmth of a new day permeating my body: something dark blue sinks its fangs into my sternum and hangs there. Its lithe body swings, simultaneously assaulting my belly and making my pounding heart go shaky.
The bridge. That’s where I left off, too perplexed by existence and coincidence to venture further. I slip on a fresh sweater and last night’s jeans, jabbing feet into shoes. I don’t even bother to tug the hood up—even the early birds are still drowning in their coffee.
The bridge is a few blocks from my apartment—much, much closer than I’ve ever turned back before. I’ve never felt so accomplished, not even on those nights I hung in trees above star-awed lovers reveling in the air in their lungs, words running like fishing line from their mouths to the lips of their companion. They stick there, you know, hooked through the recipient’s lips, so that even after they close their ears to the night and say their goodbyes, the words stay with them as muttered things and pathetically hopeful smiles. I’ve been there for their walks home, lingering in the shadows and watching them drag their lines back to the places they feel safe. I’ve been in those places too, when those words are ripped from them, not even a goodbye to snap the line.
But there were no words last night, not loving at least. There was only “don’t” and “please.” A lot of “please.” Not that any of them lingered. Feeling ignored, they probably slipped off the bridge and into the pond we all call “the Lakes.” Or maybe they were eaten by the creatures even night prefers not to notice. If anyone witnessed their demise, it was probably her, but I won’t ask her for that when she’s already given so much.
I’ve never had such beautiful hair in my pocket.
The night is buzzing. The local news burns blue across every television screen. Those who aren’t enraptured by the exotic ideas of murder and suicide stare at the screen. Their eyes are dry from tracking grim-faced reporters with the bridge arching just behind their microphones as though stretching its spine.
Braid Girl and her two friends sit quietly on the couch in their apartment, wringing one another’s damp hands. Their eyes are luminous and churning. They’re no doubt trapped in a loop of their own, hearing the crunching of their running shoes upon the debris on the brick path. The blood they saw pooled around her glimmers in front of their eyes like a cruel mirage. The blue from the television makes it look black.
I don’t stay with them long. There are police officers with searchlight eyes scouring campus, and a hood peeking out of the shrubbery at three girls is the kind of thing people look for.
I ooze out from between the bushes and walk back toward the sidewalk. It’s still early, but it’s as silent as it was last night. All the little party animals and late joggers are tucked away and whispering over the news of the dead girl at the bridge.
My head swivels toward the Lakes and the bridge and the dark stain that refused to budge against all cleaners. My hand sneaks into my pocket, touching a slight strand.
None of the gossip has mentioned that she was missing hair. Either the police think it’s just from a struggle, or they’re just keeping it to themselves and waiting for someone’s lips to say, “hair,” so they can say, “GOTCHA,” and bolt that person’s wrists together before spurring her off to jail.
I really shouldn’t have taken it, but opportunities like that are so rare that I’d already taken the hair before my eyes looked away from the shadows to see my hands cradling an entire fourth of her mane. My fingers picked the sheets of scalp off the roots, but my eyes flicked back to the other side of the bridge, chasing after the shadow with the flashing blade and the thunderous feet.
I searched for him last night, only twenty or so hours after we met for the first time. The only people roaming campus, though, had badges and flashlights, which they brandished at shadows formed by looming trees and menacing waist-high shrubs. Even I was jumpy, never mind the guy who had been so nervous he slit someone’s throat when a small shadow moved. I gave up early, figuring that he was more likely to be hiding in his dorm than he was to be wandering the grounds late for a second night in a row.
But this morning I pick up at the bridge again. I’m about a hundred meters away from it, when I see a silhouette at its crest. His head is down, chin to chest. His upper body is oddly still while his left leg swings like a pendulum, scuffing at the bricks blackened by her blood.
The fanged blue thing quivers against my chest. He could be anyone, though, I remind myself. My heart sputters at the idea of options. A boyfriend. A friend. Someone she lent notes to once. Even someone who hadn’t known her name until death had granted her its notoriety, someone who was just a little too late to gawk at the scene of the crime while it was still fresh.
His leg stops swinging, and his hand, previously flat against the side of his thigh, raises and, hesitantly, prods something in his pocket. Then pats it, check-check-checking to make sure that it’s still there.
He’s very unobservant for someone whose life is in danger.
First, he didn’t notice me at the bridge. He was oblivious throughout the day, while I stalked him between the bodies of our peers. He didn’t even seem to know that I followed him home, just as the sun was beginning to set. I’m sitting in a tree just outside his window now, a few scant feet from where he sits at his desk, eyes drooping by the light of his laptop. I mean, I’ve done this to dozens of people before, but it’s just particularly amusing that this kid—who should be vigilant, lest a cop swoop out of nowhere and chant the Miranda rights or strangle him with a pair of handcuffs—doesn’t feel my eyes on him. He doesn’t even seem interested in the outside world, despite the fact that he was a predator stalking through it forty-three hours ago.
He could just feed off of adrenaline, not the actual feeling of taking a life or whatever killers fantasize of during their trysts with midnight thoughts. If it’s just adrenaline that he craves, he’ll probably be sated for a while. I’m sure all the gleaming badges milling about campus are enough for his own blue beast to spit torrents into his veins. Letting the screen of his laptop use the lens of his eyes to soften his brain a bit is probably a relief from everything he must endure now, poor thing.
I want him to come out.
I do nothing, though—because what can I do? How does one get a murderer to come out and play? Does one whisper in their ears, “I know,” and wait for their eyes to spark with terror or violence? Or does one just hang-in-there-baby? I figure that the latter is my best option. If he knew that someone knew that he was the murderer, he could run, and that would be unfortunate.
He’ll come out eventually. Scared or not, he’s had a taste of the night. There’s no way to completely rinse that from your mouth once it’s on your tongue.
When I see him in the mornings, he looks pale, has dark spots surrounding his eyes, doesn’t seem to actually see the things around him most of the time.
I have a new theory: he doesn’t look over his shoulder constantly because he’s too busy staring straight ahead, eyes unmoving, denying and denying so that he can distance himself from the handle of the knife that dug into her throat. Maybe he’s even distanced himself so much that, if someone says his name, he can reply, “Who’s that?”
The hair in my pocket is frizzy from waiting on him now. It’s been ninety-three hours, and he hasn’t been back out after dark. How can we be kindred spirits if he doesn’t go back outside, even since the police have slunk away to search for murderers in town instead of murderers on campus?
In the mornings, I often wonder how he found himself on the bridge that night, holding a knife to that girl’s throat and jumping at the sound of my footsteps.