Blood in the Water

          They had gone out for a drink, once, a long time ago. For Michaela, the world had stilled that night, her neurons reorganized themselves, and she found purpose outside of the dull existence of daily life. They had walked out into the world together––she a step ahead and an inch taller––but she didn’t think it mattered. Yes, that drink happened a long time ago. Over a year ago, although she hated to think about that. She liked to remember it as if it had just passed, as if every morning was the morning after, as if they still had a beginning to get back to.

          Her heart would sing at the sight of him every time she walked into work. They sat next to each other, working in the membership office of the Natural History Museum. It was a small department, housing only eight people. Intimate, Michaela thought. Close, she hummed. Frank was the only man in the department, and the only straight man who worked on the entire floor that their offices were on. He was noticed. He was seen. In another world, perhaps one in a tall, shining office building downtown, Frank would fade, his eyes would seem simply brown, and no one would pick up on the speckles of green and gold. His rarely washed hair would smell of recognizable sweat, not of mysterious pheromones.

          He was like blood in the water, a coworker once said. Women swam around him hungry in a way they wouldn’t be if there were more options. Michaela knew that some women were like that with Frank, but she didn’t think it applied to her relationship with him. She was different. She loved him because of who he was, because of the way his mind moved, not because he was the only man in her line of vision.

          She couldn’t believe it, but she had now spent two years of her life working with him, watching him. The days kept floating by, she couldn’t grasp onto them. She spent them answering calls from confused and angry members, and calling people whose memberships had lapsed. Between calls she would read Science Magazine, Nautilis, or the Scientific American. While her coworkers dazed through the day on Facebook or listening to music on YouTube, she enriched herself. Her synapses would spark and tingle as she read about the mapping of the genome, the theories of Julian Jaynes, or how Elephant seals can recognize each other’s accents. 

          It was a morning in November when she decided that although she had asked Frank several times about getting a second drink, a few times to see a new movie, and even once to attend an art opening, that today was the day he would finally say yes. There was a change in the air, she could feel it. The tide was turning her way. It was Friday and the air was misty and tasted of salt, reminding her that Manhattan was an island, surrounded by powerful estuaries pouring into the Atlantic. She breathed the heavy air deep into her lungs. 

          Walking to work, she remembered that she had woken up startled in the night. She had been dreaming of Frank, as she often did. She was dreaming of the way he lazily stretched his arms above his head as he leaned back in his chair, revealing the delicate hairs that grew on his stomach. Her mind focused on the softness of his skin there, of being able to touch it with her lips. She woke up suddenly, her body still rapt in the illusion. It was just dawn, the sky a deep purple. There was a soreness in her teeth burrowing itself down through her jaw, it was new, and odd, but dull enough that she fell back asleep, hoping Frank would come again into her dreams. 

          Stepping through the door of the membership office, she saw Frank was already there. Eating his usual egg sandwich, mouth opening wide for it. She plopped her bag down on her seat, the seat to the right of Frank. They didn’t have the same job, although it was hard to tell. The members she called were of a different level; the dollar amounts on her screen had more zeros than his. 

          Frank was five years older than her at thirty-four. He didn’t seem to care that most of the people he worked with were younger, or that he was the only man who worked in the eight-person membership department. He seemed fine with it all. Happy it would pay his share of the rent for the apartment he split with two other men, both slightly younger than him, in a walk-up in Queens. He was unambitious in a way that made Michaela’s muscles relax. That made her dream of lazy Sunday mornings with crossword puzzles, badly cooked scrambled eggs and different sections of the same paper. In Michaela’s mind, he was on his way to becoming an eccentric intellectual. The kind of man who was brilliant, but didn’t feel forced to do anything with that brilliance. He could just sit with it and let others take charge or try to change the world.

          He looked up, his mouth was too full to answer her hello but he nodded his head and raised his eyebrows. His murky green eyes were kind, as always. So beautiful in their confusing color.

          Just as she was settling in, rubbing her jaw in annoyance more than worry, The New Girl walked in. The New Girl had started at the membership desk five weeks ago. She had long, honey-blond hair that fell to her waist. She was small, smaller than Frank, and looked up at him with large, chocolate brown doe eyes. She was new to the museum as well as to New York, and there was too much she didn’t know. Michaela found her abrasively dull.  It was exhausting explaining the world to her. The New Girl had once even asked her, thankfully in hushed and frightful tones, to explain Hanukkah. The New Girl was from Northern Florida.

          Michaela and The New Girl had nothing in common. Michaela was taller than the average woman, with wide hips that spilled over her office chair. She had often been told she was intimidatingly brilliant. She had electric hair. Its curls bounced, waved, and reached out, demanding the air pay deference to them. Her eyes were clear and serious, the color of ice that forms on a freshwater lake, the last shade of blue before it becomes white.

          Frank’s cheeks broke into a smile, even with his mouth full, as he turned away from Michaela. She looked over and saw how his attention swayed to The New Girl. His pale skin colored in a way Michaela would have found delightful had she not suspected the reason for it. But Frank couldn’t be interested in The New Girl. He was too discerning, too smart to go for something so obviously pretty and demure. He was being kind. Michaela knew he was simply too kind. It was often a problem he had when on the phone with members––he never knew when to push back, or how to say no. 

          Her thoughts drifted from him to the odd pain in her jaw, back to him, and then out to the misty sky, invisible from her basement perch. Despite not being able to see the outside world, she could feel the dampness in her bones, she knew that water had cast itself over New York’s archipelago. She tried to read, she tried to put on headphones, she tried to care about the difficulties facing elderly members, but his scent was so close. As soon as she could read a sentence the whole way through, he would be there in her head, calling her back to his unwashed hair, the tiny pieces of egg left in his beard, the salt of his sweat. 

          And although she was sure the feeling in her teeth was telling her that today was the day to ask him, she hadn’t yet made up her mind on how to do it. She knew that she wanted them to go on a walk, and then for it to begin raining, and for them to duck under an awning and look at each other and laugh. Should she say, “Hey Frank, I was thinking about walking through the park and taking the Q downtown instead of transferring, that’s your train, right?” Or maybe, “Hey, have you heard that Film Forum is playing––” No, no, she reminded herself. It had to be more casual. For some reason, Frank didn’t think movies were casual. 

          In the late afternoon, Michaela was coming back from the bathroom when she glimpsed the moss green sky, ready to break. She would have left already, it was past five, but she wanted The New Girl to leave first. She had just resolved to herself that the casual walk to the train was the perfect in, and she wanted a moment alone with him to ask. When Michaela left for the bathroom, The New Girl had been turning her computer off and packing her bag, so she was surely gone now. 

          But when Michaela came back to their office, The New Girl hadn’t left. In fact, Frank and The New Girl were sharing a computer, sitting together and looking at one screen. She dawdled behind them, needlessly straightening stacks of envelopes. They were looking at, a sushi restaurant, it seemed. Michaela let herself relax, and began to walk towards them. “You showing her some lunch places, Frank?” She didn’t even have to push a false sense of casualness into her voice, she genuinely felt calm. Frank looked back at her, full on. His kind, soft eyes were somehow gentler still.

          “No, actually. We’re looking at dinner places,” he said. Those were all the words he had to offer her. He had no remorse. He turned back to the computer, his eyes once again sharing a direction with those of The New Girl. The New Girl never looked back, never said a word. Michaela, too, said nothing. She tried to make some sort of noncommittal grunt, although she wasn’t sure if she was even able to make it audible. 

          She pulled herself together. Dinner places. She turned off her computer quietly. Dinner places. She ignored the coy looks The New Girl gave Frank. Dinner places. She convinced herself she was imagining the slight flush to his usually pale cheeks. Dinner places. She was able to say goodnight to them, able to force a small smile their way. Dinner places.     

         She thought of what she must have looked like to them, as she left alone. Had they craned their heads around to see her for as long as they were able? Did they know, or maybe just suspect, that she was lonely? Did Frank at least feel bad? He knew she loved him. He was too old to be so catastrophically unaware.

         Instead of walking through the dim hallways to the employee entrance, Michaela found herself entering the museum itself. She passed the dusty dioramas, filled with stuffed animals that were trying to show different stages of evolution. She couldn’t help but imagine him there with her. Leaning against the glass and raising his chin to laugh. It was pure science that made The New Girl so appealing, Michaela knew. It was in the curve of her waist, and the softness of her skin. Frank just wasn’t thinking clearly. 

         She moved still further into the museum. Into a famous room, emptied by the guards for the imminent closing. A whale hung above her, it was paper maché transfixed in space and time. Paper creatures of the sea surrounded her, some born of unimaginable darkness, and others mundane, even to the eyes of a land-dweller. She grazed her fingers against the glass that separated her from the models. She felt a longing for them, for a moment. She wanted to move with them, unblinking, in the sea. They were built for loneliness. 

          She set out to walk all the way home. It was over fifty blocks, but she wanted to climb through their caverns. She moved through the city, never stilling, never stopping. The sky was dark. The night became later and later as she walked. The mist that had covered the earth all day finally broke and became rain, invisible in the darkness. She found her way to a pocket cemetery in the middle of the block on a side street. It was tiny, long forgotten, a part of New York that didn’t exist anymore. The rain and the fall leaves poured around her feet. Walking down the block, she became less sure of time. It seemed just as plausible that she was a small girl, running home, boots splashing into puddles, afraid and exhilarated as it was that she was a woman, grown and full, walking home alone.

         And there, in the deep darkness in front of a cemetery that held no recently dead, her jaw began to burn again. Her bones were stars, beginning to shift into different constellations. Eating up the darkness, creating mass where there was once only shadow. Michaela fell. Blood dripped to the cold, wet concrete and new bones burst from her face. She tried to scream, but instead of sound, only more flesh fell out of her mouth. She tried to catch it, prevent it from being lost to her, but it found its way to the ground anyway, slipping through the holes between her fingers.

         The stars that had created the new bones moved deep within her soul also, making room for new, deeper desires. The thing, the man, she had been craving, she needed him desperately now. The dreams of the lazy Sunday mornings were gone. She didn’t want runny eggs and light laughter. It was replaced by something different. Something unforgiving.

         She had been to his house once before. He had invited her in, welcomed her, given her a beer from his fridge. It was in his first few months of working at the museum. He’d had a party. Invited the whole department. Her body hummed just being in his space. Nothing happened. It wasn’t like he could kiss her or reach for her hand, he had guests to entertain, after all. Still, she was able to move her eyes around his home. He had stacks of crossword books, framed posters of German movies, and vinyl records she didn’t recognize. She thought maybe he was shy of her, but she was sure she would be invited back, that there would be another time, another moment. 

         She was moving forward, close to the ground. The wetness of the earth felt comforting, made her feel as if she had just become whole. She hadn’t thought much about where she was going. She was just following her instinct.

         She arrived at his building, and it felt inevitable. Her and him. The truth between them was close, she could sense it on her teeth. She pressed all the buzzers but his, and someone in their own private box of a home let her in, unthinkingly accepted her. She slunk up the stairs, hood pulled over her head lest anyone catch sight of her. She sensed she’d become unsightly. She reached his door, and found that her hand was able to turn the handle with an extra push and a crack of metal. She found his room by scent. Things that once felt invisible were now obvious. She could feel him breathing on the other side of the door.

          He was asleep. It had taken many hours to get to him. His dinner was long over, maybe even moving from his stomach to his small intestine. She came close to him, softly leaning on the edge of his bed. She knew it would be gruesome for him to see such a fish out of water. She laid her hand over his mouth and he opened his eyes. His face felt differently than she’d expected it to, and she realized it was her own skin that was foreign. It had grown thick and smooth, and the subtle difference between the softness of his cheek and the plushness of his mouth was lost to her now. 

          The murkiness in his eyes gave way to shock and terror. This was the last moment for them, and she was the last thing he’d see. Then, lavishly, she pressed her mouth to his right eye. His body bucked and seized against her in desperation. She pushed his eyelid open with her tongue. She slipped it around the ball of his eye. It popped instantly against her rows of teeth.

         She moved on to the other juicy areas of his body. Devouring him slowly. Finally making him hers. At a certain point, he grew lifeless. A vague part of her felt sad for him, a part of her that was feeling more and more detached. She lay in his bed, full. She held what was left of his corpse close: the bones, and the tough to chew ligaments.

         She knew that she would have to make her way to the water while it was still dark, but she wasn’t sure she could leave him, now that he was hers to have. She looked over at the mirror on the back of his bedroom door. Her nose was gone. All that remained were two slits above her mouth, nostrils pressed against the thick flesh of her face. Her mouth had grown larger, it now eclipsed most of her face, moving from ear to ear, filled with rows and rows of sharp, bloody teeth. She would have laughed at the sight of herself, but her lungs worked differently now, and no sounds came out. She could only open her mouth wider.

By Ava Robinson