I’ve been followed around by a younger version of myself since I was sixteen. She wears a pink cotton dress, white, buckled sandals, and a Ghostface mask she cycles blood through using a piping mechanism in her left hand, making the white face drip red. As we trudge down Inkberry Avenue, I ignore the breath-like huffs of the pump she’s squeezing in her pocket.
“What if he kills you?” she asks, shivering. “What if he’s a predator?”
We’ve been walking since before sunrise. Four hours ago, I was on the floor of the emergency room with tears and snot on my face, wailing “fix me” over and over. The nurse emerging from the bathroom didn’t know what to do with me. When he turned to pick up the intercom, I panicked, as if suddenly realizing where I was, the eyes that were about to be on me. I fled in the direction of my hotel.
I ran until my feet ached and only stopped moving when my phone vibrated on my hip. A bright blue notification from my dog-walking app—I had been hired by Petyr Ivanovska who lives about seven blocks east on Inkberry Avenue.
It’s a long, pebbled road walled in on either side by well-manicured gardens. On my left, goldenrod and witch hazel, like orange-yellow spiders, flourish in the shade of tall wooden fences. Trumpet honeysuckles, skinny and coral, resemble deflated versions of the balloons clowns twist up into animals. To my right, dewy-wet holly and wild strawberries cluster at the base of a cast stone birdbath.
I still feel raw, vulnerable to the world, but I haven’t cried for a few minutes now. My younger self looks in the water, pricking the pristine surface with a finger. The reflection of the mask ripples, stretches, and dances at uncanny angles.
When I get to where the fence ends, my legs ache. The cottage sits behind a white picket gate covered in holly. Even through the trees and shrubs, the place looks worth over a million with its three levels, rustic stone walls, and massive, steepled entrance covered in climbing ivy. It’s isolated, no noise from cars or people. Any neighbors must be hidden along Inkberry at least a mile down.
The doorbell is like a gong. I wait impatiently, ripping my nails with my teeth as my younger self watches the door.
“I bet he doesn’t even have a dog,” she says. “What if he’s gross? What if you bleed through your pants?”
“I won’t,” I say.
“We’re coming!” He sounds normal through the door. When it opens, the collie bursts out. She sniffs down my jeans while her tail thunks hard against the doorframe. The man steps out—mid-30s, messy blonde curls, brown eyes, trimmed beard. Caucasian cherub.
“Hi, hi,” he says, holding the leash. “Petyr. And she’s Circe.”
I get on my knees, shaking my hands in the collie’s mane. I notice he’s offering me the leash, but as I stand and wrap it in my hand, Circe’s snout is in my crotch.
“Right,” I say.
Circe is insistent when it comes to exploring. Do I smell that bad? I ignore the judgmental stare of my younger self. She thinks I deserve this. Sometimes, I wonder if she knows we’re the same, and whatever happens to me is going to happen to her. She’s a little cunt, actually.
“Where is it you’re from again?”
“Complicated,” I say, turning my hips to avoid Circe’s nose. “My mother is from Uganda. My father was born Scottish but moved to London at fifteen. I was born in London, but we moved to America when I was three. And then back to Scotland two years ago. And then I came back here.”
Petyr pushes Circe’s head to the side, freeing me so I can tug her down the steps.
“So, you’re an American with an accent.”
I want to argue, American is an accent, but I’m thinking about how much I wish the sun would explode and swallow everything so that he’s not thinking about what my pussy might smell like.
“Your bio mentioned you’ve got a month here. Right?”
“For a film project,” I say. “Grad school.”
I don’t mention that I got ‘removed from the project’ three days ago by my classmates for being hysterical. I don’t mention that I screamed at them and threw things. They could have the movie, since the script wasn’t mine anyway. No one had been interested in my submission for the final project. My script was not funny enough, and it was too ambitious. But I was determined now to stay the month and do the project using my own screenplay, supported by people like Petyr and other monied dog-owners. Paying for the roundtrip flight was the only good thing my university ever did for me. I was not going to fly back early using my credit card. I was going to make my movie.
I don’t want to talk though. I just want to walk his dog. I think he senses that, because he nods and goes inside.
After walking Circe, I return to the cottage and relinquish the leash to Petyr at the bottom of the steps. He digs in his pocket and pulls out his phone. My app notifies me of a new transaction, and I feel guilty when I see the tip amount. He seems to notice my face and insists. Glancing at the size of his house, I slide my phone back in my pocket. It’s enough for basic props and a few buckets of fake blood.
With the money from Petyr, I get a cheap suit, a scarf, a gown, the blood, and food coloring (for the 32 drops of green that go into each gallon). Being back in my hotel room feels less like a failure when I’m dressed as someone else. In fact, it’s exciting.
For the first scene of my short film, I dress as The Woman, a succubus that walks the night, then preys on men who are awake in the early morning hours. Instead of men returning home from bars, their ankles crumbling under the weight of their drunken stupors, The Woman sees only flesh and the promise of meat, bone. She looks girlish, with long, soft hair and a cheeky smile. She has cat eyes now, because those are the only contact lenses I brought with me.
After fitting myself in the white velvet gown and applying the yellow contacts, I set up the tripod and camera. The shot is simple, but stunning. Slivers of light are being projected onto the sepia-toned wall from the blinds and the sheets are crumpled messily at one end of the bed.
Just before I sit on the bed to record, the room glows with the light from my cell phone. Fifteen missed calls from Kenneth. I don’t call him back, because he’s my father. I want to shake off his presence and be enveloped by the scene, but my eyes are wet and stinging. In costume, I sit on the bed, staring at the fuzzy blur of car lights through the window. My young self sits next to me, swinging her legs and bouncing her butt on the mattress.
When I stand up, a speckle of red is on the blankets. I go to the toilet and sit, yanking out the tampon to insert the new one. The first time I got my period, I thought I was dying and I told no one. My parents had never mentioned my ‘changing body’ before. Was it called a period because it was the end of something? The end of innocence?
Once you see blood, is that ‘it’?
When I pick up Circe the next morning, she leads me excitedly onto the avenue. I notice as we walk that Petyr is grabbing a wool pea coat from a hook behind his front door and, instead of getting into his car for work, he’s following us. I can’t help but look at my young self, confused.
“You don’t want me to walk her?” I ask.
“No, I do. Mind if I come along?”
I nod, not sure if I mind or not. Every few steps, Circe glances back at her master, awaiting his movements and commands. It’s sweet. And annoying. Because why the hell would he pay me to walk his dog when he can walk her his damn self?
“If you see any birds, you’ll want to grip the leash,” he says and pauses thoughtfully. “Your accent changes every few words, it seems like.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“When you were talking yesterday, I noticed.”
“It depends who I’m talking to,” I say. “If I’m on the phone with my mother, I mimic her. I don’t know. I got a lot of it from movies, I think.”
“I know fuck all about movies. I don’t even own a TV. Not a working one, at least.”
“But you live in a house like that.”
He sidesteps a bike rack, brushing a straw basket on one of the attached bicycles. I stop to let Circe pose among the bluets bunched in gray-blues and gray-purples at her feet, each one’s pale petals twitching around a burst of yellow at its center. Circe’s fur separates and wisps around her face, whipped by the wind.
“Ever seen a horror movie?” I ask. “Carrie? Night of the Comet? The Slumber Party Massacre?”
“Slumber Party Massacre II?”
“Who likes getting scared? I mean, genuinely?” He seems perturbed as I start down the avenue again. “Oh. You do. I can tell.”
“I like movies.”
“I like when they’re gratuitous.”
“It’s just murder,” he says. “Naked women being chopped up.”
“It’s catharsis with blood and boobs. A lot of people like boobs.”
“That’s fair. I’ve heard of those people.”
“Why pretend we don’t think about sex and blood and all that?”
“I don’t know. To be a productive society, maybe?”
“I can’t be productive if I’m thinking about boobs?”
“I mean, I can’t.”
We walk another mile, saying nothing. It’s a comfortable silence. Petyr is warming his hands in his pants pockets. My younger self kicks pebbles down the road, sighing with boredom every few seconds. I breathe into my knitted scarf, smelling my mother, before we all turn around.
“Do you not have work today?” I ask, glancing at him.
“I know it’s weird to walk with you. To be honest, I don’t get to talk to a lot of people.”
“Is that why you hired a dog walker? For the talking?”
He shrugs. I suppose people with big houses tend to keep small circles. I wonder if he goes to therapy, or if he needs it.
“I stay in my office at work, stay in my room at home. Not much of a life, I think. But I keep on doing it every day.”
“You should get a hobby.”
“Like horror movies?”
“Whatever wakes you up.”
“I guess fear does that. Although, if you like being scared, that’s not real fear, is it?”
“Then what scares you?”
It takes me a moment to notice my young self is tugging at the end of my scarf.
“Check your pants,” she says.
When Petyr gets ahead a few feet, I turn to check. No stains. I glare at my younger self, who makes a fart sound with her mouth behind the mask.
Resigned, I admit Petyr is nice to look at. At the very least, I prefer walking with him to my own company. Anything to draw me out of myself and into the fresh air. Then again, I’ve known myself for a long time. There’s only so much we can argue about anymore.
For six hours, I am locked in my hotel room poring over my script. I haven’t stopped since I got back from walking with Petyr. After a month of letting it sit in my backpack, scribbled over with notes from multi-colored pens, I run through with a red marker and check over the dialogue, making sure my newest revisions are consistent: two characters instead of four, both played by me, every shot in black and white.
We open on a split screen of The Man and The Woman, only one a monster but both monstrous. An establishing shot—The Man, drunk, leaves his favorite bar at the end of an alley. There is a sound of ripping flesh from the shadows. That sound continues when The Man exits the bar at sunrise and stumbles down the alley and offscreen.
The Man has narrowly missed fate. The Woman prowls, eats, enjoys.
Over and over, The Man frequents the bar, just out of The Woman’s reach. Every morning, The Woman devours another man with another secret. We aren’t sad, because their families are no worse without them. They are as absent dead as they were alive.
The music rises each time. It holds a high pitch as The Man finally stands in the alley, and his wife speaks offscreen. She begs for him to look at her. Just once, look at his children, be a father.
The Man turns into the bar. The Woman watches, waits, as the sound of the wife’s heels clicking on the pavement fades away.
When The Man leaves the bar again, he comes face to face with The Woman—the final moment. We flash between each of their faces. Fate finally catches up. Blood sprays.
My phone lights up, and I blink away the daydream. A text message from Mother.
Please call him!!!
She’s never understood my relationship with my father. I don’t think I ever understood hers either.
He was never involved with me like he was with my brothers. With them, he was overly bonded. They all turned out just like him: stoic, masculine, soulless. Knowing how warm they were when they were young, they might as well have died. I had to mourn them just the same, and so did Mother, even if she tried to hide it.
Walking to the cottage down Inkberry feels duller today, more one-note. I wonder if, a few days into this arrangement, there’s a possibility for sex. My younger self thinks I’m the only person in the world who’s bad at reading people, at sex. I like to think I’ve outgrown that idea and that she won’t glare at me while someone’s inside me like I’m doing something unnatural. But maybe she’s right. Maybe yesterday was a fluke and now, Petyr will be the faceless rich guy from the internet who wants a dog walker when he isn’t at home.
In front of the white-painted gate, beside his brick mailbox, he’s flicking through a stack of envelopes. In the yard, Circe is rolling through the grass, gathering burrs. It’s strange, almost creepy, and maybe charming that he’s at home again. I decide it’s nice, actually.
“Morning,” he says, waving me over. “Sleep okay?”
“Aside from the one where I’m naked and chopped up, not really.”
“See?” He points at me with an envelope, making his face grave. “It’s all the blood and boobs. And you’re not even fazed. You’re desensitized. That’s the worst bit.”
With Circe, Petyr and I walk down Inkberry. He goes all two miles with me, where the avenue is interrupted by a busy street. He and I shoot the shit, avoiding topics like love, childhood, family, and the soul. Instead, we talk about the basket on the bicycle, now yellow with pollen. About his job as a computer technician. About Circe’s need to chase birds. About how Roger Ebert didn’t actually hate horror movies.
On the way back, when my finger is in my mouth, I realize my nails have grown. Did I not bite them yesterday?
He says goodbye casually. We are both in this routine together, and he is assuming I will be back tomorrow. I will be, but I don’t often meet people who think of a future with me in it.
I smile at him, but it’s fake. On the brink of leaving, I am suddenly thinking about the missed calls, then my childhood, and my mother’s blood. I look forward to seeing him tomorrow.
All of this happens every morning for almost a week.
I should be sleeping, but instead I sit in the bathtub with scissors in my hand, and I wonder if it’s worth it. Between two fingers, I stretch out the front portion of my hair. The blades hover near my forehead, but I can’t make myself do it.
Kenneth hasn’t called since yesterday, but I can’t stop thinking about him.
Everyone used to say I look just like my father. I would look in the mirror and see his nose, his chin, and his eyes on my face, and I’d fixate on it until all I could see was Kenneth. As a child, I thought it was strange but tolerable. When I was thirteen, after my mother slit her wrists in the kitchen, I let my nails grow out and bit them into points. When I was in front of my father, I’d claw at my face. The doctor said I was seeking attention, which I think should have been a sign to give me more of it. My father took it as me being hysterical and distanced himself even more. My mother, despite being loving, got so emotional I couldn’t take it. They started to tape up my fingers with duct tape to keep me from scratching.
One night, I went into my oldest brother’s room and put on the Ghostface mask I found in his closet. Kenneth threatened to put me in a box and send me away if I didn’t take it off, but by that age, I was wise enough to know he was a coward. I wore the mask to every event for months. Mother tried coaxing me out of it at first, but it got me to stop clawing, so she let it go. It didn’t come off until I got a therapist at sixteen.
My young self sits across from me in the bath, her tiny hands trembling around the blood pump. She knows I want to cut my hair to play the part of The Man in my film, but she won’t stop talking.
“You’ll look just like him,” she says.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“You’ve got his eyes, and his nose, and his chin, and you don’t feel anything.”
I put pressure on the scissors. The blades force their way through, and the hair falls and floats down, dark and curled on the white porcelain between us. I take another piece and cut, then another. The hairs, finally freed, tickle the goosebumps on my naked thighs.
“Fucking stupid,” she tells me.
On the eighth day of knowing Petyr, I explain my haircut to him. For some reason, I feel the need to be ashamed.
“I’ve been working on a short film,” I say.
He nods, as if intrigued. I’ve run out of outfits to wear on our walks, but I try to mix and match what I have stuffed in my suitcase at the hotel. Petyr seems to have an endless array of beautiful coats, sweaters, and button-downs, all of which complement the beard he is growing and maintaining on his jaw.
“My guess is… comedy?” he says, snapping his fingers.
“Gratuitous fuckery and violence.”
He feigns surprise.
“Well, what’s it about?”
“A succubus,” I finally say. “And a man. I play both parts…”
“But what’s the story? What’s its reason for existing?”
I toy with the idea of talking about my past. My chest hurts.
“You’ll never watch it anyway.”
“You don’t have a TV.”
“I have a friend with a damn good camera,” he says. “I think he worked in commercials. I could pass your name along?”
“Is he rich like you?”
Petyr chuckles, unoffended by everything. “If I’m rich, sure.”
“Are you a trust fund baby?”
“When my uncle died, he left me the house. Not much intrigue, I’m sorry to say.”
“I don’t know. You could have a wife or two hidden away in there.”
My younger self leaps out from behind Petyr, almost making me jump. She always follows closely behind us, but some mornings, like today, I forget her.
“I’ve got to tell you something cool,” Petyr says suddenly. It sounds like he’s been thinking about it. I realize with this change of subject that we might be breaching new territory, maybe a new relationship. “I’m related to Shakespeare on my mom’s side. I’ve got a painting of him in my foyer.” He looks at me seriously. “I’m not kidding.”
I don’t know if my urge to laugh is from my doubt, the fact that he thinks this is an acceptable explanation, or the fact that I want to believe him anyway. I still don’t quite know when he’s joking.
“I’ve got records and everything.”
“I believe you.”
Petyr smiles to himself, looking content as we approach the house. He unlocks the front door, letting Circe inside, but the door is half-open behind him as he stands in front of me and fiddles with his key ring.
“We can go inside?” he says.
“It feels nice out here, actually.”
He nods. Then he snaps his fingers, as if with an idea. His hand rests on my arm, brief but not brief enough to be nothing, before he steps into the foyer. I hear him greet Circe as the door shuts behind him.
My younger self kicks the bottom step over and over. She hasn’t taken her mask off in years. Some days, I hate to admit, it makes me sad. All I know of her anymore is the ghostly face wet with Red 40 dye and the soft thump-and-fizzle sounds she makes by squeezing the pump in her hand.
“He’s not gonna have sex with you now,” she says. “He gave you the in. You didn’t wanna do it, coward.”
I start down the steps to walk back to the hotel, but the door opens. Petyr has shed his coat. He has a backpack on his shoulder with a bottle of wine in one hand and two glasses balanced in the other. He sets the bottle on the stone and unfolds a tiny corkscrew from his keychain.
“Do you drink?” he asks. I nod as Petyr yanks out the cork and fills each glass halfway.
We walk down the avenue, taking our time. About half a mile down the road, Petyr points out a cluster of holly, which hides a wooden bench shaded from the sun by two fenced-in trees. He sets the backpack containing the wine bottle on the grass. Sitting this close to him, I smell cologne and pine and a hint of sweet honey.
“Your cheeks are red,” he says. The brown of his eyes looks more amber in this light. “I hope I’m not making you nervous.”
I want to make a joke. Instead, I’m honest. “I’ll get through it.”
My younger self tosses rocks over the fence on the other side of the avenue. The sound distracts me, but I force myself to keep eye contact with Petyr. We sit in silence, listening to the sudden birdie-birdie-birdie call of a cardinal somewhere in the thicket. I feel the wine becoming a reason for me to say what I’m thinking. The more I’m truthful, the more my younger self seems to fade away, or at least gets easier to ignore.
“I’m not good at this,” I mumble.
“I mean, I’m not good with sex.”
“Like, you’re not okay with it?”
“No, I’m not good. At. It.”
“How many people have you been with?” I ask.
Petyr shrugs. “I could fill a church.”
“It’s just something. I’m not really proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it.”
“I had a boyfriend in high school who called his dick the Jawbreaker.”
“Are you saying that’s why you’re not good at sex?”
“I’m just saying it’s pretty funny.”
As Petyr pours a second glass, I look in mine and pick out a spikelet of witch hazel. He stops talking, opting for quick, big gulps. I realize he thinks he needs the drink. Maybe he does.
A red cardinal flutters and lands on the edge of the birdbath. The crest on his head tilts in the wind. My young self approaches it, close enough to touch its wing. At that age, I was curious why the females were less beautiful than the males. But what makes the color red so beautiful? What makes it masculine? I know now it all means nothing, and the cardinals that are red just happen to be male, and I can still be red if I want to.
After Petyr’s second glass, I see his movements slowing. Still, I pick mine up from where I set it in the grass and offer it.
“Getting me drunk is naughty, naughty,” he says. Still, he takes it.
“You seem like you want to get a little wasted.”
“I don’t usually drink like this. For Circe.” He says it matter-of-factly but gulps down the rest, then hands me the glass again. “You’re gorgeous.”
“It’s weird you waited until you were drunk to say that.”
“If anything, my mind’s much clearer.” He swirls his fingers over his temples. “You’re right. I’m done pretending I don’t think about boobs.”
I smile, watching him slump back to watch the graying sky above. He swallows hard enough that his Adam’s apple jumps.
“Just relax,” I say. I lean back too, like I’ve known him longer than I have. “I’ll be here.”
The sun is leaving fast, and the air is cool. The bottle is empty. So are the glasses.
Petyr leans against me as we walk back to the cottage. His backpack dangles on my back as I use all of my weight to keep us steady, and even then, it isn’t quite enough.
“Petyr, you’re going down,” I say.
He starts crumbling, so I bend my knees, letting him slowly down on the grass to prevent a violent fall. Still, his butt hits the ground hard. He rocks a little.
“I’m gonna teach you how to fuck,” he says, eyes half-lidded as he nods to himself.
I smile despite myself, holding his biceps to keep him sitting. “Maybe when you’re sober.”
His hands explore my hair, ruffling and mashing it against my face, and brush my nose and eyelashes. I sniff hard into his hands. He chuckles, clumsily taking my forearms as he falls backward, pulling me down in a loose hug. As he starts to breathe steadily with sleep, I breathe in, forgetting for a moment about the mask, the movie, the inevitability of death.
The next morning, in the hotel parking lot, I mount the camera on the tripod. My cropped hair is matted, and my suit has been drenched in fake blood for the second part of my movie’s climactic scene, where The Man and The Woman finally meet.
The rising sun makes everything orange. As I turn the camera on, I notice my reflection on the screen, the short hair and my father’s chin. When I think of my father, I think of the blood. I was twelve when I got home from school and found my mother on the kitchen floor. At first, there was so much blood, I didn’t know where she was hurt, but as she reached for me, I saw it was her wrists. I remember the nausea, my vision rushing sideways as her wet hands ran slick down my face.
Kenneth was the one to call an ambulance when he finally got back from his favorite bar. Once the paramedics got to the house, I went into the bathroom and saw her blood streaked down my face. I worried if she died, that would be all I had left of her. So, I refused to wash it. I left her blood on my skin until my father came into my room that night with a wet rag, held me down, and scrubbed it from me.
When he left, I looked in the bathroom mirror. My skin was pink. I pulled down my shorts to sit on the toilet, and there was blood in my underwear. I didn’t know if it was mine or my mother’s, or if she and I were tied together and we would both disappear if she died.
My mother was treated and transferred to a mental hospital for two weeks. When she came back home, my father ignored her. When she asked a question or offered him dinner, he didn’t even give her the courtesy of a look. He didn’t speak a word to either of us, only my brothers. I can’t remember how long that lasted. I remember Mother alone, crying, while her husband shut her out. I remember grabbing for his arms before school, asking why he hated her, but there was nothing in his face. I wanted his anger, because at least it meant he felt something. It was worse. It was like we weren’t worth any feeling at all.
The suit is strangling me. I want to rip off the jacket and tie, but I’ve waited for this scene since I first wrote it. I sit on the pavement, legs crossed, and breathe. I count the seconds, like I used to do in therapy, but it isn’t working. My heart makes my chest feel thin with its pounding.
I give up and bring my camera inside when the sun rises high enough to ruin my scene.
A few hours later, I sit on the curb at the end of Inkberry, watching the busy street, still covered in fake blood. I wipe the residue from my eyes. My young self and I don’t look so different for once.
I know Petyr must be waiting. It’s selfish, but I want him to worry. I want someone to care and show it. I remember how we woke up at the edge of the road, tangled together like ribbons on the wet grass. He kissed my forehead, nose, and the bow below. It felt warm and normal, like ‘bliss’, like what adults do, yet he pulled away. I didn’t pursue it, and I don’t know why.
Several cars slow to ask me if I’m okay. One man tries to get out. I realize I look heinous, and their concern doesn’t suit me anymore. It makes me feel bad.
I stare at my phone. No new missed calls. No more texts from Mother.
He must have finally died. In my mother’s eyes, he was a father, if not by love then by blood. The past didn’t matter, because he had a heart attack and might not make it. But the past was where I grew up, and sometimes, I still find myself there.
I type out a message.
You’ve got Shakespeare’s nose
I send it, and I see Petyr immediately typing back.
You aren’t the first to say it
Finally, I walk down Inkberry. Then, I run. There is something inside me that is organically me, not my father, or even my younger self. It’s a hunger. I shed the bloody suit jacket and tie I’m wearing, then my undershirt, and toss them on the bench as I go by. Even though my bra is stained red, I think I might look less crazy. Maybe.
I barely notice the house as I go through the gate and leap up the steps. The ring of the doorbell reverberates.
“Molly?” Petyr is crossing the yard from the driveway, his keys jingling in his hand. “Is that blood?”
“Fake blood,” I say. “I’m sorry I didn’t show up.”
“At first, I thought you took the money and ran.” He looks content as I descend the steps. “Or I scared you, which…I guess you do like being scared.”
“Yeah. I do.”
When I get close, he touches my forehead, which I think is sweet. I see his nails, now coated in the greasy red blood still matting my hair.
“So, fake blood. Are the boobs real?”
I almost give him a line, but I remember my shirt discarded on the bench down the avenue and suddenly feel stupid. I see out of the corner of my eye that my young self is beside me. As Petyr talks, she tries to interrupt, to change my mind or to confirm how ridiculous I look, but I ignore her.
As we walk again, Petyr reaches for me, and I decide to take his hand.