by JASON HOWELL
y god, you’re beautiful."
Awe burned at first. Falling in love burned at first. Below his tensed brow, Peter’s eyes widened. Below his entranced eyes, his mouth fell slack. All the air inside him tumbled through his lips, beginning as a trembling gasp and ending as a weak groan.
Joy froze—this was not the reaction she expected—and there she remained for a long moment, leaning across the bed towards this man, trying to deduce his emotions. Was he overwhelmed in the moment and babbling? Was this deceitful flattery? What advantage was he trying to gain?
As she watched, Peter’s face changed again. Elated surprise relaxed into satisfaction as he, in turn, continued to take her in, still and perfect, and his burning mellowed into warm contentment.
Slowly, Joy retracted her glistening chelicerae, lowered her knitting-needle legs and began maneuvering her cephalothorax back into her skin. Muffled clicks rose from her outer covering as she curled and repositioned herself and, for a panicked moment, Joy was blind inside the smothering darkness. But the young woman held her breath until she had adjusted the hazel peepholes of her human eyes over the two largest of her eight silky-black eyes. And only then she allowed herself to exhale, but slowly—refusing to reveal any hint of weakness. Without looking away from the man, she bent to retrieve her grandmother’s autumn-colored afghan from the bedroom floor, where it lay next to her pillow and rumpled comforter. Slowly, Joy tugged the afghan over the edge of her bed then across her knees as if she were cold, even though her skin still wore its clothes. She pulled her knees to her chest, completing the protective gesture.
“What did you say?”
They sat in the kitchen, Joy’s kitchen, for most of the rest of the evening, not talking much but watching each other and contemplating what they had found.
She had excused herself to put on pajama pants and her blue house slippers and he chose not to put his shirt back on. Peter liked the way the washed linen hung across the threshold between the living-room and the kitchen to dry. Its swaying gave the somewhat cramped apartment a feeling of potential—the eagerness of a strong new sail to catch the wind. Returning more comfortably dressed, Joy moved around the sink counter, making tea (the kind with the sleepy bear on the box—she showed Peter with a hiccupping laugh) and periodically looking over her shoulder or around the hair falling over her eyes to make sure Peter was still there. He was, leaning on his elbows and following everything she did. Likewise he wanted to ask if this was real but didn’t want to sound childish.
Most of what they did say was not remembered afterward—what the conversation represented was, in the beginning, too distracting. They were eager to look into each other but so pleased at being able to do so that they couldn’t yet concentrate on what they saw.
He asked simple questions and regardless of how she answered he paid her bald-faced compliments, stumbling to prove his feelings. Joy pointed past the drying sheet to the desktop in the living room and explained she was a medical transcriptionist. This work suited her, she said, because it saved her the risk of someone discovering her secret, as could happen in a crowded workplace. Peter praised her ingenuity. Joy smiled to herself at first then frowned thoughtfully. Then the tea came out of the microwave and they were quiet for a while.
Although he asked, she did not show him again that night.
On their respective sides of Joy’s door, they each began to retrace the steps of their first date in their minds—she, as she crept across the room, conscience of the silly smile, and collapsed onto her shabby couch (her only living-room furniture except for the computer, the computer desk and the pillow she hugged to her chest) and he, as he burrowed his chin into his collar (only to throw his head back and laugh a breath of steam into the night) while he made his way home. Neither had guessed, nor could have guessed, how things would turn out when they caught each other’s glances through the shelves of the tiny new-and-used bookstore near Charlotte Street, or even as they tumbled first towards Joy’s basement apartment (the only rentable section of the neglected building she lived in) and then towards her bed. How could they have guessed they both would find so much more than either had originally sought?
The next night, Joy waited by the door again, smoothing the hem of her skirt over carefully chosen jeans, then smoothing the skin that had a habit of bowing up at the crook of her left elbow. She looked over her home, her nest, which saw so few guests (and none that managed to make return visits) resentfully, longingly. He knocked.
They started back to the bookstore but changed their minds, instead simply walking, one grabbing the other’s hand, leading him to a shop she always thought looked interesting but for some reason had never checked out or pulling her toward a street musician that caught his eye. They wanted to see everything, no matter how trivial, together, as a couple.
“I love you."
“You said that."
“I will again, most likely."
“Because you’re beautiful."
She smiled, then frowned.
After the relationship ended, Joy sifted through an ill-organized but voraciously-stocked collection of mental home movies in order to preserve those that were pleasing or offered something to learn and to discard (hopefully) the pointlessly painful images. She had her chosen warm memories as well as favorites among those that stung. Of the pleasant ones, her most cherished scene opens as they cook turkey chili (which Joy will only pick at, despite Peter’s gentle teasing) one drizzling afternoon. They raise the blinds to appreciate the rain. While the rain doesn’t really fall in the city, but runs down something else to drip past Joy’s window, it retains its ability to create a gray, cool womb. Cooking turns into dancing as the CD player on the living room floor pulls them into the drawn-out climax of Hey Jude. They close their eyes and dance side-by-side to the end of the song, which melds with the hum of water on glass, bumping into each other, feeling a hand there, an arm lacing and unlacing around a neck, a hip swaying by a hip, all felt through the dark behind their eyelids. She knows his eyes are closed because Joy peeks.
Eventually, Joy revealed herself to her boyfriend again, because he continued to ask but, more to the point, because she wanted to show someone. At first, he would bring up the subject and she would brush it off, or cut the question down with a cool, annoyed stare. But finally she surprised her lover. Peter had not mentioned what lay beneath her skin the evening when she abruptly took him by the wrist and led him down her hallway, to her utility closet. Joy owned a washing machine but had never gotten around to buying a dryer, since she didn’t mind the stiffness of air-dried laundry and because, she was a little embarrassed now to admit, she paid only passing attention to the clothes her skin wore. So, there was room for each of them on either side of the washer, once she tugged it, mindful of the cord and drain hose, to the center of the hallway alcove that served as her laundry room. She positioned Peter to the left, pushing his arms down to his sides and giving him a look that meant he was to keep his arms down and to himself, then she and stepped to the right of the washer.
Peter followed Joy’s own hands as they pressed down on the dingy-white top of the machine and then he watched, chewing the inside of his cheek, as she closed her eyes and tilted her chin to a very sharp angle. Slowly bending her back in an arch that rolled up her spine, Joy opened her mouth. The tips of her sharp feet eased over her tongue and past her thin lips; her long, brown legs followed. As she extracted herself, her skin stretched and slid back like a sock rolling down a calf. Her eight eyes emerged, then the rest of her true head, more unfolding legs and her thorax. Joy kicked her rear legs out of the bunched up skin, which clung to her hind tarsal claws, and there she rested, on the wall next to her washing machine, below the shelf that held jugs of bleach next to stacks of folded linen.
Her companion stood and stared, then caught himself and, not wanting her to think even for a moment that he did not think she was beautiful because he did not reach for her, he extended his hand. With a scratching sound and barely-visible movements, Joy jerked away, now sitting on the opposite wall, her back to Peter, watching him with her topmost eyes.
She was gray-black and brown with very long, neatly-arranged legs. His gaze never falling, Peter boosted himself up on the washer and swung his legs around. Stepping down, he raised his hand again. He ran two fingers down one leg, then another. He ran his fingertips down her thorax, tracing the tiny, stiff hairs down to her spinnerets. Joy forced her breath to remain steady because she didn’t want him to see her react to his touch, any touch, and because she did not want to cause him to look up. With nearly-voyeuristic satisfaction, she watched his face—tensed in concentration, his eyes following his hands—not because Joy wanted to spy on him but she did want to observe his most honest reaction to seeing and feeling her body. And the man was absorbed, nearly drunk, it seemed. Her breathe did hitch now. She was immediately pleased at the depth of his pleasure but on the heels of that came suspicion.
His hand felt her soft underbelly now; his face still held that dumb euphoria—cow-like, stupid. Again moving nearly too fast to see, Joy bit Peter’s hand. The young man jerked back with a little cry. Holding his arm to his chest, Peter stumbled into the hallway and disappeared. Joy scurried to grasp her skin and wriggle into it. She stepped out of the alcove a moment later, adjusting herself, and followed the sound of running water. Peter looked up from the kitchen sink, still startled but grinning again—or trying to. Joy walked over and inspected the injury—she had not pierced the flesh but pinched it against the cherical base of her fangs, leaving what looked like a gravel-scrape on the meaty web between Peter’s thumb and forefinger. It could have been worse. Frowning in concentration, Joy hunted down a packet of gauze, a tube of Neosporin and a towel.
“What?" she asked the blank face that looked up at her, seemingly unable to comprehend her extended gifts.
“Oh, here." She took the hand and began scrubbing it dry. Then she applied the ointment and gauze. She chuckled and tried to think of something silly to say: “Don’t be a baby. That was your favorite part anyway."
At this, Peter fell into an introspective mood. He sat and looked at his bandaged hand, then at the floor. That foolish euphoria crept back into his face and Joy felt her own face growing hot. She crossed her arms and watched him, without—yet again—Peter seeming to notice.
Finally, Joy slapped a strand of hair away from her face, went to her bedroom and locked the door. She sat on her bed for a moment, then rolled onto her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows. Digging a worn Joyce Carol Oats collection from beneath her pillow, Joy’s finger turned the page without realizing it and then her eyes ran back and forth over the same line without reading it, (…came a scratching sound, loud enough to be in the room with…) instead concentrating on not letting the frustration she felt at being shut out either die away or be resolved.
“Oh god, what now?" She half-yelled when a cautious rattle came from her doorknob.
Why dance if you’re not going to dance close? And if someone steps on your foot but the hurt, surprise and embarrassment fade quickly enough, and if they apologize, and if their face is sincere (frightened in fact, you realize) but they do not release your hand, do you begin to dance again? Maybe you like your partner. Maybe you like the song. Maybe you don’t see anyone better out on the floor at the moment. But whatever the reason, if you do continue to dance, why not dance closer?
It was for similar reasons that, a few days after the biting incident, Joy found herself telling her companion this story:
“I started coming out a little at a time. I was about eight or nine. And it happened on its own at first. When I realized I could control it, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and do it. Poke out a few toes then pull them back in. It didn’t seem strange at all. I mean, I knew it was. I knew,” she paused and brushed her black hair out of her eyes, studying her crossed legs, the edge of the couch beyond that and the floor—where Peter sat. “I knew no one else was doing this. No one else’s skin was just a covering."
“Then my parent’s saw one day. They started yelling. Surprised, well, shocked. Then they went downstairs and whispered to each other for a very long time. They took me to a doctor a few days later. Across the country, ha. They must have thought I was—,” Joy paused again, eyes closed and shaking her head, “I don’t know what. My mom talked about Siamese twins and elephant-man syndrome or the growths people can get living in countries where they have no access to vitamins or anything else."
“She must have felt guilty,” Peter tried to keep his voice soft and as sympathetic as possible, out of respect for Joy’s past and to not upset this rare opening up on her part—but also to make her believe, as he did, that he felt what she felt, that he could relive her past with her. He sat on the floor, perched stiffly—with the effort it took to convey his empathy—at her socked feet.
“No,” Joy narrowed her eyes and her tone dropped a pitch. “My mother felt dirty. Third-world. Like those people she kept talking about. The ones with no options."
Peter nodded silently.
“And Daddy didn’t say anything." Joy was quiet for a long time before going on. “Anyway, we only went to the one doctor. I remember some tests but I really don’t remember any diagnosis or anything. He never really talked to me at all, the doctor, I mean. I did decide that if they asked me to show them, I would just refuse to, or act like I didn’t know what they were talking about. But they never asked. And then we came home and just didn’t talk about it. We didn’t go anywhere much after that either."
She spoke quickly now, with a mordant grin.
“Then, I was fourteen. I remember I’d just had a birthday party like the week before and some of the confetti (from those toys that pop when you pull the string, you know? ) was still stuck in the trees. And there was an accident in our pool. I-uh,” Joy snorted and bent her head, letting her hair fall over her eyes, “I jumped in and before I knew it, there I was, sitting on top of the water. I could see my skin sinking to the bottom."
“I scurried up to my room. Humph, that word—scurry. But anyway, there was, um, screaming. I couldn’t lock the door behind me but I figured no one would try to come in. And they didn’t."
Peter began to pet the storyteller’s foot, giving it a supportive squeeze.
“I realized I could weave new skins that night. The whole house was quiet and I was up in my room, ready to run under the bed if Daddy opened the door. So I started fidgeting, I guess, and all of a sudden I realized I was spinning. I had to discard the first one. It came out really uneven. The next one fit OK." Peter started to ask what she meant by uneven but Joy continued, talking faster now. “I took the messed up skin with me and burned it later. So that’s how I left. I took the money I had in my drawer and some clothes. I took the skin from the pool too. It was still at the bottom. They had just turned the patio lights off and went inside. I fished it out with the whatever, the skimmer, and stuck it in a plastic bag. Burned it too. I left no trace. I made it easy for them."
Joy narrowed her eyes in concentration, as if tallying her regrets against the steps she took to contain them. When she spoke again she trailed off, still undecided which column the next item fell under: “I kinda wish my grandma had still been alive—she would’ve at least come up to my bedroom. But it’s probably best she wasn’t…”
“Can you make your skin look different every time?" Peter seemed distracted, and a little disturbed, by the idea that Joy could look like anyone but the Joy he knew.
“It always comes out the same. I mean, it comes out a little older each time but it’s me. Or what I would look like if I had never lost the first one, I guess."
“We were made for each other."
“What’s wrong with you?" Joy almost snapped—but the urge faded quickly enough and in its place rose the frightening question: How had they drawn so close?
Peter saw the two figures, one Joy, one a stranger (to him) coming down the sloping hill of Lyman Street towards the apartment. The intertwined shapes, hands in their jacket pockets, elbows locked, ambled closer; his view of them became clearer each time they crossed another pool of pale blue oval cast by the streetlamps. They were coming closer. Peter immediately began walking the other way, head down, not thinking anything, unable to think. Up Lenoir Street, down Eagle Street, he rode the waves away from her, intoxicated on the numbness that started at his head, sank into his stomach and trickled down to his feet. Like any good drunkard, Peter found he detested the feeling of losing his drunkenness and so when he began to feel the night air again, to notice where he was again and sense his brain about to organize and label the debris left by the sight of those two figures, he turned around and walked back to Joy’s apartment, gratified to not only sink back into thoughtless motion but to find it now tinged with heat.
The emergency key was not under the flowerpot that sat by the door on the moldy, concrete steps but when Peter lifted the miniature sunflower by its stem, something slipped from the damp cone of dirt to clink into the ceramic bowl.
Crossing the threshold, his heart began to race and so did his mind: It’s in situations like this people get hurt. Crossed lovers—that’s the phrase, isn’t it? Infidelity. People do crazy things in situations like this. Don’t… But this voice was far away. It was in the movements of his body that he really existed—moving across the empty living-room, glancing into the kitchen where he noted the two coffee cups on the table. They sat next to a box of tea. Peter’s shoulders drooped.
The halted adrenaline began to sour, making his stomach cramp and his footsteps grow heavy as Peter walked toward the bedroom, doomed and no longer caring. The door was not locked.
There was the naked bed. There was Joy. And there was her skin, cast to the floor over the blankets. Everything was profoundly clear, except for the mound pinned underneath her extended legs. Peter’s brain wanted to tell him it was an unfolded pile of laundry or a rumpled comforter. But it kept jerking and unfurling. There was an arm, a foot. But it still couldn’t be a person because the limbs twisted and collapsed, like a fire hose disconnected and slowly-draining.
Then Joy was on the wall by the light-switch, inches from Peter. One long, brown leg flicked off the bedroom light while another swiped at the door, missed, then finally grasped it in a hooked tarsal claw. The leg trembled, he saw; he also saw her mouth, through the shadows, dripping wet, before the door shut.
Peter did not remember walking out of the house but the next moment he found himself staring at the dark sidewalk sliding under his feet as he plodded down a mostly empty avenue. Soon, he came to a restaurant closed for renovations. Upside-down chairs occupied the deserted tables. He and Joy had sat here, drinking and talking, once or twice before. Peter took two chairs down (two: perhaps out of habit) and sat in one of them. The sounds of people roaming the next street over mixed with the sound of an unseen street musician blowing a low, halting tune he or she seemed to be composing on the spot. Peter looked up when his girlfriend walked to the table. She wore his jacket, left at her place weeks ago, he noticed. She jabbed an annoyed glance in the direction of the music before clearing her expression and hunkering into her seat.
“What did you think?" Joy finally asked, snorting a small laugh and forcing the corners of her mouth into a sad smile. “That I ate bugs?"
“How often do you have to-”
“Sometimes it’s every few weeks, sometimes every couple of months. Sometimes, right after a meal settles it’s like I need more,” Joy said softly, with emotionless determination—already slipping into a defensive posture in preparation for the end of the relationship. “I’ve tried eating regular food, I mean, just regular food. Went from New Year’s to nearly the fourth of July once. After a while, it was like my body couldn’t stop shaking and I knew I was going to die if I didn’t. And I don’t want to die."
“Why like that?" Peter looked down. “You know, on the bed."
Joy grimaced and pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting back the headache welling up from below, where her cramped legs, folded up too quickly in her rush to get dressed and follow Peter, rubbed her exoskeleton.
“It’s disarming, literally and figuratively,” she explained. “People carry pocket knives, pepper spray—you never know."
Peter did not respond to that, so Joy went on, finding a bit of relief in talking about the secret process.
“That’s why I have the plastic cover on the mattress—it’s not for dust mites."
“It would have been me. On our first night."
“Yes." Joy considered this as she stared at the cold candle in the center of the table. She caught herself and had to make her voice even and her face blank again. “That was the plan."
“But you didn’t. You were about to but you didn’t."
The young woman studied the tendril of dried wax hanging from the rim of the glass candle holder. A red droplet lay on the table—some careless or bored finger had chipped it away. Peter went on.
“Because I fell in love with you."
“Hm. ” Joy picked up the bit of wax and rubbed it between her fingers, turning them scarlet.
“I want to ask you something.” Looking up at Peter, Joy met such intensity that it took her aback. She felt he was pulling her out of her chair with his expression—it was a hungry one. “Do you love me?"
She answered as best she could.
After talking on a dating site for a while, Abby and Peter met at a small, unassuming restaurant just outside the city. Abby was making her way from Nashville to Wilmington, although no one in particular waited for her there. They talked about books, about politics (vaguely) and the distance between Nashville, Tennessee and Asheville, North Carolina. He showed her the old scar on his elbow where he broke his arm when his ten-year-old neighbor dared him to climb out her attic window. She opened her denim jacket and showed him an iron-on patch she received while in drama club. It was from a production of Animal Farm. She and her friends had ironed their patches on the inside of their coats for some silly reason she couldn’t remember now.
They drove into the city and wandered the sidewalks, looking at the small shops and talking. Abby opened up, briefly, about a bad past relationship—one of the reasons she was moving to Wilmington, she confided. Her ex turned out to be something of a stalker. Peter sympathized and Abby said it was no big deal now. “Hey, what doesn’t kill you,” Abby said with a shrug. Seemingly without meaning to, they found themselves walking down Charlotte St, toward what Peter described as his small, one-level apartment.
Abby was a bit uneasy about following someone home on their first face-to-face date and even more nervous that Peter might think she wasn’t. However, before the date began Peter had told her he lived with his sister and they might pop in and say hi before the night was over, if that was OK with Abby. The tiny, young woman with half a dozen fine worry lines half hidden below the bangs of her thin, boyish haircut sat in her bathrobe at the kitchen table of the sparse apartment. She greeted Abby with a soft but confident voice. After an introductory conversation, Peter excused himself for a moment. Joy watched the newcomer for a while, long enough for Abby to think of and start to ask a question to break the silence: “How long have you two…?" But Joy interrupted and asked Abby if she would like to see some baby pictures of Peter. She kept the photo albums in her bedroom. Joy rose and extended a hand.
“Help me dig them out from under the bed,” the young woman invited, her voice growing husky and even softer—now almost a whisper: “Come with me."
Abby paused, wary for a moment, then extended her own hand with a playing-along smile. Joy’s grip was cool and dry and shook just slightly, as if muscles were twitching under her skin.
Several hours and several hurried activities later, the rising sun peeked around the empty building across the street and glinted under the overpass ramp, slowly compressing the shadows that hung around the weedy courtyard behind Joy’s apartment. Her mate blinked as he carried the cardboard box down the worn path in the grass to a rusty picnic grill perched on a steel post planted in a square of cement. Hunching down over the box, Peter removed several bundles wrapped in newspaper and placed them, one at a time, in the mouth of the grill. The last bundle was obviously shoes—the shape gave it away—and he had to cover his mouth and nose against the chalky-tasting smoke from the burning rubber.
The young man chewed his lip and glanced around. As the relationship went on and he and Joy fell into their unique routine, Peter would not worry so much. No one was watching; no one noticed the bundles nor the smoke—the building across the way sat empty and the cars tooling up the overpass ramp were too far away and moving too fast to focus on someone burning trash in a weedy courtyard. Peter stirred the ashes, grunting at the tenacious remnants—a charred piece of denim, the strap of a purse—and produced a can of lighter fluid from the box.
That purse had contained a canister of mace, as Joy had warned could happen. After scrapping the serial number off the side and wiping it clean, Peter had wrapped the pepper spray in a grocery bag before throwing it away. A handful of bills and a bank card sat in an inside pocket of the purse as well—and there those things remained, curled ash now. How Joy had balked at keeping it! Peter had immediately withdrawn his suggestion and commended his lover’s scruples. Actually, before meeting Peter, Joy had not been above keeping the money (never the cards, of course) left over from her meals. But she found she could not admit to this out loud and so quietly dropped the habit.
The newly-stoked fire licked the metal grating atop the grill, eating up even the most tenacious remains and the fire’s witness realized there was no more motion to occupy his thoughts from considering where those disappearing items had come from. So Peter thought about Joy. She bit her nails, just her thumbnails, when watching one of her shows (or her black and white Hitchcock thrillers which he tried to like too) or when glowering down at the Scrabble board (never content with a word like oxygen because she wanted to spell oxygenation).
Peter glanced down at his own nails, consistently chewed ragged, and wondered what Joy’s nails tasted like to her; he wondered if she felt it when she bit into the quick. She felt his touch through her skin, he knew—or was it the vibration of his touch? He had looked into her empty skin before, while she stretched and preened herself. It was not entirely hollow, not like a discarded piece of clothing, but was filled with bundles of webbing that created paths for her legs and a cavity for her head and body—her true body. How did it feel to wriggle into that disguise—to always be in disguise? But Peter didn’t wonder at that except to wonder at his luck to be the only person in the world who got to see Joy without her disguise. Peter was a nuts-and-bolts admirer—he gazed at the clever girl’s flawlessly woven nails, her hair or what looked and felt like boney points (the pretty hills of her wrist, ankles or elbows) of her body. He marveled at how she manipulated her outer covering’s digits, her lips and tongue and the skin that wrinkled between the eyes when she frowned. Yes, Peter wondered but it was an idle wondering. He was not in wonder but in awe. Joy was not biology; Joy was art.
The fire was smoldering now. Peter stretched, blinked and looked around the courtyard. Perhaps he could string some wire between the side of the apartment and the grizzled light-pole nearby—he wondered if Joy would like to get those sheets out of the living-room.
After about a year, the couple decided to move, not out of fear of being found out (although Joy said she moved periodically anyway, as a matter of caution) but because the apartment was small. It is easy for two people to bump into each in a small space, they admitted. And it’s easy for any two people to get on each other’s nerves—although, this particular young man and woman exhibited frustration, or failed to, in very different ways. They were both good at saving money, however, so financially the relocation would be simple. Peter worked at one inconsequential job or another while she did her transcription work at home but otherwise they were around one another constantly. So, Joy found herself in a peculiar position. A mannish nostalgia for her “bachelor days,” began to creep up on her.
These were years barely endured, oppressed by memories and her guilt at how she survived, causing Joy to questioning her own worth as a living creature. This was also a time which imbued her with a dogged independence of which she was proud. Not many could have survived alone for so long, she told herself—isolated as she had been—without losing their grip and jumping off a bridge. Although, as she had noted during those days, Asheville had few if any bridges sufficient for suicide—one of the few things the city didn’t have.
She needed someone back then, and she readily acknowledged this, if only to punish herself. Yet, after finding someone, she found she resented needing anyone. It amounted, Joy (sometimes) admitted to herself now, to a phobia of intimacy. Even so, she still felt she had some basis to suspect Peter’s feeling for her.
His affection was genuine, she didn’t doubt that, but was it healthy? Sometime, with pinpricks of dread, she observed him stealing adoring glances while they read their separate books or watched a movie. She also spied on Peter through the slits of her eyelids while they made love, or through her eight eyes when they made love without her skin. Oh, her partner let on to prefer sex with her dressed up no less than he did when she crawled out of her skin. But was that a ruse, as she felt it was when he looked up at her not-quite closed human eyes-lids while swaying toward and away from her and mouthed the words, “I love you"? She wondered.
She pondered these things silently on the long car ride.
It was hot—almost but not quite September—and the poor old car had no air conditioning, so they rode with the windows at least halfway down and the wind of the highway in their ears. In that huge white noise, Joy questioned: How could it be natural—this adoration that led him to become her accomplice…?
Joy’s suspicions of why Peter loved her could also collide with her pride. She could love herself (most of the time) so why couldn’t someone else—why shouldn’t someone else? Still, a word pricked at the back of her mind when Peter gazed at her, especially when he gazed at her naked body. Fetish. She felt the word might, if it so chose, collapse all her other considerations and leave her with only two facts. Your lover is demented and you are the desperate one. You are the one who had to settle for a sycophant and a fetishist.
Lofty though it was, her pride was a body rising to a pinpoint peak surrounded by a steep, gravelly base and when Joy tumbled, it was all the way to the bottom. Could even this, the contrived relationship you have to settle for, last?
Perhaps she would fall asleep one night while waiting for Peter to bring another woman home and wake up jilted. He would fall in love, he would choose to save the beautiful, innocent (probably blonde) young woman, not to mention himself. And would Joy feel relieved? Dejected? Both?
Wind boomed through the car. Joy looked over at Peter—he had fallen asleep in the passenger seat, chin on resting on his chest. His thin lips, his sharp nose, the narrow shoulders and the shape of his five-o’clock shadow: the familiar.
Well, it was a useless question anyway. The likelihood of Peter abandoning her seemed pretty slim. And perhaps Joy could reduce the possibility to zero by asking Peter to bring her men instead. But she didn’t and she wasn’t going to. She found she preferred women. Maybe destroying her own likeness pleased her…? But that sounded too much like pop-psychology for Joy.
Tired of jogging emotional laps (after so many years of strolling short, familiar distances) Joy pushed all this aside and just drove. At the next stop she gave Peter the keys and she napped herself.
When they arrived at their new home, a rented farmhouse set in the rural area between the Cape Fear River and Highway 76 heading to Wilmington, Joy found many things to replace those thoughts. There was book-hunting, her transcription, cleaning or even photography, which she became obsessed with (for a few weeks,) every time the seasons changed. Wilmington and the surrounding area was beautiful as fall set in. Biased though she was for the mountains of red, brown and orange that curled around Asheville, Joy smiled at the changing leaves, blown by a cool breeze hinting of the ocean.
Peter had suggested Wilmington. Someone had told him it was a fine place to move to, but he couldn’t remember who. The house had been a good find. There were several large repairs to be made—which their landlord, an elderly man who lived in the city, rarely dropped in on them and accepted checks through the mail—took off their rent. There were also innumerable small repairs—from gutter-cleaning to the constant vigil against ants and mold—that lowered the rent not a single nickel. Regardless, Joy embraced the distractions.
Now as for Peter, he was superficial—yet not. And as he replaced flooring and re-caulked the bathroom, it occurred to him that nothing could be truer than to say he loved Joy inside and out. Being an accomplice did not bother him because, firstly, he did not watch his partner eat (not since the night he found Joy with another man) and secondly, delivering the meals as well as cleaning up after? Those were just ways to demonstrate his love. Finding prey did not elicit any romantic feelings in Peter—however, even imagining Joy returning to faux-dating for her meals felt like a blow to Peter.
That he betrayed people and that they suffered were facts on the periphery of Peter’s vision that never needed to be addressed if he kept Joy as his focus. And that felt good and right anyway. Besides, Peter had never done or experienced anything really exciting in his life so it was easy to imagine Joy’s prey considered themselves as insignificant as he had felt, at least before falling in love. As for his fetish—which is what he would have called his craving if anyone had asked him to define it—why wonder at what you desire if you can’t help but desire it? So, his arachnophilia and his sense of uselessness in any realm outside of his relationship made up his love for Joy. But then, love is like anything else. It must be made of something.
And so things went: the warmth of the low-lying coast got them outside more and the country setting eased an underlying fear (which both admitted they had fooled themselves about not feeling when they lived in a city) of being noticed as they brought prey to the apartment or being spied upon as they disposed of the leftovers afterward. The couple drove to the beach once or twice a week. They walked through Wilmington’s streets and parks. They grew closer. It struck them, Peter first, then Joy, that their mannerisms and habits were falling into sync; they generally knew what the other was thinking or exactly how he or she was about to react. They disagreed occasionally—to Joy’s relief. In the beginning, Peter’s immediate reaction to any situation had been to compliment or apologize. None of the newfound disagreements were terribly heated, and what’s more, the couple recognized the boundary beyond which reparable harm could be done and they always pulled back.
Summer became fall. Joy spun herself a new skin. Peter burned the old one with a pile of someone’s clothes and personal effects. It burned reluctantly and generated a heavy gray smoke. And so the couple might have continued indefinitely, suspicions and co-dependencies aside, phobias and fixations aside, except an incident forced Peter to witness another feeding and this altered how he looked at Joy and how viewed her rapaciousness.
Hannah was a ferrier, vacationing from Arizona, and she had been looking for a friend who lived out here on the coast but had so far been unable to get a hold of her. She had few ties at home and was not expected back for two weeks. She suspected her friend, who had never been that reliable, had probably lost her cell and Hannah’s number with it.
At first, moving around the city anonymously felt cool and secretive. But Hannah knew she didn’t really have any secrets and quickly she felt snubbed by all the people socializing around her. She wished she could make friends more easily but the thought of approaching strangers threw up a wall of self-consciousness. The young man she meet by a lighted fountain, however, approached her so casually she thought he must have had plenty of experience and she would have been on guard except he betrayed himself, as he kept talking, as earnestly nerdish. He was not smooth exactly, or even very confident, but certainly practiced. Interesting. They walked from the fountain together, not embracing but leaning toward one another, in search of a something to eat or maybe a drink.
“So you and your sister keep horses on your farm—that’s neat. How far outside the city is it?"
Peter could not concentrate on the question. At first, he assumed the man across the room, in a booth near the back of the bar, was gawking at his new friend, but each time Peter glanced toward the hunched, brooding figure he found himself locked into the same unwavering and unfriendly glare.
Hannah the Arizona farrier felt disappointed when Peter glanced at his phone and told her he had just got a text about a family emergency. Her hereto attentive date’s abrupt manner surprised Hannah and after he left she sat alone at the bar and became angry as well—he had not even looked her in the eye while he blew her off. Instead, he had been staring over her shoulder the whole time, into space apparently. A glance behind her confirmed this; there was nothing in that direction but an empty booth by the door.
Joy was carrying a box half-filled with old newspapers and a roll of clear plastic from the living room to the spare room (the feeding room of their new home) when Peter pulled into the gravel driveway and jogged into the house with a grimace, swinging the door shut behind him. He was early—and alone. One hand over his chest and the other held up in a hold-on gesture, Peter walked on shaky feet into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of water. Joy remained where she stood, still holding the box and the roll of plastic, ignoring her growing dread as best she could. Peter began to explain that someone had been watching him tonight when the front door flew back against the wall, the naked deadbolt coughing splinters from the rectangular hole left in the paneling. The man from the bar was no longer brooding (he seemed quite pleased, in fact) but looked no less unfriendly as he steadied himself, lowered his foot and stepped into the room.
The newcomer wiped his feet slowly, deliberately, as he took in the two occupants of the house and looked around the room, sizing everything up.
“Where’s Abby?" He smirked at Peter, his hands on his hips and his head cocked.
Peter blinked and opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten her already,” the intruder snorted and shook his head. “That’s pretty cold. Pret-ty cold. Your fella here was out on the town again tonight. With a pretty redhead, this time,” the man spoke to Joy without turning from Peter. “But don’t feel bad. Hey. He did the same thing to me."
Abby’s one-time boyfriend went on for a while, enjoying himself. He alluded to a restraining order, stating that such a thing didn’t mean he couldn’t keep an eye on his baby through the dating site she had signed up for—and she had done that just to frustrate him, by the way.
The large man aggressively chewed a piece of white gum; it danced around his back teeth as he talked and smacked when he grinned. Although he had yet to find her, their guest said he knew Abby was supposed to be in Wilmington. He found it interesting, not to mention one hell of a coincidence, that Peter—the last person featured on Abby’s ‘Interested’ list—had popped up in the same city.
“Your boy thought he was a big man. Now look at him, he’s shaking."
But Joy wasn’t looking at Peter. Instead she stared straight ahead, tilting her chin to a sharp angle and slowly opening her mouth.
Joy stood at the rear-room window, watching Peter’s silhouette through the fogged glass. The fire, dying down in their homemade barbeque pit at his feet, made blurry pinpoints of red and orange that danced in the condensation. She held the tear in her skin, just below her neck, the way one holds the top of a bathrobe closed. She frowned at Peter’s back as he stirred the coals with a branch; it was not the old familiar frown because it did not touch her eyes and did not flaunt her frustration but quite unknowingly betrayed all her guilt and worry.
Peter closed and leaned against the front door as she pulled the obnoxious man down. After the thrashing became a spastic shiver, Joy dragged her prey over to the plastic, which she unrolled with a kick. Through her eight eyes, Joy watched Peter slide down, back still against the door, staring as she ate.
The same dazed expression she saw last night remained on his face the entire morning, as it did now, Joy was sure of it, even though Peter remained turned to the fire.
Walking around to the front of the house, Peter found Joy on the porch swing, wrapped in her grandmother’s afghan. She raised one draped arm, in a mother-hen’s invitation to be held.
“I guess this is obvious,” Joy said with a dry laugh as they began to sway forward and back. “But I don’t think we should use the internet anymore. Maybe—well, definitely, we should look for people, you know, who won’t be missed. I don’t know—criminals, if we can manage that, or homeless people. People with no connections. Connections to jackasses like the one last night, for example."
Her audience wasn’t listening.
Her mouth, her true mouth, working, pumping, pressing against flesh, pressing through. Her acidic saliva mixing with the blood, turning it greyish red, seeping down, trickling down—to be lapped up by that unappeasable mouth…
Joy was still talking, apologizing in fact, for putting someone she cared about in a position that must have made him feel—
She froze; Peter was looking at his lover with an expression she had seen before. As Joy seemed suddenly speechless, he took up the conversation. Everyone had a favorite body-part on their partner or a favorite motion or sound during sex—a favorite glance or smile. His preoccupation had shifted, that was all. She had predicted this, in a way, back in the apartment in Asheville, after she bit his hand.
Joy rose and the blanket fell behind her. Her bare feet made the boards of the porch creak. Those feet crunched through the pebbled gravel of the walkway. Then the tires of their worn-out Subaru growled over the larger gravel of the driveway. Silence stayed behind.
She drove slowly, her arm on the window sill and the side of her head in her hand. A farm truck hauling empty fruit crates drove around her with a honk and she looked up for a moment, only to fall to fretful meditation again, as she cruised down the country highway. The road seemed tattooed onto the rolling landscape whether it wanted it or not.
About half an hour before sunset, the car returned in a cloud of dust and buoyant female rock-music. Peter returned to the porch, to almost exactly where she left him. He could not identify the song and this was odd to him because he thought he knew all the music Joy liked. As for Joy herself, she strode toward the farmhouse weightlessly in the wake of the fading sound and dust, the new silk scarf tied around her neck fluttering as she moved forward. With a deep breath (or perhaps that was a bored, pitying sigh—Peter was uncertain again for the second time in the space of just a few seconds) Joy met him at the door. She both greeted and nudged Peter aside with the same motion—a quick peck on the cheek—to make room for herself and the two thrift-store suitcases swinging at her sides.
Peter followed his beloved down the hall and to the bedroom, unsure of what to say. The game plan he formulated, more or less unconsciously, while Joy was gone, was to cower passively until she accepted his new fixation. But the strategy fell apart at the sight of the young woman packing her things while smiling and (this was the worst) trying, for his sake, to not smile. That’s when a heat slid into Peter’s stomach and the reproach (planted so long ago—the first time she had shunned him) finally bloomed bright red in his chest. She had never seemed unattractive, not in the least, until now.
Peter cleared his throat—which clenched up, perhaps in an effort to reject the painfully obvious question that marched through it and out of his mouth anyway.
“What I have to do,” Joy replied evenly, continuing to tuck shirts, jeans and socks into one of the cases.
“Well, of course. You always have. You’ve always been able to take care of yourself." Peter felt his breathing quicken and tried to force it down. He intuitively knew that low-key persistence would best goad Joy out of this shell of calm decisiveness. An argument might pour out but at least the shell would be cracked. So, Peter continued, doing a pretty good job of matching her tone, considering the words he chose. “But why do you have to do it by yourself? I can’t be there? Well, I guess that’s obvious. OK. But when have I not done as much for you as I can? I mean, if this is about last night, that wasn’t my fault. I take responsibility, but it wasn’t anybody’s—”
“I didn’t say it was your fault."
“If you want homeless people we can do that. If you want murderers and child molesters, we can figure it out."
“Yeah, I intend to change the way I live. The way I eat—” Joy cut herself off with a frustrated sigh. She cut the sigh off just as quickly. She refused to let that inhaled air turn into a signal of weakness. Instead, Joy exhaled through her nose with a grunt and drummed the rim of the suitcase with her fingertips. She glared up at the ceiling in search of inspiration, anything to replace the biting response that strained to escape. She could also intuit the inverse danger of falling into an argument in this moment. So she repeated: “I’m doing what I have to do."
Peter was about to reply when she spoke over him. “And it has to be me. My change. I’ll just never do it here."
Peter considered that, watching the floor, before shooting the first thing that came to his mind back at her.
“I would die without—”
Joy was already moving past him, out of the room, eyes screwed shut and shaking her head. In her dismay, she abandoned the suitcases—but only for the moment, she promised herself.
Peter remained by the bedroom door for a moment, calculating. He should let things be for little bit; Joy was reaching a limit and the stakes of starting a fight had become too high. Still—was that disgust? Disgust. Ignore it, a voice said, absorb it. In a situation like this— The young man frowned at the bed, where the half-filled cases sat like intruding, alien creatures; then he turned and followed his love. Walking down the hall again, the young man felt that border beyond which irreparable harm could be done pass beneath his feet while that red glow in his chest lit his steps.
She sat in the threshold of the broken front door, leaning her head on the doorframe and looking out at the tree-line. Some distance beyond that, the ocean embraced the shore and pulled back, embraced, pulled back.
His damp hands jammed in his pockets, Peter leaned a shoulder on the opposite jamb and bent his neck towards the outside. They looked like they were contemplating a trip.
“OK then, what? My god, tell me what I can do."
“I can’t. You won’t,” Joy pinched the bridge of her nose and tried to find the words that would guide her back to the buoyancy, the invulnerability, that she felt when she first got out of the car. “You won’t be there."
“You don’t love me, do you? Not really."
“It’s not that."
“I love you."
“Stop simplifying everything."
“But it doesn’t matter, does it?"
“Stop whining,” Joy snapped. Beyond that border lay the desire to hurt. “Love. Love? Sure. Right. For you, it’s just your stupid, goddamn weirdness."
“Yes, I do love you,” he answered without pause, his eyes narrowed and his head nodding in a nervous tic. At some point, Peter’s hands had left his pockets and clenched at his sides. “So, there’s something wrong with me, then?"
“Are you saying it’s all me?"
“Did I? Did I ever?" Peter raised himself up from the doorframe and his voice raised a pitch as he stabbed a finger at Joy’s profile. “Did I ever make you feel not normal?"
“Yes, don’t you hear me?" Joy spun around. “Of course, you do."
“How? I’d like to really know how. I’ve done everything for you. Everything you—”
“That’s how. But you don’t do it for me. You do it for whatever kink is wired into your— Never mind, forget it. Christ."
Joy was quiet for a while, rubbing her eyes. Then she muttered something.
“I said I’m not going to bite you."
Peter’s face fell but quickly regained its taunt, wounded composure. She continued to rub her eyes when she said it; she continued to look down. He felt as cold and panicked as he had when she had rose from the porch swing and driven away—after he had first revealed his new desire to her. She had not asserted her refusal though, not really. So maybe he could disregard the statement and guide her away from it—that is, if he continued as if she had not said it maybe it would be left behind. So, Peter crossed his arms to continue, in the same tone:
“You’re saying you want to be loved in spite of what you are, not because of it? Is that what you’re saying?"
“I just want to be loved, period. I thought we could—”
“No, it’s not that simple or pure on your part. You don’t think you can be loved."
“This conversation is over. You’re just jumping into sappy—”
The desire to hurt.
“You just want to eat once or twice a month, by yourself, and make a new skin every few years and just ignore the real you the rest of the time—”
The desire to hurt mirrors the desire to be hurt.
“And you just want me to feed and scurry back and forth over the floor like a pet. While you wallow in your kinky fucking nonsense."
“You say I have bad wiring. I say I was made to love you. What else do you want? Someone else, right?"
Screwing her eyes shut, Joy mashed her fingertips into either side of her forehead; her brow clenched until the skin between the eyebrows turned white.
“Always someone else. Always some—” As Peter said this, Joy’s face suddenly flushed with a gasp and her brow shot up in the pain of release.
A flurry of legs wrapped around Peter, a furry, heavy weight hit his chest and a crushing pain sank into his mouth, through his lips, burning his throat. Still locked in that kiss, Joy dragged him across the floor into the back room and kicked the door closed behind them. For a very long time, the house was still except for the faint sound of drinking and the shadows that dusk chased up the walls and over the ceiling, even as the failing light absorbed them into itself.
Jason Howell graduated from the University of North Carolina, Asheville in 2010, where he studied mass communication and journalism. He lives in North Carolina with his son.
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