national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

I Want to Be Polly

Kit Peterson  • 
SUNY Rockland

I. Bragging Rights

I was a bean-like nothing in my mother’s womb, silently waiting to embrace the divinity of violence. Early into her pregnancy my mother filled an empty bathtub with about two inches of blood. I wanted her hemorrhage for my own, even then. The day I was born, there was a record-breaking storm, accidental deaths in the paper. I felt the cold cutting through my mother’s stomach as she trod through the icy hospital parking lot, barbs of snowfall and wind chill aimed at the both of us. When it was about time, I stopped breathing; I tried to smother myself in the soft tissues of the womb. The nurse anesthetized my mother to perform the caesarean, and I receded further into her where there was enough silence to assume my life hadn’t begun, but I always kept an eye on the blade. I took my first breath, and I must have been frightened and dismayed that I was not drowning.

When I was a toddler I didn’t want my toothy picture on the news broadcast. I didn’t want the cover of TIME. I wasn’t beckoning for any social or political statement to be made about my homicide. But it was as if I wanted to feel an organ punctured, then punctured again, my blood coalescing, my heart slowing—a momentary reaffirmation of life before it is taken.

I was raised in Piedmont, California. My walker once toppled over the railing of our sun porch, landing me in a thicket of baby’s breath and daisies. I rolled off a futon mattress when I was three, suffering a small bruise the shape of Arkansas, a scrape like a tiny island on a fat knee. It wasn’t in the face of death or injury that I cried, but in the realization that I had fallen only a short distance.

One night before dinner, my mother pressed her hands together, looking at me sternly. This is it, I thought. We’ll have to go to mass regularly. Our church attendance was never commendable. I would punch holes through my straw hats during Easter, allow my fingers to flirt with the flames of prayer candles, and cover them in hot wax. There was once an incident involving several limbs of a disassembled doll—a porcelain arm carefully wedged in the collar of Mrs. Fellini’s shirt collar in the pew before us, a leg splashed into the font as my mother dragged me from the church doors.

That night when my mother pressed her hands together, as if beginning a prayer for my savior, I pictured throwing the steaming bowl of squash and spaghetti to the wall and discovering Jesus, crown of thorns, tears of blood and everything, staring back at me from the splattered sauce. But thankfully this wasn’t an address to Christ, Ave Maria, or anyone else. She asked me to rub my hands along the sides of hers.

“This is what a dead person feels like,” she said, as I felt the cold, taut flesh of the backs of her hands. Both of us laughed—the kind of laugh that’s weird and indiscernible, unless you’re a single mother or an only child. I lunged into my bowl of pasta, the firm sensation of my mother’s cold hands still within my palms. I now know it’s the closest you can get without actually touching a corpse. The genuine article is colder and sometimes softer.

My mother tried to raise a good kid. But when I was too little to understand it, I wanted to know the depravity of the world—where men could evade sentence if they were crafty enough about killing. I wanted to be someone’s art piece, all the gashes prodded into me, ensuring my murderer’s place in history, as if my remains were to be Guggenheim’d behind glass.

(I’d look out from my case, skinless, bald-faced and proud, yet bashful. One can be only humble when disfigured.)

I had other hobbies. I enjoyed splashing puddles, counting each one as my rain boots hurtled into them, my mother clutching a small, squirming hand until both our knuckles went white to prevent my fall. The year was 1993, and I was four. I’m told I counted 76 such puddles one overcast Oakland day.

That same year in Petaluma, a small town just 30 miles north, Polly Klaas’s friends were bound with rope, as a man with a knife put pillowcases over their heads and told them to count to 1,000. They were 12. I wonder if they were capable of reaching that impossible number, or if they counted at all.


II. Little Bird Necks

Two weeks after Polly’s disappearance, her mother was quoted as saying, “I have a daughter out there—without shoes.”

This was during the age of the nascent internet—crudely designed websites showcasing Polly’s school pictures, and flyers proliferating wildly, inviting the help of hundreds of citizens beyond the lines of the small, wholesome town of Petaluma. A search followed unlike any before it. Many other victims surfaced, their anguished families looking out from television screens. Bloodshot eyes shining with a hint of malicious conviction for retribution. Trembling hands and stooped shoulders. They stared from those screens into the eyes of their kids’ captors, or searched for some sort of salvation from the local news cameraman, but they always aged as the months wore on. Some were greying, some swelling with grief, some withering into church wafers, their bones becoming a little more brittle, their eyes a little more sunken into their skulls. But they were always aging. Always aging while their daughters and sons stayed the same age in some unknown thicket or riverbed.

We were still young and alive. Our parents still gave us an hour of TV on the weekends and allowed us to be home video starlets. We went to birthday parties where we all dressed as princesses, pilgrims, or Eskimos. As we ran around a wet lawn, we heard their hushed voices only audible through snickers and gasps, like when the wind leaks through a window left slightly ajar.

“… her little neck just snapped.”

“The fact that a human being—”

“Anyone who hurts a child should receive the death penalty,” I distinctly heard my mother say.

When they went inside to cut the cake, I stayed on the lawn squinting up at an anemic white sun until my eyes surged with pain. I heard the disposable camera shutters snapping, sensed the sounds little girls make when they blow out birthday candles. I longed for the birthday girl’s hair to catch fire. I stretched my own neck to the point where the tendons felt close to rupture. I wrapped a cloth napkin around my throat to see if anything would, in fact, break. I faintly heard my mother calling for me, as if I were missing out on something incredibly important as far as birthdays go.

Soon short of breath, feeling my glands throb under the piece of fabric, I imagined some guy getting the chair for it.


III. Teacups and Pintos

If you were a kid growing up in Northern California in the ’90s, your mother listened to something like Dire Straits, or Bruce Springsteen, and invariably National Public Radio. That November my mother and I sat on the couch listening to KQED as a kettle began to bleat and then whine on the stove. My mother remained motionless, tuning out the banshee screech entirely, her eyes fixed on the radio speaker as if she were waiting for the Kaiser himself to emerge from it. As the water bubbled from the lid, sizzling to the burner below, we heard, The search for Polly Klaas—

Her hands cupped my ears, and instead of counting to 1,000, perhaps only 25 seconds of the report stole away into the night.

“You know the drill,” she would say, sometimes sending me upstairs. It was then that I recognized worldwide violence as a routine.

When there was a hand over my eyes during the 11 o’clock news on Channel 9, I didn’t squirm or protest. Breathing deeply, I edged back into my mother’s lap. One … two … four … 60 … 998 … and I’d trade her blouse button for the barrel of a gun aimed at one of my kidneys, and lean into her further.

I imagined vile scenes superseding those being reported. News of a car accident instantly brought images of gravel embedded in the flesh, a motorist ripped from the car, an arm and a jaw still clinging to the parameters of the windshield, as if the driver wanted desperately to die enveloped in the faux-leather seating of his sedan rather than on the pavement.

Though no sound entered my ears, what I envisioned seemed to chime in me loudly, as if my head were a bell tower of all the violence. It wasn’t simply a phase. In later years when I heard perhaps just 30 seconds of a broadcast describing the Wichita Horror killings in Kansas, the massacre appeared to me as a circle of executed good country people like links in a daisy chain. Even their dog was a heap of all- American golden retriever stained in crimson, covered in its owners’ viscera—a closer bond between owner and pet. I imagined a dog like that fighting the intruders like hell, maybe wedges of flesh in its mouth as it bit down, droning a muffled growl, until it was kicked off, whimpering, and tied up with the others. My mother didn’t think I needed to fill my head with that sort of thing. The truth was that the media didn’t need to inform me what happened.

But even if you weren’t a maladjusted kid in Northern California, every stranger was a 32- to 45-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard standing at approximately six feet. Every man who wasn’t your father was the guy in the posters or the guy your parents warned you about. Every out-of-town drifter had anxious and starless black eyes peering over the steering wheel of a white Ford Pinto.

Every guy was Richard Allen Davis.

If we were playing kickball, the game would momentarily stop, the ball rolling to the opposite side of the street, all of us motionless, as we watched any white vehicle slowly turn onto another avenue.

For me the streets of Oakland were the stuff of fairytales—improbable and magical things waited in them to lead to my happy ending. What if he somehow knew the word my mother and I used as a code? “Teacup,” he’d say, and reach across the bench seat to open the passenger door of his American-made shit-box car. I’d trust him until I didn’t. And when I finally became aware that the ditch dug far off the side of some highway had been dug for me, aces is where I’d be swimming. I would finally find home there.


IV. Death by Proxy

In June 1996, I finally peeked through my mother’s fingers to see everyone’s favorite man with a Christmas card smile on the news. It was a smile proud enough to show a mother a good report card, but the eyes were lifeless and dispassionate. Richard Allen Davis had finally been convicted of the murder of Polly Klaas.

Though the case was closed, I imagined every man on God’s green earth to be Davis with that same baleful smile. The twilit glow of abduction reports still radiated from everyone’s living rooms. The newsstands were inundated with cheap rags covered in missing children’s faces, their expressions too mirthful to be real, their eyes as still and pure as those porcelain dolls I once brought to mass. They were all pretty, tiny girls I couldn’t even fathom being mounted by a full-grown man’s weight and sweat. My mother wouldn’t even let me go to the neighbor’s house without a hand to hold on the way there.

Even as a preteen I dreamt constantly of Polly. We were friends our parents didn’t know about. We wore red and tore holes in the knees of our stockings. I was jealous of her straight nose, her perfect posture. She had better things to say than I did, did better impressions of other ghosts—Fred Gwynne, River Phoenix, and a Gene Autry that could break your heart. I was envious that a little girl who would always be 12 years old had experienced more than most men twice her age.

My mother looked at me like I was Satan incarnate—though she didn’t quite know why. She removed the door from my bedroom so that I could no longer lock it. I avoided her gaze by shutting myself in two storage units on either side of my loft bedroom, both only large enough to accommodate a kid and some books. Both smelled like old road kill and wood rot. Isolated in those tight spaces, I became engulfed with newspaper articles I snatched from school. On paper Polly was a pretty little girl who liked Joe Montana and Louisa May Alcott. Besides the coroner and her parents, I supposed no one had ventured to think what she might have ultimately looked like beyond her school photos. She had died with that image—in a red, flowered, prairie dress, head cocked, a smile too big for her tiny face, amidst the blue backdrop provided by the school photographer. Or perhaps by the artful hand of the undertaker, she had been given that “forever young” look.

Library books and internet clips filled my small den. The work of the Manson family. The Hillside Stranglers. The Black Dahlia’s segmented torso. Coroners’ photos didn’t do justice to that meticulous work. The jutted-out ribcages and butterflied pectorals of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims jumped forth from Technicolor splendor. The black-and-whites taken before 1950 seemed to lack the immorality of those that followed. Unless it was the fissured remains of Rasputin’s skull, these photographs made dead a glamorous thing to be. The opulence of being important enough for murder, to be someone’s “hit,” made each portrait somehow mantle-worthy.

One of the first early masters of crime scene photography was Arthur Fellig, nicknamed “Weegee” because of his near prophetic arrivals at shootouts—as if the police had summoned him with an Ouija board. His work depicted lavishly dressed mob bosses and street urchins studded with bullet holes in their backs. Even drunks gave off a similar feeling of effused extravagance and propriety with slightly tarnished three-piece suits and combed hair. I felt almost nothing from these pictures. The images in my head were more wicked. People were not shot in backrooms but disfigured in their own sheets.

But before studying the manifold ways a full-grown man’s hands could be bound and then lacerated from the body, I longed for the knife sawing through my bones. The truth was that my sense of immortality was left sadly unmolested, while everyone already grieved their kids whom they’d entombed within their bedrooms. I needed someone to violate that mollifying sense of immortality—I needed subjective abuse graver than bone-deep. I soon realized, in that cavernous chamber with my photographs of the dead and the mutilated, that something had to churn my insides more than the details of an autopsy.

Though somewhat suspicious, my mother thought I was just naïve to the weight of everything. Both of us must have been confused by my hormones rapidly surfacing, and those suddenly resolute opinions of mine shelling out like machine gun fire, as if I contained the gospel according to Christ in my teen head. Kids are impressionable, she must have thought, but thank whatever deity for their innocence.

I closed the book. I then wondered about the intricacies of my own flesh sliced, slashed or julienned like a shoestring fry. A red, flowered dress that breathed at the knees. If I’d require makeup or an airbrush, or if it’d be a futile effort.

Crouching in the storage closets with a flashlight, there was barely enough time before I could feel the breaths become shallow and fewer. At some point I was on the verge of sleep, barely feeling the cobwebs drift across my scalp and entangle in my hair. Polly had just been telling me about the slumber party she was planning when I heard my mother calling me from downstairs.


V. We All Get Ours

“Dry mouth, nausea, warning, warning, warning,” Lily says.

“Warning, warning, warning,” I say. Laughter leaks from my nostrils. The fog of Lily’s breath hangs in the air and smells like her dad’s smokes.

“None of the right warnings,” she says.

I grab the box from her and squint at the label.

Learn how to read,” I say. “Mania, auditory and visual— ”

“That’s better,” she says. She cradles the radiator. “Today is my thirteenth birthday,” she says.

The house is empty. An old man’s wheeze hits the window shutters. October 2001, and the air is thinner this year. It is the first October we have decided trick or treating and kickball are for squares. There is no Y2K, but every day since the hoax feels like some quaint and unfulfilled promise of end days.

The town of Kings Beach is taking a nap. Lily’s parents are on a ski trip. Every day my mother cleans vacation homes, and sometimes I tie a bandana around my face like a bandit and help her. I miss Oakland like an old enemy I can’t remember. Lake Tahoe keeps strange priorities. Winter sports and unemployment are among the top ten. You know everyone on your block down to the net incomes. You know their in-laws, their kids, their Labradors and Malamutes, each of their favorite winter sports and so on. We moved here for that clean, thin air. Even at three in the morning everything is pristine; the snow banks don’t even show a hint of car exhaust.

Lily holds the remainder of the pills in her hands. We read about them on the internet. Some girl in Orlando locked herself in the bathroom with two boxes of triple C’s, blah, blah, blah. Some kids in Texas wanted to see the ocean—not the gulf—but the actual ocean. Two DXM overdoses during the odyssey, two forever condemned to the southerly depths of blah, blah, blah.

“Do you want to split these?” says Lily. She leans back into her dad’s recliner and lights one of his cigarettes with her other hand extended.

I look at the little red jewels in her white palm.

“You look pretty off your rocker already,” she says.

I grab the fistful of skittles. “Blah, blah, blah,” I say back.

“Mountain Dew,” she says. “Don’t you just want a glass of Mountain Dew? My pops has some rum in the cabinet. Glass for glass.”

I kick rocks across a vacant street, walking to the corner store for the pop. The moon is low and looks like a scythe. I look up at it for as long as I can stand the light searing my pupils. The stars look like pinpricks along the back of a blue whale. The ocean, I am thinking. They wanted to see the real deal.

With a baseball cap, my mother’s sweater falling to the knees and a parka that belonged to my father, I am an androgynous and undersexed teenager. This October is colder. It has me layered enough to look like a boy three to four years my senior.

Mountain Dew. Isn’t that the one that all the kids used to concoct the best rumors about? The best grade school tales of lowered sperm count. Kills smaller breeds of dogs. Causes anal leakage. A silly thing to want. But we are silly girls, and it is Lily’s birthday.

I purchase the stuff. The guy at the counter looks at me as if he’s seen me before. He looks older than he probably is. He is pigeon-toed. I cannot see his stance behind the counter, but somehow I know it. Some sort of defect must exist here.

My mother always tells me not to stare. The guy shoots me a look. He looks at me like I’m young and dumb and beautiful, and I begin to giggle.

“You know it’s late,” he says. “Girl like you.”

I am in full hysterics. Girl-like-me. Hysterical. I fight the urge to vomit all over the linoleum.

“Get out of my store. Go home to your parents,” he says.

The bell chime from the door stays in my ears for at least four minutes, then moves down to my lungs, pulsing with subzero temperature. Everything is so clear out here. I imagine as you get closer to the equator, something makes the air thick and hazy, like you’re taking a gulp of it each time you inhale, and it makes you count each breath. I look up at the clouds—gauze stretched across nothing. Nothing up there, I am thinking. I balance the liter of soda so it won’t fizz. I suspect Lily will want a glass straight away.

A man turns from a side street two blocks behind me. I quicken my pace calmly. Lily must be thirstier by the minute. It is her birthday; she can be thirsty if she wants to. I narrow the hood of my father’s parka around my face. I check to see if my shoes are tied, eyeing the ice-laden street ahead of me should I slip. Warning, warning, warning. All the wrong warnings.

I turn around again and he is walking at a snail’s pace. If a snail were able to have a limp, a lame foot. He is only wearing a t-shirt. His father must have never given him a jacket, I am thinking. I turn again. He surely isn’t following me. There’s no reason to jump to conclusions. No reason to believe this guy should mean any ill will. Just some working-class hero. You’re acting like an idiot—thinking otherwise like that. Like those kids who were looking for the ocean when they already had the gulf, I am thinking. I look forward. The moon is more like a plume than a blade, blanketed in clouds. He’s probably just getting off from sixteen hours of snow removal or something. Must work for the city, doing his part.

I turn my head a third time, to see that he’s on his way all right enough. My ears still chime, lungs still throb. My stomach begins to settle. He probably has a family. They are probably waiting for him like Lily waiting for a glass of Mountain Dew.

As I turn, my nose brushes his chest.

A big-set guy with red hair. How he’s advanced those two blocks so quickly and soundlessly I’m unsure.

I run, my shins feeling as if they’re splinted with ice picks. Big Red bounds behind me. My feet pound the icy sidewalk, and everything sounds like a frozen lake about to crack beneath my shoes.

I sprint maybe two blocks, my heart in my jugular or the other way around. I don’t know what I am running towards, but I sniff the air for Lily’s dad’s cigarettes. I drop the bottle of pop into a snow berm—it should be luxuriously chilled when we go back for it. I spot the door to the house and my heart slows if only for a minute. I reach it just to be dragged away from it by my ankles.

I manage to cling to the doorknob like it’s the edge of a canyon. He pulls me clear from it, so that I’m horizontally hanging between the locked door and his heaving body. I release the cold brass, a glaring pain seizing my forehead and palms as I hit the frost-covered porch face-first. My skin is pared then scraped off from my where my chin slides across the splintered woodwork. I dig my nails into the wood, grinding against the grain, until my friend opens the door, seizing my wrists. She must be parched, I am thinking.

Vanity takes ahold of me then. What will be documented of my remains? Will there be small lesions and nicks? Or is he the type to leave me gaping with wounds, altered, manipulated, dismembered?

I should have worn a red dress for the occasion.

There is no crying or struggling or laughing or grunting or panting or screaming that any living soul can hear. I sincerely believe that we are all deaf for five or so minutes, and it is because we are all still alive. My body still reacts and fights. I cannot account for my resistance. I hold on to Lily, see her exertion. Her pain. But I want her to let go.

Whatever is behind me stinks of the inside of a plastic fifth-gallon bottle of vodka. Faint smells of coriander and musk. Memories start to flood into my skull. Soft bullets of nostalgia excavating the brain. Candlestick Park. My mother feeding ducks with focaccia. The first time I was kissed. Every noise and smell from Adeline Street and Piedmont Avenue. Climbing up on my father’s shoulders, running through clean sheets tacked to clotheslines.

Big Red stumbles back and lets go of my legs. My shins smack against the porch, and I crawl to my feet. Lily’s cold hands still grip mine. He tries to hoist himself up, his stomach spilling from his jeans, his hands florid and rough. I stand motionless in the doorway, panting, trying to take him all in.

“Cat! The hell are you doing? Come on!” Lily says.

I stand there. The warmth diffuses from the house, but I feel the winter caressing me with its thorny air. He is up now, making his way back up the porch steps, a knee aimed for my heart as he climbs each one.

Lily wins and yanks me into the house. It is her birthday; she can win if she wants to. He nicks me with a fingernail right before she slams the door. My favorite nick. I imagine his cuticles stained with nicotine and caked in soil from beneath the snow. I land on my chest. My face looms above her parents’ welcome mat. Come-back-with-a-warrant it says.

Lily shakily turns the dead bolt. She lights a cigarette and says, “Mountain Dew is for squares anyway.”

I fall into her father’s recliner, and suddenly there’s the thought of my mother and me driving along a mountain road. We are on the way to a house clean, and the whole car smells like ammonia, and we’re both wearing kneepads caked in dust and splattered with bleach, when my mother leans towards the wheel and cranes her neck to look out the windshield. Our first thought is that they are simply aspen leaves falling from the neighborhood trees. The pavement below us is littered with bright orange foliage, and the sky is dense with orange as far as the mountain line.

When we realize it’s a swarm of butterflies, the scattered, crushed wings dancing and twitching beneath the car tires, we don’t know whether to slow down or speed through it.

“I want to talk to Richard,” I say to Lily.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she says.


VI. To Fragment Your Own Limbs

I always hated movies where the victim is some flawed female who is too petrified to press charges. But we were two 13-year-old kids coping with rum after my near abduction, and we decided we just couldn’t get the incident report straight enough to tell the cops. What was his description? Red hair? And later on that night, was it the storm breaking in? Or did he come back for more? How long would we be grounded?

Lily soon drifted off. The rum, too sweet and too viscous, softened my gullet. The experience had made me too animate, too whole. It made me feel the weight of my own organs, made each seem vital—too useful. The rum allowed me to feel more fragmented, as if my body parts could drift from one another to fill the warm room.

I wanted to be on the edge of experience again. On the edge of violation. To watch my teenage life being taken. That moment of reluctance: the drunk regaining purchase, a workman’s boot ascending a porch step, followed by another, rough hands extended, his breath anesthetizing me into stillness. I did not need to surrender—that would require me to want something different for myself.

As I sipped the thick rum, I remembered two of me. One was in a baseball cap and oversized sweater inside the house with Lily, and all was young, dumb glory and Mountain Dew. The other: soft, cold and inanimate in the snow, left to be sniffed out by hounds that had acquainted themselves with a piece of my clothing from a past life.

I thought about the parents in lawn chairs discussing unmarked white Pintos. Little necks. Kids without shoes. I must not think bad thoughts, I said to myself. Again there was a bang on the door. Footsteps clamoring on the porch, another bang on the other side of the house. Lily startled from sleep and then was quickly snoring again. I thought how Richard Allen Davis’s initials spelled “R.A.D.” In the dark I thought I saw Polly, and then the vision was replaced by that of my own dead mother. I must not think I must not think. I recognized myself as a child for the first time. A child who so badly wanted something, like wanting a dog or a bicycle.

I stopped thinking or wanting or searching. In the stillness of my mind, I discovered that the wickedest thoughts are reserved for others.


VII. Death Rights

Richard Allen Davis made varsity on death row. Is it better if execution is coming to you? I want to ask him if it’s anticlimactic after premeditated slaughter to know the day you’ll take your last breath. Or if he wants some special tidbit to be included in his eulogy: “When he was a child everybody thought Richard would be a botanist, maybe an ornithologist. He was a great bird watcher…

Maybe I want to know if depravity is born into a human being—does it snap like the voltage surging through your chair? Or were you always full to the brim of enough electricity to be lethal? I’d expect he’d say nothing to me about it. At least nothing intelligible. Why should I be so lucky? Besides, the language killers speak is a tonal and terrorizing one. It wasn’t something I was allowed to learn. It was as inaccessible to me as speaking with God was to anyone who prays too desperately.

When we actually made it to mass, I’d only pay attention to all the prayer candles with wicks barely illuminating their blue glass holders, and my mother finally freeing my hand if only to light them. She’d be as silent as an undertaker. I stopped wondering about the girl in the red-flowered prairie dress, but her untimely fate I still wanted for my own.

Polly Klaas was coined “America’s Child,” one who had slipped beyond the grid of society. She had posters up as far as Germany. I had never been to Germany. But I couldn’t stop amusing myself with the notion of being taken from my bedroom, of people in Istanbul huddling in prayer after my remains were found, or vigils held in Paris where everyone passed around wine in paper cups and candles that smelled like vanilla or duck fat or Gruyère—until they finally blew them out.

But the amusement stops there. There are certain things about a church and seeing life and death within it as sacred, if only on a Sunday. There are things about how stately my grandfather’s wake was, or how wasted away Aunt Nadine’s cheeks appeared days before her death. I had met Nadine twice. I later met a skull covered in sallow skin for the first time outside of a photograph, and the eyes were raisin-colored all the way to the sclera.

Then my mother explained to me that the candles helped those who passed away unpleasantly, those who might still be kicking around this place, unable to end the transient chapter. “Some of the dead are still here,” she said. “It’s not a scary thing. They’re just here like you and I are.”

The year my mother died, I pondered lighting a candle for her. I hadn’t been to mass in nine years. I thought about how I might light a church afire just by entering its doors.

But the day my mother died, there was a record-breaking storm; deaths in the paper. I walked across the hospital parking lot, wishing I could trade my busy and nervous organs for hers, hoping there was a way to pull her back into daylight so that she could see another spring emerge from winter. That day we both had shaved heads—mine intentional, but she could not see it. It would be easy to make a joke that way, to lighten things a bit—I believe she would have thought me looking like a boy too funny to bear.

But it was not her, and it was not death, but someone and something else reclined on a hospital bed. Her hands felt too soft, her arms too billowed and cold. The amusement stops there. The nurse left me in the ICU to make my own conjectures of what faced me from the pillow. Curtains patterned in geometric shapes like a cheap hotel. Earth tones and placebo whites. Scuffed linoleum and static fluorescent. The room that smelled like plastic, ammonia, and stillbirth, but not quite like death.

I now know my mother no longer walks among us, the two of us strolling down Piedmont Avenue, hand-in-hand, counting puddles. Three Februaries ago the fascination of fatality died with her.

The amusement stops there.

I’m now suitably more prudent in getting to know death. I cross the street without my mother, thinking of things to tell her, avoiding all rain puddles. My eyes are open to all of it. Businessmen walk before the little white man illuminates the crosswalk signal. Then come the homeless, who appear to have more time on their hands than the suits, but who still seem to fill it with entertaining the thought of seeking haven from a long winter by throwing themselves into oncoming traffic. But none of them do it—at least not while I watch them. None of them will experience it—that moment of reluctance and relief in the instant before some fated motorist compresses their bodies into something unique and broken. In this day and age, it’s doubtful they’ll even make the headlines, littering a storage closet for a small girl to pore over and scrutinize while her mother makes lunch downstairs.

I don’t look for it anymore. There are instances when I can feel it behind a dumpster. A dead rat soaked in compost and covered in discarded newspaper. Or I sense it in the rafters—the thousands of tiny and fragile exoskeletons of spiders and houseflies hanging from the woodwork. But I don’t search to verify the little signs of death.

But sometimes, in sleep, it’s still there. I observe myself from above, bludgeoned, bloating and inanimate; teeth yellowing like a horse’s. My body is under the floorboards, blood has stopped, and something feeds on the soft tissue first, then the tendons. Dust from someone living above me satisfies my mouth and then petrifies it shut. And I don’t startle from sleep, because it seems right that it’s me down there. It seems right that I should be the one to not only experience this disfigurement without burial, but also to stand watch over my own hollowed body collecting insects and mouse droppings. No one prays. There is no sound. No little reaffirmations of a life once lived. There is enough silence to saw through your eardrum.