Online Exclusive

It’s the day you get the letter. You get it at work. You leave work and walk to your building and it’s your door and it’s steel and it’s glass and it’s covered with half-smeared fingerprints and through its cloudy pane you see her face (yes, it’s her face, what other face but her face) and she’s holding open the door and she’s looking at you but you can’t look at her so you look at her lips and you think yes, of course, she has no lips, she has slivers, she has lines, she has a crevice, like someone realized they forgot something in her making and took a knife and sliced straight across above her jaw and yes of course her maw is just a black-blooded wound, just a dark slit that opens and gapes, and you’re shocked when it moves (look at it move) and it whispers: you slut. And you look at it and think it shouldn’t move like that, but then it says: you slut, and then it shouts: you slut, and you watch it contort and bend and jump all black and twisted and empty and the slit is screaming, the slit is crying, and the door slams against your shoulder and you hold your shoulder and you nod and you nod up the stairs to your apartment and you nod your way to bed, your bed.  

That night you try opening the letter but slits bloom across your fingertips. They open and blink at the same time and they sing, and they say: You know what, you know how much, you know why. 

The next morning you try to go back to the other bed, his bed, him, and his doors are locked. His doors will not open. He will not open. You hold the letter and it will not open. 

You walk down the street and look up at the buildings and think: this city is a mouth and those are its teeth and you are on its tongue. You know you must leave or be swallowed. 


The house is the way you remembered it: haunted. You pay the taxi and walk up the driveway. The front steps are still rotted, still bent. Your key still stiffens in the lock, you still have to pound on the front door until your sister comes, half-dressed and dry-eyed. You haven’t seen her in months. She’s not surprised you’re there. She’s never surprised. 

She makes you tea, like she used to when you were younger and you used to talk. You sit at the kitchen table and ask where your mother and father are.

She says they might be in the chimney today since she heard the beat of Michael Jackson’s Thriller echoing from the fireplace earlier, but they might also be in the sink drain, she says, they’ve been there a lot recently, singing operas whenever she runs the disposal. You don’t ask for more. That’s all she knows; that’s all there is.  

You finish your tea and your sister reads your tea leaves. She talks about bouncing boulders. She talks about tax returns. She talks about a three-headed snake eating blind mice. She starts to talk about a man and a word but you hand her the letter instead and tell her not that, not now, you need this, but can’t open it, can’t do it, can she do this. She points at the blood staining the edges of the envelope and you nod, and you say, you tried. She shrugs. She shakes her head. She’s never gotten a letter. Family, you think.

She picks up your teacup and points to the brown remnants at the bottom. They’re leaves, she says, you need leaves. Leaves, you say. You touch her hand, she puts down the teacup. She nods. Leave, you both say. 


It’s midnight, so your sister goes to clean the books in your mother’s old office. She cleans them with a toothbrush, the same toothbrush she stole from you back when you were teenagers, a fluorescent pink stick now turned yellow. She does this every day at midnight. You knew this. You watch her brush the cracked spines in gentle flicks, her braids swaying against her back. You know that there were once dozens of books here, but there seem to be far fewer now. Or maybe, you think, that just doesn’t seem like much anymore. 

You tell your sister you’re going to bed. She nods, brush flicking, braids swaying. 

You go to your bed and think of his bed. You think of the ceiling above beds, about the cracks that form on ceilings above beds, how you notice them only when you’re alone. Your sister makes noises downstairs and you wonder if you’re alone. You pull the letter out of your jeans pocket and hold it against your stomach and try to remember if his ceiling had cracks. 


Next day, your sister is gone. You wander the house. You run the disposal, count the books in the office, try heating the kettle. They don’t sing, you lose count, you burn yourself. 

Eventually you go back upstairs to your bedroom and surround yourself with your old stuffed animals. You fall asleep thinking of their cloth paws. We know, they say, rubbing your belly, we know. 


Your sister wakes you, her arms full of berries and squash. She tells you to shower, that you need to be clean for dinner. You wash your face and armpits, fingertips stinging against the lye, but you don’t shower. You can’t be bare here, won’t be. 

Food is set on the table. The berries are cold; the squash is raw with thyme and salt. Your sister hums, mouth full of berries, her lips stained blue and pink. She doesn’t ask why you don’t eat, why your hair is dry. Family, you think. 

After dinner, you ask your sister to cut off all your hair. The scissors she finds in the china cabinet are too dull, so she goes and gets the garden shears and hacks off your long black-brown inches with its dirt-smeared blades. You’re left with a small kiss of a ponytail at the soft of your neck. Your skull feels lighter, your eyes wider. You exhale. 

Your sister tries to read the cut hair that curls across the kitchen floor. She wonders aloud if their patterns show something. You think she’s asking the wrong question. She should ask if they hide something. 


The old truck still works. You found the keys under the plaid couch cushions. Your father’s Swiss army knife hangs from its ring. There’s his small globe keychain on it, too. The knife is rusted, the globe doesn’t spin, but the key starts the engine. 

You tell your sister you’re taking the car. She shrugs. She has a motorcycle, she doesn’t need the car. She says your cut hair told her about lonely mirrors, about twin moons. You tell her you’re leaving. She’s not surprised. You hug her, smell her head of braids, feel her spine. She tells you she thinks mom and dad would like your new hair, but she doesn’t think they’ll stop singing long enough to see it. You unhug her. You nod. You know. 

That night, you put on your mother’s floral nightgown and your father’s orange work jacket. Your sister gives you her boots. She insists she weave one of her braids through the laces. You start the truck engine. You put the letter on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. 

The headlights pass over your barefoot sister standing in front of the house. You think to wave, but you don’t, she won’t see. You turn out of the driveway and drive. 

You drive through forests and down highways and over bridges. You drive past cities, past refineries, past strip malls and high rises and billboards and warehouses. The headlights are straight and unbroken and you follow them into the hills, into the dark, into the night, and the letter keeps reaching, the letter keeps pulling, and it pulls you until the hills scatter until the land levels and the sky purples and the gas tank empties. 

At dawn, you pull into a truck stop surrounded by fences and corn, and sleep with the windows cracked. The letter waits. 


You wake up and cows stare at you. They loom on the other side of the fence next to the pumps, and they stare and chew and stare. You rub the sleep out of your eyes while you fill the tank. The cows watch everything, including you. There is no one else outside. The letter slides into your jacket pocket, and you walk into the shop. 

A candy bar, a box of bandages, and the gas from the pump. You pay with your only wrinkled bill. The clerk is a man with a large hat. He looks at you and grins. The grin is like the man, the other man, the only man. His teeth are wide and yellow and his lips crack at the edges and it’s the grin, and it’s yawning, huge. You grab the candy bar and leave the change. On the way back to the car every truck, every pump, every price sign is a grin. You were going to stay there, eat the candy and stare back at the cows, nap, but now you’re trembling and cursing and speeding away. 


Dusk. You pull onto the side of the road. It’s windy. You hold the letter. You know what it says, what it knows, what it keeps folded within itself. But before that afternoon and that door, that slit, these things were words between mouths: his mouth, your mouth. The letter is in your hand, bent and dirty and bloodied, and it’s heavier than ghosts. The trees sway above you, nodding. We know, they say. We know. 


You wrap a bandage over each one of your fingertips. You lock the car. You take the knife off the keychain and pocket it. Bury the globe and car key in the dirt. Zip up your jacket, tighten your boots, and tie what’s left of your hair back with your sister’s braid. You hold the letter in one hand, the candy bar in the other.

You don’t walk far until the trees stop and a meadow starts. The meadow reaches off into the night like a grassy current. You hear wings overhead, but you don’t see any birds. You walk through grasses and feel flowers bursting around you, opening around you, hissing scents at your boots, hissing for you to stay, sleep. The wings beat against the night air, pounding, throbbing. You lie down among the blooms and listen to the wings, the beats, and eat the candy bar. You sleep. 


The tongue is large and rough against your forehead. The tongue is wet and warm and constant. You awake expecting wolves, expecting men. It’s a dog. A Great Dane speckled brown with drooping black eyes. It drools on your cheek, nudges your ribs with its nose. 

You shield your eyes from the sun, the drool, as you stand up. The two of you are alone in the meadow, surrounded by thick clusters of pines and maples. There are flowers in the meadow, but they’re smaller, more delicate than those you felt last night. The dog sits and stares at you. Its eyes are black, sad. You wonder what it is that makes all these animals stare at you. They know, you realize. They can see the trail of wet guilt you leave wherever you go. 

The Great Dane leaps on its back legs and puts its front paws on your shoulders, eye to eye. The meadow waits around you. The meadow hums around you. The dog’s paws are wide and heavy, its breath is low and damp. It smells like cinnamon and mold and it stares into you. Its eyes are dark. Its eyes are the winged night. 

You know, you say. 

The Great Dane jumps back to the ground and walks toward the trees. 

You wipe your spit slick face with the sleeve of your jacket. Your hair is loose, your sister’s braid long gone. The bandages on your fingertips are missing and your nightgown is soaked with dew. The air turns cold. You’re hungry. 

The dog barks from the edge of the meadow. It looks back at you. It waits. You check your pockets. The knife is still there. The letter is still there. 

You go to the dog. 


The Great Dane walks for miles through the trees. You follow it, the whip of its tail the bob of its head the swing of its legs. You walk for so long you think: there’s nothing but this dog, this walking, these trees. 


The house is small and square in the forest. You’re not sure it’s there, there’s been nothing but trees for so long, nothing but the dirt and leaves and the dog. A house looks wrong. But the Great Dane pushes through the front door. It walks into the house and leaves the door open. There’s a light inside the house, there are noises, a clanging, some singing. Someone, you think, someone else, and your stomach seizes. 

One hand grips your father’s knife. The other holds the letter.  You walk inside. 


The woman is silver-haired and wrapped in blankets. She sits on a velvet chaise next to a stereo playing jazz records. The house is one room, a large room of things and textures and pieces. A pot bubbles on a stove across the room, a kettle begins to whistle. A mannequin hangs from the ceiling next to the stove. A potted palm is next to the sink, which is next to the stereo, next to the woman. There are lights everywhere, lamps and disco balls and spotlights, nudged into bookcases and hanging from beams, all flashing to the beat of the music. The dog sits on a wingback chair next to the woman. They both look at you, the dog’s eyes wet black, the woman’s dry brown. You blink. 

The woman tells you to take off your jacket. You say you’d rather not. The woman asks what happened to your fingertips. You say you tried something, but failed. She nods. She tells you that you have to try again. She tells you blankets help. She tells you to take the kettle off the stove. She tells you the pot is filled with vegetable soup, that you can eat the soup—you’ll like it. 

You find a bowl and spoon under a pile of bowling pins next to the stove. You fill the bowl with soup, you eat the soup, and you look at the woman. She stares at you. You know she can smell it, feel it, see it. The soup is thick, spicy. You spoon the soup into your mouth until you finish the bowl. 

She tells you the Great Dane can smell women like you from miles away. She says the dog finds them and brings them here so she can help. She tells you she’s a helper. She smiles. 

You know, you say. 

Of course, she says. I got a letter once. 

You nod. 

I can help you open it, she says. 

You nod, you keep nodding, you can’t stop nodding. 

You take out the letter. You take out the knife. 

Good, the woman says, unworried. You’ll need a knife. She unwraps herself from the blankets and emerges small, round. She motions you closer and points you to a table. You need to cut it in strips, long, thin strips, she tells you. You need to cut them as small as possible. She crosses the room and leaves you alone. 

You kneel at the table and look at the letter. It’s folded and creased, its edges soft and brown, your name and address smudged. You hold the letter. You knife the letter. Letters, numbers spill out of the cuts. The knife glints and the knife is a straight cut through, a cut into, a way into, and you cut and slit and you cut and slit. 

The old woman approaches with the kettle and a mug. She opens the top of the kettle. She tells you to put the cut pieces of the letter in the water. You do it. You don’t have any more questions. 

You watch the strips of paper swim and sink and disappear in the boiling water. 

The woman waits. The dog waits. You wait. 

And then the woman pours the letter into the mug. She hands you the mug. 

Drink, she says.

You drink. You finish the mug. She refills the mug. 

Drink, she says. 

You drink. The woman refills your mug.

You drink the entire kettle, the entire letter. The paper catches between your teeth, the letters and numbers slide down your throat and  settle in your stomach, your legs, your heart, they reach and grasp and expand and warm, they’re in your ribs and your knuckles and your ankles and your scalp, and they whisper, and you ache and you stretch and you open and then you listen to them hum like a chorus of ghosts. Singing, listen to them empty, listen to them husk, listen to them bloom.


Kathleen Boland is a graduate of Louisiana State University’s MFA program, where she was the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and awarded the Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award. Supported by the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Vermont Studio Center, her fiction has appeared in Gulf CoastTin HousePaper Darts, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is at work on a novel.