She has to tell Sam.
She loves this walk-up, its warm stucco walls and the wrought-iron gate at the bottom of its stairs. She and Sadie moved in sophomore year, and though Sadie transferred to Nebraska nine months later to cuddle her girlfriend through the midwestern winters, pieces of her remain: the Boston fern behind the sofa, the painted ceramic elephant on the bookshelf.
The ceramic elephant isn’t there now. The bookshelf isn’t there now. Jess can’t remember where it’s gone. In that corner there’s only a little wooden table with lamp on it, and Jess doesn’t know where the lamp came from or who dared put it there, but it doesn’t belong, and she swipes it off the table. It makes a satisfying crash.
She has to tell Sam. He’s not here, though. She doesn’t know where he is. She’d call him, but she can’t find her phone. She’d ask Brady, but—
There are tubes of oil paint in the spare bedroom. Sometimes there are. Sometimes Jess looks and can’t find any of them, only a dusty exercise bike and a free-standing clothes rack bursting with costumes that Jess doesn’t recognize. But tonight the tubes of paint are right there, and she smears burnt umber onto her fingers.
It takes three tubes – three shades carelessly selected, though when she finishes she sees they’re progressively more red – to write his name on the wall.
There are strangers in her house, loud and rude and utterly indifferent to their rudeness. She looks for them, but all she can find is their voices on the breeze and the messes they leave after: sandwich crusts on a plate, shoes strewn uncaring inside the front door. She tidies the shoes. She hurls the crusts on their plate into the sink. The plate shatters, and she leaves it for someone else to clean up.
She has to tell Sam.
Tonight, she uses green paint. She uses a lot of it; she writes his name twice.
As the light fails, the paint turns black, glistening wetly on the wall.
She wakes up, her stomach burning with pain. For a moment she forgets, staring down at her nightgown and the swath of red painted across it. Then she feels it again, like serrated edges cutting across her skin in unsteady strokes, and she screams, again and again, until it seems like she’s screaming with many more voices than she has.
Later, she remembers: she doesn’t have a nightgown.
There are new people in her house. She can feel the waves they make in the air as they pass. Their voices raise the hairs on the back of her neck. They echo.
They go away after a while. The apartment is silent. She walks through it, cataloguing the changes. Dishes have been sitting in the kitchen for days, and dried food sticks to them. The drawers of the dresser in the master bedroom have been left pulled half out. A lacy pink teddy hangs from one of them. It has red hearts on it. It must have been a gag gift; Jess would never wear something something like that. Too bad it’s so small, or she’d have Sam try it on. He might like it. She would definitely like it.
He should be here by now. She has to tell him.
They come at night, the new people. One of them she remembers now. She met him once. She can’t make out his words, but his tone is familiar. He jokes to cover his worries. He talks about sex. She doesn’t need words to tell when a man is joking about sex.
The other one, she can’t quite hear. She can hear the outline of him, though, the silence shaped by the space he occupies.
They bring in duffel bags overflowing with strange items: dried herbs bundled in sandwich baggies, a canister of salt, a jar of something red and syrupy. A knife that pains her just to look at it. Perversely, she tries to touch it, and then she hisses at how it burns.
She doesn’t like the stuff in the duffel. She doesn’t like these men in her house. She wants Sam to come back; he’d make them leave. He’d call the cops on them. She would, but she can’t find her phone.
She doesn’t wait until dark; she can’t remember why she should. Afternoon sun still streams in the window as she opens a tube of blue paint.
There is something wrong with her house. Maybe it’s just something wrong with her. She feels like tiny ants are nipping at her skin, like a spotlight is stabbing her in the eyes, like she’s being drawn and quartered to the four corners of the house. She thrashes, and something shatters. She screams. She screams for Sam. Why doesn’t he come?
Suddenly it’s quiet. It’s still. Nothing is pulling on her. Nothing is on her skin. She hugs her knees and sobs in relief, making a damp spot on the shiny white satin of her nightgown.
She doesn’t have a nightgown.
She wakes up to the sound of her name. The bedroom is dark. She walks out to the living room, and now she can see someone lying there on the couch. She doesn’t remember his name, but she remembers his lips and the soft dark corner of his sideburn. He murmurs something, sleep-thick and indecipherable, but his isn’t the voice she heard, and she moves on.
She goes to the kitchen, but it’s silent. The crusted dishes in the sink are crustier.
The sound she heard is coming from outside, from the stairwell. She tries the front doorknob, but it slips in her hand. She can hear her name, though, and she won’t be stopped by a door whose hinges she’s oiled for years. She steps through.
On the other side is a figure, hunched on the steps. He’s crying; she can taste his tears on the air. He’s saying her name.
She sits down next to him on the step; she palms his shoulder. “Hey, stranger.”
He looks up, and his eyes widen. “Jess.”
She’s so damn glad to see him. “Been a while.”
He sniffles. By the single naked stairwell bulb, she can see his eyes are red. “Yeah. I heard you were looking for me.”
“Yeah.” She’d sit here forever, but she doesn’t think she can. She’s so tired. The skin across her stomach stings. She looks down, and she sees the red paint that got wiped across her nightgown, and she remembers: she doesn’t have a nightgown. “Brady,” she says, involuntary.
The words are like an oil slick floating just beneath her skin. The scene is an afterimage bright against her eyelids. She can almost see it. She speaks without knowing what she’ll say. “I don’t have a nightgown.”
His eyes flick down. She thinks they catch on the paint. He mumbles, “I thought it was new.”
The words fall out of her mouth like beetles. “He made me put it on. He put it on me, Sam. I couldn’t stop him.”
His eyes, they were black like beetles. “His eyes, Sam. Like oil. Like an oil slick.” She shudders at the remembered sight of him. She waits for Sam to disbelieve. She sounds like a crazy woman.
“Jess.” His voice breaks on the word. “Jess, I am so sorry.”
“Don’t trust him,” she tells Sam. “Don’t let him touch you or get you alone, or—” She doesn’t know what Brady was. She has no idea how to stop him.
“I won’t,” Sam says.
She’s so tired. “I’m gonna go back to bed, okay? You coming?” She wants to climb between her sheets and sleep for years.
“I’ll be there soon,” he promises. He reaches for her hand and misses. She kisses him on the cheek, and as she starts back up the stairs, he turns to watch her go.