Tillie checks the news while she’s waiting for her doctor’s appointment. The Times reports another girl found dead near Laurel Canyon Boulevard. She notes the name before they call her in.
Her doctor checks her over and runs down the test results before leaning forward, professionally empathetic expression in place, and saying, "Well, Matilda, where should we go from here?"
"What do you think?" she asks. Her lower back throbs dully and familiarly.
"We could try another round of chemo, but since the last round really didn't do much to halt the spread, I don't really think that doing it again would be any more effective."
"Surgery," she says. It's neither a question nor a suggestion. She's just mildly curious if there are any organs she can live without.
Her doctor sighs. "If we could maybe cut a section out and be done with it, maybe, but that was never really an option. Surgery is not an option at this time."
"If I were you, Matilda, I'd think about starting to get my affairs in order."
For a minute, she shuts her eyes. It occurs to her that she's just the last in a long line of people who have been given the role of patient. She imagines them all standing outside the door, nervous as bridegrooms. Now it's her time and they've reached the part of the ceremony where the doctor pronounces her healthy or not. She wonders how often this same ceremony has been repeated, how the lines of the speech have varied. Perhaps the doctor has a ready response for her if she cries or begs or shouts. Surely this must be routine by now.
She opens her eyes. "I can do that," she says.
The doctor looks puzzled but lets her go. She gets her prescriptions refilled and hurries out. She's got a funeral to get to.
When she was first diagnosed, she used to vary her funerals, picking whatever one would fit into her schedule. Then girls started turning up dead and now she can't stay away from their funerals.
People don't question her when she shows up. She doesn't look like a reporter trying to score an interview. Among a crowd of mourners, she could be Megan's friend from work, Imani's former roommate, Selene's high school classmate, Rebecca's distant cousin. In the end, it doesn't matter what her story is.
They all have a code, she thinks at Rebecca's service. The hall is filled with white and pink flowers – lilacs and gardenias and peonies and chrysanthemums. Perhaps Rebecca liked flowers. Perhaps her family wanted to draw attention away from her closed casket. Most of the caskets she sees these days are closed.
Sometimes at funerals the people around her cry. Mostly, they just look baffled, sitting in nice clothes in too-hot rooms while people stand and make speeches. At Rebecca's service, the woman next to Tillie says to no one in particular, "That doesn't make sense."
Tillie swipes a bunch of pink and white flowers after the ceremony. Outside, she pushes the petals into her face, breathing in the sweetness, and tears them apart with her teeth.
The process of dying is bureaucratic. There are DNRs to arrange, insurance companies to talk to, utility payments, attorneys to contact. She's always tried not to be a person who keeps things, so she doesn't have to worry about how to get rid of a lifetime of photographs or electronics or furniture. She still hasn't been prepared for any of it.
At the funerals they hand her programs, full of neat lettering and copies of songs to sing. She always leaves it somewhere afterwards. At night when she can't sleep, bits of information still replay over and over in her head: Megan's favorite constellation or Selene's love of nature or the moonstone earrings Imani was wearing when she last left home.
There are always receptions after, held in dark rooms underneath the halls. She doesn't see much difference between the service and the reception; they all blend together in her head. After Rebecca's service, she accidentally winds up next to Rebecca's grandfather, who has no idea where he is.
"Where's Becca?" he asks at the doorway to the room. Rebecca's father freezes in mid-step and his face twists. His eyes are blood-red from tears and exhaustion. He says, "She's around here somewhere, Dad. Could you please stay here for a minute while I go talk to Mike?"
"Yes," the grandfather says quietly. The father lets him sit down in one of the chairs by where she's sitting. The father gives Tillie an entreating look without really seeing her and disappears into the crowd.
The people around them keep their distance, occasionally casting a nervous glance at the grandfather and then looking away. The grandfather looks frail and lost. Tillie wonders if he has any idea that his just being here disrupts the calm procession of the day. He's too confused to adhere to any kind of social convention.
Because she knows and respects disruption, because he looks lost, she leans over and says, "Do you want any coffee?"
It takes a minute for him to realize what she's saying, and she has to repeat herself a few times. "Coffee," he finally says in a decisive tone. "Black, two Equal, dear."
She makes her way through the crowd and gets the coffee. The china seems too fragile, light glinting off the gilded rim. When she gets back to the grandfather, his face lights up and he reaches out his shaky hands. She thinks he's trying to get the coffee at first, but then he smiles hugely and says, "Becca!"
Coffee abandoned, Tillie says, "Yes. Grandpa, it's me, Becca."
She lets him talk to her for a while. Most of what he says doesn't make sense but he seems happy enough. He takes off his glasses and gives them to her. She puts them on and the world goes blurry. It makes it easier to think that she's someone else.
When she hears someone saying, "Excuse me, miss?" she takes the glasses off and hands them back. She kisses the old man on the cheek and says, "Bye, Grandpa."
"Good night, honey," he says contentedly. She leaves without looking back.
The body of another girl has been found off the 101. Her personal details are being withheld. Tillie tries not to think about it.
She makes a bowl out of an apple and fills it with the Harlequin that she got from the dispensary down on Cotner. It keeps the pain manageable but doesn't do much to keep her head clear. Names keep flickering behind her eyes. She bites into the apple afterwards but the herbal bitterness is too much for her.
That afternoon she picks a funeral like the ones she used to go to, but it doesn't do anything to keep her grounded. On the way out she throws a bottle of sparkling cider at the standing cross and then knocks it over, scattering white petals on the floor.
The doctors all tell her how well she's doing at declining. They say she's understands the process. She doesn't have unrealistic expectations. She follows a realistic timeline. They say everything is right on track with her.
She nods at them and carries on with her life. In the hot, smoggy afternoon, sitting outside the funeral home, she starts crying.
The couple in the doorway are arguing, half-playfully. As Tillie attempts to push by them, the girl in the black lace and pearls smiles winsomely and says, "Do you know how to get to Woodstock Road?"
She thinks about making some polite excuses and leaving; the funeral reception's taking place offsite, out in Laurel Canyon, and she doesn't usually go that far. The ceremony today had been a mish-mosh of secular and Unitarian Universalist and Baha'i, and every speaker referred to something called the Center with palpable deference. She suspects that until his untimely passing Jason had been caught up in something confusing.
She really doesn't care enough to make excuses. "You know how to get to Mulholland."
"Oh, but not to the Hills," the girl says. "We never go past La Brea, do we, babe?"
"That's right," the guy says and flashes his teeth. He is maybe ten or fifteen years older than the girl, collar open and sleeves rolled up. His watch glints in the sun.
"You just need to take Mulholland to Woodrow Wilson Drive. Turn on your GPS."
"Oh, I don't trust the GPS," the girl says. "One time we were trying to get to an Exalted Couples session – have you had any Exaltation sessions with Vail?"
"No," Tillie says. "I'm getting an Uber."
The girl looks at her, then looks at the guy. The guy inclines his head. The girl asks, "How did you know Jason?"
"Bye," Tillie says.
"Oh, no," the girl says. "Please come with us to the transition party. You know how to get there and we don't. We'll give her a ride, won't we, babe?"
The guy nods. "That's right, honey." He looks at Tillie.
The girl smiles brightly. Part of Tillie wants to see just how far this will go. "All right," she says.
In the car, the girl says, "Are you a spiritual person?"
"April. Honey," the guy says. He turns onto Woodrow Wilson.
The girl ignores him. "I've always been such an independent person. But when I first came to Los Angeles I was so lost and so sick, spiritually. And I blamed it on the city. I'm such a spiritual person, really, but I felt like I couldn't manage it because I can't deal with organized religion. I'm like, I just can't have that negativity around me, you know? But then I was just getting sicker and sicker and finally I found the Center and then my life was just miraculous. Isn't that the right word, babe?"
"That's right, honey."
"Are you a spiritual person?" the girl asks again. There's a bright fanatical gleam behind her wide smile.
Tillie looks out the window and up at the sky. The trees are blocking out the setting sun. She looks away and says, "They found that dead girl around here, you know. She was just lying on the road. The city's full of dead girls these days."
The girl's smile wavers. Tillie stares at her. The guy says, "Is this it?"
The girl turns and looks at the sprawling house. The smile steadies. "This is the place."
Inside the house, the floor is covered with crushed white flowers. The air is heavy with perfume. Tillie walks down the darkened hall. Behind her she hears the girl whisper to someone, "Met her there…mistake…" Tillie doesn't turn around.
There's a jukebox in the corner of the room, and the walls are lined with records and books. Everyone there seems to be dancing frantically by themselves, standing in a semicircle around a small turntable, which is sending out a crackly trance mix. No one looks at each other as they dance. There had been a few cursory photographs of Jason around the memorial hall, but she can't see any here. It's willfully anonymous.
Tillie contemplates taking off her clothes and wrapping herself in the tie-dyed afghan draped over the couch. She could sit in the middle of the floor and give everyone the finger, grab one of the dancers in a bruising kiss, pick up a lamp and hold it over her crotch. Instead she goes looking for the bathroom.
There's no indication that anyone has ever lived in the upstairs part of the house. Under the light of the chandelier, the floors are bare, and the plastic plant leaning against the wall in what might have been a master bedroom is dusty. She wonders if this used to be Jason's house and it was appropriated by the Center after his death, cleared out but for the downstairs to be used for one last party. Downstairs, someone is playing a keyboard.
She follows the sound. The people are still dancing. There's a man lying on the floor, his shirt open, chest slick with sweat. He's wearing what looks like a child's skeleton mask. A woman in a flower crown sways above him.
Tillie picks up the turntable, lifts it over her head, and smashes it on the floor.
The dancing stops. A man in dark glasses comes forward, takes her arm and says, "You need to leave now." She doesn't argue.
She tries to get a car but her phone is dead. Under the circumstances she doesn't think she can go back inside and ask to borrow a charger, so she starts walking towards the highway, hoping she'll find a gas station. It's getting dark.
It doesn't take long before she realizes she overestimated her capacity. She took her last dose of medication a couple hours ago and it's beginning to wear off; her back throbs and she's soaked with sweat. She thinks wearily that she's not going to make it back.
Distracted by the pain, she makes a wrong turn and only realizes it when she smells earth and wild animal. She reaches her hands out and touches tree trunks. The branches are blocking the sky and she can't see where she is.
She feels the smoke before she smells it, warm breath on her face, and then a heady rush of chrysanthemum perfume. There's a soft red glow starting from the ground and spreading upward with the smoke, brightening and throwing the trees into relief.
This isn't how she thought things would end, standing in the woods and go towards the light, Matilda. She'd thought she'd be in the hospital stuffed full of morphine or able to choose just when she checked out. She doesn't see any way out of this so she just follows the light.
There's a woman standing in the midst of the light and smoke, quietly naked, looking at Tillie. Her feet are dirty but she looks otherwise composed. It only takes a second before Tillie remembers her face.
"Selene?" Tillie says. All the news articles replay double-time in her head, blended together with the memory of the funeral. "What are you doing here?"
Selene says something in French. Her eyes go heavy-lidded and her lips part expectantly.
"What are you doing here?" Tillie says again, walking towards her. "What do you need?"
The red light makes Selene's skin go into soft focus. She grips Tillie's arms with cold fingers and pulls her onto the ground.
The pain suddenly recedes and the shock of relief makes her arch up against Selene's hips. Pebbles and sticks roll under the small of her back. She digs her heels into the dirt.
Selene smiles. She puts her hand up under Tillie's skirt and traces cool trails down her belly. Tillie gasps, buries her hand in Selene's soft, soft hair and snaps her head back.
"What do you need?" she says, grinding against Selene's fingers. She can barely see Selene's face through the perfumed smoke. She lets go of Selene's hair to cup her breasts, feels her body heat mixing and mingling with marble cold. "What do you want?"
Selene says nothing. Tillie wraps her legs around her and pulls her down; her hair spills over the ground. Tillie straddles her before pushing her hand away and finishing herself off; she comes in a rush, gasping.
She tries to do the same for Selene, but instead Selene just tugs her down and she nestles up against her shoulder, no longer cold now. Selene tilts her chin up, strokes her cheek and says, "Not yet."
Tillie wakes up alone in the woods. Her body aches and her nose is bleeding. There are bruises up and down her legs and arms.
She staggers to her feet. In the light of day she can see a road in the distance. She doesn't know how close she is to the highway.
She's hoping she can at least make it to something like civilization, but instead she gets onto the asphalt and her legs give out. Birds sing over her and the breeze picks up. The air smells tropical.
She lies quietly with her face against the road. She doesn't feel anything but the warmth of the ground, the wind on her back. For a minute, she shuts her eyes.
She hears the crunching sound of wheels on asphalt, faint strains of music. A door opens.
Someone stands over her, silently. She manages to reach a hand out and feels what she thinks is a man's bare foot, long-boned with fine hair over the toes.
He swings her up in his arms like a bride. She's willing to go along with it. She presses her face against his neck and breathes in cheap gas station soap and old cigarettes. His hair hits her face.
It takes her a second to realize that something is wrong. He's holding on too tightly, and he's talking too quietly, a low resonant voice in her ear, saying as if in prayer, "Come on, gorgeous, I'll make this go away, just a little while longer and I'll make this all go away."
Fear lets loose a reserve of energy she didn't know she had, and she fights him. She grabs a fistful of his long hair and yanks it, scratches at his face, kicks and slaps him. He shifts her out of his arms and throws her over his shoulders without pausing for breath, pinning her legs down. There's a white van by the curb with its doors wide open and a missing license plate. The motor's still running.
"No," Tillie says, but he unceremoniously throws her in the back and shuts the doors. The inside of the van stinks of tobacco and piss. Waylon Jennings sings, "Now I won't be satisfied until she's mine."
"Let me out of this fucking van," Tillie says. He's smoking a cigarette outside the window. He taps the glass. "Fucking –"
There's a woman's shoe lying on its side by the closed door, a delicate moonstone earring somewhere by Tillie's left. Behind the passenger's seat is a box of what looks like old tools, coated in something that she knows isn't rust. She's gagging on the smell inside the van.
She tries to get into the front seat, but before she can he opens the door and gets in. He gives her a smile and says, "Just hold on one second."
"You –" Tillie says. "Don't do this."
"Baby –" he says.
"All those dead girls," Tillie says. Her throat is tight and she suddenly thinks she might cry. "All those fucking girls."
He nods in acknowledgment. "Safe now."
"No," Tillie says, grabs something metal out of the box, swings it as hard as she can and hits his right temple.
The force sends his head smashing into the window; the glass splinters. He yowls in pain and manages to turn to her, shocked and appalled, and she hits him again. He doesn't move after that.
His phone is lying on the passenger seat. She reaches over him, picks up the phone and calls 911. She doesn't know exactly where they are but the dispatcher manages to find the van with the GPS and says they'll send out police and ambulance.
Tillie pulls together her last bit of strength to clamber over his body and out of the van. She slides to the ground, her back against the tires. Somewhere in the distance, she can see a line of black cars driving by in what looks like a funeral procession.