THE GLASS GIRL

Last night the glass girl came again to my door. For three nights I’d heard her outside, the scrape and clink of her footsteps. At first I’d thought some of the neighborhood teenagers had been playing a game of ring-and-run when I’d gone to the door and found no one there. They played all kinds of games, different versions of their nastiness, and I’d been waiting to catch them. Lou said that I should not allow children to occupy my mind, and I knew then not to tell him about the girl. When I’d opened the door on the first night, she’d run off before I’d had the chance to invite her in. Her face flashed as she turned away, the bottoms of her feet kicking up moonlight.

Last night, though, she didn’t run. When I held the door open, she scrape-clinked her way closer.

“I think,” I said, “that you had better come in.”

She looked over her shoulder once, then back at me before  following me into the kitchen. Her neck made a soft creaking sound as she moved. Bits of lilac littered her feet. Sadie, our old Pekingese, half blind now, sniffed in the air and whined. I  patted her head as the girl pinged her way into the kitchen. Sadie could smell the lilacs, I knew. She mourned the end of their blooming every season, just as I always did.

I’d been making candy apples, trays of them, which I did on nights when the air in the house buzzed and my stomach felt all too empty. Those nights happened more often than I cared to admit. I poured drops of caramel into a bowl and set it down on the floor for Sadie, who stumbled in the doorway before finding her way to lap at the bowl. For the girl I slid an apple onto one of the popsicle sticks and held it under the liquid,  watching it submerged before handing it to her.

“For you,” I said. “Trick or treat.”

It was spring, months before Halloween, but the girl didn’t seem to mind. She took the apple and opened her mouth. I sat  beside her at the table, leaning in closer to see whether or not her tongue, too, was made of glass, but before I could get close enough, the apple fell into her mouth and disappeared. I pointed to the trays of apples I had waiting on the counter.

“Eat all you like,” I said, waving my arm toward the tray. “There won’t be anyone here but us.”

That much was true, though it pained me to say it, even as I heard the kids screeching by with their scooters and their taunts that kept me awake into the night. The neighborhood was often thick with the sounds of children, sounds that eluded a childless couple like Lou and me. Lou was working at the arcade, servicing the Pac-Mans and the air hockey and the violence of games, catering to those same kids who careened down our street with their sweat and their skateboards. Lately a mob of them had taken to stealing bunches of lilacs from my bushes, I was sure of it, though I had yet to catch them. I’d written my suspicions down in a sign I’d posted outside the post office on lavender paper, but it hadn’t stopped them. Lou hadn’t approved of the sign, but I hadn’t taken it down. I’d been hoping the smell of the caramel would draw the mob closer, help me to find them in the act of snipping away the blooms, when instead it had sent the glass girl to me.

I told these things to the girl as she lifted each apple, one after another, and then deposited them into the hole that acted as her mouth. It wasn’t that I didn’t like children, I told her, just that my own lack had taught me not to trust them.

The girl smiled in a way that made my stomach fold into itself. That happened still, even now that Lou and I had left our hopes behind. Sadie stopped licking the caramel in the bowl and tottered over toward the girl, scraping an ear against the table leg in her blindness. I could see the girl’s reflection in Sadie’s left eye, the one still unmarred by cataracts. There was so much to see if you only looked hard enough, I told myself as the girl got up to leave.

“Tomorrow night,” I said, as the girl reached down to tap Sadie’s head with one of her glass fingers, slender and fine as a cocktail stick. “I’ll see you again tomorrow night.”

I would be alone at night, just Sadie and I, and Lou would be at the arcade, oiling the skeeball machines and fishing for lost coins. The girl would come back to me. Where else would she go?

She nodded and smiled, which lit up her face, translucent as it was. It hadn’t occurred to me that the expression on her face might change. Not that I’d had much time to consider the possibility, but even then, after the apples, I felt that I knew her enough to have certain expectations. Smiling hadn’t been one of them.

At the door we heard some of the kids from the neighborhood cursing in low voices. I thought that maybe I should keep the girl with me, but before I could say anything, the girl reached for the door knob and turned it herself.

“Take an apple,” I said. I reached into the pocket of my sweater to hand one to her. “And don’t you worry about them. I’ll be watching.”

She lowered her head and shuffled out the door, her feet making soft pings as she walked. When I peeked my head out the door to check for the skateboarders, they were gone. On the doormat lay my warning about the lilacs, crumpled and stamped with sneaker imprints. I know it was you, it said, in my fine script. By the time I reached down to pick it up, to raise it and shake my fist in the dark night air, the girl was gone.

 

When Lou got home he had ideas. Sometimes nights at the arcade did that to him. He’d leave the house at dusk after not speaking all day and would return to me bold and lusty. I felt him move against my back as I turned in sleep, pressing against me, a hand slipping under my nightgown. I thought of the girl’s face as he moved over me, the swirls of color reflected, the high tinkling of her footsteps.

Afterward he lay with his head in the crook of my arm and told me about the kids who aimed and shot at the screens, about the blasts of static and the heaviness of the tokens. He told me about the old skeeball machine and the jamming of balls, about all the inattentive parents staring at their cell phones. Lou and I would never have been that way. We knew this without having to speak it. There was so much life in the arcade, he said, that was being sucked into the machines. He wasn’t sure which he was servicing, the kids or the games. I thought it didn’t matter, but I did not say this to Lou.

“It’s work,” he said, “and that’s all I can say.”

I thought of telling him about the girl then, how she’d swallowed the apples whole, how she’d smiled. How I worried, even as Lou held me, about her alone in that neighborhood. But I knew that if I talked too much, Lou might get quiet again and the sounds of the neighborhood kids would only get louder.

 

The next morning I found Lou at the breakfast table with the tray of apples in front of him. He said nothing as he picked up an apple, took the smallest of bites, then spit it out into a paper napkin. Then he bit another, and so it went, biting and spitting, spitting and biting.

“These apples are rotten, all of them,” he said. He leaned forward with his head in his hands. “What a world.”

I picked up the apples and inspected the space where Lou had bitten it. His teeth had left cracks in the caramel. I bent down to give one to Sadie to sniff. She dragged herself over, her cataract shining, her one good eye misted over with film.

“Are you sure?” I said, as Sadie sniffed the apple then abruptly turned away. “How can that be?”

Lou turned toward the window and lifted the shade an inch, then thought better of it and pulled it back down.

“This is no season for apples,” he said. “You and your lilacs should know that.”

Lou could be this way sometimes, especially after coming home the way he had the night before, talking of life and feeling my breasts under the sheets. Our years together had taught me this. Once, in the time when I still charted my temperature and watched the calendar, before the night sweats and surges of heat had taken our last hopes away, Lou would sometimes sit at the kitchen table eating eggs and saying not a word. On any other day I’d have done my best to pacify Lou, to remind him that life had other plans for us, as he well knew, but on that day I had more pressing worries. If the apples had rotted and the girl had eaten them, what would become of her? I imagined her crouched down behind one of the neighbor’s stockade fences, clutching her middle beside an overgrown hedge. I gathered the tray and all of the remaining apples and marched out to the garbage, dumping them with a loud clatter into one of the plastic bins.

From a distance I saw a group of the neighborhood kids gathered at the corner. The largest of them, a boy with shaggy bangs that hung down over his eyes, tilted his head toward me while the others shifted their weight from foot to foot. If the one pregnancy had taken, the child I hadn’t managed to hold onto would now be as old as that boy. I chased away these thoughts by turning to the lilac bush and counting blossoms. Twenty-two, I said under my breath, when yesterday there had been thirty-seven. They shouldn’t have been disappearing at this rate.

Lou sat at the kitchen table holding the crumpled sign I’d made. His lips moved as he read the words to himself. Sadie looked at him with her one good eye and blinked at me as if to say that she, too, could see what was happening to Lou, even in her half-sightedness.

“You counted them again, didn’t you?” Lou said. “The lilacs. You went out and counted them.”

When I didn’t answer, Lou got up from the kitchen table and left the paper on the table. There would be no more words from Lou that day, I knew then, as he turned away from me and made his way up the steps to bed. Later I would hope that whatever happened in the arcade could loosen whatever had dammed up inside Lou. But then all I could think about was the girl and the soft clink of her, drowned out now by the whiz of skateboards outside our door.

*                    *                         *

There had been an incident years before. Lou and I had long stopped talking about it. It happened in the spring, in the time right before the lilacs dried up and blew away, taking their scent with them. Lou had started the job at the arcade weeks before. Sadie’s eyes were still clear. I often sat in a lawn chair out by the garage watching the neighborhood kids. It set Lou at ease when I kept busy. Sometimes the kids sat with me at the plastic table that Lou had set out for me. Sometimes I braided sprigs of lilac into the girls’ hair, or brought candied apples to the boys that they bit into with their perfect teeth.

Then one day they changed, those kids. They traded in candy apples for cell phones, their two-wheelers for razor scooters. Still, for a long time, I sat at the plastic table and hoped. Sadie sat at my feet and barked, and when none of the kids approached, I fed the candied apples to her until she coughed up a pool of bile that stained the driveway.

What I remembered most about the incident was the shouting, the sound of Lou yelling my name from the front lawn. I’d been in the kitchen with the melting caramel, a bouquet of lilacs set in a clear glass vase. He shook his fist at the kids, their braces glinting as they shouted back at Lou. They wanted their money, they said, that Lou had stolen. He was a thief, they said. He had not given them back their change. I’d run up the stairs for the jar we kept under the bed, the one brimming over with coins that Lou filled every night with the coins he kept in his bulging pockets. As I hurried down the stairs, Sadie ran under my feet, sending first the jar and me tumbling down, the jar smashing at the bottom. When I came to, Lou was standing over me with his hands open, cupping the coins, his hands filled with the bloody shards that I later washed away in the sink. For months afterward, whenever I washed my hands in that sink I heard the tinkle of those slivers of glass that had spilled out of Lou’s hands and down the drain.

 

With Lou at work, I washed the apples in the sink and simmered the caramel. My own stomach ached, but not from the apples. Lou had been wrong. I’d cut seven of them down the middle and found no brown spots, no signs of worms. All their seeds were intact. Sadie sat at my feet and lapped up drops of caramel that fell from my spoon.

When I finally heard her footsteps outside the door, I opened it before she could knock. She smiled and brushed past me with the smooth edge of her arm. I smiled at her boldness. Sadie sniffed the girl’s foot and looked up at me, the film of her cataract catching the colors that seemed to swirl around the girl’s face.

“I’ve made you more apples,” I said, leading her toward the table where I slid the stick between her spindly fingers. “Eat as many as you like.”

The girl held the apple up, the hole of her mouth falling open.

“It’s safe,” I said.

I sliced one of the apples for Sadie and scooped the slices into her bowl. With my eyes closed I listened to the two of them chewing and lapping, lapping and chewing. I could have kept my eyes closed forever, I thought, sitting there and listening to the sounds of their eating, the click of tongue and smacking lips. When the neighborhood kids had eaten them all those years ago, there had been a lot of clacking from their mouths. The girl’s middle turned dark from the coating of caramel, the splat of apple shreds falling inside her. I’d have sat there all night imagining the shiny innards of her if it hadn’t been for the tap on my arm.

When I looked up, she pointed toward the door. I heard it then, the whirr of wheels, the slap of sneakers on the pavement.

“They’ve come for the lilacs,” I said, keeping one arm out behind me to shield the girl, “not for you.”

Sadie lifted her head and howled as I opened the door. The smell of the lilacs rushed in. Even in the darkness the lilacs shone, the purple cones of them waving in the wind. I cupped my hands over my eyes and stood in the doorway looking out for the blur of the kids’ skateboards. The lilac branches shifted as the girl ran out the door and across the lawn.

I tried to call out to her to wait, that she should stay there with me, but all I could manage was a screech that seemed to stay trapped inside my throat.

 

I kept vigil after she had gone. Sadie curled up on my lap as I sat at the table feeding her the last of the pies. When she was finished I lifted her to stare at my reflection swimming in the white film of her blind eye. All I could do was to look and listen, I told my reflection. What else could any of us do?

I sat at the table and waited. There were none of the muffled curses I sometimes heard on the nights when Lou was gone. Twice I thought I heard the ring of her footsteps coming back, but then I realized it was only the water from the kitchen faucet dripping into a tumbler. I thought of the girl running, the caramel sloshing through her middle as she looked for places to hide. Just before Lou was due home I climbed into bed and pulled the cover over myself, fanning my hair out on the pillow behind me and opening my mouth as if in sleep. When I heard Lou on the steps I fashioned my mouth into a slack “o,” trying to imitate the shape of the girl’s mouth when it opened.

As Lou moved over me I breathed soft puffs of air through my open mouth and tried to imagine how it felt to breathe through glass. Oh, Greta, Greta, Lou repeated, saying my name over and over as I hung on to him and thought of the girl sprinting through the neighborhood and leaving splinters of glass that glittered in her wake.

 

For three nights she did not return. Each meal I served Lou and Sadie more of the leftover apples in sauce, in pies. Lou watched me as I rolled out the crusts and cut them into tiny shapes that I threw away when he wasn’t looking. I heated the oven but left it empty. My stomach burned. I sat patting Sadie absently as she blinked while Lou worked long nights at the arcade. When he finally came home, he got into bed with his pants on, the coins in his pockets pressing into my hip.

On the third night Sadie went blind. She whimpered and looked up at me from her place on the kitchen floor, both of her eyes now rolled over in white. When I called to Lou, he stood in the kitchen doorway and held his hand over his stomach.

“What else,” he said, “have we got left to lose?”

 

The night she finally returned, Sadie did not lift her head from the floor. Inside the pantry, after Lou had left for work, I’d found all of the cans and boxes covered in lilac sprigs.

“It’s her, it’s her,” I said in a rush to Sadie and flung the door open. She stood in the doorway, a pool of purple confetti at her feet.

I hurried her into the kitchen and touched one of her glass hands, gently, carefully, as I had learned to do.

“I’m out of apples,” I said, “but there’s something else I think you would like.”

One by one I fed her the lilacs, dropped them into her mouth in the tiniest sprigs I could manage. When it seemed she was full, I stopped.

The girl moved her chair back and tilted her head toward the door. I leaned in closer to her and smelled the lilac on her breath. I thought of Lou and our life together, when we’d lived by a calendar and waning hope, before the neighborhood kids accused him of stealing their coins, before I had become convinced that they had stolen my lilacs.

I knew then I would not see her again. I held the girl’s hand in mine and pressed some of Lou’s coins into the palm of her hand.

“Take them,” I said. “The world is unkind.”

But the coins wouldn’t stay. Each time I tried to push the coins into her palm, they slid away and onto the floor.

The girl looked up at me and held my gaze for just a moment. I watched myself blink in the reflection of her clear eyes. I saw how I looked there, thin and drawn, the bones of my face seeming to want to burst free of skin.

Suddenly the girl sprinted out the door in an odd kind of dance, the high tinkle of her footsteps lingering long after I made myself turn away and close the door behind her.

 

When Sadie vomited lilacs on the kitchen floor, I knew the girl had been broken. I wiped up the purple foam with a towel, then walked out to the bins and threw the towel in the trash. The street was quiet, all the neighborhood kids gone to wherever it was they went since they’d grown up the way they had. I kept expecting to hear them rush by in a whir of skateboard wheels and roller blades, but none of them appeared, not even the lanky boy with the bangs forever covering his eyes.

“Your lilacs are gone,” Lou said, reaching over to take my hand. “You were right. They took them all.”

But I knew better. Now I knew.

When Lou went back inside, I looked around the front yard for the pieces of her, head, head, hands, neck, feet. I kneeled down beside the lilac bush. The leaves brushed my face, sticks in my eyes as I felt beneath it, flailing my hands until I found her torso lying near the base of the bush.

With both hands I lifted it. The lilacs pooled in the bottom of the torso, tiny petals swirling around in her middle as I shifted it from side to side. I reached in and sifted the petals in my hands and plucked out one of my apples, still on its stick.

That night while Lou worked, I took the girl’s torso and set it on the front lawn. She’d have liked that, I thought, the glint of her neck and shoulders in the sunlight, the broken part of her waist anchored so close to what remained of the lilac petals still under the bush. Sadie stood in the doorway with her face tilted up toward the sky. I thought of the girl’s appearance that first day, the sound of her on the wood floor, the way the lilacs must have tasted to her. I sat outside and waited, until the breeze picked up and blew the last of the lilac petals away, until my own stomach started to ache and I had no other choice but to fill it.

 

 

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