In summer, everyone is a body of water. This makes sense only if you believe in a general equilibrium of all things. The land dries like a parched white tongue and yet there is leaking everywhere. The sky breaks open, fault lines rupture, secretions bead on burnt skin. There is lethargy and a constant drowsiness from the heat. There is no escape from the light. Even nightfall pulls water from your body, the ground settling, cooling before it fires again with the sunrise. In summer, everyone is a body of water simmering in the center of an oven.
Cookies have finished baking. As if on cue, Lynne’s father punches me in the stomach with one of his blocky builders’ fists. He pushes me with the same hand back against the dining room wall, the one lined with black and white pictures of Lynne’s family, pictures of a black and white desert, white Jesus, black crosses, white doves, black me. No one can see us doing this dance. Perhaps it is not a dance because I am not a willing partner and there is no music and the pain that stains my core is bleeding around Lynne’s father’s fist though I am sure I am not actually bleeding.
I am not scared. I know I am not scared because this is an old moment, one of those repeated moments you prepare for by thinking about it until it feels inevitable. When I first came to this house, I wasn’t allowed inside. Lynne’s father made her wait in the foyer that peaks over his shoulders now. He came down the slope of the driveway toward me, plaid workshirt, jeans with stripes of white paint on the knees, a heft that comes from sitting and lifting and sitting again. This is how it’s going to go, he said. He never asked for my name. You aren’t going to mess around with my daughter, he said. It was a difficult performance to not laugh at. But I made sure he knew that I understood. Of course. He reached out his hand and I reached out mine and when the two met I knew that the grasp around me wished it could curl into a battering ram. I have prepared for this moment with each intersection of skin and love and time that has been shared between the daughter of this father and me.
Lynne is out of sight but I know she is on the stairs around the corner from the dining room, listening. Sunlight refracts through the glasswork of the double front doors to the house, one closed, one wide open. A breeze pushes hot air over the tiled floor, ruffles leaves on the large ash tree outside, lifts a page of someone’s homework across the dining table. This is a house with ten children, two parents, three dogs, and yet I see no one, not even Lynne’s father, whose body is so close to mine it is as if he has disappeared.
But there is the weight of him pressing on my chest. Hunched over like a passenger about to be sick, he leant everything he had into that punch. He stumbled after the connection, uncertain. I doubt he had thought past the violence, but his body was already moving forward and he continued on, his knuckles already embedded in my organs, the wall not far behind. Now, we are here and time is stuck because I am afraid of what I might do to this man who has never been more sure of what he would like to do to me. A man so thick with resentment, it bulges from him like a cancer. He sweats through his clothes, drops of it slapping the ground, dark spots of wet on his boots.
Lynne’s father steps back, looks up at me. His eyes are shining deeply as if they’re submerged in oil. His face is slick with salt, angry skin, large pores, open holes. For a moment, I hope for horror. I hope that he sees the pain on my face, feels the squish of my flesh beneath my clothes beneath his fist. I hope that time is as slow for him as it is for me, that he understands that his entire life has been a vibrating pipe waiting to rupture at the slightest touch. But he hits me again and this time, he smiles.
In the humidity of the coroner’s office, everyone is a vapor. This makes sense only if you’ve breathed in its atmosphere, felt its thickness on your tongue. Everything is atomized, everything floats in the air and hangs. The autopsy room is small and crowded and beneath layers of sterilized clothing, everyone is sweating. Bodies lie on metal tables, chests ajar, bones perforated, fluids extracted, wet organs pooling against dead backs. Nothing is ever dry and we breathe in each other’s breath like the morning cold. In the humidity of the coroner’s office, everyone is a vapor mist swirling over the living and the dead.
There are no seasons in a coroner’s office because everything must remain in stasis. The unidentified dead rest in freezers that never stop running. The tagged are weighed, picked up, taken away in the same wheezing, peeling-paint hearse to the funeral home down the street. But there are seasons outside the office, and everyone here dreads summer. Reddened skin, singed hair, bloated stomachs, gas in the lungs. Summer reeks the most. It reminds you that there are absolute smells, unfettered dimensions of senses devoid of subtlety. In a wood shop, even pungent generator oil is dampened by a constant constellation of sawdust. Here, there is only the dust of bones.
A phone rings in the office across the hall, its echo bouncing down the varnished concrete floor outside the autopsy room. A skull cutter whirs to life behind me. My glasses fog as I bend over to examine a black hand that’s cross-hatched with tiny cuts on the back. There is only harsh light from above, buzzing, precise light so that the hand I hold in mine truly does look black. The thought barely leaves my mind and then I hear someone say, Well, here’s a dark one. It is a voice I haven’t heard before, clear, bemused, unmuffled by a face mask like the rest of the people here.
I set the hand down, stand up straight, turn round. His skin is pallid like someone with food poisoning. The suit he wears is pristine, crisp light pin stripes running down dark woven silk, glistening loafers, fat signet ring. A visitor sticker curls slightly off his breast pocket, right above a laminated badge. District Attorney. He’s accompanied by another man, this one familiar, a plainclothes officer who works with the forensic team next door. My stomach feels cold. The two are looking at me, at the body on the table behind me, at us, but they do not stop walking past. I look down at my gloved hands, pull back the bright blue sleeves of my smock. I feel the back of my neck, my ears below the paper hair net. How much of me is exposed? Which of us is the dark one?
The swinging double doors from the processing room beside me give way to the edge of a gurney, then a pair of feet, then a pale, bullet-riddled body pushed through by another person garbed in blue. The wounds pucker up like thin, bloodless lips in anticipation of a toothless kiss. Before the doors can flap closed, another body is pushed through, even darker than the one lying behind me. Bullets have not passed through this body. From a distance, a cliche seems to hold true: this person looks like they’re sleeping.
Double homicide, someone in a mask says. It could be any of us speaking. White male, 50s, severe hemorrhaging. Black male, 20s, asphyxiation. The bodies roll one after the other against the opposite wall, heads first. On the white body, there are weed-like toenails that curl over the edge of each digit, blackened soles, dry footprint patchwork. On the black body, fattened feet, soft and deep creases of skin like canyon shadows, jaundiced soles, padded transportation. Domestic dispute, someone else beneath a mask volunteers.
Before I can stop myself, I stand up on my toes. Are they sure this second man is dead? The D.A. passes by, arms crossed against his chest, wrinkled sleeves, a bobbing Adam’s apple that chuckles without sound. He swivels his midriff as he walks near, looks at me, purses his lips, points to his throat. I look at the second man’s neck and my stomach twists around itself.
I wonder if I’ve remembered to eat today. They were neighbors, the voice beneath the mask continues. I know I don’t need to hear this, I know because I don’t need all the facts. The facts don’t change anything. I believe that. I believe it is entirely up to the technicians to verify what it was that killed both men, the clinical cause of death, what it was exactly, down to the blood vessel. I really don’t need to hear this.
Turning toward the door leading out into the hallway, I meet the gaze of a pair of green eyes held in place beneath bushy white brows. My stomach contracts. The voice beneath that pair of eyes is not speaking to me, it is merely a coincidence that they finish their sentence at the same time. White male broke into his neighbor’s house, took his belt, garroted him on the tree outside. I haven’t eaten today. That must be it.
In death, everyone is nothing. This makes only if you understand what becomes of you afterward. Around us, death cuts out a hole and our absence is what we leave behind. This experience is not passive. It is an action, it happens to everyone. We happen to each other. It happens with a hand, a length of leather, a head that turns so eyes can look away. It is languorous, unremarkable violence. It comes for you relentlessly.
But it stops for me. I am not dead. I will not die.
In the sliver of space between our bodies, I grab Lynne’s father’s wrist as if we are playing tug-of-war. His is an animal instinct. He yanks his arm backward as I dig a finger into the meat of his forearm. What comes from his mouth is tender and loud. Bodies are stiff at the end, like wax, like frozen cloth. It takes force to break them and enough bodies have passed between my hands to know that the pain piercing this man’s body will not break him. I dig and scratch with both hands around his wrist, thumbs pushing thin toothpick tendons apart. His other hand slams against my shoulder but we are already against the wall, there is nowhere to go. Lynne’s father cries out again, widens his stance, propels his head against my face.
From around the wall leading to the kitchen, heads pop into view. A boy’s, an older woman’s, a little girl’s. Upstairs, a dog barks and on the steps, the rumble of feet come crashing down. Where once there was the rabble of a television, now there is static. Shouldn’t there be wind? Shouldn’t the elements respond to what is happening here? It should be dark, it should be night. Everything should be harsh and underlined. Where are the screams? Where is the force that separates us from each other and lets us catch our breath?
Pressure releases behind my eyes, there is a crack that only I can hear, and I know my nose is broken. When a terrorist invades a building, in the aftermath of the carnage you are told to cover yourself with blood and lay still amongst the dead until help arrives. If I go limp now, I wonder if Lynne’s father would simply let me drop to the ground. But this is not the first time this has happened to me and the people who string up dark bodies from their necks do not kill quickly and there is never a guarantee that the person who creates a pile of corpses with bullets won’t shoot into the pile simply because they’re curious to see what will happen.
The dog from upstairs gets to us first, a German Shepherd that knows both our scents, confused to find blood on the tiled ground. It skids across the tile, bumping into my shin, barking and barking. No one from the kitchen has moved. The cascade of feet from the staircase reaches the ground. Lynne turns the corner, eyes wide. For a moment, I look at her and feel like laughing. Strawberry blonde hair, high cheeks, the hint of blue veins beneath the skin of blue eyes. On her neck, the start of all of this, a consensual bite, a fading bruise, a hickey. It is audacious to love anyone. For others, it is merely dangerous.
Lynne shouts her father’s name. What are you doing, she cries. Her father had been adamant in his usage of the operative word, molest. You molested my daughter. He repeats it through gritted teeth, through a voice caught in his throat. The German Shepherd now has something between its jaws, a muffled growl and the struggle to pull something that won’t come loose. There is abuse here, but it is flowing from Lynne’s father, not me. My grip on his wrist is slipping like consciousness. I know I can survive this moment but I know also that this is a family who lives under the shading wing of this man and that there are guns in the cupboard under the stairs. What to do. The front door is still open wide like an embrace. What to do. In a house full of this many people, no one is doing anything.
I unclaw Lynne’s father’s wrist. He draws it all back to his chest immediately, hand and arm in an invisible cradle. Looking down, I see the dog has sunk its teeth into his calf and here, in the absence of a continued fight, Lynne’s father sinks to the ground. Everyone in the house turns to wind. Children scream as they rush to the heaping mass on the floor, the mother covering her mouth as if she’s about to sneeze, tears streaming down her face. I step over a son and a daughter. Through my own watering eyes, I watch as a drop of my blood falls onto the boy’s bare ankle. The dog is still mushing, a determined animal instinct that transcends any loyalty it once had.
Lynne is frozen at the edge of the wall that separates the staircase and the foyer and the dining room. I want her to look at me, tell me that she heard everything that was sent forth from her father’s mouth, that, yes, she loves a nigger, that she is not her father’s daughter, who jokes of keeping immigrants as pets less noble than dogs. I want her to tell me that she sees. She says nothing.
What I feel in my body is alien, this pain in my stomach and my face fastened around me so wholly I know I could jump down, letting it tighten until nothing is left. I am grateful the door to this house is still open, I cannot now think of using my hands. Overhead, the sun remains the same, blinding, disrespectful, illuminating nothing. There is a tree in the front yard beneath which one can savor a moment of shade. There is a breeze that sweeps up in twirls the leaves on the ground up that brush cool against your skin. I hope to hear sirens. I hope there is something, anything coming for us.
But the breeze continues on and I hear the weeping that continues in an unbroken string behind me and I see the house across the road with its pair of olive trees and pale branches and I smell only blood. The breeze continues on and I feel the aching in my stomach and I see the belt that swings from the branches on the tree across from me and I know that this will all happen again. I have been killed before. Each time, I have forgotten to die.
“Evaporations” by Nicholas Russell is a Finalist in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Spring Contest, judged by Alexandra Kleeman. Read the other winners and finalists by clicking here.