Nineteen is the number of times I stabbed my father. One in each forearm, shoulder, thigh, calves. Neck back stomach balls. Between two ribs the knife plunged and pierced one lung, two, and caught on a shard of bone, a tendon shred. Wrench tug free. I’d pictured each puncture in detail one by one. Not over and over on loop like some freak but while waiting for the bus or falling asleep I thought about the order of it, in and out and back in, the quiet shrill of it. Muscle rip against blade, bone scrape against metal.
When I told Marley about the last jab directly into his left eye, she laughed. ‘It wasn’t like the fucking movies,’ I said. ‘Blood didn’t go shooting off in all directions at once. Some liquid came out, sure, but not as much as you’d think and some of it wasn’t even red, wasn’t even blood.’ She laughed again and said Sure thing.
We were in her apartment, a small studio without any windows. A sinister staleness crawled beneath the floorboards, clambered up the walls, threatened to seep into our lungs and rot them from the inside out. Marley was stretched out on the sofa, greasy golden hair spread out behind her head like a halo. A corner shop Madonna. Her eyes were nearly closed as I sat on the floor at her side. ‘I wish you could see him dead,’ I said.
She opened her eyes and looked at me, reached out and tucked loose strands of hair behind my ears. ‘Girl, you need to stop dying it so black,’ she said. ‘You look like some leftover Goth fuck from the nineties.’ I jerked my head so that the hair again fell forward and covered my eyes. ‘You’re starting to look like a weirdo.’ I leaned back and away from her fingers even though I liked their coolness on my ears.
I’ve known Marley forever, or in the way you can know anyone forever. We went to the same daycare and in rooms with signs warning of asbestos poison and donated Lego sets missing enough pieces so you couldn’t really build a ship or castle or whatever it was the picture on the box promised you could, we became friends. Later in high school before we both dropped out, I thought I loved her. But when she decided she liked boys and said what was between us was done, I knew I loved her. But things between us are mostly good now. She has a kid named Hector who’s three and still can’t speak and when I come over we get high while he sleeps.
‘I’m serious,’ I said after a long drag. ‘I have him in my kitchen right now, turning the floor cherry red.’
Marley took the roach from my fingers and looked over at Hector sleeping in his swing, neck tilted towards a shoulder it couldn’t reach, shirt spit-soaked and faded. ‘Keep your voice down. He can’t be waking up.’ She inhaled until there was nothing left and pushed the end into an empty soda can tucked between her legs.
I stood up and pulled on my jacket. My pants were loose and sliding off and I tried to tighten the belt, but it was already hooked into the last notch. She watched me unhook and re-hook it into the same place and shook her head. ‘You’re some sight,’ she said.
I walked over to Hector and lifted him out of the swing. His skin was warm and his eyes opened long enough to look at me and closed again.
‘Where you going?’ she asked but didn’t move, just kept looking up at me, her eyes half-lidded and mouth open.
‘Watch him,’ I said, putting him in her arms. ‘Kids choke and die while they sleep. Happens more than you think.’
‘Like you know,’ she said and reached for him. She wrapped her arms around him and stroked his back. He turned his head from one side to the other and settled against her chest, which rose and fell with his breaths. She watched each small exhale until she caught me looking. Closed her eyes as I opened the door and left.
Outside I zipped up my hoodie against the chill and jogged home, smoking a cigarette as I went. I hardly ever walk. I run almost everywhere. No one bothers you when you’re running. You ever heard of someone getting held up or raped or bludgeoned with a bat or a steel pipe or with anything at all while they were running?
When I got to my building, I spotted Oscar sitting on the curb, looking up at the sky. Oscar’s a junkie who sleeps on the street and uses my address for his disability checks in exchange for a little weed or pills now and again. He’s stoned harmless most of the time. A fleshy fold of skin hangs from his neck like a bird’s wattle, so everyone calls him Turkey. I call him by his name.
‘What’s up Oscar?’ I said but he kept on looking at the sky so I looked up too. The glare of lampposts made it so you couldn’t see more than a few stars, faint and sickly, terminal patients of some forgotten galactic infirmary. Oscar looked at me and started to say something and then either forgot or changed his mind and went back to staring. I wanted to go sit next to him and stare at the sky until I saw what he saw, until I felt how the weight of its darkness pressed down on his shoulders and kept him rooted to the concrete at his feet.
When I got upstairs my father was on the kitchen linoleum right where I left him, looking the same. I thought he’d be paler or more bloated, different somehow. It bothered me, the sameness. I put on some music and drank a few beers as I circled him. Squatted and hovered awhile. My eyes traced the top of the head matted in bloodbrown hair and followed the line over a neck so thick it was hardly a neck at all, more of a stump, down a belly that stuck out and deflated, giving way to legs skinny and hairless. Blood pooled around him. He was all slashed up, his one eye wide open.
For close to an hour I must have stared at him, kept thinking he was going to shift shapes or something, but he went on looking the same. When I stood up my legs were numb and I nearly lost my balance and fell on top of him. And what if I had? Would I have screamed then? Or would I have stayed quiet as I soaked up our blood?
I walked around a bit and stretched my legs before calling Marley to make sure she hadn’t fallen asleep on Hector. When she answered I reminded her kids die all the time from their parents rolling on top of them in their sleep, that even a thick pillow or a soft blanket can mean death for someone that small. I kept picturing Hector beneath Marley’s body gasping for breath, silently begging her to let him live. I tried to explain it to her, to describe what it might feel like, how hushed his cries would be, but she hung up before I could finish.
I picked up the knife and grazed its tip along my finger before I touched it to his forehead. The coolness of the blade lingered on my skin as I let it glide down in a straight line above him. Down it went over his center, hardly touching him at all, just above the nose tip and chin point and down further still. I wished I could divide him in two just so I could see his insides. To know what his muscles looked like, how they connected to nerves and tissue and bone. I wanted to see his liver and heart and lungs, the makings of him.
The only thing I’ve ever skinned was a rabbit on a camping trip some fifteen years ago when I was eight or nine. My father had killed the rabbit with his shotgun and I had watched him lift it and string it by its feet. He had smiled at me then, a wide gummy smile stained by smoke. The same smile I now had to use my fingers to create. Press the tips to each corner of his mouth and stretch and send more blood dribbling down his unshaven chin. Over and over I did it, stretched his lips and let them relax until the smile became a grimace and I stopped.
Hours later I woke up in the living room, sitting upright on the sofa, a few empty bottles at my side. The television was on but the image was black, a silent screen of dead air. I reached for the remote and turned it off, stood up, felt dizzy and had to steady myself.
I walked to the window and peered down onto the street, tried to spot Oscar but my eyes failed to make him out. Again I squinted and could see him on the pavement, spread out and asleep, only the dark air surrounding him. Night after night now the sky has remained moonless and no one seems bothered. Marley thinks it’s a conspiracy, that swathes of people can no longer see the moon so that its light can be condensed, can be better aimed at those responsible for its absence.
I drank another beer as I went around the apartment and collected all the knives one by one, lined them up on the kitchen floor next to him. I wished Marley could see them lined up like that, wondered what she’d say. I wanted to go back to her studio and bring her to my apartment, her and Hector both, so she could see what he looked like, his body limp and useless on that floor. Would she smile? Or would she sit in the red puddles until they turned black?
I started working and decided to begin down at the feet, cut rings around the ankles. More blood came out but not too much. The skin didn’t peel back with ease like I thought it would. Instead it came off in small shreds the length of my thumb. It was a lot thinner than a rabbit’s but I stayed at it, kept separating ligament from skin, until my hand slipped and I sliced through calf muscles. The split veins spat blood onto my arms and clothes, wetting my hand so that its grip on the knife’s handle slackened. I threw the dripping knife across the kitchen and stood up. There didn’t seem to be a way to do it without really cutting into him, without ruining everything on the inside.
With stained hands I called Marley but this time she didn’t answer, and I started thinking I should go check on Hector, that I shouldn’t have left them alone, when my phone rang. It was Marley and she was stoned and talking about an episode of Star Galaxy she was watching. She went on about how the alien in it looks exactly like our fourth-grade teacher and that when he comes to Earth some idiot cop thinks he’s a terrorist and shoots him in the face. Only realizes his mistake when the alien bleeds red blood and his eyes roll back into his head just like anyone else’s. ‘My son’s fine,’ she said before I could ask, and hung up.
I used to have a kid, still do. She lives with her dad in San Diego. I’ve seen her twice. Once when she was born and two years ago when I made my way down there. We spent an afternoon at the beach building forts and making a footpath lined with seashells. I tried to not stare at her, to not look at her eyes so she’d have no memory of mine. But I wanted to take her all in and remember her like that, sand freckling her cheeks and clinging to her lashes. She looked nothing like me, wide eyes and thin lips, but I know she used to be mine.
Two beers later I picked up another knife, one more slender, its tip more fine. I ran it over his face once, then pressed down until the point sunk into the flesh of his cheek. The skin was soft and gave way with ease. The blood trickled but didn’t run. Look at me cutting you. Watch me push this knife into your face. Could you have thought it, when you held me and I was no larger than your palm with fingers outstretched that first day, that this day I would pierce and puncture you in your death? Or did knowledge of it escape you, tease you, until the day you picked me up to go hunting and you agreed to bring Marley so that she too could get away from the only place we knew? Do you remember when you shot the rabbit dead? We were chasing it in the woods, around hulking cedars and prickly shrubs, and out came your rifle and ripped a hole right through him. The bullet missed me by a foot or two and you laughed a lion’s roar. Up you lifted the limp furry thing and tied it by its feet to a low tree branch. Back and forth it swung and you made me hold it so you could cut a shallow ring around each leg, just above the joint. You sliced up each leg and started pulling the hide away from the muscle with firm tugs. Easily it peeled and you told me to do the rest, ordered me to when I refused. I begged you not to make me, cried until Marley screamed at you to stop, and you released the rabbit and with bloodied fingers held my face and looked me in the eyes. It was then that I saw your eyes were also mine. I stopped crying and slipped out the little arms like I was just helping the rabbit take off its sweater. It all came off cleanly enough, the fat and muscle intact, the skin turned inside out and covering its head, its feet still socked like some nightmare puppet. My hands were covered in its phlegmy insides and Marley, seeing my hands shake, said she would do the rest, so you sent me to look for more. Rabbits, squirrels, anything, you said. I walked away from the clearing, turning away from you as Marley reached for the rabbit and began to pull out its insides. I walked until I could no longer hear you yelling and I watched the squirrels trample over twigs and fallen leaves, knowing I would let you hit me before I peeled another rabbit. When Marley’s screams brought even the birds in the trees to a standstill and sliced their chirps into fragments I didn’t know to run. Instead I walked without breathing, hoping that time stopped in between each gasp. I retraced my steps until I reached the clearing and you looked towards me from where you stood next to her, her wrists bound to the same branch as the rabbit and her feet hardly touching the ground, her clothes covered in the rabbit’s blood and your hands clean.
I leaned back against the kitchen wall and watched him. He was all cut up, his insides spilling out onto the linoleum. It looked nothing like what I thought and I knew then that Marley would never see him, that even though I was covered in his insides, I wasn’t sure I could. On hands and knees I crawled to him, leaving tracks of him across the floor. I turned his head to face me and looked straight at the eye, pulled the lid down and got up.
I called Marley again and her phone rang and rang. I knew I had to go check on her and Hector. Make sure she hadn’t dropped him and that he was still breathing. I grabbed a beer to give Oscar and thought about my run there, about the way my lungs would burn ten minutes in, would slow me down, blood filling my face and hands, turning my skin warm.
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