Terrance's accident made the local papers. He was working on a circuit breaker forty feet off the ground between the Chevrolet dealer's show lot and the Pizza Factory in Kalispell. He had rerouted the power grid so he could work on the local transformer. There was a checklist of things he'd gone through and marked with a red Bic pen before he climbed the steel ladder to the high retention wires. He had done everything right, too. Alberta-Montana Power Company would check it all several times afterward. It was someone at the main power switchboard, thinking that the diversion was a mistake, who put it back to its normal current flow. Terrance had already started working when the power got sent back toward him. He heard a humming. It got louder, bigger, and the few fine hairs above his knuckles on his right hand stood straight up before everything crested into him.
He felt as if he'd been sliced into millions of thin biopsy cuts that were manically rattling against each other, until everything inside his body pushed against everything on the outside. His eyes bulged like overfilled balloons, and his world went teal blue—then red from his blood rushing to his head as he hung upside down from a harness. Then everything went black when he passed out.
The head of his hammer pressing against the outside of his lower thigh got so hot it burned the shape of itself through his thermal Carhartt pants and into his skin. The dealership filed a claim because his screwdriver shot fifty feet out of his tool belt and punctured the passenger's side door of a new gunmetal grey Tahoe truck in the lot. A witness was quoted in The Hungry Horse News, saying he looked like an “epileptic fish flopping above the road.”
He wasn't sure for how long, but for a while before he woke up, he was conscious of who he was but not of his body. He felt the bones in the top of his right foot first. They were just floating there by themselves like the bare spines of a Chinese hand fan. Then he felt how those bones connected to his ankle, and there was only his one foot. He felt it wholly, as if it supported the weight of the world. When he started to think about his leg, his shin bone ached, then his knee. In this way, as if he were the god of himself, creating one small piece at a time, he reassembled his body until he became aware of being in the hospital bed. He felt holy. Except for the sharp pain in his groin, gravity did not apply to him, and he was ascending to something.
The room was empty when he woke. His left leg was in a stirrup. It felt like something was resting on the outside of his skin—a teal-blue fear trying to get in—or the outer layer of himself had been burned off and everything was nerve-end sensitive.
Helen walked in five minutes later with a cup of coffee and a bag of yogurt-covered pretzels. She didn't look up at him until he asked, “Am I okay?”
She made a gutteral “Ogh” sound and dropped the coffee on the floor. The puffed-up, subtle bruise-colored skin around her eyes made them so squinty that she looked like a haggard version of herself. She had stopped sleeping several weeks before, after she lost her job as a secretary to the high school principal. For some reason she had torn every sheet of paper she filed away in half, and she never answered Terrance's or the principal's questions about why she had done that.
When she dropped the coffee, Terrance wanted to touch her face the way a blind person would, with hungry fingers trying to find something. He wanted to push the stray strands of her bangs behind her ear, but all her hair fell loose as she leaned over the bed and sunk her face into his neck. Her highlighted brown hair covered his eyes. She stayed like that for a long time. “I thought you were going to die,” she said. Then she peeled herself off him and ran out of the room to get a doctor.
Everything around Terrance felt lighter as a doctor told him about the half-dollar-sized hole between the inside of his left thigh and testicles, where the current of electricity that entered his body had ripped out. Surgeons had sutured and skin-grafted the wound during the thirty-one hours he had been unconscious.
That feeling of lightness stayed with him the whole week he was in the hospital. The doctors kept him because they wanted to make sure nothing was wrong with the circulation of his femoral artery. He slept most of the week, waking each time with his mind fixated initially on the bones of his right foot and then working its way over his body, making sure everything was still there. When he wasn't sleeping he sketched his awakening skeletal system in his notebook and drew things he would carve when he was released.
“Did your life flash before your eyes?” Helen asked him while they were alone in the room together.
“No,” he said. “There's too much of it to happen all in one little moment.” She looked disappointed by his answer. He probably should have said something about thinking of her. He was worried about why she had been fired and how soon they could both get back to work. Maybe he should have mentioned something about Los Caporales, the Mexican restaurant off highway 93 where they had met three years ago. She was thirty-seven and had never been married. Terrance was forty-four, had been divorced for five years. His ex-wife, Claire, and their three kids, lived in Buffalo, New York, and they rarely talked. Helen was the only one who visited him in the hospital, as his children were out there in a place he could not get back to. That alone seemed like it would be hard to condense into one brief flash before a person could die.
His cabin was on a hundred and sixty acres of land in the Bitterroot Mountain range. It sat against the foothills side of an expansive oval field that his grandfather had cut back into the surrounding woods when he first bought the land in 1938 for next to nothing. Terrance had made the cabin his year-round home after his grandfather died and he'd moved back following his divorce.
The first three days out of the hospital, Helen lifted his leg from the couch and rested it on her shoulder as she rubbed the salve he'd been given at the hospital on the burn scar on his crotch to keep the skin moist. On the fourth day he had full range of motion back, and Helen helped him limp around the cabin the rest of the weekend. On that Monday, he drove himself to the office at Alberta-Montana, where his bosses and their lawyers were waiting to offer a settlement package to keep them out of court. They were willing to offer him a 2.3 million dollar pension plan that would kick in next month, when he was forty-five. If he wanted to continue working, he could. He felt a subtle wave of shock roll over his body like he was hanging upside-down again. He imagined it was a similar feeling to the way Helen described her orgasms.
Terrance signed the papers.
When he got home, Helen was under the covers on the couch with the salve cream cupped in her hands like a tiny bowling ball.
“I thought you had been killed,” she said. “It would have just been me—all alone.” She lifted her body off the couch and hugged him. “I thought you had been killed.”
Terrance sat next to the couch, and Helen's hand started clutching the hair on the back of his head. There was a buffalo skull that he'd cleaned and mounted above the fireplace. Two track lighting bulbs illuminated it against the brick. The eye sockets of the bison skull were empty. He turned to Helen, and her eyes seemed just as exposed and vault-like. Something in her had come unlatched and was swinging around inside. He felt the shrill screech of an alarm sounding up his spine, as if his skin was still so very thin and offered no barrier between him and the world. All of this had happened before. Her moods had always swung between outrageously happy and a bone-tired funk that ushered her into the flatness of depression. The struggle with each had been exhausting, but now he wanted to take his new penetrating vision and turn it on her, look for something that had been jarred loose to mend it.
He pulled the blanket over her shoulders and rubbed his fingertip against her temple until she fell asleep. He didn't have to tell her about the money. She knew he'd receive Workers' Compensation checks until he wanted to go back to work, so he wouldn't have to tell her. Another one of those ghost-currents shook through his body.
He went to their bedroom and started to sketch another sculpture he now wanted to build. He focused on the sculpture, not how desolate she had looked on the couch when he came home, not on the pain between his legs he felt climbing toward his heart.
When Terrance woke up, his sketchbook was resting on his stomach and he was on top of the covers. It was dark in the room. The alarm clock on the side of his bed read 1:13 A.M. The bright LCD screen shone on the floor. He closed his eyes and opened them to get the sleep out, then turned on his reading lamp.
There were chrome-oxide-green footprint outlines on the carpet leading into his room. His heart knotted like a fist when he saw Helen's thin feet had lightly touched the ground as she came in. Next to his bed there were thicker footprints, where she must have stood for a while. If he could peel off those closest to him he'd have the perfect imprint of her whole foot. She had been watching him sleep again. He walked into the living room and found her rolling dollops of paint into the carpet with a roller brush. She had the five-gallon paint bucket from his work truck that he used for neighborhood circuit boxes. She'd either rolled the brush over her chest or lain in the wet paint, as there was an outline of the large cups of her bra highlighted in chrome-oxide-green on her shirt.
“Helen—” The ends of her hair had sealed together in clumps, with paint. She had finger-painted the corners of her eyes as if she were accentuating the crow's feet and now looked like a tired forty-year old-child.
“What are you doing?”
“I'm devastated,” she said to him and bent forward over her lap so her forehead was resting on the carpet.
Terrance phoned the hospital after she fell back asleep. “Is she off her meds?” the doctor on call at the clinic asked. The doctor's question seemed rigid. “She swore she wasn't,” he told the doctor, who said to keep an eye on her and bring her in that afternoon.
Terrance was now wide awake from falling asleep so early. Helen's presence in their bed seemed to fill up the entire space of the cabin. He didn't know how he'd make it until morning, wondering how to help her. So the rest of that night he pulled out the ruined carpet, cutting away at the corners and rolling it up at the center of the room. Enough paint had soaked through to dye the carpet glue chrome-oxide green. He thumbed the green glue marks and hoped she had gone off her meds and it would be an easy fix.
She had gone to what they ended up calling a “therapy retreat” once since they moved in together. He had hoped she'd be able to address some central event of her life that she could then move on from. She came back with a small painting she had done in a rehab session. It was something completely out of the norm for her, and she kept it on the wall of the cabin. Terrance looked over at it as he took a break from pulling up the rug. It was a watercolor copy of a Mardi Gras picture. There were people wearing blank white masks with feathered shawls and rounded hats that hid any part of themselves except the eyes, which were shadowed and dark. The prospect of trying to understand a person through such masks was terrifying.
He had snuck one of her meds after she got back to see what they did to her. The next morning he had to call in to work for the first time in ten years. When he could finally get out of bed he was fearful of what was now keeping Helen up and running, and as he continued to pull up the rug now, all that fear knotted between his shoulders. He dragged the ruined carpet outside, wondering if chrome-oxide green was the color being devastated washed a person in.
At first light, Terrance filled his nostrils with cotton swabs so he wouldn't smell the putrid meat scraps hanging off the buffalo skulls he'd gotten from the bison ranch. He coated the horns with a thick layer of Vaseline so the ants wouldn't eat away the enamel and left the heads on anthills. The ants would clean away the tendons and tunnel to the marrow, if a bear or coyote didn't decide to come gnaw on it first. His grandfather had taught him how to clean bones like this when he was a boy. When he'd had a skull on every anthill he could find in the whole valley, he piled the bones and antlers from rendering what he'd hunted into a cargo net. He set the net in the deep part of the Kootenai River tributary on a rope he tied across the water so the current would bleach them clean.
He'd been carving bones and antlers his whole life—making eagles, bears, wolves, and other “high Alpine art images.” Danny, a friend, would sell them in his tourist store outside of Glacier National Park. The bones had added a lot of extra income over the years. Now Terrance walked back through the snow to the cabin with a full elk rack over his shoulders. The hilt from the crown of the elk's head rested against the back of his neck, and the horns draped over his shoulders in front of him like a giant thorn scarf. He was thinking of the sculpture he wanted to build: how with the large bag of bones in the cargo net, he'd have everything he needed.
He weaved out of the woods with the antlers and came into the open valley south of the cabin. The cabin had been a sanctuary for him since his divorce, giving him all the time he wanted to set out into the woods and mountains and collect his bones.
After Helen woke up he drove her north to Whitefish, where he dropped off a truck full of bone carvings to Danny's gift shop. Danny was in the store, wiping a dirty rag over a glass display case of turquoise jewelry. Helen helped Terrance unload the carvings. They took one at a time through the back door of the building to the storage area; there Danny would decide where he wanted to display Terrance's work.
“This one is lovely,” Helen said as she pulled a length of elk horn out of the truck cab. Terrance had carved a series of figures running from the base toward the points. They showed an evolutionary progression, from a hunched over Neanderthal to better and more upright hunters. The final figure was standing straight, with a bow drawn taut across his chest. Terrance had carved them using small bend gouges and skew knives. He'd often work on them late at night so Helen wouldn't be awake by herself. In the morning he'd wake to her sweeping up the pittings off the floor.
When they finished unloading the truck, they drove south toward the clinic in Kalispell. The hospital was the first major development on a gigantic plot of land. For Sale signs advertised the other lots in the surrounding fields. At the clinic, Helen went into the doctor's room but wanted Terrance to stay in the lobby. He went outside and walked around the building to escape the staleness of the lobby seeping into him.
In the summer all that was in those fields were bleaching bones and weeds. Now the light off the snow made everything seem refrigerated. A yellow finch landed in front of him on a tall, dead blade of olive grass. The grass curved slightly under the bird, which dropped a little white splatter of shit and flew off. There was a frozen burlap seed sack stuck to the ground along the fence bordering the parking lot. Terrance pulled it up from the snow, and it peeled grass out of the ground like a Band-Aid on arm hair. Camel crickets, potato bugs and centipedes squirmed in the exposed earth.
His grandfather used to read the Bible to him. Terrance had been fascinated by the story where Jesus walked on water. Maybe it was having lived entrenched in this kind of earth and so far from any sea that made the whole matter an utter mystery. Terrance used to think about Jesus walking on the water and how fine a thing it must have been. Now he thought how Jesus must have walked from the water back into the world—back into this—and felt a bit of a letdown. He wondered if Jesus felt water underneath his feet for the rest of his life, the way Terrance suspected he'd feel a blue current running through him.
When he went back inside he read Oprah's magazine instead of a pamphlet called, On living with people who suffer from various mental disorders and imbalances. He had spent the last several years learning the clinical language of disorders and imbalances. He had been there through the course of trying to find the right balance of medications. He'd held his concerns in check as the medicines seemed to be getting stronger with each doctor's visit, cycling through anticonvulsants, before moving onto Lithium, and Carbamazepine.
From the waiting room he saw a doctor with his head down, writing and talking to Helen at the back counter. He tore a pharmaceutical script from the pad and handed it to her. She put it in her pocket. Terrance thought of setting her up somewhere other than the cabin when he got his settlement money.
“How'd it go?” he asked when she came out.
“Let's go,” she said.
“Wait. Do we need to get your prescription filled?”
“Please, let's get out of here, Terrance.” Her voice was limp. Something in her face looked crushed, and he couldn't bear keeping her there. They went to the truck, and he started driving her north to the cabin.
“Are you okay?” he asked Helen when they were driving north.
“I just need to be sad for a while,” she told him as they drove.
“Why are you so sad?” he asked. She was looking out the window at the rolling fields.
“Terrance,” she said, letting his name hang in the silence between them. “I used to feel it.”
He knew she was about to drop some hammer on him from out of the blue, something that had been festering and become gangrenous. “Feel what?” he asked.
“I could feel my body wanting a baby. If I was around one, I could feel it in my bones.” She turned away from him and looked out the window. “I stopped feeling it. It was this sort of pang. Something inside of me I couldn't explain that got louder and louder when I got older. Now I can't hear it anymore. It stopped.”
Terrance reached over and put his hand on her knee, but she pulled her leg away. “We're never going to have a family. I was always too scared of having crazy kids to try.” She was pressing herself into the doorjamb, “And—you—never pushed us to do it!” Her voice was full of anger, and she shot out and punched his arm as hard as she could. His elbow buckled, and the truck veered to the side of the road for a moment, vibrating over the rumble strip and gravel before he pulled it back. Her eyes looked like the hollow buffalo's again.
“We're not going to have a family!” she screamed at him. Her sudden rage was unfurling in front of him, and something reckless was pushing out at her skin, making her glow.
“You'd probably just be a shitty husband and a shitty father again anyway,” she yelled, sighting and hitting his most vulnerable spots, flicking truth he never spoke of that would linger in him forever. “You're not even worried about me, either, you just don't want to be stuck taking care of me forever.”
Terrance was silent—hurt.
“Say something!” Helen yelled.
“Right now that's true. Right now I'm sick of you,” Terrance blurted out.
“So what? Right now I hate you!” Helen screamed. She sounded vicious, and Terrance felt the dread that there would be no washing clean after something like this. There would just be plodding ahead, both of them worn to emotional shreds. As they drove, there was a chilly reserve between them, vacant and immense.
Helen hadn't taken her eyes off of him. Everything dark and confusing in her was working its way through her stare into the side of his neck as he drove. There was too much to flash in front of a person's eyes before they died, he was sure of it.
They drove further north.
Helen had told him all of those fears about having children before, but this time he sensed the added weight to it. “When you got hurt, I thought you were going to die and I'd be left with nothing,” she finally said, and he knew she was mourning the family they would never have. Now all they had for sure was each other. Her body must have told her that, and when he'd been shocked and almost killed, she was as close to left alone as she'd ever been. All they really had was a trust that they'd be there for each other, and she had draped that trust over herself like a plaster cast until it was holding her up.
When they got back to the cabin it was past dark. There was cloud cover pocked with clusters of dense, bright stars.
Helen stepped inside the cabin, took off her boots and made a show of tossing them far across the room. She undid her belt and slipped her pants to her knees before even taking off her coat. He watched as she kicked her legs free of her jeans, then started undoing the jacket as she walked toward the bedroom, looking over her shoulder at him before the jacket hit the wood floor.
They had not had sex since his accident, and everything she did now made him anxious, but he followed her into the room. Just inside the door frame she jumped on him from behind. He felt her bare breast push into his back. He turned her over in front of him and pinned her back against the wall. He bent down and took her breast into his mouth and bit down on her nipple with his lips folded over his teeth. She pushed him away and threw herself on the bed. When he came near her, she reached up and scratched his chest. He jumped back and felt the pain of each long nail gouge she'd given him. Her eyes were locked on him. She was gyrating her hips at him, grinding the space between them away, as if, since this part of their lives together was going to be fruitless, she'd make it into something else entirely.
He charged her. When she tried to scratch him again, he blocked her hands and pinned her to the bed and started fucking her immediately. It felt like the first time there was real hate between them, as they crashed their bodies into each other until they'd shook the painting on the wall sideways.
“Where did that come from?” Terrance asked after they had finished, breaking the silent shock they were both panting into.
“Sometimes I want to be able to yell it out of me,” she said.
“This is a good place to do that,” he whispered to her as she burrowed her head into the nook of his shoulder and arm.
Helen slept like their sex had erased time and she'd forgotten everything they'd said. Their fight kept Terrance on edge, so he slept poorly and woke before dawn. He got dressed and went out to walk the woods.
His grandfather had also taught him how to trap, and now Terrance went to see what he had caught in the critter cages he'd set up. When he found a baby raccoon in one of the cages, the animal was swaying back and forth and climbing upside down in a lunatic motion of frenzied circles. The animal was making high-pitched staccato squeaks like an engine stuck in some high gear. Terrance opened the cage to release it, and as it scurried into the trees he hoped he'd never see it again.
Walking back to the cabin, he heard Helen screaming on the porch. From that morning, all through the next month, when Terrance was working with his bones in the woods, he heard her yelling. It became a part of her morning calisthenics.
A month later, Helen was still waking up and screaming from the deck as loud as she could. Terrance knew it made all the animals in the valley freeze until they perceived where the noise was coming from. The bone statue he was building did not move. The creature was eight feet high and had one hundred and fifty four bones, from nine different animals.
He'd started drawing where the bones would go to support the skeleton when he was in the hospital dreaming his own bones back to life. He had since studied charts of the human skeleton. At the taxidermy shop in the town, he studied the charts of animal bones. He studied how museums had framed their skeletons, but he wanted his sculpture to be more organic, as if it was stemming from the earth it stood on. He used a papier-mâché system with plaster and strips of old white sheets he bought at a local Salvation Army. He dipped the strips of sheet in a five-gallon bucket of plaster and used the strips to make joints that held the bones. When the plaster dried he wound the joints tighter with thin rope or chicken wire for extra support.
For the hands he used six-point mule deer antlers. The hands connected to the metacarpal bones of a horse, bound by plaster at the elbow joints to a horse femur. The bulbous end of the femur, where the stifle joint had connected, was stuck into the groove of a moose's shoulder plate.
The spine was the hardest part. He let the river clean away the tendons from all the skeletons he had, so the individual vertebrae just fell apart from each other. He fed a length of steel rod through a garden hose and wove the tip of the hose through each open ringlet of spine. For ribs, he connected the humerus and ulna bones of wild turkeys and kept them bent in at the joint like curled fingers. The statue had six ribs on each side, and there was enough room between rib tips for him to kneel between and set the vertebra bones.
Helen did not know what he was doing. It seemed important that she not know. This was his own thing. This project was how he could keep himself straight even while she was slipping. It kept him out in the fresh air, where he felt healthy and alive. The buffalo skull with a black bear's jaw melded to it was the last thing he'd mount on the sculpture. He had to hook a wire from the top of the skull to each shoulder to keep it on steady. Once it was secure, he brushed off the new snow and stepped back from it and looked up at what he had made.
It looked like a monster emboldened to dance among the trees. He thought about what the muscles of the animal he'd created would look like and how they would curve around the bones as he had them laid out. None of it seemed like something a god would sit down and figure out. As he walked around it, he wondered what a blue shock would do for the bone marionette he'd created. He thought of burying his settlement money right underneath it.
Then he heard Helen screaming from the deck of the cabin. He sat in the snow at the base of the sculpture and looked at its right foot. He worked his way up, one bone at time, making sure he had forgotten nothing. He studied the linkage of bones. He shut his eyes and let his mind run over the bones he'd felt in his own body.
Helen screamed again. He let her dirge stretch out and disappear across his mind. If they were lucky, this place would let them purge his teal-blue current and her deep sadness into the woods. The woods could absorb her wanting children, children their mutual fears and time had taken from them, absorb the limbo of regret over each of those children that could have been.
He wanted to help her. He could meet her want for new life if one of his kids would come out for the summers. They could get horses. There could be dogs. There was life. He was constructing a life deep in the forest. It was new life from old life—old bones. That was something he could do for her. He could scramble what they had and lay it at her feet until it made a family and she felt she had something to care for, so sleeping could have mercy on her.
On the way back to the cabin he saw Helen's footprints in the freshly fallen snow. He followed them out of the woods. In the clearing they had been windswept and disappeared. He kicked the clumps of snow off his boots by slapping them against the porch banister. Inside the cabin the bedroom door was open. She wasn't in bed. He listened for bathroom noises. She'd been taking multiple showers throughout the day lately. She'd once told him she needed a shower to fully wake her up and start her day. Now he was afraid she didn't like what was happening and kept trying to start again.
When he didn't hear any water running, he walked to the bathroom, but the door was open. At the front door her parka was still on the hook, and her boots, though wet, were still on the floor.
“Helen,” he called out in the cabin. No one answered. He opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. The wide clearing extended in front of him to the forest sloping up the mountainside. The lone road cut a line through the center of the field where he'd plowed with his truck. “Helen.”
At the far end of the snow-covered open space he saw a herd of mule deer moving along the wall of pines and larches. He followed their movements until he saw her. She was lying naked on her side with her back to him. He took the porch steps in one bound. The far end of the valley behind her had a few waist-high tree trunks where his grandfather had initially cut back the forest. The forest was thinned out fifty yards in, so the remaining trees had great spaces between them. The closer he got to where she was, the more the woods seemed to recede before becoming a solid wall of conifer trunks.
A blank cloud of terror drained the color out of everything as he ran. As he got closer he saw how the light pooled between her shoulder blades. The deer were trying to move faster through the snow. For a moment he thought about running right past her and into the deeper woods, where he would be done with her. Then he noticed the deep blue veins on her mid-thigh. They were dead-thing colored, and that color blue filled his head, blanketing everything like the sky. His last steps were through snow up to his hips, and he lunged forward, crawling to her like a wolverine. The weight of his body pushed snow against her bare back. Her body hadn't indented the snow she was lying on, until he pulled her into his lap and arms, so she was facing him. The dark patch of her pubic hair puffed out against the white snow between her legs. She was limp and amoeba-like. He wanted to crack open his ribs and drape himself over her like a jacket. The deer were still marching along the line of trees. Their wet, sable eyes fixated on him leaning over her as if he were in some skewed nativity.
“Helen!” he yelled into her face. His words fanned out. The deer all jumped, and he heard them crashing away. “Helen.” Her eyes were open wide like he'd scared her. Her head was cold when he put his hands against her and red where her cheek was resting in the snow. She looked like an alcoholic Eve—beautiful and tragic. The last of the deer were just passing them about fifty feet away. He expected her to open her mouth big enough to swallow him or scream it all out.
She just watched him. Then she looked beyond him into the woods.
There was a murky, primeval excitement in him as he lifted her. She felt lighter than he expected, like part of her, the part he knew, had escaped into the deeper parts of the forest and was now gone.
When he brought her inside, the cabin smelled like burned apples; it was warm compared to her skin against his arms. In the foyer, the creak and pop in the bones of the cabin settling in broke through the uninterrupted sound of her breathing against his shoulder. The deer were probably now walking the deeper snow in the woods, looking to root out new grass shrubs to eat. It was harder for them in the winter.
He put her in the bed and wrapped the heavy blankets around her. He lay on the covers with his arm and leg over her to keep her warm. Her dark outline made him feel as if she were scratching out from under a thick layer of ice.
“What were you doing in the snow?” Terrance asked. “What were you thinking?” He no longer knew what to do with her, and it frightened him. He held her until he felt her body warming up. Terrance wished he could tune in to what she was thinking like a radio and just listen without her knowing, so he could understand what he could do for her.
He went to the bathroom and started the bathtub running with warm water. There was a film of soap in the curve at the base that ringed the whole basin. He had not cleaned the cabin since his accident. He kept his fingers under the water to make sure it was warm but not hot, the way she liked it.
He went back into the bedroom. He peeled the blankets back and led her to the tub. He held her arm as she lifted herself over the tub wall and sat down. She leaned her head back until it was under the water, which was clear, and he looked at her naked body. He knew every part of it—had longed for and hated it. He knew the cluster of freckles above the knob of her left ankle that disappeared when she had a tan. She dunked her head underwater. When she popped back up, her eyes were raw, and he knew he couldn't help her.
He hated when she smoked but went to her purse and grabbed her lighter and cigarettes. He sat on the toilet next to the tub and put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. She held it in her lips, and he watched the tip breathe red. Her knee was sticking out of the water, and he wanted to put his hand on it but didn't. Her silence seemed like she was falling into some chasm he could not comprehend. He took the cigarette from her lips and put it back to her mouth when she wanted another drag. It felt like all he had left was that cigarette and a want to touch her.
He had sat on that toilet with her leaning over him the time he lanced a cyst on his scalp. It had been there his whole life that he could remember, but in bed she kept running her hand over it and saying it was getting bigger. “I'm taking you to the doctor,” she'd say. “It's a tumor!”
She'd done that enough that he found himself running his fingers through his hair to find it, pushing the bump that felt like a hard pea just under the skin. He held the tip of the needle under the flame from one of her cheap lighters and jammed it into the bump until it scraped his skull. When he pulled out the needle and started to pinch the cyst, she sopped up what came out with a paper towel.
“That's gross,” she said. “It's like black puss.”
He squeezed and ran his thumb over the area the bump had been until it felt like a tiny, deflated balloon. She held the paper towel in front of him and smiled because she had wanted to see what was inside. The darkened paper smelled pungent and human.
He passed the cigarette back to her. She had used his toothbrushes, picked up their used condoms off the floor, stuck her finger in his ear, tickled his armpit, cried on his shoulder that she'd hit and bit and screamed into. He remembered all those things; time was just stacking them, and each left some impression on him because he never forgot anything with her. Now the memory of her bluing skin somehow became linked to all his other bad memories, and he wondered if that was what her episodes were like, and if each was a new tentacle, a tendon latching them together.
As he sat on the toilet breathing in her smoke and steam, he knew there was nothing he could do for her. Though it was nice to pretend like there was, like these small, sad moments were adding up to something. He sat there breathing in the smoke, her naked body, and the memory of his own black blood. It gave him a feeling of dread that drove him into the tub with her, like it was defeat that really brought people together. He let the warm water fill the space between his clothes and skin.
“So what are we going to name it?” Helen asked and pointed to the corner of the bathroom, toward the woods Terrance had been working in. Her voice made it sound like he had done it all for her.
He scooped her so she was bobbing just over his body, like he could hold her up forever, or until they could name all the shadows skirting the center of their lives. Then he shut his eyes, dunked his head under the water, and spoke of all the colors of fear that bind people together.
originally published in The Missouri Review, Issue 33.2