Inari closed her car door and stepped up on the curb, onto the snow covered, chipped cement walk that led into the depressing housing complex she now referred to as home. She stopped mid-stride. Should she lock her car door? It may freeze. She would leave it unlocked, there was nothing there to steal anyway, nothing of any remote value; if someone wanted the little hunk of junk that passed for her transportation, more power to them.
She paused, staring at the snowflakes falling across the street lamps and security lights. It was late, nearly midnight, and save for a lonely dog barking somewhere on a different forsaken street, she was alone and peaceful. She had always been able to get lost in thoughts with the falling snow, even as a child, watching them float and glide ever so lightly to earth. Pure or dirty, the way it flocked the trees and piled deep in the yards and fields. That was one part of her she hoped she never lost, one part of the past she hoped she never forget, all those snows, the sledding down the hill of Rilt Avenue-
A heating unit kicked on and broke her tranquillity. Inari decided it would do no good to stand there and freeze, some poor icicle dessert treat to be found by the maintenance guy or the manager or some other resident apartment dweller zombie drone. The cold was biting its way through her worn bomber jacket and her oh so chic Save-More Mart mint green polyester smock.
She had to go inside. To heat. To bed. To home.
She pushed the door open to building D and the first floor of cinder block walls and cement floor greeted her, echoing every little noise, keeping no secrets. She took the steps as lightly as her tired feet allowed, trying to reel in the deafening sounds filling the hall and stairwell of shoes stomping, crashing, jack-hammering, the steps.
Safely in her own Fortress of Solitude, apartment D204, she clicked on the desk lamp, bolted the door and stood over the radiator warming her hands. She needed gloves. She would have to pick some up tomorrow at the store.
A wilted flower sat in the dim light of the lamp, brown and dried. She couldn’t remember what kind of flower it had been. Couldn’t remember? She never knew what the flower was called; out of everything, Inari had never been a green thumb. The thing had been purple. She knew that.
She tossed dead petals into the waste basket. “I’m a bad mother,” she said. How was the order of things, what had they taught her: care for a plant for one year, then a pet, then you’re ready for a romantic relationship.
Inari looked the dead plant over. “Be glad you’re not a goldfish.”
She boiled some instant noodles and washed them down with flat soda. The laundry hamper was full to running over. She sorted through her clothes, whites, colors, and intimates (what a laugh). She set the washing machine and pulled the knob but the water came at a trickle. Barely a trickle. “Great,” she kept her voice soft, low, so not to disturb or insult the cinder blocks and carpet of her own hovel. It was one more thing to report to the manager. God only knew when he would have someone around to look at it, or repair it.
It was late, she reasoned. The community laundry room was open, (always open twenty-four/seven, except for its occasionally often repairs) but who had the desire? Inari thought. She had something clean to wear to work tomorrow evening. Laundry would wait. It always did.
Donning her flannel pajamas, she lay under the covers, her winter essentials especially in this frigid hell hole: flannel sheets, a blanket, a second-hand quilt she was certain someone had made with loving intentions, a stained spread, and comforter. The comforter was new. She loved it, blue with sketched white flowers. She didn’t know what kind of flowers.
The curtains were open, the blinds up. She fell asleep watching the snow fall.
The sun was hid behind gray clouds and snow. Inari pushed the covers back from her head. It was twelve-fifteen in the afternoon. She had to be at work at three. She didn’t have time to do any laundry, not really. It would have to wait a little longer. She switched her alarm off before it had time to sound.
She forced herself from bed, relaxed under the shower. A quick bite to eat, toast, grape jelly, and weak coffee (it was always either too weak or too strong; she would have to buy a new coffee maker or hire out). The midday news was background noise, and she wondered why the hell she had a television, she didn’t really watch any programs. Besides, the cable plan sucked. Did the damn thing come with the apartment? She didn’t remember buying the cheap little thing, she had no recollection of ever bringing it with her. It had to have come with the place. Dare she call it a perk?
Inari took her pill organizer down from the cabinet, scaring a cockroach away in the process. The organizer was divided into seven compartments, one for each day of the week. She opened the Tuesday compartment and emptied out her three pills. The round blue pill, the phallic white one, and the lovely little hexagonal peach colored one. She tossed them back and washed them down with the brown water that faintly resembled coffee.
She replaced the organizer back in the cupboard, waved to the cockroach. She slid the closet doors open in her bedroom. Clothes she really didn’t like hung on wire hangers (NO WIRE HANGERS!-it always brought a smile to her face). Faded t-shirts and jeans, not the trendy kind of faded, actual faded from wear. Same for the holes ripped and worn into them, the tattered fringes and frills that didn’t say designer, they just said poor and necessary.
What would not clash with her Save-More Mart vest? Inari pondered. That damn vest clashed with everything in the known universe, so what the hell did it matter?
Inari changed into a battered black tee, a faded message of ‘death to clowns’ long since worn away so that now it only read ‘de o c owns’. Black jeans finished it off, jeans that fit snugly. Again, not designer skin tight jeans, she had just added on a couple pounds.
She admired herself in the cracked mirror above the bathroom sink. The weight looked good on her. She could hear her mother right now, God rest her soul, in one of the little back files of her brain telling her she needed to gain a few pounds. “You’re still too skinny,” her mother would say, “but you’re looking healthier.” If she had more money, she might put on more pounds. Wealth and health, hand in hand.
“All things are temporary,” she told her reflection. “This too shall pass.”
Her car started on the third try. She revved the motor, let it idle. Her neighbors, her fellow dwellers, the lost looking, the dubious looking, wandered the colorless day, jabbering, gesticulating. Some of these meetings, these exchanges of smiles, high fives, words, phrases, nods and winks, were friendly engagements. Neighbors are neighbors. Some you like, some you don’t; Inari didn’t really know any of them, but she knew some of these men and women here, right now, were doing questionable business transactions. Music played from somewhere, deep thumping bass, people shouted. These people didn’t sit on the stoop for no reason.
Inari shook her head at the steps she had taken and the roads she traveled that brought her here and she prayed that this was not her final destination.
She reversed the car and crept from her space. When she arrived at work, she really had no recollection of how she got there. Auto pilot. It happens sometimes.
She clocked in, ditched her coat in her locker and took her place at a check-out lane. The people came in droves as they always did, shopping at Save-More Mart to, naturally, save more money at the behemoth chain store. She scanned their groceries, tallied up the cost of their underwear and lettuce and off-brand petroleum jelly, and gradually, as she stood there on her feet with a plastic smile and empty niceties pouring from her mouth, Inari felt the environmentally safe lighting system sucking the very life out of her.
“Ain’t that where you live?”
Inari looked up, shaking fog from her head. She didn’t know Kilbey was talking to her, hadn’t heard him talk or enter the employee lounge, hadn’t really noticed he was sitting across the little table from her.
“Don’t you live there?” he said again over his newspaper. “The Mercy Street apartments.”
“Yeah,” she said, clutching her coffee mug. Kilbey always read the paper on his break; a cashier just like her. A couple of stock guys and the manager were munching on stale donuts. The stock guys normally took break outside, to smoke, but it was damn cold and they decided to forego their cancer sticks and spend their lunch warm. Inari was sure that they normally smoked something other than tobacco on their breaks, and she knew for fact that they drank Irish coffee on store hours.
Kilbey pointed to his newspaper. “There was a stabbing.”
“There’s always a stabbing,” Inari said. “A shooting, a beating, an ass kicking. Something.” The florescent lights buzzed. “Always.”
“Oh, I didn’t know it was such a bad neighborhood,” Kilbey was back in the paper. “That’s sad.”
“Thanks.” She said it low, under her breath.
The store manager spoke up, honoring himself with bestowing them with his presence and soon his wisdom. “I’m not surprised,” he said. Brad. His name was Brad. Inari suspected he was a closet homo. “That rehab center down the street from it. That hospital, too.” He settled his eyes at Inari. “Not so much an apartment complex as a halfway house.”
Kilbey lowered his newspaper, his mousy eyes not wanting to stare. The two stockers laughed, one said, “Know a whore or two lives there.”
“Now, now,” Brad said, sipping his coffee.
Kilbey kept to his newspaper. “Home is home,” he squeaked. “You should see my place-”
“They’re right,” Inari said. “So are you, Kilbey. Home is home. Mercy Street Complex is home to second, third, and fourth and fifth chancers. Career losers.” She stood with her coffee and left the lounge.
Brad was at her heels. “Inari.”
She turned. His wrist was a little limp.
“Human Resources.” He seemed almost bashful now. “You, you got to pee in a cup. Your drug test.”
“And a Dr. Thaldsen-” a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt squelched. Brad turned away from her, talking to a tinny voice as he receded into the back tunnels of the low price super store.
The florescent lights flickered, buzzed, sank their fangs into her.
Kilbey was suddenly beside her. “I’m sorry if I, you know-”
“Don’t worry about it, Kilbey,” Inari said.
The white lights hummed with electricity. They reminded her of elementary school, on stormy days, the storm clouds, rain, howling wind, the lights were always whiter and brighter.
At the end of her shift, at eleven o’clock exactly because they weren’t allowed overtime, Inari walked from the Save-More Mart that she was sure was slowly and methodically killing her to her car to discover that it not only did not start on the third try, it didn’t start on the fifth or sixth or ninth tries even after she so sanguinely pleaded and begged and cursed it.
Kilbey knocked on her window. She had stopped her assault on the car and had become transfixed in those frozen moments on her snow and ice covered windows. She opened the car door.
“I can give you a lift,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
Inari followed him silently to his idling car across the snowdrifts and black ice of the parking lot. Much better than her own vehicle, clean. He has blue eyes, she thought, and still a pimple here and there but not too bad, but still younger than her, maybe too young, out of school, but still young, not that she was old, but Lord she felt five times the worse for wear.
The ride was silent, the town asleep. She didn’t have to tell him where the apartment complex was, he knew not only from the paper, it was common knowledge really. She only had to tell him which building, and even then she pointed and may have given a small grunt.
“Thank you,” Inari said, riffling through her purse for her keys.
“I can give you a lift to work tomorrow.”
She nodded, fumbled with the door handle. She forget to buy new gloves. “Would you like to come up? I know it’s late.” She noticed Kilbey’s hand twitch. “I have coffee. It’s not good coffee.” They were both silent.
“Sure,” Kilbey said.
Inari lead the way, guiding him through the hall and up the resonant stairwell. She unlocked her apartment door and clicked on the desk lamp that shed its feeble light just enough to illuminate the sofa. Kilbey sat and made himself comfortable, as best he could; his hands were jittery, he wanted to speak, but words were quenched.
“I don’t have a lot of guests,” Inari said from her kitchen, or more appropriately, her kitchenette.
“You have a nice place,” Kilbey said, mouth dry.
“It’s a fucking shit nest.” She sat two coffee mugs on the counter beside the sink. The coffee maker spit and sputtered. “But thank you for being nice.”
The coffee was timid. That’s best word Inari could think for it, but they drank it all the same in the ill lit apartment. They both clung to their mugs at separate ends of the sofa, and Inari was certain it was for very different reasons. The silence crept around them like the dark, but a warmth budded the outer fringes.
“I’m in a happy mood.”
Kilbey looked at her, “What?”
Inari glanced at her mug, then smiled at him, a half smile. Had she gone away for a split second, forgotten she had a guest?
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud like that. I, I didn’t mean to, I guess my mind was wandering.”
“It’s okay. We all wander.”
“I- Yeah,” she sighed. “I need to do some laundry.”
“My washing machine is fucked and I never seem to make it to the wash room. It’s in the center court.”
“Oh,” Kilbey scratched his head. “Do you want me to, to do your laundry?” He squinted in the gloom.
Inari laughed. “I just don’t want to go by myself.” She downed the last of her coffee. “Even in daylight. Some rough characters live here.”
“Yeah,” Kilbey said, “I’ve read about it.” His hands fidgeted with his cup.
She was up and disappeared in the darkness. She returned with a full laundry basket. “Get your coat.”
The courtyard was quiet, cars covered in snow. The surrounding buildings were presumably mostly asleep; windows were black eyes of slumber with a wakeful one here and there casting a glow.
The complex’s laundry room seethed like a dirty old man’s basement. No windows, and those damn florescent lights buzzing, flickering. Shadows were neck deep in the corners. The island of dryers were mostly out of order, and the washing machines along the wall worked sporadically. Inari’s clothes tumbled in one, sloshed in a churning maelstrom liquid detergent.
In the back area, a chain-link fence was erected, its door locked, guarding tools and garden equipment and the maintenance guy’s little desk and phone and computer.
Inari’s chair pushed against the fence, the chair legs screaming against the concrete. Her jeans lay crumpled on the floor beside her.
Kilbey glanced around, the air warm and chill, steamed. “What if someone walks in?”
Inari buried his face in her warmth and wetness. He delicately shoved aside her white cotton panties dotted with pink flowers, his tongue and nervous fingers probing and seeking, prodding.
The washing machine shook and rattled with the spin cycle.
Bursts of white light behind her eye lids. Starbursts in midnight skies, Fourth of July somewhere, someplace, long ago. A shooting star outside her bedroom window when she was twelve years old and trying to fall asleep in an upstairs room in a cramped suffocating house while her mother screamed and father swung his fists. Fractals projected on a distant velvet dark. Her limbs beyond control, muscles tightening, straining of their own accord.
A dryer door hung open. Inari caught a fleeting glimpse of their reflection in the glass. Kilbey on his knees on the tormenting floor between her legs, a famished man at his first meal in a fortnight. Her legs over his shoulders squeezing him tightly, her hands full of his hair, pulling, urging, closer, deeper. The glass door reflected her numb eyes, listless lips. The glass door showed his eagerness, awkwardness, and the two curling razor-tipped horns that grew from his head.
She woke at eight o’clock. The clouds had cleared and actual for-real sunshine sparkled. The white world was blinding.
Kilbey was still asleep on the sofa where he had insisted he bed down since she had insisted he stay. He was normal in sleep, in appearance. She shook the thoughts from her head that he was otherwise. Dreams, tricks of light, passion induced hallucinations.
In the kitchen (kitchenette) she brewed fresh coffee. Waiting on the coffee she picked up more dead leaves from the desk and noticed the flashing light of the answering machine. 2 new messages. She pressed the button. The first message blared: “This is Gale from Dr. Thaldsen’s office. Inari we need to speak with you about your current medications. You missed your last appointment and we need you to reschedule. We will have to charge you for not canceling with a twenty-four hour notice-”
She deleted the message. The next picked up immediately. “Inari, this is Gale-” Inari deleted it immediately.
Kilbey was still peaceful and normal and perfect on the sofa, breathing softly.
She poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. Kilbey stirred on the sofa, stretching, yawning. “Drink?” she held up the mug. “This. Or soda. One’s as bad as the other.”
“Coffee is fine,” he said, sitting up, wiping sleep from his eyes.
“Like I said, I don’t have a lot of guests. Sorry if my hostess skills are weak.”
“You’re a good hostess,” he took the mug, bashful.
“And last night wasn’t, you know, just for the ride home or anything. You’re nice to me all the time, Kilbey.”
He nodded, unable to meet her eyes. She found it clumsy to look into his.
“I guess I’ve had a crush on you for a while.”
“Thank you,” she said, hoping her small grin looked genuine. It felt genuine. “You just made me not feel so old.”
“You’re not old.”
“That’s what I tell myself.”
“You’re what, like thirty-two?”
“That’s not old,” he said. “I used to think that was old, but the older I become I realize now it’s not old at all.” He licked his lips, clenched the mug. “Not at all.”
“Twenty. In two months.”
Inari sank into the sofa. “Not even old enough to drink.”
“I’ve gotten drunk before.”
“Drunk for fun, not necessity. When I was nineteen I was…God, I was tied down. Kilbey you ever wake up on a daily basis and realize you’ve been tied down your whole life? Anchored by some goddamn monkey on your back from day one. Monkey after monkey.”
His response was soft. “No.”
“Of course not. You will when you’re thirty-five.” She could turn the television on, but why? “You ever want to kill your parents for naming you ‘Kilbey’?”
“No, I never. No.”
The cold floor chilled her feet all the way to kitchen cabinet. She took down her medicine organizer. Inari opened the Wednesday compartment and tossed the pills in her mouth, chasing them with coffee.
“What are those?”
“Just pills I’m told to take.”
“Are you sick?” Kilbey stood in the kitchen doorway.
“No,” she said. “They just make me not want to kill myself. Everybody should take them.”
They had a breakfast of instant noodles because she didn’t have any proper food; reviewing her cupboards revealed instant noodles, cans of soup, and molded bread. The refrigerator had cough medicine and an open deodorizing box of baking soda.
“Do you really want to kill yourself?”
They sat at opposing ends of the sofa, again, eating their substantially mediocre morning meal from the only two bowls she in her possession; hers she had to rinse in the sink. “No,” she said. “But I’ve been on a downward spiral before.”
Kilbey didn’t comment. He slurped his noodles.
“But there have a been plenty of times,” Inari continued, “that I just didn’t want to live anymore.”
He was hesitant, but asked, “Why?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged her shoulders. She stirred the spoon through the limp muck. “Sometimes I just want it all to stop. Maybe go to sleep and not wake up, you know. But I guess I’m a coward, too afraid to do anything about it.”
“No, I don’t know. I’ve never wished that I would just die.”
Their spoons clinking bowls filled the silence. Was he a mistake? She couldn’t help staring at him, stealing glimpses when his eyes were occupied, looking for the horns.
“Where do you live, Kilbey?”
He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth; she had no napkins or paper towels, and didn’t think to offer a wash cloth or bath towel, of which she didn’t have many. “I live with my Aunt Rhoda. In her basement.”
“What about your parents?”
“I can’t live with them. I, I actually killed them for naming me ‘Kilbey’ years ago.”
Inari said, “I think we both need to work on our jokes.”
“I do too.” He paused, then said, “I probably shouldn’t say thank you, but, you know. I just, I get, I tend to get nervous around girls. Women.”
“Me too. I’ve never fit in with the rest of the gals. Hell, the boys neither for that fact. Truth, I had friends because we were all high. Took the awkwardness away. I really don’t have friends.”
“You have me, we’re friends,” he said.
“That’s so greeting card,” she smiled. “Thank you. And you’re welcome.”
Aunt Rhoda was some kind of business lawyer, Kilbey wasn’t really clear on that, he may not have known for sure what she did, or Inari may not have paid full attention to what he had said. Her house was in a pricey neighborhood and she felt like a leper just passing by the place.
The upstairs restroom was a designer affair, as was the whole house, inside and out, the furnishings most likely cost more than Inari made in four years time. She was afraid to sit down on the toilet to pee, so she hovered above it, even though she knew it was not good to do so, for fear of marring the glistening porcelain.
She wandered the upstairs, wondering why Aunt Rhoda kept her nephew in the basement when there were plenty of apparently unused rooms up here. Rooms clean, beds neatly, tightly, made, closets empty. And coming from all this, why did Kilbey work at Save-More Mart? She was sure he could have gotten a better job, Aunt Rhoda had enough degrees and certificates hanging on her bedroom walls she could have gotten her nephew into any college and/or employment and rescued him from retail.
Inari noticed no dust on Aunt Rhoda’s bedroom furniture, the pictures neatly aligned on her bureau and walls. Her clothes hung crisp in the closet, shoes organized by color, no clutter on the shelves. Did Aunt Rhoda do this herself, or did she pay someone to come into her house and sort her personal effects into a mannered collection?
The bushy haired woman in the photos was Aunt Rhoda, Inari reckoned. Kilbey’s curly mania atop his head must be hereditary.
Kilbey was in the basement room, stretched out on a bean bag chair. Patio doors let full light in, and let out onto an enormous back yard that disappeared into a wooded area. Posters plastered the wall, most of musical bands and performers Inari had never heard of, a couple she recognized. A mattress lay on the floor in the corner.
“Why did she stick you in the basement?”
“Well it’s a nice basement,” he said.
“Sure, but still, it’s like your a dirty little secret.”
“This is just where she put me. She loves the basement, it was her entertaining area. She moved the wet bar upstairs.”
“Bummer,” Inari whispered.
Kilbey looked at his watch, a nice watch obviously a gift from Aunt Rhoda. “What time do you normally get ready for work?”
“Fuck work, we’re not going today.”
“We’re not going?”
She sat beside the bean bag on the posh carpet. “What about your parents?”
“They died. And I didn’t kill them.”
“I figured you didn’t,” she said. “How did they die?”
“A plane crash. Five years ago.”
“I didn’t know.” She leaned against the chair. “At least you turned out okay.”
“What about your parents?”
“My mom is dead,” Inari said. “My dad. God I don’t know, I hope he’s dead.”
“Really?” The sentiment disturbed Kilbey.
“God yeah. He was a fucker. Born a fucker, stayed a fucker. One mean dickhead. A real bastard. If is dead, or when he dies, I want to know where he’s buried just so I can piss on his grave.”
Kilbey was speechless.
“He was one of those monkeys that clung to my back and tried to fucking beat the shit out of me.”
“Everybody is,” she said. She turned to him, smiling.
The horns were on his head, dripping blood onto his pallid skin. His eyes were deep set black voids.
“Fuck!” she scrambled away, turning to stand. When she looked back on him, he was standing to his feet.
“What is it?” he said, flustered. He was normal again.
“I think I need to lay down,” she breathed heavy. “I don’t feel well all of a sudden.”
“What, I don’t, are-”
“Just stop!” Inari yelled and Kilbey became instantly silent. Softly she said, “Just give me a minute.”
She heart quickened. No, not hers, his. She heard it beating faster, faster, clear as church bells.
“Do you need something?” he asked, tentative. “Water? Aspirin?”
She screamed at him, “I don’t need any goddamn aspirin!”
He backed up, hands showing. “Okay, okay. I was just trying to help.”
“Just let me-” she said running her hands through her hair, “just stop. Let me think.” She sighed. “A glass of water, please.”
Kilbey ran upstairs.
Light flickered at the periphery of her eyes. The smell of baked bread fresh from Granny Guman’s oven. White light and haloes in the air.
There was a phone on a table beside the bed. She picked it up and dialed a number she didn’t know she remembered.
The line rang at the other end, a click, a hum, white noise then “Inari” and she threw the phone against the wall. Something had said her name on the other end. A deep voice. A knowing voice. Not human. couldn’t have been human. The voice growled in her head, rattled chains across the plains of Hell ensnared with gore and human remains slashing razors through flesh.
She heard Kilbey’s feet coming down the stairs, determined, worried, they echoed through a cinder block hallway with cement floors, the kind of sound that wakes forgotten things and digs deep in the bones.
“Here,” he said. She knew he had fetched the water like a good little boy (that’s all he was really what the fuck was wrong with her) but she wouldn’t look at him, she kept her eyes shut tightly.
In that personal darkness his voice was sweet as honey but it couldn’t save her from the fires that raged. She saw the horrible dimensions his body possessed, the horns elongated, a scarf of torn skin blowing about them. “Inari.” She felt his touch, his hand at her elbow.
“I don’t want it, I don’t care what I said.”
She heard him sat the glass down. A glass of water, ice crackled.
She didn’t have to open her eyes to know he was staring down at her, tall, crimson, magnificent in his satanic majesty.
His voice had changed. Inside her head now. The voice that she found somehow, or it found her.
“All the Devil requires is acquiescence…not struggle, not conflict. Acquiescence.”
Did she say that? Did he? It? She didn’t know anymore.
She was on her knees. Eyes closed, she reached for him.