Illustration by Brittain Peck

He didn’t tell me about the cemetery. Three-bedroom, two baths, Craftsman-style, yes. Quarter acre. I’d pictured a yard with a tire swing, not tombstones. I stood on the deck with my hands on my hips, bottom lip between my teeth. My morning coffee soured in my stomach. It was an old cemetery, mossy and uneven. I began to count the worn, crooked stones, trying to get a sense of how many were back there. I stopped when I realized I didn’t want to know.

I could hear the Realtor’s effervescent laugh through the sliding glass doors. Doyle was being charming. He probably didn’t realize she only laughed on commission. She knew she had him. His heart was set on this house and she knew I would do whatever he wanted. I was lucky to have him.

I inhaled the sweet, suburban air. How could there be so much of it? All clean and fresh, like velvet in my lungs. For so long I’d been set on staying in a city with air that smelled like hot garbage, air that my body rejected. I hadn’t taken a deep breath in eight years.

About six months ago, right after Doyle proposed, I was standing on the subway platform flipping through a month-old copy of Time Out New York when a man came up behind me with a knife and cut my face. I felt a sting unfurl on my cheek. My blood was warm, I had to spit it from my mouth. I brought my hand up to explore. I won’t forgive what I felt.

In the hospital, Doyle kissed my stitches and told me I was beautiful. He said it was time to leave the city. He said everything would be fine. He said, “You’ll see.”

I turned around for another look at the house. I saw potential. Liters of paint. Window treatments. Area rugs. Landscaping. An herb garden I could defend from rabbits. A porch swing. A dog, maybe. A big fluffy one, with a tongue long and pink as strawberry taffy. A home gym in the half-finished basement. I could do laundry whenever I wanted, no quarters required. Doyle offered to convert the dining room into an office. My office. I could frame my diplomas and hang them above my desk like a psychiatrist. All these things I could see. A home.

“Joanie?” Doyle said, poking his head outside.

“Coming.”

*

I used the move as an opportunity to purge myself of stuff. I interrogated everything I owned.

“Blue Velvet Mini Skirt, I bought you at a stoop sale in Queens, have I ever worn you? Is that a stain? Do you even fit?”

“Box of Linty Ticket Stubs, how much sentimental value do you really hold? Hmm?”

“Souvenir Shot Glasses, what do you have to say for yourselves?”

I went through my things one by one and asked myself if they brought me joy. The answer was always no. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

Doyle did not philosophize. He made progress. He made labels. He made lists. Lists of what we needed and what we needed to throw away and what we needed to donate. Lists of things we had to get at Home Depot. We made lists of things we forgot to get at Home Depot, for next time. We had a plan for what boxes would go where, but they all went in the living room. We had promised ourselves we would sort them out move-in day, but we were too tired. That first night in the house we ordered pizza and ate it on the kitchen floor.

“To being home,” Doyle said. We clinked the necks of our celebratory beers. It was dark by then, and I startled when the light outside on the deck flicked on.

“Motion detection,” he said. “I can change that.”

“It’s so quiet here.”

“We’ll get used to it.”

“I hope so. I don’t want to be the kind of person who needs a sound machine.”

He laughed, reached out to swipe his thumb across my chin like he did sometimes to show affection. I turned my face away. I didn’t want to be touched there anymore.

“Joanie.”

I looked outside at the light stretching past the wild, neglected grass, over the scrawny chain-link fence, out to the first few rows of tombstones. Doyle and I never talked about the cemetery. I felt it needed to be acknowledged.

“What do you think of the cemetery?” I asked him.

He gnawed on a crescent-moon of pizza crust, “What about it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “That it’s there.”

His forehead crinkled, “Do I need to get you a night-light?”

I handed him a paper towel, “Very funny. You have sauce on your lip.”

The light went out and the cemetery disappeared.

*

I couldn’t fall asleep in the quiet. It mocked me. I could hear a clock ticking even though there wasn’t a clock, but maybe there was. Was there a clock?

It didn’t bother Doyle, who slept hard, as usual, still and silent. When we first started dating, I would check his pulse at night.

Worse than the quiet was my thirst. I sighed and kicked my legs free of the sheets.

In the dark, the house was foreign to me. It wasn’t particularly big, but I couldn’t remember which way to turn to get to the stairs or where I should go when I got to the bottom. There were walls where I didn’t remember them, shadows skulking in corners, rooms with closed doors that should have been open. As I descended the steps there was a sensation like a change in cabin pressure. This is my house, I thought. This is my house.

The darkness moved. My eyes invented shapes as they adjusted from blackest to black. I shuffled my feet across the floor, narrowly avoiding cardboard boxes. Furniture teetered in unexpected places, waiting impatiently to be arranged. My throat complained. I needed a glass, the fridge, the Brita filter.

The dark dissipated and the kitchen slowly took form. The deck light was on. Something must have set it off. A rodent, I suspected. Not a rat, this wasn’t New York. A chipmunk, maybe. Something cute and woodland and that might have harmonized with me if I were still pretty.

I found a used glass on the counter, opened the fridge to discover the Brita empty. I didn’t trust the tap water, so I grabbed a beer instead, popped it open, poured it down my throat. That’s when I looked out the window.

I blinked twice, figured it must have been the angle. I almost went straight upstairs but the image caught up to me, digging its heels into my brain.

I paused in front of the sliding glass doors, squinting.

There was something standing in the middle of the cemetery. It was the height of a person, but it wasn’t a person. Or it was, once.

It was a skeleton.

Milky white bones stacked upright. It was far enough away but it was looking at me. Right at me.

The scream died in my mouth. What came out was more of a dull yelp. I scrambled toward the door to make sure it was locked, spun around and ran upstairs. It was easy to find my way back; panic is a good guide. I locked the bedroom door and curled up next to Doyle. I considered waking him up, but what would I say? There’s a skeleton in the yard?

Of course! There were hundreds of skeletons in our yard. But they were supposed to be underground.

*

I managed to abandon the image in my sleep. I woke up the next morning unburdened. I brushed my teeth, made coffee, kissed Doyle goodbye. My time off work started as medical leave. Two weeks medical leave. But when the two weeks passed, I couldn’t bring myself to go back. I worked as a beauty editor for an online magazine. All I saw all day were faces.

And people were bad at pretending not to notice. I quit.

Doyle was supportive. He could afford to be. He had a fancy finance job that he genuinely loved. He loved wearing suits, he loved…numbers? He explained what he did a thousand times, but I never really understood. Or I never really listened.

He said I could take time to figure out what I wanted to do next, a new project. A blog, maybe. I could work from home.

The house was my world now.

I was unpacking dishes when it came back to me. It was so vivid in my mind and it stunned me so much that I lost my grip and dropped a plate. It chipped but didn’t shatter.

Once, when I was in high school, I had a nightmare that a man with a chainsaw broke into my house and cut my head open. When the blade came down between my eyes the dream went dark and I woke up to a splitting headache, my ears filled with the horrible whirring sound. I was paralyzed in my bed for what felt like a long time, trying to figure out whether or not I was dead.

I was capable of having such an intensely realistic dream. And that’s all the skeleton was, a dream. Or a manifestation of PTSD.

I set the plate in its rightful place and reached for my phone. I dialed Reagan, who had gone to part-time after her wedding and would inevitably be around. She answered right away.

“Moving back yet?” she asked.

“Not quite. I’m unpacking.”

“Boo,” she said. “I miss you. I’m bored.”

“If you’re bored come out and visit me.”

“Yeah. Soon, honey. Soon.”

Reagan was my closest friend. We met sneaking out of freshman orientation at NYU and she’d been a constant in my life ever since. She was adamantly against me leaving the city, deeming it a form of giving up. Letting him win, the man who cut me.

She wasn’t an empathetic person. It was her best and worst quality.

“Why don’t you come in to the city?” she asked.

“You know why,” I said.

“You can’t never come back. That’s crazy.”

“Is it?”

She sighed into the receiver and it was like she was next to me. I leaned into an imagined whiff of her peppermint and tobacco breath.

“Someday,” I said. “Not right now.”

“Okay, okay.”

By the time we hung up I’d finished unpacking the kitchen. I opened the sliding doors, stepped barefoot out onto the deck. The elms yawned in the breeze. I eyed the dandelions, wondering if I should pluck them from the ground instead of leaving them for Doyle to decapitate with the lawnmower.

I scanned the horizon for skeletons. I laughed at myself.

*

“How was your day?” Doyle asked, a strand of spaghetti hanging limp out the corner of his mouth.

“Fine,” I said. “Got a of unpacking lot done.”

“House looks great, babe. Feel like home yet?”

“Eh. I feel isolated. I think I need Internet.”

“Monday.”

“I know,” I said, the words coming out fast and cold, leaving a chill on my tongue.

Doyle looked up at me, his eyes two big green orbs. Sometimes I forgot he was a beautiful man. My friends would tell me how lucky I was. They couldn’t say it anymore, even though it was the truth. Maybe because it was the truth.

He reached out and put his hand on my wrist, “It’ll feel like home soon, I promise.”

“You’re right.”

He was good to me. It was hard for me to understand how he could look at me and be so good. Was it pity?

He offered to do the dishes so I could take a bath, test out our new tub. He sent me upstairs with a book of matches and bottle of Chianti. I couldn’t find candles, but I did find bath salts. I poured them into the tub and watched the water turn a murky pink. I stepped in. The thrill of the heat coursed through me, reminding me of my body. Steam consumed my feet. I lowered myself down until I was on my back and the water came over my head.

I wondered what would happen if I stayed there, underwater, where no one could see me. I would grow gills, I thought. No, some other voice said, you would drown.

I ran my fingers over the scar, the puckered surface of my skin. It felt worse wet. I brought my head up and rested it on the back of the tub.

The wine made me sleepy. I left my towel damp on the bathroom floor and rolled into bed. Doyle came in at some point, scooching me over, trying to lift me to get at the sheets. The movement sent me into the space between sleep and consciousness. I got stuck there.

That’s when the memory of the Skeleton came back again, along with the need to prove to myself it wasn’t there.

I floated downstairs, ready to look outside and see nothing, send myself back to bed. But the light was on again and an anxiety splintered in my gut.

I stepped closer to the doors, my arm reaching out for the lock just in case.

The Skeleton stood in the same place as it had the night before.

The shock was a hand around my neck. I didn’t try to convince myself it wasn’t there because it was. I was seeing it. I was lucid. Maybe a little buzzed, but my thoughts were clear. There was a Skeleton in my yard.

And it was waving at me.

Waving like a neighbor.

And, to my horror, I realized I was waving back.

*

I begged Doyle to take me into the city with him the next day.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.

I saw myself wandering, loitering in coffee shops, people-watching in crowded parks, making conversation with strangers. Leading on salespeople. In my vision, I looked the way I used to, because I could do those things with my former face. With undisturbed skin.

The reality of it would be different. New Yorkers see crazy things every day, but they aren’t above staring. I learned that in the weeks after the hospital but before the move, shuffling back and forth to doctor’s appointments with Doyle, my cheek covered in white gauze, my big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, a hat, looking like the Invisible Man.

I learned that on the subway platform, on my knees clutching my face, blood spilling out onto the cover of the magazine I’d been too busy reading to notice the guy noticing me.

“It happened so fast,” I heard a shrill woman tell the police whenever they arrived, which felt like hours later but must have only been a few minutes.

One officer squatted down beside me.

“Miss,” he said. “Miss?”

I looked up at him, but it wasn’t him. It was Doyle. His hair was artfully styled, his tie perfectly straight.

“It’s too late for me to take off work. I have a meeting I can’t move,” he said. “I’d rather be with you for it. We’ll go soon. Spend the day together.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d already given up on the idea, but I resented feeling like I needed his permission. I locked myself in the bathroom until I heard the garage door shut.

I paced the house looking for something to do. We’d hired painters before moving in, the walls were all done in mutually agreed shades of cream and gray and mint. Doyle insisted on hanging the artwork, building the new furniture, installing the blinds. He wanted to. He bought tools. I wasn’t going to argue over manual labor.

Still no Internet. I couldn’t so much as browse for accent pillows.

I went through my books, my closet. I was too bored to be interested in anything.

I made myself coffee and sprawled on the couch, started a movie on my laptop. I called Reagan but she didn’t pick up. I switched to wine.

I took a blanket outside on the deck and sat there watching the cemetery.

“Hello?” I shouted.

I wondered if, in the light of day, the Skeleton saw my face and was scared of me.

I went back inside. I took three sleeping pills and tucked myself in.

The world went foggy until it went dark, and it stayed dark until about 3 a.m. I had a brutal headache and needed to use the bathroom so badly I could have cried. I stumbled into the bathroom, took some aspirin. I realized I was starving.

I made my way down to the kitchen, flipped on the light and foraged the fridge for some leftover spaghetti. I ate it cold with my fingers.

My eyes drifted over to the light switch, then to the vertical blinds installed on the sliding glass doors. Doyle must have put them up when he got home from work. I studied the edges to see if there was any light coming in from outside.

I put the pasta down, wiped my hands on a crumpled dish rag.

I found the wand and pulled, sweeping the blinds over to one side.

It was a horrible sound. A high-pitched, split-second screech.

The Skeleton was on the other side of the glass, so close that if it weren’t for the door we could kiss. I pulled the wand back, ran upstairs and hid in the bathroom. I vomited into the sink.

I sat on the edge of the tub until my breath evened and the room stopped spinning. I opened the cabinet beneath the sink and got a spare roll of paper towels and shower cleaner. I turned on the faucet and began to clean up my mess.

*

There were eggs. Scrambled and hardboiled, with toast, bacon. Mimosas. Doyle surprised me with breakfast in bed. He said he had another surprise for me. It filled me with dread. I don’t like surprises; they’re full of assumption. I hoped it wasn’t a wedding-related surprise. It was like him to do something impulsive without checking with me.

“It’s in the garage,” he said.

Bikes. He got us bikes.

“Oh!” I said, falling over him with relief. “Thank you!”

“Remember I told you about the trail nearby? You’re going to love it.”

It was a warm, cloudless day. I pedaled fast thinking I could catch up to something, other bikers, people walking their dogs, the end of the trail. But the path just kept going, on and on under a canopy of trees, the leaves gossiping above me in quick whispers.

Sometimes Doyle got tired and lagged behind and I wouldn’t stop to wait for him. Don’t all magical things happen when you’re alone in the woods, I asked myself, before hearing the snap of twigs, Doyle panting behind me.

We stopped at a fork in the path.

“It’s not a race,” he said, handing me his water bottle. I’d finished mine.

“You wouldn’t say so if you were winning.”

He made a face.

“You know,” he said, “now that we’re in the house we should start thinking about a date for the wedding.”

“I’m not ready,” I said, so loudly I sent birds and small animals scurrying away.

“All right,” he said. “Okay.”

I had minimal interest in wedding planning before, but now the mention of it made me sick. I hated being looked at. Why would I want to walk down an aisle? What was he thinking?

“Come on,” I said, tossing him his water bottle. “Maybe you can beat me on the way back.”

Later, I watched Doyle cook chicken legs on the grill inches away from where the Skeleton stood the night before. I stepped onto the deck, put my feet where its feet were. I beckoned back the feeling, the one in the moment I thought was fear. I hadn’t expected for it to be so close. I was startled but I wasn’t afraid. In retrospect, I was never really afraid of it. I waved to it.

There was the possibility I didn’t truly believe in it, that I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, so I treated it with the arms-length’s curiosity of a strange, recurring dream.

“What are you doing?” Doyle asked me.

“Nothing,” I said, stepping back from the doors. “You need help?”

After dinner and after Doyle had gone upstairs, I cleaned up in the kitchen.

I unlocked the sliding glass doors.

*

I waited all night, listened for the whoosh of the doors opening, the whistle of wind, bones clanking up the steps. There was nothing like that, only the low buzz of bugs outside and the occasional coo from Doyle. I drifted in and out of a feathery sleep, resigning myself to morning at around 6:30, just as the first hint of sunlight flirted with the curtains.

On my way downstairs for coffee, I thought about how ridiculous it was that I was obsessing over something that clearly wasn’t real, and I would have gone on chastising myself, with increasingly cruelty, if it weren’t for the Skeleton sitting at the kitchen table.

“Hello,” I said to it.

It didn’t say anything back.

“Want some coffee?”

I found the filters–Doyle had moved them again–and began to scoop the grounds in. I put in an extra because I needed the caffeine.

“Hope you don’t mind it strong.”

I picked out my favorite mug for Skeleton. It had painted flowers on it. Daffodils.

“I’ll give it to you black. If you want milk, I’ll leave it here.”

Skeleton looked at me with two big empty sockets.

I poured the coffee, set our mugs down, sat across the table, contemplated the number of sweetener packets I required.

“Excuse me for a minute,” I said, going to hunt for more Stevia in the pantry.

When I got back, it was Doyle at the table.

“Thanks for the coffee, Joanie,” he said. “Why’s the door open?”

*

“When are you coming back to the city?” Reagan asked. “We miss you.”

“Soon.”

“You think you’ll get married here or out there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you picked a date yet?”

“No.”

“I could see you doing a winter wedding. Like, forest green and maroon. Baby’s breath in your hair.”

“I’m allergic to this conversation.”

“You’re just overwhelmed. I’ll help you. It’ll be fun!”

“Reagan.”

“Joan. You need something else to focus on. You need to move on.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

I took a nap. I slept through dinner and woke up after Doyle was asleep. I went downstairs and made myself peanut butter on toast.

I waited. I sat on the kitchen floor with a blanket draped over my shoulders like I was some kind of hero, a bottle of vodka cold between my thighs, my eyes on the cemetery. Come back, I asked, I begged. But Skeleton didn’t show.

*

It stopped raining shy of midnight. The ground was slick and soft. I climbed over the fence and walked to where it had been.

“Hello?”

I thought I saw it standing in the kitchen, looking through the sliding glass doors, looking at me.

*

My eyes were bloodshot. I picked at the crust that formed in the corners overnight, clogging my tear ducts.

“Why are your shoes so muddy?”

“What?”

Doyle was leaning against the doorframe, fussing with his cufflinks.

“Your shoes,” he said. “They’re by the sliders. They’re covered in mud. Did you go out yesterday?”

“Yeah,” I said. “There was a stray cat.”

“Why are you chasing stray cats?”

“I wasn’t chasing.”

“You want a cat?”

“No.”

“Puppy?”

I liked dogs, but dogs liked bones.

“Not right now.”

“No puppy?”

“No. Does that make me evil?”

He shrugged.

“You should wash those shoes,” he said, before kissing me on the forehead and leaving for work.

I went back to sleep after he left, rising again at noon, lazing around in tangled sheets scrolling through old photos on my phone until my stomach howled. My hunger outbid my lethargy and I went downstairs for food.

On my way to the kitchen I saw the TV was on, the volume so low I assumed it was my thoughts echoing inside my head. I craned my neck to see Skeleton on the couch flipping channels.

I made us Irish coffees, went into the living room and sat down on the couch next to it.

“Hey,” I said. “You’re back.”

We started watching an HGTV show called “Mega Decks” about really big decks.

“I can’t believe this is a show,” I said to Skeleton.

We laughed about it.

When it was over, I decided to tell Skeleton about the attack.

I recounted the red on my hands, on the magazine, on the dirty subway platform, spotted with decade-old gum and my blood.

I told Skeleton about how I went to the best plastic surgeon in New York. I was denied a mirror. I was told I should wait. I’ll never forget the way the nurse’s voice sounded when she told me it would get better. Reagan’s when she told me it wasn’t that bad.

And Doyle’s when he kept telling me I was beautiful. Over and over again like he was trying to convince himself.

Then there was the first time I saw my new face. The pink mess across my left cheek, about three inches long, thick, raised, violent. He severed a nerve so even when I smiled, I didn’t look the same.

“I’ll never know why he did it,” I said to Skeleton. “Why he wanted to hurt me. Why he hated me. He ruined my face, and I’ll never know why.”

There was no response, only a feeling. I knew then, sure as I’d ever known anything, that finally, finally, someone understood.

*

When Doyle got home, he found me passed out on the couch. He put his hand on my shoulder and nudged me until I opened my eyes.

“Wake up,” he said. “I’m taking you out.”

“Where?”

“Dinner. Get dressed.”

“You want to go out?”

“Yes,” he answered, with a sort of finality that prevented me from objecting

I put on a pretty dress to appease him. I put on mascara, lipstick. I wore my hair down, brushed it forward so it fell in my face. It didn’t cover it, but it was the best I could do. I didn’t linger in the mirror. It was easier to lie to myself.

We went to an Italian place in an adjacent town. The whole menu was in Italian and the waiters were dark and handsome and also Italian. I let Doyle pick the wine. I watched as he swirled it in his glass, gulped it down. He gave a nod of approval.

“I’ve never seen anyone taste wine and send it back,” I said. “Does anyone ever send it back?”

He shrugged.

It wasn’t until our entrees arrived that he brought up the wedding.

“I was thinking that hotel in Beacon. Remember the one we stayed in? It’s got the waterfall outside?”

“For what?”

“The venue.”

“Oh.”

“Did you have somewhere else in mind?”

“No,” I said.

“I’ll call. I’ll set it up.”

“Okay.”

The wine was no longer enough. I ordered a vodka.

I waited until we were in the car. I cleared my throat, “I don’t want to plan the wedding yet. I told you I’m not ready.”

“Fuck, Joanie,” he said, slamming his fists down on the dashboard, an abrupt end to months of seemingly boundless patience. “You can’t let this take over your life. It’s not even that bad! And I’m sorry, but I can’t keep watching you sit around and feel sorry for yourself. It’s not you.”

It is me, I wanted to say. It’s my face.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what else to do. Sex was expected because of the dinner, and because we hadn’t since moving in. Our sex life had been derailed by the attack. Before, we were one of those insufferable couples who couldn’t keep our hands off each other. I couldn’t imagine ever getting back there, being like that again. Because now all I wanted was to forget my body, climb out of my skin.

As soon as we walked in the door, he slipped his tongue too deep in my mouth, kissed me with too much bottom lip. He had both hands on my face, fingers grazing my scar. I cringed.

His stubble burned. He carried me upstairs, tossed me down on the bed like a suitcase. My dress stayed on. The room spun.

After it was over, I went into the bathroom and took a hot shower. I could stay in here forever, I thought, I could sink into the drain. I could grow gills. Live underwater where no one could see me. I could burrow underground like a worm. Live in the dirt. Feel nothing, forget everything.

I turned the water off and grabbed a towel. I could only hide for so long.

I couldn’t stay buried.

*

My headache woke me. The ruthless result of the wine/vodka combination. I stretched my limbs, opened the drawer of my bedside table for the fifth I stashed there as a hangover cure, and for my pills. There was weight in bed next to me. I raised a stubborn eyelid.

“Doyle are you up? You’re late for work.”

He didn’t say anything.

“Doyle?”

I turned over.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s you.”

I inched closer, so close that my nose was almost where its nose used to be. I put my hand on the curve of its ribcage. I traced its pale outline with my fingertips. Clavicle, sternum, femur, spine.

I barely noticed the smell.

I said, “Let’s count your teeth.”

And I listened to the whisper of the bones beside me, telling me everything I’d ever wanted to hear.

Rachel Harrison

Rachel Harrison’s debut novel THE RETURN will be published on March 24 by Berkley.

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