By Daphne Fama
He killed her in the bathroom of an Amoco gas station on a lonely stretch of Route 301 somewhere between South Carolina and Georgia in 1988. It was the sort of bathroom you needed a key to get into. The type that’s outside in the back, a broom closet with a depressing, cracked porcelain throne and no soap, piss stains engrained in the cement floor.
She’d gone in, not knowing she needed a key, at 3:44 in the morning. She’d been making great time, and if she kept at it, she’d be sitting at her parents’ table in Tampa eating breakfast and sipping coffee at 10 a.m. at the latest. Her girlfriend would follow her down a few days later, and the four of them would maybe go to Orlando. See Disney World, maybe go to the White Wolf Café after. And once her parents saw how happy she was with her, she’d come out.
The fear of being shouted out the door, losing both parents in an instance. That’s where her mind was at when he followed her in shortly after, key in hand, completely surprised to find her hovering over the throne, pastel shorts taut around her calves so they wouldn’t touch the perpetually damp floor. He’d been flummoxed, tripping over apologies, half-way stumbling out.
But he froze instead at the threshold, clutching the key like a talisman, its metal tag biting into the palms of his hand.
The too-yellow light of the bare bulb fell on her just right. And there, looking angry and impatient, she reminded him of his wife. He’d even called her by that name—Patricia—his voice rising up like a question. As if she was already a ghost come back to haunt him.
But Patricia was alive. Alive and well with her sister and their son, who she spirited away before he could come crawling back after one of his month-long binges. Because their boy was better off with her and her sister than him, a miserable drunk who hadn’t been able to keep a job down since his own dad died two years before.
He’d been on another bender before an empty bank account sent him home. He meant to only be there for a few hours, just long enough to pull they money he knew his wife kept stashed beneath their mattress, then maybe lay some pipe and give his son a kiss on the cheek. But instead, his car crept a driveway to a dark house. Electricity long shut off, water and gas too. Bills overflowed the open mouth of his mailbox. But what had broken him was seeing his little boy’s room emptied out. Nothing left but the white shadow of where pictures had hung, and the crayon scrawls across the wall that Patricia had never managed to fully wipe away. Didn’t matter how much she scrubbed.
He knew he shouldn’t be surprised. Patricia had practically been forced down the aisle when they got married, their little boy already baking in her oven. But that didn’t stop the first coals of anger from burning at the pit of his stomach as he got back in his car and drove down Route 301, stopping at every bar along the way, running up tabs and maxing out cards, trying to drink up the courage to get on up to South Carolina and track her down. Bring both the boy and her back home, kicking and screaming if he had to.
She just happened to catch him in the thick of it, alcohol bleeding from his pores and his vision blurred.
When Patricia screamed at him to get out of the little bathroom, that had been the hair-trigger. He was on her like a whip.
It was a slap, just a slap. To get her to stop shouting. But that hadn’t stopped it at all. She lunged at him with frenzied limbs and manicured nails, tearing at him like a cougar fighting for its life.
That took him by surprise, and his body tensed up, wound up, like he’d been caught in another bar fight. He came at her just as fast and hard as he would one of the men in those dark, sticky dives. Places that’d been more home to him than that shitty little suburb house had ever been.
His punches came fast, born from a place of hate, until the cement walls were splattered red. Blood sizzled on the hanging bulb. His knuckles fractured. Something in her face did too. She stopped screaming, her voice instead breaking around disjointed, rambling pleas. But he was too far gone for that. Jim Bean was whispering a little too loud in his ear for him to hear her, and the beer had turned his hands hungry. He kept on until his arms were aching, until even his back was sore, and then he dunked her headfirst into the toilet, holding her under until she choked to death on the soup of acidic yellow and pink.
The teenager behind the desk didn’t notice him bustle off. Seventeen and already jaded, he had his discman strapped to his waist, his headphones blaring Cheap Trick as he stocked shelves. Her body wouldn’t be discovered until 9 a.m., still draped over the rim of the toilet. When the police came to question the cashier, he only managed to give a passing description of the man who came in, reeking of stale smoke and alcohol.
Dark brown or black hair, definitely starting to bald. A thick moustache. A beer belly that protruded like a woman nine months pregnant. Sweat stains on his chest and at the pits, but he couldn’t recall the color of the shirt. Navy, maybe green? And the car? He couldn’t recall at all. After the man strolled out of the shop, he’d promptly forgot about him.
But she remembered. She remembered all too well precisely what he looked like when she woke again in the bathroom. The first time she stirred was when they removed her body. She stuck to the dark corners of the ceiling, amongst the layers of dust and spiderwebs. Tenuous and vibrating. It felt like it’d only take a breeze to dislodge her, but she was stickier than that. She stared down at her empty body as uniformed men laid her out on a stretcher. Blood pooled in her face, turning the bright apples of her cheek into plums.
It hadn’t seemed real then. But it didn’t seem real now, either.
After that, she woke periodically, like a tundra thawing after a long winter.
She existed only where her blood had been embedded into the pores of the wall, the floor, and ceiling. She was not a whole thing, but something in pieces. A body with its limbs missing, with every part of her full of yearning for the rest of herself. She clung to the walls, to the ceiling, to the bulb where her blood had burnt to blackness and watched and waited.
She could guess the seasons by the type of people that came in. Children and tired women with tired smiles meant summer had come, and a beach holiday was in order. Or maybe camping. Fall brought couples bundled up, ready to see the leaves. Winter brought the homeless, who were traveling down South to escape the cold. Follow Route 301 long enough and it’d take you all the way to Sarasota. Quiet, but a little slice of Paradise amongst the retirees.
Years passed, full of seasons, full of families and lonely people on a highway whose end she never saw. And still, she woke and slept and watched and waited.
On that night in 1988, Jeffrey had walked, hands shaking, back to his rusty old Ford Escort. His hands burned as he pulled open the door, but he ignored it as he sat behind the wheel of his car, knuckles bleeding, staring straight ahead at the stretch of Route 301.
But the longer he sat, the more panic built, and he drove away. From that Amoco gas station, from Patricia, choking on toilet water. From the teenager with his back to him, his head bobbing away to some song.
And he kept going, gunning it through Blackville, then Springville. Working his way up until his car was sputtering on fumes and dawn came creeping on the horizon, turning the black of night to grey, making the blood on his hands impossible to ignore.
He pulled his car over in a truck stop parking lot, as far from the road as he could get. He sat there, bug-eyed, staring towards the highway, waiting for the flashing lights. They never came. He fell asleep behind the wheel, sitting straight up. His spine a jagged line, scarlet-stained hands in his lap. He stayed that way until the truck stop seemed quietest. Its asphalt stretched a swatch of black ocean against a forest of pine trees, the big lanes where trucks got their gas empty.
The lights were on in the truck stop diner. It was a simple red brick building, and the sign didn’t bare a name at all. Just a declaration of what it was: “TRUCK STOP DINER”. The closest thing to a church on the highway. Where all men were equal, no matter their sins, so long as they had a few dollars in their pocket to tithe.
He pulled on the jacket it was too warm for, zipping it all the way up to his neck, hiding the blood-splatters across his shirt. He shoved his hands in his pockets, and bits of Patricia’s blood flaked away and settled into the lining, like sand.
His swollen hands shook and trembled, not because of the pain in his knuckles or the fact that he’d killed. But because it’d been nearly a day since he’d last had a beer. His jowls and back were painted in sweat, and nausea threatened to spill his gust on the blacktop.
The bell over the diner door announced his entrance, and he slung his head low, as if that might hide what he’d done.
“Evening, honey. Be with you a sec,” a middle-aged woman called from behind the counter. Thick in the chest and the waist and everywhere else, with a blonde perm that extended half a foot from either side of her head.
She hadn’t bothered to glance at him. She was too caught up in pouring coffee for a grizzled bear of a man who was smiling at her as if she’d put the stars in the sky. And it was clear that she was happy to milk that attention for as long as it was available.
Jeffrey slid right on by, to the bathroom around the bend, into the one stall available. He vomited into the toilet, his body caught in the tremors, his bloodied hands clinging to the edges of the toilet for dear life.
He hadn’t been this long without a drink in a year. Not since his father’s passing put a bullet hole of grief in his heart. He hadn’t loved the man as a kid, but his passing had torn something essential, broken him in places he didn’t know could be broken. Now he was stuck so deep in the bottle he knew he’d never crawl back up. And he didn’t want to see what would happen if he went a little longer without it.
Snot running down his nose, he forced himself to the sink, and for the first time saw what he looked like.
He looked like he’d murdered someone. It was the blood flecks on his face, sure, scattered across his cheeks and forehead like the freckles on the broadside of a newborn deer. But it was the look in his eyes. As if some part of his soul had departed, leaving him half-hollow.
He turned the faucet handle and cold water spurted out. The blood on his hands had flaked off, for the most part. He’d left pieces of her on the edges of his jeans, on his car seat, on the steering wheel. But more still were encrusted and wedged beneath his blunt nails and across his palms and over it. Broad sweeps of blood freckling outward. So bright that it still looked fresh. As if the blood that had spilled the moment he’d struck Patricia down in that bathroom had been flash-frozen onto him.
He dipped his hands into the water and scrubbed. But the scarlet patches didn’t move, no matter how he scraped and tugged at the skin. And when he brought his hands up again, he saw it wasn’t blood at all. The stains were just skin, like birthmarks stretched across his fingers, stretching up his wrists, vanishing into his sleeves. Deep ruddy red, port wine birthmarks.
Panicked, his nausea temporarily forgotten, he rubbed at his face where her blood had splashed across him. On his forehead, beneath his cheek, hiding in the Saint-Bernard folds that stretched between his nose and the corner of his lips, speckling across his neck.
Not blood. Not blood. But birthmarks.
She’d stained him. She’d marked him. She’d woven herself into his skin.
She slept through the seasons. Through years, perhaps. When she awoke, things would be a little changed. Supplies moved, a plastic air freshener sitting optimistically by the sink, doing nothing to fight against the stale muskiness of the air. The putrid scent of human waste.
They’d washed her blood from the shelves, from the toilet, from some of the wall. But they hadn’t been able to remove it from the ceiling. They didn’t even notice it there, caught in the webs and grime.
She was a shadow of a shadow. And so few people came by now to rouse her from the dark in which she pulled her shadow-body from. Only old-timers, mostly, or the desperate. People who skipped the shiny new gas stations with their aisles of snacks and disinfected stalls for something that felt familiar. Or, more likely, people who’d gone too far and couldn’t wait another minute.
They got fewer and fewer all the time. And her sleep stretched on for little eternities. But still, the yearning woke her. The hollowness that demanded to be filled and mended.
Today she woke and thought it must be summer. The flies were orbiting over the toilet as if the scent alone could keep their bellies full. Its pool of water long since dried down to a brown stain at the bottom of the bowl. But when the door cracked open, the man who walked in was wearing long sleeves and pants, a cap pulled low over his head.
He’d finally come, and suddenly she wasn’t so tenuous.
He was old now. What was left of his once dark hair had gone gray. The rest of him had gone yellow. Not just in his skin, but in the whites of his eyes. The beer belly had remained, but cancer in his liver had wicked away the fat, and now it was liquids that pooled beneath his skin. Just another symptom of the cirrhosis he’d been ignoring for almost a decade now. And no matter how bad it got, he just didn’t seem to die.
The port wine birthmarks stained him, refused to let him go. And the more they creeped, the more they seemed to burn and itch, like they were rejecting the body they were a part of. They were deeper than his skin, he was certain of it. They were imprinted on his bones, in the marrow. Maybe even deeper than that. Casting scarlet shadows on what was left of his soul. They buried roots inside of him so that when he slept, all he could think of was her, waiting for him in this bathroom. A thing without eyes. A shadow-knife, perched upon the webs, hungry with want.
When he was awake, he saw her on the edges of his vision. Not Patricia. Not anymore. It was a thing that trailed after him as if it was his own shadow, a doppelganger that clung to him, sticky. Something missing limbs, missing chunks of itself, as if it’d been torn apart. It followed him through the years like a vulture circling a dying man, as if this was inevitable.
The Ford Escort had long since died. He’d hitchhiked here, and the trucker that had watched him disembark with only mild interest before kicking up smoke and dust, leaving him outside the boarded up station.
Now the shadow was above him, in the corner of the ceiling.
He didn’t look up. No one who passed through her bathroom ever did. But he didn’t need to see her to know that she was there.
His swollen hands grasped the zipper of his jacket. He pulled it down, revealing the jaundiced skin beneath, the swollen tumor of a stomach that balanced on his hips. He hadn’t bothered to wear a shirt. He didn’t want to miss a spot.
Though it’d be almost impossible to miss anything. The birthmarks had been creeping across his skin for years, conquering his skin centimeter by centimeter. Stretching over parts of him that had once been clean, he was sure of it. Now his hands were completely red, and most of his forearms, too, as if they’d been dunked in water and left to boil.
He undressed, letting his clothes fall to the cement floor, still stained with piss. Still perpetually damp.
He stood in front of the mirror, examining his face. It’d grown uglier in the fifteen years that had passed. He hadn’t been kind to himself, and time hadn’t been either. It made the job harder, but he flipped open the switch blade he’d bought precisely for the occasion. Something sharp and stable, with a good, easy to grip handle.
The click was satisfying, and beneath the bare bulb light he positioned the edge of the blade at the largest birthmark on his face, splashed across his cheek. With one hand he pulled the skin taut, and with the other he dipped the point of the knife in and began to cut.
He was surprised at how elastic his skin was, even at his age. His false teeth chewed at his lips so hard that they split, sending thin rivulets of blood down his chin and into the sink. That pain did little to stymie the screams that had clogged his throat and now came pushing out between his clenched jaw. But it didn’t matter if he screamed. It didn’t matter if he howled or begged. There was no one to hear him, no one who’d come.
The Amoco gas station had shuttered its doors for the last time two years ago. Next month it’d be demolished to make room for an Exxon. He’d put it off for as long as he could.
It’d be five minutes before the first birthmark was cut out, and he let the flap of flesh fall into the sink, then followed it with a froth of vomit.
It was an hour before he finished the rest of his face, which looked now as if it’d been torn open by the cougars he’d hunted with his dad. He worked his way down to his throat, peeling away the skin until a bib of blood soaked the grey, soft hairs of his chest.
He didn’t have the strength to stand, now, but he didn’t need to. He knelt on the cement floor; knife still clenched in his hand. She rose up from the basin of the sink, from the blood and the vomit and the bits of flesh and perched there on its edge. A shadow-thing with limbs that had grown long in the time they’d been part of him. Gently, she guided his knife down into the soft underside of his arm, pushing deep enough to split the skin. She wasn’t complete yet. There was still so much of her within him.
Something that approximated a prayer stumbled from his lips as the red muscle of his arm was exposed to air. But the knife slid deeper, until he was peeling back with his own shaking thumb that thick cord of flesh, revealing the bone beneath. And it was stained just as red, so scarlet bright that there was no doubt that it was hers. She’d drilled down so deep that there was no part of the limb that didn’t burn with her blood.
It was time to give it back.