The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick. The color is exactly wrong for me. Deep, ripe plum, nearly purple, the type of harsh shade that beautiful women wear to prove they can get away with anything. Against my ordinary features, the lipstick is as severe as a bloodstain. I feel like a misbehaving child trying on her mother’s makeup.
In the photo of Sylvia Braddock that lies on my bedroom floor, the lipstick looks perfect.
Most of my clients send only a handful of images: yearbook head shots, studio portraits against amorphous fabric backdrops. I prefer the candids slipped in as afterthoughts. Ordinary, tender images with tilted frames, red pupils, murky lighting. Unstaged photos offer less space to hide. I make note of the strata of clutter on a living room floor, the prickling distance between a husband and a wife when they don’t realize anyone is watching, and I know everything I need to know about these strangers’ lives.
Mr. Braddock has sent dozens of photos, enough to retrace the full six years of his marriage to Sylvia. Their wedding day, sun-washed beaches, landmarks scattered across the continents; work events with careful smiles, parties with blurred laughs. Nobody is more present in the chronology of Sylvia’s life than her husband. At my job, I order the world into patterns with the incurious efciency of a machine, and the Braddocks’ pattern is a simple one. They’re in love. A showy love, drawing attention to itself without necessarily meaning to.
Sylvia only wears this exact shade of lipstick in a single image. I’ve checked and checked again, struck by its absence. In the photo, she’s naked. She lies on a bed, unsmiling, propping herself on her elbows. Against the deep plum of the bedspread, her body is so pale it seems lit from within. Details stand out with startling clarity. Her areolas, precisely delineated as the cheeks painted on a doll. The winged origami of her hip bones. The lipstick.
I arrive early at work before our encounter, the tube clutched warm in my palm. Mr. Braddock is my first client of the day. He’s scheduled his encounter on a Thursday. It’s the middle of March, a time when the Elysian Society traditionally experiences a slow period. No sentimental holidays, no blooming flowers or first snows to breed guilt and nostalgia. Just the unbroken lull of late winter.
Opening the door, I assess Room 12 with a practiced gaze. The suites at the Elysian Society hint at familiarity without fully resembling anyone’s home. Dark hardwood floors; a framed painting of water lilies floating on gem-bright water. Two low-slung, armless chairs face each other in the center of the room.
Anything that could disturb this impression lies hidden in plain view. For instance: the small white pill in its crimped paper cup and the larger paper cup of room-temperature water, both arranged on the end table. These designate the chair I’ll take.
Outside, the latest snow of the season clings to the curbs in an exhaust-glittered crust. The air inside the Elysian Society hovers at sixty-five degrees. I’m barefoot. My work uniform is a white dress, so ne my esh scarcely registers its touch. I hold myself steady, suppressing the urge to shiver.
The door swings open before I can respond. I turn, thinking that Mr. Braddock is already arriving. After memorizing his face in the photographs, I’m curious to see him in person.
Jane stops in the doorway. “Everything’s all right, Eurydice?”
“Of course,” I say. “Come in.”
As an attendant, Jane has the luxury of dressing more warmly than the bodies. She’s jarringly mundane in her lint-speckled cardigan, like somebody intruding on a dream. “The lipstick,” she says, sketching a quick line around her own mouth. “It’s a little uneven.”
“I didn’t realize.” I hesitate, then hold out the tube. “Do you mind?”
The lipstick on my mouth is a soft, intimate pressure. Its tip is blunted from use. There’s a subtle taste lingering beneath the medicinal sweetness. Sour and human. I think of the saliva and skin particles that must linger on the lipstick’s surface.
Nausea clenches at my jaw.
“You’ve worked with this client before?” Jane asks.
“First time,” I manage. The nausea dissipates as quickly as it came. “He sent the lipstick ahead of time.”
Jane is silent. We both know this goes against routine. Most clients bring their loved ones’ possessions in person, lending me the effects for the duration of our time together. The fact that Mr. Braddock has given his wife’s lipstick to a perfect stranger creates an impression of either unusual trust or unusual carelessness.
“It’s really some color.” Jane caps the lipstick. “Girlfriend? Mistress?”
“Wife,” I say.
“Second or third?”
“First,” I say. “They were married six years.”
“There you have it, then,” Jane says, mildly disapproving, as if she suspects that I’m lying. “I never would have guessed first wife. That’s midlife crisis lipstick if I ever saw it.”
I don’t answer.
“That looks much better, at any rate,” Jane says. “I’ll send him in.”
The moment she shuts the door, I’m blank. Since I joined the Elysian Society, my emotions have evolved. They’ve gone from unwieldy to finely attuned. Ready to snap into nothingness. What used to be a struggle is now a simple reflex.
The knock is timid at first, nearly too low to catch. By the time I cross the room, the second knock is steady and assured. I open the door.
Most of my clients are different in photographs than in person, a disappointment in one direction or the other. In the back of my mind, I suspected that Mr. Braddock would change in the flesh. In photos, his good looks have the quality of a movie star or a young politician. A charisma too polished to exist outside a static image.
But he’s exactly the same. I’d know him anywhere. The only difference is that Mr. Braddock appears strangely smaller as he stands in front of me. Maybe because of the tiredness that shows beneath his eyes in lavender shadows, or the poor job he’s done of shaving. A red nick blooms like a kiss mark on his jaw. Or maybe it’s the absence of Sylvia by his side that shrinks him, cutting him neatly in half.
“Do I have the right place?” he asks. “Room 12. She said you’d be waiting.”
“You’re at the right place, Mr. Braddock,” I say.
After I close the door behind him, I turn to see that he’s moved to the center of the room. He stands in front of the painting with his hands clasped behind his back, his posture holding the studied attentiveness of a man visiting a museum.
I hang back, allowing my client this last ordinary moment before his world changes. The first encounter is always delicate, a tricky dance that must conceal its very trickiness. It’s my job to feel out the clients’ moods without them realizing I’m doing so. Some pretend it’s all a joke; some are suspicious, hostile, waiting for the figure to emerge from behind the curtain; some are painfully earnest, willing it all to go smoothly. But at first, all of them, all of them, are terrified.
Mr. Braddock points at the painting. “Monet?”
“An anonymous artist, I believe.” I gesture toward the chair. “Please.”
When we’ve arranged ourselves, Mr. Braddock’s eyes go to my mouth, darkened with his wife’s lipstick.
“Can you tell me whom you’re hoping to contact today, Mr. Braddock?”
The clock is already ticking. He’s booked the standard time. Half an hour, doled out precisely and sparingly as medication.
“My wife,” he says, and leans back. “My wife,” he repeats, half wonderingly. He stares straight ahead, as if the words hang suspended between us.
“Do you have a special message for your wife?”
“I’m not sure.” He shifts closer to the edge of the chair. “Should I?”
“Some clients find they have a better experience if they’re prepared with a message,” I say. “But it’s entirely at your discretion, Mr. Braddock.”
“I want to talk to her again,” he says. “The way we’d talk before she—”
I let the silent part of his sentence unspool before I continue. “I’m going to ask you to share a memory with me. A memory of Sylvia.” He winces instinctively at her name, as if I’ve cursed. “It’s best if you share a memory that’s as recent as possible. I know it might be painful,” I add, because Mr. Braddock has dipped his face into his hands.
But when he looks up, his eyes are dry and clear as shards of glass.
“We were at the lake,” he says. “Lake Madeleine, outside the city. It was our first time visiting. Sylvia suggested the place. The cabins had these huge windows in the living room. It made me feel like a fish in a bowl, looking out at everything. Or maybe everyone was looking in at me. At us.” He pauses. “Is this too much?”
“Not at all, Mr. Braddock,” I say. “Details are helpful.”
I listen without interrupting as he talks. Most of my clients are rushed and halting, recounting memories with the clumsy bluntness of children recalling dreams. But Mr. Braddock shares the last weekend he spent with his wife as if it’s playing on a screen in front of him.
When he stops speaking, the silence dissolves like a fog. I tip the pill into my palm. Among ourselves, we bodies refer to the pills as lotuses, a nickname established before I arrived. There’s no official name for the capsules, no imprint or marking on their powdery surfaces, so lotus works as well as anything else.
With my free hand, I reach for the cup of water. “Shall we begin, Mr. Braddock?”
I don’t move. I’m aware of the waxy coolness of the paper cup against my lips.
“What we’re about to do—it won’t hurt you, will it?”
None of my clients has ever asked this question before.
“The process is entirely safe, Mr. Braddock.”
“All right.” He holds out a palm toward me. “I wanted to check. Please. Go ahead.”
I slip the lotus between my lips and swallow. The sensation is as unsurprising now as drawing a breath or falling asleep. A numbness spreads across the body, the blood growing sluggish. The eyelids turn weighted. The body is rearranging itself to make room, my consciousness rising and scattering like wary birds sensing an unknown presence.
Mr. Braddock moves closer, his knee pressed hard against my own. He must realize his mistake; he moves away almost as soon as I register the touch. But when his clothed knee meets my bare one, I feel the hard bubble of his kneecap through the fabric, and a brief, thrilling warmth. I’m pulled back into my body, all the work I’ve done to become somebody else unraveling.
He recedes from my vision, moving backward so fast I can’t reach him. I open my mouth to warn him, but it’s too late.
I’m already gone.
I open my eyes. For an unsteady moment, my limbs aren’t in the right place. Then I settle back around my body like dust resettling on a surface after being disturbed. My palms and soles sting. I stare around Room 12 as if I’ve never seen it before: the shimmering water in the painting, the empty shells of the paper cups.
Gripped with urgency, I look at the chair across from me. Patrick leans forward as if I’ve caught him on the cusp of rising. He clasps his hands between his knees, his jaw tight, his whole frame strung with tension. When our eyes snag, his face lights up with a hopefulness that begins to fade again immediately.
“Mr. Braddock,” I say.
Patrick exhales abruptly and leans back in his chair, his posture loosening. He nods once. As if we’ve settled something. When he stands, I tilt my head to take him in: his height, the glitter of his downturned eyes visible beneath his lashes.
“Thank you,” Patrick says. He’s cool. Courteous.
There are questions I should be asking him. I have a script to follow this first time, easing the transition between one identity and the other, reassuring him that I’m once again a stranger. But something stops me. I stand without speaking and go to open the door, stepping aside to let Patrick pass. His gaze brushes against mine as he moves into the corridor. His eyes are unreadable, purposefully closed off to me. I ignore the instinct to follow him.
Sylvia Braddock has been dead for nearly eighteen months.
She drew her last breath sometime between the last day of August and the first day of September. The Braddocks’ trip to the lake was her idea, a small retreat before the summer came to an end. Lake Madeleine lies an hour from the city: a body of water spilling across nine hundred acres, fringed by frothy, overgrown forest. Along the lake’s winding perimeter, enterprising spirits have carved out pockets of civilization over the decades. The resort is self-consciously rustic, conjuring up images of nostalgic summer camps, creaky family cabins passed down from generation to generation, but filtered through a lens of luxury.
The end result is too stuffy to attract much upscale clientele, too expensive for sunscreen-blotted tourists. Sylvia had heard that the cabins offered city dwellers a chance to escape without going too far. To breathe in a dutiful dose of fresh air, examine the sensation of wilderness and solitude, and then return to normal life.
Soon after the Braddocks arrived at Lake Madeleine that August, they recognized the couple staying in the next cabin. Patrick’s colleague, married to a friend of the Braddocks. One of Sylvia’s many small matchmaking successes among her circle of acquaintances. She immediately suggested the four of them spend time together, folding the other couple into the Braddocks’ plans as easily as if she’d expected to find them there. Patrick couldn’t find a polite way to protest this, even as he knew that Sylvia would slip into her role as hostess. Expansive, dazzling, unable to reenter the more intimate world of being his wife.
By Saturday evening, Patrick was depleted: exhausted by the small talk, the bright beat of the sun, the previous night spent drinking, surrounded by the acidic veil of citronella lanterns. He made his excuses as Sylvia escaped into the nearest town with their friends.
She arrived home from dinner later than Patrick expected, the tint of wine on her breath. He tried to convince her to come to bed; Sylvia was edgy from drinking. The last time Patrick saw his wife, she was sitting at the edge of the bed to remove her shoes. Head bent. Dark hair falling over her face to reveal the graceful slope of her neck.
She was gone the next morning. Patrick waited. Her shoes stood outside the bedroom door. Sandals with needle-thin heels, perfectly lined up, as if she was just about to step into them. A towel lay in a moist, crumpled blossom from last evening’s shower, fragrant with shampoo. When Patrick called his wife’s phone, it vibrated violently on the windowsill.
It was past noon before the thin threads of Patrick’s worry and impatience solidified into fear. Sylvia had woken before sunrise the previous morning to take a quick swim in the shallow water nearest the beach. She’d been back in time for breakfast.
That afternoon, Patrick walked the perimeter of the lake. When he returned three hours later, exposed skin blooming with mosquito bites and long, raw scratches, his friends were waiting. They seemed reluctant to meet Patrick’s eyes as they discussed what to do next. Stranded in the absence of their gazes, Patrick began to understand all of this as pointless. A temporary buffer between not-knowing and knowing.
Half a day passed before they retrieved Sylvia’s body. Within this time, Patrick turned into someone to be protected and distracted, shuffled off with the local sheriff’s deputy. The deputy and his wife kept up with a soap opera, and so the deputy patiently explained to Patrick a labyrinthine plotline in the latest episode. A woman who coerced her identical twin into taking on the life she didn’t want, only to envy her sister’s unexpected happiness.
“Grass is always greener,” the deputy said. Patrick nodded and nodded in agreement, imagining his wife pulled from the depths of the lake like a flag of surrender.
Later, he’d learn that Sylvia’s body was caught in the weeds near the middle of the lake. It was ruled an accidental drowning, an unskilled swimmer going out too far. Most likely, they told Patrick, she’d been lost in her thoughts, unsure of her own abilities, until it was too late.
I’m yanked awake like a fish with a hook lodged in its mouth. Immediately, I recognize the signs of a long and dreamless sleep. My throat aches; my hair is tacky with sweat.
Lying in bed, I let the previous day come back to me piece by piece. The string of clients I saw after Patrick, their tics and mannerisms. Ms. Sawyer dabbing a tissue delicately beneath each eye. Mr. Kent’s hands held together, palm to palm, in his lap. A strangely prayerful pose.
I left the Elysian Society late in the day. As usual, I was the last to depart. The sunset was a hot, melted layer at the bottom of the sky. I ticked past the predictable landmarks between the Elysian Society and my apartment. A corner grocery, always shining with humid fluorescence, like a greenhouse. A billboard, the newest ad peeling off in lacy strips to reveal a denture-bright smile. During the drive, a radio talk show host spoke with a calibrated mix of excitement and somberness about a body discovered near a sub-division across town. I let the details anchor me, comforting in their unremarkable ugliness. No sign of a struggle. Blunt force trauma. Anyone with information, please come forward—
When I try to recall what happened after I arrived home, my memories turn dimmer. I remember retreating to my bed earlier than usual. Eight in the evening, or earlier. I must have fallen asleep. Now, the clock tells me I’ve been gone for twelve solid and implacable hours.
Rising reluctantly, I make my way to the bathroom. My body feels stiff and disjointed. Every inch of my skin is as sensitive as the skin revealed beneath a bandage. Somewhere down the hall, a neighbor plays music. The bass echoes thickly, the beating of an enormous heart. I’m surrounded by other people’s vices in this apartment. Theatrical sex moans, cigarette smoke, bitter arguments, energetic thumps of TV; it seeps in at all hours.
In the bathroom, I reach for the faucet. The showerhead shudders once before spitting out a patchy spray. At the edges of my mouth, a taste swells. Lake water. Stale and silty, like the air on a hot day just before the rain.
I step back from the lip of the bathtub. In the mirror above the sink, my reflection is all wrong against the backdrop of my bathroom. It takes me a moment to understand why. Sylvia’s lipstick clings to my mouth, turning my lips smaller and more prominent at the same time.
I rub my mouth with the back of my hand. The lipstick stays. I try again, more roughly. As the shower water hisses behind me, I take a square of toilet paper and scrub it across my lips, harshly, until the skin stings like a fresh scrape. There’s a slick, shocking streak of color on the paper.
I drop the blotted tissue into the toilet. It flowers open in slow motion before I flush.
The Braddocks are in my bedroom, Sylvia’s face fanned across the floorboards. I stoop to collect the photos. I sit on the edge of the bed to sift through the images. Slowly, this time, with a methodical patience. I want to see and understand each separate image. Perversely, I hope the Braddocks have changed. I hope they’re ordinary now, glossiness scratched off to reveal people no more remarkable than any of my clients.
But the pattern reemerges, frustrating in its unyieldingness. They’re in love. Charmed by their own lives. I stop at their wedding portrait. Sylvia gazes directly into the camera, her veil blown back in a gauzy plume, a slight widow’s peak emphasizing her heart-shaped face. Patrick looks sidelong at his bride. The formality of their pose only emphasizes the tenderness of his straying gaze, as if he can’t resist the pull of Sylvia’s beauty. As if he can’t believe she’s there without seeing tangible proof.
I hesitate before I turn to the last photo in the stack. The one with the bed. While the other photographs are precisely matched, rectangular and uniform in size, this one has a distinct weight to it. A square silhouette. The Polaroid’s white border gives it the quality of a relic: ephemeral and formal at the same time.
The difference extends to the image itself. The discrepancy between the dewy-bright bride and this naked woman is striking. Sylvia scarcely seems to age throughout the course of the photographs. Her black hair always worn just below her shoulder blades, her sophisticated style unchanging. But the woman in the dark lipstick is peeled back and exposed in a way that has nothing to do with her body. It’s all in her expression: a directness. A fierceness.
My mind fills with something out of an old medical illustration. Sylvia’s skin folded back like curtains to reveal her interior, plump pink organs and coiled muscles. Above this, she smiles, unconcerned and daring me to look.
Nudity is forbidden at the Elysian Society. I’ve come across a scattering of these photos throughout the years, and I consider the images mostly harmless. Vein-marbled thighs and fleshy breasts, commonplace as household objects. Always before, though, I’ve reported the photos, declining to work with the clients. People can be quick to test boundaries at the Elysian Society, feeling out soft spots and loopholes. Any infringement at an early stage is a risk. I know this.
I remember the press of Patrick’s knee against mine. The shocking immediacy of his body. Heat darts down my spine.
I rise from the bed. The photos shed back onto the floor in a slippery rush, and my heel tamps down on Sylvia’s wedding-day smile as I walk across the room to prepare for work.
The Elysian Society stands in a limbo of a neighborhood. The area has a reputation for benign danger, hinted at rather than seen. The streets are populated with abandoned homes and condemned buildings. Boarded-up windows are painted the same shade as the brickwork, giving the impression of featureless faces. The neighborhood offers the Elysian Society an automatic privacy. Here, our clients are less likely to run into anybody they know.
Many decades ago, the building that houses the Elysian Society must have belonged to an affluent family. From the outside, the cool white brick and tightly shuttered windows produce the exact impression that clients want when they come to a place like this. Elegant, but not funereal; old and established, but unconnected to scandal or witchcraft. At a squinting angle, it could be a church. A museum.
Appointment times are carefully staggered, with clients dispatched to their designated rooms soon after arriving. Each client should feel as if he’s entering a private landscape. The Elysian Society’s waiting room isn’t for visitors; it’s the space where bodies congregate between encounters. Unlike the encounter suites, the waiting room bears the layered marks of aging. Sepia water stains embellished on the ceiling, carpet loose over aging floorboards and pocked with sunken patches. Couches share space in front of a TV set that displays grainy videos, random landscapes with soothing instrumental music rolling behind the images. A pleasant, wordless distraction.
This Friday morning, I arrive early enough that the waiting room is mostly empty. A redheaded body watches the TV without interest. A boy with stark cheekbones yawns into his fist, eyes glassy as a doll’s from the lingering effects of a lotus. I spot an older body, salt-and-pepper hair and a gently creased face, as if her skin has been folded up and then smoothed out again.
I turn. Leander approaches, smiling. Some bodies wear the pale, plain Elysian Society uniforms with a stiffness or hunched apology that highlights the strangeness of the outfit until that’s all that stands out. Bodies like Lee complement the simplicity of the uniform: his wide-set green eyes, clean-shaven jawline. The white pants and airy shirt, even his milky-pale bare feet, all seem an extension of his youthful handsomeness.
“I hear you’re wanted,” Lee says.
I shake my head slightly. Lee’s been a body for two years now, a record closing in on mine by steady increments. The friendliness we’ve developed is mostly due to his patience. The first time I instinctively smiled back at Lee, the first time I was grateful to see a familiar face in the waiting room, I almost felt like he’d tricked me.
“Mrs. Renard needs to speak with you,” he clarifies. “Whenever you have time.”
“Do you know what it’s about?” I ask.
“I’m only the messenger.” But Lee’s distracted. His eyes shift over my face. “There’s something different about you today,” he says. “Did you cut your hair?”
I reach a hand to my hair. Blond, coarse, and prone to dryness. Gathered into a simple knot at the nape of my neck. I cut it myself, chopping it bluntly to my shoulders once a year. It’s nearly at its longest point right now.
My mind slips to Sylvia’s hair in the photographs. Blue-black as a raven’s wing, the iridescence of oil on asphalt. I imagine its texture. Sleek and smooth. Silkiness pressed under my fingertips.
“I might look tired.” I bring my hand down quickly. “I’ve had trouble sleeping.”
“No, no, you look fine,” Lee says. “I’m imagining things. I’m sorry.”
“Just a trick of the light,” I suggest.
Lee smiles. “Whatever it is, it’s not a bad change.”
His voice holds a coaxing note under the surface. I mirror his smile. “I should really go see what she wants,” I say.
Moving into the low hall that connects to the offices, I shake off the regret I feel whenever I can’t match Lee’s warmth. He always makes it so easy. A small detail offered about his life, trailed by a blank slot of silence. I’m grateful, in these moments, for the excuse the Elysian Society provides. Turning my reticence into a virtue.
Mrs. Renard’s office door stands ajar, a sliver of light cracking the edge of the paneled oak. I tap. “Come in,” Mrs. Renard calls. She sits behind her desk, elbows spread wide and hands clasped together. At the edge of the desk, she’s arranged several tissue holders. Tissues extend upward like static smoke. The whole room is lined with books, some so old they’re unmarked and shedding like snakes. These books, and a lampshade with shimmering beadwork, are placed there for the benefit of our more superstitious clientele. A pewter cross on one wall comforts clients who are here straight from church services, confessional booths.
Otherwise, the office could belong to a pricey therapist. “Eurydice,” Mrs. Renard says. “Thank you for coming to see me.”
I hover near the door, aware of a third presence in the room.
At first I think she’s a client, but she wears a white dress identical to my own.
“This is Pandora,” Mrs. Renard supplies, following my gaze. “She just joined us. I was telling Pandora that she has a client interested in working with her. You’ll like Mr. Womack,” she continues, speaking to Pandora now. “He lost his wife five years ago. They’d been married several years before that. She was only in her thirties. A terrible loss. So unexpected.”
“Suicide?” Pandora asks.
“A stroke,” Mrs. Renard says. “We don’t work with suicides at the Elysian Society.”
“You needed to talk with me, Mrs. Renard?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says. “Pandora, I’m afraid we’ll need our privacy.”
When Pandora passes me, she brushes her gaze against mine and smiles. I smile back a second too late, a reflex that startles me. When we’re alone, Mrs. Renard sighs. “Well. Eurydice. It’s been some time since we’ve sat down for a good chat, hasn’t it?” Her voice is colored with surprise. “You look quite well.”
“So do you.” I can’t help noticing that she’s changed. Her dyed burgundy hair shows gray at the roots, like dust gathering on a bright tablecloth, and the wrinkles seeping out from the corners of her eyes have deepened. She reminds me of someone recovering from a long illness.
“I’ll cut to the chase, Eurydice,” she says. I lift my chin in a show of attentiveness. “You’ve reached an important milestone. I wanted to acknowledge that.” An indulgent smile.
The window behind Mrs. Renard’s desk is one of the few in the building that hasn’t been cloaked over with heavy layers of curtains. The sunlight in here always seems more rarified than the sky outside. The light through the bare panes is raw and brilliant, bubbled with dust motes.
Mrs. Renard leans back. “It’s been five years, Eurydice. Five years today since you stood across from me and told me you wanted to become a body.”
As she says it, I remember. The awareness of this anniversary has been restlessly circling my mind for months now. I’ve kept it at bay so far.
“I still recall that day quite clearly,” Mrs. Renard continues. “You were a much different woman back then. A girl, really.”
I clasp my hands in front of me. A light tremble runs through my muscles, and I squeeze my fingers tighter, then tighter, as if I can remove this response by force.
“This past week alone, I’ve interviewed half a dozen girls who fit that same mold,” Mrs. Renard says. “New to the city. Craving a fresh start. What’s remarkable about you is that you didn’t merely find a fresh start inside these walls. You found a whole life.”
My past self hanging back in the corner of the room, watching me and summing me up. Gauging which parts of me have grown. Which have stayed the same.
If Mrs. Renard notices my discomfort, she ignores it. “How many of your coworkers can say that?” she asks. “You see the true potential of being a body. You understand what some of the others never will: that it’s a talent. A skill.”
My muscles uncoil. The memory dissolves and scatters. When I smile this time, I can actually mean it. “Thank you, Mrs. Renard.”
“Of course, I would like to see you spend more time with the others,” Mrs. Renard says. “The other bodies could stand to learn a thing or two from you.”
Guilt worms through me, leaving a dark trail. Patrick’s face ashes across my mind, then Sylvia’s; the lipstick, his knee against mine. “I’m honored that you have faith in me,” I say.
She rises, moving to where I stand by the door. I’m so accustomed to seeing Mrs. Renard behind her desk that I’m surprised at how small she is, a head shorter than me. Her fingers shimmer with stacks of rings; she wears an elaborate caftan, overlapping layers of fabric. I notice a bruise half hidden by her neckline, a mottled darkness against her sun-coarsened skin. Then she’s pulling me into an embrace.
I try not to stiffen, overwhelmed by her solidity, her fleshy, sweet smell. No one has touched me in so long. Her grasp is strong and assured, and when she lets go and steps back, I’m unanchored for a moment. As if I’ll float away.
“I’m proud of you, Eurydice,” Mrs. Renard says. She plucks at her neckline. The tip of the bruise vanishes. “Please know that you can always come to me. With anything.”
The halls are too dark after the dazzling sunlight in the office. I blink hard to clear my vision, moving rapidly toward Room 12, arms crossed over my chest.
I’m an outlier at the Elysian Society. Most of the bodies barely survive a year. The majority leave after a month. Some vanish after a week or even a single day. Always without warning. My first few weeks, I barely spoke to the others. I passed unnoticed, learning the inner workings of the place like someone thrown into the water and forced to learn to swim.
After a month, I had a full roster of clients. I became adept at setting them at ease, asking the right questions. Back then, my success wasn’t due to a robust work ethic or a newly uncovered talent. I was simply caught up in the relief of the work. The ability to escape myself.
Another body cornered me in the waiting room one morning, demanding an explanation. She was middle-aged, her cheeks dimpled with acne scars. I’d noticed her. She was loud, always talking. Her breath sometimes held a pungent mix of cigarettes and peppermint gum, both forbidden.
“What’s your secret?” That’s how she phrased it, and my heartbeat pulled tight as a wire until I realized there was no way she could know. She pushed on: “You just have the right look. One of those faces that could belong to anybody. People are always mistaking you for someone they know, right?”
“Not really,” I’d lied.
A week later, the woman was gone. It struck me as vaguely ominous at the time. But I began to understand how often new workers joined and how casually they vanished. After one year at the Elysian Society, a mere third of my original coworkers remained.
Mrs. Renard’s point about spending time with the other bodies stings. She’s missed or maybe ignored an essential part of who I am here. My success relies on keeping a distance, biding my time quietly, no distractions. I watch the others. The way they talk and gossip and flirt, drawing their discrete identities fully to the surface, and how much harder this makes it when they swallow the lotus and allow a stranger inside their flesh.
It’s simpler my way. When I’m inside the Elysian Society walls, I ignore myself. I become lost in the repetitiveness, the monotony. For years, the rules have anchored me, giving me something sturdy to grasp when what I’m doing yawns dark and bottomless at my feet.
And now I’ve slipped, just the slimmest fraction, into that darkness.
When I passed my four-year milestone, Mrs. Renard made one small concession. I spent years shuffled around like the rest of the bodies, sometimes in Room 3, sometimes in Room 15. After I’d been working for four years, all my encounters shifted to Room 12. Mrs. Renard never directly mentioned it to me, and I never thanked her, but I feel a sense of belonging whenever I enter Room 12 now. A small, neat space that’s all my own.
Today, though, something’s different. I can’t shake the sensation of a criminal slinking back to the scene of the crime. Everything looks the same, but a fine, dark skein of memories clings to every surface, altering the air.
It tugs at my gaze after a second: Sylvia’s lipstick. The bullet-shaped case stands on the end table. I forgot to return it to Patrick after our encounter.
I pick up the lipstick, cradling the delicate weight in my palm. Bodies are required to use loved ones’ belongings during encounters. Sweaters rubbed thin from frequent wear, necklaces shadowed with tarnish. The idea, Mrs. Renard explains, is that the dead are drawn to and comforted by the items they cherished during life. Like dogs trailing familiar scents back home.
Privately, I’m always reminded of a story I read as a child. The greedy woman who steals a bone from a graveyard and takes it to her kitchen, haunted that night by a moaning ghost. Give me my bone. Even as a child, I found the story as much sad as frightening. This idea of the dead still caught up in the material world of the living.
I close my fingers around the lipstick.
For a crooked second, Sylvia is in the room with me. A drowned specter, white skin peeling away like fruit rind, eyelids eaten into filigree by the fish.
And then the impression slips sideways and I become the drowned woman. My skin waterlogged and dripping, hanging in tatters around me.
When the knock comes, I drop the lipstick as if I’ve been burned. It rolls beneath the end table, sucked into the shadows.
“Ms. Mendoza,” I say, answering the door. I’m relieved that my voice is strong and cool. “Please, have a seat.”
This client has worked with me for three years. Today, she wears pearls around her throat, her gray-streaked hair braided neatly. Most clients dress up for encounters. They don’t want their loved ones seeing them looking shabby or uncared for.
Accepting the perfume bottle that Ms. Mendoza passes to me, I rub the fragrance on my wrists, quick and businesslike. The incense of roses fills the room.
Ms. Mendoza inhales. “Oh, I’ve been so looking forward to this visit.”
“It’s been a while since we’ve seen you,” I say. Ms. Mendoza is the type of client who craves socializing before encounters, and I let myself enjoy her plain warmth.
“I’ve had a hard time making it out here to see Veronica lately,” Ms. Mendoza says. “Personal matters. Hopefully she understands.”
“I’m sure she does.”
Ms. Mendoza goes silent then, hands folded on her lap, watching me expectantly. I tip the capsule into my palm and pause, suddenly confused. My heart swells with a misplaced panic. “Could I have a moment, please?” I ask.
“Of course, dear,” Ms. Mendoza says, but not before I see her inch of impatience.
I shut my eyes, take a deep breath. Will my stubborn brain into blankness. It takes a second, but then it comes: the slowed heartbeat, the weightiness of the body around me. The fear swirls out of my mind, the last dregs of water spinning and sliding down a drain.
I open my eyes and reach for the cup, swallow the lotus. It barely takes any time before I’m gone.
I open my eyes. Rough scrapes of sound and light move through my head. A woman talking low in my ear. The cold panels of light flashing by one by one as I’m pushed down a corridor, prone on my back.
Ms. Mendoza busies herself in her purse. Her eyes have the vulnerable, rabbity look of recent tears. “That was lovely,” she says. “So good to reconnect.”
Ms. Mendoza’s twin sister died three years ago. It was a slow death. Leukemia. At first, hope was interrupted by bad news, a lumbar puncture suggesting the cancer had metastasized. Near the end, according to Ms. Mendoza, it was the reverse: the progress of death stalled by pockets of hope. Experimental treatments became cruel in their suspension of the inevitable. A torturer’s techniques. Even so, Ms. Mendoza had barely let a week pass before she came to the Elysian Society.
This isn’t unusual. I’ve seen people waste so little time that they’ve arrived at Room 12 with eyelids still swollen from the funeral. For some clients, working with me is like returning to a conversation after a brief interruption, scarcely noticing that anything has changed. A sentence started in one woman’s mouth and ended in mine.
But I’ve also known people to wait for decades, letting everyone believe that they’d moved on. Completing the dutiful stages of mourning, crafting new lives in the space left behind. And then waking up with the simple, unignorable urge to talk to their wives, best friends, daughters. When this happens, the Elysian Society is waiting for them. Offering bodies aged in a perfect time lapse, the girl who died at eighteen finally granted the mercy of wrinkles and gray-dusted hair, or else bodies as young and untouched as beloved memories.
I study Ms. Mendoza now. The fussy movements as she dabs beneath her nose, the way she folds the tissue into a bulging square. I don’t feel anything toward her. No curiosity, no familiarity. She’s just a woman. A paying customer.
Before I leave the Elysian Society, I check the schedule Jane has prepared for me. The lineup of familiar names (Park, Brown, Loudermilk). There it is: Braddock, Patrick. He meets with me next Tuesday.
It’s early for a second encounter. Most clients need a few weeks before the ragged ache of longing takes hold again. I press my finger down on his name. Deep inside, a stirring. Light and swift. It’s dusk when I leave. The air holds a chill that razes the evening sky into clarity. I nearly stumble over someone sitting at the bottom of the steps. She turns and looks at me, startled, as if I’m the one out of place.
“Pandora,” I say, remembering her name with an effort. “What are you doing here?”
Her cheeks are glazed from the cold, her posture tightly coiled. Her knee jitters up and down. “Hey,” she says. “You again.”
“The bus stop is a few blocks from here,” I say.
She wears a flimsy faux-leather jacket over her white dress, a pair of puffy boots that turn her legs weedy in comparison. “I was hoping someone would give me a ride,” she says.
“I’m afraid I’m the last one leaving.”
Pandora just nods at this, pulling her arms tighter around her body.
“Do you need me to drop you off somewhere?” I ask, reluctant, and she’s rising to her feet before I’ve even finished speaking.
I pull onto the main road. “Where are we headed?” My car is tidy but shabby, an older model. The gust from the heater is blazing hot against my hands and knees, leaving the rest of my body too cold.
“Sycamore,” Pandora says. “I’ll tell you when we’re closer.”
“Sycamore?” My fingers tighten automatically on the steering wheel; I keep gazing ahead at the soft discs of headlights from oncoming traffic. “Not 801 Sycamore?”
She twists her upper body to get a better look at me.
“I lived there myself once,” I explain. “Years ago.”
I can almost hear her deciding whether or not to pursue this further, the sharp crackle of her curiosity. “Renard helped you out too?” she asks at last.
“She did.” We pass the shell of a restaurant that burned down last month, stately black peaks and jagged crests. At night, the silhouette reminds me of treetops in a forest. “Years ago.”
“How many years ago?”
“A few,” I say, brusque. “I was new to the city.”
“Well, I’m new here too,” Pandora says, as if we’ve stumbled across an amazing coincidence. “Where are you from?”
My chest tightens. “You wouldn’t have heard of it,” I say.
She doesn’t pick up on the sudden coolness in my voice. “Oh, like a small town, you mean?” she asks. “Because—”
“I’d really rather not discuss it,” I interrupt. “It was a long time ago.”
“Hey, sorry,” she says. “I was just going to say that I come from a small town too.”
We don’t talk again for a few minutes. I’m preparing myself to see Sycamore again. Even the drive here, trailing my old bus route, holds an uncanny layer of déjà vu. After a moment, Pandora reaches over and turns on the radio. The newscaster’s voice enters the car, fuzzed with static, stray words cracking down the middle.
. . . suspected foul play has left local homeowners concerned for their safety. Authorities are still trying to identify the victim. Dubbed Hopeful Doe, the young woman is estimated at between seventeen and twenty years old, and . . .
I reach to turn the radio off again, leaving a ringing silence.
“Hopeful Doe,” Pandora repeats. “Seriously? Where’d they come up with that?”
“Like Jane Doe,” I say. “It’s a way to humanize her, I suppose.”
She huffs. “There must be a less corny way to do that.”
We’re getting closer. I recognize the church at the intersection, the boarded-up liquor store across the street, decorated with graffiti in an ornate oral pattern.
“While we’re on the topic,” Pandora says, “do you have a nickname? Everyone seems to have nicknames there. I’m using Dora.”
“Most people call me Edie,” I concede.
“That’s cute. Cuter than Eurydice.” She falls silent again, but I sense her watching me. Every time she talks, Dora’s a shade too eager, as if she’s been storing up words and has to pace herself. A clear symptom of loneliness—it took me a long time to outgrow it.
“That’s real sad,” Dora ventures. “That girl they found.” She pauses. “Can you explain something to me?”
The apartment complex is just ahead. A squat brick structure fringed with metal stairwells that remind me of barbed wire coils. In one window, the blue of a television screen lights up the blinds, flashing in a cryptic Morse code. “I’ll try,” I say.
“Why can’t we contact suicides?” Dora asks. The bluntness of the question, its childlike lack of apology, startles me. “Back in the office,” she continues. “Remember, I asked if someone had committed suicide, and Mrs. Renard—”
“I remember.” As if I’m moving obediently through a recurring dream, I pull into the parking lot and shut off the engine. “It’s not what we offer at the Elysian Society,” I say. “It never has been.”
“Right, but people go there to get answers,” she says. “After a suicide, that’s when people need answers the most, you know?” The stiff and shiny folds of her jacket, hunched around her shoulders, remind me of the wet, crumpled wings of a hatching bird.
“Possibly,” I say. “But it’s a risk. It’s too dangerous.”
Dora frowns like a child trying to understand an obscure parable or a boring sermon. “I thought this place was different from the others,” she says. “Safer.”
There’s a testing press of challenge in her voice. I know she’s referring to the small, homegrown operations that spring up like toadstools in suburban basements, grandmotherly living rooms, the back rooms of struggling storefronts. Amateur channelings: inexperienced bodies swallowing down concoctions as limp as baby aspirin, or else pills so potent that they leave bodies froth- lipped, bug-eyed. The Elysian Society has purged these smaller attempts from the city and the surrounding suburbs, but they still thrive in certain pockets around the country.
“The Elysian Society is safer,” I say. “But it’s safer because of the rules. Because of what we won’t do. The risks are still there, and the consequences are just as dangerous.”
With the heater off, the car is filling up with chill, rapidly as rushing water through a crack. I almost tell her. Tell her about what happened in Room 7; explain why we use paper cups for water, never glass. But I only learned these details through rumors, whispers gradually stitched together to create an ominous whole. The stories have always felt most powerful glimpsed in the shadows.
“Listen, I have an early day tomorrow,” I say instead.
At this, Dora springs into motion, opening the car door, slipping out into the night. “Thanks for the ride,” she calls, her voice trailing in before the door shuts behind her.
With Dora gone, the memories squeeze in tighter and closer. When I started at the Elysian Society, I’d been living in a motel room. Mrs. Renard offered to let me stay in the furnished apartment she owned. Close to the Elysian Society and perfect for a temporary home. She skimmed a modest amount from my earnings each month. More than fair in exchange for a place where I didn’t have to sign my real name, where I didn’t have to worry about the barest essentials. It was a simple sketch of a life, sitting there waiting for me.
But even as I recognized Mrs. Renard’s generosity, I grew to hate the space. Everything I held back during my workday, everything that vanished when I swallowed the lotus, collected in the cracks of my mind like condensation. It was only when I was back on Sycamore that I’d remember. I spent most of my time in bed. Desperate to distract myself, I’d look out the window at the road, the headlights of the cars going past, and imagine myself in each car. Each one taking me to a separate destination, alive with its own possibilities. I’d become one person in that sleekly feline luxury sedan, an entirely different person in a rust-streaked pickup.
As I’m pulling back onto the street now, I glance back at the building just once. My eyes automatically land on the third window from the left, the top story. My bedroom window. It’s dark now. No glimmer of life.
At home, waiting for sleep, I search for more details about the dead girl. Because nobody has claimed her, there are no photographs of Hopeful Doe during her lifetime. No school photos or birthday-party shots with friends’ faces blurred away. Instead, the sites and channels use a wistful police sketch. Rendered in pencil lines, Hopeful Doe’s face is easy to visualize hanging in a fluorescent-lit school hallway. It has an intimate quality, like an earnest self-portrait drawn by a future valedictorian.
They found Hopeful Doe on the edges of an aspiring gated subdivision. Only a few families had settled there, carrying out their lives surrounded by grandly empty houses in various stages of completion. Haughty skeletons. The house that held Hopeful Doe was vestigial, built decades ago. Unoccupied for years, dowdily outdated and scheduled for teardown.
The night before the demolition, a teenage girl from the sub-division went exploring. The corpse that would become Hopeful Doe was in a closet in the back room of the condemned house. She wore a blue sundress. A single diamond earring. According to the reports, when the teenager first saw Hopeful Doe’s legs tucked together, she thought they belonged to a discarded store mannequin. Whoever left the body must have hoped it would be overlooked entirely, the girl’s identity swept aside with the rubble and the wreckage.
Clicking back to the police sketch, I lean in closer to the screen. The dead girl looks familiar. It’s a quick, intuitive connection, a recognition that makes sense for just a moment before the sensation fades again. Every time I attempt to place her, Hopeful Doe slips a little further, disintegrating under my gaze, until her face is a complete stranger’s again.
Ican feel it. Little ashes of strangeness, stepping outside myself. It happens when I’m waking or falling into sleep, when I’m performing a mindless task that doesn’t require my attention. A disorientation that renders all my surroundings suddenly too vivid, as if I’m looking around at a new landscape. All the soft, well-worn familiarity has been stripped off to reveal a place that’s unnervingly foreign, every angle bristling and razor sharp.
Each time, right after I come back, I think her name: Sylvia. Sylvia. I remember in Room 12 when her husband’s knee touched mine, and how that moment tugged at the center of the neat knot of my life. Unraveling something.
When I was a new body, there was one topic that always caught my attention as I sat alone in the waiting room. It was the only thing that sharpened my dreamlike listening into actual eavesdropping. Possession was a rare topic, always hushed: one person laughing, one chiding, another dismissive. The stories were less specific anecdotes than hints and suggestions. But it was enough to grip my imagination. These bodies who opened themselves up to loved ones and then never came back. Their homes stolen out from under them by sly houseguests.
I’d lie in bed at night and picture it. My body no longer mine. My hands not mine, my mouth closing around another woman’s words. I’d wonder: Did it happen all at once? Would I close my eyes as the lotus slipped down my throat and then never open them again? Or was it a slow process, a wearing away? The gradual invasion of impulses and dreams and instincts, of preferences and thoughts?
Five years ago, the idea of this happening didn’t inspire any particular fear. Just a numb curiosity. As the years passed and I stayed myself, I forgot to worry about it; no matter how many lotuses I swallowed, I’d blink awake each morning in my own bed, firmly tied to my own flesh. I let go of that fear, relegating it to the same place as all the other things I ignored and overlooked.
On Tuesday, I’m sick. It strikes without warning. My jaw closes in on itself. I’m light-headed, my body rolling out from under me. I rush from Room 12, barely making it to the restroom before I’m gagging.
Afterward, I reapply Sylvia’s lipstick in the mirror. My face is so pale and damp that it has a strange newness to it, like the skin that grows back over a wound. In contrast, Sylvia’s lipstick is darker than ever. Draining me to sustain its color.
The restroom door clatters open. A body with short black hair enters, stopping short when she catches sight of me. Her face reflects my surprise.
“Ana,” I say. “I didn’t know you were working again.”
“Good morning to you too, Edie,” Ana says. Other than Lee, she’s one of the few bodies I talk with regularly. We’re friendly in an accidental way. Ana comes and goes, working for a few months and then disappearing, her patterns secretive and erratic.
“No offense,” Ana says now, “but I don’t think that’s your color.”
It takes me a moment to catch on. “It’s for a client,” I say. “His wife’s.”
She laughs. “His wife had shit taste.” Ana hovers behind me in the mirror for a moment. Her fingers flash over her inky hair. “Oh, come on. Don’t give me that look. The color is a little much for someone as pasty as you, that’s all.”
“It’s not about me.”
“No, of course not,” Ana says. “Of course not.” She plucks a hairpin from near her temple and sticks it between her lips. The pin juts like a snake tongue. “You know how they say blush makes you look like you just orgasmed?” Ana says, muffled. She plucks the pin from her mouth. “I was reading in a magazine that women wear lipstick to remind men of their labia.” She emphasizes the last word, popping her lips around it like she’s working over a lollipop.
My lips are suddenly leering and obscene. I drop my eyes. Beneath the embarrassment, there’s a rush of excitement. “That’s not appropriate,” I say.
“I don’t see why not.”
“You know why not.” Clutching Sylvia’s lipstick, I feel foolish and uncovered. As if a stranger just slid an exploring hand up my skirt.
Ana angles her face from side to side, sucking in her cheeks, then smooths down her hair. Floating next to her in the mirror, my own reflection feels extraneous. Ghostly. “By the way,” Ana says, “I was wondering if you’ve seen Thisbe around lately.”
“Thisbe,” I repeat.
She sighs. “Please tell me you know her.” When I don’t respond, she prompts: “Tiny thing. Blond? Your color, maybe. She joined at the start of the year.”
“I know who she is,” I say.
“So you’ve seen her around? She owes me some money.”
“She left,” I say. “Not long after you did.”
In the mirror, Ana’s gaze meets my own. She seems on the verge of speaking. Then she turns, moving away as quickly as she came. “Good luck with your client,” she says.
“Mr. Braddock. Welcome back.”
I find myself watching closely as Patrick moves to sit. His movements carry an automatic assuredness, the muscle memory of better days. It makes him vulnerable and powerful at the same time. I imagine the women in his life bringing him home-baked pies in low-cut dresses, making dewy promises that they’ll do whatever they can to help him through this difficult time.
I angle my knees away from Patrick’s. “A small piece of business, Mr. Braddock,” I say. “You left your wife’s lipstick here at the Elysian Society last week.”
He blinks. “I left it for you,” he says. “I want you to have it.”
“I see.” My face betrays nothing. “Do you have a special message for your wife today?”
He runs his thumb quickly over his chin. “Not really. I want to talk to her again, same as last time.” He smiles. “Does it help you, knowing what I’ll say to my wife?”
“This is about you and Sylvia. Don’t think about me.”
Patrick’s smile deepens. “Hard to do when you’re sitting right there.”
“Think of me as a means to an end.”
“That seems a little harsh,” he says. “How many people do you work with in a day, anyhow?”
“It depends,” I say after a second of hesitation. “Some days five or six. Other days fewer.”
“And it doesn’t get hard on you, doing this with so many people?”
I consider Patrick, stalling. With a few male clients, I detect flashes of a proprietary attitude in the way they stare at me. But I recall Patrick’s abashed smile in his photos and something shifts: I see in him the traces of a man who’s humbled by his own life, a man who tries conscientiously to balance the scales.
And here I am, a woman sitting in front of him in a dress as thin as tissue paper.
“It’s not difficult at all,” I say. “I enjoy my work. And now, Mr. Braddock, we should begin.”
Surprise passes over his face. “Of course. I apologize.”
After I swallow the lotus, I watch Patrick for as long as I can. As the eyelids lower, as my mind lifts away from the body, cloud light and drifting. He doesn’t move this time. He keeps to himself, maintaining a safe distance.
Iopen my eyes and look directly into Patrick’s. I’m smiling. The surface of my skin is warm and sparkling, my head heavy with a blissful drowsiness.
“I’ve missed you,” Patrick says, low. “You can’t know how much I’ve missed you.”
but I’ve been right here
A sharp splinter of confusion breaks through my happiness.
I’ve been right here all along
He leans forward. I know that he’s about to reach for me. He’s going to take my hand in his, run his thumb along my skin. Something else gives. My smile turns heavy on my face. A limb that’s fallen asleep. He becomes a client again, and I’m a body, untouchable and temporary.
“Mr. Braddock,” I say, with an effort.
Patrick sits back. He doesn’t hide the movement of his gaze over my mouth, my hands in my lap, my bare feet planted on the floor. I sit, barely breathing as I allow him to piece me back together.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asks. “I’m cold looking at you. It’s freezing in here.”
“Not at all,” I say. “I’m quite comfortable.”
He stares at my bare arms. “I feel like I should offer you my coat.”
“That won’t be necessary.” I catch an unexpected note in my words. Close to flirtatiousness; a bright spill against my voice.
Patrick smiles, but he’s distracted, seriousness already moving in behind the smile. “Tell me something,” he says, near a whisper now. “Do you remember?”
I shake my head.
“After you take that,” he says, flicking a hand toward the lotus, “do you remember what you say? What she says,” he corrects.
“Mr. Braddock, bodies don’t have access to these exchanges,” I say. “It’s a private process. Don’t worry.”
“I know, but—”
There’s a staccato series of taps on the door. Jane opens the door to Room 12 and leans in, expression bland. “Mr. Braddock,” she says, “I’d be happy to direct you toward the exit if you’ve forgotten the way.”
“No,” he says at once, and his voice has turned formal. “Thank you. I remember.”
As Patrick leaves Room 12, he hesitates for the briefest moment on the threshold, as if he wants to turn and look at me. But then he walks into the corridor, and the part of my brain that follows him as if magnetized, sensitive to his every move, strains after him.
“Quite the chatterbox,” Jane says, once he’s out of earshot. “Isn’t he?”
I straighten my shoulders. “No more than some of the others,” I say, daring myself to look at her coolly and evenly.
“Hmm.” She gazes at my mouth. “He’s the one with the wife and the lipstick?”
“Mr. Braddock is a good client,” I say. “He’s reliable and polite. I’ll be glad if he stays with me.”
“Oh, he will,” Jane says, dismissive now. Patrick left the chair skewed when he left. She takes the back of the chair with both hands and straightens it in one neat, aggressive movement. “That type always stays with the same body.”
At home, I’m edgy. I walk through my routine: dinner, washing dishes, watching TV, folding laundry. I try to focus, but I find myself staring off into space, clutching a half-folded blouse like it’s a prop that someone forced into my hand.
Patrick’s question in Room 12 has echoed through the rest of my day. Usually, I experience my client’s loved ones as abstract and raw-edged presences. Vivid, quickly fading scraps of other lives.
I was evasive with Patrick in Room 12 today. The truth is that Sylvia’s memories have lingered. One image in particular, clear and deep. I remember Patrick’s hand against me, at my waist. The golden hairs at his wrist, his long fingers holding the ghost of a summer tan. One or two fingernails endearingly frayed, as if he bites them when nobody is watching. I could reach right into the memory, interlace my fingers with his. Feel the light calluses of his fingertips.
In the bathroom, I lie in the bathtub, the rush of water surrounding me. My proportions distort slightly beneath the surface. I reach my hand between my legs. Although I haven’t touched myself like this in months, my muscles begin the movement automatically.
When everything in me turns tight and frantic with desire, I slip my upper body under the surface. The water laps warm against my lips. Against my ears, all I can hear is a pulsating and distant roar. My hips lift of their own accord, greedy for more.
I submerge my entire head. My nose stings. I open my eyes, stare through the water at the creeping stains on the ceiling, until my lungs burn. At the moment when I think my entire body will pop like a balloon, I come up gasping.
In the silvery surface of the faucet, my face is so warped it could belong to anybody. My wet hair, my wild eyes, my mouth a dark, open smear as I suck in breath after breath after breath.