By Shaelin Bishop
Her name was Marcella. Mom had picked her up at a bus stop south of town. She couldn’t resist a hitchhiker, their duct-taped shoes flopped onto the dashboard, their sunburned cheeks, the phone numbers sharpied to their forearms. Her sob story must have been convincing, because Mom offered to let her move in with us.
I watched her from the stairs. She sat at our kitchen table, drinking coffee out of my favourite mug. The glaze was chipped, so if you weren’t familiar with the little violences of our house, you’d cut your lip. She was twenty-fiveish, wore a floral skirt and a fringe-sleeved jacket, had wide-set eyes, dimples deep as bullet wounds, the mouth of someone with an annoying laugh. Her russet hair sparked with split-ends, overgrown bangs tucked behind her ears. She had a puppyish pitifulness: adorable, crooked toothed, a little mangy.
Mom nudged me aside with the edge of the laundry basket. “Go introduce yourself.”
“Mom,” I whined. “Can’t you just let her live in a tent in the yard or something?”
“Oh Daphne, we’ve got an empty bedroom just sitting there. Don’t be daft-ne!” Sometimes I thought Mom named me that just so she could patronize me with puns. “She’s lovely. She was a philosophy student, and she used to work at a bakery.”
In the kitchen, Mom sizzled Marcella a grilled cheese and asked her if she needed a ride to the DMV to renew her driver’s licence, if she needed help detangling her hair, if she had any food allergies.
Marcella halved the sandwich, cheese oozing out the middle. “This is delicious, thank you, just like my mom used to make me when I was a kid.”
“Why don’t you go live with your mom if you have nowhere to live?” I said.
“I wish I could. She has early onset Alzheimer’s, she’s in a care facility.”
Mom put her hand over her heart. I gave myself a headache withholding an eyeroll.
“Well Marcella, you are so welcome here. I’m sure Daphne agrees, it is too quiet in this house, and the room has been empty for years.”
“Did she move away for college? Your oldest daughter?” She nodded towards Louise’s school photos on the wall.
Mom nodded, a smile that showed in her mouth but not her eyes. “Yes, college. She’s going to be a music teacher.”
Louise’s bedroom was beautiful. Light spoked through the bay window and skylight. Artfully scuffed floorboards, a double bed with a cloudy duvet, a shearling rug, our grandmother’s antique vanity, her jewellery hung from the frame like from the hairline of a flapper girl. Mom had sobbed when detectives searched through Louise’s home-burned cassettes and music theory sheets. Louise had been in a retro phrase, had a pastel yellow landline instead of a cellphone, a globe still labelled with Zaire and Yugoslavia, kept flowers from her dance recitals wilting in vintage Coke bottles, wore sailor pants and swing dresses.
Louise went missing—that’s what everyone said—but there was so much implicated and unsaid in that one word: missing. Things too perverse or horrific to ever state. Perhaps by never acknowledging what hungered under the surface of that word, my mother could believe the truth was not so bad. She still saved flyers for conservatory auditions, ads for junior dance coach positions, marked deadlines for art school auditions in her calendar. She dusted Louise’s room so her allergies wouldn’t flare up. She bought multi-grain bread and skim milk to fit Louise’s diet even though I hated both.
Mom stripped Louise’s paisley sheets for crisp white ones and moved her house plants to the kitchen. She tucked away Louise’s half-empty perfumes, a Jane Austen novel she’d gotten three chapters into, chiffon still pinned to a skirt pattern, a quill pen she’d bought at a Renaissance fair. All these things existing mid-sequence, unfinished. She must have hated the thought of Marcella kneading Louise’s hand lotion into her knuckles, printing everything with the scent of watermelon.
I’d always coveted that room, but Mom refused to let me have it. Its beautiful airiness empty and wasted, while my room was a cramped den without a closet. You’d think being the only daughter left would at least make you the favourite, but the opposite was true.
I crept to the door of Louise’s room and pressed my ear to the door. What might I hear? Marcella pleading on the phone to an estranged parent, Freudian-slip sleep talk, an orgasm, her whispered confession that this was all a con? My own blood pulsed in my ears. I couldn’t even hear her breathing.
On my way home from school, I flicked through mailboxes and plucked a postcard, a tabloid magazine, and a weft of coupons. Heat flushed off the pavement. I used one of the coupons to buy a jug of cranberry juice from a corner store. I crackled the lid open. Red dribbled down my chin, stickiness cinching my throat. I must have looked vampiric, gorgeous but terrifying.
Louise’s door was ajar. Marcella’s legs dangled over the end of the bed. Her brown socks slouched around her ankles like the scruff of a bulldog.
“Hey,” she called.
I nudged the door open, jug hooked between my fingers.
“Hey,” I repeated, trying to sound as bored as possible.
She eyed the jug. “Oh, do you have a UTI? That sucks.”
I didn’t understand the question but said yeah, to bait her sympathy.
She sat up, pretzeling her legs. She wore shorts and a white halter top with straps that sliced up her collarbones, revealing her sun-freckled chest and broad shoulders. I wondered if she’d dressed in a way she thought would impress me.
When Louise had lived there, the room had been pink and starry—light constellating through her perfumes, her suncatcher, her rose lampshade, her plants dappling shadows on the wall. I used to watch her from the door: thumbing her eyeliner, pin curling her hair, sewing sequins to a headband. She would snap at me when I tried to sidle in to poke through her jewellery or read her diary. I remember Louise’s face as round and rosy with acne, details that hadn’t translated in the photo they’d chosen for her missing poster, in which she appeared sunken-eyed and exhausted. You couldn’t see her vibrance, like they’d chosen this photo so her death felt less unfair, something inevitable rather than tragic. Louise and Marcella shared this alien dollness, cherubic and alabaster-cheeked and antelope-eyed. By contrast, I was so fragile looking my sternum felt concave, my hair heavy and limp, my limbs and neck so reedy Mom thought I’d started smoking. I felt viciously alive though, loud and box-dyed like an ex-child pop star in a rebellious phase, constantly on the brink of doing something public and nauseating, like getting a tattoo of a handgun on my neck, or leaking a sex tape, or joining Scientology.
The room had a clear brightness now, and felt smaller with Marcella’s clothes tangling out of her suitcase. She tossed her socks into it, revealing ankles bitten with old scars. It felt perverse to watch. “Do anything fun today?”
“I just hung out with my boyfriend.”
“Your mom mentioned you had a boyfriend. That’s fun. How did you meet him?”
“School.” Clearly she didn’t have a boyfriend or she wouldn’t be living with us. Even in my youth, I bested her. What did she have? Half a degree in Philosophy, a blurry bicep tattoo of a rose, a shellfish allergy. I had someone to hold me.
In Reese’s shadowy room, sweat filmed my camisole around my ribs. Before I could even toss it off, his dad came home unexpectedly, so we just sat on the floor and played video games with the door open. I thumbed the controller, shrink-wrapped in damp polyester, Reese’s knee touching mine. Reese and I had only been having sex for a month, and even though it was as underwhelming as a magazine I’d taken said I could expect my first time to be, the knowledge that I was having it made me feel sophisticated and forbidden. I wanted everyone to know that I was glittery and electric and divine, full of secret knowledge. My friends put their hands on my shoulders like I was a saint, argued over who would be the godmother if I got pregnant.
Reese said he liked me because I have very dark hair, almost-black-brown, but very light eyes, blue like the ribbing of an iceberg. Apparently, this level of contrast is rare but innately attractive. The kids I babysat were ebony-eyed towhead blondes. I didn’t tell them they were part of this special, high contrast club because their hair would probably brass with age and I didn’t want their self-esteems to plummet when they outgrew this specialness and realized they’d just be ordinary for the rest of their lives. I’d told Marcella this, and she’d said it was insulting for Reese to say he only liked me because of some ingrained, aesthetic preference rather than my own unique attributes and his conscious decision to appreciate them. “But those are my unique attributes,” I’d told her. She didn’t seem to get it.
Mom took us to a viciously air-conditioned diner decorated in a preppy 50s style, everything baby blue, chrome-accented, chevron-striped. A jukebox scintillated from the corner like a gateway to heaven. I ordered a steak because it was the most expensive item, and Marcella ordered a wedge salad with half the ingredients removed because it was the only vegetarian option. When the waitress brought over bulbs of sangria for Mom and Marcella, I asked if I could have one too, but she just said, “How about an iced tea for you?” and whisked away before I could answer. When the food arrived, I picked through the fries, oversalting them until my mouth burned. Mom told Marcella about when her mother had hidden a jewellery box in the center of her birthday cake, and I wanted to ask why she’d never done that for me, but I knew the response that would get: my name, slanted and harsh, and she’d not even stop long enough to look at me.
Last year, our neighbours asked me to collect their mail while they were on a cruise in Alaska. On the third day, a postcard arrived with a grainy photo of The Parthenon.
Dear Martha and Herb,
Hope all is well. We meant to send this ages ago, but with the heat and the fact that the ouzo doesn’t stop coming, our brains have been a little frazzled! John is so sunburnt he looks like a lobster, but I’ve taken to life here like I was a Greek god in a past life. Sometimes I try ordering dinner in Greek and I swear my pronunciation is so good I can pass for a local.
I kept it in case I ever decided to blackmail them, maybe instead of taking out college loans, or if I went into gambling debt (though that was little concern; when Reese and I played strip poker I won 90% of the hands).
On the fourth day they received an invitation to a wedding in Cabo, the turquoise cardstock etched with silver. I figured they wouldn’t be able to afford the flights since they’d just gone to Alaska, so I kept it. I kept a campaign flyer for a town council candidate my mother hated. I kept a reminder for an eye check-up. Martha’s glasses did not flatter her face shape, so clearly her optometrist didn’t have her best interests in mind.
Martha and Herb got boring mail, so I started searching the entire neighbourhood. I’d followed an affair between a nineteen-year-old nail technician and a married investment banker for several months. Whoever lived in the bungalow down the block was invited to a lot of funerals, and whoever lived kitty-corner to us kept getting reminders to attend their parole hearing. The dad from the family across the street had a secret daughter in Australia, and she was threatening to contact his wife unless he paid her rent. Each of her letters arrived disguised as a subscription to a hunting and fishing magazine. I’d check mailboxes on my way home from school, a flyer for our homecoming dance fundraiser lodged between my fingers. I took the long route along the quiet boulevard where palms bobbled down sickle-shaped driveways, the houses were all window, the emerald lawns were mowed into checkerboards even though we were on water restriction. Not only did rich people get better mail, but I didn’t feel bad stealing it.
Mom bought craft sets and sewing kits for us to do together, leaving Marcella and I with matching felted owls, tie-dyed infinity scarves, and wire jewellery racks. Marcella couldn’t go on hikes because she’d torn her ACL slackline-ing, so on weekends, Mom packed picnic lunches—chickpea salad and powdered fruit punch—for us to eat in the backyard. Each time we passed a busker, she passed Marcella change to flick into their guitar case. Marcella mentioned she’d played ukulele and Mom got a used one from a co-worker’s daughter, the side plastered with stickers of anime characters.
Marcella must have felt a little guilty, because she volunteered to do the dishes every night and folded our laundry. She helped Mom clean the gutters and wash the car, while I lounged in the shade and texted Reese a photo of my legs extended in the parched grass. I tagged along when Mom took Marcella to the bank, or the grocery store, or the pharmacy, because I wanted these peeks into the intimate, private aspects of her life: her credit score, her prescriptions, her preferred brand of tampons or shampoo. She bought cottage cheese, dried cranberries in bulk, black licorice, everything organic and unpasteurized, all her soaps formulated for sensitive skin.
It was easy to get Marcella to fawn over me. All I had to do was tell her one of my teachers had said something misogynistic or the woman I babysat for had stiffed me ten dollars. I told her Reese and I had gotten into an argument. “Ugh, say no more,” she said. I’d been saving that one, anticipating its effectiveness.
We lay on our stomachs on Louise’s floor and split a packet of lemon wafers.
“Do you think you’re going to break up?”
“Probably not. Maybe next year, or if we get a hot exchange student who’s into me. It’s just a temporary thing, he likes me more than I like him.”
“That’s good,” she waved a wafer at me like a conductor. “You have the power.”
“Have you had many boyfriends?”
“Four, but one doesn’t really count. I don’t believe in relationships anymore, though. Marriage is such a scam. Monogamy, white-picket-fence, 1.8 kids, it’s all bullshit. I’d rather be totally free than be tied down to a man.”
I nodded like I agreed with her, but I couldn’t fathom a future where one person didn’t love me more than they loved anyone else.
I opened Louise’s vanity and rooted through her makeup, dried foundation crumbling to my fingertips. We smoothed one of Louise’s clay face masks onto our faces, pores zinging with tea tree oil. As the clay cracked around her temples and mouth, I opened Louise’s closet and shuffled through her clothes.
I plucked a pair of overalls, corduroy with dramatic bellbottoms. “I bet these would fit you.”
“She won’t mind?”
“She hasn’t worn this stuff in years. It’s not her style anymore.”
I watched the distorted reflection of her bare shoulders in the brass doorknob as she changed. She modelled a gingham babydoll dress, a Peter Pan collared blouse, a plaid skirt. Her hair tousled with each change, ponytail fuzzy and baby hairs staticked. She tried on a terracotta peasant dress, swishing it around her ankles.
“Keep it,” I said. “It looks better on you.”
The next day though, I saw her sprawled over the couch, hair pooled on the floor, scrolling through job listings on her phone, dress scrunched around her knees, and I wished I’d taken it for myself.
Heat yellowed the sky, every surface pearling with sweat. I’d practiced opening packages without damaging them, so I could examine the contents and keep what I wanted. I found a letter with an ultrasound and a cheque for seventy-five dollars. I thought about using it to trick Marcella into thinking I was pregnant so we’d have a secret to bond over, but left it in case she told Mom. I found a red lingerie set, but it wasn’t my size. I found the results of a paternity test (positive), a vial of sand from the Dead Sea (which I kept), a box of assorted Japanese candies (kept those), a spare part for a vacuum cleaner (left that), a birth control prescription (I was tempted—I could note the address and likely snag it a few months in a row, but had heard it could make you gain weight so I put it back), and a wilted Valentine’s Day card from someone’s secret admirer.
The best find was a knock-off designer bracelet slickering in bubble wrap. Gold flaked off the chain and stained my fingers. I noosed it around my wrist so I could tell Marcella Reese had given it to me. She seemed not to like Reese, even though she’d never met him, but I figured she’d just had an abusive boyfriend or been cheated on or something.
I nudged her door open. Her sandals laid upside down on the floor. Smoke pirouetted from her sandalwood incense and I twirled my wrist through the ribbon, like it was blessing me. Louise’s room had always had a sweet, artificial scent, but now it smelled natural and woodsy. I adjusted the angle of the vanity, turned a pillowcase inside out, reordered her lipsticks. The bracelet’s moonstone charm dug into my pulse.
Clothes clumped out of her suitcase’s open maw. I found a tangle of wooden jewellery, a sleeve of rolling papers, a tin of CBD gummies. I ate one. It was good, pineapple-flavoured, so I slipped two more into my pocket. I found a soft pink vibrator, which would be the perfect thing to steal—so intimate she could never inquire about its disappearance, just sit in uncomfortable confusion—but was scared I could catch an STI from touching it, so I shoved it to the bottom of her bag with a t-shirt. I found a pack of scratch and wins. I peeled one with the bracelet’s charm. I lost so stole another. I eventually stopped after four, my hands dusted with silver.
I waited for her to notice the bracelet, so it wouldn’t feel like I was bragging. Her fingertips might brush the chain, skim my inner arm. Her eyes might doe, betraying her statements about the environmental sin of capitalism. Many of the things she said felt contradictory to me, such as “Womanhood is a prison” but also “The female energy is divine.” According to her, we were all born blank slates, unprinted and pure, and everything we think and feel and want is just a mosaic of knowledge absorbed from parents and music videos and the cartoons we watched as kids. Everything was society’s fault, or the patriarchy’s fault, but she still blamed genetics for her nail-biting habit, her shrill laugh, her tendency to interrupt. She said she got it from her mother. Either way, you could deflect the blame. Whether you were pre-coded or a moulded blank slate, it wasn’t your fault for being the way you were. I thought about this when I failed a pop quiz, when I thumbed gum into the underbelly of a desk, when I dumped the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny tray into my bag.
I knocked on the door, and Marcella told me to come in. She was plucking her eyebrows, brow mottled red.
I hung from the doorframe by my fingertips, posed like a figurine at a ship’s bow. She didn’t say anything, so I let go of the doorframe and stumbled forward. Our eyes met in the mirror. Hers glittered like algae, prettier than I’d ever noticed; if not for my own eyes’ specialness, I might have been jealous.
“Do you need something, Daphne?”
“I’m just bored.”
She tugged at her temple. I made the conscious decision not to tell her that she’d get premature wrinkles if she kept pulling her eyes like that.
“Do you like my bracelet?”
“Reese gave it to me.” I pushed off the back of her chair and spun so briskly my hair spiraled around my neck like the blades of a ceiling fan. “I’m going to his house now. His family is all out at his brother’s baseball game.”
I waited in the doorway for her to chide me somehow, tell me not to get pregnant or remind me to pee after sex, but she didn’t, just fluffed clean the ends of the tweezers.
Reese wasn’t even home. He worked at a comic book shop, which annoyed me because his job was easier than mine. Last time I’d popped in to see him, I’d leaned my elbows on the counter and asked if he wanted to make out in the storage room. He’d acted offended, told me I had to leave in case his manager showed up. A magazine I’d stolen had surprise him at work as #6 on their list of ways to spice up your sex life, so clearly the writers hadn’t done their research.
I’d told Marcella I was going out, so I stepped outside. Sunset slanted over the houses across the street. I hopped our lawn, scrubby and tan like the coat of a stray dog. I stopped at the corner of a cul-de-sac. The kids who lived there were always zipping up our street on rollerblades, their skates scraping the asphalt always woke me early on weekends. I’d complained about this to Reese, and all he’d said was “Why do they call it that? Isn’t ‘cul’ French for ‘ass’?” I’d hit his arm, told him that wasn’t funny, and reminded him he’d gotten a D- in French, but I laughed every time I thought of it, including then as my sneakers clucked up their driveway.
A blood drive flyer, a bank statement, a reminder about parent teacher night at the middle school. A heavy letter slotted against my thumb, the address handwritten in shaky, careful script. I thumbed it open as I ducked out of their yard.
A birthday card with characters from a cartoon the kids I babysat always had on. Inside, a hundred dollars and a note that read Happy birthday Olivia! Buy yourself something you really want, Grandpa, which led me to believe they were not very close. Still, it was more money than I’d ever gotten for a birthday. I tipped the envelope and a chain slinked into my palm, settled there with cold weight. The silver was pale and untarnished. My thumbprint tree-ringed the heart-shaped charm, a diamond set in the center. I crimped the card into fourths and used the cash to buy a pair of gladiator heels I’d wanted for months, even though Marcella had told me the store was unethical fast-fashion. I could hardly balance in them, but I liked feeling that vulnerable, like a baby doe just learning to walk.
I brought two glasses of lemonade upstairs as an excuse to see Marcella. She sat on the bed wearing brown harem pants, her hair piled on her head like a hibernating squirrel. Her fingertips printed the cup.
I raised the necklace, looped in my thumb.
“Yeah, but I wanted to give it to you.”
“Daphne, I can’t. It’s a gift from your boyfriend.”
“I’m going to break up with him. He knows I could do better, that’s why he keeps buying me stuff. It’s pretty, though. I’d rather you have it, as a present from me.”
“You know it’s true, you are too good for him.”
She turned at the waist so I could fasten the chain around her neck. She had a tattoo of a heart behind her ear, which I’d never noticed before. She was probably embarrassed by how tacky it looked. The clip snagged in her baby hairs, and I snapped one tugging it free.
“Thanks,” I said. “I know.”
Since I’d told Marcella, I figured I had to actually break up with Reese. I lay on my bed, rehearsing what I’d say. “I just think I’ve outgrown you,” sounded good, movie-like. I called him but he didn’t pick up. I took off the bracelet so Marcella wouldn’t think I either had no follow through or was a heartbroken mess.
A week later, I still hadn’t broken up with him.
“Where’s Marcella?” I asked Mom, as she repotted Louise’s lady palm on the porch. Dirt veined her forearms.
“She’s leaving.” She held a palmful of mulch but didn’t squeeze, just tipped it into the pot.
She swallowed a knot of tension before she exhaled and said, “She stole some money from the neighbours. It was in a birthday card in their mail. I honestly can’t believe it.”
“How would they know that was her?”
“They saw her wearing a necklace that was in the package.”
“She probably just has the same necklace.”
“I know you’re fond of her, but she couldn’t afford to buy a new toothbrush. I doubt she’s been walking around with sterling silver jewellery.”
“I told you she seemed sketchy. I never even wanted her to stay here.”
“I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She abused that. Just don’t treat her as an example.” She wiped her palms on her jeans and walked over to me, touching my elbow with her dirt-clotted fingertips. “I know you and her were close.”
“She literally proved that it’s easy to take advantage of people as long as you’re not dumb enough to get caught, and that as long as you’re nice, someone will screw you over.” I backed away from her touch. “Don’t you think that’s what happened to Louise? Some creepo told her he needed help finding his puppy and she was nice, so she tried to help him, then he probably tased her and locked her in a shed.”
“I don’t know why you think Louise ran away. I don’t know why you’d even want that, because that means she hated you. At least if she got locked in a basement, she still cared about you.”
“Someday, when you’re a mother, you will understand.”
“You’re never even worried about me. What if I was catfishing weird men on the internet who want me to send them pictures of my feet? And you never ask about my boyfriend. For all you know he’s twenty-six or doesn’t have teeth or lives behind the liquor store.”
She sucked in a long breath and sifted it out, like the therapist we’d seen after Louise disappeared had taught us. “Daphne, please, go to your room.”
Marcella had tugged the sheets off the bed, and they braided across the floor. She shoved a shirt into her suitcase.
“I heard you’re leaving.” I leaned against the doorframe.
Even though her cheeks were flushed, she said coolly, “Where’d you get that necklace? Really, Daphne, don’t say from your boyfriend.”
“This was my sister’s room. Mom wanted to keep it pristine in case she came back. I mean, it’s not really pristine because detectives went through all her stuff. They thought she’d run away, or maybe she had a secret older boyfriend who sold her into sex trafficking or something. But that’s not what happened, I don’t think. She’s probably dead.”
“Your mom never told me,” she said, her voice like soda that had gone flat: the sharpness there, but evaporated.
“All I could think was how embarrassing it must be to have the cops go through your underwear drawer and your garbage, and they can see all the assignments you failed and read your diary, and maybe they’ll find a reason to think you deserved it. I threw away anything I wouldn’t want someone to find if I died tomorrow. Sometimes though, I find weird things, like a dog tooth or the plunger from a hypodermic needle or the bald head of a barbie doll with the eyes gouged out, and I hide them around my room, so if I die and they search through my stuff, they’ll at least think something interesting happened to me.”
Marcella slapped her suitcase shut. “Did you hate her?”
“Can I have the dress back?”
She threw it at me so hard the buttons stung my palms. I stepped aside so she could leave.
I toed the rope of sheets into the hallway and shut the door. A strand of her hair strangled the bedpost and she’d left a sock under the desk. I found a dot of yellow nail polish on the vanity and didn’t know if it was hers or Louise’s.
I sat on the mattress and traced the diamonds quilted into the damask. I fell onto my back. The air smelled of the palo santo Marcella meditated to. The ceiling fan whooshed the scent out the window. I imagined how I would decorate the room now that she was gone. I wanted a lava lamp. I wanted a chandelier. I wanted to paint the walls red.
Shaelin Bishop (they/she) lives and writes on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, The Common, Room, CAROUSEL, Plenitude, PRISM international, The New Quarterly, Vagabond City Lit, and elsewhere. They were longlisted for the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize.