Lila was almost home when she saw him. He lay beneath the flickering street lamp just around the curve from her apartment. His eyes were closed and there was a pool of dried blood on his shirt. Lila looked around. No one else in sight. She knelt and checked for a pulse. Nothing. His neck smelled like coffee. Lila checked his pockets. In his wallet she found an I.D. card from some talent agency. Travis, his name was Travis. Lila knew she should call the police, but he was so beautiful. And he looked light enough to carry, or at least drag. Lila lifted up his shirt. His ribs were visible around the wound. He was kind of dirty. She checked the road again, then looped her arms beneath his shoulders and began tugging him around the corner. His shoes made soft scrapes on the concrete. Lila took them off. My floors are soft, she whispered.
When they got to her building, Lila brought Travis through the back door. The hallway was–thank God–empty. She scrambled for her keys and unlocked her door and dragged Travis inside. His legs crossed the threshold just as her neighbor Kyle opened his door. Lila jumped over them and into the hallway. She tried to pull the door closed, but it caught on Travis’ feet. Kyle stepped out and smiled at her. She swung the door hard, knocking Travis’ feet aside, and pressed it shut. Kyle stopped in front of her and put his hands in his pockets.
“Hey Lila,” he said. “How’s it going?” He took one hand out and scratched the back of his neck.
“Hi Kyle,” Lila shouted. “I was just checking my mail.”
“For sure,” Kyle said. “No mail today huh?”
“I don’t know,” Lila said. “What I meant was, I’m about to check it.”
“Oh got ya,” Kyle nodded. “Totally.”
They stood in silence.
“I have to go,” Lila said, not moving.
“Oh for sure,” Kyle said. He stood for a moment, then started walking down the hallway. At the exit he looked back over his shoulder, smiled at the floor, and left. Lila hurried back into her apartment and locked the door.
Lila sat Travis on the couch. His head slumped to the side. She took hold of either end and gently centered it, leaning it just so against the cushion so that it remained upright.
She beamed. “Make yourself at home!”
Lila heated up noodles and watched TV on the couch next to Travis. There was a strange advertisement for breakfast food on. These ads actually began as a soap opera but slowly the presence of Vulnicorn oatmeal had found its way into more and more shots and finally, the titles disappeared from the opening credits, replaced by the Vulnicorn logo. The logo showed two animate corn stalks sitting at a table eating oatmeal, looking vaguely towards the audience. Their facial features were very small and it was hard to tell exactly what their expression was. Lila sometimes imagined it as the moment when the stalks learned that the oatmeal was made from 40% corn.
After dinner, Lila ran a bath for Travis and set candles around the tub. She carried him to the bathroom and undressed him. Travis toppled into the tub, rocking the discolored water.
While she washed him, Lila told Travis about how when she was small, her mother used to pretend that she was a new species, the Lila. She had never told this to anyone. The most inconsequential actions of Lila’s would elicit it; the way she laughed to herself at random moments during the day, having thought of something funny, the way she spoke to inanimate objects, the way she ate cereal without any milk. And there is the Lila, her mother would say as if she were a tour guide, eating cereal like the Lila does.
Lila always hated this joke.
Her mother had died a quick death several years ago, without disease or struggle, just as if her heart had flipped an off switch. It was a nice way to go, Lila thought, implying friendship between body and earth.
Lila dragged Travis back to the couch and put a blanket over him. He was almost smiling, eyes nearly shut, like someone stoned. The bath had helped, but his shirt still smelled like blood. She could get him some new clothes soon. She kissed him on the cheek, then turned the light off and went to bed. It was a great feeling, drifting off, knowing he would be there when she woke. His presence made things feel less dire, less void of meaning.
In the morning, Lila poured herself cereal and sat eating it across from Travis. She thought about people who did taxidermy. They kept dead animals in their home, and it was no big deal. They probably talked to them sometimes, too.
“I work for this diet pill company,” she said. “It’s okay.” She chewed. Travis’ head had shifted downwards in the night, and his eyes rested on the floor beside her. “I wonder if you liked movies,” Lila said. “You look like an actor.” She finished her cereal and sat staring at the bowl of cloudy milk. “I used to want to be an actor,” she said finally. “But I was always too shy.” Something seemed to manifest in Travis’ expression, a sort of melancholy understanding. “I’m tired of being shy,” Lila said. She leaned forward and touched Travis on the arm, then went to get ready for work.
Lila worked in a windowless office where everyone sat in long rows of cubicles. She liked how the layout made it easy to avoid eye contact with people. Even when there wasn’t a dead body in her apartment, Lila always felt exposed by the eyes of others; they were like flashlights catching on something ugly and non-redeemable inside of her.
Around ten, Harlow came into Lila’s cubicle, knocking lightly on the beige wall. Harlow sat a few desks down. She usually didn’t talk to Lila; no one did.
“Just the weirdo I wanna see,” Harlow said. Her voice was scratchy, wavering, and delicate; it made Lila think of rotting candy. She wore a frayed black tank-top and a bracelet studded with silver skulls. Lila said hello, too loudly. Harlow studied her with a slight grin, then shook her head. “There’s something up with your energy today. I felt it all the way from my desk.” She squinted. “You one of those body snatchers?”
“What?” Lila’s face burned. “No, what do you mean?”
“I mean you’re different,” Harlow said. “It’s like an alien took you over. I can sense these fuckin’ things.”
Lila thought to say that Harlow didn’t really know her, so how she could she know if she was different? She didn’t want to be abrasive though; Harlow was just being friendly.
She shrugged. “I didn’t even get a haircut.”
“HA,” Harlow cackled. “You’re a trip,” she said. “As if a haircut would produce something like this.” Lila shrugged again and looked away. Harlow seemed to think the change was a good thing, at least. “Come out with me tonight,” she said. “Take this new vibe for a spin.”
“Oh,” Lila shook her head. “I don’t think I–“
“Fuck that,” Harlow said. She knelt down and stared at Lila. Her expression became grave. “I know you think you’re wrong, or something, but you’re not. You just don’t belong in your own life.” Harlow let the statement sit for a moment. Lila forced a laugh and shook her head, but Harlow didn’t flinch. “As it is right now, at least,” she added. The panels of fluorescent light above them hummed relentlessly. Harlow winked and went back to her desk.
Once Harlow had gone, Lila continued down the call-list. Next was a man named John Stulk. It sounded like he was walking downtown.
“Hello,” Lila said. “Would you like to kick your diet into overdrive?” She could hear the sounds of the street waking up all around him, the hissing and clanging, the angry accelerations.
John chuckled. “Overdrive, huh?”
“We offer a 50% money back guarantee.”
“Nah, thank you love,” John said. “I’m fit as a fiddle.” Lila paused. This was the moment when she was supposed to say, we could all lose a few extra, I know I could! But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. “You ever wonder where that expression came from?” John was saying. “What’s so fit about a fiddle anyway, that’s what I want to know.”
Lila hung up.
She spent her lunch break sitting on a bench in front of the office, eating an unsatisfying turkey sandwich. She couldn’t stop thinking about the photo-strips on the walls of Harlow’s cubicle, pictures of Harlow making funny faces with her friends. It made Lila sad to think how she and Travis could never take pictures in a photo-booth together, could never even go out together. But more important things were happening all the time; even, probably, at the moment when Lila had found his body, even when she was dragging him home.
A woman walked by the building, talking to herself. She glanced at Lila and snarled at her as she passed. Lila nodded and looked away, thinking how quickly and chaotically the world moved along. She hoped she’d been forgiven, feeling simultaneously that there was no forgiver.
Walking to her apartment, Lila felt newly excited over the presence of Travis inside; for the first time, she was coming home to somebody. In the hallway, Kyle was getting his mail. He jumped a little at the sight of her, then tittered softly.
“You scared me,” he said. “I don’t know why, it’s like, we are in a hallway.” He shook his head. “Stupid.”
“Sorry,” Lila said. She leaned against her doorframe. “I surprise myself sometimes too. Like, I’ll think I’m not there, and then suddenly, I am.” She watched Kyle as he helplessly tried to remove his key from the rusty mailbox lock, yanking at it surreptitiously. The key stayed put.
“I know what you mean,” Kyle said. “Totally.” He gave a final tug on the key and it grated out of the lock, sending him staggering back several steps and nearly falling over the second-floor railing.
“You have good balance,” Lila said.
Kyle smiled at her, catching his breath. “You think so?”
Lila nodded, then opened her door and went inside. Travis was on the couch. His eyes seemed to be open wider than before, as if he’d become more conscious of his deceased state, or was trying hard to move.
“Hey dude.” Lila set her bag down on the counter. Her heart swelled; this was all there was to it. “I thought I’d order Chinese tonight,” she said. Harlow wasn’t picking her up until ten, so they would have plenty of time together. “And we can eat on the couch and watch something.” She turned on the lamp in the corner, bathing the living room in a dim amber glow. Lila had always thought it was soothing, a quality of light you could sink into. Travis looked lovely in it; a warm-hearted outcast who finally felt safe, here, with her. Lila ordered chow mein, making sure to stress that she would meet the delivery person outside the building. When it arrived, she brought it to the couch and curled up against Travis’ side, turning on the TV. There was an old movie on called Cat People. Together they sat in the black-and-white glow and Lila ate from the takeout container with the provided chopsticks. Maybe it didn’t matter that Travis was dead. Everyone would be dead someday. On some level, a lot of people were dead even before they died, dead even while they moved through their days with breath and a beating heart. Live-ness was a mental state just as much, if not more, than a physical one. And here, nestled on the couch with Travis, Lila finally felt in a state of togetherness, and wasn’t that the key to being alive?
Harlow pulled up outside her building in a battered blue sedan. She was wearing a purple wig and a green jumpsuit streaked with faded paint. There was a man in the passenger seat Harlow introduced as Crater. He nodded at Lila, then looked back at Harlow.
“You’re right,” he said. “She’s got some mystic shit going on.”
“Where are we going?” Lila asked, trying to sound excited.
“Someplace we can let go,” Harlow said. “Unleash our true energy, you know?”
The car sputtered and growled, headlights snaking through the hills. Harlow put the radio on, rock music blaring behind a curtain of static. “Shit.” She pounded her fist on the dashboard a couple times and the static cleared. Crater whooped and Harlow turned the volume up until the screaming chords shook the dashboard, the drums like a pulse wrapping them all in one manic body.
Harlow drove them through downtown, then down an alley nestled between boarded-up storefronts. Crater started humming something low and droney. Eventually, Harlow turned into an old abandoned parking garage tucked behind one of the buildings, a scattering of cars sitting shadowed within. Lila could see a small green light, reaching up from one of the underground levels. Harlow parked and they got out and leaned against the car. Crater’s humming seemed to have synced with the dark electronica eeking out below.
“I missed your magic humming,” Harlow said.
“I missed you,” Crater pulled her to his side. “The whole fuckin’ thing.”
Lila wasn’t sure what they were waiting for, but after a moment Harlow dug around in her pocket and produced three white tablets. She placed two on her tongue and leaned towards Crater, who licked one of them off. In front of Lila, Harlow’s hand held the third. Lila accepted with less reluctance than she would have expected from herself; it felt as if she had passed through some sort of psychic passage, annihilating anxiety.
She trailed behind Harlow and Crater as they descended the gravelly slopes of the garage. The green glow hung faint over the graffiti-coated walls. Lila read the tags with a growing excitement; fuck the narrative; kill your before; obliterate the head; hug the void. The words seemed to shout, scrawled like wild animals, overlapped and rabid. Lila felt as if she were entering a dream, one you could only have after experiencing a spiritual death.
She followed Harlow and Crater down, down, down, until finally they came to the most underground level, where a handful of people were gathered around a number of stereos and lamps. A few of them seemed to be dancing half-heartedly, just swaying a bit, while others lay folded into each other on the cracked leather of old recliners, sleeping heavily. Lila thought they looked like ancient lovers, found centuries later with their limbs still entwined. Needles and bottles covered the ground. One of the women approached Harlow and they embraced. Harlow introduced her as Jade, her cousin. Lila thought she looked around twenty, though several of her teeth appeared rotted. Lila took an instant liking to her; in Jade’s eyes, she felt no disapproving flashlight, no semblance of judgment, only the simple recognition of mutual humanity. Maybe it was just the drugs kicking in, but maybe not. The four of them sat on a decrepit couch and Crater started whispering into Harlow’s ear as Jade hopped up on the cushion and told Lila about her week. It had been a good week, better than most. She’d made a new friend at the diner, someone with compassion, who seemed genuinely interested in a consistent exchange of kindness and support. She’d fallen into despair several times, but it hadn’t lasted as long as usual, she said; its endurance was eroding, inner peace prevailing. Of course that wouldn’t last, probably not, but for now, it was here. She shook Lila’s arm.
“Gotta run with that shit when it comes, you know?”
Lila nodded emphatically. “We do, don’t we?”
“Tell me about your week,” Jade said.
Lila hesitated. The air felt velvety on her skin. Crater had risen from the couch and was dancing erratically down the length of the garage, the sound of his feet like a shivering jaw.
“It was okay,” Lila said. “Not much going on.”
Jade nodded, disappointed. After a moment, she sighed and nestled into Harlow’s shoulder, falling asleep almost immediately.
Harlow looked skeptical. “That was bullshit, wasn’t it?”
Lila blinked several times. “What do you mean, weirdo?” She laughed, a generous, unstoppable laugh that felt like infinite release. Harlow laughed with her, both of them trailing off into joyous wheezing and gasping.
“I mean,” Harlow said, “Something happened to you this week.”
Lila could feel herself nodding. In the distance, she heard Crater screaming out lyrics in sync with the music: her streeeaaaak survives, innnnnn the niiiight. The world around Harlow’s face teetered and blurred. Lila didn’t know what to say. It would be nice to share good news with someone; it wasn’t often she had any.
“Well,” she said, starting to laugh again.
Harlow scooted close to her, pushing her shoulder. “Fucking what? C’mon.”
Her streeek survives…innnn the night.
The people who’d been swaying had found empty recliners and were burrowed into them with blankets, limbs twitching.
“I met someone,” Lila said.
Harlow smacked the couch cushion. “I fucking knew it,” she shouted. “That’s what I’m talking about. Tell me everything.” Harlow’s pupils were huge, and Lila sensed safe harbor in them, like landing pads for her secrets, her sorrows.
“He’s not like Crater,” she said.
“HA!” Harlow cackled. “So he’s got that goin for him. What else?”
“The situation is kind of dark,” Lila said.
Harlow squinted dreamily. “Good,” she said. “I like to stay in touch with darkness. Keeps me alive.”
Lila leaned forward. She felt abuzz with the possibility of friendship; real, filter-less friendship. “Mayyybbeeee I should show you.”
Harlow removed a flask from her jumpsuit and took a swig. “Alright weirdo,” she said. “Lead the way.”
Crater wandered back towards them. He pulled a matchstick out of his pocket, then took his jacket off and placed it in the middle of all the lamps and furniture. He grinned at Harlow and sparked a match on his shoe, tossing it onto the jacket. Lila imagined the flames like her old existence; contained and isolated, unsupportive of life. And here, finally, she could just walk away.
On the drive back to Lila’s apartment, Harlow told her about her tape theory.
“So when we’re born, we’re all taped to this wall, right?” They’d left Crater behind and Lila sat in the passenger seat. The dome light threw a reflection of Harlow on the windshield, her eyes bursting in some bright, shining trance. “The wall can represent society or normality or whatever the fuck,” Harlow continued. “You get it.” Her hands shook on the steering wheel. “See some people are born with their tape stuck so firm to that wall that they just never fucking fall off of it. They live according to it their whole lives and never question, never have reason to question. Other people’s tape is weak as shit and they fall off pretty much right away. Spend their lives wondering what the hell’s going on, why everyone else seems to know something they don’t. Other-other people, people like us, were born with tape a little dulled but not totally without stick, and it takes a while for it to come off. We fall slowly from the wall, see, spending a lot of time just hanging half-off half-on, so we can see clearly our situation, and what’s going on with the stuck ones, and what’s happening down there with the misfits. This equips us to function in the world when we do fall, to play by its rules even though we know the whole time that on some level, its all bullshit.” She paused and smiled into the night. “It also lets us live, live for real, in that space below.”
Lila felt little hands pushing back on her as she led Harlow to her door, hands that calculated, reasoned, kept her away from anything scary, anything real. She kicked them, stomped them, ground them into dust. She got her key and slid it into the lock as Harlow leaned back in a blissful haze, her wig splayed against the drywall like a splash of paint.
“It’s quiet as a morgue in here,” she said.
Lila let out a gasp of laughter. The door clicked open.
Inside, Lila went and sat on the couch next to Travis. She looked at Harlow and patted the cushion. Harlow came slowly into the room, neck craned forward. Her smile had gone, eyes pushing past the drugs, alert.
“This is Travis,” Lila said. “We met the other day, just a few blocks down.”
Harlow stood before them in the dark, staring at Travis. She shook her head. She was breathing heavily.
“Fucking hell,” she said. “You’re messing with me.”
Lila felt a surge of panic. “No,” she said. “What do you mean?”
Harlow’s breathing got faster still and she brought her forearm up to her nose. “Oh God,” she whispered. “Oh, God.” She turned and fled, swinging the door open. Her footsteps slammed down the hallway. Lila couldn’t move. She rested her head on Travis’ neck, arm looped around his torso. Her heart felt like a waterlogged napkin, sunk deep within a bucket of filth. She could see now that Travis looked like a crude sketching of a human, crinkled and stiff and terribly pale, his eyes utterly lifeless. She had nothing. No-one. She was a freak, rightly kept away by the world. She could make no genuine connection, receive nobody’s love. Any emotion she expressed would be a lie concocted from some corrupt coding inside her. There was no overcoming her hollowness, her fundamental wrongness.
From the door, still open, there came a knock. Kyle stood looking into the darkness of her apartment, outlined by shimmering dust.
“Lila?” He peered curiously at the lump beside her. “Are you okay?”
Lila paused, then nodded slowly. She turned on the TV.
“Want to watch a movie?”