The water tasted funny all of a sudden. Dawn knew when she bought the house she’d eventually need to change out the filter – it was a by-product of the well. The previous owner had even left her detailed instructions on how to do it, in size eighteen Comic Sans font it was now tucked beneath the coffee pot. She just could not bring herself to do it. She couldn’t handle having to ask for help if she failed. She could visit Home Depot or hire a TaskRabbit, but she preferred not to speak to people unless it was truly dire.
Instead, she chewed her bottom lip to a pulp and sipped the tinny water that now made her wince.
Dawn knew she was a shrinking violet who was afraid of every danger that bubbled under the surface of life. It’s why her family was concerned when she moved to New York City after college, why they begged her to move home every time she called scared. She feared the pickling of her organs from pollution. She feared an arm pushing her in front of a subway car. She feared an air conditioner falling from a window and crushing her head like a jam jar on the sidewalk. She feared a man looming over her bed while she slept, having climbed up the fire escape. Bad news bombarded her with every pinging notification on her phone.
All that and yet nothing actually horrible had ever happened to her. Dawn’s whole life was a never-ending string of not-quites. Not-quite friendships, not-quite relationships, not-quite careers, not-quite disasters. She was a whole not-quite person, she thought. When everything was almost, everything was terrifying.
Bad things happen where people happen, she firmly believed. And so she sunk her savings into something that was sure, tactile, and with way fewer human beings around. She told no one in her family she had moved, for fear they’d try to talk her out of it.
The black A-frame was tiny with a wood stove and a staircase that spiraled into an attic where she slept cocooned in the largest comforter she could find. She continued her work a few hours a day remotely as a virtual customer service representative for a fine jewelry company, talking ladies off ledges because their princess-cut rings and pendants hadn’t arrived yet. She felt neutral about it. Dawn filled each of her new windows with plants she knew like basil and rosemary and tended to them as if they’d come from her own body. At night she ate tomato confit with plump burrata and unctuous bread blanketed with salted butter and read musty books she bought secondhand in the nearby town.
When the water in the sink grew its funk, she worried the clawing of fear she’d run from in the city had followed her. Her fear was silly, not connected to anything real.
“Wherever you go, there you are,” her dad always used to say. But Dawn didn’t like that saying. She wanted to believe you could grow into something else if you tried hard enough. What did it mean about her character if one could not?
She continued to do nothing about the water, letting the minerals fester against the back of her tongue and the front of her teeth.
One night after treating herself to a farm-to-table, overpriced dinner in town, she decided to stop at a gas station and purchase bottled water – it was an imperfect solution, but one she could handle.
The building glowed dilapidated against the setting sun, complemented by staticky neon signs for Juul pods and energy drinks in gummy bear flavors. Half the gas pumps were out of order.
A sign above the insurance office next store just read “Happy” in block letters. Dawn loved that sign – she imagined all the birthdays and Christmases the word was once attached to, now just a directive, a demand, a promise. The bell rang as she entered the store.
A rusted bell rang as she entered. The small store was empty, just the arresting smell of eight-hour-old coffee and the cloying pancake aroma from someone’s vape. She grabbed four giant bottles of Smart Water, struggling to clutch them all as the condensation sweat into her skin. The small Indian man at the counter was around her age, smiled tautly, and looked so fully into her eyes that it caused her to almost drop one of her waters. There was an energy in the air now she couldn’t quite place. Perhaps it had always been there, a thick pregnancy that confused her. She fumbled for her wallet.
“Just give me ten they’d normally be twelve but I’ll give you a sale for ten.”
His voice wavered, his words strung together like a melted candy necklace that left watercolor sugar on your skin. His hand shook as he took the bill.
“Uh, great thanks,” Dawn said. Her words were drawn out like a question.
“Okay, goodbye,” the man said, rudely. Then Dawn hesitated, just for a second, to reposition the water bottles in her arms. The man hadn’t even offered her a bag. Then, like a freshly-born seal, one slipped from the warmth of her arms and bounced to the floor. At the same time, the cashier sneezed – then a sound so loud enraptured the air, filling up every space in Dawn’s body. There was a beeping no – a ringing, that plagued every inch of her brain. She fell to the floor, and only then did she see the other man, behind the cashier, crouched behind him, holding a gun that pointed up at the ceiling. An acrid, metallic odor clung to the air. There was now a crumbling hole in the ceiling where he’d shot through it. Her arms were showered with confetti from the plaster. Like ash from a fire or glitter at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The man’s cheeks were sunken. His gaunt body swam in dirty denim and had a wild look in his eyes behind greasy bleached hair. He launched from behind the counter and pushed Dawn to her knees. Something cold and steel and hard was pushed into the back of her skull. The cashier stared at her, also a statue, as if to say, “I told you to get out of here.”
“Empty your bag,” the man demanded but Dawn didn’t hear it – she could make out the words from the shapes his lips made. She wondered where her water bottles were. When had she dropped the rest of them? The ringing still filled her. She felt the cold steel press harder against the nape of her neck as she emptied every pocket, zipper, and button on her. From the slump of his backpack on the floor, the cashier had already emptied the cash register before Dawn entered. He took her cash, credit cards, old Metro pass, health insurance card, moderately-priced yet used lip balm, her phone, keys, and grandmother’s cameo ring. He seemed pleased, and the air softened. Maybe she would live. But the gun stayed pressed against the hinge in her skull.
There was a pause, a moment, a decision, then Dawn heard a thick metallic click.
Then the man cursed, grabbed his new belongings, and ran out the door – the rusted bell joyful and unaware.
Dawn slumped forward, feeling the wetness of sweat now, the circle where the gun barrel had been pressed.
Why had he pulled the trigger? Why didn’t he know the clip was empty? Why had he decided he wanted her to die? She’d given him everything she had. She knew that question would haunt her forever – was it something to her face, her expression? Could he somehow tell she was useless?
Dawn and the cashier didn’t move from their spots or look at each other again until he found the machinations to call the police. One would drive her home. She would call a locksmith, then break a window anyway because she couldn’t bear the vulnerability of being outside.
Bad things happen where the living happens, she thought.
A month went by, then two, then six and eight. Dawn rarely left her house, at first only to visit a farmer’s market on Saturdays, then decided she could find most resources in the woods that surrounded her so she began making stews from leaves. She crunched them soaked in broth, unsure if they were edible or not but not really caring.
Her shirts smelled like mushrooms, like rich earth and must from the depths of her being. Her sheets were decorated with the shape of her sweat from the nightmares that never ceased to appear the moment she shut her eyes. The funk of the water, still with its aging filter, seemed to hold a pastel green, swampy consistency now.
She let her phone die and then never charged it again.
She did the same thing with her laptop, realizing if she never looked at her email there would be none to answer. She watched her savings dwindle and wallowed in terror of it, wondering what would happen when the number reached a ripe, aching zero.
She passed a mirror one day. She stared into it. She was a feral child now, her hair a rusted golden from the sun and from rolling in the grass. She plucked a twig from it and then stuck it between her teeth to chew. Her eyes were pools but not the kind she grew up with – the kind with muck and grime and fish guts muddled at the bottom. Thin red scratches like vandalized maps plagued her arms, and she didn’t know if they were from the trees or her own cragged nails.
One day she wanted to mail a letter, just one, to her mother. It would be vague and she would leave off the address, but she missed the fading memory of her worry. She’d need to drive past the gas station to do so, but she felt she could, just this once.
The building glowed freshly painted and new against the setting sun, complemented by too-bright neon signs for Juul pods and energy drinks in gummy bear flavors. The gas pumps all worked.
A sign above a used car lot just read “Used” in block letters. Dawn could have sworn it was an insurance building before, with a sign she once liked. But she couldn’t remember now and it all felt blurry in her brain.
The cashier, who was probably the owner, had given the entire place a facelift. Good for him, she thought. But she knew there were always two paths. He’d gone a different one.
That was the first night Dawn’s house felt too hot. Even with the windows open, and the fan. Even when Dawn removed every stitch of clothing from her body and lay atop her sheets. It was stifling. She couldn’t breathe. It must be the logs they used to build the house, she thought. They’re too thick. Her eyes felt stuck open, cracked, and dry, as she stared at a Daddy Long Legs on one of its beams until morning.
The next night she decided to venture outside, to feel the breeze relieve the stress that sunk deep within her skin. She lay in her yard, the grass having grown wild with violets and daisies. She felt each blade between her thighs, tickling her neck.
She felt she could breathe, truly breathe, for the first time in forever.
When she awoke the next morning dew like small clear worlds speckled her breasts and a hawk flew overhead. She shook the drops from her body and went inside.
The next night she could never go back to the house, she decided. It was also too poisoned by people because someone had crafted those beams and sold them to her in the shape of a dwelling. Something bad could happen there, too, if she just stayed there long enough. A home invasion – she’d seen the movies. A fire. Old age. She needed to escape it.
That night, she forgot to wear shoes and walked up the hill behind her house and deep into the woods. She walked until her tendons ached and sweat lived in the dips of her collarbones. Until the forest told her to stop.
A small glass bottle leaned against a tree, its body crystallized with time. She uncapped it and tipped it into her mouth, the sparkling liquid inside cold and fresh like melted snow as it poured through her. Did a hunter leave it to quell his post-kill thirst? Or was it presented to her especially, like a mystical gift that appeared effortlessly from the ground?
It was the first clean water that had entered her body in months.
The moon was a crescent and it seemed to smile at her as she lay down again. The moss was soft. Tendrils of tender greens curled around her ankles and ears, tickling and whispering to her.
Dawn lost track of time. The first frost encrusted over the warmth of her skin like rock candy. She could feel a deep breath of a deer, a tickling of curious whiskers, as it searched for food. The crackle of springtime and the ripeness of summer and the welcome cool to where she started. Throughout it all she lay there, becoming it.
She could see the death that happened in the woods – animals eat each other, trees let their leaves burn each year brightly then perish, and decay was all around her.
Bad things happen everywhere, she thought. But these bad things weren’t cruel or malicious, they were just what happened. It was gentle death, coaxing cruelty, gorgeous rot. It was where she belonged. In the sensual nature of cold humidity, in the surrendering reckoning of her organs.
Her bones cracked to follow the roots of the pines, her blood fed the dirt like fruit nectar. Her heart melted then turned to ash then blew away with the breeze. The irises of her eyes became streams of sunlight through the translucent spines of leaves.
She melted, and sunk, and dispersed, and disappeared.
This was bad.
This was beautiful.
This was better.
Lyz Mancini is a writer living in Catskill, NY. She is a beauty copywriter for brands like Clinique, and her writing has recently appeared in Slate, Catapult, HerStry, Shortwave Magazine, Huffington Post, Roi Faineant Press, and more. She is a Pitch Wars 2020 and Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 alum and was nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. She is represented by Victoria Marini of Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Find her on Twitter @lyzasterous.
photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina (via pexels)