Holly was taking her work home with her. She had been for a while.
It wasn’t much at first, not as it was now. It came on with a subtlety, gentle as late summer turning to early autumn. Nothing in particular announced it, nothing triggered it as far as she could tell. It was a stiffness in her joints, a lethargy creeping into her muscles. She ignored it for a while, when it was a feasible option. But now her grip would tighten too hard and refuse to unclench when she shook hands—or held Corinne’s. She broke the news to her girlfriend one night as they stood side by side doing the dishes. Her only response was to throw a towel in Holly’s direction, missing her head and sending it onto the floor.
“You expect me to believe you stand on a wooden crate for cash all day and don’t expect to get a little stiff?” she asked.
“It’s different,” Holly said. “I’m really turning to stone. Will be before the year is done, I bet.”
Corinne sighed and finished washing the baked on lasagna from a glass dish and set it on the table. “Are you going out again tomorrow?”
“I think so. Weatherman said it shouldn’t rain until around four.”
Corinne sighed. “You know you don’t have to do this. I don’t understand why you do.”
“My father always raised me to be an independent woman,” Holly said.
Corinne rested her head on Holly’s shoulder and nuzzled in there a bit. “But you have your beautiful girlfriend begging you to let her take care of you.”
Holly shook her head.
Corinne pulled away and hopped up on the sink, kicking her legs softly against the cabinets below. “I make enough money at the hospital for both of us. You don’t need to keep up the side hustle, babe.”
“I do. It’s part of me,” Holly said.
Corinne sighed. “Whatever you say. Take some Advil with you tomorrow.”
“Any chance I could get some muscle relaxers?”
“Maybe if you come into urgent care, but it’s kind of hit or miss for those kind of prescriptions.”
Corinne hopped down from the sink and stood toe to toe with her girlfriend. “When you’re done putting the dishes away, come to bed. I’ll relax you.” She ran a finger along her jawline, tracing her face, and she smiled.
“You won’t like it,” Holly warned. “I’m just gonna lie there.”
The spare room of their house was cramped and claustrophobic, covered with farm animal wallpaper that made the both of them think the original plan must have been for a nursery. Rather than tearing it down, they had chosen to hang long tapestries on each wall from the ceiling to the floor, sending color sprawling across mandalas, but occasionally a smiling sheep could be seen poking through. There was a twin bed, the only thing justifying it as a guest room, as every other inch was covered with rolling racks of costumes and tubes of body paint. Makeup spilled off the vanity into a disaster area spreading out from a beauty shop mirror Holly had once picked up from the curb.
She ran her hands along cotton and tulle, feeling the tickle and whisper of her name being called in different directions. Two bridal gowns, one white, the other dyed black. A suit and cap in which she became the dashing gentleman, ever so slowly extending her umbrella to capture a moment of shade for the occasional passerby, so slowly they may have never realized she was human, save the briefcase full of coins at her feet. She had a plastic suit of armor with a foam sword, cheap dollar store supplies she had fashioned into something passable, so that the foam didn’t buckle as she stood ramrod straight. Her fingernail tugged on a loose calamine colored strand and she smiled. It felt like promise.
She had never studied ballet, but Holly could pirouette with the best of them. She stood stock still, one foot raised and pointed inward, flat against her leg, the other firm against the ground. When a dollar, or a few coins were dropped into the empty slipper at her feet, she gave a single, slow, solitary spin. Then, achingly slow, she returned to her original position, still as marble once again. It was October and she could feel gravel in her ribs.
Corinne didn’t often come to Holly’s performances. “I love you dearly,” Corinne had told her. “But there’s only so long a person can watch you perform. The grass grows faster.”
But there were exceptions. December had just got done clawing itself away from November when she stood atop the park bench draped in silver. The body paint had taken over an hour to apply, sitting on a crate in the garage, stiffly reaching down and sponging the liquid onto herself. It didn’t help that she was working with texture. She hadn’t been able to shave in over a month. Her skin broke every razor she tried.
She could hear her Corinne’s car crawling over the dusting of snow, so silent was the world around her. It was nearly three in the morning.
When the car shuddered to a stop and Corinne stepped out, it was with wet hair and an expression of rage. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply. “Babe,” Corinne breathed, “what the actual fuck?”
Sometimes, Holly liked to hold her breath. Not like a child did, with puffed cheeks and determination, but gradually decreasing what she took in of the world around her until there was nothing at all. She would stand like that, a moment, two, wondering how long she could keep it up until she toppled. She never felt her lungs burn or got dizzy, but she may have just given up too quickly. Holly closed her eyes and held her breath then.
“Please don’t do your act. Not right now. No one’s here.”
Holly had the strangest certainty that her eyelashes had somehow gotten tangled together.
“I can’t move my legs.”
Holly tilted her stiff neck towards the ground. “I’ve been trying to leave since seven.” The day has been busy, holiday craft fair booths set up across the square selling their wares. The crowd had started dwindling at six, and when she had made her move to leave an hour later, she realized she was going nowhere.
Corrinne stepped forward and sighed again. “Come here.” Corinne placed one arm on Holly’s lower back, the other on her calf. “On three.”
Corinne swung her off at two, and Holly felt her head bash into the ground as her upper half flailed out of proportion with the legs Corinne had such a good grasp on. “Shit. Sorry, sorry.”
Corinne laid her on the snow-kissed grass and picked her up again, more securely this time, as though she were ready to carry her over the threshold. Holly leaned her head on her shoulder. “Your breath smells like cranberries.”
“Does it?” she asked
“Yeah,” Holly said, “I like it.”
“I joined a coworker for a cosmo after work while I was trying to figure out where the hell you were,” Corinne said.
Holly looked up at the twinkling lights of airplanes. “That sounds nice. The drinks I mean.”
“Front or back?” Corinne asked.
“I’ll go wherever you want me.”
Corinne helped her lay down in the back seat, covered her with a blanket from the trunk, and gave her a folded up sweater to use as a pillow.
“Are you good to drive?” Holly asked, referring again to her girlfriend’s hot cranberry breath.
“I was good enough to get here.”
“Can I kiss you?” Holly asked, but her question was lost in the slam of the car door.
Corinne shivered convulsively without her sweater and blasted the heat as soon as the car was running, blowing frosty air on both of them while they waited for the engine to heat up again. Corinne reached a hand back to intertwine her fingers with Holly’s. “Jesus Christ, your hands are like ice,” she said.
“Mmm-hmm” Holly said. “They sure are.” She squeezed her girlfriend’s hand a little tighter, held on a little longer to the warmth.
“Did you go to the doctor?” Corrine asked. Their county fair was set up in late spring, so they decided on a night of strolling down the midway, despite the fact the night still had its nip. Holly was between performances, the space between the swings and the funnel cakes reserved for her Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The air smelled of caramel and grease. They had only been walking a few minutes, crunching their feet on used bang snaps and fallen pieces of popcorn. It was one of Holly’s better days, the limp of her stiff legs barely detectable.
A man offered them three throws at some milk bottles for five dollars.
“They said they didn’t find anything,” Holly said. “I got a flu shot and a reminder to get a mammogram in a couple months.”
They waited in silence a while longer. “Sometimes half my face seizes up. I’ll lose all feeling in my fingers and they’ll get cold. Yesterday, you could knock on my stomach and hear it make a sound.”
They could win a goldfish for only two dollars and some skill throwing a ping pong ball. They could fight over how to name it before they both decided Goldie was good enough.
“I’m really sorry,” Corinne said. Holly couldn’t tell if she sounded sad or annoyed.
“It is what it is,” Holly replied.
What about skeeball? Corrine would toss it overhand, lob it. She’d make it every time and get them kicked out.
“What are you going to do when I’m gone?” Holly asked.
Corinne smoothed down some of Holly’s flyaways. “Maybe I don’t want you to ever be gone.”
“What do you mean?” Holly asked. “Can we sit down soon?” Holly could feel her thighs stiffening, seizing up, muscles too tight, hard as diamond.
Corrine reached over and took some of Holly’s cotton candy. “I might be ready to commit to something more.”
“You wanna get a puppy?” Holly asked.
Corinne’s hands were shaking and Holly could see the indents her teeth were forcing into her lips. “I was thinking maybe jewelry.”
Why not try their luck? The game looked fun enough, and the it promised a winner every time.
Holly’s first two performances had been more out of necessity than pleasure. The first, when she was a freshman in college, desperate for a final project in a theater class she had taken for an easy A. The second, as a sophomore, desperate for rent money. She had driven thirty miles away into Vermont, until she came to a town big enough to get a crowd, and hopefully too small for hecklers. She had a striped tiger onesie, complete with fabric tail and a hood with ears. She zipped it to her neck and applied cheap one dollar face paint to her eyes like a mask. She stood upon a folding chair and left a shoebox at her feet. Then she knelt into a predator’s crouch and waited.
It took some getting used to at first, some adjustment. She wanted to pounce when she was tipped. She wanted to leap or claw, something sudden and dramatic, to reward them for bearing with her. She quickly learned this was not the way to go about it. She made one child cry, a toddler boy, surprised when she moved too fast, frightened. She learned to go slower, standing completely still until a coin or two was tossed into the box. She’d turn her head, achingly slow, twist and contort her hand into a claw, let a growl reverberate around her chest and give a single blink in thanks.
It was in this same position she had first met Corinne, though costumed differently. She was a flower girl that day, blossoms braided into her hair with an overflowing basket of half dead daisies and baby’s breath. A few times an hour, she would ghost her hands over the blooms until she caught onto one and gently bring it out before her. She would let anyone take it. A heckler, a child, the wind. When she played the flower girl she would go home when she was out of flowers.
But that day she went through them fast. The summer was blustery, blowing flowers out of the basket before she could even grab them. She couldn’t break form to save them.
Eventually, the determination of the wind left her with a single flower, its stem sitting between her middle and ring fingers. Then there was Corinne, stepping out of the crosswalk and onto the square, sweatpants, baggy t-shirt, and bed head, stumbling down the street. Holly would later learn it was to try to find the junk food to recover from a bout of day-drinking and getting trashed with her now ex-girlfriend when they fell apart.
Corinne had approached slowly, squinting her eyes even though the sunlight was mostly gone. She put some money in the hat box at Holly’s feet, a hundred dollar bill, she would discover, though Corinne would later insist she thought it had been a ten. Then, she reached up to take the flower, pulling back when the wind picked it up from between her fingers and drifted away with it, letting it plummet to the ground several feet away. With the speed of paint drying, Holly leaned over and kissed her on her cheek, pressing her lips against her, inhaling the scent of cheap vodka and expensive perfume.
And, whatever Corinne would say, Holly knew they were in love. Corinne took a pen from behind her ear and jotted down her phone number on the bill before placing it back in the box and leaving with her kiss. Holly breathed deep and stepped down. She felt full, and warm, and heavy as limestone.
Corinne started cleaning out the guest room, shoving things into boxes to donate to the local high school drama department. She wanted to get it done while she could still do it herself, while she had the flexibility in her fingers to pick something up and let it go. Eventually, she came across the same hundred dollar bill Corinne had written her number on. It had felt too precious to spend, despite her overdue electric bill.
She told her about this late one night, watching a movie together on the Hallmark channel. Corinne lay spread out on the couch, fingers dipping into the bowl of popcorn on the floor, her other hand occupied with a cell phone that had been vibrating constantly for the better part of an hour. Holly stood in the corner, still, letting her bones settle into place. She would probably sleep there.
“I always admired you for doing that. Giving me your number even though you were just getting over a breakup. I know I didn’t know at the time, but you just had this courage about you for doing that.”
“You shouldn’t,” Corinne said. Her left hand was spasming. She threw her phone across the room and they both watched without comment as it collided with the wall and the backing and battery popped out. She rolled over to face the back of the couch and tucked her arms close to her body. “I’m always moving too fast.”
They didn’t make dinner together anymore. No comedically bumping hips while chopping vegetables. Holly couldn’t handle it.
Holly stared at the junk mail on the table while Corinne added powdered cheese and milk to pasta.
“Can I help?” Holly asked. “I have to go get ready soon but I still have like half an hour.”
Corinne huffed, all but threw down her wooden spoon, leaving splatters of sauce on the stovetop.
“Don’t go out tonight.”
“What?” Holly asked, not understanding.
“You heard me. You want to help me? Don’t go to “work” tonight. It’s easier on my conscience.”
“No,” Holly said. “No, I’m not doing that.”
The smoke alarm went off as the boxed mac and cheese started to burn.
“Damn it!” Corinne crossed the room and jumped to smack the smoke alarm, forcing it back into silence. “Is it really so much to ask you to stop fucking killing yourself for your art?”
The smoke alarm went off again. The heat on the stovetop was still turned up to high.
Gently, creaking and cracking, Holly laid her head in her folded arms. “You should probably just take the batteries out,” Holly said. “It would be easier.”
“I need you to make me cry.”
“What?” Corinne asked.
Holly was spread eagle on her fiancé’s bed, surrounded by various outfits Corinne had tried on and discarded. “You heard me,” Holly said.
Corinne went back to the mirror. She was trying to push through the pearl earrings Holly had given her for her last birthday. She had finicky piercings. They had a tendency to close up. She winced as she stabbed herself in the earlobe again with the blunt surgical steel. “Why would you want me to do that?”
“I’m playing the abandoned bride tonight,” Holly answered. She was painted white as a porcelain doll, but it was already starting to crease in her fine lines. Powdering had been too much for her locked up body to handle. She had been staring at the popcorn ceiling for twenty minutes, and she was starting to think she could see shapes in the spackle. “She needs a certain streaky-makeup look to complete the aesthetic.”
“You’ve never needed my help with your makeup before,” Corinne said.
“My arms are too stiff,” Holly admitted. “I don’t think I can do it myself. Just getting on the base foundation was hell.” She turned her neck and felt like she was cracking open a particularly tricky jar, one that had been left in the pantry too far past its expiration date.
“Goddamnit,” Corrine swore, ripping her hands away from her ear. The lobe was red, swollen, irritated. Her fingertips were bloody, but she had the earring in. She wiped her fingers on her slacks and secured the backing. Then she asked, “Are you serious?”
With a sigh, Corinne grabbed Holly’s makeup bag off their shared vanity and joined her on the bed. Holly pushed herself up, slowly, feeling like she was moving the dead weight of a passed out drunk friend, but she was both the weight and the bearer of burden. Arms quivering and bones creaking, she pushed herself upright. It seemed to take forever, the slow rise from lying down to sitting up, and she was breathing heavily by the end of it.
Corinne sat down next to her with her makeup bag, pulled out a vibrant rouge and started painting her cheeks, a light brush against her skin, dusting the powder onto the apples of her cheeks until she was bright red in the face.
“A blushing bride,” Corinne said, before clicking the compact shut.
“How are you going to make me cry?” Holly asked. She could feel the last remnants of the sun fading, out of the window. She should get up and turn on a light, maybe raise the thermostat, but it was too much.
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Corinne said. She pulled out a tube of mascara, pumped the applicator a few times and started brushing it onto Holly’s lashes. She was so gentle, calm, and precise, that in a strange way, Holly almost felt as though she were being kissed.
“I love you,” Holly said. She didn’t know why, but she had expected the words to echo. But the words were just like any other, the sound absorbed into the walls.
“I’m seeing another woman,” Corinne said, clicking the mascara wand back into the tube. Holly stayed silent. “I could tell you about her if you like. She’s twenty three. Her name is Stacy. She works downstairs in radiology and she’s fresh out of vocational school. She graduated fourth in her class. We like to go to PetSmart together and argue about whether we’ll get a fish or a rabbit or a snake when we finally move in together.”
Holly had started to cry at “radiology.” She had never been a loud crier, just some sniffles, streaks of tears running down her face as she stared at their duvet to uncover its secrets.
Corinne lifted her head by her chin. “Your mascara is running all over the place. And you’re leaving streaks in your foundation.”
“Perfect,” Holly sniffled. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
They made it another three days. The night of her curtain call, Holly woke up from a dead sleep, unable to move. She tried to speak, if even to vocalize to herself she was still there, still alive. She managed to pry open her own jaw, but couldn’t make a sound come out but a slight wheeze, like a breeze whistling through a cave.
Her body felt disconnected from her mind, pieces of herself disconnected from each other. She attempted to stand and felt her knees lock up and topple beneath her. She hit the floor face first and left scratches. When she managed to haul herself upright by the side of the bed, she clung to it until sure she was able to ensure she would stay vertical. She looked to the other side of the bed, hoping to apologize to her with her eyes if she could.
Corinne wasn’t there.
She looked out the window to the driveway. The spot where Corinne parked her car every night sat empty.
She waited. She stood still, the only thing she knew how to do, and waited as the sun rose, baked the earth, set again. Holly felt her body shut down as she waited. Felt her pores close and her eyes glaze over to shining marble. She felt her heart calcify into rock.
She didn’t really mind.
Sarah Renee Keller is a writer, reader, and librarian working and living in Sidney, OH. In 2018, she received her BFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University. Sarah Renee’s poetry is forthcoming in both Asterism and Mangrove. If you’re interested in finding her in the wild expanse of the internet, she can be found lurking around Twitter under @HeyItsSR.