by Renee Ge
Art by Joy Song
Issue: Solivagant (Winter 2018)
There is a story, about that forest. Like all stories, it is constructed to impart frightening wisdom on anyone willing to listen; it speaks of exaggerated grandeur and half-piped fever dreams that begin with exactly two parts to a whole and end in just one.
The story goes: deep in the forest there is a small house, and inside the house there is a man.
This Ress is the scariest creature in the room, and dangerous she may be, but never illogical. Never without reason. She is crazy, but if she knows she is crazy it makes her sane. Her one-way mirror gleams regardless of sunlight and if she can look at herself in the eye on cold mornings then she is alright.
She never lingers.
The forest is deep, dark, and loud. If she listens hard enough to the flutters and the rustles and the screams, she can hear a the rhythm of a song that reminds her too much of her one-way mirror.
It drives her mad in shame. The thing is: when you look at your reflection it also looks back at you, and when you try to become part of it, it becomes a part of you. And that has always been a problem when you and your reflection are not the same. But, luckily, her mirror is one-way only, and she sees herself. She sees only herself.
The river is around thirty paces away but on days like these it is more like fifty. Days like these means light against the mirror, picking apart the nuances in her reflection for hours on end. Her brow sits heavy with sweat and Ress can barely pull away from her house in time. Small steps, small steps. There are too many shadows, here in this forest. Too little light. A mirror there, a mirror here. For what.
The water gurgles cheerfully when she comes. She likes it here, likes the idea that she could cross it and not look back. On a whim that strikes her every time she is here she toes off her shoes and her socks and wades into the river. The current is weak today anyway, and she takes great care to not stray too far from the shore.
There is a sudden shift in the light that glitters on the water, and almost at once she mistakes the haze of ringing red for the sudden brightness and blinks. Again. Peers over the waves, because.
A body wearing a face.
Ress does not understand.
This is how it begins: cold remains of Tuesday night, a bar stool, and the back of a hand.
“You’re so,” Ress says, and laughs.
“So what?” he demands, but his face betrays him too, because instead of indignant he looks like he’s struggling to conceal the white of his teeth.
Ress isn’t an idiot. Talking to someone hanging around in a bar on a weekday is simply askingfor trouble. She’s fairly certain the decent folk come only on Friday and Saturday nights, and even those are only semi-decent. But this stranger says he’s from the next city over, and he moved here, for some boring desk job, as an accountant, that he hates, which is why he comes here, and he’s being surprisingly talkative in a place where patrons are required to nurse their drinks and their woes in a dark, silent corner, alone. Maybe that’s her first hint, the way he refuses to be alone.
The bar’s empty at this time, though, so they don’t have to worry about being seen. The bartender’s busy eating face with the first customer who made a pass at her and very possibly is the reason the bathroom has been in use for the past twenty minutes. The stranger’s just finished regaling to her another tale of him and his friends who like to drive out into the forest on weekends to a house. “There used to be a small pond, which is why it is in the middle of nowhere,” he had said, “but then the river was diverted and the pond dried up, and. Now there is just a dent. A huge dent. There are fish bones and snail shells and once, I found an eel.”
He has this weird way of words, she’d thought then. Everything is formal and proper and bizarre, hearing it here. But it fits him.
Lonely, pathetic Tuesday nights at the bar sort of become their thing after that. The clock ticks, the bartender begins to prefer brunettes to blondes, the bar begins to dilute beer along with vodka, and every Tuesday night the stranger will smile at her and tell her to maybe see you next Tuesday? And each time she says yes.
Ress tells him about her stories on the fourth night. Scratch that. “Fourth night” makes it sound like this is a clandestine arrangement for sex or something, and she’s happy with her own glass, thanks. “Fourth meeting” isn’t much better. The bartender must have forgotten to water down the drinks because the word “date” briefly comes to mind. Her head, her life decisions, why.
“I write,” she says, sleeves coming to cover her hands, holding her drink—something on the rocks?—like it was coffee. Maybe she can delude herself into thinking this is a cute date at a cute coffee shop, wearing Ugg boots and gray kitten sweaters instead of commiserating about her sad life with a sad stranger in a sad, sad bar. “Stories? I’m working on one, right now, actually.”
He hums. “What is it about?”
“Oh, it’s about…”
It’s about a boy who wants to prove himself no matter what, wants to succeed in art where everyone else fails when they’re alive and only succeeds once they are dead. He’s emo. Listens to metal. Crushes on the math nerd.
She might’ve gotten a little carried away, but the stranger is nodding along and he’s either pacifying her or he’s genuinely interested, and either works for her. “It makes sense,” he says, followed by a casual “could you sign my copy of it, when it is released?”
She blinks. She can’t lie that her ego didn’t grow just a little bit. For a moment she stares at the tiny bubbles on the sides of the glass and tries to find her voice there. “Of course.”
It continues on like this. It’s conceived over liquor and boredom and a yearning for something bright, a blooming flower that needs time and sunlight and water and a magic touch, with a sprinkle of love. Time, they have in spades, and the neon lights outside the bar act as a bizarre replacement for sunlight, which doesn’t make sense scientifically, but who cares. Alcohol is an excellent substitute for water, and she’s almost certain the magic touch comes from the stranger because he’s an absolutely delightful conversationalist. Something like that. Close enough.
The Sprinkle, as she likes to call it, comes like this.
Another Tuesday night. She’s lost count by now. “Hi,” she says, sliding onto a stool.
The stranger’s lips curl into a lazy smile. “Hello.” He leans back, eyes closed, and at this angle Ress can see the twitch of his jaw. He wants to ask something. She waits.
“All this, all this time, and I do not even know your name.”
She laughs at that, because it’s true. “You never asked.”
In these kinds of moments, she reflects, it almost feels like they’re flirting. She’s suddenly glad her cheeks are already flushed and she’s feeling a tad tipsy anyway and that they’re at a bar. “Well then,” he says, and clears his throat. “What is your name?”
“Ress. What’s yours?”
“Calum. Hello, Ress.”
She’s read all about this in the books, but there’s still a gut-clenching jolt that goes through her system when he says her name. It’s nice, and the thought makes her gulp another sip down quick. “Hey, Calum,” she says.
“It has been around eight months, hasn’t it?” At her blank look, he clarifies, “Since we first met?”
Has it? “Haven’t counted, but yeah, that’s, that’s a long time.”
Calum is silent. He’s rarely silent, so either something is very, very wrong, or nothing. So, like the good drinking buddy she is, she works up the nerve to ask, “Is something wrong?”
Maybe he thinks eight months of sadness together isn’t long enough to be called a bond, or something else made him pissy. He glares at the counter like it’s personally offended him. She relates. The counter is sticky and dirty and the workers here clearly don’t do their jobs, why does she even come here.
Finally, he looks up. “Remember the house in the forest I told you about?” He doesn’t wait for her reply. “I… am thinking of driving down to visit, maybe next weekend? Would you,” he says, “would you like to come? With me?”
It’s been eight months, she thinks, eight months, and she likes to think she’s a pretty good judge of character. There’s also a sheepish feeling of being special, and the answer comes out before she can really think about it: “Yes, of course, I’d be flattered.”
He smiles then, and it’s one of relief, the ends still shaking from past nervousness. “Then! I will see you next week, and you will give me your phone number, and I will call you and pick you up next Saturday?”
She agrees. It’s a plan. Suddenly, she understands intimately the bartender’s line of thought. When someone shows even a slight interest in you it’s hard not to reciprocate. It’s not really love, but it’s closer than most and she’ll take what she can get. And it’s just a sprinkle, too, because Calum isn’t even a friend, not really, no.
Saturday comes, bright and early, and she’s standing outside in a thick jacket that doesn’t even do its job, regretting her life choices. It’s spring but it’s still cold and the wind is sharp today. She feels a little like a kindergartener on her first field trip with how fast her heart is thumping.
A car pulls up. Calum. “Thank you for agreeing to come, sorry, let me get your bags,” he says. Like a true gentleman. The way he talks matches, too. She feels a savage sort of satisfaction because a man is willing to carry her bags for her. Ha. Pathetic.
“Right, yes, thank you,” she chokes out, and has to take a moment to fumble through the clasp of the door on the passenger side.
“I remember you told me there were dead fish bones in that dried up pond,” she says once they’re moving.
This is the second time he’s silent, and she leaves him to it. She never notices that the quick flick of his fingers disguises how his hands twitch involuntarily, and how he takes her bags so she won’t see what’s inside the trunk until it’s too late. See, the only time there are semi-decent folk around are on Friday and Saturday nights, and she’s not just projecting because of her lack of self-esteem. And Ress met Calum on a Tuesday.
She might as well be dead the second she steps out of the car when it stops by the river. Towards the end, she wakes up. His hands. They’re shaking.
Or maybe she’s imagining it with what little energy she has. She inhales more water.
See, the thing is, the thing is: stories are only half true but they are also half lie. If you look too little, touch too much, your eyes cannot deceive you because they cannot see; the mirror does not look back, if you do not let it. This is only how it seems to begin, deep in the forest by a river where a man finds a body, and that is it.
The truth, however, is not so simple.
The body is bloated, and purple in the river, and that is a fact. Ress is dead, and that is a fact. She has brown hair and a piercing on her left ear. The body does, too. The dried-up pond, dent of the earth, does not just contain the remains of dead fish and eels; it is also waiting for the remains of Tuesday night. All facts.
The other Ress with her feet wet, ankle-deep in the warm warm river is nothing but a lie, because. Because the real Ress is dead. Quick, quick. This Ress can see it now, clearer than ever—“Thank you,” the Ress from before murmurs, and he thinks she is even prettier on Saturday morning.
This Ress should stop lying to himself, because it is not so simple.
Calum. Inhales, exhales. Fact: his feet are wet. Fact: Ress’s dead body is ten paces away. Fact. He is not Ress. Fact. Fact.
Opens his eyes, for the first time, and this is how it ends, with a killer who realizes that he is one on the shores of a river in a forest, alone.