Tonight there is a party and I am the wallpaper. There are boys splayed on sofas. There are boys splayed on floor. There are boys in wide stances, trucker-hatted, holding their drinks, and among them there is Elory and he is beautiful. I hop from wallpaper marigold to wallpaper marigold trying to keep him in my sight. I hop from flower to flower and inhale him.
I thermostat myself and turn the heat up slightly, hoping he’ll take off his shirt.
A boy tries to slap another boy’s back and he misses, trips, spills his beer on the velvet curtains. A girl arrives with long black hair in her eyes. She’s wearing a tangerine sweater. Elory takes her hand. Sweater Girl drinks her beer from a glass, leans against the counter, pushes her bangs out of her face.
I think she looks elegant.
Sometimes I feel very irrelevant. I am the iron curl of the burner and I watch them, I watch them, his hand on her back. I feel a rush of cold when the back door opens, then the familiar sensation of falling from a high place.
I fly past Elory, spinning. Then the door slams shut and I careen into the doorknob. Whatever material makes up the consciousness of my consciousness ricochets between molecules of copper and zinc. At the end of the hall, Elory is looming over Sweater Girl, is holding her hand in his hand, is kissing her.
I stay doorknobbed, unmoving. Time passes slow.
There are hours. Someone lowers the music. One by one, boys press their palms against me. One by one they turn the knob. Soon they are all gone. I dim the point of radial light that is me and hop from doorknob to doorknob, from brass fixture to electrical outlet.
From floor to ceiling there are photographs. From floor to ceiling there are tarnished frames and finishing nails. Young Miss Mango gazing at the lens like she knows something I don’t, her showgirl feathers flanked by men eating cake in suits.
The curtains wax and wane in the night’s breeze. The basement stairs are tricky. I slip from light switch to light switch before settling into my sleeping spot, the blinking red power button at the top of the space heater.
Hamster’s eyes flash wide in a fragment of moonlight. She’s hiding in a nest of dryer lint.
Hamster says, I don’t like it when you go up there.
Hamster says, Why are you wasting time? She lifts her left paw and points it at the cellar door, the door that leads directly up and Out.
I don’t answer. The space heater is set to FROST ALERT MODE, so when the first icy fractals form at the borders of the window, I prepare myself for the click and shudder, the sudden sensation of heat. I fall asleep to the sound of Hamster nibbling ferociously. I wonder if she misses her wheel.
I met Elory in my body, once.
It was when Miss Mango had just received her diagnosis. She wrapped herself in her favourite silk kimono, phoned her nephew at university, sobbed into the receiver. She told me to stop staring. She told me to bring brandy instead when I brewed her a pot of Orange Pekoe. She had a 12” x 16” portrait of Elory on her dresser, the frame surrounded by a circle of salt and dried flowers. His photograph self had that upward chin tilt, like he was gazing off into a bright future.
In contrast, I was nothing—a broke nursing school dropout, turtlenecks, knobby knees. I was 20, far from home, seldom kissed.
The next day, Miss Mango ordered a car to retrieve him. I took his coat. He was tall. He smelled like lemon rind, like fresh oyster, like sweat. It made my breath catch. I hung his coat on an iron hook and he looked at me.
He said, Who are you? Something in his eye made me feel like red meat, but also like I wouldn’t mind being devoured.
I said, I’m Josephine. Your aunt’s personal assistant?
I said it just like that, like a stupid girl. The upward lilt of uncertainty. We both knew how ridiculous I sounded, but he just grinned at me with a kind of forgiveness and I blushed and he said, Nice to meet you.
Just then Miss Mango called his name, her voice looping down the staircase like cigarette smoke.
He winked at me, then turned and took the squeaky steps two at a time.
I followed a few paces back, folded my hands. I watched him swoop into Miss Mango’s room, heard the heady thrum of her laughter and his silly song on the piano. I rested my hand on the bannister and curled my body into the new warmth of the room. From that moment, I knew that I needed him.
For a while there were police, then friends and distant relations. Then the staff were let go. Flower deliveries made it to the porch and no further. All the while, I befriended mute spiders. I made the lights flicker. I made sparks appear in the corners like unwanted dreams.
Then there was a lockbox. Real estate agents. No one came for a long time. Then Elory did.
Hamster says, Josephine.
Hamster says, He doesn’t want you.
I say, Good. I say, What do I care?
She rolls her eyes. I know how much she knows me. I know she has to love me, poor honour-bound thing.
At some point in the night, Hamster must have found a chunk of balsa wood. She’s sculpted the end into a sharp and elegant spear, and now she’s licking it tenderly, licking it smooth. She would have made a wonderful mother.
I say, Are you happy?
Hamster says, Out isn’t going to be there forever. She says, Don’t give it up for him.
The space heater shudders and halts. The ice coating the window pane has started to thaw, unveiling a diffuse column of early daylight.
I don’t answer. I just leave her to her work, flit from light switch to light switch. There is moisture in the air and when I get to the second floor I follow the scent of water to the bathroom. The door is open a crack. I peek through the opening and there she is, Sweater Girl with no sweater, breasts bobbing freely at the surface of the bathwater.
Her eyes are closed. She flicks the hot water on with one toe.
Elory has brought girls upstairs before, but none have ever stayed the night. Sweater Girl lays back, dozing, one arm draped along the edge of the bathtub.
I look at her for a long time. I am a silver ring on her right hand. I feel the thrum of her heartbeat, the gentle current of her bloodstream. She is warm inside.
She is wearing a golden chain around her neck and I become it. She sits up slightly at the twinge of my presence, but I stay still for a moment and she relaxes again. Her heartbeat is louder here, I can feel it thrashing against me, and I wonder what she’s dreaming of in someone else’s tub.
And then I see it. And then I am it. I am cool lake water and I am pine trees and I am my body paddling a canoe. I look back and I see her, eyes dreamy and safe.
Sweater Girl says, Who are you?
She looks beautiful in dreamlight and I remember looking beautiful too and I remember paddling a canoe, or at least knowing I could, if I wanted to.
I say, I want to show you something. We paddle and paddle and we paddle to shore. There, a single rosebush is growing from sand. The roses are pink—Maiden’s Blush. I look back at her and smile. I help her out of the canoe and I lead her closer to the rosebush.
She says, Who are you?
I hold her hand. I pull her behind the rosebush and point downward. There it is, my final iteration of body, bones shattered and protruding. Sweater Girl’s dreamface knots itself.
Elory stayed for a few hours. They sang a duet and he helped his aunt with her chequebook and she showed him the will and he grinned. She swatted the back of his head but then she grinned too, she grinned and pinched his cheeks and kissed his forehead.
I brought mimosas up to her bedroom on a tray. Out of the corner of my eye, I looked at his earlobes. He turned and caught me and I flushed. I could feel his grin following the back of me.
Soon enough he said, I gotta get moving. Soon enough I was watching him speed away as I drew the curtains for Miss Mango’s nap.
She said, Josephine.
She said, You’ve got your eye on him.
I stiffened. I said, What?
She said, Don’t be stupid. She lay back against her mountain of feather pillows. In a cage beside the balcony door, Hamster lapped noisily at her water tube. She said, Light this for me, Jo. She put a cigarette between her lips.
I didn’t move. She said, Oh, what does it matter now? And she was right, so I struck a match.
She said, Listen.
She said, I can help you.
She said, Seriously. I know some very old magic.
She leaned closer to me. Her grey roots were growing in. What was left of the red was limp. She said, Will you do as I say? Her rhinestone earrings caught the light.
Sweater Girl wakes violently. She sends me careening from her dream to the faucet. She jumps up covered in goosebumps, grabs a towel and wraps it around herself.
She doesn’t drain the water, just rushes from the room. She says, Elory. She says, Elory! From light switch to light switch, I follow her.
He stirs in his sheets, lifts his head. What?
She says, I don’t know. She says, Something weird happened.
What do you mean?
I don’t know. I had this dream—I think it was a dream.
He shifts back, makes room for her, lifts a half-smoked joint from the bedside table. He lights it. She climbs in beside him, wraps her arms around her knees. Her hair is dripping bathwater onto the quilt.
Elory takes a long toke, then wraps his arms around Sweater Girl’s waist, pulls her closer to him. You shouldn’t fall asleep in the bathtub.
She swats at him. Why do you even live here, anyway? It’s so far from campus.
He says, I inherited it from my aunt.
She must have liked you. Or hated you, maybe.
He grins, raises his eyebrows. I was her favourite. But she was bonkers. He says, I tried to sell it. No luck.
Yeah, because it’s creepy.
He yanks her down under the covers and starts to tickle her under the arms, and she laughs and tries to wiggle away but then he presses her hands against the pillow and kisses her, and she finally relaxes into the heat of his body as I watch from an iron screw. How many times have I perched on the zipper of his jacket to try to get that close to his breath? She just lies there, fully embodied. She just lies there, fully—
A lightbulb bursts. Elory says, Fuck! and they jump out of bed, shrieking.
Hamster says, Now you’ve done it.
Hamster says, He’s not coming back.
I glare at her. She’s eaten her way through the lid of an old can of paint and is dipping her right paw into the puddle. She stamps a pattern of blood-red paw along her length of spear.
He’s coming back. He’s gone to take Sweater Girl back to wherever she came from and then he’s coming home to me. But I don’t say this out loud. I don’t say anything. I just sit and let the space heater click on and off. I just monitor the icicles, listen for his car.
On Tuesdays the newspaper comes. Soon there are three newspapers piled by the doorway, then five, then eight.
He doesn’t come back.
Hamster says, I know what you think.
Hamster says, You think he’s supposed to fall in love with you.
Hamster says, He won’t.
I say, Be quiet.
Hamster says, She was a liar.
I say, Yeah, well.
Hamster says, Josephine. Hamster says, It wasn’t your fault.
Hamster’s wrong. While she’s sleeping I bloom inside her paw-patterned spear, hide it in a place she’ll never look.
I move upstairs to Miss Mango’s room. I haven’t been here since that last and first day. The sheets have been stripped, but it still smells like a mix of Hamster and perfume: urine, a hint of vomit, aspen shavings.
I perch inside the wiring of the bedside lamp. All day I dream of belladonna and hemlock and all night I appeal to him in Morse code. My tiny prayer floating out into the moonlight: Make this right, Elory. Come home.
Every morning the sun comes up and I stop flickering. Every morning I whisper to the Earth, to God, to anyone who might be listening: It was supposed to be a love potion.
And then, more softly: It might still work.
Hamster says, You’ve lost it.
I don’t answer. I rarely leave Miss Mango’s room now. If I had a body it would be filthy and floor-bound. Hamster is panting between words. She had to climb the staircase to find me.
Hamster says, You took my spear.
I say, I set you free.
Hamster says, We both know he’ll never love you.
The wallpaper is an irregular sequence of lemons. I could use them like stepping stones, if I wanted. I could curl up to their skins, inhale the sour-sweet. Instead I project my message all night, every night: This is not how it was supposed to be.
On a day that is not a Tuesday, Elory comes home. His arms are filled with shopping bags.
I am oil, I am paper, I am light. I tremble and flit from shirt point to shirt point. He puts the bags down at the bottom of the staircase, then stops midway up, looks at the pictures on the wall. One photo shows Young Miss Mango completely topless, save for pasties. Elory lifts it from the wall.
Did it work? I whisper. Did you come back for me?
Of course, he can’t hear me. One by one, he takes down the photographs from the banana-leaf wallpaper, places them at the foot of the staircase. He reaches into one of his canvas bags and retrieves a different frame. He hangs a faded portrait of a Victorian woman, buttons fastened tight to her throat.
When he enters his aunt’s room, he throws out everything—her perfumes, Hamster’s cage, the papers in the drawers, the unlabeled herb jars filled partway. He takes a moment to fluff the pillows, then places a somber-looking china doll on the bedside table. He pulls a Sharpie from his pocket, blacks out its eyes.
By the time he sinks into the living room sofa with a tall can of beer in the late afternoon, Elory has added frightening touches to every room in the house. Sweat is beading on the delicate skin of his forehead. He opens a window and I cling to the light fixture, just in case I’m pulled Out.
He opens his MacBook. Hamster scurries out from behind the radiator and she grins at me. She grins her rodent grin.
Elory types AIRBNB. He clicks HOST. He types Stay In A Haunted House Near London, Ontario. He adds picture after picture of this house, Miss Mango’s house, the house that was supposed to be our house. Sleeps ten adults—bring your bravest friends! The house that began and ended me for $600 a night.
Hamster says, What are you going to do?
Hamster says, How embarrassing.
Hamster says, You thought he was coming back for good, didn’t you? You thought he was coming back for you.
What was tame in me has gone feral. I say, Shut up. Hamster is nibbling away at another stick, but this one cracks, won’t spear. Every once in a while, she coughs up a splinter. I float from outlet to outlet in a fog.
I imagine their faces like heaps of rice pudding, these guests, these perverse voyeurs. I dream all night of Elory’s breath in my ear. Scare them, he says. They’ll like it.
I did as she said.
I bought the herbs—belladonna, snakeroot, pokeweed. I ground and boiled them. I poured the concoction into a crystal goblet and carried the tray upstairs to her bedroom.
The stairs squeaked. I closed the door behind me. On the rooftop balcony, Miss Mango lay elegantly on her deck chair, smoking. She wore a rhinestone-studded evening gown with a plunging neckline, a small furry coverlet wrapped around her narrow shoulders.
I approached and she said, Well honey. She said, Looks like you did it.
I said, So do I just drink it? Or does he have to drink it too?
Miss Mango said, Neither. She leaned over and lifted the goblet from the tray.
Wait, I said.
My cheeks flushed. Then how will it make him fall in love with me?
Miss Mango laughed like I’d just told the funniest joke in the world, then lifted the goblet to her mouth. She drank until only a translucent coating of green remained on the inside of the glass. She said, Herbaceous. Her voice was raw.
I don’t understand.
She said, Oh, honey. She said, You thought I was gonna stick around for that prognosis? Paralysis and suffocation? No thank you. She shook her head. You know—
What are you—
I sort of thought you were a little smarter than this, Josephine. A little wiser.
What did I give you? What did you just drink?
Thank you, though. Really. If I can give you one last piece of advice—
What did I do?
For Christ’s sake, Jo. Never give away your freedom.
Elory is sleeping in what used to be his bedroom.
I flit from the hallway light fixture to the bedside outlet to the stainless-steel stud in his ear. Iron, chromium, manganese, silicon, carbon. They link and unlink, twirl. I wrap what is me around them and what is them around me and together, we rectify my silence.
I sink into his dream: Sweater Girl with serpents for hair slowly unbuttoning her sweater. She opens her mouth to speak but her dream body flickers. She opens her mouth and becomes me.
I say with a mouth and sharp dream teeth: Elory.
I show him Miss Mango’s slowing heartbeat. I show him her peacock-feathered soul slipping out from between her lips. I show him my stupid self staggering backwards, tripping and falling off the roof.
I show him my spine shattered in a rosebush. I show him my sightless eyes. I show him my life force rising up and how, with whatever influence I had left over the material world, I yanked my formless being from the intoxicating pull of Out and back into Miss Mango’s house. I show him my final burst of independent strength: unlatching Hamster’s cage and setting her free.
I say, I decided to stay. I say, I couldn’t leave you. I say, I just wanted you to want me.
His dreameyes gaze into my dreameyes. He says, Wait. He says, You’re the maid, right?
I sigh. I say, For Christ’s sake.
I climb out of his dream. Hamster is here, shiny-eyed, sitting patiently on a tuft of Elory’s chest hair. He twitches and shudders in his sleep.
Hamster says, You’re an idiot, Josephine.
Hamster says, You shouldn’t have come back here to begin with.
I say, I thought it might still work.
I say, I can’t have sold my soul for nothing.
Hamster snorts at this. She says, People do that all the time. I roll my eyes. I give back her spear. She grins as she thrusts hard, stabs him.
Elory leaves as abruptly as he arrived. He grabs a bag in the middle of the night and rushes to his car, clutching the toothpick prick on his lower abdomen.
Hamster says, I’m sorry about your boyfriend.
I say, He was never my boyfriend.
Hamster says, I’ll miss you.
I don’t reply. I just follow the trail of switches and fixtures down two flights of stairs to the basement. I just float at the precipice of the cellar door, thrust my eternal self right Out through the keyhole.
Jaclyn Desforges is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Contemporary Verse 2, Minola Review, and others. Her first poetry chapbook, Hello Nice Man, was published by Anstruther Press in early 2019. Her first picture book, tentatively titled Why Are You So Quiet?, will be published by Annick Press and released in 2020. She's the winner of the 2018 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award and is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.