I leave the stinking, crowded mall and go to sit behind the wheel of my car. Her scent is sitting heavy in my sinuses. What was this day even supposed to mean, anyway? But then, I suppose it is foolish to look for meaning. We’re all goldfish swimming around in circles, bumping our heads against the glass and forgetting what color our mothers’ eyes were. My own muse is unruly and frustrating and sixteen years old. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been getting any work done lately. It’s all thanks to her.
My apartment is dull and dark when I get back. There are dishes in the sink of the kitchenette, and the old cathode-ray television is turned on to QVC, which casts a shaky half-light on my dusty plastic plants and sagging suede couch. There are books and papers carpeting the ground. Author’s copies of international releases of my book form an ersatz coffee table. My cat gives an annoyed mewl from atop a pile of magazines. She’s probably hungry. I don’t love cats, but I like the idea of writers with cats well enough to own one.
“Sorry, Bagel,” I mumble under my breath as I feed her before collapsing into bed. I hook my ears up to my laptop and watch Law & Order until I fall asleep.
I am awoken hours later by the electric marimba of my phone. I squint at the little rectangle of light and my brow furrows as I see who is calling me.
“Listen,” she replies. I can hear her voice break, I can hear her sniffling.
I sit up. “What’s wrong?”
“Listen, I’m at this party. But I’m…uh…I’m not doing so great. C-can you pick me up? Please? I don’t want to be here anymore.”
My heart twists as I hear the desperation in her voice. An electric rush goes through my limbs. She really needs me.
“Give me the address,” I say, rummaging through my papers for a scrap to write it on. “I’ll be right there. Don’t worry. I’m coming for you.” I feel like myself again as I tumble out of bed and out of my apartment, down the dark stairwell to the parking garage. Elsie’s voice is ringing in my ears as I skid in my car down cracked suburban roads to stop in front of a little crooked colonial. Light and sound drift out from the windows. At first I think that I will have to go in myself to find Elsie, but then I see a little hunched form sitting on the steps.
She looks up at me as I get out of the car and cross the tangled lawn toward her. Her soft face is smeared with makeup and dried tears. To my surprise, she’s wearing the dress—and one of the arms has been torn from shoulder to elbow. I feel heat rush to my face and my fists tense up. It’s ruined.
“What happened?” I say, my voice catching in my throat.
“Can we just go?” she whispers, and she grabs my wrist to pull herself to a standing position. She smells like pot and beer and dangles her heels on the fingers of her left hand. “I just need to go. I don’t feel good.”
She breaks away from me and hobbles into the passenger seat of the car. When I get behind the wheel, I take a deep breath and shake my head.
“I know that something happened,” I say, thinking the worst. “Who were you with?”
Elsie stares straight ahead for a moment, before she bends to scrub the heel of her hand across her eyes. “You’re not my dad. I don’t need to answer to you.”
I close my eyes and the lights on the inside of my lids paint a picture of me, vaulting over the center console and crushing her soft pale neck in my hands, slamming her head against the back of the seat. She can be so frustrating sometimes. I breathe out.
“Why aren’t we going yet?” Elsie asks. I open my eyes and see her face turned to me, her eyes glassy and questioning. She is the most beautiful thing I have seen in my entire life.
“Elsie…” I say.
She gives a painful sniff and says, “I got in a fight with Rainbow, I think because I was high. I don’t know. I feel really sick, David—can we just go home?”
I knew Rainbow was a bitch. I should go in there, I think, put myself between her and my girl. My dear Else. Rip all of the names off of her fat arms.
“What happened?” I ask, my voice strained and distant.
Elsie shakes her head. She doesn’t want to tell me. But I know what happened. Rainbow had been slandering me, saying that I was a loser and a creep, that Elsie was stupid to be hanging around me. Elsie must have stood up for me. For the both of us.
“When we first met…last year in that movie theatre, did you think it would turn out like this?” I ask.
“Like what?” she says, smiling slightly. “With you being friends with a crossfaded high schooler?” She thinks I’m joking around.
“You know what I mean,” I say, and I watch as understanding fades from her eyes. She lowers her brow.
She should know what I mean. How our souls are connected, how I can feel her heart beating inside of mine. How I cannot close my eyes without seeing her face, how I cannot have a thought without hearing her voice. How she is the most frustrating and most exhilarating presence in my sad, strange world. She is my muse and I am her starving artist. Starving for attention. Starving for her.
I want to say these things to her, but instead, I reach across the divide between us and I touch her soft blue hair. Before she can become confused and draw away, I pull her toward me and I take what I have wanted for as long as I have known her. I kiss her, and for a moment everything is right.
“What the fuck?” she shouts, shattering our bliss and pushing away from me violently, with hands and feet and fingernails like claws. “What are you doing? What is this?”
“Elsie—” Maybe I can fix it. I lean toward her again and she raises one of her shoes, brandishing the heel at me.
“Back the fuck off! Stay away from me!” She slams her elbow behind her, opening the door and backing out. She holds one of her heels toward me, her hand shaking like it’s a gun. I am tempted to enact on my fantasy of pouncing on her.
I stumble out of the car myself and she is screaming at me to leave her alone. Lights are turning on in upstairs windows and I am shouting at her because she is making a scene, but all I am praying for is that she won’t turn away from me dear God. I need to remember her face. I need to remember her like this, shaking and afraid of me and thinking she knows who I am. Nobody knows who I am. If only she hadn’t made such a mess of the situation.
For a moment we are at an impasse, both staring at each other and moving our weight from one foot to the other. I ruin it by getting impatient and lunging at her, thinking I can hold her in my arms until she calms down and leans against me. But her arm is quick and her aim is good and she slams the spiked heel into my temple without mercy, like this all meant nothing to her. Like everything I ever did for her was just dust and polite conversation.
I figure there are two types of people in the world: those that are great and those who just leech off of greatness. The leeches are everywhere—dull and toothy and starving. Some are better at disguising themselves, better at seeming pretty and interesting and unique. Yet still, they take and take and take and never think of giving something in return. They don’t care about their victims, they don’t care about true greatness. Leeches are dangerous and real, and Elsie Pierglass is one of them.
So I lay here on the ground, blood trickling from my temple, and I watch her run away with everything I have ever tried to give her, a thought reverberating in my head.
That is my dress.
That is my dress.
That is my dress.
Sarah Hopkins is a junior English (literature) major at SUNY Geneseo. She likes reading, writing, and staring into the stars while being filled with existential dread. Currently, Sarah is participating in the Disney College Program and having a grand old time with some cowboys, space rangers, and green army men. If she could be best friends with any fictional character, Sarah would undoubtedly choose Atticus Finch.