I haven’t spoken to my sister since her husband’s death. Alanna and I don’t typically talk about anything of consequence unless we’re wasted and all the planets are in retrograde, royally fucking every insignificant human speck within light years of their vengeful spinning bodies. That’s just not how we operate. Whenever I get close to asking how she is—you know, how she really is, not the “I’m good, how are you?” nonsense, I start to clam up. Like there is a troll living in my throat-bridge forbidding anything meaningful from passing. Plus, she’s always telling me how accepting she is of life’s circumstances and I have no choice but to believe her until she says otherwise.
When Dad called, I could hear it in his quivering voice that something had happened. I thought maybe Great Grandpa Norm had finally kicked it, but then he stuttered his way through Benji’s name the way he does when he’s discombobulated and unable to bear the weight of this world. It took a few renditions of “What the hell happened?” before he told me that Benji had lost control of the wheel and hit a couple head-on. Everyone was D.O.A..
“People are saying he was drunk,” Dad had said. “But I know he wasn’t. Alanna said she had just spoken to him on the phone. He’d said something about his alignment being off.”
“I’ll punch anyone at the funeral who says a damn word about him,” I’d said.
Dad had half coughed, half choked in response, but didn’t reprimand me for my threat of violence. I imagined him tugging on his earlobe, his preferred self-soothing tactic.
That was a few weeks ago. During the funeral the pastor referred to Benji as Benny and I was fucking seething in the back row, taking pulls off my flask of Sailor Jerry’s. I talk a big game, but I didn’t speak up or anything, even though I should have. I imagined standing up and rudely interrupting Pastor Ted or Theo or Tim to ask him if he was too busy touching little boys to learn Benji’s name, but the trolls said no way and also I was a little too drunk to stand without swaying and I thought that would take away from the impact of my speech. I wound up sneaking out before the service was over.
I decide to go over to Alanna’s apartment to check on her. When I walk in the front door, I find her trying to rip a hair out of her chin with her pointer finger and thumb. There’s a huge red spot surrounding the area where the hair still stubbornly stands. She is mumbling something about the Swamp Monster, a game we used to play in the backyard as kids. Her hair looks like a stray poodle’s.
She’s blasting an episode of House from season 4. (I know this because Olivia Wilde has just joined the team and she’s a fox.) Dr. House is screaming about painkillers and Alanna stops ripping at her chin hair to scream back that House doesn’t know what pain is. She’s naked from the waist up and her nipples are hard enough to slice the block of Gorgonzola sitting out on the counter stinking up the place. Her chest is peeling like she got the worst sunburn imaginable even though there are no signs of redness or blistering anywhere on her.
The carpet and couch are covered in what looks like snake skin except they’re pale and freckled like Alanna. They are differently-sized and shaped pieces, like they didn’t come from a snake, but something larger, and I realize that Alanna’s been shedding her skin and I have no idea how or why so I start to compulsively put Blistex on and she’s starts mumbling about the Swamp Monster again while rearranging her apartment. She puts the lamp in the sink and tells it to “stay there.”
There are piles of shed Alanna skin everywhere. An arm on the coffee table, a thigh on the couch, what looks like half of her face on top of the TV, a tit or two on her electric keyboard. It looks like a junkyard if a junkyard were filled with discarded human skin rather than car shells.
“What about the Swamp Monster?” I ask, slipping my shoes off, trying to act casual. There’s skin all over the Welcome mat.
“Don’t you miss that game?” she asks, pouring vodka over her Reese’s Puff’s.
“I haven’t really thought about it.”
“I guess I am,” I shrug, not knowing what she means but terrified to ask any more questions. I pick up a sliver of skin from the floor, pinching it between my thumb and pointer finger like I’ve found a smelly gym sock. Alanna looks at me and raises her eyebrows as if to ask, You got something to say?
She shoves a spoonful of alcoholic cereal in her mouth and looks up me like this is the first time she’s noticing me. She laughs a bit, only it sounds like she once heard someone laugh twenty years ago and is now trying to mimic it. Then she covers her full mouth and starts to softly cry. I step over a pile of Alanna skin (perhaps from her feet?) and join her at the kitchen table. I think about grabbing her free hand, even go so far as to imagine the warmth of it in mine, me using my thumb to rub the top of her hand like older sisters do, but instead I put on another layer of Blistex then crack my knuckles a few times.
Back when we were kids, we would play Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who would get to be it, the Swamp Monster. The Swamp Monster would then put on a massive green blanket and run around making a combination gurgling-screaming sound while trying to catch the others. If the Swamp Monster succeeded in catching a civilian, the civilian would play dead and the rest of us would rush over and say, “John, John, are you okay?” even if their name wasn’t John. Nobody’s was. I guess maybe it was the first name we thought of when we invented the game.
We spent a lot of time asking if each other was okay and fumbling our way through poorly-performed CPR. Typically I used this opportunity to sneak a kiss from the cute neighbor, Julia, whenever I was in charge of emergency medicine, and vice versa. She and I had a good thing going until her mom caught us making out on the slide at the neighborhood playground.
The Swamp Monster would stand close-by and dramatically peel off the green blanket to reveal the human beneath the monster. It was ceremonial. I always liked Alanna’s Great Reveal the most, because her voice sounded like Minnie Mouse’s when she announced, “I am the Swamp Monster! Be very afraid!” and it was funny to imagine such a sweet and innocent monster actually hurting anyone.
I search Alanna’s face for guidance on what I’m supposed to do or say. Benji always knew what to do and say. He had this, like, impossibly far-reaching emotional radar. He would tell Alanna that he could feel her pain even when he was across the world on business, and he meant it, too. It wasn’t just an act to make her feel loved and seen. She once got rear-ended on the way to work and before she could text Benji to fill him in, he called to ask her why she was feeling so anxious. It was actually kind of freaky.
“So, are you pissed about the funeral or what?” I ask.
She doesn’t respond, peels a hand-sized piece of skin from her chest, holds it up and examines it impartially as if she’s an archaeologist having just discovered a rare fossil. Sweat drips from my armpit down my ribs. I’m afraid with enough peeling, she’ll disappear forever.
“You know, I think the Swamp Monster was the last time you ever asked me if I was okay,” Alanna says, staring at the wall. She doesn’t say it accusingly or even with a hint of bitterness. Her voice is distant and even, like she’s reciting a line from a script. She turns to look at me, and I nod, knowing that she’s right.
She seems satisfied by my silent agreement and slides the bowl across the table, offering me some of her cereal. Somehow I know it’s her way of saying she forgives me. I eat a few disgusting bites of vodka-soaked Reese’s Puffs then pick the bowl up and tilt it back, slurping up the sugary goodness.
“Don’t drink it all,” she says, laughing.
When I finally set the bowl down, Alanna is standing next to the table stepping out of her leg skin like pants. I smile, lean over and pick her skin pants up, folding them delicately so they don’t crack.
One day she may need her old skin. One day she may want to return to herself.
Bio: Marisa Crane is a lesbian fiction writer and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Drunk Monkeys, Okay Donkey, Riggwelter Press, Bending Genres, Cotton Xenomorph, and elsewhere. She currently lives in San Diego with her wife. Her Twitter handle is @marisabcrane.