* * *
People could never leave well enough alone, and so Becker had a half bathroom in her one-bedroom apartment as well as a full bathroom. This anomaly had occurred because the building had never been meant to be lived in, being a defunct warehouse once used for the storage and manufacture of plastic garden hoses, which also accounted for its high ceilings and inconvenient location. It was situated on the outskirts of town, facing one side of a cluster of office buildings from across the shallow lake their owners had had installed. In winter the lake froze, and flattened soda cans rattled over its surface. Fifteen minutes before sundown every day the carbon-arc lights came on in the parking lot across the water, throwing rinds of light against the walls of Becker's apartment through the slats of the blinds. Behind the building, beyond a few dozen feet of weeds and gravel, were the railroad tracks.
Except for the half bathroom (which was easy enough to ignore) she liked her apartment very much. The kitchen and living area were a single square room divided by a concrete counter; the bedroom was partitioned off with drywall at the end of a hallway that ran the length of the apartment. On the opposite side the windows looked west over the lake. On snowy days the front room was a cube of white light, and the red sectional sofa from IKEA glowed like a ruby.
Best of all was that there were only three other tenants in the entire building, though the overly optimistic owners had installed ten apartments in total. On the first floor lived a fat old woman and a young man with only half a right arm. On the second floor lived the unhealthy-looking woman whose fights with the man who was presumably her boyfriend could be heard all the way past Becker's door and down the stairs to the fire door by which one entered or exited the building. Strictly speaking it was only his half of each fight that could be heard. Much of the time, it seemed, she wouldn't let him into the apartment, so he remained out in the hall and yelled at her front door. Either she was just inside, yelling at the other side of the door, and they could hear each other, or he was delusional and believed this to be the case. The man said "What the fuck?" a lot.
Because of him Becker knew that the unhealthy-looking woman was named Stephanie. Fortunately this was the only information about the other tenants she had been unable to avoid. She walked in and out of the building every day with a camera slung around her neck, and it was possible that they avoided her out of the belief that she was a terrorist.
Becker was not a terrorist, though she was familiar with the desire to use violence to make the world a better place. The world would have been vastly improved by the removal from it of Stephanie's boyfriend, who sometimes tried to engage her in conversation. At such times she imagined, with an almost hallucinatory clarity, striking him with the aluminum baseball bat she kept next to the door.
"Heeeyyy," he said, on this particular day, peeling himself off the wall and advancing on her as she reached for her keys. "That's a real nice camera."
It was, a high-end Nikon digital that had cost nearly a thousand dollars and would have cost more if she'd bought it new. She fought the urge to clutch it; she would not react to him in any way.
"Can I see it? Or is it, like, a part of your body?" It was never clear to her whether he knew he was loathsome. He worse a clearly fake, leering sort of smile: was it meant to be ingratiating, or was it a parody of ingratiation? They had both reached her door now and she stood with her hand on the keys in her coat pocket.
"Let me take a picture. One picture of you. Come on."
In her mind's eye she saw herself rinsing blood off the baseball bat.
Stephanie emerged from her apartment then to yell at him that he was drunk and she would call the cops. Jake, she called him. When he started back toward Stephanie's apartment, immediately also yelling, Becker slipped inside her apartment and locked it. Then she permitted herself to clutch the camera, feeling it jerk against her chest with the hammering of her heart.
That winter the snow began in the middle of January and fell for five days. The white expanse over the lake was almost perfectly featureless. A path had been shoveled from the fire door to the metal garbage bin that the Sanitation Department sent a truck to empty once a month. Presumably the shoveling had been done by the building's superintendent. Becker had never actually seen the superintendent, but his existence could be deduced from the occasional gunshot-like snap of a rat trap in the hallway.
The bin was one of several things about the building that made it seem only partially suitable for human habitation. Each month as the collection day drew close crows would start gathering on and around it, pulling at whatever scraps they could reach through the gap under the lid. The noise they made while doing this was extraordinary. Becker didn't mind it, any more than she minded the sound of the trains, but on several occasions she had heard one of the first-floor tenants throwing rocks, or what sounded on impact like rocks, at them. The missiles pinged off the lid and sides of the garbage bin with no noticeable effect on the crows.
Now, having heaved in her garbage and brought the lid back down with a bang that echoed off the office buildings and back toward her over the hidden lake, she crouched down to take some pictures of the snow. Twigs poked through, a stone. Near the dip that signified the shore a short black length of pipe lay half covered. Becker took a picture of it and then picked it up to examine it more closely, which is when she saw that it was not a length of pipe at all, but the muzzle of a six-shot revolver.
She had found strange things near the garbage bin before. In spring the lake thawed and disgorged the refuse people had thrown into it the previous summer and fall: hastily discarded bags of marijuana, small vials of white powder and big vials of pills, shoes and wallets and empty, bloated purses. She had never found a gun before, but finding one did not surprise her very much.
Becker had never held a gun. She pointed it across the lake and pulled the trigger. There was a loud report, and her arm recoiled violently. The crows rose in a screaming body and flew away.
In the six weeks that had passed she had not used the gun again, but it was reassuring to know it was there, with three bullets still in it, in the drawer of the endtable next to her bed. She liked to imagine drawing it from her pocket and pointing it between her neighbor's boyfriend's eyes. Usually in this scenario his face collapsed like a soufflé, and he backed away from her until he had backed against a wall, stammering apologies; but sometimes he laughed at her, daring her to pull the trigger.
Becker had never killed anyone, but she had thought of it more than once.
For a period of several weeks the previous summer the gravel lot outside the building had been haunted by a homeless person of indeterminate race and sex, who had appeared to sleep in the bin. The stench of this person, who wore a long quilted down coat even though it was July, pursued Becker whenever she walked to or from her car. It was like being followed and physically struck. She could feel the eyes, too, following her, watching until she drove out of sight. Becker had wondered what it would be like to kill someone who would never be missed.
Jake, difficult as it was to believe, would be missed. Stephanie would miss him and call the police. People were like that. But Becker was not sentimental. She thought that she would be able to kill someone, if given reason to; sometimes she almost regretted that the homeless person had disappeared before she found the gun.
* * *
She returned home one afternoon in February, her arms full of groceries, to find her front door ajar. She knew she had not left it that way. Locking doors was as natural to her as swallowing or flushing the toilet.
She put down her bags and came closer. Someone was moving around in her apartment. Becker pushed the door open an inch wider and saw that the baseball bat was in its usual place. She took hold of it and slipped inside.
He was in the living area, his back to her, and he was doing something with his hands -- he was holding something in front of her, something of hers. She was next to him in two quick strides and she swung the bat upward from her hips so that it made a swishing sound before hitting him in the back of the neck, and he made a kind of gargling noise and tried to turn around and she swung again, hitting him this time in the side of the face, and he fell to the floor, and Becker didn't know what happened after that until she was standing sweaty and panting above his body, gripping the bat so tightly her hands hurt.
He was not dead: she could see him breathing. There was blood. He might have a cracked skull or a broken jaw or even a broken neck, he might be dying, but he was not dead. This was her chance. If she smashed his skull, who would ever know she had done it? She thought of the police, but what if they wouldn't come? What if they came and didn't believe her when she told them what had happened? What if he died before they arrived and they called her a murderer? Who would testify that she never let anyone into her apartment? Jake on the witness stand, wearing a stained tie for the occasion, would tell the jury she had wild parties every night; Stephanie would corroborate his testimony to keep him out of trouble. And what if they did believe her, what if he lived and they put him in jail? He would only get out again, and when he did he would know where she lived.
She could roll the body up in the rug and in the dead of night she could drag it down the stairs and across the remains of the snow to the trunk of her car. She could dump it off a bridge somewhere far away. Just a few hours and it would be over. She would never have to think about it again.
She stood above him for a minute. There was a sudden banging sound as the heat came on. He continued to breathe. She raised the bat above her head, willing herself to bring the barrel down, to smash the thin skull with the breath bubbling in its bloody nostrils. But her arms would not obey her. And he would wake up, and she would have to beat him down again, and again, until he died.
Becker did not love people, but she recoiled from homicide. This was her weakness, which she hadn't known she had until that moment.
And she knew that if he ever woke up, he would know it too.
* * *
The half bathroom was five feet by four feet, windowless, with a white porcelain sink in one rear corner and in the other a toilet with a white plastic seat. Above the sink was a small square mirror, fixed to the concrete above the pink tiles by a domed bolt on each corner. The floor was paved with little hexagonal tiles, ostensibly white, but in reality made gray by fine cracks beneath the glaze. A drain was set in the center of the floor. It was like a bathroom in a gas station, she had thought when she first saw the apartment, and she had not revised her opinion since then. What did they think she was going to do in there that there had to be a drain in the floor?
He had bled on her rug. Seeing the overturned bowl and the pieces of sea glass, she remembered: he had been holding the bowl, and the weird gargling noises had been followed by the thud of the bowl on the rug and the rattle of the glass as it leaped out. She gathered the pieces up and put them back in the bowl and put the bowl back on the windowsill. In the soft white light they glowed like something magical. She saturated the bloodstain with spot cleaner and dabbed at it with a paper towel until nothing remained.
She had brought the groceries in and locked the door. There was nothing else to do. Her apartment had been wounded and she had stitched up the wound. Now she sat on the sofa and stared out at the white sky, waiting.
After a few minutes she heard him. It was to buy apples for apple muffins that she had gone out, and she had put them on the counter, where they shone out red against the concrete. She should have been peeling them, happy, with the sweet clear juice running off the blade, extracting the inedible cores, chopping and stirring, and instead she was listening to the thud of a stranger's fists on a door. Then she heard his hands scrabbling at the place where the doorknob had been. Before long, she knew, he would start talking. Sure enough, after another minute or two, came exactly the words she had expected to hear: "Hello? Can anyone hear me?"
Should she respond to him? No, that would make him talk more. But if she didn't he might start yelling. Oh anything, anything but that.
"Is anyone there?" he asked.
She went to the counter and looked down at the apples. She picked one up and smelled it. Apples were not native to the United States and yet there they were in her kitchen. The world was full of miracles.
"Look, I think my skull is fractured," he said.
The thought of the blood occurred to her like an element recalled from a prophetic dream.
"Seriously, I think it might be broken," he said. "I have to go to the hospital. I might be dying."
She was fairly sure that this, at least, wasn't true. He was too talkative for a dying person. The same thing might have occurred to him, because after that he was quiet for what felt like a long time. The light began to fail. Sometimes Becker found herself on the sofa, sometimes in the kitchen. It was funny how she had never really looked at her pepper grinder: it had ears like a cartoon rabbit.
Eventually she spread a quilt on the floor in the hallway and lay there fully clothed, the revolver under her hand. He didn't speak. Maybe he was hoping he would wake up and discover he had been dreaming. It would have been comforting to believe that was possible, but Becker knew her own dreams too well, and though they sometimes involved intrusion and violence they were never this detailed. But this was not the kind of thing that really happened, not to anyone -- that strange word that was both anonymous and specific. She had become an anyone.
In the middle of the night she was awakened by the sound of violent retching coming from behind the door. Horrified, she slapped her hand onto the gun and gripped it tightly before she was even properly awake. It was only once she was sitting bolt upright that she finally identified the sound. The horror ebbed. Even when, the retching over, he again began beating his fists against the door, her primary feeling was disgust. "I've got to get out of here, I've got to, I'll die if I don't get out of here," he was whimpering, with variations. When this had gone on for a few minutes the whimpering rose to a shriek, which in turn gave way to wild sobbing. As he sobbed the man in the half bathroom scratched feebly at the foot of the door. The scratching went on for a long time.
Becker was unable to get back to sleep after that. When a train went by at seven-sixteen she got up and switched on the coffeemaker.
"OK," he said. "I know you're out there. I tried, OK?"
There was no panic in his voice, no indication that he was in any way connected with the retching and shrieking she had heard the night before.
"I'm getting out of here," he said.
He began throwing himself against the door. Becker had been expecting this, in fact she was surprised he hadn't tried it sooner, but she still winced at the noise.
In the end this was what made her talk to him. All her experience in ignoring the noises made by people and machinery proved useless in the face of the dull thump thump thump he was making, the impotent noise that was, maddeningly, almost but not quite rhythmic.
"Stop it!" she found herself yelling at the vibrating door. "Stop it!"
He stopped. "Open the door," he said.
The noise began again.
"You can't get out," she said. She would have said this, of course, even if she didn't believe it, but the whole building was exceptionally sturdy and all the doors opened inward. She had simply unscrewed the doorknob and reattached it so the lock was on the outside. Then, before closing the door, she had twisted the knob off on the inside with a pair of pliers. There was only a jagged stump of metal there now, not big enough to stick a finger in.
Becker suddenly realized that she felt queasy, as if she had become sick in her sleep and dreamed of the sickness until it woke her. She went to the sofa and dropped down onto it. What had she done? What had her terror made her do?
She ran into her bathroom and knelt there for a long time, but could not vomit.
* * *
Having begun talking he didn't stop. She discovered she could not hear him over the vacuum cleaner, which was a blessing, but of course she could not vacuum indefinitely. "What'll you do when someone finds out I'm here?" she finally heard him ask. His voice was unctuous rather than threatening, as if he had some reason to believe unctuousness would be effective.
There's no reason anyone ever would, she thought. She put away the vacuum cleaner and turned on the radio. Dvorak flooded the front room. The man in the half bathroom raised his voice, as she had suspected he would.
"People will miss me," he said, as if these two ideas were inextricably connected. Becker had no doubt that he would be missed; probably there was a woman wringing her hands in a police station at that very moment. Becker found it annoying that anyone should care about him, even an imaginary person.
"So what?" she said.
She could have sworn that he made a noise like a laugh. "So what are you going to do when someone finds out?" he asked.
"No one will," she said.
"Maybe I told someone where I was going."
"Then why aren't they here yet?"
He made no answer. Becker stifled the urge to ask him if that was the best he could do.
"What do you want?" he asked.
She hadn't realized that he would assume she wanted something. What she wanted was never to have been violated by him. Since that was impossible she said, "If you want to give me something I want, then stop talking."
Incredibly, he began to laugh. Becker's mind went white with fury, and she would have spoken if she had not managed to clap both hands over her mouth first. Oddly, she realized after a moment that she did not feel sick anymore.
* * *
She would go on as she always had; she had no other choice. She peeled the apples and made muffins out of them. She washed the windows and mopped the kitchen floor. The mingled odors of baking and cleaning loosened something tight and painful in her chest. Suddenly she realized that the man in the half bathroom was no longer talking. But he wasn't silent: holding the bucket of soapy water she paused outside the kitchen and listened. He was crying.
The muffins came golden out of the oven. She split one and buttered it. She was chewing when he suddenly wailed, "Are you going to let me starve?"
Well, of course. How stupid not to have thought of it. She swallowed and drummed her fingers on the countertop.
"Just open the damn door and shoot me then," he yelled. "Come on."
He was right, of course: she must either feed him or open the door and shoot him. She considered the second option halfheartedly, but there was no reason to believe she would be able to do today what she had been unable to do the night before. She might have to shoot him more than once. And someone might hear. And even if neither of those things happened, there would be blood -- a lot of blood.
She cut one of the muffins into thin slices and shoved them under the door as fast as she could, desperate to escape before he started making noises again.
When she was done she ran down the hall to her own bathroom, and this time she did vomit.
As soon as she stepped out the door the next morning she heard the voice of her neighbor's boyfriend. "Look, there she is," he crowed with what was undoubtedly supposed to sound like delight. "Look, sweetie, it's the Taliban."
Stephanie was behind him, in a brief black dress under a wool coat the color of a camel. She was barefoot and carried a pair of high heels in one hand. "Jake," she said, rubbing her eyes, "just leave her alone, OK?" When she dropped her hand Becker could see the black smear of mascara on her fingers.
"I was just saying to Steph that we never seem to see you anymore," he was saying, despite the fact that he had seen her the previous day. "You should come over sometime for a drink. Do you drink? What's your name, honey?"
"You are such an asshole," Stephanie said, turning toward her own apartment. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward him.
"That's a funny kind of name," he said. "You read that on the mailbox downstairs?"
She was forced to grab at him to keep from falling over, but as soon as she had regained her balance she began swatting at his chest and shoulders.
"You asshole!" she shrilled, smacking him limply with her palms while he winced theatrically and grinned.
"Take our picture," he commanded Becker, pressing Stephanie to his side. "Come on, I want to preserve this lovely moment."
Stephanie redoubled the force of her ineffectual swatting. Jake was momentarily distracted from Becker while with one hand he tried to grab her wrists. "Bitch," he snarled.
"Let me go!" she screamed.
Becker ran down the stairs and threw herself against the panic bar on the fire door. She ran to her car and drove to a grocery store far from her building, the one that sold the right kind of seaweed for wrapping sushi. On the way she stopped to take some photographs. A faded company name on the side of a building, windows cut into the letters. A weathervane. A flock of seagulls circling in the flat white sky.
* * *
She returned several hours later, bearing milk and eggs and coffee and cold cuts, a flatiron steak and a small heavy loaf of flaxseed bread. She put the groceries away and went to the front hallway to sit in front of the door to the half bathroom.
She had to admit that there was some comfort in knowing exactly what he thought of her. He hated her, of course, but that was nothing special; she figured that most people who were compelled to interact with her hated her to some extent, though there was apparently some rule of human interaction that prevented them from saying so. In fact not saying so seemed to make them feel virtuous, and because of this they were able to excuse all kinds of far more terrible behavior in themselves. She remembered this quite clearly from high school.
"What the hell is this, huh?" he asked. His voice was calm, stiff with hatred. That was encouraging.
"You're in my bathroom," said Becker.
"I don't know."
"All right," he said. "Forget that. I don't really care."
"Did you put me in here?"
"Can you let me out?"
This question seemed oddly worded until she thought back to the sobbing woman in the police station. He thought she answered to someone. "I won't," she said.
"And why not?"
"I don't trust you," she said.
"Don't you have a gun?" he asked. (How did he know that?) "What do you have to worry about?"
She didn't answer. Maybe there was a way to get rid of him without killing him. Maybe she could render him unconscious somehow. Maybe he had forgotten where she lived -- maybe she had knocked that memory right out of his head.
"Seriously," he said.
"Seriously, what do you have to worry about?"
Clearly this was not going to get them anywhere. "I don't trust you," she said again. It was the truest thing she could safely say.
* * *
Feeding him the second time (bread and ham and translucent slices of apple) was less harrowing, because he had stopped talking. This was a relief, but at the same time it was worrisome, because when people stopped talking it was usually because they were thinking of the damage they planned to do. Becker knew this from experience.
What could he use? The faucet knobs, perhaps, if he could loosen their tiny screws; the tiny screws themselves; the bolts that held the mirror to the wall; the mirror itself. Nothing with enough potential as a tool or a weapon to justify her anxiety.
She found herself thinking of him as Matthew, which had been -- in fact probably still was -- her brother's middle name. He was there in her house, unasked for, as her brother had been.
"Hey, I can hear you out there," Matthew said after a while. "Let's talk."
"Listen, you are obviously a very sick person," he said. "Whatever this is isn't your fault. You need help, OK?"
Matthew was clearly a person of few resources. "What kind of help?" asked Becker.
"Medical help. Psychological help. This isn't normal, don't you see that?"
Naturally it wasn't, but she didn't see what that had to do with anything. It was normal to acquire diseases through sexual contact with strangers, for example; it was even normal to break into people's apartments and fondle their belongings. So he was the normal one in this situation. It was not a persuasive recommendation. "So?" she said.
"So you should be talking to a doctor. You wouldn't get in trouble."
"If I let you out."
"I'm not going to."
"God damn it, why not?" he yelled. "You can't keep me in here forever."
Then why are you yelling? she thought, but said, "You've been in there two days. Why can't I keep you in there forever?"
"I told you, because it's crazy."
Not normal hadn't lasted long. "Well, it wasn't my idea."
He leaped on this. "Whose? Whose idea was it?"
Did he believe there was a vast conspiracy of people working in concert to keep him locked in her half bathroom? Becker clapped a hand over her mouth but a snort escaped anyway.
"Are you laughing?" he demanded. That made it worse. She had to lean against the wall.
"Give me the mirror," she said when she had regained her composure. She was weak from laughing so hard, and her stomach hurt a little, but she felt cold and hard and invincible. "The mirror," she said again, before he could ask her to repeat herself. "It's above the sink. You can unscrew the bolts by hand."
There was a scraping sound followed by the click of a bolt dropping onto the tile floor, then the scraping sound again, then another click. This happened twice more. Becker was about to say, "Slide it under the door," when there was a loud crash. She jumped.
"Dropped it," said Matthew, unnecessarily.
"You did that on purpose!"
"I did not," he said, but he didn't sound as if he cared much whether she believed him. "You still want it?"
The tone of this last remark reminded her of Jake. Somehow they were no in one of those vast tracts of conversational territory where she was helpless, where words did not mean what they meant, where people who would never say I hate you used a seemingly innocuous phrase like good morning to the same effect. As a child Becker had admired her parents' expert navigation of this particular territory, to the extent that she was able to recognize it, and had wished she could learn to make good morning mean I hate you so that no one would ever understand what she was really saying. It was odd that her parents seemed to want the opposite -- to be understood perfectly without having to say what they meant.
Her only choice in situations like this was to pretend not to realize that the other person's words were pregnant with a meaning wholly unrelated to their definitions. "Yes," she said.
They were back in her territory. "No food until you do," she said.
* * *
Food: what a solace it was. That night she prepared the steak, broiling it in butter and smothering it with onions and mushrooms. She had prepared this dish before, but had it ever been so delicious? The first forkful, eaten at her little square white dining table, with the yellow linen napkin in her lap, awakened the familiar urgent pleasure that opened up in her like a flower and sent warmth coursing to her toes and her fingertips.
After dinner she looked at the pictures she had taken earlier in the day. To her immense relief they were good enough to sell. These two pieces of her former life clicked together; the others would follow. She held her glass of wine up to the lamp and twirled it around the jewel of light in its center.
"You don't want me to die," Matthew said the next morning. Becker was stirring oatmeal on the stove. "If you wanted me to die you'd just kill me. Right?"
"Just give me the mirror," she said.
"What do you want it for?"
She didn't answer.
"It's in lots of little pieces."
Becker didn't want to discuss little pieces of glass while preparing oatmeal. They would be backed with silver, she reminded herself. I would be able to see them.
It was as she was eating that they began to appear, clicking and scraping over the marble threshold onto the hardwood floor of the hallway. She could see them from over the counter where she sat, and she winced, imagining them in her mouth. She finished and put the dishes in the dishwasher and poured herself some more coffee before going to inspect the shining pile. After looking at it for a moment she went to get the classified section of the Times and spread it out on the floor so she could arrange the pieces on it. There were thirty-eight in all.
"Is that it?" she asked.
"That's all I can find," he said. "I can't see anything."
She began pushing the pieces around with her forefinger, trying to see how they fit together. They were larger than she had expected. The biggest was the size of her palm, the smallest the size of a postage stamp. She became so absorbed that it surprised her to hear him speak. "So?" he said.
"Soooo," he said, drawing the word out, stiffening it with hatred, "are you going to stop starving me now, or what?"
"In a minute."
"Wait, I said!" She was holding a shard between her thumb and forefinger as she said this, and after a moment was reminded of its sharp edges by the pressure she found herself exerting upon it. She put it down and rubbed her fingers together.
"There's a piece missing," she said after a minute. "Maybe more than one."
"I gave you all the ones I could find," said Matthew. "Maybe it was broken already." He sounded as if he might start crying again.
"It was not." She scrutinized the seven pieces she had not yet arranged. No: there was no way they could fill the remaining space by themselves.
"What does it matter?" he yelled. "You're seriously going to -- who are you? What is this?" His voice became so high-pitched that by the penultimate word it had almost broken.
"Just find it and give it to me," said Becker, standing and lifting the newspaper carefully from the floor.
"Come on," she heard him say as she carried it to the kitchen counter. The superglue she used to reassemble the mirror smelled faintly of Granny Smith apples.
* * *
The missing piece was sickle-shaped, like a slice of cantaloupe, about three inches from end to end. Becker, sitting at the kitchen counter the next morning, could picture it very clearly. The reconstructed mirror was in front of her, and she traced its cracked surface with the fingers of her free hand as she drank her coffee. It was pretty.
But not to admit weakness was further weakness. She went into her own bathroom and addressed her reflection. "This is very upsetting," she said. Nothing dramatic happened to her expression, so she went on. "I know he has it. He's trying to prove something." Looking herself in the eye as she was, she was forced to admit she knew what he was trying to prove. "He's trying to prove he can annoy me" -- but that was not the right word -- "defy me" -- closer -- "hurt me, even from in there." She nodded; that was right. But there was one thing more. "And he is."
The reward for facing up to these facts was that it made her so angry there was no room for regret. He thought he was the victim, he saw himself emaciated on a cot, leaning against a wall with a blanket clutched to his shoulders and a bandage on his head, struggling to hold back his tears as he told some sympathetic news reporter what he had suffered through -- he thought she was the villain. The shudder in her hands and wrists when the bat struck his head, he had deserved it, he had brought it on himself, and now he dared, when he should be grateful she hadn't killed him, he dared…
She emerged from the bathroom feeling strong and virtuous, so much so that it barely surprised her to find the final piece of mirror. It was lying on the floor in front of the half bathroom, almost as far as the opposite wall. There! It was as if she had conjured it with pure willpower.
As she knelt reaching for it she saw the glaze of blood on its sharper edge. She yanked her hand back so quickly she almost fell over.
"What's this?" she yelled at the door.
"It's what you wanted!" he yelled back. Then, more calmly: "I told you, it's in lots of little pieces. I cut myself."
His voice was on the verge of breaking, but oddly he did not sound upset. It was odder when he started laughing. The laugh was also high-pitched, and became progressively more so until at last it was a wheeze, like steam escaping from machinery.
It was good, she told herself, even as the hand that had reached for the bloody shard trembled and wrenched itself into the grip of her other hand. He understood that he had lost. That was why he was laughing, because it had been ridiculous to strike out at her from where he was, as ridiculous as it had been to throw his body against the door.
She filled a Tupperware container with bleach and dropped the shard into it, holding it away from her body with a pair of tweezers and dropping the tweezers in as well. Then she assaulted the front hallway with Lysol. Matthew wheezed again. "You're safe," he said, his voice still high-pitched but calm. "I'm clean. Well, I get cold sores. That's herpes. But besides that."
Her virtuous mood was gone. "What's so funny?" she snapped.
"It's just blood," said Matthew. "See?"
There was suddenly a more urgent note in his voice, cheerful though it remained, and she turned to look. Blood was trickling over the marble threshold in a steady rivulet. As she watched, its blind searching head found the edge of the marble slab, paused swelling there a moment, and then spilled over. The blood formed a quarter-sized pool on the hardwood, and the pool started moving, soaking, spreading itself…
Becker, still on her knees, tried to scramble away from the door. She fell on her side, driving her elbow into the floor, and the pain shocked her so that she realized, as if witnessing it from outsider herself, that she was screaming. She made herself stop. Clutching the elbow she lumbered to her feet. The blood -- where was it coming from? Why was there so much of it? She stared dumbly at the floor, her eyes so wide that her face began to hurt. The pool was the size of her hand now; it was getting bigger all the time; the rivulet was still feeding it. Bile rose in her throat and she choked on it as she ran to the bathroom.
* * *
There was something beyond this feeling, something beyond the shaking and the screaming and the taste of acid. She had pushed through feelings like it before. "I have," she insisted to her reflection. Beyond it was the warmth of anger and beyond that was something she needed more than anger, something she needed perhaps more than she had ever needed anything, an endless calm in which there was neither cold nor heat, fear nor anger. In that place she was not even a body, not even flesh, just the defiance that was her own being in a world of that which was not her.
The anger came first. She stopped shaking and paced from one end of the bathroom to the other struggling to contain its hugeness. That he would…that he had… There were no words for it, no phrase demeaning or disgusting enough.
She would stall there, she knew, if she did not push herself. Part of her wanted to stall there -- wanted to damn him until the damnation burst from her. She had no clear idea of what would happen then. Maybe it would kill him. maybe it would knock him over with the horror she had felt upon seeing that dumb, spreading coin of blood.
But she must not go back to that. She must go forward, away even from her anger, away from Matthew and this moment. This was only one moment in a lifetime of them, after all; she needed to remember that. Life was composed of moments, loathsome and otherwise. There was one constant, and that was herself.
Here was a moment in which her mother had cried in an effort to make her feel sorry. Here was a moment in which she had first been paid for a photograph. Here was a moment in which she had eaten a shepherd's pie while the rain fell against the windows.
The calm came over her like an envelope of wax that sealed her into herself, that filled her ears so she heard nothing but the beating of her own heart.
* * *
"You slit your wrists," she said to Matthew's door. The pool had been the size of a salad plate before she dropped an old towel onto it.
"I might still make it if you called an ambulance," he said.
He thought he knew her weakness, but she had no weaknesses now, she was nothing but herself in her most perfect form. Maybe he had been hoarding this supposed knowledge the whole time, even as he yelled and threw himself at the door, maybe he had always been waiting to strike where he thought she was vulnerable. Well, it didn't matter. Nothing he could say or do mattered: she knew it, and now he would know it.
"Go ahead and bleed to death," she said. She buttoned herself into her jacket and went out.