When I walk into her rooms, they’re a wreck. I should have known it would be, but I’m still somewhat surprised by the level of filth that always managed to accumulate, and the way she lived in it, without caring. Takeout boxes laying all over the place, cigarettes put out in them, underwear all over the floor, empty bottles of malt liquor shoved under the couch.
The music is on way too loud, destroying her hearing. Everything is covered in a thin haze of nicotine, the smoke and tar leaving an odd tang in the air. There’s a belly-level miasma of bluegrey that reeks of cloves and GodKnowsWhatElse.
Above that, the smell of lavender and incense.
She’s probably hiding in the bathtub again.
I wonder if I should clean up behind her, or just set fire to the place when I’m done.
That stupid cat of hers is yowling at me as I pad through, winding his way around my ankles as though he could kill me with love. I remember her telling me about him, about his copper and yellow eyes and his singing habits.
Weird, what turns out to be important.
When I step into the bathroom, she’s standing in the bathtub, water running, staring at herself in the mirror that some weirdo hung in the shower stall. She’s poking at various spots of herself, frowning at the milkpale skin, tugging at her overly red hair, and when she looks at me, she doesn’t even register surprise.
“I wondered when you’d show up. Took you fucking long enough,” she says over her shoulder, and her voice doesn’t sound anything at all like what I thought it would. It sounds higher, girlish and nasal. She seems smug.
“Hey, if I’d known how hard this was going to be,” I tell her, somewhere between apologetic and frustrated, “I’d never have left you alive in the first place.”
She shrugs, and points at the gun in my hand. “That won’t work. You’re going to have to get your hands dirty.”
“What do you know about it?” I say, feeling my face hot, my hands hot. Everything is too hot, and I’m angry, suddenly. Angry happens so easily, lately. I shake so much that I have to put the gun down, and when I look back at her, she’s laughing at me.
Goddamn bitch has been laughing at me for ten fucking years.
I knock her down into the tub, grab a handful of that stupid orange hair, and crack her head against the porcelain. I slam that pretty face and that too-big nose right against the rim of the tub, and listen to the crack.
She fights me, like I was afraid she would, reaches up and grabs hold of me, and pulls me down into the tub, holds my head under. She puts her lips to my ear in the cold, lavender water, and hisses, “I’m not giving up that easy. Do you think I spent ten years whispering into your ear just to let you throw me away? I’m the useful one. I’m the pretty one. I’m the smart one. I’m the one everyone loved. You’re just pathetic. You’re just old. Everyone forgets you. Nobody wants you, you sad fuck. You don’t even want you.”
I was expecting it, that viciousness, but all the same, I am under water, and I weep in both fear and fury.
Above me, in the real world, Bare Naked Ladies is playing.
When I surface, not because I am stronger, but because she has tired of teasing me, she is sitting up, smirking at me, coy and playful. She doesn’t even have the decency to still have a broken nose. Like I can’t touch her.
She makes eyes at me, and all of a sudden, I find myself realizing I’ve had it all wrong, this whole time. I marvel at how beautiful she is, at how I never really appreciated her for all she was, rather than all she did for me.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I tell her, meaning it as an apology. “It’s over. It was over a long time ago,” I say, as though it were the perfect excuse. “Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.”
“Has to be?” she says, sounding shrill. “It doesn’t have to be anything at all! You’re choosing this. This is your choice.”
“Yeah,” I say, nodding. “Yeah, I’m choosing this. I’m choosing this, because I’m not half as clever as I thought you were. I’m not nearly as beautiful as you. I’m not as young as you are. I’ll never, ever be you. I don’t even know why I wanted to be,” I say tiredly, moving to sit on the bathtub edge.
“Because everyone should want to be me,” she says softly. “Everyone who isn’t me? Jealous as fuck,” she laughs. “I can do anything,” she purrs. “I can do EVERYTHING. Can you imagine? I’m unstoppable. I’m God,” she laughs.
“Only in your head,” I say, pulling her into my arms. “And I always forget how sad you were. How alone.”
“Silly,” she says, shaking her head. I’m not trying to hurt her, so she doesn’t fight me. She embraces me, and I can smell the incense, and the dial soap, and the lavender salts, and the ammonia from the dye.
I press my cheek to hers and say, “It’s not your fault, you know. I’ll take responsibility for all of it. I have to live with it now, so there’s no point in blaming you. I just have to accept that I did all those things.”
“What do you mean?” she murmurs, sounding confused.
“I mean I love you,” I whisper. “And I forgive you.”
“What are you talking about?” she says, now worried, and trying to pull away.
I don’t let her go. “I love you,” I say, a little less timidly. “And I forgive you.”
“Shut up,” she hisses, trying to get out of my arms.
“I love you,” I repeat, gentle, and as kind as I can possibly manage. “And I forgive you. I love you, and I forgive you,” I promise.
“Stop it!” she shrieks. “Stop saying that! I HATE YOU! EVERYONE HATES YOU! EVEN YOU HATE YOU!”
“It’s okay,” I tell her, letting her scream and struggle. The more she fights, the more I am gentle, and encouraging. “It’s going to be okay. I love you,” I say. “I love you, and I forgive you. Because everyone else that’s going to already has, and everyone who hasn’t never will. Some things we can’t change,” I explain. “Some things we can’t ever change. So we pick up, and we keep going.”
She stops struggling, going limp, and resorts to her last defense.
I nearly give up, right then — the sight of them drives the wind out of me. She cries, and I can’t fucking breathe. I am all at once weak at the knees, furious and terrified. Those tears. Everything is ruined in the face of those tears. Nothing can be salvaged. The tears just mean it’s over, and it’s final, and it’s terrible, and nothing will ever be good again.
She cries, and I let her do just that, let it wash over me, let it just happen. It’s a torrent, a flood, a horror, and it’s everything I was afraid it would be. Unending. All consuming.
She was right. Everything IS ruined. Everything is broken, and I’ll never get my head above this. I almost close my eyes and let go and get washed away.
After awhile, I realize the tears are slowing; she’s exhausted, and her makeup is running, and she has that hitched breath of a little girl who’s all cried out.
I take her hand, and I lead her back through the apartment. “Get anything that’s important to you. Anything you want.”
“You’re going to keep the rest, right?” she says quietly.
“I’ll keep what I need. Only what I actually need,” I tell her, reassuring, and I usher her out onto the landing. I let the cat out, and she picks him up and holds him tight, rubbing her nose on his, making purring noises. He closes his eyes and keeps his nose pressed to hers, purring in return.
That’s how I want to remember her.
I tell her to start down the stairs, and while she goes, I light the fires. There’s enough junk in there that the whole place will go up, wood paneling and all. Easier than cleaning, really.
When I get downstairs, to the foyer, she has her hands on the glass and is staring out, awed, and frightened.
“It’s time,” I say, and I take her hand, and I lead her out into the sun.
In the light, I can see her youth for what it really is — inexperience.
In the light, I can see her bravado for what it really is — loneliness.
In the light, she is beautiful, and young, and nothing like me at all.
The sun shines right through her, and she looks around, as though looking at the world with new eyes, awed. “It’s beautiful out here,” she says.
“And it always will be,” I promise her. “You’re safe now. It’s all over. You can rest. You’re free.”
“Oh,” she says, looking relieved. “Oh.”
She laughs, and it’s nothing like what I thought it would sound like, but that’s all right, because for all that, it really does sound like freedom.
She runs for the park across the street, to scare the crows out of the trees, and laugh as they all take to the skies at once.
She disappears from my sight, and so I turn my attention to the apartment.
It’s on fire, good and caught, now, and there’s no saving it.
“That’s okay,” I say, nodding as I turn to head down the steps for the last time. “Now I’m free, too.”