“Jesus H. Christ,” she muttered through clenched teeth as she heard him begin that awful scrape of sliding Styrofoam boards. He was attempting to remove the slabs of (probably fucking fake) wood from the box to assemble the first piece of furniture they would own together as a married couple, the Ikea coffee table, which she’d hated upon first seeing in the catalogue—it was unoriginal and for some reason dauntingly despairing—but had been advised by her mother that it was “certainly worth the money.” Katharine thought nothing was ever “worth the money.” Fearing marriage to be another piece of evidence to add to this empirical absolute, as it had cost her seven grand and had earned her a jeweled piece-of-shit dress, she crept from the bedroom, where she’d been sorting clothes into “his” and “hers” piles, to the kitchen, where she intended to sneak a swig of gin which she’d carefully hidden when she’d been in charge of organizing the pots and pans, it being of course “woman’s work.”
As she headed over to the kitchen, while trying to avoid the prying eyes of her new lifelong mate, she began to contemplate what the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ” really stood for. Certainly Jesus didn’t have a middle name.
Having become trapped in her religious reverie, Katharine walked into the kitchen only to find she’d forgotten exactly why she’d come into this room in the first place. Yet she couldn’t go back to the bedroom—she’d risk him seeing her, and then he’d want to talk about the damned table or check on how things were going “on her end,” and she’d have to smile.
“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. Luckily her newlywed husband remained safely in the living room, trying to make sure he had “all his ducks in a row,” which he yelled out as if offering an explanation as to why it was taking him so fucking long to remove the Styrofoam-encased pieces of the Hazelnut Haven coffee table from their box. Why he considered it at all appropriate to deliver this offensively loud newsfeed was beyond her comprehension.
Derailed by the scraping, grating Styrofoam, she abandoned her forgotten mission in the kitchen and headed straight to the garage, where she’d hidden some cheap vodka she’d purchased at a gas station on the twenty-one hour drive to this new house in this new subdivision—Green Valley Acres, what a joke! There were only five completed houses in the whole damned lot, and the rest of it consisted of crumbling cement, mounds of dirt, and unfinished foundations, beams and boards hanging precariously over the ominous desolation from which they’d emerged.
She went to the shelves hanging on the far side of the garage, opened the box marked “Christmas Decorations – Katharine,” which he’d never care to deal with, and rummaged around for the vodka. Finding a little less than a quarter of the bottle left, she went to stand by the garage door so that she could gaze out of the already dirty windows as she drank.
The solitary streetlamp cast pale, flickering light upon the torn-up street. She couldn’t even fathom the damage she’d probably done to her car in the short drive up to their new house, but she supposed it didn’t matter, anyway. Mark wanted to buy a new car—one that was safer, with clear approval from Car and Driver magazine—something more appropriate than her beat up Kia for a child, or, if things went as planned, a couple of children. One boy and one girl.
And there it came. The sudden panic and terror. She felt as though she could feel the child already growing within her, scraping its fingernails within her stomach, ballooning up at a monstrous rate of growth. She needed to destroy something.
Searching through the garage, she couldn’t find much. Many of Mark’s tools had not yet been unloaded from the trunk, where he’d kept them “just in case they got into some sort of pickle” while making the drive.
Yet she did find one screwdriver, some screws, some nails, and a hammer, all of which he’d probably left out in case he needed them to build any of the furniture (he always planned ahead). Considering the options, she thought the hammer would be the most likely to cause the most damage.
She didn’t plan on slamming herself in the head or anything of the sort—she wasn’t crazy. She just needed something to center herself, to allow her to escape the incessant err-errring of scraping Styrofoam, that buzzing, flickering lamplight, that persistent, nagging persistent child begging for birth. So she placed her left hand upon the wooden workbench and positioned her thumb so that it lay vulnerable and ready.
Then, she lifted the hammer as one always raises a hammer, with deliberation and care, and brought it down straight upon her thumb. The pain was beautifully immediate. Her thumb seemed to ring from the pain, and all the other thoughts stopped swirling as the blood rushed to her extremity. “Fuck!” she cried.
“You okay, hon? What are you doing out there?” Mark yelled out from the house.
“Helping find tools for you. Just dropped one on my foot. No big deal,” she responded through clenched teeth.
“Honey, it says right here on the box: No additional tools required. Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting my ducks in a row.”
“Fucking ducks,” she mumbled to herself, shaking her hand vigorously to ease off the pain. What would she do if he noticed? She could always claim she had dropped another tool, this time on her hand. Chalk it up to her feminine clumsiness around tools.
Not that he thought of her that way—not in the least. He did not see the world in the way she sometimes painted him to see it. If anything, Mark had chosen her, married her, in large part for her tremendous reliability, her ability to hold her own, her lack of the hysteria his own mother possessed in reaping, seeping heapfuls.
“I’m just so glad to’ve found someone so stable and so supportive. You’re my rock,” he’d offered up in their self-written vows.
What would happen if he discovered that “his rock” was made of water (perhaps, more aptly, wine)? What would happen if he discovered that when she was struck—by emotion, by a flickering streetlamp or, for God’s sake, by the fucking incessant scraping of Styrofoam boards in her ears, she might explode into a heavenly mead of alcohol and inexplicable havoc? What would he do then?
Fearing the worst, Katharine looked down at her hand. This was always both the worst and best moment of the mutilation—the pain would flare up in raving flames as soon as her eyes turned to whatever part she’d just cut, smashed, ripped, or scratched. It always seemed to offer proof that perception was reality, for once she looked upon it, it became real.
But this time, as she set her eyes upon her left thumb, something strange happened—nothing. No pain. No throbbing redness, no immediate bruising as she’d seen when she’d smashed her hand into the wall of the solitary band practice room when she was in college. There was absolutely no discoloration. No swelling, no feeling of the blood rushing towards the pain. Nothing.
“What the fuck?” she thought. Hadn’t she done it? Hadn’t she actually hit herself with the hammer? Surely she hadn’t made it up, dreamed it. She hadn’t had that much to drink.
She drank some more, to ease the disquiet seeping steadily and irrevocably in. This was her form of meditation, of isolation, of calm. When the therapist had been called in to see her that one time freshmen year, he’d told her, mistakenly, to find something she loved, something that centered her, and do that thing every time she felt the world spinning. Every time she felt that over-stimulation–that’s what he would call her Styrofoam scraping, lamplight flickering, fetus scratching anxieties–become too overwhelming.
And so Katharine had found not one, but two things that brought her peace and quiet: getting pissed drunk to ease her mind, and, in the steady grace that always followed liquor filling her stomach, drowning all noise with the sudden and immediate desecration of some part of herself. She’d done it all, though never in obvious places. She wasn’t crazy. She knew the drill. Those bitches who cut wrists were cliché, attention-seeking. No, she’d sliced her elbows with a knife, cut her ankles up with razors, scraped her knees with a cheese grater.
And Mark. Good old Mark. How could he ever notice? He knew she worked out hard. He loved her fastidious, driven approach to exercise. And how could he find fault with her bruises, burns, and scrapes, when she was merely committed to running and riding her bike so that she could maintain her youthful health? She was so sturdy. And so unlike his mother, who had eaten her way into a nearly fatal obesity at such a young age.
Those scrapes, those scratches, those burns—those were her connections with a sort of dreamlike solitude that existed only in brief and fleeting moments. Those moments when her head would stop its screeching and its cage-rattling. When her body would stop its twitching and its pussy-aching.
Every time she felt the pain, her strength was regained. She was refreshed. And it wasn’t only in the moment. Every time she saw a slight red scab, or felt herself, while straddling Mark during sex, begin to burn the scrapes on her knees with the friction of the sheets beneath her, she felt the waves of calm come easing in, setting her adrift, far from the shore, with its moaning, landlocked demons, and into a world all her own. A world of blues and calms and setting suns as she looked out across glassy waters.
So what the fuck? Why wasn’t there any pain? Why wasn’t there any swelling? She’d hit it hard, she knew she had.
“Hon? Would you mind taking a look at this for me?” Mark yelled out from the living room to the garage. “I don’t see a letter label on this piece.”
Fucking idiot. Just look at the diagram. Glancing once again at her despairingly healthy pink thumb, Katharine put down the useless hammer and hid her vodka in the Christmas box again.
That night, Katharine could think of nothing but her painfully painless thumb. What the fuck? How did it not hurt? Perhaps her pain tolerance had increased, though that didn’t make sense. Not so soon, nor so quickly. And no marks.
Maybe she hadn’t hit it hard? But she had. She had. It had hurt in the moment. She had screamed “Fuck.” Mark had called out to see if she was okay. What the hell?
Finally, at 4:45 in the morning, she couldn’t take it anymore. “Honey, I can’t sleep. I think I’ll get my run in a bit early today,” she whispered, shaking Mark’s shoulder.
“Hmmmm, okay,” Mark shrugged in his sleep. “Wait…um…what time is it? It’s still dark.”
“It’s early in the morning, but the sun will come up soon.”
“Are you sure? But you don’t even know the area that well yet,” he mumbled. “I can…um…go with you, if you want,” he added reluctantly.
“Nah. I’ll be alright,” she responded.
“Okay, if you’re sure,” he muttered, falling back to sleep on the last word.
Sometimes she loved how strong and capable he thought she was.
She threw on her running clothes and ran into the darkness of the early morning, seeking answers.
As she ran, Katharine thought of possibilities. Perhaps it had been a hallucination. She hadn’t gotten much sleep since the wedding. Between the interminable drive, the sinister surroundings, the inconvenient new ways she had to rearrange her belongings in the shared space, and Mark’s unforgiving optimism, she hadn’t really had a good night’s sleep in a couple of weeks. So maybe she’d imagined it.
But she’d gone weeks without sleep before. She never slept much. A few hours here or there. Mark was always impressed by her efficiency. She could be up at 3 am and have her entire apartment sparkling clean by 4:30 without a complaint. She could stay up until midnight if he needed her to look over some of his cases with him, no coffee needed.
So it couldn’t be lack of sleep. Then what? What was it?
Perhaps she’d slipped her grip on the hammer. Perhaps she’d yelled “Fuck” without the hammer actually hitting her thumb. Perhaps she should check the table where she’d positioned her hand. See if there was a dent where the table had taken the worst of the damage.
Yes. That was what she would do.
Lost in thought, Katharine cut abruptly to her left, turning to head back home.
“Fuck!” “Fuck fuck fuck!” she cried out as she fell toward the ground. Some damn construction worker had left wood everywhere. Looking around, she saw her right foot twisted awkwardly between two beams. Fuck. Something was seriously wrong. And God, fuck, her left wrist was screaming.
She turned her eyes to her arm and nearly vomited. The sight, even to someone accustomed to self-mutilation, was repugnant. Her arm had landed on another board, and sticking up, straight through her left wrist, was a three-inch nail. Blood poured down her wrist, dripped down onto the board, and leaked onto the ground. “Jesus H. Christ,” she sobbed.
How would she get hold of Mark? He would be so mad. He had a lot to do at the firm, and he couldn’t be late, not during one of his first few weeks there. Of course he wouldn’t show it. He would be kind and consistent, but Jesus, he really shouldn’t be late. Not in his first few weeks. And Goddammit this was all her fault. Why was she like this? Why didn’t she just assume that she hadn’t hit her hand as hard as she thought? Why had she hit her hand with a hammer in the first place? What kind of fucked up person does that? And why had she gone to the garage for a drink? Why did she need to drink? She was starting a new life, and all of this old crazy bullshit needed to end. Those days were over. It was time. Time for marriage. Time for love. Time for Katharine and Mark sitting in a tree. Time for a baby in a baby carriage. What the fuck? What was wrong with her? How would she get home?
“First things first,” Katharine thought. She had to see if she could get her twisted, probably fucking broken ankle out from between the boards. Gritting her teeth, Katharine shifted her weight to her left side, causing the nail to drive itself further into her left wrist. Then she looked toward her ankle, bit her lip, and lifted.
The pain was nearly unbearable. She thought she might pass out. Her ankle didn’t want to budge, and the boards were far too heavy for her to lift. “Fuck,” she cried, pushing with all that she had.
And then, suddenly, her right foot popped out. She cried out in shock and looked away, afraid to see the damage. But the pain…the pain seemed suddenly gone from her ankle, her leg. She looked up to see that her foot was no longer in an awkward position. It fit snugly and squarely in her shoe, and the ankle, she could see above her sock, was unscathed and in perfect, dauntingly perfect position.
“Ugh,” she cried. Certainly this couldn’t be happening. Shifting her weight onto her right side, she made a fist with her right hand, took ten rapid breaths, and drew her left wrist slowly up, watching as the nail slipped from her flesh, leaking blood and oozing pain.
She nearly cried in terror, for, in her blurred night’s vision, her wrist healed before her eyes, the skin covering over the gash immediately, with not a trace of wound, not a single splotch of red. And as she looked down at the nail and the wood, she found no lingering spots, no sign of her accident.
But this couldn’t be real. Perhaps she’d dreamed it. Perhaps she’d had more to drink than she thought she had in the garage. Perhaps she was passed out. Or perhaps this was just a crazy hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation. It couldn’t fucking be real.
“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck!” she cried, and were the development established, she could be certain she would’ve woken neighbors. Mothers in robes would go to check that their darling two year olds slept soundly in their beds, nightlights still shimmering, reflecting off the ceiling, lullabies still playing softly out of their electronic ladybugs and caterpillars. But of course she woke no one. No one had seen; no one had heard.
In disbelief, she got up and ran. She ran home and lay back in bed and slept in the cold terror sweat, safe in her new invincibility.
And when she woke, she convinced herself it was all a dream. A momentary insanity brought on by the stress of the move, the anxiety of her job, the lack of sleep, the liquor in the Christmas box.
And for weeks, despite shaving nicks dried up with no need for toilet paper wads, despite bumps into the corners of tables leaving no bruises, despite the lack of muscle pain after a fifteen mile run, she kept herself from thinking about it. She drank, and she forgot.
And then she remembered. Christmas break came, and writers were on hiatus, and she had nothing to edit. No one was working. She had nothing to do.
Mark convinced her she could learn to bake, if she really wanted to. She could set her mind to anything, and she could achieve it, he said.
So she began to bake. Gingerbread cookies, and brownies, and sugary sweets. And she was doing fine.
But one night Mark came home, and she was baking pumpkin cookies, fudge, and Gingerbread men. She was heating a caramel glaze in a small pot on the stove. And the kitchen was a wreck. Bowls and pots and pans everywhere. She’d spilled flour all over the floor and salt all over the sink. It smelled like burning plastic because she’d left a stirring spoon on a hot burner.
And Mark came home. He’d gone to happy hour with his colleagues; he was pleasantly buzzed. He came up behind her, and he rubbed the small of her back and began to caress her, to press himself against the backs of her thighs.
And then he looked around. He noticed the disaster and laughed, “What happened, Kat?”
She hated that he called her Kat. “Oh, I just left the spoon on the burner,” she muttered.
He laughed again jovially. “That’s probably because you’ve got three projects going on at once,” he teased, patting her shoulder. “Maybe you should stop and just get your ducks in a row before you burn the house down,” he laughed. Then he went to the bathroom to take a piss.
And she moved the warming pot to another burner. And she put her right hand on the bright orange coils.
Immediately and unintentionally, she pulled her hand away. “Fuck,” she muttered. Then, she placed her hand back upon the burner. There it was—she could feel it—the heat searing into the flesh of her palm. She began to notice a faint burning smell.
She wondered if Mark would notice. He was in the bathroom, but if she waited long enough, kept her hand on long enough, surely he would smell the smoke…
She couldn’t take it anymore. She had to see if she’d done any damage.
Slowly, she pulled her hand off of the burner, watching as some of the flesh peeled off her fingers. She smiled as she looked at her palm, red and seared, just as she’d wanted! But then she watched with horror as her hand inevitably healed. The smell dissipated; the pieces of flesh on the burner disappeared before her eyes.
There she was again. Horrifically, devastatingly fine.
On Christmas night, she wandered out into the deserted development. The few residents had left, their families unwilling to travel out to “Green Valley Acres,” for a visit. They’d gone to cities and suburbs, to families and well-lit heathers.
Mark stayed at home, entertaining his lonely father, who’d come out to escape his crazy ex-wife. After dinner, the two men had started drinking Scotch and smoking cigars in the garage.
And so Katharine had left, claiming she was going on a run “to work off that pecan pie.” Mark had asked if everything was okay. “You sure, hon? It’s pretty cold out there.”
But she’d been insistent, and he didn’t want to ruin her stability, interrupt her habitual exercise.
So she’d left.
She’d run around the deserted lot twice, scouting for the best option. About half a mile out by her measure, she’d found it.
An unfinished house in which great progress had been made. The primary structure was complete—the beams, the boards, showing the shadow of a home. Plywood soon to be covered in siding, window holes and a place for the door.
So she’d looked around, checking for bystanders while simultaneously knowing full and well that no one was around on this frigid Christmas night. And she’d walked up the first flight of stairs. Then she walked across what would one day be the second floor and ran up the second flight of stairs.
There, from what would one day be the third floor, sitting on what would most likely be the softly carpeted floor of a nursery room in greens and blues or perhaps pinks and browns, she looked out at the desolation.
The streetlamps continued to flicker in that random rhythm of electricity’s hidden movements, illuminating with derision the rubble lying all over the ground.
The whine of the lamps and the disorganized, sprawling dump of a “neighborhood” made her grit her teeth. And then she began to think of Brad, Mark’s father. How his hard teeth kept pounding into one another, popping and snapping even as he chewed on the most pliable foods—mashed potatoes and cranberries in sauce.
And the world began to spin, and the noises and images began to grow wild and unfettered, tearing at her with the hunger of a wolf’s snapping jaws. And then that damn baby, that baby she knew must be there—if not currently fermenting then lying in wait—seized upon the opportunity, and she swore she could hear it tapping lightly with its fingernails upon her stomach wall.
So she stood. And she jumped.
And though, despite herself, she tried to break her fall by steadying her knees so that she could soften the blow, as her feet hit the ground and her weight toppled her, she heard two loud cracks as her legs broke beneath her. She crumpled onto the ground.
“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!” she thought. What would she tell Mark? Or Brad? Mark seemed to be guessing that she wasn’t doing well—he kept telling her to “take it easy.” But Brad? Brad had no idea. And she couldn’t show him this. She would bear his grandchild one day. She couldn’t turn out to be just like his crazy fucking ex-wife, Mark’s mother. He didn’t deserve that. Not after all he’d been through.
How the fuck would she get help? No one was out here. Not a soul.
And then, once again, the pain disappeared. Her legs straightened and locked into gear, relaxed and ready to complete the run.
So she returned, flushed and panting but otherwise unharmed. Mark and Brad were still there, laughing and chatting in a haze of smoke and buzz. She went to bed, claiming that the food and the run had made her tired.
New Year’s Day came and went. In the spring, she got pregnant. Mark was thrilled. Brad and his new girlfriend Jillian came by to congratulate the two of them.
Mark told her to do whatever she wanted with the nursery. He knew it wasn’t “his place,” so he gave her his credit card and told her she had “free rein.” And her mother and her sister insisted on a trip to IKEA. She purchased a “Nurture’s Touch crib,” complete with a matching set of sheets and stuffed animals. Her sister bought her a nightlight that illuminated false stars on the ceiling, and her mother bought her an electronic turtle that hummed a nighttime lullaby.
By six months, she’d stopped running. Although the doctor said she could continue, Mark was concerned. He kept telling her she needed to “take it easy.” Besides, he said, there were so many potholes still in Green Valley Acres, she could twist her ankle and fall. Katharine had almost laughed out loud.
Finally, after weeks of watching Katharine languish, Mark suggested she go for a short walk on the newly paved path by a lake nearby. Initially, she refused, saying she didn’t want to have a lot of people talking to her, asking her questions about “how far along she was.” But Mark had insisted, citing that since this was a still a new development, she could go on a weekday morning with no threat of strangers with their innocent, nosy questions. She just needed to watch her step on the walk there.
And so she’d left the house around 6:45 in the morning, after Mark had already left (he had many cases to deal with that day). She walked the mile over to the lake.
Mark was right. There was no one there. It was quiet and calm. Katharine sat on a bench and watched as the water lapped quietly, the breeze easing over the waves in soothing patterns.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, an old woman came along, her cane tap-tap-tapping on the rocks. As she passed the bench, she caught sight of Katharine.
“Aaah. How far along?” she asked, gesticulating with her cane.
“Seven months now,” Katharine responded, rubbing her belly and smiling her most benign of smiles.
“Aah. Your first?” the old woman asked.
“How could you tell?” Katharine responded.
“That look of fear, of bewilderment,” the old woman chuckled. “Don’t worry. It will all be fine once that baby comes along. Though nothing will prepare you for the pain of childbirth. It’s indescribable. It’s true, what they say, we women are stronger than men could ever be,” she laughed.
Katharine smiled, shaking her head.
“Well, best of luck to you and your baby,” the old woman said, clicking and clacking away with her cane. Katharine watched her fade into the trees to the left.
“The indescribable pain,” Katharine thought. “I think I know what that’s like.”
Once the woman was gone, Katharine filled her pockets with heavy rocks and waded into the lake. Once she got to the middle, she urged herself underneath the water’s surface. As she gazed up through the water, she tried to hold her breath. She sank. And then she bobbed to the surface. She waded out, soaking wet, and loaded her pockets with more rocks. She sank. And she bobbed, inevitably, to the surface. So she got out of the lake. She lifted a giant rock, twice the size of her head, and carried it without pain into the water. She tried to sink again. She looked up through the waters above her and prayed.
And as she inevitably bobbed up again, she saw four ducks swimming in the distance. Four ducks in a goddamned perfect row.
Diane Kenealy lives in Colorado with her husband and her dog. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably either sleeping or doing her best to help close the education gap for urban middle schoolers.