By Laura Jean McKay. First published in VICE Magazine.
‘There is an optical illusion known as “flying rods” created by insects flying quickly in front of a camera, so that the camera captures them as an elongated creature with multiple sets of wings, which were thought to be a mysterious undiscovered creature when they were first observed.’
Structure and transition: towards an accretivist theory of time, David Preston Taylor, 2009
I am bitten late in the summer. Two sharp bites that come one after the other. It happens out at Tace and Erik’s house in the hills, on a tamed lawn punctured by women in high heels and resealed by men in clean thongs – a party celebrating, as Dean says, the amazing fact that Tace and Erik are still together. I have been dodging Erik all night, but when I pull up the hem of my old sundress he lurches over and crouches with Dean to examine the bitten skin of my upper thigh. We all talk about whether it was caused by just one, or two of them flying in tag, like bombers. Whether they die after biting, like bees.
‘How long do they live, even?’ I ask Dean on the way home. The green dashboard clock is lit with 11.02. He and I have left the party early.
‘Someone should lick it,’ Dean says.
‘Stop saying that.’
Well, that’s what he said, Kat. I think he wanted to lick it. Again.’
‘Erik was so pissed, De. Did you see him with those vodka shooters?’
‘I think he wanted to lick it,’ Dean says again as we reach town.
I wake to a fever and try to shiver against Dean’s comparatively cool body but he moves away and eventually gets up to change the drenched sheets. I press my back to the cold bedroom wall until he gets back in the bed and his breathing is regular. I sit up next to him. My mind falls out of my head and splits on the clean sheets. It separates into clips, like a cut movie reel, and in the delirium I sort the thoughts into shining black squares of before, during and after. My life in three flammable piles on my side of the bed. I pick up a square of before and hold it up to the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains. The square is a still from a ten-hour clip of Erik and me almost two years ago in autumn, when Dean was away. The bed I’m in now. I have clothes on but they’re shoved up and down; Erik is naked.
I wake again to the paling darkness of pre-dawn. Dean is a distant mountain on the other side of the mattress. The glowing clock face reads 5.58 and I reach for a memory of whether that’s the right time or not, then for the squares of memories from before now. And then I don’t know what I’m feeling for. The horror of forgetting shivers through me until I fall into a sleep with no dreams. I wake again at 6.02. Dean is gone. I pat my way over the empty bed and when I reach the edge I fall and stumble towards the bathroom. The water in the bath mellows me and when it cools I refill it again. Outside it gets darker rather than lighter. Dean is a deep purple shape in the doorway.
‘Breakfast?’ I ask him.
‘It’s dinnertime. You slept all day. I tried to wake you but you pulled the doona over your head. Are you … do we need to talk about last night?’
‘Maybe this isn’t a good time.’ He leaves and brings back toast. I knock a bit of it off my plate and we watch as it melts on contact with the hot water. ‘How long you going to stay in there?’ he asks.
‘I’m not getting out now. The door is open.’
‘You should go to the doctor. Or at least drink some water.’
‘I’ve got water,’ I tell him. ‘The door is still open.’
‘Erik called. To see how you were.’
Dean snorts and leaves. I spend some time flicking at the door with a towel until it swings closed. Then I sleep deeply, right there in the bath. I wake. The water is cold and I refill it with difficulty. My hands shake. Everything is dim: red, yellow, green and purple – there aren’t other colours.
I hear Dean’s voice asking if there’s a doctor who makes house calls. I hear the birds calling in the morning. The old doorknob rattles and Dean comes in and tries to cover me with a towel. I push it off me and it bubbles and sinks. A woman has followed Dean into the bathroom. She says she’s a doctor and asks me how long I’ve been feeling this way.
‘I don’t know,’ I answer, my chin submerged in the oily water.
‘She got a fever the night before last and she won’t get out of the bath. I was up all night refilling it with hot.’ Dean turns to me, ‘You know I hardly slept?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘To be honest,’ says Dean to the doctor, ‘to be honest, I think it’s psychosomatic. We had a fight –‘
‘Could be. Now Katherine, I’d like you to describe your symptoms from when they started, two days ago?’ the doctor asks. She has a pad of paper and a pen.
‘I’m tired and I’m hungry,’ I tell her.
‘Yes, you would be, but if you could just –‘
‘I’m not hot.’
She glances at Dean, then crouches and hunches over what looks like a tool kit. She gets a needle out and bites me with it, drawing the blood into the hollow finger and keeping it there.
When it’s dark, Dean tries to coax me out of the water by holding a plate of spaghetti just out of my reach but in the end we argue and he plonks the plate next to me on the ceramic edge. It overturns and the red sauce and yellow pasta loosen their greasy grip and separate in clumps and ribbons through the water.
‘Oh babe I didn’t mean to …’ Dean stops. I am ducked water level to eat my way through the mess, my mouth open and sucking, revolted and ravenous at once. Dean dry retches. I eat.
Dean is talking on the phone outside the door. He says, loudly, ‘Well, that’s how it is, Erik. Go take care of your own girlfriend’ and then his voice is an inarticulate low buzzing that lulls me to sleep. It’s just light when I open my eyes and I get out of the bath and try to flick the cold beef mince and tomato and the bits of pasta from my skin, but the skin comes away too. It peels in damp hairy flakes from the top of my head. Then there is a hole. I squirm and pull until what has been my outside flops like a wet paper bag to the tiles. I kick myself free of it. Underneath there is another skin, raw and translucent. I find my way to the bed in the early light and creep under the doona beside Dean. He automatically turns to me, and wraps his big arms around my slippery frame.
‘Your fever’s gone?’ he asks without opening his eyes. ‘You smell clean.’ I burrow down and stay there in the aching, almost sexual clutch of sleep.
Dean is talking through the barrier of doona over my head. His voice is muffled, but loud.
‘… know that jealousy can be hard for you to understand,’ he is saying. I press the covers closer. ‘But Erik was really coming on to you the other night and you didn’t seem to mind it. At all. That’s what I feel. Felt! I meant felt. But I think it’s making you sick and so I wanted to say I’m sorry. I trust you. I didn’t, but that was ages ago. Now I do. I’m going to work and tonight I’m going to cook you dinner. What would you like most? Anyway, there’s some muesli here now.’
‘Now,’ I repeat. Something I can grasp. I wrap my mouth around the word and hold it.
‘Yeah, right here. On the dresser.’
He leaves. I part the doona to let in the bright yellow light and focus my eyes on the muesli.
It is there. The muesli is there. The muesli is there. The muesli is there. The muesli is gone. I can hear noises – metal clanging and water – through the door. It’s dark. I push the doona off my head. The room is dark. I push the final slippery layer off my body and I’m free. Wet. Open the window by sticking the bottom of my foot to it. Pull. The foot comes away from the glass with a shuck. A wind blows in. I dry. The long, thin folds at my back dry. My tongue is a tube that curls out from my mouth. It doesn’t dry.
I am perched on the windowsill when Dean opens the door. He turns on the light and I fling myself towards it. The folds at my back grow and spread and I reach it too fast. Glass showers down and there is darkness. But I can smell Dean. He makes a sound, a giant angry sound and smell comes from him. He thumps around in the dark. The folds expand again.
He yells, ‘Kaaaaaaaaat getin ‘eeeeere,’ and swipes at me with a hand. He is slow. I can feel the heat of his motion as he makes it. I step aside though the air towards the window. And I smell the blood. Not Dean’s blood, though there’s that: a familiar metal. I can smell more blood, other blood, new blood out there. Un-tasted. Big blood and small. Blood in the trees and blood in the yards. Blood at a time different from now. A time I can get to. And the folds rise on the air and I go for it.