I bleed a heart-shaped stain on my mattress then sell it for $100 on Wichita, Get It Cheap. The woman texts me, Is it heavy? I won’t lie to her, I say it is, and that she’ll need a rope.I stay inside as the woman and her daughter stomp up the front steps and bicker with each other as they carry it to their car. No one could see the heart now, all scrubbed out with vinegar and baking soda and Febrezed and exposed to the weak winter sun. No one could possibly tell I’d had a dead baby on that mattress.
The cat, NJ, likes Billy Joel, but there is nothing I can do about it. When “She’s Always a Woman to Me,” comes on, she stops what she’s doing and gets this dead look in her eyes then starts rubbing up on stuff. Like she’s enchanted. Encantada, I tell her, because I have no one to practice my Spanish to. She just purrs louder and high-steps around her plastic tunnel. Something white drops from her asshole.
There are these people who order special, realistic-looking dolls, and then treat them like real babies. They’re called reborn dolls. These people are always women, always middle-aged. Most of them have babies that died, or else they’re infertile and desperately wanted children. Their partners go along with it. The women coo, and support the head. They wake up early to change the baby and pretend to feed it from a bottle. They take these babies, with their plasticine eyes, out to real parks with real grass and real trees and other people’s real babies, and they sit on picnic blankets and laugh with their partners, and hold the babies up in the wind, but not for too long, lest they catch a chill. I’d never do that. I had my dead baby and left her for dead. No one likes a woman who holds on for too long.
It is a Sunday morning that I first notice it: two crossed chicken bones in the precise center on top of the recycling bin. The bones are neatly picked, with a little meat near the ends. Nothing else appears to be disturbed. No footprints or track on the snow. My eyes wander across the driveway to a patchwork fence made of different kinds of cheap, old wood. Beyond that is a house with towels for curtains (although one has a white garbage bag instead). Above the windows, a sagging roof littered with branches from years of storms. This is where my neighbor lives, a man in his thirties with visitation rights to five children, who happens to be addicted to meth.
Coming outside to scrape the ice off my car, my neighbor steps into the strip of grass between our houses.
“You noticed anything strange around here lately?” He doesn’t pause to let me answer, “Because someone broke into our gate last night to get to the backyard,”he gestures at the gate behind him, which is swung open.
“Oh, wow,” I say, blinking away the wet snow. He seems extra industrious today, wearing a tool belt. He’s kind of jumpy, alert.
I find myself saying, “Well, actually,I’ve been finding these crossed chicken bones in the exact center of my recycling bin.” I flinch at the word, recycle. They don’t recycle. They just have two garbage bins, overflowing, set back in the alley. He’s looking at me kind of funny. There’s nothing between us, and usually there’s a tree or a car.
“I don’t know,” I say, weakly.
“Hang on,” he says, and disappears inside his front door. I try to peer in but it’s only darkness. Once I looked up his house on Zillow and yes, it looked exactly like a meth house, with stained futons for couches and nothing on the walls. In a few minutes he emerges carrying a baseball bat.
“Here, take this. Just in case.” I receive the fat end of the bat and smile.
“Thank you,” I say, and he grins.
“Better than nothing,” he says, “And just so you know I’m prepared, too, if you know what I mean.”I do know what he means. On their front porch is a sign that reads:
This home protected by the good lord and a gun.
“You have my number, right?” I nod. He grins again. He’s got stumpy gray teeth that click when he talks. He spins on his heel and walks toward the broken gate. When I take the bat inside my house, I carefully shut and lock the door. In the middle of the living room, I take a stance: elbow up, feet slightly pigeon-toed, chin low on my shoulder. I take a swing.
NJ is by the garage, and behind her, a young robin trying to hop away. It’s chest still has freckles. The cat turns to look at me, cool, downy feathers hanging out of her mouth. A dark red stain on the bird’s chest spreads and spreads, with a hole in the middle like a gunshot. The cat smiles.
Not like I care about this stuff, but in Chinese mythology, a dead baby’s soul is transformed into a white butterfly. In Christianity, hummingbirds are messengers from the other side. I didn’t see any humming birds or butterflies, just katydids with tobacco oozing from their mouths, and June bugs flying heavy and dumb into my head. Who makes this shit up?
The baby took a long time coming out. First she made me bleed black, then brown, then pink, and finally a deep, syrupy red. A week passed and I kept going to school, all the girls in their ripped jeans and beanies popping into the bathroom to fix their makeup. But when it really happened, it was night and I lay on my mattress on the floor, listening to the homeless people camped beneath my window. The pain made me hot, then shivering, phone- in- hand with the hospital on speed-dial. But I never called. Ten hours later, at dawn, I caught her over the toilet then looked at her in the good kitchen light: a red saucer with a seahorse in the middle. A head with an alien forehead; too big. Something inside of me sighed with relief that the worst had happened.
It’s Thursday night, so I have to roll the trash and recycling to the street. When I see the bins, I freeze in my tracks: something is written in the snow on the lids, but it looks like Greek. NJ runs past me and sits under a chair, her eyes glowing. The back of my neck pricks up and I scan the yard, but everything looks the same. It’s just a snowy, empty yard with sad patio furniture. The wind makes cliched ghost noises: whoo-whoooOOOOOOooo. I run back inside and get the bat. The letters are written in finger-sized swoops, but some of them look upside down. The neighbor’s got a new porch light out back. Is he watching me through the window right now? Shadows pass but they could be branches in the wind. Would he play these tricks on me, but give me a weapon I could use against him? I peek through the fence that keeps us apart: cases and cases of Mountain Dew next to his back steps, getting nice and frosty in the snow.
My neighbor stands in the street at my car window. He seems a little strung out. He practically sprints over.
“I seen footprints in the snow, going up to my porch. You seen anyone weird around here?” I turn down the volume and smile to disguise my fear.
“Yes, I saw the mail lady walk up to your house today,” I say.
The neighbor grins, “Ah! Ok! Yes, that makes sense,” and he pats the roof of the car as I back out of the narrow driveway. When my tires spin in the snow, he gives the car a firm shove on the front fender, waving as I drive away.
I think of this now as I consider the chicken bones. A man who pats the top of a car wouldn’t delicately arrange bones and write messages for me, right? Right?
It’s Sunday again and too cold and depressing for anyone to be outside. But NJ wants out, so I let her. She’s gone a long time and it’s Winter Advisory so I go to get her. She’s not in the backyard, but in the driveway, standing by the fence. She turns to look at me. She opens her mouth and a black butterfly flies out. Maybe that’s close enough.
Becca Yenser is a queer writer from Oregon. They received their MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. They are the author of Too High and Too Blue In New Mexico (Dancing Girl Press, 2018) and The Grief Lottery (forthcoming, ELJ Editions). Their writing appears in Hobart, Heavy Feather Review, Fanzine, The Nervous Breakdown, Madcap Review, and others. They split time between New Mexico and Kansas with their cat, NJ.