by Natalie Downey
During the day Evelyn struggles. She stares down at her plate of broccoli and imagines it tastes like sand. She avoids mirrors for fear of shattering glass with one longing glance. Her mind whirls and spins; her stomach churns and clenches. Every minute is both emotional and numbing so that gradually her life loses meaning and lacks substance.
She passes through daylight as a shadow, careful to shirk and stumble around the masses, trying her best to call no attention to herself. Often times she’s ignored, unseeing eyes slip casually over her face. Once in a great while she is noticed and the sight of her raises uncomfortable questions paired with wary glances. In the waking hours Evelyn is an enigma.
Most nights she doesn’t sleep. She occupies her thoughts with the stock market and endangered bees because she’s afraid of other more pertinent subjects that dominate the limbo of her midnight. Hours are spent knitting or running down lamp lit sidewalks. She convinces herself that sleep is a time for animation, for making something out of nothing. The tiredness that is able to penetrate her thick skin never quite sinks into her bones by daybreak.
Evelyn rarely rests. Yet sometimes when she lets her guard down, her eyes fall closed. And when she does sleep, she dreams.
Evelyn’s dreams are beautiful and otherworldly and perpetually consistent. There is a thick garden which she views from an omniscient perch. Rippling fountains shoot a continuous stream of dark water up in the air, so close she feels she can almost touch it. Trees littered with lush green leaves of malachite surround her, their soft velvety fruit hidden beneath the foliage. Amber fireflies dot the dark sky, winking at her like stars.
The gardens below are filled with people who couldn’t be called human. They seem more like living statues, contrived from marble, obsidian, or rosy granite. Their skin is hairless and smooth, their limbs symmetrical with calves and thighs as thick around as arms. Slender fingers snap to the strange beat of a song with words she longs to understand. In her dreams Evelyn watches them dance all night, always an outsider, and is entranced.
To wake up is to open her eyes to a jarringly bland world and every night she sleeps she wakes up. Her life pales to the life of her dreams. The colors aren’t as rich, the light is too bright. The wind smells more of tar than of jasmine and when it blows it cuts through her gaunt frame like a thousand shards of glass.
Evelyn spends her life coping with daylight. She swallows down her disappointment and believes this and a glass of milk will sustain her until the next dream. She stares down at her feet and shuffles forward, not looking at anything too closely. The fuzziness when her eyes try to focus makes her feel dizzy and helpless. She learns to despise this weakness and yearn for control.
Weeks go by between sleeps, between dreams. In this mezzo-time Evelyn tries to let go of the garden and its inhabitants, knowing in her heart that she’s meant to be one of them but not knowing how. Every time she dreams she only wakes up wanting more.
Her struggles continue, whittling away at her soul until she hears a voice she recognizes and words she doesn’t understand. Her eyes lift upward and rest on a boy, with hard golden skin as if he were forged from bronze. He glows unnaturally in the harsh sunlight. Her heart beats faster; the sea of faces surrounding him fades until all she can see is him through her tunnel vision. She doesn’t know what to do with this boy straight out of her dreams, standing on the street before her as if he’s come to claim her. She hesitates, no longer sure of what she wants, and only that she wishes he would make her decision for her.
He grasps her hand with his cool fingers, entwining them securely with his own and she knows then that he is her savior. Her feet begin to float, the world lurches and falls around her. Darkness seems to absorb her into itself and she welcomes its safety. For the first time when she opens her eyes, she’s in the dream garden and not in her bedroom.
Evelyn has arrived.
She appraises herself in the candlelight. Like the others she is as naked as Adam and Eve before the Fall. Her skin is ghostly and tight around her bones. She is a skeleton. She can clearly see where all of the joints connect and for the first time she feels truly alive and no longer constrained by hunger. She is a living, breathing work of art. She is what she’s always wanted to be.
The boy pulls her into the dancing fray and whispers the rules of their perfect world into her ear, words that she finally understands. There are rituals and ceremonies; she must share in the dancing and the singing. She must promise. He won’t let her go until she does. It all seems silly to her, his stoicism. But she promises, forgetting the oath as she’s passed gracefully from his fingers into the arms of another.
They dance for her initiation and then dance to celebrate their beauty. There seems to be a separate special dance for everything, dances that she must learn quickly. There are no pauses, just slowing down and speeding up. The movements to the dance change in a cyclical pattern and it’s exhausting. Evelyn loses track of the dances, of the time, knowing only that the dancing never ceases because there is no dawn. There is only a continuous night with no morning after.
The more she dances the more she feels unbalanced, unable to stand up straight. Glancing down, she sees eight toes where she should have ten. A seventh is a small nub with no nail. Her heals are square instead of curved. A quick look around and she sees she’s not alone in this disfiguration. Their perfect bodies are not holding up well to the wear and tear. Still, they dance on and so does she.
Gradually, the pain breaks through her numbness. It works its way up her body, freeing her head of folly and filling it with the clarity of fear. Everything emerges more real, sharper because of her alarm. The trees no longer look welcoming, their fruit surrounded by thorns. The water in the fountains not clear but murky and full of rust. She notices the lines edged in the smooth complexion of some of her partners’ skin as she dances from arm to arm. One of the dancers stops, hovering in place for a brief moment before cracking, breaking apart from the inside out, littering the ground with dust. Evelyn watches it scatter in the wind and shudders. What she once believed were fireflies she now realizes is crystal ash suspended in the dark sky.
Evelyn breathes and chokes on the tainted air, doubling over in thick coughs. The other dancers look at her angrily for disturbing the dance, for stopping them mid step. They move on as if they don’t notice the figure disintegrating in front of them. Or the next one to do so. Or the next. They are indifferent to the calamity, even as it befalls them. Evelyn alone acknowledges the deaths that surround her and it makes her heavy.
She searches for the boy but can’t find him. She hasn’t seen him in a while. Golden dust floats by, fills her nostrils with a sweet scent, and she wants to cry. She knows that in this strange garden full of dancers she is more alone than she has ever been. There is nothing lonelier than death.
She feels a schism deep within herself, an essential structure yielding to gravity. There is no time left. A crevice forms below her knee.
Evelyn breaks free of her partner’s grip and lunges for the trees, her thighs brittle and collapsing underneath her. She cries out in pain, reaching up between long thorns for the purple fruit. When she finds one she grasps the sphere so hard her fingers burst through the tender skin into the soft flesh. Juice drips down her arm, following the crack that has appeared on her palm, following it like a river and pooling in her inner elbow. Exhausted, she sinks to the ground, cradling the fruit to her chest, afraid to lose it.
The dancers move as one entity to stop her. Many of them are missing limbs; at least one is missing a head. Still, they move forward, never breaking formation. They bring with them a rolling cloud of dust.
The sight that chills Evelyn the most is the golden boy, parting the crowd, bright against the growing fog. He alone is flawless and whole. His normally detached expression is warped into an ugly frown.
She makes her choice. He doesn’t like it but it’s her own.
He’s too late.
Evelyn bites deeply into the fruit. Even the skin’s slight resistance is too much for her ruined teeth. She swallows with difficulty, her throat muscles are out of practice. A rotten, acrid taste fills her mouth and washes down the dust that has been clinging to her throat. When she pulls the fruit away from her lips and drops it onto the ground, a few teeth are left sticking into its contours like tiny gravestones on a hill. The golden boy bends down to pick it up and plucks her teeth out like he’s fishing out seeds.
This is the last thing she sees, the perfect boy cupping her teeth, before the juice hits her stomach with the force of an atomic bomb, lighting her up from the inside and burning so brightly that even when she closes her eyes she can see it roar on the back of her eyelids. It eats the darkness, eats her, and spits her out onto the hard concrete of daylight.
She rolls over and throws up into the street gutter, purging her body of a noxious purple fluid. Sirens wail in the distance, calling for her, getting closer. A stranger kneels down to offer her help and she takes his outstretched hand. When she feels strong enough, she sits up, leaning against the stranger for support.
Across the street Evelyn sees the golden boy standing alone, staring at her hungrily. He flashes her a wide smile, full of mismashed teeth. Some are too large and some are too small.
The two front teeth are her own.
Natalie Downey has a degree in Psychology from Miami University. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington where she divides her time between writing, hiking and photography. Her fiction aims to explore the boundary between fantasy and perceived reality. All of her thoughts and ramblings can be found at nataliedowney.wordpress.com.