Day 40 I decide to order the cape. A cheap, synthetic velvet from an online mega-store with free shipping and 10% off if I order…
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I decide to order the cape. A cheap, synthetic velvet from an online mega-store with free shipping and 10% off if I order before 2 pm.
Camille says it will make me look like a bad knock-off of a Halloween decoration. “Will you be buying a pointed witch’s hat, too?” She asks, sliding back and forth in the rocking chair, black hair tufted into startling points.
I choose not to answer her and turn back to the kitchen stove where I’m creating a poor man’s chicken soup from three-day old rotisserie chicken and flaccid carrots.
“Don’t put so much salt in the soup this time. I can smell it from here.” Now she’s just picking a fight because I didn’t respond to her digs about my cape purchase. I go back to the soup, but I keep my phone open and scroll through the online mega-store again, this time looking for the gaudiest triangle witch hat available. Something with fake spider lace and pumpkin-orange trimming.
When the hat and cape arrive, they’re already damaged. There’s a tear in the hem of the cape, and the wire brim of the hat is permanently bent in the shape of the plastic wrapping it was folded into. The words Made in China are stamped on the paper tag stuck to the plastic.
Camille is sitting on the table today, her slim form perched on the wooden edge, legs crossed. Her hair is plaited into five different braids of varying thickness, including one particularly thick one coming out of the top of her skull like a limp unicorn horn.
“Gawd, it’s tacky,” she drawls, lengthening the A in a poor imitation of a Southern accent. I’m not sure whether she’s ever been to the south, but a stately Southern gothic plantation, withered and falling apart certainly suits her.
Even though it’s been difficult the last few months, with Camille hanging over my shoulder criticizing my every action, I still want to feel that buzz of excitement I get from celebrating Halloween, a return to normalcy. In past years I would hand-make my costumes—Cruella De‘Ville from 101 Dalmatians, Ursula from The Little Mermaid (complete with stuffed octopus tentacles), Bloody Mary with tattered white sleeves and artistic blood drips. I’m the one to beat at the Halloween office party. Insurance agent might not be a sexy job title, but I’m not above mining our more ridiculous claims for costume ideas (‘ran over by my own boat hitch’ went over particularly well two years ago with the black PVC pipe harnessed to my sternum).
But this year, I just can’t muster energy for anything dark, or clever, or time-consuming. A store-bought witch is as far as my holiday enthusiasm extends. I try on the hat, looking into the IKEA mirror hanging over the fake fireplace, trying to work the wire rim back into shape. It stubbornly springs back after each attempt, more certain in its shape than I. Whenever I look up, Camille is still staring at me, her eyes taking on a reddish tint from the sunset settling into gloom outside.
When Camille first arrived, her long legs and sharp eyes took in the entire scene of my newly purchased, run-down, three bedrooms, two-and-a-half-bathroom house on Yew Street. Immediately, and without asking, she perched on a particle-board bookshelf that was straining already with the weight of a few paperbacks.
“This shelf is shit,” she announced, squirreling her petite ass into a more comfortable position. “You could get a better one, easily.” She winked at me, as if we’re old friends, “Want me to help you procure one? Now? I can show you.” And licked her lips, her inordinately long tongue flicking out like a snake. It should have been forked.
The next morning, my head feeling as if it could burst at any second, Camille was still there, watching me from the floor of the bedroom. Her legs crossed like a goth yogi.
“You look like you’re going to vomit.” She said, her eyes slitted against the sun pushing through the blinds. She shrugged, “I would have brought you a bucket, but I didn’t want to miss it if you did.”
There’s was a tinge of sulfur in the air. And that’s when I vomited.
My mother always told me to ignore a demon if it ever came to the door. “If you give it attention, they’ll never leave.” She paused and shook out a sheet from the basket at her feet adding, “They don’t like water much though, and if you can wait them out for a few months, they should away.”
“Will it eat my soul if I talk to it?” I asked her, since having a forever friend who could never leave you didn’t sound too bad at the age of nine, even if it was a demon.
My mother kept her eyes on the towels she was hanging on the line and said, “Maybe.”
Camille’s eyes look redder than yesterday—red spots multiplying in her pupils.
“There’s a family of mice living in your coat closet,” she says, bouncing heavily on the couch, yet leaving no impression on the cushion. Just focus on the TV. Next to me, Camille continues to jump, and my body clenches for her weight on the couch, but each time, nothing. The mice though.
Criticisms of my cooking are one thing, but living rodents are another.
I pause my movie and open up the closet door. Camille repeats her crazed acrobatics. There, on the shaggy brown carpet, lying on my favorite raincoat, crumpled from its fall off the hangar, is a family of common grey mice. Two babies and their mother. Each has been carefully disemboweled, as if with a scalpel, and their spines removed. The bloodied tiny bodies are posed, curled around their spines, as if hugging them, their entrails gooped in viscous loops around each minuscule vertebra.
It is the work of hours.
Behind me Camille hoots with laughter, honking and snorting with each bounce.
I gag as I roll the coat into a ball and take it to the trash can out front. Deep breaths of the sharp October air fill my lungs as I close the dumpster lid. The whole street is quiet, most of my neighbors just getting home from work or preparing their dinners. Rather than face the inside of my house and the bloody closet floor, I open the garage door and slide into the front seat of my car.
I need a drink.
Mom passed away two years ago, lung cancer.
In the beginning, when she could still move around a bit, we’d watch old Cary Grant movies and moon over Katherine Hepburn’s outfits. I’d sneak oatmeal cookies into the hospital and then brush the crumbs off the hospital blankets to hide the evidence.
At the end, when she was frail and straining for breath in the hospital bed, and I clung to her hand, I begged her not to leave me.
“I’m not going to leave you, bebe.” She used her favorite pet name for me, rasping out a cough on the final syllable. “You know I will be there for you whenever you need me, even if I’m not on Earth.” My mother had fierce blue eyes, but they were milky now, because of the chemicals they pumped into her to try and save her.
At the end, her bed smelled of bleach and something akin to pickle-brine: as much I tried to remember to remember her original scent, it never returned to her skin.
I wish she was here now, to tell me how to get Camille to leave the house. And whether she could really eat my soul if I talk to her.
Later that night, tipsy enough that the night feels soft, I decide to burn a bundle of sage when I stumble back to the house at midnight. Well, not sage exactly. There wasn’t any sage in the house, just a few pieces of limp rosemary in the back of the refrigerator drawer.
“It smells like burnt roast chicken in here,” Camille says, wrinkling her button nose. But she doesn’t leave the living room, just flicks her hair back, which is now in elegant loose curls, and gives a fake cough.
“Is this a sampling of tomorrow’s dinner menu?” She quips and heads for the kitchen, leaving sooty fingerprints on the wall as she passes.
I pass the rosemary bundle behind the couch again for good measure and head for the kitchen, intending to burn every herb in this house if Camille is truly avoiding it.
But when I enter, she’s just leaning against the fridge, leering at me.
“You should probably check the refrigerator, there’s a horrible stench coming from it.” She takes a step away from it and crouches by the stove, shaking a little, as if she’s too excited to contain it.
I decide to pour myself a glass a wine before I open the fridge. That way, when I do, it looks like it was my idea, not hers. Camille quivers as I pour. I fill it all the way to the brim with the smallest stream possible, trying to drag out every second.
I take a long swig and pretend to saunter over to the fridge.
Opening it though, has me retching instantly. A thousand years of moldy cheese, furry meats, and grey, fuzzy-growing things bursting out of every vegetable. The inside of the fridge looks like something you find in a post-apocalyptic novel, as if the fridge’s innards were exposed to a brutal nuclear war and the only thing that lived was the mutants.
The milk looks like cottage cheese—green cottage cheese. The celery has sprouted a hundred new limbs that have since turned black. The lamb I was marinating for my dinner tomorrow has grown a thick fur coat. And I swear that something is moving behind the eggs. A funk of sulfur and pickle brine leeches out. The smell is horrifyingly familiar.
Cleaning it out will take a team of professionals and hazmat suits.
But Camille isn’t laughing this time. Now, when I chance a peek at her, she’s watching me, eyes narrowed. And I don’t know if I’m imagining it or not, but her fingernails look longer.
I slam the door shut on the whole putrid mess and shoot back the entire glass of wine, it’s sharpness burning the way down until my eyes water. As I walk past her I deliberately move closer, into her space. Her hair gives off the faint tang of sulfur. But she doesn’t flinch as I pass her, our arms so close to touching I can almost feel her sandpaper skin.
I drop the wine glass into the trash on my way to my room. The sound of the glass breaking reverberates throughout my increasingly smaller house.
I decide not to buy a new fridge. I want Camille to know I will not break as easily as the wine glass. I regret that decision when the professional cleaners I hired show up a day later.
I try to warn them before they open the white door, trying to offer a plausible excuse.
“My power went out a few days ago when I was out of town. Everything in the fridge is completely rotten.” The two women, one older with grey creeping into her hair, and the other a young blonde who clearly could care less, only nod. They’ve seen it all.
But when they open it, and immediately cover their faces, their eyes wide with disgust, I can tell it’s worse.
“I’m going to have to sue the power company, you know? I mean, it’s just madness how much food was destroyed.”
They look at me as if I must be a secret degenerate who has never held a scrub brush, shooting significant looks at each other whenever they think I’m not looking.
At first, Camille hangs out on top of the counter, gnawing on something fuzzy, an inch of tail hangs over her bottom lip, cackling and shaking in her glee. An hour into the cleanup though, she disappears. One minute she’s watching the two women as if their repulsion is the most interesting thing she’s ever seen, and the next, the counter has ashy streaks on the white tile.
I take the moment of her absence as a welcome relief and hide in my bedroom, unable to stomach the sight of weeping, pustulant tomatoes dripping sludge onto my kitchen floor. Lately, my mother’s brass lamps shed a dimmer light than usual, making all the corners darker and the hallways forbidding. Replacing the lightbulbs feels as good a task as any to use up the time.
All’s well until the screams from the living room.
When I reach the living room, I can’t see anything. A misty white haze has filled it. As I try to bat it away, I realize what it is—feathers.
White, downy feathers, with small drops of red hanging on to the tips.
Birds. Dozens of birds. Dead. Dying. Fluttering with a missing wing. A few with their throats ripped open. Some choked to death in their own viscera. Plump. Scrawny. Beautiful. Foul.
And Camille, standing in the center, her eyes almost completely red, her fingers sharp, lethal points, and blood dripping down her chin.
She’s glowing, a murky red aura surrounding her as she rejoices in her own cleverness.
The two cleaners are already heading for the door, shouting at each other.
“Wait, no, please!” I beg. “It’s only my neighbor’s cat! It’s a destructive, evil little bitch and it keeps killing the neighborhood birds!” But it’s lame excuse and the women are having none of it.
“No, no, no!” The older one shouts and ushers the blonde out the door protectively.
She pauses at the threshold and spits three times, holding her fingers in an approximate cross.
“You’re sick.” She spits at me before the screen door slams shut behind her.
And it’s just the two of us, again. I don’t even need to turn around to know Camille is in jumping from the couch, hooting and flapping her wings in a sick intimation of the creatures she just brutalized.
It takes two days and an entire liter of bleach to clean up the dead birds and the refrigerator. Each surface covered in fabric has to be stripped and washed on the highest temperature setting my old washing machine will allow, but even so, smears of brown blood remain on the couch cushions and the fluffy pillows reading “Book Babe” of which I used to be so proud. Feathers appear in odd places, candle sconces, kitchen drawers, stuck to the back of the TV remote.
On Monday when I go in to work, my co-workers sniff after me whenever I leave my desk. It’s their polite way of signaling that there’s an odd smell hanging around me.
Despite their discomfort with this rank, quiet version of myself, I stay late. The computer screen glows a familiar blue and I continue entering client claims without a break. I don’t want to leave. It’s been an entire without Camille, the banalities of the modern office space too boring to tempt her.
My coworker Dan sits across the room from me. We used to be friendly during the day, but now, he seems unsure, cautious when engaging me, as if I might suddenly break out in maniacal laughter (he’s not wrong).
A polite cough catches my attention across the room, and I look up into his friendly brown eyes. He smiles and opens his mouth.
A six-inch, spiky mohawk rises slowly in the window over his shoulder. Camille winks at me then sticks out her tongue as long as it will go and slowly, seductively, licks the glass.
I shudder. Dan’s smile fades and he turns back to his computer.
I send an email to my boss that I’ll be working from home for the rest of the week and leave.
I don’t dare to even open my mouth anymore for fear of the abuse I will spew at Camille. I keep the curtains closed now in case a passing neighbor sees the remains of some other poor creature that Camille eviscerates. I can feel the outside world growing further away as Camille and our bond gets tighter.
I google exorcists in my area. Newsflash: while Catholic priests offer those services in Southern California, just like housing prices in my area, they’re shockingly expensive.
I research shelters, ways to ‘disappear’ and cheap motels, and in return the search engine offers me a domestic abuse hotline and the numbers of inexpensive divorce lawyers.
As I clean, Camille stays quiet. There’s no more sarcastic remarks about my cooking because I’ve ordered take-away for every meal except breakfast (which is now just plain bread and a tumbler of gin). No more tiny animals crushed or pulled apart end up in my bedsheets.
Instead, Camille watches me. Her eyes follow me around each room, and she tails after me like a lost puppy whenever I move. She’s looking paler now, diaphanous. When I dip into the greenish waters of the pool in the backyard, she follows me outside and stands, surly and dripping. In the harsh sunlight I can almost see through her. Even her hair, which used to stand in fierce coils and giant coifs, now hangs, grease-coated and limp against her drooping shoulders.
I gnaw on a few bones (leftover BBQ) from the fridge that Camille hasn’t scavenged yet, hungry enough that even the gristle and fat taste good.
Camille is lying naked in the foyer, her legs crossed, and arms outspread, like Jesus.
All the lights in the house have gone out now, the last of the light bulbs used up two days ago. I don’t mind though; my eyes have adjusted to the dark.
In the background, SNL canned laughs blare, the only show Camille will allow without screaming.
Stepping over Camille’s prostrate form I head for the living room. Long, shark-skin fingers encircle my ankle. My breathe catches and I freeze.
Don’t look down.
She’s never touched me before.
She loosens her grip and stretches her fingers, ripping the skin, then wraps them even tighter. My ankle bone feels like it’s going to snap.
I can’t stop myself. I look down.
Her red eyes meet mine and for the first time I realize they’re the same shape as my own.
My skin feels like it’s on fire and the flash point is her hand.
She smiles and I’m going to explode.
Her fingers suddenly release me, and she laughs.
I make my way to the couch and the couch is shaking.
Or I am.
My house has no attic. No sacred shrines in a closet. No dank basement littered with family heirlooms. But, when my mother died, she left behind a few boxes of musty books, mostly family histories.
It doesn’t take long to find the box of books in the garage. They’re buried under a collection of yellowing duck paintings and my parent’s wedding photos. I smile at the picture of my mother in her massive white dress, puffed-up sleeves and Mia Farrow blow-out. My father sports a 70’s mustache and bell-bottoms, his cheery facing giddy with happiness. I decide to bring it inside with me and set it up over the fireplace instead of the cheap mirror in an attempt to reclaim a portion of my house.
I set up in my living room, not minding the dust that billows off the books and onto the stained rug. At least the dust will hide some of Camille’s gory handiwork.
Camille hisses when I pull the first book out.
Camille is crouched in hall doorway, eyes narrowed and furious. She bares her teeth at me, and I can see the sharp points of each black canine.
I form the books into a loose circle around me and read until the mighty darkness outside seems to push against every doorjamb and windowpane.
It’s the smell that wakens me. The sharpness of burning acid, nitrate, fills my nostrils. When I open up my eyes, and look up, I see it.
There, on my mantlepiece, is my parent’s wedding photo, burning. It’s leaning up against the wall and the flames have already reached the wooden edges of the fireplace. Voluminous red flames are racing up the green curtains astride the window and clouds of viscous black smoke are pooling near the ceiling.
My house. My photos. My curtains. My life. Gone up in flames.
For the first time since Camille entered my tiny wooden house on Yew street, I feel rage.
I turn to Camille, staring directly into her squinting red eyes and take a deep breath of the black smoke. As I cough Camille looks wary, her eyes glint off the flames as she draws closer to the hallway, as if she’d unsure whether to come closer and rejoice or run for the closet. The smoke detector announces the presence of the fire and begins an obnoxious, high-pitched beeping.
I grab the nearest thing, a knitted blue blanket and beat at the flames until they’ve gone out. The smoke has stained the white paint of the mantle and the walls, leaving black clouds clinging to the corners. I round on Camille who is standing tall, silhouetted in the hall light.
“Fuck you,” I say.
Her whole body puffs up, like a video game character leveling up, and she cracks a wide smile, her canines so long they rest over her bottom lip, about to pierce her chin.
“Maybe later, if you like.” She says and winks at me.
Smoke hangs in the windows and I feel lightheaded and slimy, as if I’ve taken a bath in motor oil, even my tongue feels coated and sticky. I open my mouth like a fish, gasping for air because there’s not oxygen left in this room, the flames ate it all.
Camille inhales deeply and when she exhales, she purses her lips and blows directly at me, as if to help me breathe, but it’s noxious, like the exhaust of a car and I cough some more.
My lungs are starting to burn, and my chest is aching, but I’m just not getting any air. I can feel phlegm gathering at the back of my throat, blocking my airway.
The room gets tighter. My heart is going to burst open. My lungs are withering into black chunks.
Camille saunters to my side as the walls look like their turning black, but what I know is the welcoming hole of unconsciousness.
She leans over to my ear so I can feel the scratching of her hair against my cheek and whispers, “Mom says hi.”
There’s vomit pooling at the back of my tongue, but I can’t get enough air into my lungs to expel the chunks.
I wish for water.
The pool in the backyard.
I push myself up to my feet and split for the back door, careening off the wall first and crashing through the screen door so hard I can hear something rip and crack. Camille screams behind me and I can’t tell if it’s joyful or full of rage, but it’s enough to keep me moving either way.
The hard concrete of the porch, flaming hot for some reason, despite the fact that it’s the middle of the night, burns the bottoms of my feet as I launch myself directly into the brackish, grey water.
The tepid water that closes over my head isn’t relief, but it does clear the blackness from the edges of my vision, enough so that I can look up through the water at the stars hanging silent in the sky.
Until a face fills it instead.
Camille leans closer to the surface of the water, her features softening, her nose a perfect reflection of my own.
With a giant surge of effort borne by years of water polo practice, I propel my upper body through the water. And even as Camille stumbles back I wrap my own long finger around her thin, sandpaper wrist and tug. With a gurgled yelp she crashes into the water, directly on top me.
And like a crocodile, I roll her over so that my body weight is holding her underneath the surface. Our noses are a sharp reflection under the water as I watch her mouth open and a gallon of chlorinated water pours past those perfect incisors and that lolling red tongue.
She should have learned to keep her mouth shut.
My own lungs are starting to burn, but Camille’s fingers are desperate as they scrabble at my arms, her pointed claws tearing at my skin.
Her dark hair is loose in the water now, curling around her white throat and clinging to my cheek as her eyes fade from red to the color brown old blood.
She’s sinking now, her eyelids forced open like a doll, her perpetual grin a frozen sneer, one hand death-clenched around my arm.
We’re both sinking.
The pool is endless, and it is my own weight that pulls us deeper into the darkness that waits at the bottom.
The night air is heavy with humidity when I finally pull myself up to the concrete steps and lay, exhausted, on the middle step, still half in the water.
Tiny waves from the struggle are lapping at the edges of the pool and the concrete is slick from where the overflow ran towards the flower beds.
It’s a full moon tonight. It’s purple glow casts horned shadows from every bush.
I inhale and the sharp smell of chlorine fills my nostrils and suddenly, the pool feels polluted and small and I scramble out until I’m standing at the edge peering into the deep end.
It’s difficult to see because of the darkness, but it’s still clear that there’s a pale woman with fangs stuck to the bottom of my pool. The pool cleaner has wedged itself in next to the body, its wheels rolled into the fabric of her shirt.
I’m exhausted. But lighter than I’ve felt in weeks.
I turn back into the house, wondering how I’m you’re supposed to dispose of a demonic corpse.
The sliding door is pulled closed, and as it swishes open, the air-conditioned air rushes out and I get a glimpse of my face in the glass.
Dark hair dripping like that girl from the ring, my jeans stuck to my thighs and the ends dragging over my toes.
And at the center of my pupils, two bright points of red.
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