By Phoebe Murphy
I’ve seen one person turn inside out since it started two years ago. It was at a shopping center ten minutes from my house. It was a woman, heavily pregnant, and I was four people behind her in line at a coffee kiosk. Because of the line, I couldn’t see how she looked when she realized, but this is how I imagined it: She’s tired; the baby is taking its toll. She strokes her belly with one hand. She goes to wipe the exhaustion from her eyes with the other, and it comes away bloody. She understands what is about to happen. That’s how I imagined it.
“Get back!” she told us. We obeyed.
The scarlet flower of skin and muscle hadn’t even finished bursting from her mouth before several people were on their phones, calling for cleanup. Streams of blood ran down her body, spreading into a black pool at her feet before she collapsed. Even from several feet away, the fetid stench of feces and blood rolled off her flesh in waves. And yet, the sight of the woman revealing herself to us, of pink flesh turning and peeling away, tugged at the edges of my vision, urging me to stay.
When I finally willed myself to go home, it was on the local news that the woman’s baby had actually survived. The cleanup crew found it in the ruins of her body and took it to the hospital. It was a triumph—new life in the wake of destruction.
Until later that night, that is, when they reported that the infant had turned as well, in the strong and gentle arms of an NICU nurse. No one was impervious. It happened at random. A sudden and gruesome death loomed over us all.
My husband John came home as I was making dinner and told me how one of the interns at his advertising agency, a young thing named Gemma, turned in the break room during lunch. Three people threw up, he said, two men and one woman. He sounded apologetic as he went on between bites of catfish about what a bright and diligent girl she was. How rough the cleanup crew was with her body. Didn’t even bother with the stain. That’s against procedure, you know.
He said, “You have to be brave to come into work these days.”
He wanted me to validate him—You are brave, honey—but I said nothing. He’d seen four people turn, to my one. I thought that had something to do with it.
I collected his dirty plate, then mine, and went to the sink to scrub them clean. We had a dishwasher, but I liked to do them by hand.
John waved his hand in the air, as if to clear my silence from the room, and changed the subject. “I’m going to D.C. tomorrow,” he said. “Big conference. You know the deal.” He always waited until the night before to tell me.
“Flying?” I asked.
Now you had to sign a waiver to get on a plane, in the event both pilots turned. It hadn’t happened yet, but you never know.
“Okay,” I said.
The next morning, a Friday, we woke up at five o’clock. John opened the blinds in the kitchen and turned on the kettle for coffee. I sat at the table and warmed my hands on my mug as he rushed around, taking inventory.
Briefcase. Got it.
Suitcase. By the door.
Carry-on. Over there.
Okay, thank you. Don’t want to be behind schedule. Got everything? Think so. I’ll be back Saturday night. Late.
“And remember,” I said. “If it happens—”
“Don’t fight it. It just makes it worse.” It had become a motto of sorts.
John counted his luggage a final time, then hoisted it up, kissed me on the cheek, and went out the door.
Whenever he went on one of his trips, I made sure to take something out of his bags at the last minute. Nothing too important. Maybe one sock out of a pair. Maybe a book he told me he wanted to read on the plane. He always brought more than one.
This time, it was the empty metal water bottle he planned to fill up after getting through security. I knew he would complain about the overpriced water on the other side.
“You forgot this,” I would say when he came home.
Saturday was the second day of John’s absence. He’d sent a text at eight—morning, love you—to which I had not yet responded. Instead, I left my phone plugged in on the nightstand next to the bottle I’d taken out of his carry-on. I went downstairs to my desk and opened my laptop to a familiar document.
As a freelance editor, I left the house much less frequently than John. I used to be jealous he got to go out more than me. Now it was a blessing to stay indoors, if you were able to.
I’d had many clients in all flavors over the years—from clipped, economical articles to books like thick mortar that pushed me into a fog for weeks at a time. This particular manuscript was a young adult novel about a teenage boy getting transported away to a strange planet of cosmic monarchies and intergalactic warfare. It wasn’t particularly original, but any piece not having to do with the turning was a welcome respite. Most of all, though, I relished the influence I had, the invisible privilege of change. Give me power, but not too much. A little hand of God. An hour passed editing. Then two. I was almost ready to take a break when the doorbell rang, long and insistent. More of a whine than the intended ring, really, because it was broken and neither John nor I cared to have it fixed.
I closed my laptop and went to the door, apprehensive. I certainly wasn’t expecting anyone. We rarely had guests anymore. Maybe it was a salesperson, then, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or someone looking for John who was unaware he was on a business trip. But when I looked through the peephole, it wasn’t any of those things. It was Alexandra.
We’d met in high school, sophomore year. She was a transfer student. The image I had of her on the day I first saw her, as she turned around to introduce herself in our American literature class, often closed itself around my memory like a fist. Open smile, the color of a salmon sunrise. Coarse black hair down to her breasts. Eyes like broken amber glass shrouded by lashes so long and dark I wanted to pluck them out and have them for myself. I was old enough then to know what I wanted.
Something ignited in my chest, urging me to move. Shaking, I fumbled with the deadbolt and threw the door open. And there she was. There was blood, so much blood, all down the front of her white blouse, on her arms, in her hair, some dried, some still glistening wet.
“Alexandra?” I said. “Oh my God.” Her hair was shoulder-length now, and dyed platinum blonde.
She reached out for my hand, and I took a step back. “What happened to you?”
“It’s Graham,” she pleaded. There were lines on her face where tears had washed away blood. “Anna, he’s dead.”
I felt the corner of my mouth twitch. Graham, dead. The reason I hadn’t seen Alexandra in five years. She erased her online presence after they got together. Said she didn’t believe in such things anymore. Bullshit. I knew better than that. He was the one who whisked her away to Louisiana on a week’s notice. He was the one who changed her phone number after they moved.
“He turned?” I asked.
“We were just driving to breakfast,” she said, looking down at her hands as they clutched the air in front of her. “I was driving. And then he just went. Right next to me. There was so much blood. I didn’t know what to do. I put him in the trunk and—”
I looked over her shoulder. A white Mercedes, streaked with brown, was parked outside my house. Surely bought by Graham with money he didn’t have.
“You drove all the way from Blanchard with him in the trunk?” I asked. I lived in Dallas. “You didn’t call for cleanup?”
“I didn’t know what to do,” she repeated. “I wasn’t ready…”
“We need to go to a facility,” I said. “Now.”
Alexandra surrendered and stepped away from the threshold. My purse was already by the door, so I grabbed it and came out onto the porch, locking the door behind me. “I can drive,” I said. “I know where the closest one is.”
She handed me the keys to the Mercedes, and I unlocked it. We walked over to it, but I didn’t get in. My thumb hovered over the trunk release button.
“Get in the car,” I said, and she did. I only hesitated for a moment longer before I pressed the button.
The trunk clicked open, and I was met with a miasma of death. Graham’s body was a jumble of leaking flesh that had stained the entire space red. Fissures in tissue seemed to open and close like gaping maws, rank fluid dribbling down each bloodied chin. I leaned in to examine it closer. Tufts of sandy hair protruded from one end of the bloody mass, along with an inch of jawbone embedded
in the folds. I’d seen pictures before of tumors that had grown teeth and hair—that’s what he looked like lying in the trunk of the Mercedes.
Not a single thing stirred in me. Certainly not grief. But not the rush of deliverance I was expecting, either. I slammed the trunk closed.
“It’s nothing,” I said as I slid into the driver’s seat, even though Alexandra hadn’t said anything to me. “Let’s go.”
She was sitting in the back. There was a towel draped over the passenger’s seat. If its job was to cover up Graham’s blood, which I presumed it was, it wasn’t doing a very good job. “We’re going,” I said. I pulled the car away from the house.
The drive to the cleanup facility was only ten minutes, but our combined silence made it feel like twice that. Alexandra kept her gaze fixed out the window with an unsettling constancy, like it was a game not to meet my eyes in the rearview mirror. I never knew her to be carsick. She occasionally let her head tip forward, so it rested against the glass and jumped slightly when I went over a disturbance in the road. Combinations of words to fill the gap formed on my tongue, then dissolved as quickly as they came.
Then finally, Alexandra spoke.
“I’ve missed you,” she said, still staring out the window.
I had long believed I could hear her life in her voice when she talked. I heard stories of a girl living in a wonderful land where fields ran for acres in every direction, stories she would tell me during late sleepover nights. I heard the triumph and defeat of debate tournaments won and tests failed. The nervous excitement of sprawling possibility when we both went to college together. I heard the darkness of summer months, when she refused to wear shorts above the knee and I stole glimpses of her unscrewing the blades on pencil sharpeners when she thought no one was watching. Don’t think I didn’t notice such things.
But what now? What did I hear in the vast canyon of her voice that opened before me, in my five years’ absence from her life? Nothing. Nothing at all.
A moment passed. Her light hair glinted in the mirror. It looked so much better long and dark. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel.
“I missed you too,” I said.
We arrived at the cleanup facility just as one of their vans was leaving, no doubt in response to a call. It left quickly and quietly. Cleanup vans had no need for sirens or flashing lights—they existed only to pick up after death, not alter the course of it.
The facility itself had once been an auto repair shop that went out of business three years ago but was never demolished. When people started turning, they repurposed it, making the necessary additions to the inside of the building.
I pulled up to the front of it where an employee in a white hazmat suit was standing with a clipboard. I got out of the car and motioned to him.
“We have one,” I said, and he hurried over. I opened the trunk so he could see. He clicked his pen.
“Name?” he asked.
“Alexandra Harris,” Alexandra said as she emerged from the back seat.
“Relation to the deceased?”
The man scribbled on his clipboard, then extracted several more pieces of information from her before asking me for the car keys. I turned them over.
“We have it under control from here.” He turned to Alexandra, surely having taken in the blood that plastered the entire front of her body. “Please take as long as you need in the bathroom,” he said. “We have spare clothes inside, and there’s a counselor in the building.”
The single-person bathroom was large and very nice, and they had several of them. The floor was spotless white tile, the wallpaper an ivory floral, blossoms in gold leaf sprouting at regular intervals across its surface. Against the wall there was a rack of donated clothes with a sign that said, Clean. Take what you need. I had donated clothes here before. There was even a shower in the corner, the good kind with a frosted glass door, not a cheap plastic curtain like in high school locker rooms. All these purposeful, comforting luxuries.
We stepped in and locked the door. Alexandra had done a good job keeping her composure—I knew she was a master at that. But I was also familiar with her breathing, and I recognized the pattern that meant everything was about to come undone.
Suddenly, she staggered, supporting herself on the hammered copper sink. She leaned over it, heaving in great, labored breaths. Her hair covered her face, but I could hear her tears plinking into the metal basin.
I grasped her arm and rubbed her back. “Hey,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“He’s really gone,” she rasped.
“You should clean up,” I said.
She nodded shakily and turned on the faucet. She splashed water on her face and worked it over her hands and forearms, rinsing away most of the blood. Then she backed away from the sink, running her fingers down the collar of her blouse. Her hands trembled as she struggled to undo the thin, pearly buttons.
“Let me help,” I said. Her arms fell to her sides, limp.
My fingertips grazed the soft skin of her sternum as I undid each button. Our heads were almost touching. When I finished the last one, she shrugged out of the stained blouse and let it drop to the floor.
A shiver, nearly imperceptible, flitted up my spine. Fiery hands formed against the inside of my chest, pushing up and out.
Almost unconsciously, my hand moved to her waist. Her skin was warm. She made no move towards or away from me. My hand drifted down her leg and back up again, under her skirt, brushing against raised lines on her thigh. I looked at her questioningly. For the first time in my life, I could not read her eyes.
“What about John?” she whispered.
I thought about my husband, all the way up in D.C. Who kissed me every morning and held me at night, like he really meant it. From whom I stole things I didn’t want and didn’t need.
And I said, “He’s dead.”
Two words and we were caught in a fragment of a moment, that instant of suspended flight before a bird plummets to earth, a bullet in its breast. Was I the hunter or the pheasant?
The beginnings of a shocked apology formed on her lips, and in a rush I stopped it with my hands on the back of her head and my mouth against hers. She made no move at first, but then she was pushing back against me with a startling hunger. Adrenaline crashed like a breaker over my head, and I fought to catch my breath.
And then we were on the floor, the edges of cold tile digging into my knees, something I’d long desired just out of reach.
There was one night, junior year of college, where Alexandra and I were sitting together on the floor of our dorm room. She had been dating Graham for three months at that time, and I’d already made up my mind about him. Those days, her face was rarely unguarded, but for a singular, precious moment, I saw her mask slip.
“Graham pushed me yesterday,” she said without warning.
I stiffened, making no attempt to hide my animosity. “What?”
Her shields immediately went back up, and a wave of regret washed through me. “It was just a little tiff, that’s all,” she said quickly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No,” I said, “that’s crazy. He has no right—”
“Anna,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
That night, I dreamt about her and Graham in bed. She was face up and he loomed over her. He had her by the shoulders and he was shoving her over and over into the bed, until she fell, through the sheets and the mattress and the floor itself, disappearing from view.
The facility had rental cars so you could leave while they cleaned yours. And so I was driving to a destination beyond my knowledge, in a car that was not mine. All I knew was that it was away from the facility, away from Alexandra. Winter was fast approaching, and it was already getting dark. I gripped the wheel with both hands, so hard the tendons in my wrists began to hurt.
We had gotten up from the floor. She took my hand and held it, softly. Looked into my eyes. Something rippled across her face that I couldn’t identify.
“I love Graham,” she said. It was an apology.
I pulled my hand back. The warmth of her touch rang in my skin. I lowered my eyes and stepped away from her.
“You can clean up now,” I said.
I redressed and stepped out into the hallway. After a minute, I heard her turn on the shower. I pressed my ear against the door and listened to the water wash me away.
How could I do this to myself? How could I be so stupid? Like a single moment of reprieve on the floor of a gilded bathroom changed anything at all.
My hands were burning now. I beat the steering wheel with the base of my palm. Then again. The taste of salt in my mouth. I missed the exit to my house, but I didn’t care. I just kept driving. I drove without stopping, and soon it was completely dark and I was closer to Oklahoma than I was to Dallas.
John would be back soon. Maybe he already was. I could just disappear, drive away and never return. It started to storm. The taste of salt in my mouth.
Then there was a twinge in my chest, like something snapping under pressure. Paralyzing fingers full of crackling electricity radiated out from it, like nothing I’d ever felt before. My breath quickened, snagging on thorns that lined my throat. Don’t fight it. Don’t fight it. That’s what they always said. It just makes it worse. My vision blurred. I jerked over to the shoulder of the road and saw my skin twisting, pulling, melting off my fingers down my arms and legs. I screamed and cried out, called Alexandra’s name, but my lungs were on the outside of me, useless sacs against exposed ribcage, the comforting press of a diaphragm torn away. The steering wheel was slick with blood. My blood. Seeping into the mat beneath my feet. Smeared on the window, a blueprint of my undoing. The metallic tang crawled up and down my throat. Now my skull was splitting open. Now my heart was exploding in my chest.
And then. And then.
And then…I could still see my hands, trembling inches from my face, skin intact. My eyes refocused, and the car was free of blood. Heaving breaths, in and out. In and out. Hand against the base of my neck. Let it dissolve. Visions of quietus faded behind my eyes, and I was left shaking and alone on the side of the road, salt in my mouth, cars passing me by, the sound of thunder and night and her voice, raging in my head a million miles away.