[Content warning: mental illness]
She examines the pale skin of her arms, palms upward toward the light as if waiting for an offering. Her veins twist, intricate lines of shadows beneath papery white skin that hasn’t seen proper sunlight in weeks. She thinks about the blood flowing there, along those dark and treacherous paths, tumbling to and from the caverns of her heart.
“Hey, where are you?” he asks, watching her from across a tangle of silver sheets.
She rolls to her side to look at him. “Just thinking.”
He knows her and he doesn’t. He knows her for the freckle on her collarbone, the scar on her foot, the strawberry-colored birthmark hidden beneath wisps of hair on the back of her neck. He knows her for her jambalaya recipe, for the way she rolls her eyes at his bad jokes, for the songs she hums to herself in the shower.
He knows her like she knows him, their knowing bound together with bands of gold, small diamonds, and vows. One but not one, two worlds entwined with some secret places yet to be discovered.
Getting out of bed, he kisses the top of her head, murmuring three little words into the gingery scent of her hair. He dresses quickly and heads out for his Saturday morning run. He has stopped inviting her to join him, but she doesn’t mind. She’s tired of saying no.
She gets ready for the day slowly, imagining the way mountains rise, just centimeters over centuries.
The house is mostly clean, but she tidies the kitchen a bit. Scrubs the counters, sweeps the cold tile that numbs her toes, empties the dishwasher. He will smile to see her out of bed, making breakfast for the two of them. She doesn’t like the concern that laces his gaze nowadays.
There is a knock at the door. It startles her, and she drops a glass.
“Coming!” she shouts, hoping her unused voice will carry through the living room and to the door.
She bends to pick up the larger pieces of glass hurriedly and hardly winces when a shard slices into the pink flesh of her hand. For a moment, she watches the blood well, rubies and garnets pooling in her cupped palm.
Another knock prompts her to wrap her hand in a towel and rush to the door.
She swings the door open, not bothering to peek through the window first. She must look a mess, with her unwashed hair pulled loosely atop her head, a bloody towel tied around one palm.
“Hi,” the woman on her doorstep says. She is thin and young, with long black hair and a golden-skinned toddler on her hip. “I’m Lena, we just moved in.”
Together, they glance at the small house next door. It’s a cheery shade of blue with big windows, sitting squat and welcoming beneath the shade of a large oak tree. A moving van is parked out front.
“I’m Emma,” she replies. “Nice to meet you.”
Lena eyes her hand. “Are you okay?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I just dropped a glass.”
“You might want to get that looked at.” The toddler squirms in his mother’s arms, muttering something unintelligible. His curious chocolate eyes are fixed on Emma.
“I will. Can I help you with something?”
“Could we borrow a muffin tin? I can’t find ours and he’s begging for some blueberry muffins.”
“Sure, let me find it. Come in if you like, just excuse the mess,” Emma says, leading the way in, “and stay out of the kitchen. I haven’t cleaned up the glass yet.”
Lena follows her in and shuts the door, glancing around the living room, landscape paintings on the walls and bookshelves in well-loved disarray. Her son babbles loudly, something about the books.
“Nice place.” Lena’s voice is bright. “How long have you lived here?”
“Three years now,” Emma calls from the kitchen, where she digs around for the muffin tin. She winces as she hits her injured hand against a cabinet door. “Callum and I moved in after we got married.”
“You two must be so happy.”
“Here you go,” Emma returns with the tin and hands it over, watching the little boy’s eyes brighten as he reaches for it with tiny fingers. Something catches inside her when Lena laughs, and it’s suddenly hard to breathe.
“Thank you.” Lena smiles deeply. “He’s been such a trooper with the move, I wanted to do something special. I’ll bring some muffins by later, if that’s okay.”
Emma nods and opens the door for Lena. As they leave, the little boy squeals joyously and points toward his new home, saying something that sounds vaguely like “blueberries.”
When she closes the door, Emma clutches her bloodied hand to her chest and sinks to the floor, her breath coming in uneven shudders.
She is hardly aware of anything but the murky pounding of her heart, the inky rush of blood in her ears. Outside, she knows the sun shines brightly in the clouded blue of the sky. But here, she feels the walls collapsing into shadow; a twisting, ravenous darkness she cannot escape.
Emma sobs once, almost soundlessly, wishing that she had a reason.
She should be happy. She should hear songs in every summer breeze. The air should taste of hope, should fill her lungs with deep, oxygenated joy. She should be grateful for the perfect life she and Callum have built, for her uneventful and fortunate childhood. For her glimmering future, for promises of adventure, children, and laughter.
Instead, she feels numb. Void.
She contains the cold twilight between the stars and little more.
“Emma?” Callum is back from his run, kneeling beside her. She did not hear the door open. It swings creakily now in a gust of wind.
His sweat drips onto her arm. He feels real, and she clings to him, burning with shame and fear. He knows her for her strength and her composure. But she is falling apart, afraid of being known like this.
“Emma, what’s wrong?” He examines her bleeding hand, searches her downcast face.
Outside, rain begins to pour from dark and sudden clouds. Emma gathers her courage and meets his gaze, breathing in the air that tastes of water and sweat and blood. She sees only love in his eyes, love she desperately wants to believe she deserves.
“I think I need help,” she whispers.
He wraps her up in his arms, his voice on the edge of shattering.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
Something inside her warms a little as she settles into his embrace. She takes her first deep breath in months, and her shadows shift to make room for this little beam of light.