That day Atleigh nearly squeezed her phone so hard it would’ve molded to her fist’s sweaty interior, the cemetery hills were unearthed by a trillion trillion trillion muddy hands picking off maggots like lint.
Atleigh had a trillion one-word texts she never sent even though every previous time was easier once she stalled and recalled that instance side by side with the one at hand. By that point though, it was impossible to send anything once again.
Atleigh was stiff on the train, nose wrinkled at the way hi looked grumpy and irritated in the text box. If she sent it Isae would see it before she could squirm and hit delete. She gripped the phone like the sudden winks from the sun at the window would tell her what to do. Every breath whisked into her system told her no.
So okay. No.
Backspace. Turn it off.
Isae made it her credo to wait for everyone else to move first. To talk first. To begin to twist nothing into a so-so friendship. She stuck to it.
Isae was as bold as charcoal and it took Atleigh five crushing months to be actual friends.
Atleigh probably had to do it all over again, by sloppy word transmission. One text at a time.
It was so easy to get it wrong. Words going out into the world by themselves with their own attitudes were unruly and nobody could control otherwise. Unless they took three lifetimes to unearth an emoji but at that point it would’ve made them childish and clingy.
Atleigh stepped over the train gap and squeezed one eye shut while stray snow flicked her face like she did something wrong. She probably did. It was May, why else would it be snowing?
Atleigh needed a hunk of thinking time so she walked the rest of the way instead of taking a bus. The snow buried the lobby’s doormat and her fingertips screeched and itched as the blood thawed up in the elevator.
It was at that point the graves had split their generous fissures, like envelopes received and torn, and their buried boxes were long unhinged. Grandpas, grandmas, great-aunts, great-uncles, old neighbours, old friends scratched their uneven skin. What was left of their noses wrinkling, clogged from dirt and splinters.
There was screaming at the memorial park, at the old brick church and the public library Atleigh took Isae to when they did every science fair together.
The anxious dead sloshed like dirty bathwater, untamed by the dark and the wet and the earthworms in the soil. They left brown footprint halves in the snow, trampling most of them while they slumped and drooled because it was hard to be back in the sun, hard to be doing anything but lying down in a dark little box like a scratchy napkin.
There was screaming at the grocery store, shopping carts skidding like only cars with engines did in automobile ads. There was screaming at the elementary school, lockers turned inside out.
But Atleigh didn’t hear much when she was thinking about what to say to Isae.
She turned the radiator on for a precious few minutes before switching it off. Electricity bills were shocking when she was the one paying for it. And it shocked her every month.
Atleigh set the phone down on the coffee table and held her head with dry knuckles at her temples. She recognized this stiff position a thousand times over and it made her hungry because novels made Atleigh call it hope. A stiff, tiring hope that made her nauseous. It consumed the most energy in the world. More than the radiator ever could for a whole lifetime. More than a cross country road trip just to see some dry lakes. More than it took to send a rocket nose-first into a star.
It wasn’t that Isae would be binge-watching with someone else who could talk and talk and talk more than Atleigh ever could. No one could do that. No one would do it.
Isae had her huge problems that were incredibly inconvenient. Like baby voids in an art project that demanded no blank space. It took Atleigh years to settle down with them. To like them.
She felt unweighted at the thought of sending a wrong text out of the blue, after time and distance had crunched into a blackhole that made her think it had been nearly twenty lifetimes all bestowed with longevity.
The sun was clambering through the windowpane and it twisted its way through white-heavy foliage to find the roots. Atleigh lived too high up to see the ground but low enough to find bird nests on the balcony. The snow was already melting faster than she could think: a popsicle accepting its own quiet death on hot pavement. Nature’s peaceable tapestry wound up Atleigh’s trains of thought and her eyes burned as they pinpointed on the tree canopies, already green again.
The villain was her toiling conscious and the protagonist: her instinct. Atleigh willed her eyes to go out of focus, scrutinized two sets of keyboards: barely there and overlapped like two kids screeching over each other out of excruciating exasperation. Atleigh typed out the letters while her back teeth ground together hard enough to reshape them.
The zombies barrelled through the lobby, swam through each other up the stairs, licked peepholes outside the doors.
Atleigh jabbed send before she could turn off the phone and burrow her hands in a meatgrinder.
There was something scratching her door like a landlord’s cat but she couldn’t hear it.
The text was a minute old.
Atleigh bit the flesh of her mouth so hard she could taste its brand new saline crescents. She’d asked if she’d been missed, trying not to sound whiney, and waited for Isae halfway across the world to ideally say yea.
Her eyes burned while she watched the trees drip snow off their round foliage cheeks.
The wifi went out and the door peeled apart like an onion: stubborn but knew at the bottom of its sticky heart it was inevitable.
Atleigh was eventually beginning to feel how cold the apartment had gotten and right there past the radiator at the sabotaged door, she finally saw it. Atleigh swallowed a lump of spit like glass.
Isae’s grotesque compostable face was the byproduct of at least five years under the dirt.