The night begins with bile-blocked throat and half-sandy eyes. Atop sheets that haven't been changed in forever, atop a bed that is sour with lakes of sweat, I roll over and retch. The floor is a million miles away. I seem to be clinging to a puffy white cliff. There is a metallic stench that shoves itself up my nose, my mouth, and with it, a drip-drop sound. There is someone else in my room.
I sit up just as an insistent whisper starts. "Who's there?" I say loudly.
"Calm down, Quint. Be still, Emma. We're discovered, Veronica."
The voice mumbles and fumbles, but also somehow shines with a proud, dignified youthfulness. Though my stomach has not quite settled, I swing off the bed to investigate. My hands spread and swim as if through cobwebs. Icy fingertips tap my nape, and I stifle a scream. I turn. There's a girl, young, maybe eleven. Hair a dark and voluminous curtain, eyes rapid-blinking sirens.
"Hello there, friend," she says.
"Hello," I say, my heart slowing because I know this girl from a long time ago. I just have to remember. I click on the light and collapse against the wall. The girl settles prettily next to me.
"Like the hair," she says approvingly, surveying the mop-like creature that is my bed head.
"Who were you talking to just now?" I ask.
"To my babies," she replies. "See my arms." She flings her wrists close to my face, and something sticky splatters against my cheek. I see that her wrists down to her forearms are sliced horizontally with at least a hundred shallow cuts. Some are freshly bleeding, pumping scarlet, crimson, vermilionmany vibrant shades that go beyond just red. Once again, my stomach flops like a desperate, dying fish.
"Jesus. Jesus." Searching for something to staunch the blood, I stumble around the room. I settle for a T-shirt and press it against her mutilated arms. "Jesus! You could have killed yourself! Did you do that to yourself? Don't you know it's bad?"
The girl just smiles mildly. "You're very gentle," she says. "They'll like that. My babies will. They were crying. Being born hurts." As the cloth soaks up her blood, she takes on a sing-song voice. "This is Nate. He's the youngest. Then there's Krisel. She's real free-spirited. Then there's Darcy. A shy boy. Nice meeting you! Hear them saying? You like them? My sweet babies?"
When I don't reply, she goes right on talking. "You like OJ? We can have. In the kitchen. Let's go there. You get ice. While I'll stir."
We are in the kitchen. She feverishly stirs the juice, spilling sporadic flecks of orange on the pure white countertop. I crack ice trays, and she plucks the cubes and drops them with aplomb into the OJ. As she stands on tiptoes to pour, I glimpse her wristswhite, clean, bloodless.
I begin to ask, "What happened to your" but then I stop, abruptly confused.
"To my what?"
I can't remember. Instead, I say, "Let's toast to this midnight meeting." We raise and clink our glasses.
"To your future!" I say.
"And to yours!" she says.
We sip our orange juice. "You know what's weird," I say. "How come people always toast to the future and not to the past?"
She smiles. "Past can't change."
"We don't toast to change things. We toast to celebrate. Why don't we celebrate the past now?"
So we toast again.
"I've had a lot to drink tonight," I tell her, "even before you came."
"Did you now?" she says.
"It was a lot of hard work, but I got there in the end. I got the job, you know. So I thought I'd let looseI don't do that too often. I'm a nice person without all those vices, see. Maybe just sometimes. For recreation."
"Just to celebrate," she agrees. "I am glad. Vices are bad."
"That's right, little girl. Now don't you ever forget that."
"I won't ever. This I swear."
And we toast a third time to seal this promise.
I finish first then decide to clean the countertop, to erase the evidence of our midnight snack of sorts. There is a blood-soaked T-shirt in my hands, and I use it to wipe the spilled juice. The counter turns from a dappled orange to the original, glowing white.
The girl puts down her glass and says, "This was fun. A real feast. But you know. I should go."
I am suddenly upset by the thought of her leaving. "Will you turn up tomorrow night? We can eat crackers along with orange juice. Or something, anything you like. We can be friends."
"You're too old. For young friends. You have paper?"
I do. I hand it to her. She smoothes the paper down on the countertop and writes something. A lot of things. A novel. Then she folds up the paper very small and places it on my palm. With her tiny hands, she wraps my big hand around the lumpy square of paper. "Read it later," she says. "I should go. Now's the time."
"Who are you?" I ask, though I know it's the wrong question.
"I am you," she replies.
Then a jolt, then the present.
Body slick with sweat, I sit up. My limbs are knotted with sheets, my fist clenched around something. A folded letter. With an unexplainable longing lodged in my throat, I hurriedly unfold it. But the paper is blank, clinically white, glowing to the rhythm of the pulsing night.