Peeling

            He was a bit strange.

            I couldn’t help but notice just how differently his demeanor radiated. It didn’t equate to anything intimidating or nauseating, but rather drew the eye and kept it as a guest. Only in my case—in opposition to my roommates—his countenance held my mind as its prisoner.

            He was a man who absorbed those studying gazes but didn’t share his acknowledgements. He had a face of cursed stone, like a statue decreed by a spectral order to conduct subtle movements. Never did he change his expression on a dime. Nothing caught him off guard.

            After perhaps a week of him living below us, those roommates of mine decided to invite him for dinner. We banded together to organize a mass cleaning of the apartment over a three day period. Wednesday was a communal day—a day where all of us withdrew our respective clutter from plain view. Since I worked nights and everyone else worked nine-to-fives, I came home that evening to a spotless place.

            Thursday, Sasha wiped the kitchen surfaces, Everette cleaned the living room surfaces, and I followed suit everywhere else. And since none of us could find the washcloths, we had to pick some up from the corner store.

            Friday, lastly, was the day of organization. And since it was deemed that I did the least work thus far, I was the one who got to helm this task. Every cabinet had to have its contents removed, wiped, and restacked to its proper order. And once I finished this two-hour activity, I even did the added touch of lighting some incense.

            After a strenuous conversation, the candidate would be chosen.

            “He just pulled in!” Sasha whispered projectably. “Why is he living in this dump of a complex, anyway?”

            “Who knows, and who cares?” Everette said, filing her nails on the teal, weathered papasan. “The real question is who it’s going to be.”

            I sat on my couch cushion, plucking a loose stitch of thread in a fidget.

            “I wonder where he works,” Sasha said, “driving that car.”

            Everette’s file stopped its skidding. “Joy!” she yelled, sending me into a flinch.

            “What?” I said quietly. “What is it?”

            “Stop fucking up the couch.”

            Sasha glanced over her shoulder. “That thing’s a piece of shit anyway, Ev.”

            She wasn’t wrong. It had been through three ownerships: whoever sold it to my parents online, my parents—who disdained it for the egregious firmness—and now the three of us. Everette, however, could blame herself for throwing up on it after a night of drunken antics.

            “But who should it be?” Sasha asked. “Someone who isn’t going to fuck up would be optimal.”

            I snickered. “Count me out of it, then.”

            “I don’t know,” Everette said, “you tend to excel in certain social situations.”

            Sasha laughed, back-pedaling from the window to the loveseat. “Yeah, remember when you puked at the club?”

            I shook my head. “I didn’t puke, I vomited. Big difference.”

            Everette chuckled, tapping the file against her cheekbone. “Explain it to me.”

            “Well, puking is spontaneous.” I started plucking at the thread again, only I caught myself and stopped this time. “Vomiting is actually finding a garbage can.”

            I then found myself approaching his door, nothing in hand but my fist. I stood for a moment outside, several steps away, second guessing myself. But somehow, I knew that Sasha and Everette would know if I hesitated and decided to take the rest of the way swiftly. And my knock—timid and uneven—came from my desperation to get it all over with.

            I also knew something more.

            I knew that this whole scheme—the whole reason why I pawned this little plot of theirs—was because they wanted to get rid of me. They needed someone with money for rent—someone who they could manipulate and seduce. And even though neither of them had ever conducted this, they were capable.

            A blaring noise eviscerated my thoughts.

            And after only a couple seconds, it stopped. The muffled sound of locks turning hijacked the air, until the door opened in a languid groan. There, in the gap of the door, his face appeared—like a chiseled piece of stone.

            He took a moment to study me, fully, unapologetically.

            I studied him, too.

            “Do you want to come in?”

            I snickered. “Well, actually—”

            He stood up straighter, presenting a nuanced smile.

            “Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to come up—the unit just above yours—to my place for dinner—me and my roommates would like you to.”

            He blinked. Slow. “I would love to. When do you want me over?”

            “Tomorrow night.” I nodded, folding my arms, and trying to look around but befalling to his eyes instead. “Around six?”

            “That sounds lovely.” He smiled, ever-so-shrewder.

***

            “You really didn’t ask him his name?” Everette interrogated. “How the fuck do you meet someone for the first time and not ask for their name?”

            Tomorrow became today faster than I would’ve liked. Any sort of change to any given day’s original plan made me nauseous. At least the precipice of his arrival had struck the clock.

            “God, sometimes, Joy—you know I love you—but sometimes you’re a fucking idiot.” Everette withdrew from the room.

            I sighed, leaning back into the couch’s welcoming arms. That just wasn’t how the conversation went. It seemed that my name—even his name—avoided all importance. I couldn’t ignore how alluring this person was—how enigmatic but personable. Even though I’d exchanged a handful of words with him, he drew me in.

            He knocked on the door.

            It was rhythmic—like a computer produced the space between each individual percuss.

            “Shit,” Sasha muttered, wet chicken breast in hand over the sink. “Joy, get the door, I think Ev’s taking a shit.”

            Up I sprung, heading to the door languidly so that I didn’t answer conspicuously fast. As a conductor of my pace, I dug my nails into my palms during my approach.

            He smiled once the door finally came open. He didn’t lunge in glee or raise his eyebrows in pleasant surprise of seeing my face. His lips formed that expression languidly, as if this situation were a fond memory he looked back upon. “Hi, Joy.”

            “Hey, come—” I hesitated. I distinctly remember the parting of my lips. “How do you know my name?”

            “I heard it through the door.” His eyes squinted, emphasizing his smile.

            I smiled too. “Come in.”

            His attire was something I only now got to closely inspect. This outfit’s stylistic impression appeared the same as those previous (even though those escaped my memory). He wore a black, fleece turtleneck with three-quarter sleeves that accentuated a leather bracelet. Grey chinos lined his slender legs to the tops of his glossy loafers.

            “You forgot to ask his name again, Joy?” Sasha scoffed as she rinsed her hands. “I apologize on behalf of—”

            “Lindsay.” He coupled his hands at the arch of his back. “I like the way you’ve decorated your place.” He shuffled his way over to the couch, taking a seat right on my cushion. “You’ve given me some inspiration.”

            Sasha worked a towel through her already dry hands as she meandered over.

            “So,” Lindsay began, looking to her with a tepid smirk, “what’s your name?”

            “Sasha. There’s a third one of us, only she’s in the—”

            The bathroom door creaked open, exhuming the frantic sounds of Everette washing her hands. “I’m here!” she exclaimed from behind the ajar door.

            Lindsay looked about—at me first, then Sasha, then finally Everette—giving us a proper inspection. “It’s very nice to meet all of you.” He coupled his hands on his lap, now. “And it was very nice of you to invite me over. I appreciate it.”

            Dinner soon came, and with it arrived a stiff drape of social discomfort. I was well aware of my status as a pariah—both in ability and practice—but adjusting to Lindsay’s aggressive nonchalance proved to be a true task.

            He didn’t feel the need to heed futile small talk. Lindsay only ate at a slow, rhythmic pace, his fork barely clinking against his dish. His visage reflected a sense of normalcy—as if this dinner was in fact not the first of ours. Like we did this every weekend.

            It dually relaxed and endeared the rest of the table. His demeanor invited them—assured them that it was okay—to study his features like they had been. And not out of need to waste time, but out of true intrigue Lindsay asked, “What do all of you do?”

            “We work nine-to-five like everyone else. Except Joy—she crawls out of her cave at night to helm a desk job.” Everette gnawed at a forkful of chicken. “What about you?”

            “I meant to ask, I suppose, what you enjoy doing.”

            Everette looked to Sasha, who looked back with the same, puzzled eye.

            “They like to get hammered,” I wished I said, “and take out their drunken rage on everyone else.” But I actually settled on silence.

            “We like TV,” Everette said.

            He laughed through his nostrils, breaking any eye contact with a newly formed smile. He didn’t even spare us a patronizing word.

            “What do you enjoy?” Sasha asked.

            “Lots of things pique my interest. But that’s not enjoyment, to me. Movies, books, art, the ideas of others—they tend not to draw my affection.” He placed his fork down, folding his hands to be an inch from his lips. “What really fascinates me are sounds.”

            “Like music?” Sasha interjected. “What are you into?”

            “Lawnmowers.” He ran a thumb down his bracelet. “That sound especially.”

            Sasha and Everette’s brows curled, right along with mine.

            Lindsay didn’t look at us. “We hear them every morning. Their work is left behind on lawns and patches of grass here or there. And if you listen close enough, you can hear every bit of life they tear through. Each branch or brittle leaf or blade of grass: available to the ear.”

            No sound came from that table. The radiator didn’t even sputter.

            “The death of luscious life, fallen away to mere background noise. No one listens to it, despite its avid presence.” He smiled, with a little more brightness.

            This moment was also the precise sliver of time where he pulled me in. Where he imprisoned my very psyche. Everything he exhumed—each minute piece of anything—was just another reason to stay within Lindsay’s proprietary walls and decode his puzzle.

***

            It was true that my job was mundane—especially during the night. But that was its allure. In the evening, everything fell silent—all phones that rang and keys that clacked in sheer pandemonium disappeared. I became the only sound—the sole person—the last line of defense. Never would I share this sort of appeal with anyone, especially Sasha and Everette.

            They would make me feel weak—a sociopath afraid to hear another person near me.

            And maybe it was true. Perhaps I didn’t like people—equipped with an unknown sea of memories, flaws, and traits that affect their every action—being near me. They’re dangerous, a lot of them. And at a cyber-security firm—anywhere, not just in Orlando—every cubicle was infested with people of that ilk. I didn’t know anything about any of them, and the looks they gave me when I wasn’t looking only accentuated my angst.

            At night, my senses were free.

            And on this evening, I could think of Saturday’s dinner. Those words poured from his lips like philosophy—like poetry. And I didn’t understand why—if Lindsay liked that sound so much—he lived just outside of a city. It made my mind tangle. My ears were grateful of the silence I had in the office, more grateful than before.

            I inspected the silence now. Because what I perceived as no sound at all was in fact many minute, miscellaneous noises. Even if they played at a whisper, they gathered my attention. The traffic of the street outside—the horns, squealing brakes, and sputtering exhausts—the air conditioning—which was always cranked everywhere in Florida—and even the hum of the vending machine.

            Silence was a fallacy.

            My phone rang, slicing the silence with a blare.

            “Hello?”

            “Is this Joy Richards?”

            “Yes, who is this?”

            “This is the Orlando Regional Medical Center calling about Everette May. I have this phone number down as the emergency contact.”

            I leapt to my feet, as if the thumping of my heart shot me there. “What happened?”

***

            She lay completely still. No one, not even the doctor, could coax her into consciousness. And it didn’t take the doctor’s translation to read the situation. Her oxygen level brimmed on falling into the eighties. Her blood pressure was plummeting further the longer I drummed my fingers against her bedrail.

            Nothing was steady.

            Nothing hinted at stability.

            Things were presumably silent within that unit. And as I thought this, Lindsay’s face—his smirk and wretched casualness—penetrated my very psyche. So, I listened, beyond just the space Everette and I shared.

            In the halls, muffled by the near door, I could hear a baby wailing. The mother hushed the child with an almost louder vocation. Through the window, which mediated a streetlamp’s spilling, yellow light, an encroaching siren screeched. And footsteps—always hurried—sped past the unit’s door with each minute.

            Sasha rushed into the room, unleashing the once muffled sounds, albeit for a brief moment. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered, rushing over, “Ev? Ev, please, no.” She knelt beside me, taking Everette’s hand with tightly coiled fingers. “Come back to us.” A tear fell to the floor. “Come back.

            The emotive moments never abated. Progress didn’t show itself for the next hour. If anything, Everette continued to get worse.

            Still holding her best friend’s hand, Sasha said, “Tell me what happened.”

            “Are you sure you’re ready?”
           “Joy, she’s like my sister.” She shook her head, sniffling. “I need to know.”

            “They found the car on the side of I-four.” I sat straighter with a lurching, broken exhale. “It was upended—rolled over.” I shook my head. “There wasn’t any sign of another car interfering, and she didn’t have anything in her system.”

            Sasha looked below my gaze, at about my neck, with gaping eyes.

            “The paramedics said they had to peel her from the windshield. They were shocked she still had a pulse—that she was still breathing.” I pursed my lips. My throat grew heavy with a lump. “She has at least sixteen fractures. They think—”

            “Okay,” Sasha interjected.

            I bit my lip. I glanced to the window.

            “That’s enough.”

            Those sounds hijacked the air with more ferocity. The compositions of the silence sung an ode to Everette’s clinging body. They put his face into my head once again.

            And soon enough the doctor returned, a cohort of nurses in toe. Nothing was in any of their hands—not a clipboard, not a piece of medical equipment. They only walked languidly over, sullen looks dousing their faces like poison. The doctor drew a chair from the wall to sit beside us.

            Sasha looked at me, her eyes windows into the inevitability of what he was about to say.

            “The both of you are the only people that we can contact regarding Everette’s health.” He raked his bald scalp. “Is this—”

            “Her family doesn’t talk to her,” Sasha interrupted. “They’ve basically exiled her.”

            “Okay,” the doctor said, slowly nodding. “I just want to make things clear about Everette’s situation. Her brain is not getting enough oxygen, because her heart cannot effectively pump the needed blood to it. That’s why her heart rate is accelerated because it’s—”

            “We understand,” I said.

            “It’s just, we don’t think Everette is going to make it to the morning.”

            Sasha leapt to her feet, catapulting. She buried her crying face into open hands, slipping through the door hip-first.

            I made fists, curling my fingers around the fabric of my shirt.

            The nurses stood in silence, peering at the floor.

            “I’ll give you time to make a decision,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.

***

            After she passed, Sasha spent days in her room on end, cleaning. Every surface had to be spotless—each nook had no other option besides pristineness. And instead of going through Everette’s things—like she insisted she do—Sasha stomped through the living room.

            “What are you doing?” I asked, as casually as I could.

            “Nothing.”

            “What are in those bags?”

            “You a fucking cop?” she snapped. Her knuckles were white gripping black plastic. “She’s gone, Joy. Leave me alone.” And off she went, slipping through my fingers like everything else.

            For dinner that evening—like the rest of them—instead of agreeing on who would cook, we fended for ourselves. Sasha—who reeked of bleach—scurried out from her room and into the kitchen.

            I read from the book I started at the hospital, sitting on my cushion. I didn’t go into my room often, especially since that decision. And that decision, the heaviest one I’d ever made, seemed to be the only thing Sasha and I agreed on since.

            “We have to be strong,” she had said over Everette’s body. “For her.”

            And tonight, I could see nothing but anguish.

            The word “weak” didn’t describe deep grief appropriately, but the deflective façade Sasha displayed was transparent. She stomped about the kitchen, slamming cabinets, and throwing pots about in metallic clanging. Her countenance dripped with frustration—with utter apprehension. And the way those emotions came out was directly through anger.

            Denial.

            Once she conjured up a dish with a whir of the microwave, she slinked toward her room once more.

            But before she could close the door, I called, “Sasha?”

            She poked her head out.

            “Are you going to be alright?”

            The radiator groaned and hissed.

            She looked to the ceiling, biting her lip. “Yes.” She wiped her cheek. “I’m just—”

            “I know.” I gulped. “It’s hard for me too.”

            The rest of that week, and the following one went similarly, but I believe that we had a mutual understanding of how our respective slew of emotions came out. I just sat on the couch, reading—very rarely going on my phone—until I had work. And at the office, to stop my mind’s traffic, I brought a pair of headphones I hadn’t used in a couple years. I would crank a playlist of something heavy and play solitaire at my cubicle, since our servers rarely ailed or needed maintenance.

            Sasha and I would average speaking a pair of sentences to each other every day, and they would be in passing. On an intermittent occasion, I would ask how she was doing, and despite the blatancies, she’d reply with fine or better.

            But my gauge of her behavior broke on the three-week-anniversary of Everette’s death. Typically, when I got home from work at roughly eight a.m., Sasha would be stirring awake or still asleep. Her shift began at nine, yes, but she worked just down the block at the diner. I always peeked into her room, just to make sure she was there.

            And every single morning until that one, she lay in her pristinely made bed.

            But now, as I peered through an ajar door, not only were her sheets in complete disarray, but Sasha was nowhere to be found. “Sasha?” I called. “Are you in here?” I asked. The room was in utter post-apocalypse. And when I entered, I had to maneuver around broken shards of glass from the fallen lamp. The dresser that once stood against the near wall was upended, now on its back in the middle of the chaos.

            Out came my phone.

            My first thought was to dial her workplace, to see if she’d gone in early. But I knew that Sasha hated her job, loathed everyone that worked there, and wouldn’t bother doing anything besides her preordained shiftwork. Thus, I dialed—

            “I need to report a missing person.”

***

            I was used to being alone—to things being starkly silent.

            But after she was gone—without an utter trace—things became so quiet, that my mind couldn’t help but fill the void. I didn’t have the collectiveness to pick apart the elements of each silence, nor did I have the calmness to think about anything other than her. After Everette died, Sasha was my responsibility. I felt like the mother to an angsty teen. And I failed in looking out for her. I should have asked more questions—pressing questions—even if she grew angry at first. More things should’ve been said.

            What was I doing?

            But as I sat on my cushion, knees pulled so tightly to my chest that they covered my face, a knock came about greeting my door. It was rhythmic, percussed with robotically spaced taps.

            I knew it in an instant.

            He had that smirk on his face, and I could tell he had it equipped before I opened the door. “I’d like to invite you over for dinner,” he said softly, “if you’d like to come down with me.”

            My brow twitched, brimming on giving my face a perplexed expression. Had he not heard? Had he not read about anything that had been going on? Regardless, I needed to escape. “Sure.”

            “Good. I made some sirloin.”

            Down the stairs we went, me directly at his side.

            And that feeling swelled again within me. That one of odd but sure comfort. Like the person next to me was someone closer than Lindsay: kin. He allowed me into his apartment, and to my surprise, it was a two bedroom. But what stood out to me as the true anomaly was the absolutely shimmering cleanliness.

            The white hue of the walls was icy, as if they were painted mere hours earlier.

            The countertops glistened like authentic granite.

            And the floors carried not a speck of dust upon them.

            Every surface—every inch of space—proclaimed its presence with utter confidence.

            “Wine?” he asked.

            “Please,” I immediately answered.

            “Take a seat,” he said, gesturing to the geometrically perfect couch there beside me.

            I gave it all my weight. My back receded its tautness, leaving a pulsating ache up my spine. I pursed my lips, unleashing a sigh that held the past two months within it. There was a moment where I felt as if I should talk—fancy the idea of futile conversation—but I instead opted to remain silent. Because Lindsay’s demeanor—as he maneuvered about the kitchenette—reminded me that I didn’t need to.

            “Just finishing up the vegetables,” he said.

            And as my somnolent gaze peered into the popcorn ceiling, he approached with a filled glass in hand.

            “It’s a cabernet.” He smiled. “Got it from an old neighbor actually.”

            Dinner, once it came, consisted of little talk. It seemed that not only did Lindsay allow for casual, elongated silences, but he reveled in them. As if he telepathically understood my enjoyment of them, and without words conversated through them.

            The steak was unreasonably delicious. He never asked me how I liked it, but the cut that I ate was what I considered to be perfect. And as I ate it, I knew that Lindsay’s eyes were there for me to gaze at if I needed.

            Everything about him was pristine. He didn’t care about other’s thoughts about him. He didn’t care if they found him to be unkind or rude. Lindsay simply took part in his interests—nothing more.

The night that we had eaten dinner with him the first time, Sasha said, “He’s a bit strange.”

            And as my only exhumed thought regarding him, I responded with, “That’s what makes him interesting. He’s fascinating.
           But tonight, as his only words over that dinner—and the final sentence of the evening—he told me, “I’m sorry to hear that your friends are dead.”

***

            I awoke in a cold sweat.

            It was exactly one week after that dinner. The police hadn’t found Sasha, Lindsay hadn’t reached out to me, and the feeling that loomed promised morose things. The pattern was forming—I could feel it. The bitter—the ice cold, bitter—thought that had been smoldering was boiling now. And this night, of all the nights that consisted of the same, I decided to make a drastic change.

            I barreled through the blackness in my car, weaving through lanes like a maniac. People yelled through their open windows at my shut ones, and the traffic lights allowed my swift rampage with nothing but fluorescent green. But one pair of headlights glared through my back windshield, drenching the inside of my car with yellow light.

            No matter which turn I took—no matter what detour I drove through—they remained shrewd and sure in their shining. Like a focused, unbothered gaze from a spectral face.

***

            I told them everything.

            I spilled every bit I had withheld.

            But they needed something more—something to truly warrant an arrest.

            And what they advised me to do was simple. Safe.

            Lindsay was supposed to arrive today at noon on the walkway. It was a nice area of the park, where the bushes and flowers and vines conglomerated. I leaned against the rail already, overlooking the fields where the kids frolicked and kicked balls about. The warm sun made my neck and shoulders tingle, and that wind took my hair in its grasp.

            Albeit for a moment, all the warmth made my lips curve into a smile.

            But after that instant, his approach became the only thing I soaked in.

            He walked with his hands coupled behind his back and his demeanor giving off the same inflection it always did. Somehow, the breeze didn’t affect his hair—it remained in its desired position. And when he reached my side, he leaned against the rail, giving me a smile.

            “How’ve you been?” I asked.

            He sighed overtop all the sounds. “I suppose I’ve been alright.”

            “Good.” I let go of an exhale, only it didn’t smoothly course through my lungs like it had Lindsay’s. “Is your work going alright? What about listening to lawnmowers?”

            He gazed at me—who pretended to be relaxed against that rail—and kept it there. “There’s plenty to listen to here,” he said. “Plenty of grass that’s been cut.”

            “What you said to me the other night—”

            “What did I say?”
           “About my friends.”

            “Yes. Well, I am sorry that they died.”

            “Sasha’s not dead, Lindsay. They haven’t found her yet.”

            “Oh.” He looked down below, at the children playing. The smile never subsided. “I guess I must’ve misread.”

            Those sounds now filled the void. The chirping of the birds. The mass disturbance of tree branches at the behest of the wind. The jesting of those playing children.

            “So,” I began, “What did you read—”

            His stare interrupted. “I always knew you were the brightest one,” he said, “out of all of them.” And Lindsay turned his back to me, making his languid way down the walkway, despite all the men that sat in the bushes.

            That was the last time I ever saw him.