On the day I got the phone call, something followed me home. It was already dark when I left my office, the wind as bitter as a bachelorette, soggy leaves plastered in their own chalk outlines on the street. The road home was dead, just me and the streetlights and the streetlights’ reflections on the rain-slick asphalt, but I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder. If there was anyone or anything there, though, it was keeping out of sight, and walking silently.
All this melancholy mooning about old flames must be going to my head, I reasoned. The approach of winter always makes my old heartbreak scars start aching, like a bum knee signaling impending rain, and I’d been spending the day wrestling memories of girls who had dumped me or left me or turned me down. And Renee, who didn’t reject me, but who left me more permanently alone than any breakup ever could.
Since I’d been spending so much time willing lost loves back into my life, I felt like a real shit when I came home and listened to my voicemail. The first message was from my girlfriend’s father -– she was in the hospital, some kind of seizure or coma, they didn’t know why. Everyone running around like rodents, blood tests and family histories, panic and confusion. I felt cold apathy engulf me, as though I’d left a door open from the dark, sodden, presence-laden night straight into my chest.
I liked my girlfriend a lot, don't get me wrong. But I wasn’t head over heels for her, and I don’t think I remember how to love someone who doesn’t make me feel that way. If I ever knew in the first place. The girls I’d been thinking about all day inflamed me, consumed me, raked out the inside of my rib cage with their perfect nails, and left me in a little pile of ash. They were bonfires; Karen is a space heater. I depended on her for a lot of things, I suppose, but she wasn’t my life, so it wasn’t going to last -– or rather, it would last only until I walked into another fire. And I was concerned, of course, about her health, and even to some degree about her family, but the last thing I wanted was to break this cocoon of inky November silence and thrust myself into the fluorescent hysteria of her hospital room.
I called the hospital to give my regrets to Karen’s parents -– I’ll visit as soon as I can, but I’m not feeling well myself, and I don’t want to bring any germs into those antiseptic halls, but please, let me know if anything changes, or if you need my help. As I hung up, I realized that whatever had followed me home had followed me in.
It was standing against the white wall, or I never would have noticed it. It looked like a network of pencil marks in the vague shape of a human. A woman. The marks were so knife-thin that at first I thought that the plaster wall had bloomed with tiny cracks. But it moved. I saw it move. And I don’t know how I knew, I’ll probably never know how I knew, but I thought, oh my God, that’s Renee.
I had the sensation of shrinking rapidly -– a vertiginous sense of collapse, a feeling of looking out across miles of space, small in the middle of the vacuum created by my own implosion. I don’t think I was scared; I just felt very small and very, very still, ears ringing in the silence of all the screams I wasn’t screaming. And then my stomach burned, and I ran and folded myself around the toilet, and when I was done puking she was gone.
So I do have the flu, I wasn’t lying –- or I’ve given myself the flu psychosomatically out of guilt at not seeing Karen. I have a fever that’s making me hallucinate, and a stomach bug that’s making me throw up, and I really need to go to bed, I need more than anything to go to bed. I repeated this calmly to myself, but I was actually badly shaken -– I almost never run fevers, and I’d certainly never hallucinated before. With Karen gone, there was nobody to take care of me if I got severely sick. What timing. Still, I was well enough to drag myself to bed –- I’d worry about the rest in the morning.
The phone woke me up at almost one a.m. -– Karen’s father, with unencouraging news. She was weakening constantly, skidding further and further from recovery. When they had brought her in, she was unresponsive, but still capable of moving, like a person in a deep undreaming sleep. Now, she was growing increasingly more still. He was sorry that I wasn’t well, he said, but if I wanted to see her, I might have to see her soon.
I sat on the edge of the bed, shaking the gravelly remnants of sleep from my brain. Of course I should go see her. I may not have been crazy about her, but she was good to me, and we’d been together for a while. And clearly I was feeling guilty about staying home, or my fevered mind wouldn’t be scribbling dead ex-girlfriends on the wall. But I’d had only a few hours of sleep, and I wasn’t even sure they’d let me in this far outside of visiting hours. If I waited until the morning, would it be too late?
Still sleep-dazed, I shuffled to the kitchen for a glass of water. Just a few more hours of sleep. I’ll take off work tomorrow, go to the hospital at the earliest hour they’ll let me in. In some remote and vaguely embarrassing corner of my brain, I even imagined that my visit might be the thing to save her -– that at my touch she’d open her eyes and smile and be cured, and I’d be a hero. She always was more in love, more devoted than I. Maybe she’s only slipping because she thinks that I’ve abandoned her.
Renee was in my room when I got back. She wasn’t pencil lines anymore -– she was bones. A perfect grinning skeleton, like some ragged leftover Hallowe’en decoration. A whirlpool of dread sank itself through my viscera. I couldn’t look at her, couldn’t even think about her; I blacked out the part of my brain that had seen her there, standing near the closet, barely moving. Crawling into bed, I pleated the covers tight around me, only a tiny gap left to breathe -– a child protecting itself from the Bogeyman, not even a toe left out as a naked target.
The alarm woke me at dawn, and I called the hospital before I even fully opened my eyes. They told me that Karen was fading, even her involuntary muscle motions becoming labored, her heart rate and breathing slowing to a sickening crawl. The phone suddenly felt too heavy for me to support, and as I lowered it laboriously into the cradle, I noticed Renee standing by my bed. She was overlaid now with glistening slabs of muscle, and here and there a shockingly yellow sponge of fat. I was too groggy to be disgusted –- I simply stared and thought how much like an anatomy textbook she looked.
"Renee." I hadn’t yet talked to her. I’d barely acknowledged her presence. I’d barely believed it.
"What are you doing here?"
You asked for me.
I had. In the gloom of impending winter, the damp icy wind and steel-wool sky, I’d wished she would come back. I’d seen her image warm as a sodium light in the murky five o’clock twilight, and I’d called her back. What I’d really wanted, of course, was to be young, and invincible, with a girlfriend who tore me up inside with passion – Renee, who had never given up on me, who had only gone away. I didn’t expect her shade to clothe itself in ragged flesh and come for me –- the old, weary, scabbed-over me, not the person she’d known when her skin was her own. I didn’t even know you could come back that way, from the inside out. I didn’t know you could come back at all.
"Where did you get this body from?"
She didn’t answer. She only looked at me, her eyes unnaturally slick and staring in the skinless face. And then she lifted the covers. I didn’t object, or even move. I was revolted, but at the same time, I’d called her here –- I wanted her here. How many times had I wished for her presence, so hard that it made me reel from the effort? A strangled sort of love still clutched my throat when I thought of her, and now she was here, in my bed with me -– how could I turn her away, even skinless and bleeding, even repulsive and clinical as a pithed toad? At her first clammy touch, I shuddered, but I didn’t resist. She curled around my back, dampness seeping through my pajama shirt. Wrapped around me like that, she was warmer than I’d expected. I thought of the mounds of raw meat I’d handled in my college job as a short-order cook, and fought acid down in my stomach. Renee. It’s Renee. Under all that, it’s Renee, whom you love, who obviously didn’t want to leave.
And until I realized where she was coming from, my reeling brain thought maybe she could stay. She’d grow back her skin, her hair, those perfect breasts; her blood vessels would knit together, her nerves would sink their tendrils back into the rich soil of her skin. She could be my lover again. Delirious thoughts, wrapped in the arms of a corpse -– until understanding thudded nauseously into my brain. Where the nerves, the tissue, the living material was coming from. How Renee was building the body I’d hoped so hard for her to have.
People wiser than me have told me that love is sacrifice, that it means caring more about someone else’s happiness and livelihood than about your own. I suppose that in the end, it will turn out that I loved them both. Renee, who had consumed me, emotionally and, I suppose, finally in reality as well. Karen, who had sustained me, who I hope I can still save. I’m leaving this note so that people know what happened, and to say how sorry I am to Karen, if she makes it through. If Renee doesn’t slip away silently when she’s finished, please take care of her -– she’s newly returned, after all, and she’s all you’ll have left of me.
Karen, I hope you get back all you lost. I’m sorry I never told you that I loved you after all.
This is an original story for the scary story quest. The title comes from the folk tale/poem The Strange Visitor, for obvious reasons, but I'm not wedded to it, if anyone has better ideas.