“Catalog of Nameless Girls,” a short story by Madeline Vosch for Haunted Passages

I have been sleeping with a married man for the past few months. I know, I know. But hear me out: I have been lonely.

Joe is barely married. Separated. Almost divorced. When I met him, his wife had already moved out, already taken their daughter to a new house on the other side of town. I was walking home from work one day, barely a month after I came here, keeping my head down, looking away from the street so the people in cars wouldn’t make eye contact with me. He was outside, checking his mail in the small box next to his front door, and waved. Said hello, welcome to the neighborhood. We spent weeks waving, nodding to each other as I walked home, as he sat on the wooden porch that hugged his house.

On an autumn evening, the sun dipping golden, the cars careening drunk through the streets, I thought of the door closing behind me, my apartment, empty and quiet, alone, and panicked. It had been the kind of day at work where I spent hours blinking back hot tears, holding my stomach, pressing my fingernails into my palms so I would not throw up over the yellowed pages of old newspapers.

I walked up to where he sat on his porch, sipping his beer, and pointed. “Can I have one?” He smiled like he had been waiting, like he knew this was coming.

“It’s not too cold,” he said as he handed me a can. “Hope that’s okay.”

I started to go most evenings, to sit beside him on his porch, sipping Bud Lite and listening to him tell me about his life, his daughter. It was nice, to have someone talk to me about something that wasn’t my work. To have someone want me as a listener, silent, someone who didn’t care what I had to say.

I don’t remember the first time he kissed me, don’t remember if I was the one to kiss him, but it happened, and I began to sneak over to his house at night and walk back home in the dawn hours. He tells me things and I listen and don’t tell him if I want to say anything. I stare up at him when we lay together in his bed, look past him to the photos of his wife.

There are two photos of her in his bedroom, things I guess she didn’t notice when she left, things he hasn’t bothered to take down. In the photo farthest from the bed she is dressed in school colors, somewhere near the stadium. She holds a cup in her left hand, a pom-pom in the right. She is laughing, arms spread wide. The other, the one I look at most, the one I can always see from the bed, is a close-up of her face, her soft, round jaw, her dark hair curling over her shoulders. She smiles in a way I can’t quite make sense of. Some days I think it is coyness, a secret she knows that I never will. Some days I think it is a sadness, her lips pressed close together, as if hiding something. She is beautiful. Joe tells me that she was his best friend.

Sometimes work gets deep into my skull and I need something to remind me that I am still here. On those days I go to Joe’s house, kiss him with a hunger I did not know I could feel. This place is full of ghosts, and I think I am becoming one of them.

The town is small and full of eyes. People watch and whisper. They see the smallest thing, the way I hold my fork, how I sit at work, bent forward in the chair, how I greeted the mailman one day that summer, as if we already knew one another. They talk. I feel their eyes on me every moment I am outside, every second I leave my house. They tell stories, stories that breathe, that move through the air, alive.

When I first moved to this town, it was a summer so cruel, so bitter in its unrelenting heat, I was almost afraid to step outside. I was sent here as a contractor, for a special project that my boss said only I could do. I thought it would be a nice change of pace from the New Haven office, where I spent my days staring at digitized records, walking beaten paths to find the unmarked dead. I thought it would be a month-long project, a brief stay in the south, a chance to escape a crumbling relationship. I thought it would be all right. I didn’t think it would get to me the way it has, the work that I do.

In the fall here, it is football, orange leaves, cider. On home games, the town overflows with fans, the roads packed, the roar of noise, of young girls and old men, their music, their songs, their screams. I do not leave my house, even to see Joe. It wouldn’t be so bad, I think, except I know the stories too well. I know what has happened, what people here want to forget. Between the touchdowns, the trucks with their cabs open for tailgating, the girls dressed in team colors, the young boys already drunk, the spaces, the absences yawn. The danger snaps.

There was a girl who went walking one night, from the east side of campus to the west, toward her dorm. It was the day of an away game. The girl was walking home from a party. She played with her hair tie as she walked, stretching it between the fingers of her right hand. When she got home, she called her best friend, who was still at the party, who didn’t answer. She left a voicemail in which she laughs and cries at the same time. She was hungry, she said. The next day her friend went to her house, found nothing but dirty linoleum and an unlocked door.

They don’t know when it happened, any of these stories, these ghosts. It could have been last night, it could have been in 1953, the first year the football team won the championship. Women go missing in this town as easy as breathing. Every detail of their stories is remembered, repeated, but their names get lost, forgotten, muddled. It is my job to look through the archives, the files and records, to find names to attach to the stories.

There was a girl who was swimming at the lake with a group of friends, who went off by herself to jump from the cliffs that hung over the water. To get to the cliffs, she had to walk through the woods, climb over rocks, ignore the signs telling her she would be fined for jumping. From the water, her friends heard her screams of delight. They heard her shriek as she fell through the air towards the rippling surface of the lake. They never heard a splash.

Some people tell me that something lives in the woods. In between the live oak, the magnolia and elm, a creature, a thing with many limbs, a thing that swallows people whole. It’s dangerous to be out at night, with a thing like that so close. Its unfathomable jaws. They tell me this is why women vanish, that they are gulped up, and along with their bodies goes their names, sliding into a bottomless gullet. Some people tell me it’s just how it’s always been here. That’s just the way it is. I don’t know which story is worse.

I sort through records and documents, try to name the ghosts. There is Megan, whose photo is in the high school yearbook in 2009 but not 2010. There is Eleanor, whose engagement to Ronald Pearson was first printed in the paper in 1983. Photos of Ronald’s wedding with Sarah (maiden name unknown) appear in an issue eight months later without a caveat. There is no Eleanor, no picture, no further mention. I collect evidence, think of probabilities. I check vehicle records, registrations. If she went missing in this year, could she be the woman whose car stalled on the highway, who got out to walk home and never arrived?

I don’t have an office of my own. I sit in the library’s cavernous study room, surrounded by students, shuffling papers, flipping through gray boxes of records.   

I can’t sleep at night when I’m alone. This town has more ghosts than there are names in the world, and at night, when I close my eyes and try to sleep, I can’t breathe beneath the weight of their absence. The silence is a hand around my throat. I want to believe that when they have finished caring for their recent ghosts, they will keep going, they will name all the ghosts who stories they don’t remember, whose stories are no longer in living memory. I know this is a lie. My job is to help them assuage their guilt, so they can wash their hands of the matter, say they have done their due diligence. If they care for this handful, they can tell themselves they have done enough.

Sometimes, at work, I fight the urge to walk up to a stranger staring at their laptop, into their phone, to tap their shoulder and tell them a story that they have surely heard before. I want to look them in the eyes, show them the picture of the lanky teenager, the up-and-coming track star, featured in every edition of the school newspaper one year, and nowhere the next. I want to tell them that she’s gone. I want them to hold my hand, to share this unbound grief. I don’t know how to mourn a person I have never met, a person whose name I don’t know, whose story I might never learn.

I write reports and send them home to my boss. I write reports and send them to the mayor and the head librarian at the university. They call me in for meetings and it always goes the same way.

“Such a tragedy,” the mayor says. “So strange, our history.” I don’t remind him that the last girl to go missing vanished four months ago, when I was new in town and did not understand the stories, when I did not know enough to ask why no one was looking for her.

The head librarian, a woman with dark hair in a tight bun and tired eyes, shows me electronic databases as if that will help me, as if I have not seen them before.

I sit at a large table and meet their eyes, and do not let myself cry. No one cries for the girls with no names. I listen to them talk of databases, of statistics, new city ordinances, new ways of reporting to the police if a good citizen suspects a woman is missing, new ways of watching each other. I sit in meetings and keep my voice steady. “I am going over records from the nineties,” I tell them. Beneath and within it the beating heart that goes unheard: there was a girl and now there is not.

The mayor shakes his head. He is always dressed in suits that make me think of snakes. He grew up here, elected fifteen years ago and never challenged in an election.

One day, he glances at his watch. “I have to leave a bit early today,” he says. “My daughter has a basketball game tonight.”

“You have a daughter?” I say. I am tired, I am saying things I shouldn’t.

“Two, Hannah and Shannon,” he says.

“Are you afraid for them?”

“Excuse me?” His brow wrinkles. He looks to the librarian for help, for explanation. “What do you mean?”

“There are so many stories,” I say.

“What are you implying?” I watch his fists clench. The head librarian is mortified, her eyebrows arching.

“She’s spent too much time in the archives,” she says. She tries to laugh but it comes out wrong, guttural.

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” he says.

From where I sit, across the conference table, I can’t tell if his leg is twitching. I’ve struck a nerve. The head librarian nods and tries to think of more things to say. “This work can get to a person, you know. A few years ago we had someone come work for us a bit, they only lasted a few months before they left.”

“What happened to them?” I ask.

The head librarian looks at me like I am a child. “Got a job offer in a different state, couldn’t turn down the money.” She laughs again, high pitched this time. “No one could blame them.”

“I need to be going,” the mayor says. “You know, we appreciate all the hard work you’re putting into this,” he tells me as he stands up from the table. He smiles, showing his teeth.

I leave these meetings and go straight to Joe’s house. I am less careful than I should be, walking straight to his door when the sun is out. He is always home. He is always ready. I smile to him and he does not ask if anything is wrong. I pull him to bed, I close my eyes and let myself become nothing at all.

When we lay together after, I ask him about his wife. He talks about her like he is starving. I keep asking. He tells me how irritable she was in the mornings. My arms are across his chest and he tells me how afraid she used to get during the tornado watches, how worried he was for her.

“For two days leading up to a storm she wouldn’t be able to focus on anything,” he tells me. “Nothing we did could help her stay calm. Not until we got a place with a basement, where she knew we’d be safe.”

“How did you meet?” I ask, though he has told me before, though I have looked through his Facebook enough times to see both of their faces, to picture the image they posted when they first started dating, their smiles so young and large it hurts to look at. I close my eyes and listen to him talk, listen to him forget that I am there.

There was a girl who jumped out of a third-floor apartment, on a hot night in May. When her boyfriend looked down through the shattered glass, he saw nothing on the concrete at all.

Joe holds me to him and repeats his stories. Joe looks at me and sees through me like paper. He is beautiful and will never be mine, and I love this about him. Joe tells me about his wife, and I become a container for his stories. An emptiness, waiting to be filled. There are so many women who aren’t here. At least with Joe’s wife there is a face, a name.

I met a woman shortly after I moved to town. She lived two blocks over, was around my age, invited me to her house for dinner. She smiled to me, ushered me into her house and I thought, finally, here would be a friend, a confidant. She told me how hard it had been when she first started living here. It was hard to find friends, she said, hard to fit it at first.

Over a dish of dark chicken thighs, a bowl of crisp undressed salad, in the pause after I told her about the biting wind of the New Haven winter, she turned to me. “Are you dating Joe?” she accused. She watched, measuring my response.  

“No?” I said. This was before we had kissed, when we still sat chaste on his porch in the evenings. He had been the first person to show me kindness in this new place, to explain how to avoid the train that cut through the center of town, the routes to get around or under its passage, the best grocery stores, the quietest parks, but I did not tell the woman any of this.

“Good,” she said. “He’s bad news. You should meet his ex-wife; she’ll tell you all about it. It’s good we’re getting to know each other. You don’t want people to think you’re that kind of woman, you don’t want people talking.” I nodded, took a bite of chicken.

I never saw her again; avoid her street when I walk to work.

There is a part of town near the university, where every house belongs to a fraternity, and there is a beer pong table in every yard. There is a place where the road curves, splits. Behind the road, tucked behind the towering brick houses is a worn path, edged on either side by steep gullies. This small land bridge connects the university to the neighborhood where the houses have three stories, pools, fountains in their yards. One day I was walking along the land bridge, the path well-worn, the smell of fresh cut grass like a calm hand on my shoulder. I had gone walking to get away from the story I was working on, the girl who had gone to the hospital late one night, complaining of stomach pain, who changed into a medical gown, who was gone when the nurse came back to the room. I wanted to get out of my head, away from the unsharable, unapportionable weight.  

Walking across the land bridge, I looked down. This was not my first mistake in this town, but it is the mistake that haunts me most. I looked at the places where the earth fell into shadows and froze. I stared into the unlit hollows, the low places where the light doesn’t reach, and did not know how many bones might be there. I couldn’t move, looking down at one of the places a girl might vanish. I don’t know how long I stood there, choking on my own tongue.

At night I close my eyes and see them, girls falling, girls being pushed. Bones where no bodies had been, appearing like moss in grassy ravines, forgotten and unfound, while over the ridge students play beer pong. In my dreams I hope for zombies, for the bodies to put themselves together, to move, to make any noise.

Some people imagine ghosts as transparent, floating things, things that can reach out and touch you, things that can breathe undead air on the back of a neck and send shivers down spines. In this place, they are unspeaking, unmoving. The bones lay around me and say nothing. There is no language for this haunting. The danger in this town is everywhere.

The woman who runs the library archives, who wanders past me as if she is not always trying to peer over my shoulder, has never set foot outside the county. Her hair is pigeon gray, worn loose around her shoulders. She tells me what she knows, she finds new things to know about me. She tells me when I have eaten more for lunch that day, when I have eaten less, asks me for the name of that dish I ate the week before, though she is nowhere near me at lunchtime.

“Saw you microwaved something today, don’t you need some good home cooking?” she asks. I shake my head. “A woman should know how to cook for herself,” she tells me. I say okay and bring an apple for lunch the next day, crunch its flesh in the otherwise silent library.

There was a girl who had lived in town her whole life, had spent her days dreaming of the world outside the fields. One summer she packed what she could in a car, an old station wagon. No one knows where she was going. They found the car at the edge of town, just on the other side of the sign that marks the county border. The hood propped open, out of gas, the car was completely empty on the inside, as if it was brand new.

I go to Joe’s house and he doesn’t ask me anything. I push the ghosts in the corners and don’t speak of them. Some nights he makes dinner for me, burgers on his grill, thick chili in his crock pot. He is a bad cook, his burgers burnt, his chili unsalted. I smile at him between bites. We sit at his pinewood table, and I stare at the places where his daughter stained the wood with bright markers in incomprehensible shapes. Joe works from home, some kind of consultancy that he explains to me every night. We laugh about things I never remember after, and he reaches across the table to put his hand over mine. He still wears his wedding ring, the gold band warm against my skin.

At night he takes me to bed, and I keep the lights turned on. Here I am, I think when I lay beneath him. I am nothing but body when he touches me, and there is comfort in this.

There was a woman who called the police one night, though no one can tell me why. The police came and took their notes, recorded her testimony, wrote every word in their tiny notebooks, in their illegible script. I have strained my eyes trying to read their words. In the recording, she cries. Tells her dog Clairice to hush, stop barking, between her sobs. They took her to the station, to have a safe place to sleep. She was gone before they opened their car doors before they could ask her name. In some versions of the story, she had a husband, a man who left town shortly after she did. In some versions, she lived alone, and there is no one who misses her but Clarice.

Sometimes, when I am walking to or from work, I see people out with their dogs and wonder if any are hers. I check their name tags, but it is always the wrong breed, the wrong name, the wrong bark.

Parents come, to look for their daughters. They come from out of town, from out of state. Their faces are hard and stained. They ask who the last person was to see their girl, to hear her voice. No one can connect the stories.

“Have you seen my Mary? She was a freshman when she vanished.”

It takes them months, years to come. When the girls disappear, when their names are lost, there is no way to know who to contact. There is no one to come collect the leftover things. It is better to ask after the story, instead of the name or the year.

“Was she the one who went diving at the cliffs? Or the one who worked at the gyro stand, who stood near the street smoking cigarettes after work?”

All that is left of these girls are the stories, repeated by strangers. Shifting with every telling.

People ask me about my work, my progress. Sometimes the sheriff slows down when he sees me walking. “How’s the investigation?” he says, leaning out the window of his car.

“I wouldn’t call it an investigation,” I reply. He winks at me and I think of the girl who went to his office one night, weeping, afraid of the monster in her bed. There is the video, in the archives. At first she is crying, clutching a baseball cap in both hands. She ran away, she says. She grabbed a few dollars for an uber and ran. The uniformed man leans forward. What did she do? What did she take? The man gets up to leave, and when he closes the door she is gone, the room is empty. The wadded-up tissues are still on the table.

“You just let us know what you find, little lady,” he says.

“You got it chief,” I say. I salute.

“Town treating you good?” he says.

“Sure thing.”

“Glad to see you and Joe struck up a friendship. God knows he’s had a hard time of it, turned damn near the whole town against him in the divorce. Nasty thing,” he shakes his head. “Be careful with a man like him.”

“All right.” I swallow the lump in my throat. I watch him drive away and do not start walking until he has turned the corner, until he is out of sight.

I heard a story about a woman, driving through the back roads alone one night. Somewhere south of town her car gave out. She propped the hood, leaned in to see. A boy named Tyler Clemmens pulled up, just happened to be out around then. He went to help her. Asked if she needed a ride. She was young and beautiful and he was a man in this town. He drove her to his house, where she thanked him for helping her. Tyler is here to tell me about it. She is not. Tyler told me that she was young, that she was trouble. He was only trying to help. When he woke up in the morning, his window was unlocked, and she was nowhere. They found her car, abandoned in the ditch. They gave me the things they found, the scraps of paper, the notes she wrote to herself, the gum wrappers. This is supposed to help me learn her name. This is all that is left.

There is no reason, no pattern to the disappearances. It happens like rain.

At night I ask Joe for more, try to make my voice sound casual. I ask him to tell me again how they met, what their wedding was like, and don’t tell him that I have started to dream about her, that when I am alone I imagine sitting in a room with her and hearing her voice, that when he moves his hands over my body, when his fingers press against me, I think about what it might be to touch her. When we have sex, when I straddle him, when I press into him and listen for his quick intake of breath, I think about her. I want to ask if she did it like this, if her skin was softer than mine, if she knew how to do things exactly as he liked them, if she did things different than me. He moans, and I look at her picture next to the bed and think what it might’ve been to kiss her. When I come, when my body rattles over his, it is her name that catches in my throat.

“Joe,” I sputter on top of him. I shake, I fall forward. I say his name and he will never know it is a lie. I keep my secrets to myself. I am nothing but a voyeur, a liar. A scavenger, picking at the pieces of someone else’s life. There is no life for me here, so I peck at the scraps. I am no better than the people who watch me. I am nothing but a vessel for stories not my own; there is so little of me left that is me.

The mayor hates me, but I hate him too.

“Has anyone ever looked for them?” I ask one day in another colorless meeting. “For their bodies?”

The mayor scowls. “That is not the problem,” he says. “You have been doing this work for how long, exactly?”

“How do you know you find them? How do you know if you hear all the stories?”

“If you had been doing your job, you would know the protocols, you would see the data on repatriation.”

“That’s not what I’m asking.”

“What you’re asking is beyond the scope of our work,” the head librarian says. She grips her pen tight in her hands. I watch her eyes. She does not look away from me. “I think the job is starting to get to her.”

“I’m just asking. What if there is a person who is gone, and no one hears about it?”

The mayor laughs, a sharp clap, and I know I have said something I shouldn’t. “Who do you think we are?” he says. “We do the best we can with what we know. We can’t go looking for things that aren’t there.”

I know I should be quiet, that I should keep my mouth shut and keep reading the report about the woman who wore lipstick so red it made the flowers ashamed of their color. Her story didn’t get an ending. She was scandalously loud, her voice high and ringing when she laughed, and then there was silence.

I know I should be quiet, but something in the way the mayor is looking at me, something in his oiled hair, his set mouth, sends a coldness through my skin. “Aren’t you afraid?” I stare into the head librarian’s eyes. I look at the mayor. “For your daughters?” He opens his mouth, but it is too late. “What is stopping any of us from being next? You say—”

“It is a tragedy when anyone disappears. We do everything we can to find them.”

“How has no one been found? How is that possible? Why don’t you do anything for them once you hear they’re missing? A grave, a ceremony, anything? There is less to help place them in time because none of the stories are written, marked when they are first heard.”

The mayor talks through me as if his words can cut mine in two. I keep going, though he can’t hear me over his tirade. He tells me the police do their job, do it well. He tells me they look, they record things. He tells me that I am a guest here, I have no right to say any of this. The head librarian looks like she wants to run from the room. He tells me to keep his daughters out of this.

There is a pause. The mayor pants. His fists are hard and ready on the table.

“I just don’t understand why you don’t care,” I say. I keep my voice steady, stare unblinking into his eyes.

There was a woman who had a garden in front of her house where she grew cucumbers, tomatoes, mint. Every morning before work she was there, her fingers in the soil, tending, pruning, watering. She crushed the mint for juleps, lay slices of cucumber in vinegar water for quick pickles. When the leaves in the garden turned brown, the soil hard and unwatered, the weeds springing, her neighbors grew worried. They walked up to her door, past the garden plot, stepped over a two-foot-wide hole, and there was no one there to answer their knocking.

“Who do you think you are?” the mayor stands.

“I think it’s time we leave,” the head librarian rushes towards me, her hands rough on my back, pushing me out before I can say another word, before I can dig myself deeper.

That night is the only time I cry in front of Joe. I go to his house, face already wet. His door is unlocked. I go to him, press my face against his shirt. He holds me, kisses me, wipes the tears from my face. Sometimes I forget that he is a father. He asks me what’s wrong and I don’t know how to tell him that I see bones every night in my dreams, that I imagine his wife when he touches me, that I can only think of the things that aren’t here.

“I’m having a bad day,” I say into his chest. “Work gets to be so much.”

He puts a hand on the back of my head, presses me to him.

He leads me to his bed, kisses my lips, my cheeks, my salted eyelids. We lay next to each other, unmoving, until I stop crying. He thinks he is being gentle when he kisses me neck. When he slides his hand beneath my shirt, he thinks he is being romantic. I shake my head. “Tell me something,” I say. “Tell me what it was like here before, when you first got married.”

He moves his hand to my waist, resting. “I don’t know what to tell you.” I close my eyes and imagine him coming home to a house full of spices, a pot bubbling with homemade spaghetti sauce, a fresh salad on the table. She is not yet pregnant, or if she is, she hasn’t told him. He goes to her, wraps his arms around her as she stirs the pot.

“Tell me anything.”

He makes her coffee in the morning before she wakes up. She hates mornings.

“How did you choose this house?”

“We didn’t have much time to look. She was starting a new job, needed to be closer to her work. We’d be living south of town, a place I bet you still never heard of. We looked at so many houses, had so many cookies I didn’t want, that shit the realtors put out to make it feel like home. There was this house a bit further out, had a swing in the back and everything. I wanted that place, wanted our kid to have a backyard, someplace to run around barefoot. She wasn’t pregnant yet, but we knew we wanted kids. Anyway, we come here, I’m dragging my feet, she sees the porch and that’s that. She gets like that sometimes, so single-minded it’s not worth it even trying to argue.” He laughs. He doesn’t realize it, but he holds me tighter when he talks about her, his hands harder. “She loved that porch, wanted to sit out there every night, watch the sun go down. We would eat sweet corn in the summer, burgers we made on the grill.”

I breathe deeply and smell his sweat. I pull his hands to me, ask him to touch me in all the ways he wants to. When I get up to leave, it is midnight, and no one is awake to see me walk home.

When I see her in the grocery store, I think I am dreaming. The face I have stared at, stolen glances over Joe’s shoulder. My cart is full of frozen food, microwave dinners and toaster waffles. She stands in the produce section, looking at the wall of green things. Their daughter sits in the cart, her legs kicking. Her daughter giggles and coos. Her hair is short, dark. The clothes she is wearing, light blue jeans and gray T-shirt, are so normal I think I might lose my balance.

I know I should walk toward the checkout, that she does not know me, that she shouldn’t ever know me, but I push my cart toward the misted vegetables. I pause next to her, try to steady my breath. I lean, bend forward, as if I am searching for the best head of broccoli. She is so close to me that I think she will smell Joe on my clothing, on my skin. I take my time and hope that she does, that she recognizes me as I recognize her.

I reach for a vegetable that I know I won’t eat. She moves, barely a step, to let me pass. “Excuse me,” I say, and strain to hear if she replies. I hold the broccoli and do not know what else to say. “I think I forgot my list at home,” I tell her. I laugh, and pray that she laughs with me, even if it is just out of politeness.

She looks at me and smiles. Her hands rest on the cart, unadorned, bare of any rings. I want to lay my hand over hers, to feel her pulse beneath her skin. I think about pretending to faint, reaching out and grasping the handle of her cart, my hand next to hers for balance. I realize I am staring at her hands. “Your daughter is beautiful,” I say. I look at her face, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders. She is different in person, delicate wrinkles near the corners of her eyes. She nods, walks toward the dairy aisle, and I can’t look away as she leaves.

I don’t follow her, try not to look over my shoulder as I walk through the aisles. I can’t remember why I’m here, what I’m trying to buy. The packages of food are muted, blurred together. Rice, do I need rice? Do I eat rice? I stare at the bags and don’t know. She is close. She could be in the next aisle. She could turn the corner and appear again. I need to leave; I need to see her again. I begin to push my cart faster through the aisles, wheels sticking and squealing. The world has sped up. I turn a corner and see her in the distance, standing in the checkout line. I try to walk without running. I join the line next to hers. I can’t look at her. What will she think of me? That I am following her, a freak, staring at her? My hands sweat.

When I look at her, finally, I hope that she notices. I hope that she knows that I see her, see the way she tickles her daughter absent-mindedly, as she glances at the magazine covers near the checkout. She doesn’t look up. The cashier in her line moves faster than mine. Panic rises like bubbles from my feet to my throat. I am paying, credit card processing, when I watch her walk out through the doors.

Free of the line, I don’t bother walking. I don’t know what I’m doing.

“Excuse me,” I yell. “You forgot something.”  My voice is shaking. She pauses, looks over her shoulder at me. My head is a swarm of bees. I grab a box of cereal, yellow Cheerios, hold it out to her. “Left at the checkout.” I don’t know if she can see the way the box trembles, the tremors in my hand.

“Oh,” she says. She looks puzzled. “Thank you,” she says. She takes the box, puts it in her cart, and she is gone. I want to follow her, to ask her something, anything, but instead I swallow, hard. There is a pressure in my throat that will not move.

I don’t know how long I cry in the car. Sitting in the parking lot alone with my pathetic lie, the quivering desperation to hear her voice, I cover my face with my hands. I wail. I moan.

There was a girl who lived alone with her cat, a sleek thing that slept beside her every night. Her boyfriend came over one day and found the cat licking its lips, and no one there to feed it.

When Joe tells me that he has seen his wife, that they had dinner together to talk about their daughter starting preschool, that he spent the night with her, we are already naked, sweaty, spent. “It just happened once,” he said. “It won’t happen again.” He is lying and we both know it.

“It’s okay,” I tell him. I want to ask him what her sheets look like, if they were floral or solid color, if she pulled him down to her, or if he took her hand and led her to bed. I am the worst kind of voyeur, too ashamed to ask, so I lay in his arms and imagine every way it could have been. I don’t ask him if it was better with her. Instead, I kiss him hard, and feel the ways I am already gone.

I wake up disoriented in his bed. I have never slept over before. I didn’t mean to last night. He had wrapped me in his arms, held me close, told me that it would not happen again with his wife, it was a mistake. He kissed the back of my neck and I didn’t tell him that I didn’t care. I bit my tongue and did not ask him if it was quick and hard, or if it was slow, like two old friends meeting for the first time in years. He pressed me to him and came so close to talking about her that I had to hold my breath. “You can ask me anything about it,” he told me. “About how it happened. I’ll be honest with you.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, and fell asleep thinking about it, thinking about her.

The morning light is pale and threatening in the window. Joe still sleeps, his chest moving in a slow rhythm, sweat on his forehead, mouth open, just a little. I don’t know how to leave when the sun is out, to make sure that no one sees me. I do not want the town to start talking, I do not want this to be the only story they tell about me.

I get up from the bed carefully. I do not want to wake him. I have never been in his house alone when he is not there with me. I walk to the photo of her, stare into her eyes. I put my fingers to the glass and imagine her skin.

The picture comes out of its frame quickly, quietly. I take it to the dining room, lay it on a table, fish a pen from my bag. On the blank, white backside I write her name. The date. I stare at the clumsy ink marks. I add my name below hers.

When I put the picture back, Joe is still asleep. It is early, an hour before he has to wake for work. I lay next to him, pull his arms around me. I close my eyes and think of her smile, the bones of her teeth.

I feel eyes on me, silent and watching. They are here with me. I carry their names, their stories, all tangled and unspeaking. I tell their stories back to them.

There was a woman who was a stranger in this town. She started sleeping with a married man and thought that no one noticed, didn’t realize how the town whispered, how much they saw. She went to work and came home and did not make friends. One day, the man sat waiting for her on his porch. Evening turned to night, and still she didn’t appear. He went about his days and gradually forgot that he used to wait for her. He called his wife, made plans with his daughter. He sat on his porch alone, watching the sun fall in the sky, and thought what a small, nice life he had.

Madeline Vosch writes fiction and essays, and is currently working on a memoir. Find her on twitter @VoschWrites. 

Image: thoughtcatalog.com

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