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Walking off the Doeskin

On the last day of summer Jane remembers how to breathe. Breathe, her uncle had instructed. Remember to breathe, Jane.

When Jane’s arms claw forward they don’t break water. Her fingers come back with red dirt clayed up under her nails. She rakes her way up out of her burial site and she takes a midnight walk because it’s been so long since the last time she’s done it, and the anxiety was just eating away at her in the haphazard hole they dug and called her grave.

There is no headstone she can grip to pull herself free from the dirt. She has to brace herself against tightly-packed soil as she hauls and pries herself out. There is no marker—no sign that anyone should have been buried there, where wildflowers bloom at the side of the highway.

She smells death on the air, and wonders for a second if she is smelling herself, but it is the smell of a fresh death. She is not so fresh, not so young, not so conceited to think she’s immune to the horizon of self-awareness where everything is numb. Everything is numb. By all rights her skin should be raised in goosebumps. What’s left of it, anyway. Oh, well. She doesn’t know yet how to feel about not feeling, so she decides not to feel about that either.

There’s an overturned car at the other side of the road. It looks like it’s been T-boned recently. The glass is still shattered across the tarmac and the shards glimmer to life with each step closer to the crash.

Jane crouches down low, looks in the compressed windows to see if there are bodies. There are. Oh, and they’re the dead-smelling ones, but they’re both still breathing. She knows by now that that means very little. It’s no wonder she woke up. They’re being very loudly dead.

She stands and leans against the car. The smell is bothersome. Too many dead in the same place. It’s time for her to move. She should have been given a better resting place. Moving is tedious, and she has no way of feeling less tired. Jane is always tired.

She doesn’t know whether or not they’ll wake, jolting like she had. Grabbing at their own ruptured chests with horror. Either way, it’s time to cut her losses and walk. She’d rather not risk having to talk to them. All they’ll talk-scream-babble about is being dead, and she knows about being dead. She’s bored by dead. So, she’d rather walk, despite the tedium.

She’s only vaguely aware of how long she’s been decomposing. Time loses its importance once you’re dead. Maybe she should have cared about time more; felt something about it. Now she can’t remember so much. Breathe. She can remember how to breathe, and isn’t that something? She stops to press a hand to her chest as it rises and falls, and she cocks her head, listening, waiting. Nothing. No heartbeat, but her lungs continue to shiver through breaths. She likes that. And isn’t that also something?

Jane doesn’t have many somethings to like. She simply can’t remember them. Maybe they decided to leave when she died. After all, a rotting mind is a terribly boring one to be in. Her somethings must have packed their bags, tucking the pesky lapels away from snag-prone zippers, and decided to settle in someone else’s mind. They can’t really be like her somethings, she muses, because they probably have to settle and jostle for space with that other person’s somethings. All the same, she doesn’t have many somethings to give, or to remember back to. Breathing, her uncle, swimming, a flash or two: that’s all. Those are her somethings.

Jane stops, craning her head towards the highway, fingers twisted at her stomach as they crinkle the tatters of her dress. She narrows her eyes: lights in the distance. She’s been left a ways from anything, really. How inconsiderate. She’s been walking for what feels like a forever night.

Though she may not have too many frames of reference left, she assumes she was murdered. Probably. Why else an unmarked grave, at the side of the highway where wildflowers are overgrown in the red clay?

It doesn’t take long, or perhaps it takes ages, but Jane does arrive at the glow of a gas station. She squints up at the bright lights with weak eyes, walks past the pumps, and lets herself inside the small convenience store.

She swivels her head to take it in, from the cheap shelving to the fluorescently lit fridges and the lazy-eyed youth behind the counter. He looks like he hasn’t slept in a substantial amount of days. He’s a good poster boy for how tired Jane feels, but Jane is sure that no matter how bad his exhaustion, hers is worse.

The candy aisle is an automatic pit-stop where she reaches out for a chocolate candy bar. She knows this must be another something. A something that decided to stay, for some absurd reason, even if her sense of taste is spotty at best.

The boy watches her shuffle close and slide the candy bar across the counter. He doesn’t look frightened or even remotely surprised by her appearance, and the gritty five-dollar bill she sets next to the candy bar is swiftly put into the machine.

“’S pretty late. Y’alright to be out on your own?” he asks between each uninterested chew of gum, almost conversationally.

“Yeah. I’ll be good,” Jane says, voice rough with laughter and death and misuse. What’s the worst that can happen to her at this point? She’s already dead, and there’s little she can feel. “There’s a couple down the way—totaled their car. Dunno about them. Might be dead.”

“Shit.” The boy sighs, passing a hand through his hair and handing her the change. A jangle of metal on metal as she pockets the bills and coins. “That’s rough. You saw ’em?”

“Yeah, I did. You gonna call that in?”

“Guess I should, huh?” He hums and then shrugs as he swivels around.

As she’s leaving, he calls out to her. When she turns, he has the phone pressed to his chest as he stares at her with quiet, questioning eyes. “You been ’round here recently, huh?”

“Not that I remember.”

“Weird. You look like Oliv—someone. Someone used to come ’round here, is all.”

She shrugs. Maybe she did visit this gas station, maybe she didn’t. But, her name is Jane; not Olive, or Olivia, or Olivianna.

She’s been walking highway-side for a while. She’s met another dead woman, another Jane. Another dead Jane. This other dead Jane doesn’t have many somethings either. No cars stop to offer them a ride.

Other Jane’s somethings are field mice, guitar strings, awls, children’s laughter. Other Jane doesn’t breathe. Other Jane has no lungs, or kidneys, or liver.

Jane thinks she likes Other Jane. They don’t really talk much, or, after a while, at all, but it’s a good silence. It’s a same name silence.

The only break in that silence is when they come up on a roadside motel. Its flashing neon lights catch both Janes’ eyes. Jane thinks it’s been days that they’ve been walking, because there were nights too. She would like to lay on a bed, on a fresh set of sheets.

Other Jane stays outside; begs off on not being pretty enough to talk to the receptionist, what with her blood-stained shirt. Jane thinks Other Jane is pretty, unassuming, but she supposes she would like a room before potentially scaring off any of the living.

Behind the desk is a mousy woman. Brown hair, an annoyed set of the mouth, grey eyes—she’s welcoming enough. It doesn’t take long for Jane to figure out it’s a love hotel. She books a room for two anyway.

“That fella ain’t good for ya, Tullie,” the woman murmurs, not meeting Jane’s eyes. For a moment Jane thinks the words aren’t even for her.

“That’s not my name.”

“Oh, no? Forgive me, ya look . . . I had a, uhm, friend. She looked a lot like ya, is all.”

“A friend that stayed at your love hotel a lot?”

The woman’s face grows pinched before she nods tightly. “She did. Never said anything about it, myself. Haven’t seen her in months now.”

“Well, that’s not my name. Sorry about your friend.” Jane’s not really sorry, but it’s only because she doesn’t remember how to be. She shuffles out to Other Jane and waves her in. Twice now people have called Jane by different names. If Other Jane isn’t pretty, then Jane must have an incredibly unmemorable face.

They gather more Janes as they walk, and Jane can’t keep track of them all, or where they come from, or what somethings they’ve brought with them. None of the dead they meet upset the profile. All she knows is that they’re a group of dead girls that walk at the side of the road, and no one picks them up, and no one asks them questions.

Jane still gets mistaken for other women she knows she is not. But, she remembers more somethings as the days go by: porous cardigan, chalk dusted fingers, a jumble-rocking-canter, and the smell of leather. At first each name she was called made her curious, but now she’s ravenous. What does it mean that all these women look like her, if anything? And, she wonders about her own story; about her somethings; about why she was buried at all. Jane wonders about the other women, too.

When they sit at the side of the road, they look at wildflowers and talk about their somethings. It is all they have left. Sometimes a Jane will leave and won’t come back. Sometimes a Jane will lie down and won’t join them when they leave.

Jane doesn’t exactly lead them, because she was simply walking down the highway and now she’s simply looking for why she’s dead. They follow her when she stands, though, so it’s an unspoken thing. She supposes they have little else to do.

Despite how generally clueless she’s been about herself, she figures she must be going in good directions. Her somethings keep coming back, after all.

For a week the Janes work at a humble farm. It’s good to feel needed, seen. It’s back-breaking work from dawn to dusk: tilling the land, laying down the fertilizer, pulling the weeds, and uprooting stubborn vegetables. It’s a rest from the unwelcoming stretches of sun-warmed asphalt underfoot. The Janes even get their own barracks, though they’re tight in them like sardines.

The two women that own the farm, Minerva and Leslie, have never had so many willing workers, but they are welcoming and often Janes will filter in and out of the main house as if it were their own.

Nearing the end of the week, Jane is sitting on their porch after they’ve cracked open a celebratory melon. The harvest is good, all the women are happy. It is rare, such good work, such unity. It makes her feel tight in the chest. Like a buildup. Like her breath is short.

“Here, Rosie,” Minerva says, handing Jane an ice-cold slice. Jane’s fingers twitch as she reaches out. She’s used to it by now. She should be. She smiles in gratitude all the same.

Minerva wipes her hands on her apron and walks back inside to kiss her wife before she leaves. It’s as she’s waving goodbye to all the Janes sitting cross-legged on the porch and sprawled on the lawn that Jane remembers the rest of it, all the way back to her late childhood and spotty early childhood. She finds she even remembers how she died: his grip tight on her forearm, tugging free, the slip of wet linoleum tile under her shoes, no footing, flailing, water flooding her nose.

It should have been fine. It had been the shallow end, and she could clearly see his panicked face refracted in water. Her ankle was aflame when her toes touched pool-floor, and then she was hauled to the surface, water in her lungs, and water, and no breath, and hands around her throat—the press of a cupped hand at the back of her throat. She’d been scared, and desperate, scrabbling at him for support. And then there was pressure, fingers digging nails into her neck, and water, and no way to cough it out.

Juice drips down onto her dress. It’s a new one, loaned. The juice will stain. It would be bad etiquette if she stained it.

She tosses the rind off the porch and goes inside to wash her hands. The remaining hostess is at the sink, filling up her watering can. She smiles upon seeing Jane.

“Was it any good?” she asks, gazing at her sidelong. Jane startles, and looks down when the woman’s gaze darts to her hands.

“Oh,” Jane says. “Yes. Very good.”

“I’m glad.” The woman smiles. “They’re fresh; just unvined them yesterday.” She falls silent, turning away to haul the can from the sink. “You could stay longer. Not all of you, of course, but we could use some helping hands for the farm. We like having you girls around.”

“I’ll mention it to the girls. I—” She slips her hands under the warm water and washes her palms slowly, meticulously. “I have someplace to be.”

When Jane arrives at the police station with more than three hundred Janes tailing her, she’s nearly taken into custody before she can say anything. It’s the only time she and her Janes have been even vaguely acknowledged first.

Inside the station, she’s faced by a man that reeks of coffee.

“My name,” she begins. “Is Daria. I worked at NSU as an organic chemistry teacher. I overheard some of my students talking about the swim coach, Edward Tellier. He had been . . . harassing them for some time. I thought I’d report it so there’d be an, uh, investigation.” She wipes her hands against her new dress. The officer is not even meeting her gaze.

“You already took it to university administrators?” the man asks, leaning back in his desk chair.

“Yes,” she lies.

Breathe, her uncle had told her, his hands lightly pressed into her abdomen. Daria is a good swimmer—strong and powerful legs that can send her across a pool nearly effortlessly. She likes her legs, always did when she was living. She likes them in the same way she likes the way her lungs rise and fall.

It was important she learn to breathe while swimming, because water loves to flood what’s empty, and flood it did when she was forced to forget. She was drowned by a swim coach that didn’t want it made public that he’d been harassing several of his students. She’d confronted him pool-side. She’d never even used that pool before. It would be easier to say all of these things to the policeman. It would be easier to get Edward locked away for murder than it would be for rape, but she can’t because she’s sitting across from him.

“Well, is there any evidence?”

Daria hesitates and then shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

The man spreads his arms and shrugs in a mute ‘you see?’ gesture. “We can look into it, but it’s very little to go on.”

It doesn’t sound too convincing.

Now that she has a name, something she didn’t even realize was missing, Daria realizes she also has a lot of anger. She’d like to have less of it, but the minute she sees the road full of Janes that await her outside the station, her anger grows like tangled burdock. It’s impossible for it not to, when faced with multitudes of women that are still looking for their stories. They all look like each other—like lost women, poster women, craigslist women, Missing Person Alert women, phone-call to a grieving family member women. Maybe one of them is Olive, or Olivia, or Olivianna, or Tullie, or Bernarda, or Ida. Maybe.

Daria leads them far from the station until they can comfortably rest in the green at the roadside. If her somethings were physical knickknacks she would set their bodies out in front of her in a perfect line. Since they are not, she tries to arrange them as best as she can, and she gives them voice. The women closest to her listen, and then pass it to their sisters beyond. Daria doesn’t notice that the story becomes theirs until she is done, and their faces are set with the same quirk of jaw that hers is when she is angry. But they are quiet, and calm, and tame in the silence that follows, until one of the younger women speaks slowly in a hushed voice.

“And what are you going to do?” she asks, pushing stray hairs behind her ear. Half her jaw has been stripped to the bone. “We are so many, but there are probably more Janes to find, and more to be made.”

Daria shrugs, gaze dropping down and away. She had wanted something from that encounter with Edward. Those living girls she was concerned about . . . they were, or are, Janes, whether they know it or not. Whether they’re dead or not. Another statistic.

She runs her fingers against wildflower stems.

“I have an idea, but I’d like some help.”

For a horde of women, they are surprisingly quiet. For a horde of women, they go surprisingly unnoticed.

Daria would think that it’s fortune on her side, but if that is the case, fortune came quite late. Besides, she likes to think that they’re doing it without anyone’s help. Just like she relearned how to breathe without anyone’s help, and the way they’ve bonded together without anyone’s help.

As many women that could fit are jam-packed in the hallway in front of the apartment door when Daria knocks on it. Edward opens the door and stares at her blankly. If Daria says she takes pleasure from the bobbing of his Adam’s apple, or the way his face gradually blanches, it is a mediocre word to encompass all she feels.

“You look different,” she says. He’s haggard and with a five o’clock shadow that looks like it’s hiding an ugly onset of razor burn.

“You’re—I can’t believe you’re here. I thought I—” His voice goes reedy, hand trembling at his side. “You should be buried. Yes, you must be buried. I think—” He’s quiet, raising a hand to his lips and then turning around to shuffle away.

Daria watches from the doorway a moment, scanning the apartment and all its comforts, before she steps in. The bookcase nearest to her is lined in framed photos of Edward posing with his champion swimmers, his hand heavy and squeezing each of their shoulders as the girls grimace into the camera. The man himself is shaking pills into his hand and then pouring a glass of water when she circles the counter edge and sets a hand on his wrist.

“Having trouble sleeping?” Her other hand cups his pouring hand and steadies it. “I can’t sleep either. Getting real tired.”

“Fuck, I’m really going insane,” Edward mutters, dragging a hand over his face.

Daria tightens her grip on his wrists and smiles. “It might be better if you were.”

The crunch his cheekbone makes when Daria wallops the glass tumbler against it resonates in the apartment. She wraps her fingers around the back of his neck and caresses the fine hairs with her thumb. The skin under her fingers trembles. It’s brief, but there. She slams his forehead against the cabinets. His feet knock out from under him as he falls in an inelegant sprawl, crying out.

Some of the Janes have filtered into the apartment, trailing their dead fingers across the picture frames and book spines, sitting on the couches, peering out the windows with patient and dazed delight. Edward tries to inch away with labored breaths. Daria pours herself a glass of water in a new tumbler and downs it. Daria has never been thirstier or more aware that water will not quench her thirst.

“I’ll—I’ll do anything, please,” Edward whimpers desperately. “It was an a-accident. I panicked. I panicked and then you were dead, and I had to hide it.” Daria stares down at him and wonders how he can make jokes when he’s in such a bad position. He doesn’t seem the type; not brave enough.

The passing of the nearby train rattles the foundations of the house and there is this singular moment of suspension where Edward is looking at Daria, and all the women look back.

“But you’ve done enough.” Daria grips his hair close at the scalp and tugs upward before banging it against the linoleum over, and over, and over. It’s not much harder than yanking the weeds from their roots up. The same muscles burn. “I’m dead, remember? Who are you going to tell?”

Last time she’d decided to confront Edward first, rather than go to administration. She’d wanted the least amount of fuss for the victims. She’d wanted it resolved easily, and in less than nine months. This time, she has no reason to resort to conversation.

They say that ghosts are the ones that linger when they’re anchored with unfinished business. Daria may not feel much, but she is not translucent, or particularly floaty, and she doesn’t feel the call to something beyond. She doesn’t feel a pressing need to accomplish any task in order to move on. Not to the ‘next life.’ This she does entirely because she wants to. Because it makes her happy.

And it’s not that all the faces of the Janes, lips drawn from teeth in grin or grimace, are the same. In the dim kitchen, scant light bouncing off the chandelier crystals, the women are multiplied, refracted. They are not one. They are not Jane. They are not Dalia. But they surge as one. Their patient root-pulling, earth-turning, hair-braiding hands join Dalia in the tearing, the clawing, the scattering.

They know how to coax pulp from ready fruit. Skin is no mystery to them. Skin has been no mystery to them from the moment they woke memory-less. It was one of the things they had retained, for the most part. His skin is not as coarse as theirs has been. It is ripe, and giving, and stays clayed up under their nails. It is rare, such good work. Such ravenous unity. Their focus is sharp, cutting through Edward’s hysterical screams.

His throat is one of the first things to get turned inside out: fingers piercing like a sword, noises dying in sputters. No longer able to coerce. They don’t have to wonder at his history of malice. It is a thick molasses that coats his insides, makes the women tight in the chest even as they rend him limb from limb. Even as he lies deadening, and deader, and dead, he continues to disgorge the malice through every pore. It reeks with a stench that even they, as dead women, can’t recognize. They would not know how to call it name. They would not want to.

They are happy to see him dead, his fragmented body strewn across the slick kitchen floor in the aftermath. Daria is happiest to leave all the faucets on, watch the apartment flood, and track wet footprints away from a house where the dying things that inhabit it know no better than to constrict in insidious squeezes and invade throat-first.

Daria stands in the sea, waist-deep. Some of the women are no longer Janes; they’ve found their names along the way. Some are still Janes—still get called other names. They’ve found more, and each one is another one whose name they need to remember. In the setting sun, she turns to her camp of women—in their shapes, and sizes, and colors, and textures, and histories. She sees now: these women look like her only in the intrinsic, gut-wrenching absence that veils their histories.

She looks, and she never wants to stop looking. They are not alike. And they are not replaceable. The same, but different. How beautiful it is to see.

We’re going to find all the names, Daria thinks as small waves break against her. All the names of these women, and give each Jane a place where they can change into the skin of their name.

At the shore, Daria pats the compact sand down until it resembles a building, and she houses her somethings there. With the warmth, and the salt, and the breeze on her skin, she feels alright. And isn’t that something? Isn’t it something to breathe?

About the Author

Wenmimareba Klobah Collins is a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based writer. She holds a BA in Fine Arts and Literature, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and Critical Visual Studies. She’s a graduate of the Alpha Writers Workshop for young SFFH Writers and teens (2017 & 2018), as well as a finalist for the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Her work can be found in The Dark and in the Akashic Books Duppy Thursday series of Caribbean stories.