Dani doesn’t come home. My first clue is the time. Dani would never come home at this hour: middle of the afternoon, part of August days that should be sheared off like steak fat. I’m sitting in the library room which is mostly unpacked cardboard boxes. I’m sitting on a beanbag chair, pretending to read. Instead, I’m cutting patterns in the paper with my gardening scissors. I cut around and around in a ring, like something that could spiral out of a child’s toy. My eyes flit from the page to the full-length mirror leaned against the wall. She announces herself at the door, like I’m a housewife from another decade, and that’s my other tip off. Dani would drift into the house without speaking.
“Rosie?” Her voice casts out like a flashlight. Her keys clang against the kitchen counter, then she’s leaning in the doorway, wearing Dani’s clothes. A satiny green shirt that billows off her chest. Black boots with a razor heel. “Rosie, you okay?”
Her hair is a tone or two off.
She drops her tote bag in the doorway and comes to me in a room Dani would never enter. There’s too much dust in here, and she hates that I haven’t unpacked the books yet.
“Yeah, just reading.”
Dani would have asked about the cat by now. Instead she yawns, planting herself on the floor between my beanbag and the mirror like an eclipse. I don’t want to see my reflection anyway. I picked you flowers, I want to say. They’re in a plastic bottle on the kitchen counter. She probably saw them on her way in. (Lilies are Dani’s favorite. I don’t know if this person will even want them.) How was your trip? I want to ask, but she’s telling me before I can.
“My mom’s holding up okay. It’s just… depressing there now. So much stuff to go through.” She slides her palm back and forth across the floor. Nails painted a shade of red Dani would never pick. Maybe this person is here for a reason. Maybe they kidnapped Dani.
She flips her hand over, and I know for sure.
The birthmark. A brown half-moon just up from her wrist. I’ve kissed it. I know where it’s supposed to be, and it’s not there. This Pretend-Dani still hasn’t asked about the cat. She closes her fist. “What do you want for dinner?” She’s scrolling through UberEats. I was going to cook salmon, because it’s Dani’s favorite, but I have no idea what this person likes. Better let her pick. “Oh, that Chinese place is on here now. You okay?”
“Yeah, I just… Chinese sounds good. When did your flight land?”
Other security questions I want to ask: What’s your mom’s name? What brand of vodka do you like to drink? What’s our anniversary? (Trick question: we don’t have one.) (Trick answer: May 25th was our first date. We like to laugh like we have no idea. Dani likes to say we’ve known each other forever.) The flight question seems safe. Nonchalant.
“Uh, like 1:30… traffic was hell getting into the city from the airport.” She makes the decision about dinner for us, clicking from the menu. Pretend-Dani is pretty in her own way. She holds her shoulders back, like she’s never thought too hard about anything, and her voice is louder, more definitive. When she doesn’t know I’m watching her, she’s still smiling, just faintly, and when she catches me, she beams. “Well, Joel will be here in twenty-five minutes, which means…” She moves toward me. At first, I dodge her moonless palm like a lit candle as it comes closer. Pretend-Dani sets it down on my thigh, and when I don’t combust, stop resisting. Her lips are brown sugar. She folds my skirt up to my belly button. We’re feet from the window without blinds. Dani would worry people would see us. Over the top of her head, the evergreen trees wave like someone flagging down a server at a restaurant, like they need me and need me to stop. I say nothing. Dani would have asked about the cat by now.
When Joel knocks, I’m toasting the death of the day at the kitchen counter. I set my whiskey back down in its water ring and go to the door for the styrofoam boxes. Joel stands there in his System of a Down t-shirt, expecting something. The holes in his ears are the size of nickels, but filled in with black and brown, marbled plugs.
“It’s just…” He wavers. “You didn’t leave a tip on the card.”
“Dani didn’t,” I correct, and it’s a silly thing to say. The real correction is Dani didn’t order any food, because Dani didn’t come home from visiting her mom, but Joel doesn’t really care about either of those things. He only cares that I don’t have any cash. I stare at him, closing the door slowly, like he was about the get on an elevator and I could have held it and didn’t. I take the boxes to the kitchen counter, set them between my whiskey and the water bottle lilies, and the sheers I used to clip their stems. There’s a little sunflower on the handle, the metal red and rusted.
They’re both quiet, now. Pretend-Dani and the cat.
I hum to myself, splitting the food between two plates. Chow mein. Egg foo yung. I make a place setting at each end of the table. Heads of the table. Pretend-Dani and the cat sit in between, like they’re our children. The cat’s eyes are veiled in fur and blood. Pretend-Dani slumps forward, even though her arms are tied to the chair. I could get his food out, pry open another one of those cans. But I hate the smell and Dani likes doing it. So the cat will have to be patient. I’m starving, but I don’t start eating. Dani would want me to wait.
Lauren Gilmore writes strange poems, stories, and essays. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ghost City Press, and elsewhere. Her full-length collection of poetry, Outdancing the Universe, is available from University of Hell Press.