The Devil’s Hands
A monster lived in Cocoa’s bathroom. It emerged when the sun went down, and she couldn’t sleep for the deep, rattled heave of its breathing. In the night she heard the heavy clomp of its pacing, and if she watched closely she saw its curved claws wrap around the edge of the half-closed bathroom door. With her eyes clamped shut she saw in her mind those same claws creep toward her body. She could never help but look, even though she knew that looking meant not sleeping for another night. In the morning, once light brought with it the courage to peep behind the door, the creature was gone.
Maybe that was why she let her rancid friend Vincent sleep on her couch in the living room; his snores distracted her, made the thing in the bathroom less troubling. It wouldn’t hurt her if someone else were there. Or maybe she really did like him, even though he repulsed her. Or maybe she wanted someone there who loved her like she had always thought Anne had loved her.
After long nights of shaking in bed, Cocoa tried not to call her ex. But some mornings she couldn’t help but dial Anne’s number. Anne rarely answered, and when she did it made Cocoa feel worse. Cocoa would ask how she was, and Anne would say she was great, which made Cocoa feel like shit. Then Anne would ask how Cocoa was doing, and Cocoa would try not to let her voice shake when she said she was great too, real happy with her job still — she baked the bread at a sandwich shop — and she had a lot of new friends now that they weren’t always together. They would say more bullshit about their lives, about how easy everything was in the other’s absence, and then Anne would have to go. She always had somewhere to go.
Cocoa didn’t tell Anne that she missed her, that she wished she’d gone with her to Denver rather than staying in Riddle, the Texas town she’d never left. Cocoa didn’t tell Anne she wished she’d followed her like a fucking dog. She didn’t tell her that sometimes she let Vincent touch her tits for twenty dollars, when he asked. She didn’t tell Anne about the thing in her bathroom she suspected was waiting for her to come to it and let herself be devoured.
The morning of her twenty-fourth birthday, Cocoa woke to Vincent standing before his easel in the living room, shirtless, facing her bedroom. While she fixed them two bowls of granola and almond milk, he talked about his painting, an abstract collage of drug-induced stupor, the canvas cluttered with cut-outs of women’s faces from fashion magazines.
“Listen,” he said, “to the brushstrokes.” He painted a red line down the canvas, then another next to it. He dipped one of his unkempt dreadlocks in the paint and laughed. Cocoa hated his goofy laugh. It made him look like he was just about to drool. But his paintings were cool. “Nature’s own paintbrush,” he said.
Cocoa asked about his plans for the day. She hoped they included anyone but her. In the daylight she usually wanted to be alone. She slept most of the days away, curled into a ball on her couch.
“I figured we’d, you know, have some birthday shenanigans.” He painted another line with his hair.
“I don’t want to,” she said, mouth full.
“Why not?” He cupped his hand on her shoulder. “Because you’re depressed? Everyone’s depressed. You know what depression is, Cocoa? I’ll tell you what depression is.”
“I’m not depressed,” she said. Depression was fantasizing about jumping off buildings. Depression was crying all the time. Depression was a pile of pills in your palm.
“Depression is drinking from the devil’s hands,” he said, moving his cupped palm beneath his mouth. “It’s that rock bottom urge to so what you know you shouldn’t. You know what you do with that? You fucking drink. You drink from the motherfucking devil’s hands.”
While he talked, she stared at the phone. She’d told herself she wouldn’t call Anne, wouldn’t bring herself down on a day when she was supposed to be up. Picking up the phone, she excused herself to her room, but when she got there she called her mom instead. As soon as the phone started ringing, she regretted the call.
Her mom picked up, singing. Cocoa tried to smile, but really she wished she could hang up and pretend she’d dialed the number by mistake. At the end of the birthday song, her mom hounded her. What were her plans for the day? When was she going to come for lunch? Did she have any party plans with her friends tonight? It was Saturday, after all, and she shouldn’t be alone on her birthday.
“I won’t be alone,” Cocoa said. “Vincent’s here.”
“Will he be joining us for lunch?
Cocoa didn’t answer. Cocoa’s mom thought Vincent was her secret boyfriend, even though Cocoa had been truthful about her relationship with Anne. And after all, Anne had only left a couple of months ago. She couldn’t be expected to move on already.
“But, Anne wasn’t really your girlfriend, was she, dear? I mean, you never even brought her home to meet us,” her mom said.
It was true. She had asked Anne to come to her parents’ for dinner, but Anne had never wanted to. And no, they were never officially “together” together, but shit, they’d only spent every night together for a year and a half. And Cocoa cared about Anne. When they’d first met, Anne had given her so much: books on baking cookies with messages of encouragement inside, an ear — Anne always listened to her, handed her the hard truth when no one else would — and orgasms, of course, the first she’d ever had from another’s hand. Cocoa had never thought herself beautiful until she saw her reflection in Anne’s eyes, and Anne had somehow known from the start that when Cocoa cried all she wanted was to be touched. Anne had given her everything she had ever wanted. It wasn’t until right before Cocoa’s last birthday, when Anne became distant, that Anne stopped giving her anything.
Back in the living room Vincent sat on the couch with that fucking silly grin, in his hands a bag of something that resembled dirt. Mushrooms.
“Happy birthday, girl,” he said. He handed her a cap and a couple stems. She didn’t think before popping the cap in her mouth. The raw earthy grit was like sand between her teeth.
Vincent swallowed his whole. “Ready for lunch?”
It wasn’t worth it to argue; she didn’t want to start her trip with confrontation, and so Cocoa put on her fake leather jacket and prepared to face her parents’ place.
Cocoa’s mom had set the table for five, and at each chair set a handmade name tag. Three red balloons tied to Cocoa’s chair bobbed under the ceiling fan’s wind. Her mom brought out the dishes and set them in the middle of the table. Everyone took their assigned seat.
Cocoa and her family all shared the same lackluster brown hair cut near to their shoulders, even her father, and the same lackluster brown eyes. Their bodies all mostly thin, with the exception of Cocoa’s sister, whose adolescent pudge had still not disappeared. The only way anyone could tell them apart was by the way they dressed. Cocoa’s parents were still stuck in their hippy days, though they had always been the watered-down Texas kind, their cowboy boots concealed beneath their bellbottoms, and Cocoa’s sister hid under baggy jeans and oversized shirts. Cocoa rebelled against them as best she could. She tried to look professional in pinstripe pants, collared shirts and suspenders. Sweater vests and cardigans. She wanted to look like she knew what she wanted with her life. She didn’t.
Cocoa stared at the feast her mom had prepared: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cinnamon apples, sesame green beans, vegetarian pizza and a loaf of walnut bread. All Cocoa’s favorites, she’d prepared them all. Damn, Cocoa thought. She tries too hard.
Everyone passed the dishes around, but no one said grace before digging in, not in this family. Cocoa and Vincent both spooned heaping piles of food onto their plates, but as Cocoa picked up her fork and the shrooms started to kick in, she realized she was far from hungry, and the fork seemed too silly an instrument to use, with its four-pronged silver hair. Vincent didn’t seem to have trouble. He daintily forked green beans into his mouth, pausing to glance from Cocoa’s mom to her dad and smile when spoken to.
“Aren’t you hungry, dear?” her mom asked. “You’ve hardly touched anything. Is something wrong?”
“I…I can’t figure out how to use my fork.” Once Cocoa started laughing she couldn’t stop. The rest of the family stared. Cocoa looked down into the sopping pile of cinnamon apples. The cinnamon danced under the light. “The apples are beautiful, mom. Everything’s so beautiful.”
Vincent placed a hand on her mom’s shoulder. “We did some mushrooms this morning, Jill.”
“Oh, dear,” her mom said. “Does that mean you won’t be staying for dessert?”
“May we be excused? I think it’s time for a little walksie.” Vincent took Cocoa’s hand and helped her stand. They walked, still laughing, through the hallway and ran their hands along the textured wall, cool and strange beneath Cocoa’s fingers. In her childhood room, leftover totems from her teenage years littered the shelves: rubber ducks of varying shapes and sizes, a Beanie Baby Dalmatian, and a music box that sang Swan Lake. A plastic Halloween skull glared at them. Cocoa slid to the floor.
Posters obscured the walls as though she had wanted to hide the blank white: a Sandman poster, a poster of a cheesy werewolf film she’d found ironic, and a psychedelic Jim Morrison print. Now it all seemed morbid, and the faces leered down at her but weren’t laughing. The Sandman wore a permanent grimace, and Jim’s frown made him look like a weeping clown. The skull was eerie, too detached, and for a moment reminded Cocoa of the thing in the bathroom. She imagined its face as bony as the skeleton’s, unmarred by skin, and she felt an incredible desire to know what it looked like. For a moment she nearly up and ran all the way back to her apartment, but she shook the urge away; it would only bring her down, and she wasn’t sure she could find the way.
They didn’t speak for what seemed like a lot of time but was only thirty minutes. Cocoa wasn’t sure about time. All she knew was, this should only last about four hours, and she didn’t know how long ago they’d taken them. Vincent pulled a packed pipe from his pocket and held the lighter over the weed. He inhaled, held it in, exhaled, held the pipe out to her. Cocoa looked at the bright green and shook her head.
“I don’t think we should, not inside–“
“It’s your birthday. You can do whatever you want. You need this,” he said. He pried her fist open and forced the pipe into her grip.
Cocoa tried to spark the lighter but couldn’t. She glanced at Vincent’s bizarre dreads, the layers of tangles he’d let tangle on purpose. Maybe Vincent did it right. She let things tangle in secret, brushed her hair three times a day at least. Kept her house obscenely clean. Tried to make her life seem as put-together as possible, but under the surface she was even more fucked up than Vincent’s hair. She felt numb and scared and pointless.
“I can’t. I just don’t think I can,” she said.
He lit the bowl for her, holding it to her lips. She breathed the smoke in and let it out, and she realized their knees were touching. His free hand had climbed to her thigh. The air crackled with his attraction for her, and once the charge was there Cocoa knew there was nowhere to go but down, and she didn’t think she could handle the bottom right then. It was imperative that she leave the room before their bodies came closer. She threw the pipe onto the carpet; the charred weed spilt out and into the crevices.
“I have to go,” she said. “I have to go home.”
She rushed alone down the hallway, and when she reached the table she saw her family still seated, eating their lunch like nothing was happening. She wished her family could be the normal kind of normal.
“Are you getting the wiggins, girl?” her dad asked.
Cocoa shook her head. “I’m not going to do drugs anymore. I don’t want to feel like shit anymore.”
Her mom nodded, and the look of strained relief in her eyes brought a wave of guilt into Cocoa’s gut. She was sorry she ruined the feast.
“Okay. That’s fine. Would you like to eat now?” her mom said.
“No, I think I’m going to take off.”
She heard her father on the way out. “Looks like she’s got the wiggins.”
Cocoa walked the long way home, and every truck that passed pounded the hum of its engine into her body, and the sidewalk beneath her shifted with each step. She hoped Vincent wouldn’t follow. She wished she could shower the shrooms away, but she couldn’t go home yet. She knew the walls would close in. Instead she went to the playground three blocks away.
Parents surrounded her, mothers in their matching sweat suits, fathers staring down into the faces of their iPhones, and the children who didn’t need drugs to see birds soar circles in the clouds. Cocoa sat in the grass. The kids’ shrill laughter would be too much of a reminder that she had passed the stage of such mindless amusement, that now she felt like she could only laugh to keep her thoughts from overwhelming. Cocoa’s mind, even though she tried to keep it from serious thoughts, went right to her own family, how they hadn’t batted an eye when she was tripping balls. That it was all a joke. Not even her little sister, a sophomore in high school. Cocoa’s mother and father had done drugs, back in their youth, and even now they smoked pot every day. They let her sister smoke on weekends when she didn’t have homework, and they had let Cocoa do the same. Back then she thought herself lucky, but now she wanted her mother to slap some sense into her. Tell her she was shitting on her life.
It wasn’t even really about drugs. Cocoa didn’t have a drug problem. Vincent was the one who did drugs, and Cocoa just took what he gave her. What she had was a numb problem. The kind of problem she couldn’t even describe. She could chalk it up to Anne, and she did, but this nagging voice told her Anne wasn’t the half of it.
What bugged her, what really bugged her, was that she let herself fall for Anne. Cocoa knew that Anne was all kinds of wrong, that she partied too hard, lacked ambition. Cocoa knew every word from Anne’s mouth was a lie; the love Anne claimed for her was false, as false as friendship. Anne moved to Denver so she could live with her parents again, so she wouldn’t have to work. So she could go out every night and sleep in every day. But Cocoa still wanted Anne beside her, just so she could feel her skin again.
Her thoughts circled around, folded in on themselves, intensified the empty ache in her stomach that she knew could only be filled by someone’s arms wrapped so tight around her she had to give in.
And Vincent. Cocoa didn’t know why she kept him around. He was lame, almost as lame as Anne, but he loved her in his way. She could tell that he loved her, and it made her sick to her stomach. When she saw the hungry look in his eyes it made her want to puke. She knew she’d had the same stupid eyes for Anne, and now she couldn’t even talk to Anne for more than a goddamn couple of minutes without feeling like shit. All she really wanted was to be rid of the feeling that she was falling, always falling, and that thing in the bathroom wanted to catch her. She looked at the sky, where the sun was falling. She knew it was time to go home and see the thing that had been at the edge of her skin every night, trying to break its way through, and she wanted to go. She felt like she could wait no longer to see it.
Back at the apartment she went straight to the bathroom, but it was empty. She sat on the edge of the tub. The water dripped. She leaned her head against the wall and reached into her pocket for her phone. Even in the darkness she knew where her fingers should press.
When Anne answered she sounded irritated, like she’d just been woken from a good dream.
“Anne, how long has it been?” Cocoa said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Since we broke up? How long has it been?”
Anne sighed. “What’s up, Cocoa? You know exactly how long it’s been.”
“I don’t.” She was on the verge of tears. “I don’t know. How long? I keep thinking we’re still together.”
“Seriously, what’s up? I’m kind of busy. I have a friend over.”
“Where are you? I forget. I don’t know what time it is.”
Anne whispered something away from the mouthpiece.
“I took shrooms. I think I’m having a bad trip.”
“Ugh, is that it? You’re just on drugs. It’ll go away. You just have to remember, it’s not going to last. Listen, I can’t talk right now,” Anne said.
“Hey,” Cocoa whispered. Anne asked her to speak up. “I, uh, I wish I were there with you. I wish I’d gone with you.”
“Well, you should have come then. Listen–“
But no, Cocoa thought. She couldn’t have come, couldn’t have just trailed alongside Anne for the rest of her life.
“You should have fucking asked,” Cocoa said.
Cocoa hung up before Anne could say anything more. She remembered time. She remembered that it had been eight months, and that Anne had never seemed interested in bringing Cocoa with her. If she was honest, she had to admit that she hadn’t been serious about it either. She was clinging to Anne so she wouldn’t have to let go, of fear, of the numb, of blame.
But she was peaking too hard to hold her fist tight around the realization then. She fell to her knees and let herself wish that Anne were there to pick her up; she was too weak to do it herself. She needed time to do it herself. Pressing her open palms into the cold white tile, she saw the creature. Standing before her, his body cracked like dry soil. A man-shape, with slits for eyes. Bulky arms and legs, like the muscles were too big for the body. A mess of serpent hair wriggling around his head, and he lowered his hands to her face and cupped them before her mouth. She peered into his open hands and saw that inside the cracks there was nothing but water which began to bubble up and collect in his palms.
“Are you rock bottom?” she asked it. “Is it time for me to climb out?”
“Drink,” he said, and it was the wheezing voice that kept her awake.
She glanced into the empty sockets, and her lips fell to his hands without her willing them to. She gripped his wrists. Even though they burned her hands, she could not let go. She wanted to feel something, anything, and the burn was better than numb. She wanted to bottom out so she could come up again for air.
She drank like she was thirsty. She drank until there was nothing left.
A hot hand on her forehead woke her from her first sleep in two months. She opened her eyes to Vincent’s face. He looked stoned, his eyes thin slits, but the hungry look was there, as if he had never eaten in his life. Cocoa started to say something, but he reached down and slipped a bill into her hand. She started to pull her top up, but he shook his dreaded head, gave her a thin smile. She looked down at the bill, the crisp 100 in the corner. He slid under the blankets. She looked at the cracked skin of his hands as they groped at her clothes, into his devil red eyes.
She crumpled the bill in her hands and shoved it into his open mouth. “I won’t.”
He spit the bill out onto the bed and let his hands fall from her.
“What’s wrong?” Vincent said. “No one loves you like I love you, girl.”
“Get out,” she said.
He tried to kiss her. She pushed him. He toppled onto the floor with a thud. For a moment, he looked as though he might protest, might crawl back into the bed and try to make her love him, but then he shoved the bill into his pocket and rose from the floor. “You’ll love me eventually,” he said.
“Out,” she said.
Silence stretched between them like a long trail of spit. He nodded and backed out the door. Minutes later she heard her front door slam. It sounded like an ending. She smiled into the dark. In the bathroom, all was quiet as beautiful death.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies both literary and speculative including Clarkesworld, The Toast, Lightspeed, and numerous times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She recently released an audio fiction-jazz collaborative album, Strange Monsters, with her partner Peter Brewer, centered around the theme of women’s voices. She’s been reprinted in French and Polish, for numerous podcasts, and on io9. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program and created and curates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas. Find her on Twitter and at her website.
Image: Flickr / James Gaither