by Randall Shreve
Stephanie was amazed at the texture and density of her dead grandfather’s flesh. She pushed a finger into his cheek, moving his head slightly. When she withdrew, the head returned to its original pose. She wanted to slap the bastard; she wanted to punch him. The thought of dumping him onto the floor and dancing on his chest came to mind too. Though he died several days before, Grandpa George was still with her. The visage of the old man on the sofa, shrouded in smoke from his wretched cigar, or in the park feeding pigeons while leering at school girls in their tartan skirts, all parts of her most horrid waking dreams.
“Stephanie! What the hell are you doing?” Margaret, her mother said, dragging her away.
“Making sure he’s really dead.”
“What kind of thing is that to say?”
At the graveside service, she asked the preacher if he was sure her grandfather was in the box. When the bier lowered the casket into the ground, she peered into the hole. Eight feet long, two and a half feet wide and six feet closer to Hell.
“He won’t be able to get out of there, will he?” Stephanie asked her mother.
“He’s dead, Steph, I don’t think you have much to worry about.”
After the funeral, Stephanie, all of fourteen years old, didn’t feel the relief she hoped for. Instead, she found reminders. The lingering cigar stench tied back to the burns on her thighs, which tied back to weight on her chest and acrid whiskey breath pouring onto her face like filthy water. In the bathroom, Stephanie ran the hot water in the shower. When the steam flowed and the mirror started to fog, she undressed and stepped up to the scalding spray. A cold draft made her turn up the hot water, but she couldn’t get the water hot enough to get clean. Scrub though she might, the haunting dirty feeling stayed with her, The Dirty wouldn’t move.
“Get good and clean, youngin’,” Grandpa George’s voice bored through the steam. Her heart skipped a beat. She pulled back the shower curtain to look, but she was alone in the bathroom. “Don’t forget behind them ears,” she heard him say.
“You’re dead, you can’t get me anymore!”
“You know all about how I got to be dead, now don’t ya? You’re the why. You watched me have a heart attack and did nothing, you stood there and did nothing, you let me die.”
“I stopped you, for good!”
“And yet, here I am.” The old man’s cackle assaulted her ears.
Stephanie turned off the shower and wrung water from handfuls of hair. She toweled dry and turned to the mirror. Wiping the condensation from the mirror with her hand, the bite marks on her breasts glowed pink against her pallid skin. Her mother never saw the bites, or the cigar burns. She never knew about any of it. Who would believe you over me? Grandpa swore no one would ever buy he left the marks. On the vanity, Stephanie found Grandpa George’s straight razor. She flipped out the glinting blade and ran it down the length of her fore arm, raising a slight red line in its path. A red line that seeped into the pores of her skin in growing, searching tendrils. Giving a little more pressure, she ran the blade down her arm again. Blood flowed from the crisscrossing lines, mixing with the wet still on her skin. Stephanie found almost orgasmic release in the exquisite pain. She saw The Dirty escaping along with the blood. Another pass with the razor extended into her hand, and blood dripped from her fingers.
She wiped blood on her face and neck, smearing it down to her chest, painting herself red. Spreading her wounds open brought forth more blood. The coating masked the color of the bite marks, but the older raised scar tissue showed through. She covered her midriff and down her thighs in the sticky liquid.
A jolt rocked Stephanie to the core, a wave of electricity radiating from her gut. Her knees went weak. One leg buckled and she steadied herself with one hand on the vanity. The shock waves grew more and more intense and Stephanie knocked items from the counter to the floor. The convulsions reached up and squeezed the breath from her lungs and twisted her again.
“Are you OK in there Stephanie?” Her mother said, knocking on the bathroom door. “You’ve been in there a long time.”
“Um, yeah, I’m fine, be out in a sec. I just have to get the cream rinse out of my hair.” The waves subsided, leaving Stephanie able to pull herself back to her feet. She surprised herself with where her other hand was and what she was doing with it. Stephanie looked at herself in the mirror. In the fogged areas she was just a red blur. She saw, reflected in the clear spots, a bizarre and perverse beauty in the streaked swirls of blood caked and drying across her chest and neck. Reaching into the shower she turned the water on, pulled the diverter and stepped back inside. Standing under the beating water, the blood rinsed away and down the drain, running off with some of The Dirty.
Out of the shower, she cleaned blood from the counter and floor and buried the paper towels at the bottom of the trash can. Her still wet hair splattered across her shoulders. She wrapped a towel around her body and opened the door a crack. The hall was empty, the coast was clear. Darting to her room with her clothes bundled on her arm, “Bathroom’s free!” she called out. In the safety of her bedroom, Stephanie dropped her clothes in the hamper and took off her towel.
“That’s what I like to see,” Grandpa George said, sitting on her bed, wearing the black suit and tie he was buried in, his fly undone. “Now come over here and do what we do.”
Stephanie pressed the heel of her fists onto her closed eyes and chanted “He’s not there! He’s not there! He’s not there!” looking for some sort of magic to expel the demon. The cemetery smell of dirt and fresh cut grass stained the air. When she opened her eyes, he was gone. She fainted anyway.
Margaret heard the thud when Stephanie hit the floor. She lay naked and unconscious when her mother entered the room. Seeing her only daughter, her first born child, sprawled out face down on the carpet and the burns on Stephanie’s legs, Margaret scrambled to rouse Stephanie, giving tiny slaps on the cheek and jarring a shoulder.
When Stephanie stirred, pushing herself up, Margaret spotted the bite marks and the straight razor pinstripes on her arm.
“Oh dear God, Stephanie, what can I do? Do you want me to call an ambulance?” Margaret spoke through her hands. “What happened? Are you OK?”
“I’m good, It’s nothing. I just got a little light headed is all. It must be low blood sugar, I haven’t eaten much today.” Stephanie tried to not look frantic in the rush to cover herself. It was too late though, her mother saw the marks. A detailed history of time spent with Grandpa George while her mother worked two jobs. Spelled out in jumbo polka dots on her legs and opposing double crescents on her breasts. What happened when she didn’t comply evidenced on her skin. “I even thought I saw Grandpa George sitting on my bed, right there,” she said, “how silly is that?”
“Grandpa’s dead, sweetie. We buried him today.”
“I know.” I’m the one who threw his heart pills in the trash.
“You know, Steph, if there’s ever anything you want-” she corrected herself, “need to talk about, I’m always here for you,” Margaret said, embracing her daughter “Anything at all, any time, I’m here for you.” Stephanie met her mother’s teary eyes.
“Somehow I don’t think you’d believe me.”
“Is that what Grandpa George told you, that nobody would believe you?” Margaret said, unbuttoning her blouse, revealing her own double crescent scars. “That’s what he told me too, around thirteen years ago, when I got pregnant with you.”