This novelette was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas. It’s temporarily available on this page, free to read, for awards consideration. The issue containing “And for My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared” is available for purchase here.
And For My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared
The first time she awoke on the bus, Adachukwu Ejiofor discovered that her ankles, wrists, and one kneecap had taken their leave of her while she wasn’t looking. She still had the other kneecap and her hands and feet, though, making her disappearance asymmetrical.
And flickering. Her ‘missing’ wrist vanished and unvanished, stranding her hand from her arm then connecting them again. An optical illusion; a shadow flung and withdrawn by one of the unreliable lights; except the five nearest her glowed steadily. They hadn’t before. She’d closed her eyes because of the inconsistent illumination, it had been giving her a headache, then she must have fallen to sleep, and now…
Her bracelets jangled around her on-off wrists, and her skirt curved over her semi-disappeared knee. In a way other than sometimes, they were still here. But simultaneously, in some elsewhere, her dearly departed body parts thrilled with a peculiar vitality, yet crackled with pinpricks as if they’d fallen asleep. Hideously, it felt like something twisted them back and forth, bunching up the skin, perhaps trying to awaken them. Had this thing never read Sleeping Beauty? Didn’t it know a kiss would suffice?—though Adachukwu did not want whatever lived in that elsewhere to kiss or touch or know her at all.
Standing, Adachukwu tugged a ‘stop bus’ pull cord. It broke, as did the next, so she floated up the aisle to beg release from the driver.
Her hands fell upon a glass partition that hadn’t existed before. Behind this lay the driver’s seat, and the steering wheel spinning without him. Before Adachukwu could panic, a bittersweet smell, then slumber, engulfed her. She dreamt of her one-time friend, Penny, who played the harp. The bus roared onward.
When she next awoke, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and the whitish particles rested on her semi-disappeared wrists and newly blinking left hand. On her right, the grains contrasted with her dark brown skin or heaped under her bitten-short fingernails.
No witnesses, so Adachukwu screamed, then muffled herself with her right hand. All her body trembled from the effort to keep from trembling. She avoided her reflection in the windows. There dwelt in her a disdain for these little hysterics, an embarrassment at the thought of witnessing her shoulders up around her ears, her dark and revealing eyes. The indulgent drama of it all. She would not see it.
In time she’d shrieked herself silent, though if this were a bad dream as she assumed, precedent dictated her parents should be here. Still, Adachukwu closed her eyes. When she opened them this would be over, only the memory of her scream-queen performance remaining. She counted:
One. Calm down.
Two. Calm down.
Three. Calm down.
Four. Calm down.
Six. Calm—wait, no. Five. Five. Calm down.
Six. Calm down.
Seven. Calm down.
She opened her eyes. Around her, the bus, as before.
Adachukwu slammed on the windows. She couldn’t get enough air to say help, so she hit the glass to the rhythm of her gasps because she wouldn’t be off-beat even here, now. Habits died hard. The windows lived, harder; a red, rotten pain mottled the meat of her hand.
To reorient herself she looked outside, to a city emptied. The light mellowed toward evening, then night fell like a guillotine, but instead of heads the bus wheels rolled over potholes. The windows stayed strong, and the ceiling had no emergency exit. She checked her phone—dead—and slammed shoulder-first into the glass dividing the bus from the driver’s seat over and over.
But only Adachukwu cracked. She sang Halcyon under her breath until the world sharpened, trying not to think of Penny as she did, instead focusing on tone. Then she popped her neck, soothed by the sound and release. Bus-bashing bruises had left her skin swollen soft, and her half-here limbs burned with that livid liveliness.
By morning she’d lost fulltime possession of her right elbow. Another light, once deadened, blazed. A realization threatened to surface, and she scrunched her eyes, tensed against it, murmured denials, breathed easy. But the victory was brief. The truth was before and around Adachukwu.
Because the bus that kept her was also, increasingly, composed of her. She was turning into its light, and its exhaust and noise and heat; she had become of use.
An image of a fleshy vehicle scraping down the street came to her. She shuddered. Shook her head to empty her skull before the idea emptied her stomach, which would be the bus’ skull and stomach if she couldn’t get out of here, but no, no, surely her destiny was not to fulfil the bus’ repairs until it rolled along firm and moisturized, wetly pink in its pulsating machinery, bony and gurgling and sprouting coarse hairs—
A wild-eyed Adachukwu retched twice, each time producing nothing.
It was a long bus, bisected by a grey accordionlike middle. The seats were shedding; you’d carry their blue if you touched them. Adachukwu sat regardless because the hanging handholds’ greasiness made them unappealingly silken.
Orange ‘words’ scrolled across the marquee declaring the next stop. Though the ‘words’ were glitchy, pixelated images of smiles or eyes, she understood them as ‘Sugarmaple Street’, ‘Caryatid Station’, ‘Basford Lane’, and others. Adachukwu glared toward the front, willing the marquee to display St. Cecilia and 8th. She’d meant to disembark there for a choir friend’s party. Maybe if she reached it awake, the bus, compelled by this intention, would let her out.
She kept falling asleep at Millay Street, several before St. Cecilia and 8th. Then she’d wake at Alabast, the route’s beginning, the sun shining into her and a Nneka Uzomechine song on her lips—Our Old Gods, Mangos for Mothers, Halcyon—to suppress the fear. Tonight she sat heavy, missing who and what she’d lost, as the bus tipped down a hill toward the city and the ocean beyond.
This unplace offered multiple challenges: here is a bus without doors. Here is a lack where a driver should be and a glass wall to thwart you. Here you’re mined for spare parts—she squared her shoulders against the terror grazing her spine—and here is your city bereft even of ghosts except the one you’ve carried for four months, who’s not dead anyway.
She popped her neck for the grinding, grounding noise, sighed at the unlocking sensation of it. Told herself to remember foghorns and phones ringing during rehearsals, and Penny blasting Christian pop and Top 40 hits, and how Penny laughed the time she fell from an apple tree, unaware of her imminent broken arm.
A grin thrashed across the marquee, for ‘Millay Street’. Adachukwu cleared her throat and imitated that invigorating awful laugh of Penny’s; she’d never heard of someone falling asleep while mid-laugh nor mid-mimicry. Grocery stores, a bank branch, trees, and alleyways blurred past. Adachukwu laughed until she coughed and as her lungs spasmed she passed Millay which meant it was working, she was getting out, she—!
At Alabast, Adachukwu found that her shoulder blades were not/gone and vibrating, while the engine’s growl had smoothed. But she recalled a shift in temperature during her slumber, and in pressure. A purposefulness to the latter. The intentionality could suggest a biological creature rather than the environmental feature she’d assumed, something that could err, capricious or even malicious, this place’s parasite; and sleepy Adachukwu gazed out the window, limbs tingling, wondering, what creeps around here while you sleep, and stands over your face?
Here is a bus without doors. Meaning the lurker entered another way to take her body. So far it’d set her wrists, ankles, kneecap, one hand, one elbow, and shoulder blades to wavering, swapping bus segments for flesh and blood. She needed reconnaissance before launching a mid-theft defense, and if she was already asleep on her terms before Millay, perhaps…
The situation echoed through her again and she fought to slow her breath and keep from screaming; she was sick to death of screaming, and ashamed. Fear still squeezed a whimper from her, but she sang an on-the-spot ditty to replace its memory.
As she closed her eyes, the bus rocked over potholes—like a cradle, she decided. The seat fibres grasped her forearms, warm as, why not, a blanket. For a lullaby the purr of the bus’ undercarriage would do. She quieted. Buses had always afforded her an odd sleep, deep enough to be true but shallow enough for a semi-awareness of her surroundings that made the state good for investigation.
How can you feel safe sleeping in public, Penny had once said. When you could be robbed or stolen from or, or pickpocketed—those’re all the same thing, fine, she’d muttered in response to Adachukwu’s snicker, but you get my point. And Adachukwu could have said she felt safe sleeping in public because Penny was there, but instead she’d yawned, flopped her head onto Penny’s shoulder, and faked snores, because it amounted to the same thing, and a fine one.
Now her snores were real, filling every nook and cranny. Ailiph Street flew past, Knight, then Caryatid Station. Afternoon light slit her from hairline to jawline. Moments later, in the evening, this ‘cut’ had spread across her face, warming her dark skin, gilding her close-cropped tight curls, heating her seven silver earrings, casting her wide nose as a sundial. Her clothes lay in slices of sunshine and shadow that likely brightened the red of her skirt, deepened the black of her sweater.
Evening ebbed into night. By now eyes layered over eyes must be winking on the marquee, meaning Woodrow Street, then a frown and its twin should droop there, meaning Solander Street. Following that, Millay. Soon the air smelled bittersweetly of night lilies, and the bus noises decreased then slowed then curdled then
a presence unwound on the edges of Adachukwu’s perception.
A sound like dry petals scraped up the aisle. That night lily smell, pleasant and powder-soft, it flattened her nose hairs, permeated her pores, sank into her scalp in oily layers. What creeps around here while you sleep, and stands over your face? It’d be death to know, yet sleep continued to relinquish her to the balmy air. Her heartbeat quieted, because now was not for those blessed with blood, no, now was of the petal-bearing breeze and its lillian stink.
The lights clicked on and their fluorescence hit her. Sweat stippled then slicked her armpits. The humidity choked her, the aroma coiled close enough to taste its bitterness-softened cinnamonesque, she roasted under the glare of those lights. Goosebumps bubbled up on her inconsistent skin, and her sweat cooled where it lay.
She inhaled. There was silence for only a moment.
Then the air inside Adachukwu sipped at her navel, and she was screaming again.
Knowing that her tormentor was a sommelier, not just a sneakthief mechanic, left Adachukwu curled in a ball, weeping because she couldn’t help it, she could not help herself, nobody could help her.
Once Adachukwu had had a friend named Penelope Akinwoye. Adachukwu and Penny were close for three years, most of undergrad, then weren’t for four months and counting, though who was counting? The causes for their drifting apart—
were they still drifting? or was it irrevocable now, that they’d drifted? She didn’t know. She didn’t know.
—were unimportant compared to the result: Adachukwu’s uneasy loneliness, her twice-shy approach to friends who liked but didn’t love her and vice versa. It exhausted her to think of sharing herself as she had with Penny and learning others so wholly. How could she tell Marlon about her parents? When would it be appropriate to reveal to Nassim her crush on a bad-idea classmate? What would they tell her in return?
And when would she talk to them about Penny? What could she say other than I miss her. I miss how we were. I want us back. I don’t know if I want her as she is now. It’s been four months since I last saw her but it feels longer. We weren’t perfect but we were good, and maybe we could be again, if only we got, gave, the chance. If only we wanted to.
Aside from Penny, absent presences now included Adachukwu’s other kneecap, calves, and her poor belly button, its ring hooked into air, then skin, then air again. Adachukwu tapped the ring, smiling reflexively at the chime of bitten fingernail against silver. She was becoming a patchwork of flesh, metal, void. As was the bus. Much of her sparkled in its guts.
She could get used to flickering if only she could escape this bus, be home for the process. But the bus wouldn’t let her go, and fighting this devouring had led to such useless, horrid knowledge. Maybe this could still turn out to be a nightmare, ending when the lillian finished. If not, she wouldn’t know the difference, would she?—and ignorance sounded charming now. Resigned, Adachukwu looked out the window until Millay came and she couldn’t look anywhere anymore.
as the bus takes it, a tenderness wells up in adachukw u for this body. she’s fed and watered and lotioned it, loved hated and tolerated it, and sung from it so many songs. over the past four months especially she’s performed a thousand intimate autocannibalisms because she was hers and hurting and hungry, and she could. won’t you stay awhile? adachukw u asks her right hand when she senses (she is getting a sense of these things) it is not long for this world. won’t you sit with me in this sunshine while the wheels turn? just for a little bit longer. i promise i’ll keep my mouth away from you. you’ll never know my teeth again. begging with a calm voice, and facts: my left left me, penny and i left us, so don’t you leave too, please don’t. please.
it does. comes back, of course, but only so it may leave again.
when she pops it, adachuk w u’s neck makes a ripple of splendid crrracks achievable thrice an hour, and there’s a kind of letting out of breath there, beneath her skin. penny and marlon often worried adachuk w u would break something, which made adachuk w u do it less around them yet want to more because the idea was very her: here lies a musician who demanded of her bones an eternal symphony and died for it. her neck goes. a light lives. with not/here fingertips she touches the hollow of her throat. she tries to sing. she shouldn’t have. humming works, but adds to the fallen-asleepness.
she hums regardless. a penny favourite is stuck in her head, could be from either penny genre because it’s about his or His love.
you don’t think much about your collarbone until it’s elsewhere. at least adachu k w u didn’t. her classic ingratitude. how unbecoming.
why not all at once? adach u k w u asks. i’m here for the taking. she wakes and her teeth have evaporated from her mouth. the tooth she chipped last year, which nassim swore improved adach u k w u’s whistling, seems more jagged now. are her hands when gone curling to protect her nails? she says good luck but to who?
adac h u k w u needs all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. she’s needed them for the last four months. her intestines are a mass of whispers, rasping.
the goodbye-hello of ada c h u k w u’s hair follicles feels like something electric burrowing out of her, as if so much lightning is enacting a slow and squirming exodus from the skin of her kneecaps and nostrils, from the skin of her scalp and mons pubis, from the skinbed from which her eyelashes previously curled so prettily, penny had been jealous. ada c h u k w u’s hide is alive with the itching. she writhes and writhes.
ad a c h u k w u’s lungs are made of that aggressive nothing now. the air seems carbonated.
a d a c h u k w u ’s cochlear fluid blinks on and off. possibly for the engines; the bus moves faster. she’s so dizzy it’s unclear if she’s sitting or swimming.
a d a c h u k w u’s heart steals away sometimes and when present pumps pins – and – needles blood into what’s left of her and the lillian caresses a d a c h u k w u from the inside out it scatters and unsettles her it festers through her in – betweens it gorges itself on her seams it laps at her
until it’s had its fill
Three years before, on the day before the dress rehearsal for the winter concert, Adachukwu fried puff puff. She had and would never get it as good as her older cousin Gloria, as her mother mentioned whenever she made it. Away from home, though, the smell of the dough frying was a restorative, the gold-brown of the test batch a delight. She ate an especially pillowy one and relaxed into its chewiness and slight crunch, the depth of its sweetness, warm dense dough filling her mouth. She felt like a hearth.
So Adachukwu sifted flour for Nassim, who’d endured headaches for his aria. Endured the oil spitting and scorching at her for Marlon, who sweat yet over the bridge. Made an extra mini-batch for the harpist, Penelope Akinwoye, whose enviable cheekbones had grown too prominent over the past few weeks. Worse still was the new gauntness of Penelope’s smile and how her glasses emphasized the dryness of her dark brown skin.
Once Penelope had burst into tears, not quite in front of everyone but not hiding it either. As people comforted her, Adachukwu had averted her gaze, smothering impatience, irritation, then guilt for both, hence the additional batch. At the hall, the choir and orchestra fell upon the puff puff, and long-lost smiles emerged. Adachukwu blew kisses and excused herself to practice more alone, where no one could see if she scowled.
Days later, the performance went better than anticipated. Afterward, Penelope found her, and Adachukwu said hi using Penelope’s name as she then knew it. Penelope shook her head, making her microbraids swing, and said her friends called her Penny, and after the puff puff she considered Adachukwu one.
Oh, only now? Adachukwu asked, affecting a hurt air.
We still haven’t gotten to grab that coffee, so…
It was already a rueful inside joke, that they’d been dancing around each other for ages, one busy when the other wasn’t, schedules obstructing their ability to become proper friends. Though perhaps the bad-timing streak had ended, because Penny was talking about how she hadn’t had puff puff in forever, and hadn’t been able to stop at one or even four they tasted so good, and how’d Adachukwu feel about the performance?
As Adachukwu tore the last puff puff in half, she said with a wicked grin, Choir was the best part, no surprise there. Though I guess—she shrugged—it was nice to collaborate with the orchestra.
Wow, okay, said Penny, on second thought you should call me Penelope instead, I can’t be friends with people who are so completely wrong even if they do make excellent puff puff.
And Adachukwu’s grin widened and she said, Alright, Penny, if you say so. Nice to officially meet you. They shook hands, frowning at the puff puff grease but smiling at each other.
They fell in love with Halcyon one after the other, but neither could remember who introduced it to whom, if its sweetly melancholy vocals made Penny think of Adachukwu or if its innovative instrumentation made Adachukwu think of Penny. Either way, the song became theirs to warm up with when the orchestra and choir collaborated again, and when Penny’s sociology seminars and Adachukwu’s chemistry labs wrung them out. They performed Halcyon during their one busking attempt, where they’d stood on the corner of Ailiph and 11th and collected coins, candy wrappers, catcalls, and cold-shouldering. They dubbed its composer “our Nneka” and discussed her as if she were their bosom buddy and patron saint, nestling her among their few overlapping favourites: Rosephanye Powell, Christopher Tin, and various film score composers.
Adachukwu’s parents flung her back into adolescence by visiting and she drummed Halcyon’s beats to keep calm under their denigrations, a song for tightening the mask. They finally left days later, and other than biting her nails, it was Halcyon that returned Adachukwu to herself. Its phrasing left her giddy; its runs kept her lungs in thrall, engaged her head then chest voice so vividly she realized the point of a body; its occasional challenges of range made singing it an accomplishment. Adachukwu could not hear it without thinking of Penny, but whenever she thanked Penny for introducing it to her, Penny would thank her in turn.
Oh, Adachukwu, that’s…I know you did your best, I’m sorry.
Don’t be. It’s really not the end of the world. Like yeah, I feel a little shitty right now, but that’s fine, I’ll retake the course, find some way to explain myself, and, and everything will be, um. Fine. It’ll…be fine, I just.
Thanks. Thank you. But I’m okay. I mean sure, I’m certifiably, provably a failure—
Adachukwu, come on.
—and now they actually have something to point to when they call me that, and I won’t be able to defend myself, not that I could before. God, I’m sorry, I should…I’m getting your shirt all wet, ugh.
No, no, come back. You’re not a failure.
I’m just whining, I’m being overdramatic. Don’t indulge me.
You’re allowed to be a little upset, that’s not—
Would you stop so I can shut up and calm the hell down? …Sorry. Just, do literally anything else while I get ahold of myself.
It won’t take long. I’ll count to seven. Just, do whatever you want. Please.
Like…okay. Tell me how’s your day been?
Well, I haven’t practiced harp yet. Wanna join me for a jam session?
That’d be nice.
Okay, then, let’s.
…Penny, you have to let go of me first.
Give me a second.
Give me a minute.
Oh my god.
Ada, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain! Besides, you said whatever I want.
Your stop, bud, said Penny, poking her awake. Text me the second you get back, okay? I can’t wait up, I have church in the morning, but I will if you don’t.
Adachukwu yawned, and Penny poked her again: C’mon.
Alright, alright, I will. She lifted her head from Penny’s shoulder, a tendon in her neck aching as she stretched. The bus slowed, then stopped. She hopped out the door and slipped on an ice patch, recovered while the bus’ gritty exhaust burned her tongue. Her coughing and the cold made her breath a cloud interrupted. Through it, Penny waved as the bus retreated, until every trace of her was gone.
Flurries drifted from the dark sky. Under icicle-laden trees, Adachukwu shivered toward her apartment. Once inside, she put her mittens beside her roommates’ and typed i’m home with frozen fingers. Minutes later, Penny replied I’m home too! ♥♡♥
They spent years like this.
It was ugly because it was civil. It was a slow-burn bite by bite drift-gently-into-that-good-night bereavement. It was a forgotten text here, a delayed meetup there, impatience where there hadn’t been. It was just that they were busy: Adachukwu studying obsessively lest she fail again and tutoring more to pay to retake o-chem, Penny preparing for the LSATs, eyes redder than blood, blood bitter with caffeine, her rental harp gathering dust. It was that they’d walk past each other, nod but not touch, communicate exclusively via inside jokes to grasp at their fleeing intimacy; later, Adachukwu would condemn them both as pathetic.
The last time they saw each other was to “catch up” at a café. Gingham-covered tables, a bell over the door. They got a booth and Penny ordered black coffee, a taste apparently acquired from her prep sessions. Adachukwu had read somewhere that reducing your sugar intake helped your memory, and so declined to sweeten her tea as she usually would. Behind her glasses, Penny’s eyes widened and her opinion on this choice journeyed across her sharp-featured face, and Adachukwu’s knee-jerkass annoyance with that emotionality flared. She did not shove it down as usual, couldn’t, because a flush of betrayal expanded it: Penny was the almost the same as before, Adachukwu was nearly as she had been, and despite the insignificance of their changes, the tiny amount of time in which they’d happened, neither girl could want to reach the other.
But she was being ridiculous—which riled her further. Either Penelope had triggered this or it was just how Adachukwu actually was, finally exposed. She kept her face pleasant and the word performative came to her, poisoning Penelope’s every sentence thereafter, and her own. Adachukwu popped her neck and resisted rolling her eyes at Penelope’s grimace. After an hour they parted and promised to “definitely do this again soon!”, Adachukwu wishing that she wasn’t lying.
Adachukwu didn’t tell Penelope that she’d taken up poker, something they’d joked about. That she was speaking to her parents voluntarily, because at least they felt they had her figured out, weren’t people she had to teach herself to. Nor did she tell her that she’d stopped frying puff puff because before, she’d heard her mother’s pointed praises of Gloria’s, a recurring barb. But now it evoked Penelope’s voice, at least the impassioned rise and fall of her tone. Adachukwu was stoic, not strong. She couldn’t create with such a relic in her head. Nor did she want to.
And anyway, she was cutting down on sugar.
The second first time she woke up on the bus, Adachukwu discovered that her pettiness had taken its leave of her while she wasn’t paying attention.
She jolted, said Wait, but the bus’ wheels rolled toward forever. She flexed her hand, hands!, in dread, because they were wholly hers again. Everything was. Except her pettiness, whose sometime-absence felt different, not pain-adjacent yet leaden with too much stamina like her body’s semi-vanishing had been but akin to jamais vu.
Would she eventually go back to being spare parts for a bus bound nowhere, then come back to this emotional siphoning? Oceanic Ave passed, then Ward Street. Adachukwu pounded the window then the energy quit her, so, blinking back tears, she leaned her head against it instead. The reverberation rattled her from ear to ear.
You’re killing your neurons! Penny had scolded her once, and Adachukwu had grinned and replied, And there’s why you’re not in bio, and they’d laughed. It had been a lifetime since. Adachukwu’s despair brimmed, mutated. She demanded:
Why couldn’t you sip my memories instead? How can I stop my thoughts looping? When will everything stop reminding me of her? Why must I wonder? How can I stop my thoughts looping? When can I live in peace again? Is nostalgia wrecking her, too? This can’t be healthy, can it? This isn’t healthy, is it. How can I stop my thoughts looping? Shouldn’t I experience the five stages along a line, not a circle?
Adachukwu awoke robbed. She looked about the bus, then patted herself down, and god, she was searching herself like someone doing the wallet/keys/phone/sheet music check before leaving home. She laughed at this. In that laugh the loss’ enormity struck her: sorrow, at least of the tenor it’d been recently. She hadn’t realized how large it had loomed. Losing it even occasionally was like losing her name.
Adachukwu stood. The bus sailed down the road, and she was not smiling but not far from it. Maybe she should let the lillian drink and then, somewhat freed from herself, she could try to go home with whatever was left. Maybe…she shook her head, muttered What is wrong with me?—though it was obvious.
Unsettled, Adachukwu shook her head harder, then popped her neck. The ceiling’s emergency exit arrived in her periphery. She tensed. It hadn’t existed before. This was a trick. She’d ignore it.
Her fingers could brush the exit’s handle but not curl around it. Her hamstrings keened, she clung to a hanging handhold for balance, the bus bounced her higher but off-angle, yet still she reached and reached and her frustration grew, peaked, until Adachukwu twitched awake at Alabast.
A new semi-absence of frustration startled her. So the bus was teasing her, then. Or putting her on ice to make her more refreshing, ice being the emergency exit, which looked but, upon testing, wasn’t closer. Stimuli as seasoning, a way for the bus to bring her emotions to the top one by one and then let the lillian drink at its leisure, as it had with her body. Taking its sweet—
—time skewed slippery here. What’s kept you? Marlon would say if she ever arrived at the party.
The bus took forever.
Weren’t you hungry?
Yes, but she’d bypass food for a fist bump. All she’d lived on for so long was herself, waning. She ached for anyone she’d made music with to just touch her. To lay upon her shoulder their warm and callused hand.
The party would be rich with dancing, elbow nudges, high fives, and Adachukwu’s stupor broke because she realized she was hugging herself. She let go. Bit back a snarl, yanked a broken pull-cord as the marquee smiled Sugarmaple Street. She kept pulling yellow through the loops that held it, did the same with the pull-cord on the other side.
Soon a nest of cords hid her skirt. Then she tied the pull-cords into a loop, and threw this up toward the emergency exit. She lassoed air, but during her frustration-light moments she could throw until her arms broke and elude dissatisfaction, only pain or exhaustion could stop her; the spirit was willing, the flesh never-wailing. She grasped for her frustration, recalling other times she’d felt it fully, but she was chamomile-calm. The fog didn’t quite leave her. Nor did her resolve, so she kept throwing.
A loop snagged on the handle. Adachukwu tugged the cord, then fell as the bus lurched. The exit unhinged and she stifled a shriek then collapsed back onto the floor, panting. Instead of the sky, a mirror. Instead of the heavens, her alone—what had scared her. What would always scare her. The dark circles beneath her eyes were incredible, as if from violence.
Grit scraped the nape of her neck, dirtied her clothes and short coiled hair. The exit’s handle lay beside her—broken from the tugging, probably, though she’d missed its fall during her scare. She angled her head toward the marquee, still breathing hard. Basford Lane, read the eyes winking. At some point, the lillian would drink her determination away. When this round ended, who knew if she’d be brought back again, and again, and again and again and againagainagainagone…two. Three, four. Five six seven.
Adachukwu gulped air. From the ground the bus’ bouncing punctuated her skull. What was happening to her neurons now? What would Penny say in this situati—but she didn’t want to imagine Penny in this situation. Or at all. Yet in sorrow’s absence arose bafflement. They hadn’t even fought. How could a bloodless separation be this disastrous? It was absurd. Adachukwu’s mind had lain in mayhem for months. That the lillian could parse her emotions enough to drink them separately struck her as miraculous and petulant: what a goddamn picky eater. Otherwise, an allergic.
Adachukwu had stood and was giving her neck a too-early try when the thought settled. The lillian had only drank a few of her body parts at a time, too. Maybe she was a delicacy one way—isolated, put on ice—but otherwise skewed inedible, even poisonous. Her body she couldn’t do much about, but her emotions, perhaps. If the bus could play mixologist, why shouldn’t she?
First, to recall the night Penny had fallen like a sparrow arrow-slain from that apple tree. Adachukwu had thought she’d lost her. Just for a second, but what a long one. It’d been post-finals second year, summertime so new it squeaked. Fueled by alcohol, Penny had climbed a sturdy-seeming tree in pursuit of an apple, a star, attention.
Hey, quit that, Penny’s friend Solina said, and Adachukwu added, Come down.
No no no no, I’m fine!
It’s okay not to be okay, Adachukwu deadpanned, and Penny had called, That’s my line! In response Adachukwu fake-sulked, sipped beer, and glanced at Penny now and again.
The moon loomed such that the moment Penny fell was one Adachukwu heard first. For her, there was the branches’ snap, Penny’s frightful laugh, a flock of gasps, the thud and silence and Adachukwu’s scream, then everyone else’s. Adachukwu couldn’t believe she had screamed first. Penny couldn’t believe Adachukwu had screamed, which she told her later. Adachukwu’s dominant emotions then had been guilt that she hadn’t stopped or, somehow, caught Penny, a gnawing sympathy for Penny’s pain. An anger at Penny for falling, for being surprised at and making light of Adachukwu’s distress. Irritation at herself for making this about her. Here, in the bus, Adachukwu forced her facial muscles upward, grinning until counterfeit physical happiness mingled with her cheeks’ aching and the memory’s fright and fury.
Next, Adachukwu scowled in remembrance of one of Nassim’s gorgeous solos, ran to salute a sun-soaked Sunday, spun herself nauseous when she recalled red velvet and chin chin, bubble tea and puff puff, the sweetnesses she’d deserted. She felt as blurry and borderless as she did in choir, where most loneliness was impossible and her diaphragm chased breath from her as harmony or, when necessary, a howl. Above her soared sopranos, and below swam tenors and basses. With lines subtle yet sublime, she and her fellow altos strengthened the oceans and sky of the music while holding its centre, Adachukwu song-drunk and swaying as the tempo took residence in her teeth. She listened for the others and they for her and each other; the choir was its own first, dearest audience. If singing was Adachukwu’s backbone then choir was her ribcage: one kept her upright while the other protected her heart. Her feelings regarding this required no tampering. Dwelling on choir already suffused her with many tender, tart sensations, most unnameable.
She woke without mischief.
With a grunt, Adachukwu hurled the emergency exit handle heavenward. Sixteen throws later, the mirror shattered onto her hair and around her feet, revealing yet another mirror. Shaking off sparkles, Adachukwu tied the pull cords around shards, accidentally cutting herself as the bus trundled on. She winced at this, and at her reflection despite herself.
The last time she’d felt like this about mirrors was before university, any time she walked calmly to the bathroom and there let her face crumple from rage, frustration, whatever unhappiness was making her ugly to her parents. At home she spoke and moved positively always, lest she receive tongue-lashings that left her brittle. The refrain of her childhood was stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about: her tears were manipulative, unbecoming, ungrateful most of all. Now she kissed her teeth, sneered, performed disdain until a wrath-tinged version of it sunk her shoulders. Certainly the lillian stole from her, but she’d dealt with subtler thieves.
She stretched the sneer, thinking: how many times had Penny told her it was okay to cry, and how many times had Adachukwu thought Maybe for you and bit back—or couldn’t restrain—her vitriol? She’d long seen Penny as a lovable drama queen, but wondered now if Penny sometimes believed her to be disingenuous. She was disingenuous, often, she thought suddenly.
But never when she sang, and Penny had known that. Adachukwu put her truest self into music. It was her least offensive mode of expression. Anything worked, from melodic rap to ballads to the pop rock Adachukwu favored, but Halcyon especially was a sturdy vessel for Adachukwu’s overdramatics, reflecting in its lyrics her contradictory feelings.
She stood at the back of the bus and sang Halcyon with bitterness, bewilderment, and bliss, sang herself scratchy but remained a ready rival to the nightingale and the lounge-bound chanteuse. The bus route was long enough for about four runs through Halcyon before she slept at Millay: time enough to make herself into a cocktail when the bus wanted her neat, to sing with unabated, baited breath and hook a questing lillian.
She filled the feeding ground with her confliction, gifting it unshed should haves, the ghosts of puff puff past, inert inside jokes: her and Penny’s ‘Jeez Louise’ call-and-response, their window-shopping bets, the porridge meter, mispronouncing ‘pistachio’. Our Nneka. The heart was lousy with chambers, could hold cities of turmoil, pumped as much confusion as blood. Adachukwu crooned and listened to the mirror wind-chimes she’d strung up to compensate for the lack of a harpist.
Each note flourished through its life cycle. Attack, decay, sustain, release. She understood: they’d met when they needed to; they’d harmonized away their halcyon days; they’d loved each other, hadn’t they?; and they’d let go in slow-motion.
For unclarity she sang the piece with a nocturne’s wistfulness though the bus charged through its daytime, and threaded in other songs to mangle any emotional separation. She transposed beloved phrases from Powell into C major, Halcyon’s key; shifted the tempo of a Tin medley and slid it into Halcyon’s ¾ rhythm; peppered the third run-through with more opposite-mood songs and genres.
Halcyon tackled an old question on the off-beat. If, to preserve your Argo, you assert the righteousness of the untouched original—watch it crumble, scorn its drownings, refuse additions and replacements and call this neglect preservation—then what are you left with? Is it more trustworthy like this, more seaworthy?
In Halcyon, no; the boat deserved the future, no matter how different it grew from what’d it been, and maintaining a body or soul or affection—for yourself, for those you hoped to continue loving—meant evolving your heart and its reach, lest its purpose die from disuse. Adachukwu mostly agreed but was certain now that love was like matter in that it could never be destroyed, only transformed into inheritance or hindrance, hatred or hope, habit, and habitat—hadn’t she and Penny texted each other I’m home for ages without adding your between the first and second words because it was obvious? The wind-chimes threw light and music everywhere. Outside, a bank passed, then a smile convulsed on the marquee for Millay Street.
A night lily bittersweetness laced her nostrils, and something colossal and cinnamonesque rushed her. She fell asleep as she was scrambling backwards, but in her haste banged her elbow against a seat. The pain that lanced through Adachukwu woke her seconds after she’d fallen asleep, and she gasped, drawing in the lillian faster.
The smell jabbed her nose. She remembered the theft of her belly button. How she’d been made both bowl and libation. When she’d discovered the lillian she’d screamed, and it had departed through her mouth. The other times she slept, exhalation must have been its exit route.
So she pinched her nose shut and closed her mouth, grinding her teeth together. Now came the sipping, right there, at the hollow of her throat. And even as her skin rippled with goosebumps she willed the lillian to continue its work. Something fluttered in her neck, parallel to her pulse, then became frantic and heaving and, suddenly, unhungry. It paled. It bloomed abscesses here, there, elsewhere. It was feverish, she could feel the smear of peppery heat; it was diminishing, and though it had slaked its thirst the drink was a venom that scoured its insides. Adachukwu recognized this—she didn’t like how her stomach and chest felt whenever she shoved down her rougher-edged emotions, either—then came quiet epiphany, that she’d been poisoning herself as she was poisoning the gagging lillian, the slowing bus. It mightn’t have mattered if the lillian had left while she slept slack-jawed, but Adachukwu kept her mouth closed in case. In what felt like minutes but must have just been molasses-mired moments, the lillian expired. Either it tasted of nothing or of her tongue.
She swallowed, shuddered as frustration, mischief, sadness leaked into her stomach lining. Didn’t loosen her lips though her lungs were near bursting because she wasn’t done, not until the bus stopped would she be done, Adachukwu would hold her breath until world’s end if she must though her mouth was filthy with stillness.
When the lights died, so did the engine. The interior darkened, save for the marquee’s afterimage glow. The mirror-windchimes swung forward, then backward, and then not at all.
Signs dazzled Adachukwu as she coughed from the sudden surplus of air. A heartbeat passed before she realized they weren’t written in eyes and smiles. ‘For Your Safety Please Hold On’, which she’d been too good and bad at over the past four months. On the marquee, ‘Next stop: Millay Street’. And beside her, ‘Exit By Rear Doors’.
Adachukwu tugged a pull cord with a bloody hand, gaped at the ding! and the driver, and careened from the bus. A second, then, to catch her breath and gaze at the peopled world. A father and daughter argued, couples strolled hand-in-hand, dogwalkers smiled at their charges. St. Cecilia and 8th was yet to come, but Marlon’s party would be there when she turned up. It had to be. She ran, bracelets jangling, and each footfall alternated between the sensation of flying, and that of falling.
Afterward, Adachukwu turned the key in her apartment door, smiling at the combined sound of this and her jewellery, and stepped carefully inside. At the party she’d been complimented on her new perfume, which smelled…bitter? said someone. But like cinnamon. More focus landed on her cut hand and raw voice.
“You didn’t have to fight anyone for an invite, you know,” Marlon had joked, bandaging her. “Looks like you barely made it.”
Adachukwu shrugged. “You should see the other guy.”
But if he couldn’t see how light was shy toward her—that it touched her so hesitantly, as if it couldn’t quite believe she was there—she doubted he ever would, thankfully.
Adachukwu also doubted that that was the only thing her time in the bus had changed. Shortly after her arrival to the party, it became clear that the unsteadiness she’d attributed to post-bus euphoria was longer-lingering; she kept having to catch herself, or lean on someone, whenever her concentration slipped. In converting flesh and feelings into fuel, then back, then back again, more yet-unrealized things must have been lost, gained, and rearranged, the way poems drifted when remade in different languages. She told herself she’d been translated this way, too; she could not think of herself as something come back wrong. The meaning or at least meaningfulness of her remained even if her exactitudes were changing. She would see her doctor, take measurements, learn the differences as they arrived, and be gentle and careful with herself, sweeter, from here.
A sob billowed in her chest, but left as a sigh; translation, again. This would take time. She’d give herself time.
Adachukwu locked then leaned against the door, checking her phone—she’d charged it at Marlon’s. Nassim had asked if she’d gotten home okay, and she replied, made it, thanks! 🙂
And it was nice of him to ask, so Penny of him that Adachukwu choked up. Four months wasn’t long compared to the length of her and Penny’s friendship. It wasn’t even long compared to the time she’d spent on that bus.
Blue light carved her face as Adachukwu navigated to contacts. Beside Penny glowed the words compass emoji??? instead of a compass emoji, another inside joke. The last message from Adachukwu asked where they were meeting for their ‘catch-up’. The last from Penny read, honeycomb corner on ailiph. Adachukwu tilted her head back against the door to breathe around a lump in her throat, careful not to do so too quickly. Her saliva tasted like night lilies suddenly and she swallowed hard, counting to seven.
Eventually, Adachukwu unlocked her phone and typed, erased, typed, hovered over send.
What did she expect from this? Closure, resurrection, maybe confirmation that both were myth. If this changed nothing Adachukwu would likely cry, and if it changed everything she might cry, too. But if she continued as she had been, music would break under the strain of being both weapon and cathartic, it had to, and where would that leave her?—not to mention she must be utterly salt-logged by now, from her years. So she would weep if she needed, whatever the case. She’d bear herself witness. She’d grant herself grace.
Adachukwu sent a message and popped her neck. She waited, phone hot in her hand. And later, when the tears came, she let them fall freely.