Usual and unusual caveats:
– This is not autobiographical. It is a work of fiction. Looking at you, Mum.
– I have only the vaguest possible idea who the reader might be cast as in this story. I don’t think it matters.
– Inspired by: finding the new underpass. Stranger Things. A painting I suddenly remembered and tried to find, only to realize it hasn’t been painted yet. A suitcase. A black Toyota coupe that has been parked by the highway for the last six weeks.
– Caveat lector: expecto tenebris.
She texts you, which is odd. She’s not the texting sort. You’ve seen her type, fingers flying over the keys of a battered laptop or library computer, ninety words a minute and still struggling to keep up with her whirling brain. Occasionally flicking back a lock of hair or straightening her glasses, heavy plastic mock-tortoiseshell, to cope with the thick lenses. ’80s glasses. She emails, screeds of bubbly, self-interrupting prose, each paragraph a single sentence of a hundred or so words, rendered grammatical by liberal use of dashes, parentheses, and – her favorite – semicolons. It might take a page and a half to explain why she can’t hang out this week, and along the way you’ll hear about a glorious sunset, a TV show, a new beanie with sparkles in the yarn, and how much work she had to do on her car just to find out that the problem was spark plugs all along. You don’t always read all of it, and she knows you don’t, so she makes sure to put the point of the email as the very first line. And don’t even start thinking about her handwriting. You’ve seen less impressive works of art. Words are important to her; she doesn’t text.
She likes picnics, and cupcakes, and perfect smooth spirals of piped buttercream (which she makes herself; bought cupcakes apparently are an abomination). Every so often, she emails you with a time and place, and usually a flowery description of the place, and expects you to meet her there. Somehow she always chooses a convenient time.
Last time it was the perfectly elliptical goldfish pond in the municipal gardens, where the fish dart to and fro under the flat shadows of the waterlilies, and tall whispering bulrushes hide a causeway of stepping stones, and a carved granite table and seats, standing up out of the water. When you got there, she was waiting for you, with a grin brighter than the sparkles of reflected light in the pond… and a canvas satchel containing cans of root beer and a box of purple cupcakes. The time before that, it was the broad flat branch of a ginkgo tree in the arboretum, which by the addition of a damask shawl and a daffodil in a soda bottle vase became an impromptu table. The cupcakes were chocolate. And before that… it was the top of a staircase in a downtown theater, with cloudy lemonade from Foxton and caramel-popcorn macarons. You always come when you are asked. And the two of you hang out, and chat, and sometimes she gets philosophical. You don’t like that so much, because she has a macabre streak that makes you uncomfortable enough to change the subject every time.
Today it is a bright warm day in January, and you have not been invited to an impromptu picnic in over a month, when the text arrives. The middle of the roundabout on the highway at the north end. Take the underpass. 2130 hr on Tuesday. You’re not quite sure how she plans to pull this one off, but you go anyway. You park a few hundred yards from the roundabout, on the city side, not the open road side, and look around in the uncertain twilight – astronomical twilight, she would tell you, not nautical, it’s important – until you see the small blue sign pointing to the underpass. Cars flash by, and B-trains roar along the road, the hot wind of their passing whisking up the dust of the shimmering hot day. It has been clear for weeks, and the green streak is in the sky, between the lingering blush of the setting sun and the gathering blue twilight.
In the freshly-painted curve of the underpass, it should be dark, or almost dark, but lights twinkle cheerfully across the low arched vault of the roof – a rope of multicolored LED fairy lights, in lightsaber colors, blue, green, yellow, purple, and white. A note is tacked to the wall under the first light with a dab of blue-tack. Pale-green paper, and your name elegantly scrawled across the top, in her inimitable fountain-pen handwriting. Almost there, the note says. Thank you so much for coming. Rising above the new-paint smell of the underpass and the gasoline smell of the highway is a sweeter scent – cool and clean, aldehyde-rich and slightly spicy. Scented notepaper. How… typical.
The fairy lights lead on through the gloom of the tunnel, under the thundering rhythm of the trucks on the highway, and you follow; the twinkling light is just enough to see your way by. And enough to see the second note. You are under the center of the highway now, and the dim seepage of grey twilight from the ends of the tunnel has faded to nothing. It is hard to read the words by the intermittently flashing lights, but you manage to make out an unnaturally straight hand-drawn arrow, pointing on along the tunnel, and the annotation open this under the sky. In the middle of the roundabout, the underpass opens briefly, into a kind of garden, hidden in the midst of the traffic. You smile to yourself; it is exactly the kind of place she would choose for a picnic, on a warm summer night, lit by the fairy lights and the sodium streetlamps of the roundabout.
The underpass is new enough that it has not gained the sickly odor of garbage and waste like older tunnels in the city. You pick out the components of the new-underpass smell – dust, rubber, and gasoline fumes from the highway. Clean paint and the sharp sand under the bricks of the tunnel floor. A breath of her perfume from the notes in your hand. The clear pungent scent of tea tree and heather, from the scrubby specimens grown as cheap groundcover all over the roundabout. And at bottom, something nasty – like hot metal and thawing meat.
The fairy lights end suddenly in a tangled heap across the path, just beyond the tunnel mouth. You can’t see her anywhere, but as you look around, a glint of metal on the edge of the path catches your eye. Probably a discarded bottle cap or soda can, but the shape is familiar…
It’s a tantō. Her tantō. A slim, flat-bladed knife, the whole thing just short enough to slip into a jacket sleeve unseen. The hilt is deep reddish-orange matai wood, reclaimed from the floorboards of a demolished house and polished glassy smooth. The ground chisel tip she uses for opening envelopes and cutting sellotape is harmless enough. The edge is wickedly razor-sharp. Tonight, under the glare of the sodium lights overhead, the blade drips black. You wipe it thoughtlessly on your jeans – one should never, ever leave a knife like this on the damp ground, and certainly never leave it dirty – and stoop to pick up the lacquered green-and-silver sheath from the bricks of the path.
The metal smell is stronger here, and the flies that are so ubiquitous in summer are out in force, humming lazily about, stirred by your arrival into an irritable whine.
And there she is. She lies on the ground, a meter or so from the path, eyes closed, legs neatly together, one hand resting across her stomach, the other sprawled out toward the path. Asleep. Only when you see the sheet of dark polythene under her head and shoulders do you realize something is badly, badly wrong. Her black t-shirt and jeans hide the truth for a minute or so, but as you step off the path and up into the heather, you see the blood pooled in the plastic, matted in her long red hair that looks white under the strange lights. She spread the plastic out to keep the mess off the plants. To make it easier for the city workers who will clean this up tomorrow. Why couldn’t she have made it easier for you? Why couldn’t she have called the police, an ambulance, maybe one of those suicide hotlines, instead? She never even tried to talk.
A blowfly wanders the edge of the crinkled plastic, sipping at the blood, and you wave it angrily away. You see the dark line, glistening with fast-congealing liquid, slashed in her neck, and you know she knew where the carotid artery is. You know because you taught her. It would have been quick, and with that knife it would have been almost painless. For her.
She must have flung the tantō away in the end – not that it did any good. Belatedly, you remember the second note, and slit it open with the tip of the knife. I’m sorry I had to do this. I’m sorry I had to make you find me. I want you to know this is not on you; if anything you helped delay it.
“Oh no,” you hear yourself say, oddly loud in a sudden lull in the traffic. “Oh no.”
Mkay yeah, that was unusually morbid even for me.
I’m fine, by the way.