Real Women Have Bodies

By Carmen Maria Machado

There’s no way around it: my place of employment, Glam, looks like Versailles, if Versailles were in hell. I used to think it was like the inside of a casket. Then I looked into one, and it was so bright, with its plush, pale pink satin and matching buttons. The inside of a casket resembles a bride. A blushing, opaque bride. One who hasn’t faded—yet. But Glam has black walls and black carpet and a black ceiling, and even the mirror that is easily twice as tall as I am. With its ornate baroque twirls, there’s a black frame, its reflecting glass filled with the black of the opposing wall. Glam is like Spencer’s but less fun, like the Halloween Superstore but more terrifying.

The black is to show off the dresses. It’s to terrify our patrons into an existential crisis and then, a purchase. This is what Gizzy tells me. She runs four seasonal shops all over the Valley, decked out now for prom season. One store’s landlord doesn’t permit her to paint the ceilings or walls. That location always performs worse than its sisters. “The black,” she says, “reminds us that we are mortal and that youth is fleeting. Also, nothing makes pink taffeta pop like a dark void.”

If anyone can get away with using color to menace the Valley’s prom-going crowd, it’s Gizzy. She is so tall that she can dust the top of the giant mirror with only a small stepstool. She is my mother’s age, maybe a little older, but her face is strangely youthful and unlined. She paints her mouth so evenly and cleanly that if you look at her too hard, you feel faint. I can’t say that she has her eyeliner tattooed on her eyelids, but I can say that it looks perfect and identical every day.

My co-worker Natalie thinks that Gizzy runs stores like this because she’s pining after her lost youth, which is her answer for why any “real adult” does anything she doesn’t like. Natalie rolls her eyes behind Gizzy’s back and always rehangs the dresses a little roughly, as if they are to blame for our low hourly wage or the fact that we have useless degrees and enough student debt to drown a small city. I follow behind her, smoothing out the skirts because I hate to see them ruffled. They always look distressed.

I know the truth. Not because I’m particularly perceptive. I just overheard Gizzy talking on the phone once. I’ve seen the way she runs her hands over the dresses, the way her fingers linger on people’s skin. Her daughter is faded, gone, and there isn’t anything that she can do about it.

The first reports of fading started about six years ago, at the height of the recession. The first faded women simply vanished from public life. When concerned friends and family broke into their apartments, many of them were expecting to find dead bodies.

I guess, in some ways, what they actually found was worse.

I saw a documentary about them once. The first ten minutes of the film was amateur footage from a landlord in Cincinnati, who brought a video camera with him in order to cover his ass as he evicted a woman who had fallen behind on the rent. He moved from room to room, the eye of the camera swinging this way and that. The video was deceptively calm—the man made wisecracks as he worked his way around the apartment. You could almost miss the punchline to the whole meandering affair if you were not looking closely enough. But then the camera spun around, and there she was, in the most sundrenched corner of the room, hidden by the light. She was naked, and trying to conceal it. She was crying. The sound was so soft that the inane chatter of the landlord had covered it until then. But then you could hear it—miserable, terrified. You could barely make her out, in the brightness.

Once a woman begins to fade, she has only a few weeks left before she is entirely gone. During this interval, she will frequently sputter in and out of having mass like a flickering lightbulb. Some faded women look like ghosts. Others, you can see their insides as if they are jellyfish.

No one knows why women fade, or even what causes it. It’s not passed in the air. It’s not sexually transmitted. At first everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the Millennials, and finally, the water. But the water’s been tested, the Millennials aren’t the only ones going incorporeal, and it doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.

*   *   *

“I really like this,” says the girl with the seal-hair, the one who looks like she has emerged from the ocean with a gleaming pelt. The dress is the color of Dorothy’s shoes and it has no back. “But I don’t want to get a reputation.” She puts her hands on her hips and turns around and flashes a smile. For a moment she looks like Jane Russell from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and then she is seal-girl again, and then she is just a girl. Her mother brings her another dress, this one gold with a kind of cobalt shimmer on its surface. It is Glam’s first day of this year’s season, so there are many to choose from.

The dresses are bright teal slink and dusky pink thunderpuff. Their skirts are curling, ruffled, with layers of taffeta and silk. Their busts are crunchy with coral hand-stitched sequins, and netting the color of frosted sea glass, the color of pebbles, of neon early morning buttercream, of overripe cantaloupe. The most expensive dress costs seven hundred and thirty-five dollars, the least expensive two hundred, down from four because a strap is broken and Petra’s mother has been too busy to come fix it.

Petra delivers the dresses to Glam because her mother is Glam’s only supplier. Though they have taken to skulking around Glam’s entrance to gawk at the customers and shout rude comments, the Sadie’s Photo crew—Chris and Casey and a rotating assortment of other undergrad-age guys—leave her alone. She wears a baseball cap over her short brown hair and tightly laced combat boots. When she’s hauling the gauzy dresses wrapped up in plastic, she looks like she’s battling a giant prom monster—all petticoat undersides and rhinestone tentacles—with her bare hands, and that is not the kind of woman you idly mess with. Casey referred to her as a dyke once during a smoke break, and I told him to go fuck himself, but he’s too afraid of her to do anything to her face.

She makes me nervous, in a sweaty, heart-racing kind of way. We have had exactly two exchanges since I started working at Glam. The first one went like this:

“Do you need any help?”

“No.”

And, three weeks later:

“It must be raining,” I said, as the prom dress creature trembled in her hands and the plastic sheeting sent off drops of water.

“Maybe if it rains enough, we’ll all drown.”

She is very cute when she comes out from underneath all of that fabric.

Part Two

Behind the emergency exit, Chris shares a cigarette with Casey. They pass it between them, and the smoke curls out of their mouths like goldfish.

“Hips,” Chris says. “That’s what you want. Hips and flesh. Something you can grab onto, you know? What would you do without something to hold? That’s like—like—”

“Like trying to drink water without a cup,” Casey finishes.

I am always surprised at the poetry with which boys can describe boning.

They offer me the cigarette, like always. Like always, I decline. I come out here to get myself out of Glam for ten minutes, not to smoke. The breaks at Glam and the breaks at Sadie’s Photo just happen to match up.

“Those other girls.” Casey grinds the cigarette against the wall and lets it drop; the ash clings to the brick like a bad cough. “You know.”

“All I’m saying is,” says Chris, “if I want to fuck mist, I’ll just wait for a foggy night and pull my dick out.”

I pinch the muscle between my shoulder and neck. “Don’t some guys like that?”

“Who likes it? No one I know,” Chris says. He reaches out and presses his thumb into my collarbone, quickly. “You’re like a stone.”

“Thanks.” I knock his hand away.

“I mean, you’re warm.”

“Thanks.”

“Those other girls—“ Chris begins.

“Man, did I ever tell you about the time I photographed a girl who was just about to fade?” Casey says. Sadie’s Photo mostly does children’s portrait photography, handing them adorable props and planting them in these hellish little dioramas—a farmhouse, a treehouse, a gazebo by a pond that’s actually a piece of glass surrounded by green felt—but occasionally they get teenagers, even adult couples.

Chris shakes his head.

“I took her portrait, and when I was trying to clean it up on the computer, there were all these weird reflections, and I was sure that the camera was broken, but then I realized that I was just seeing what was behind her.”

“Shit, dude. Did you tell her?”

“Hell no. She’d find out soon enough.”

I think of the girl I saw fade when I was eighteen. She was in my class, my senior year of high school. She might have played field hockey, or maybe she was on the debate team. She might have been an actress. She was a tall girl, muscular. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember seeing her walk through the hallways. I guess she always looked all right. But then she seemed thin and pale, like she was getting sick, really sick, and then thinner and paler, and then one day her clothes just dropped through her, gathering at her feet except not exactly—more in them. Through them. And you’d think that the stir would have been that she was fading—well, faded—but they worried a lot about her naked body. She had no clothes, no way to be clothed, and she was just standing in the middle of the hallway, and students pressed in on all sides to see her. Never mind that you couldn’t even see her contours, that the outline of her heart, pounding in terror, was clearer than her tits. The teachers made a circle around her. They pleaded with her to leave the building, or at least to go into a room where they could close the door. Cajoling was their only power, as they couldn’t grab her and drag her away—their hands would go through her forearm like it was steam. She was weeping in a way that I have never heard before or since. A desperate, disbelieving sound. The kind of sound you’d hear from someone as the end of world bore down on them.

“Hey stone-girl,” Casey shouts above the rumble of a forklift. “You coming?”

*   *   *

Gizzy reprimanded Natalie for grunting at a customer while I was on break, and so when I come back in, Natalie is glowering, stomping around the interior of Glam like a tiger stalking every inch of its cage. Gizzy rolls her eyes as I sign in.

“I don’t know why I keep her around,” she says in a dry voice. “Petra will be in later with some new dresses. Don’t let Natalie take off anyone’s head.”

Natalie unwraps four sticks of gum and folds them into her mouth one at a time, rolling the mass around in there as she chews, slowly and without apparent pleasure. Chris and Casey stop by, but when they catch her glare, they take off as if she’s spitting acid.

“Fuckers,” she mutters. “I have a freaking photography degree, and I can’t even get a job at Sadie’s Photo, taking pictures of screaming babies. What the fuck makes those two pervs able to work there?” Aggravated, she takes the first dress she sees and turns the hanger around. The mountain blue bustle trembles. I turn it back.

“And every asshole who comes in here, every fucking one. I feel their judgment. I feel it. Fuck it. They’re going to leave college exactly as fucked as we are.” The more words Natalie replaces with variations of “fuck,” the closer we are to the danger zone. The danger zone involves broken hangers, write-ups, closing up alone.

“Maybe we should work on a project together, in our free time,” I say. “I could write a children’s book, and you could design it.” This is the sort of distractingly optimistic idea that would keep me excited for days, but I have underestimated how unlike me Natalie is.

“Fuck no.”

I let her rage through the store, which is empty of people. I stand near the closest rack, a collection ranging from pale, silky seafoam to dense moss, smoothing the skirts. The dresses look even sadder than normal tonight, even more like stringless marionettes. I hum under my breath as I fix twisted sequins. One of them pops off and flutters through the air. I kneel down and press the tip of my finger to it; then I tug at the hems so that they skim an even inch over the black carpeting. When I look up, I see a pair of combat boots, a set of palms facing me, curiously lined.

“You getting off soon?” Petra asks me. I stare at her for a long moment, my crooked index finger bearing a gleaming sequin.

“I get off at nine.”

“It’s nine now.”

I stand up. The dresses that Petra has brought are laid gently over the counter. Natalie is back at the register, watching us curiously. “Are you okay to close up?” I ask her. She nods, her left eyebrow so sharply arched, it’s in danger of touching her hairline. Oh Natalie.

We sit at a small table in the food court, across from Glam and the ice skating rink. The mall has just closed, so the main room is empty except for clerks turning out the lights and rolling down the clattering grates at the storefronts.

“We could get a coffee or something, or—“

She touches my arm, and a bolt of pleasure runs from my cunt to my breastbone. She is wearing a necklace I’ve never seen before: a milky stone encased in a tangled sprawl of silver vines. Her lips are a little chapped.

“I hate coffee,” she says.

“What about—“

“I hate that, too.”

*   *   *

Petra’s mother runs the Super 8 off Route 74. The patrons are mostly truckers, Petra explains as she drives, which is why the motel is set so far off the road. In between is a tundra of thick, knobbly ice, over which Petra’s ancient station wagon rocks like a canoe against the lapping tide. Slowly, we move closer and closer to the motel, which looms in the distance like a haunted house. As we get closer, it looks larger, though no less haunted. A sign on the dilapidated building next to the motel blinks through a set of letters, B-A-R, three times before illuminating in its entirety and going dark. Petra drives with one hand on the wheel, the other rubbing a slow circle on my hand. I don’t know what has come over me. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have done this. But two years ago, I thought I had a future. I guess a lot has changed.

Petra parks the car along a deserted strip of spaces. The numbered doors are shut against the cold, quiet.

“I need to get a key,” she says. She gets out and walks to the other side of the car. She opens the door. “Are you coming?”

Inside the lobby, a large woman in a peach nightgown is sitting behind a sewing machine. She looks like a melting ice-cream cone—loose. Long hair spills off her head and disappears out of sight behind her back. The gap below the door behind her glows. The room is warm and a soft, mechanical whir fills its spaces. The room behind the desk overflows with fabric, some of it draped on dress forms.

“Hey Mama,” says Petra. The woman doesn’t respond.

Petra bangs on the counter with her hand. “Mama!” The woman behind the desk looks up for only a second. She smiles but does not say anything. Her fingers flit like honeybees, emerging from a hive on a too-warm winter day—dizzy, purposeful, punch-drunk. She moves a piece of heavy cotton through the machine, forming a hem from nothing.

“Who is this?” she asks. Her eyes don’t break from her work.

“She’s from Gizzy’s store at the mall,” Petra says, ruffling through a drawer. She pulls out a white keycard and runs it through a small gray machine, pressing a few buttons. “I’m going to send her back with some of the new dresses.”

“Sounds good, baby girl.”

Petra pockets the card.

“We’re going to take a walk.”

“Sounds good, baby girl.”

Petra fucks me in room 246, which is around the back of the building. The parking lot is also empty there, the lobby out of sight. She turns on the light and fan over the bed, and takes her shirt off by grabbing it behind the collar. I lie down on the bed, and she straddles me.

“You’re really beautiful,” she says into my skin. She grinds her pelvis hard against mine, and I moan, and at some point the cold charm of her necklace dips into my mouth and knocks against my teeth. I laugh, she laughs. She takes off the necklace and sets it down on the nightstand, the chain slithering like sand. When she sits up again, the fan and light frame her head like a glowing halo, like she’s a Madonna in a medieval painting. There is a mirror on the opposite side of the room, and if I get too caught up in her mouth on my skin and her hand on my—what is that? I jerk in fear. I’m seeing faded women everywhere, but it’s just Petra’s reflection. She puts her hand over my mouth and bites my neck.

Afterward, we lie next to each other.

“You’re very kind to the dresses.” She runs a finger down my arm.

“There’s something about them.”

“They’re shockingly ugly.”

“There’s something else.”

Petra studies me. “I knew it. I knew you could tell.”

“What?”

“Come on.” She gets up and slips her shirt on, her underwear, her pants. It takes her a moment to lace her boots up as tightly as they were before. I hunt around for my shirt for a minute before finding it trapped between the mattress and the headboard.

Petra leads me through the parking lot and into the lobby. Her mother is not there. She steps over the cloth and behind the machine, and pushes open the back door.

At first, the room behind the lobby appears strangely lit—blue, in patches—as if novelty night-lights oversee her mother’s sewing. And this is definitely a room for sewing: there are dress forms, a long table scattered with pincushions, a tall rack containing thread of all colors, baskets of sequins, beads, and charms, an unspiraling measuring tape that looks like a snail. Bolts of fabric lean against the table. Petra takes my hand and guides me along the wall.

We are not alone in the room. Petra’s mother is hovering near a dress, a bracelet pincushion wrapped around her wrist. And the room is full of women—faded women. They glow faintly, afterthoughts. They mill and look down at their bodies. One of them, a woman with a drawn face, is standing very close to Petra’s mother. She moves toward the dress slung over the dress form—butter yellow, the skirt gathered in small places like a theater curtain. She presses herself into it, and there is no resistance. As the woman lets her body melt into the dress, Petra’s mother produces a steel needle that seems to wink at me. The thread strung through it is the same guileless gold as the dress. The needle sinks through the girl’s skin as if it is fabric. The fabric takes the needle, too.

The girl does not cry out. I do not understand. Petra’s mother makes tight, neat stitches along the girl’s arm, torso, catching her skin and the fabric as one, binding them together as tightly as two sides of an incision. I realize that I am digging my fingers into Petra’s arm, and she is letting me.

“Get me out,” I say. The girl caught up in the dress has a glazed look in the ghostly curve of her eyes—sadness, resignation. “Please.”

Petra pulls me through the door, and we are standing in the middle of the well-lit vestibule. A foamboard sign resting on an easel reads “Continental Breakfast, 6am – 9am.”

“Tell me,” I say. “Tell me why.”

Petra looks troubled. “I thought you understood,” she says.

“What—“ I point to the door. “What is she doing? What are they doing?”

“We don’t know.” Petra begins to pick at a bowl of fruit. She takes out an orange and rolls it around under her hand. “My mother has always been a seamstress. When Gizzy approached her about making dresses for Glam, she agreed. But when the faded women started showing up—they would just fold themselves into the needlework, like it was what they wanted.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Didn’t she tell them to stop?”

“Yes. They kept coming. We don’t even know how they know about this place.” The orange begins to leak.

“Did you tell Gizzy?”

“Of course. But she said that as long as they wanted it, it was all right. And those dresses do so well—they sell more than anything my mother has ever made before. It’s like people want them like that, even if they don’t realize it. Everyone subconsciously wants to own a faded woman. Everyone.”

I leave the Super 8 on foot. I walk slowly over the ice, falling frequently, turning to look, and see Petra’s outline in the lobby window. My hands go numb with cold. My cunt throbs, my head aches, and I can still feel the charm in my mouth. I can taste the metal, and the stone. At the main road, I hail a cab.

Part Three

In the morning, I get to Glam early. My key is missing—I must have left it at the motel, I realize, swearing under my breath—so I wait for Natalie to get there. Inside the store, I leave her to the morning tasks and search through the dresses. They rustle beneath my fingers, groan on their hangers. I press my face into their skirts, shape the bodices beneath my hands to give them room.

I wander the mall on my lunch break. I wonder about the merchandise I pass, if it too is swollen with conscious beings. The wooden picture frame samples arranged in descending vees down a felt display case look askew, like they’ve been invaded. The glass-and-steel chess set in the window of the game store—are those the reflections of passersby in the fat curve of the queen and the pawns, or faces peering out? There’s an ancient Pac-Man machine that takes everyone’s quarters, seemingly on purpose. I walk past the heavily-scented entrance of a JC Penny’s cosmetics counter, and imagine customers uncapping tubes of lipstick and twisting the color free, and faded women squeezing up around the makeup, thumbs first.

In front of the Auntie Ann’s, I stand and watch as the dough is pulled, heavy and wet. I imagine toddlers, faded girls (they were fading younger and younger, weren’t they? That’s what they said on the news) pressed into the dough, and yes, isn’t that a curled hand? A pouting lip? A little girl standing in front of the counter asks her mother for a pretzel.

“Susan,” the mother admonishes. “Pretzels are junk food. They will make you fat.” And she drags her away.

A posse of girls squeezes into Glam after I get back. They pull dresses off hangers and slip them on carelessly, not even pulling the modesty curtains closed enough to conceal their dressing and undressing. When they come out, I can see the faded women all bound up in them, fingers laced tightly through the grommets. I cannot tell if they are holding on for dear life or if they are trapped. The rustling and trembling of the fabric could be weeping or laughter. The girls spin and lace and tighten. From the doorway of the store, Chris and Casey are gnawing on slurpy straws. They hoot and holler but never cross the threshold. Their mouths are stained blue.

“Fuck you!” I run toward the entrance, a stapler’s comforting weight deep in my palm. My arm is ready to sling it, if I have to. “Get out. Go the fuck away.”

“Jesus,” Chris says, blinking. He takes a step back. “What’s your problem?”

“Hey, Lindsay, nice!” Casey yells into the store. A blonde turns and grins, popping her hip to the side like she’s about to balance an infant on it. Deep in the thick folds of the satin, I see lidless eyes. In Glam’s black bathroom, I throw up everything.

*   *   *

“I can’t stay,” I tell Gizzy. “I just can’t.”

She is all sadness and lipstick. “I know this might sound manipulative,” she says, “but I really like you a lot. The economy is shit. You can’t just quit a job without a new one. Please stay on, at least until you do.”

She is too good for all of this. I want to throw myself into her arms. I start to cry.

She presses on. “Without you, I’m not sure how long Natalie will last.” She hands me a tissue. “I like Natalie.” Her voice is quiet.

I can’t help myself. I laugh through my sobs.

“Why do you like Natalie? I mean, come on, Natalie’s great, but she’s the worst.”

“She’s not the worst.”

“She called a customer a ‘sanctimonious twat’ today. To her face.”

Gizzy sighs. “She reminds me of my daughter, all piss and vinegar. Isn’t that stupid? What a stupid reason.” She smiles, sadly, as she signs my final check and hands it to me. When I close the office door, the last thing I see is Gizzy staring at the far wall.

*   *   *

Petra is waiting next to my car.

“You forgot this.” She hands me the missing key. I take it and slide it into my pocket. I look away from her.

“I just quit,” I say. “I’m leaving.” I open the driver’s side door and drop into it. She lands in the passenger seat.

“Look, what do you want from me?” I say.

“You like me, right?”

I rub my neck. “Yes. I guess.”

“Why don’t we go out? For real this time.” She slings a heavy boot up on the dashboard. “No faded women. No prom dresses.”

I hesitate.

“Promise,” she says.

*   *   *

I find a cleaning job at the local Kraft factory, a late-night shift. The pay is shit, but I move out of my apartment and into the motel, where I can stay for free. The rooms are never entirely full and Petra’s mother will never know the difference.

I spend most of my time in the factory sweeping, mopping, walking past large rooms where hot, acrid blasts of cooking wine take the air out of my lungs. Barbeque sauce is brewing and the smell saturates my hair and clothes. I rarely catch a glimpse of another human being, and I like it that way. It feels so much less real than Glam. Nothing person-shaped, no eyes. I often find myself searching the dark corners, but why would they come here? I am always afraid that I will find one trying to cook herself into the Grey Poupon, but I never do. After I get back, I crawl into Petra’s arms. She never talks about the dresses, and I never ask.

Months fall away like crumpled tissue paper. I consider going to grad school, if the government doesn’t shut the universities down like they’re threatening to. I watch the news with Petra, and we eat Chinese food. We kiss and fuck. Petra seems right beneath my hands, curled up against me. We talk about how we both feel stagnant, everywhere except together.

I think about Glam a lot. I avoid the mall.

One night, I find her standing in front of the bathroom mirror, under those weird fluorescent lightbulbs. She is pulling at her face. I come up behind her and kiss her shoulder. “Hey,” I say. “Sorry, I really reek of A1 today. I’ll take a shower.”

I’ve been subject to every imaginable steak joke before this, but tonight, she bows her head.

“I’m fading,” she says, and as she says it, I can see that her skin is more like skim milk than whole, that she seems less there. She breathes and the impression blinks, like she’s fighting it. I feel like my feet are trapdoors that have sprung open, and my insides are hurtling out of my body. I want to hold her, but I’m afraid that, if I do, her body will give way beneath my arms. “I don’t want to die,” she says.

“The faded are not dead,” I say, but the statement tastes like a lie. Even if the faded aren’t technically dead, they’re gone. They can be sewn into gowns, folded into batter. They are more consumable than your average woman. Much easier to swallow.

I have never seen Petra cry, not until now. She brings her hands to her face—the outline of her lips visible, ever so faintly, through their jailbars of tendons, muscle, and bone. A shudder runs the length of her body. I touch her, and still she has mass. A stone.

“A month,” Petra says. “About a month.” She pinches the bridge of her nose, tugs her earlobes, presses her fingers tightly into her stomach.

That first night, Petra just wants to be held, so that’s what I do. We line up our bodies and press them together, every inch. She wakes up ravenous—for food, for me.

Part Four

A few days later, I wake up and Petra is gone. I flip back the covers, stalk into the bathroom, shove the shower curtain open with a slinking rattle. I feel a chill carry through my body, and I check the drawers, the space beneath the TV, the inside of the radiator. Nothing.

As the mattress creaks beneath my sinking body, she comes though the door, her shirt sticking to her through patches of sweat. She bends over and puts her hands on her knees, still trying to catch her breath. Only when she looks up does she see me, shaking.

“Oh god, oh god, I’m so fucking sorry.” She sits down next to me and I bury my face in her shoulder, where she smells like loam.

“I thought it’d happened already,” I whisper. “I thought you were gone.”

“I just needed to get out into the morning,” she says. “I wanted to feel my body running.” She kisses me. “Let’s go out tonight.”

We go to the trucker bar behind the motel. The beers taste watery and the glasses sweat. We sit at a table with pictures of foxheads and people’s names carved into the scarred wood. Petra has discovered that she can pass small objects through her fingers sometimes, so she drops coins into her hand as we sip our beers. I can’t watch.

“Let’s play darts or something,” I say.

Petra lifts her fingers and tried to grab at the quarter on the table. Her fingers pass through it once, twice, but on the third try her hand seems to blink into the physical universe again and she gets it. She sinks the quarter into the jukebox. I ask the bartender for darts and he hands them to me in an old cigar box.

We take turns throwing them at the target. Neither of us is very good, and I bury one in the wall. Petra finishes her beer, buys another. I don’t like the way she is pulling the darts out of the board—like she is yanking on an opponent’s ponytail. After the fourth game, her hand blinks out mid-drink and the glass falls, beer and shards of glass asterisking on the wooden floorboards.

Petra walks over to the board. I can see her opening and closing her fist, feeling for substance. In the moment that matter returns to her, she rests her hand, flat and palm-down, on the wall. Pulling the dart from the target, she plunges it deep into the back of her hand, just below the knuckles.

The bartender stops taking an order. “Holy—”

I crash past the table and grab Petra, though not before she has plunged the needle of the dart into her hand twice more. She is screaming. Blood streams down her arm like maypole ribbons. Men get up quickly from their stools and chairs, some of which clatter to the floor. Petra flails, howling. Her blood spatters the wall like rain. A stocky man in a black baseball cap helps me drag her out the front door. I half-carry, half-haul her across the icy parking lot. After we have gone a few dozen yards, she seems to soften in my arms. For a moment, I am terrified she is fading again, but no, she is still solid, just limp with exhaustion and stubbornness. A dark trail marks the path we have taken.

She refuses the hospital. In our room, I disinfect her wound, wrap it in gauze.

*   *   *

We have never fucked with such urgency as we do in these weeks, but she is fading and she is feeling less. She comes infrequently. She fades for longer and longer periods of time—one minute, four, seven. Each episode shows a different view of her—a skeleton, ropy muscles, the dark shapes of her organs, nothing. She wakes up sobbing, and I rope my arm tightly around her torso, shushing gently into her ear. She reads on the internet that you can slow fading down if you eat a high-iron diet, so she steams enough spinach to feed a large family and chews on it wordlessly.

Petra wants to go for a hike, so on a warm Sunday we do. Spring seizes the Valley in fits and spurts, and today the paths through the woods are muddy. Snow melts and drips water into our hair. We follow a creek that is practically a living thing, surging messily through its own curves and bends.

We take a break in a sunny clearing and eat oranges and cold chicken. Petra has taken to treating every meal as her last, so she peels the skins off the pieces of chicken and chews on them with her eyes closed, and then the meat itself, and then she sucks hard on every bone before throwing it off into the trees. She sets each wedge of orange into her mouth reverently, as if it is the Eucharist, bites into the meat, and pulls the rinds away like hangnails. She rubs the peels against her skin.

“I’ve been doing some reading,” says Petra in between pulls of ice water. “It turns out that they think that faded women are doing this sort of—I don’t know, I guess you’d call it terrorism? They’re getting themselves into electrical systems and fucking up servers and ATMs and voting machines.” She still refers to faded women in the third person. “I like that.”

The woods are quiet but for the hum of insects and twittering of birds. We peel off our clothes and soak in the sun. I examine my fingertips against the light, pink-amber haloes around the shadows of my bones.

I lean over Petra and kiss her bottom lip, the top. I kiss her throat. I bury my hand between her thighs.

Around us, minutes inch over the dirt like ants, tumble into the swollen stream, are carried away.

*   *   *

We find a chapel among the trees. The pews are even and rigid, and stained glass windows line the walls. Our footfalls echo along the stone floor. The air is hot and we kick up dust that weaves through the light.

We sit down in a pew that groans beneath our weight. Petra lays her head on my shoulder. “Do you think faded women ever die?”

“I guess I don’t know.”

“Or age?”

I shrug and press my nose into her hair.

“So I might be twenty-four for all of eternity.”

“Maybe. You’ll be haunting me when I’m a hundred and you’ll look fantastic and I’ll look like shit.”

She shudders. “When I finally fade, entirely,” she whispers, “I don’t want you to stay. Promise me that you’ll leave the motel and get on with the rest of your life.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Please. Please.”

“All right.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise. I promise I will leave.”

I see movement out of the corner of my eye and I stand. In the window depicting St. Francis of Assisi, a faded woman is clinging to the lead, her fingers curled around the cames like they are monkey bars. She is watching us, rocking on her heels, popping in and out of the glass like she is treading water. Petra notices her and stands next to me. In her hand, I see the votive of a prayer candle.

“Petra, don’t.”

I can see her throw-muscles twitching. “I can set her free,” she says. “If I break it, I can set her free.”

“We don’t know that.” I ease the votive from her hand and slide it into my jacket pocket. As I do, I am certain I see a flash of my own muscle. My stomach tightens. The chicken and oranges protest, press up my esophagus. “We should go.”

The faded woman won’t look away. She smiles. Or maybe she is grimacing.

We come out of the woods like we are being born.

Part Five

In our room, we watch the news, our bodies curled together in the soft blue glow of the television. Pundits point fingers at each other, screaming as the co-host between them shimmers and wavers under the studio lights. They are talking about how we can’t trust the faded women, women that can’t be touched but can stand on the earth, which means they must be lying about something, they must be deceiving us, somehow.

“I don’t trust anything that can be incorporeal and isn’t dead,” one of them says.

The woman blinks away mid-broadcast, a microphone tumbling to the floor. The camera scrambles to look away.

Before we go to bed, I set the votive from the chapel on the nightstand and light the candle. It flickers comfortingly, casting the furniture against the wall like shadow puppets.

*   *   *

I dream that we go to a restaurant that serves only soup. I complain about the prices to her, and she laughs and stirs the bowl. When she pulls the spoon out, there is a jellied, ghostly hand twirled around the handle, clinging to it, caught up in it, and she pulls the faded woman up, up.

When I wake, I am sure Petra has gone for a run, before I realize that my hand has sunk into the luminous cavern of her chest.

I tip into her completely, choke like I am being waterboarded. She wakes up and screams as I flail around inside her.

After a minute, we calm. She moves away from me, to the edge of the bed. We wait. Seven minutes go by. Ten. Half an hour.

“Is this it?” I ask her. “Is this it?”

I don’t want to leave, but she is turned away from me. I stand up. She does not look at anything except her own hands.

After a long time, she says, “It’s time to go.”

Then, “You promised.”

I cry. I slip on my boots, their heels chewed up by my uneven footsteps. I look at her there, gone, and she finally turns and I know she can see my body, still solid enough to be limned in light, moving about the watery afterbirth of the sunrise.

I close the door behind me, and I feel my nerves fire on and off. Soon, I’ll be nothing more, too. None of us will make it to the end.

*   *   *

Only half of the mannequins in Glam’s windows are clothed. It’s the end of the season. The shop will rotate, soon. The stock will go—somewhere. The lights go out, the gate rattles down halfway. Natalie stoops beneath it and pulls it shut.

She stands up and sees me. She looks thinner than I remember. She nods ever so slightly and then takes off into the cavernous interior of the mall. I hold my old key tightly in my hand. It fits the lock—Gizzy never bothered to change them. The gate slides up loudly. The pinking shears are stuck in the back of my jeans, where I could carry a gun, if I cared to.

I cut the places where one thing is stitched to another. I unlace bodices. I can see them, the women, loosened from their moorings, blinking up at me. “Get out,” I tell them. I tear at the hems and seams. The dresses are coming apart, looking more alive than I have ever seem them, the fabric splitting away from the form like so many banana peels, flaps of gold and peach and wine. “Get out,” I say again. They are blinking, unmoving.

“Why aren’t you going?” I scream. “Say something!” They do not.

“I know you can talk. I know you have voices. Use them.” I pull away the panel of a bodice. A woman stares back at me. She could be Gizzy’s daughter. She could be Petra or Natalie, or my mother, or even me. “No, fuck it. You don’t even have to say anything. Just get out. The gate is open. Please.”

A flashlight beam dances over the far wall. I hear a deep voice. “Hello? Who’s there? I’ve called the police.”

“Please, go!” I scream, even as the security guard tackles me to the ground. From the blackness of the floor, I see them all, faintly luminous, moving about in their husks. But they remain. They don’t move, they never move.