by Brianna McNish
Once I knew a girl who went missing for eighteen days only to come back and threaten to set fire to her mouth. At the time, she still went by K. She told me about the fire after I came over to see if she was fine, to see if she wanted to stay up late and eat toast slathered in almond butter and banana slices, to see if she wanted to watch the ember sky deepen like a bruise from her backyard. In other words, I went over after school to pretend everything was still normal.
By then, K did not look like K anymore. I didn’t refer to her by name; instead, I said things like, “Oh, hey, you,” or, “What’s up, pal,” or, “___, we should totally buy these,” the strange space where her name should’ve been hanging in the air like a ghost. K became “the cool-looking one,” “the bestie,” “the girl over there.” I avoided saying her name so much I forgot she had one. And her face—the face I had once powdered with makeup and kissed during spin the bottle when we were thirteen—suddenly looked impersonal and drained of color.
The first night I slept over after she was found, we watched old black-and-white French films in the living room. The television screen reflected in her blinking eyes as she reached for another handful of leftover movie theater popcorn that had gone stale days before. Whenever the movie’s star came on screen, I nudged K, and said, “Look, it’s you,” not because she really had looked like the movie’s posh American Francophile, but because the sheer absence of color made K look like she belonged in this glamorous movie world.
“I prefer apocalypse films,” said K. Her fingers sank into the bowl of popcorn as if she were trying to gather fish. “The best kind are the ones where the world falls apart before everyone’s eyes and there are zombies and stuff. The kind where the characters are so freaking awful you actually root for the world to end.”
“I love those, too,” I said, even if I did not love them.
I only wanted to make K feel comfortable, to make her feel remembered in the way her father asked me to. This meant talking about the time before. A time when K asked me to pin butterfly hair clips in her curls, a time when she asked me to draw her hair into frizzy french braids as we downed cola and talked about the future boyfriends we’d either fuck, ghost, or marry.
“Mr. Peter liked those kinds of movies, too,” K said, partly to herself and partly to me. She returned another handful of popcorn to her mouth. Kernels fell from her lips, her tongue barely able to cling onto them. Her teeth gnaw and chew in a way that reminded me of a baby cow learning to chew its cud for the first time. “Mr. Peter told me he loves a lot of things.”
In the contract her father gave me hours before I promised to visit her, it explicitly said this in bold red 20-point Comic Sans: Do not talk about Peter ever. And so I nodded, teasing the idea of him because K was watching me, because I couldn’t bring myself to say what I had been thinking all along. That I didn’t want to be here. That I didn’t want to encounter the ghost K had become after she disappeared. Ever since K returned, her father promised me fifty bucks for every time I visited after school and seventy-five dollars for every time I stayed the night. But staying up late watching old French films with K couldn’t scrub the past from my mind. How her face, once brown and freckled and filled with laughter, had been displayed in newspapers, on billboards, on flyers. How Mr. Peter, the once affable, shy Mr. Peter who taught our tenth-grade history class, had taken her away for eighteen days in a world beyond our own. How K’s cell phone, abandoned during her disappearance, revealed exchanged texts between her and Mr. Peter, between her and the boys who wanted her. How he had kissed her underneath her jaw, how he had told her he loved her.
This was what we knew for sure: K had been taken and returned to us colorless. As a canvas as blank as a baby, as a person who liked setting her mouth on fire.
When K first mentioned it after the movie, I didn’t argue against having a little fire now and then because there were no rules against it in her father’s contract. Plus, I argued, it would be good for her.
Outside, we sat stretched in the fold-out lawn chairs while K fumbled to hold her father’s matches she stole from the medicine cabinet. We talked about boyfriends we would amass in our orbit like conquered planets. We talked about the skies we’d probably never know. I smoothed red on her plump lips. I powdered her cheeks with blush. In those five minutes, I thought I might have fallen in love with her. I spent another five minutes trying to fold away the feeling in my chest like origami.
Brianna McNish's stories appear or are forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, formercactus, Jellyfish Review, Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She resides in Connecticut, where she studies creative writing and American modernist literature.