Iwas alone at first. The door to the dorm at the end of the hall was decorated with just my name and opened to two empty bunks, desks shoved into opposite corners, and twin dressers topped with mirrors blackening at the edges, softening the hard angles into curves. My mother insisted on making my bed. I shoved underwear and bras quickly into drawers.
On a Sunday night, weeks later, I lay stiff straight in bed, hands grabbing fistfuls of sheet, awake. The blinds were up, but the sky was muddled, the moon cradled in swaths of cloud, itself asleep. But then the door rattled, flew open, and light poured into the room like a sieve. Two duffle bags shot forward and a rail-thin girl walked in, her hair a gossamer phantom gliding in the wake of her body.
She clambered to the top bunk and the weighted door closed. Clicked and then slammed. Minutes later, she was snoring, still in her shoes and jeans.
Somewhere, in between everything, she told me her name: Heather. Heather never went to class. Hair spun like spider silk, Heather wrapped herself in blankets, weaving away dreams, napping away most of the day. Her mouth hung open to catch flies. She never did any homework. She never had any homework. Her desk lay bare, shrouded in a veil of dust.
The first time I saw Heather floating was when I had to get up for a lecture one morning. My phone vibrated under my pillow, startling me awake. The blinds were closed, but I had left my desk lamp on, and in its spotlight twinkled a necklace I had been having trouble unknotting. The links were caught one upon the other, tangled into an impossible clump near the clasp. Even though it wasn’t noticeable, the knot made the chain too short. It choked me when I put it on.
When I leaned forward to turn off the light, that’s when I saw it. In the top corner of Heather’s mirror, I saw her just floating there, perfectly horizontal, right above her bedspread. Black socked feet arched towards her footboard. Back ramrod straight with only her hair perpendicular to her body.
I never talked about it, never spoke about it to anyone.
Over Fall Break, when my mother took me to Mass, I lingered outside of the double doors, stared up at the gargoyles flanking the archway, their tongues set to hissing. There was a run in my tights, widening at the thigh, a round of pink skin bared to the cold. I pulled at my dress to hide it, stretched the wool to the brink of unraveling. The hem lay flat on one side and warped at the other.
When the organs began, I stepped inside and paused at the font, gaped at the still water before me. I ran my hands along the rim of the stone and traced the lip of the pewter bowl with my thumb. I dipped my fingers in, then plunged my palm. The water refracted at my wrist and made my hand brighter, paler, cleaner in the water.
I peered in. A blurred apparition peered back. A strange mirror. A trap door.
I cupped my palm and brought the water to my mouth. I took a drink to calm the burning in my throat, then tapped the surface two-fingered and dabbed my forehead, my breast, each shoulder. I entered the nave and walked down the aisle, made sure to kneel. I felt the run in my tights spread, the hole now as large as a gaping, hungry mouth.
During the Eucharist, I took more than my fair share. I bribed an altar boy for extra wafers and slid them into my pockets. I took three gulps of wine and let a drop dribble down my chin, licked it from my palm. Before the service ended, I told my mother I was going to the bathroom, when really I scrambled back to the entrance to fill three plastic bottles with holy water.
After school started up again, I checked to see where the Christian Student Union was holding Bible study. I dropped an evening chemistry lab that overlapped with the meetings, then dropped the class altogether.
Since the break, Heather’s hair had gotten darker, greasier, her face always puffy and tired. The skin around her eyes turned to the color of overripened peaches, too sweet and soft for eating.
Heather was sitting on the top bunk, wrapped in a thick blanket with her bare feet and long legs dangling over the lacquered guardrail. Her laptop, cased in hot pink, cast a blue glow over her poreless face. The shades were drawn and the room was a dull gray.
I had convinced her to go, hoping that the meeting would give her something to get ready for, an opportunity to clean up and pull herself together. I lined my eyes in the mirror and ran a brush through my hair. A bristle scratched a scab near my crown. But still, she hadn’t moved.
“You shouldn’t read what they say about you online,” I said to her in the mirror.
There was a tapping on her keyboard and she blinked.
“It’s not good for you,” I said.
“You’re one to talk.”
Heather was having difficulty finding things that fit her. She longed to leave the dorm and go outside without fear or shame. There was an incident with a miniskirt. One time a flip-flop went flying. Baggy shirts would slide up on her back when her feet left the ground. Even tucked into the band of her pants, someone would manage to pull the fabric free, flashing the newformed fullness of her stomach, the strained clasps of her bra. Instead, she took to wearing sweatpants and vowed never to go outside. I never even saw her leave to use the bathroom.
I turned, reached up to the top bunk, and slammed her laptop shut. She sank to the floor, onto her belly, and then slunk to her closest, pulling sweaters and thick jackets from hangers. Anything thin and flimsy sat piled in a hamper in the back corner, fermenting in sweat.
I had to admit: her floating had grown on me. She no longer woke me climbing onto her bed in the middle of the night, but simply ascended. The mattress ceased its creaking, though I could see from her reflection in the mirror that she tossed and turned in the night, hair sweeping across her face, never quite sleeping, always shallow breathing.
Often, in the middle of the night, when Heather rarely sank deep enough to dream, something would pull her out, unravel a truth in her reality. She would drop to the bed, then tumble to the carpet, trembling near me. Unable to stand, she instead would clutch her knees, sobbing until she rose from the floor, and I would guide her back into bed, often joining her to toss a blanket over us both, whispering spoonfuls of stories my mother once told me to calm her.
Bible study didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. In a semicircle around the hearth in the student lounge, they talked about the glory of God and all of those things, but we didn’t get down to what I wanted answered. The gospels, the prayers, the forgiveness—all of that put Heather right to sleep. She didn’t levitate this time, thankfully, but that didn’t stop the whispers when it came time to leave.
Heather wasn’t the only one having nightmares. And each one for me began the same. A door opening. A room bursting with people. Excitement. But then. The screaming. They always ended with my nails clawing at my throat.
And there Heather would be, her head already hovering over me, and she would wipe away the sweat pooling at the hollow of my throat with a cool hand.
“It’s okay,” she would coo, petting my hair. “It’s okay. It’s all over now. I’m here for you.”
She would get me a glass of water, a handful of pills as colorful as candy, and drop them into my mouth like a baby bird. I’d gulp the water down, then drift off into a safe and dreamless sleep.
I would wake in the morning with almost no memory. Heather preferred it that way. She wanted me to be happy. And I liked that I could make Heather happy.
I went to the Dean after my mother surprised me with a visit one weekend. She wondered why I wouldn’t call, would let her frantic messages go to voicemail only for me to text back days later. After I dropped another class, my credit hours classified me as a part-time student and my scholarships were placed in jeopardy. There were letters from the school, apparently, but I hadn’t checked my mailbox in months.
In a cool office, shades drawn against the sun, an older man advised us on what to do. Which my mother did not like. I sat there listening. Quiet. No question asked of me. Heather hovered in the corner, now able to scale the ceiling. I bought her a bike helmet after she banged her head on a doorframe. She bit her nails and spat the torn leavings onto the carpet, sucked the blood from her wounds and watched the man, unblinking.
At the end of the meeting, he handed me a card. Heather tore it from my hand, stuffed it into her mouth, and swallowed.
A week later, at a mandatory therapy session, I picked at the gold tassels of a throw pillow while a woman sat across from me, ankles one over the other, a yellow legal pad in her lap. She smiled. Always smiled. Had patience for my silence. I rubbed the toe of one boot behind my calf.
A few days before the session, I went with Heather to a pet store and bought a dog harness and leash so she wouldn’t drift away, but it didn’t matter now.
Today, she sat next to me, completely heavy, bleary eyed and clad in an oversized shirt and sweatpants we had pilfered from the lost and found. As the session dragged on, the rain pounding away outside, she sank deeper and deeper into the loveseat, only her legs and arms visible from between the crevice of two plump cushions.
“Is she often like this?” asked the woman, pen and finger aligned, pointing at Heather.
A finger twitched, then curved into a talon, a question mark, a claw.
In another office, a different man took notes, his hand always moving, the scratch of a fountain pen cutting across the page. A small hourglass squatted on his desk. It was filled with red sand and poured through an open mouth until the bottom was engorged and the top left empty.
The last grain fell. He stopped mid-sentence and looked to my mother, who bowed her head, and he turned it over, then continued with his talking and writing.
Heather, still drooping, was little more than a puddle on the floor. Nothing of her body, but a heap of her clothes. All taffeta skirts and a wide-brimmed hat banded with silk ribboning. I had to carry her through the door, set her down on the carpeting next to my chair.
Days before, I took Heather to a costume shop to find something for her body, which now changed shape momentarily, randomly. We needed something large and elegant. In the back on a clearance rank, we found an array of period dresses, petticoats intact, layer upon layer of fabric, too many buttons to be undone, clasps covered underneath, thick impenetrable seams, and, finally, drawers. There was a stand of hats that were wide enough to keep the sun off her face. To keep the glare and glares at bay.
“And what will you be wearing?” the man in the office asked me. Heather materialized and stood vertical to the floor, growling.
There was a weekend when I went home and came back. It was February and Valentine’s decorations littered the halls. Red and pink streamers twisted along the ceiling or hung limp, torn from the walls. As I neared my room, the deflated balloons scattered. White ribbons crisscrossed the frame, though the door itself was not quite closed. I tore at the tissue before me and nudged the door open with the tip of a nail.
The blinds were up, the cord snapped from its socket. A pillow had been ripped open and feathers fluttered around the room as the ceiling fan rotated. The minifridge near my desk sat unplugged with the food inside now warm and rotting. In the center of the dorm was a pile of my bedding, swirled as if a nest.
I knelt closer.
“I wouldn’t,” Heather said. She crawled out from under the bottom bunk, emerging, reddened elbows pulling along a reed-thin body, small in an oversized t-shirt. Her skin was gray, the bags under her eyes as bruised as plums. “It’s smeared with shit,” she hissed. “And other things.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“Because, Laurel,” she said, stood up, and ascended to her bunk, then buried herself under the covers.
I leaned forward and retched.
“You should wash it all,” she said into her mattress. “And empty your shampoo down the drain. Throw your toothbrush out.”
Heather followed me out to my car, where we drove to the laundromat. I had stuffed my bedding into a black trash bag, double-bagged and knotted it closed to mask the smell. I drove with the windows down. Heather stuck her head into the roaring wind and let the air twirl her greasy hair, allowed the sun to warm her pale, sickly face.
At the laundromat, Heather sat atop the next machine over, her bare heels kicking against the thin metal as the soft music of a radio station played. Unfolded before her was an old copy of the college newspaper. She licked her index finger and flipped to the next page, the top of the fold curling over.
“Did you see this?” she asked me while I tore open the bags and upturned the sheets into the machine.
“Did I see what?” I poured a generous amount of detergent in, let the lid drop, and slid six quarters into the slot. I twisted the knobs for hot water, the heavy-duty cycle, and pressed start.
Heather folded the paper inside out and creased it again at the fold. She tossed it before me and pointed to the bottom corner, under the police blotter.
I read it aloud: “Female student reports multiple undergarments stolen from Main Hall laundry room. The report was filed on Oct. 21 at 1:35 a.m.”
“What’s someone going to do with a bunch of clean underwear?” I asked.
Heather glared at me.
“Are you going to report that?” She tapped on the washer in front of me, her long, broken nails clicking the lid.
I held her gaze. We both laughed, heads tossed back, cackling like witches.
A man across the room frowned, got up and left. The doorbell jangled behind him.
But before the door closed completely, in walked a girl with mousy brown hair, her eyes as round and glassy as marbles. Slumping behind her was what appeared to be her twin, or at least her sister, her hair hanging limp in front of her gray, drooping face.
The first girl looked up and across the room, then stopped at Heather. Her eyes darted back and forth between us. Her mouth dropped open, but there was no scream. She lifted a shaking index finger, pointing, her marble eyes nearly protruding from their sockets.
Heather sank down and hid behind the washer, her eyes level with the rim, curious and watchful, but her face looked sick and miserable.
The second girl began to pull at her face, her hair, and then shifted forms, changed colors at random. She shook her head back and forth in a terrifying blur and tore at her clothes until she opened her mouth to the ceiling and wailed.
No one turned to look, to see. No one heard a thing.
The first girl threw her jacket over her sister, who by then had torn out half of her hair and ripped her clothes to shreds. They stumbled out the door, the bell jingling high and light behind them.
In the cafeteria, Heather and I got into a line. Across the buffet, a woman in a cap and apron stared at us.
She doubled my portion of bacon, added another biscuit to my plate without me asking.
“Here you go, sweetie,” she whispered and handed my tray to me. One of her fingers stroked the back of my hand. “I’m glad you have each other,” she said and smiled at the two of us.
Unused to such kindness, Heather dropped her tray, the noise silencing the room, and then began to cry.
At the trial, when they asked me to recount my story, Heather, who had managed to crouch behind the stand, emerged. The black veil I bought in hopes of drawing attention away from her face hovered behind me, almost disembodied. Her breathing was labored and the tulle glided up the back of my neck. When I started crying, Heather offered her shawl to comfort me.
Another man, his tie a silk red tongue, took his turn. He asked me a question that wasn’t exactly a question. Heather sailed forward, her ankles catching the corner of the tabletop, and spun around, her dress going over her head, ankles exposed, the graying drawers revealed. The man told me to repeat something he already knew the answer to. A boy sitting behind the defendant’s table stared at me. His mouth curled from one side to the other.
The cold lifted. Trees blossomed and bloomed.
After Spring Break, I received an email asking me to the Dean’s office. Outside, on my way there, Heather trailed behind me, this time upright, only the toes of her boots brushing against the concrete, as we walked to the administration building. The sky behind was fading. The clouds moved across the horizon like a screen.
“Hello,” he said.
I dropped the leash. Heather pitched forward, her ankles drifted skyward, and she gasped, trying to grab hold of me, but I wasn’t paying attention. Her dress caught the wind like a sail and she crashed into the bough of a nearby tree.
“How are you?”
I scanned the walkway. Roots had upended the smooth crease of cement, loosening some of the bricks from their latticework. I nudged one with the heel of my boot, rocking it back and forth in its cradle. I looked up.
Branches snapped in the background. Heather tore at her dress, trying to loosen it from the leaves.
His teeth worked a wad of gum. A thin sheen of facial hair softened his jaw and trailed down to his throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing. His nose was sharp, though a slight bump on the bridge upset the symmetry of his face. One hand gripped the strap of a backpack slung over his shoulder. The other rested in his pocket, twitching under the synthetic shine of gym shorts. I stared and watched him drum out each second of the moment. Waiting. Anticipating. All appearing to be patient. And kind.
There was a laugh somewhere in the quad that bounced off the buildings, tried to find a place to settle, but instead fluttered to the sky. The sound reached forward and entered my ears, cleared the cobwebs from a corner of my mind.
And I was there. Pinned between him and the bed. Something around my neck. My mouth unable to form words. My voice unable to scream.
He cleared his throat and shuffled forward. I took a step back.
“I’m sorry about our misunderstanding.” He smiled.
Heather broke through the branches and her body floated up into the open sky.
“Laurel,” she called, her voice already so far away. “Laurel.”
He walked away then, the air between us shrinking, then expanding. A breeze toyed with my hair, encircled me. I couldn’t lift my feet, and when I tried, I found them fused to the ground. My skin grew coarse and uneven. It began to scar from fingertip to lip, climbing and climbing towards the inside of my throat. Something stirred in my lungs. I took a breath and screamed.
Michelle Champagne recently completed her Master’s in English at Wake Forest University, where she was also the Graduate Fellow for Fiction Collective 2. Her other work can be found in *Porcupine Literary*.