Meta drank red wine out of a teacup. It clinked against the dainty saucer. Her friends stared at her, their tattered fringe like split-ends, their gazing buttons still as they stretched the paisley upholstery.
She didn’t hear herself think that. She drained the wine from the teacup, sat it in the saucer, then picked it up and drank again. She got buzzed from the empty china, teetered in her chair. Two legs lifted off the floor before clapping down against the hardwood.
“Scale of one to ten,” she said, “how drunk are you?”
The pillows stared at her with unblinking buttons so she asked the lamp. It shook its shade and didn’t respond.
Meta was driving to her doctor appointment (it’s a doctor, just like any other) when she saw the yard sale just off the road. Tables were set up just outside the fence of a cow pasture. There were mounds of clothes and end tables stacked on each other like thick, wooden playing cards. Mosquito-bitten people swarmed the area (the sort of people you see at antique festivals, when you’re not sure whether they’re there for the fun of it or because they’ll be using a newspaper as a blanket tonight). Meta didn’t usually stop at yard sales (she neither understood them as sources of enjoyment nor would she be using a Sunday News Sentinel for warmth), but she was in no hurry to see Dr. Shurilar. So she pulled her Corolla, with a cracked windshield and a dent in the passenger door, into the grass beside an SUV and headed toward the junk sale.
“I’m giving you more than a fair price. They’re antiques for Chrissake.”
Meta nudged the grass with the toe of her boot and clutched the upholstery of one of the pillows. “I’m not saying they’re not…old. I mean, they’re certainly nice pillows, but—”
The woman folded her arms over her chest as the wind separated tufts of gray hair from her messy bun. “No, you’re just not willing to pay a decent price for them. Just like your generation. Always wanting something for nothing. If I said you could have them for a penny, you’d purse your lips and say, ‘Well, I’m doing a bit of a favor taking them off your hands. How about you give me the pillows and twenty bucks?'”
“That’s just not true.”
“I think it is, and you know what? I’m not sure these beautiful pillows need a home with someone like you.”
The woman snatched the pillows away. A piece of fringe caught on her long, dark nail and tugged a half inch out of the fabric. Meta winced.
“Fine, fine.” She pulled a wad of money, tied with a rubber band, from her jacket pocket and handed over the woman’s price–all in ones. Meta hauled the pillows into her arms and left the woman counting her spoils, drool forming in the corners of her mouth like condensation on a window pane.
“Meta, I’m going to need you to sit still.”
“I am still.”
“You’re turning circles in the chair.”
Meta looked down at the paisley-patterned rug. It was spinning. “You need to tell your office to be still.”
“It tends not to listen to me.”
She nodded. “I suppose I shouldn’t listen to you either.”
The doctor gave a half nod and pawed at his short, white beard as though flipping through a deck of playing cards. “If you don’t listen to me, how will you get better?”
“I don’t need to get better. I’m not worse.”
“Worse than what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm. Meta, I’m writing you a prescription. Take two of these three times a day. If you lose count, take two more and go to bed. Understand?”
“Good, we’re on pace. Your mother is very worried about you, you know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Good. But maybe you’ll find out.”
“Find out what?”
“That you don’t know.”
“I all ready know that.”
“I don’t know.”
Dr. Shurilar handed her the prescription and put a hand on her chair. The room stopped spinning.
“I think the rug is tired.”
“Yes, Meta. Now, get that filled on your way home. Take two with a shot of bourbon, and go to sleep.”
“I don’t have bourbon.”
“Then take two and go to Kentucky.”
Meta yelled and swatted at the bird, though it was outside the car. Its beak had struck her windshield and cracked it down the middle like a fresh egg. She hoped the stupid thing was lying on the road behind her, frying beneath the summer sun like the yolk in a skillet.
She squinted, though the crack did not impede her vision, and she continued to mutter curses to and from the godforsaken god she did not believe in.
Now she had to drive ten miles per hour slower because of the crack that did not impede her vision, and she would be late to see Dr. Shurilar, whom she did not want to see. And she was always irritated to be late to an appointment she did not want.
She would have to file this with insurance. Her rates had already gone up after last year’s accident, and they wouldn’t believe a bird had struck her windshield. They would think she did it herself so that her rates would go up, and she could complain and threaten to switch insurance companies so they would cut her a deal.
She wasn’t any good at arguing, though—everyone knew that. Her friends could cheat her out of anything she owned if they took up a stance against her. Just look at how much she had paid for them.
The car was dented. The whole thing. It was one big dent, with the fender drooping toward the asphalt and the doors buckled and the roof caved in like an anorexic’s stomach. The car was gone. It was a shiny pile of black tires and green paint, like something a Norse god dropped from the sky.
Meta remembered it that way, but it was amazing she remembered it at all. The doctors said she should have died. Her body should have twisted up like the car, and they should have found her body a piece at a time, her new baby-blue manicure still perfect and glossy, instead of stripped away for emergency surgery.
Her hands were barren.
When she woke, they told her about her injuries. They said, “bruised” and “fractured” and “lung” and “ribs” and “concussion” and “memory” and “lucky.” They said, “better” and “worse” and, “Here’s your mama” and, “Don’t you want to eat something?” And Meta stared at the ceiling, counting the days until she could go back to Lucky Nails and get a baby-blue manicure.
Her mom held her hand, but Meta’s fingers were so ugly that one day her mom didn’t come back. The doctors shook their heads slow and whispered to each other, and Meta knew it was because she was ugly. Meta knew she wasn’t good enough because her mother read poetry and looked at art, and Meta was nothing but an unemployed twenty-five-year old with hair the color of cow manure.
When her mother left her the first time, Meta knew then, as she knew now, that it was her fault. The doctors said, “No Meta. She’s sick, Meta,” but she didn’t believe them for one second. The firm white pillows propped behind her back whispered in her ear as she lay still in the hospital bed. If you had been better. If you hadn’t wrecked that damn car. If you had finished college and found a boyfriend and kept your job at Kroger and been a good girl who doesn’t overdose on sleeping medication and keeps her nails painted your mother would still be here. The pillows whispered in starchy tones and told her what everyone else was afraid to say.
She was thankful.
But she was also afraid.
She bought a beat up Corolla with money her dad sent her, to make up for not coming to the hospital. It smelled like cat piss and had a dent in the side, but at least the whole car wasn’t a dent.
Meta didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, what was real and what wasn’t. Dr. Shurilar said that pillows couldn’t talk, but she heard them speaking to her even as she sat on his couch. What was she to make of that? He said that her mother loved her, but she left her and left her again. What was she to make of that? He said her father was a good man, but he didn’t want to take care of his four year old. What was she to make of that?
He said that she was a good person, but she had been told differently so many times.
“Be careful with this.” Her dad handed her the money.
“Where did you get it?”
“Don’t lose it, Meta.”
She shouldn’t ask questions. He was giving her money. She needed money. “Is it real?”
“Yes, it’s real. You think I’m a goddamn counterfeiter now?”
“I don’t know what you are.”
“Well, you oughta know what I’m not. Then you know what I am.”
“How am I supposed to know what you aren’t? I barely know what you look like.”
“Just take the money, Meta. Use it for doctor bills.”
He knows about Dr. Shurilar. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“I didn’t say there was.”
“You didn’t say there wasn’t.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Meta.”
“I can’t believe anything you say.”
“Who do you believe, huh?”
“I should never have come back,” her mother said. “I should have stayed away. Away from you.”
Little Meta shook in the floor. She still had hospital tags on her wrist. Her mom towered over her like the refrigerator. She thought her mom would start humming like the refrigerator did when it was out of ice. It always scared her. If her mom started humming she might run away, even though she didn’t know where. She couldn’t run to her daddy.
Maybe she could run to the North Pole. She’d heard that’s where Santa lived, and even though she didn’t believe in Santa anymore, she thought maybe someone nice lived there. It seemed as good a place as any.
But then she thought there were probably a lot of pillows at the North Pole, with it being so cold and all. Then it didn’t sound so good.
Her mom shook her head and bundled her curly hair in her hands. “Maybe I should go back. Maybe I wasn’t ready. You’re just too much. Too much. Why would you do something like this. Why would you even think to do something like this. Hell, I should be the one overdosing. I should be the one dumping sleeping pills down my throat. I’m the one up all night with nightmares and night terrors and creatures jumping out at me in the night, and why the hell would you do this! Now I have one more thing to think about, one more thing to worry about, one more thing to scream about when the white coats come take me away!”
Meta cowered. The pillows were laughing at her. But the more her mother yelled and the more her thick brows knotted and her curly hair shredded between her fingers, the nicer the pillows seemed. She began to think they were here only friends.
Her mother’s face turned red, and she raised her hand as though to slap Meta. As the little girl sprawled backward, her mother stopped, froze, and dropped to the floor, twitching like a dying cricket. Meta crawled away, down the hallway, to her room, on her bed, hugged her polkadot pillow tight.
Meta was four—four and a half on Wednesday. She and her mom were in the house alone, except for the pillows whispering from the window seat. They were watching the storm outside and yelping every time lightning struck beyond the hills. Meta thought their stuffing was bound to fall out onto the floor.
Her mom’s voice, angry. Meta sat still on the rug, a toy race car frozen between her knee and the coffee table.
“Get your ass up here!”
The little girl hopped up and ran upstairs toward her mom’s voice (really angry, now). Oooooo, the pillows called out. You’re in trouble!
Her mom was in the upstairs bathroom, right across from the nursery that used to be Meta’s. Her mom didn’t change it because she figured the new baby would need a nursery, but then Meta’s daddy left, and the new baby wasn’t coming anymore. The stork must have decided to keep it.
“What are these?”
The bathroom tile was littered with popcorn. Meta clasped her hands in front of her. “I was trying to catch a mouse.”
“I saw one in the closet, and I thought it would make a good pet, if I could train it up a lit–”
Her mother was shaking like the fizz on top of a coke. Meta watched her skin shiver and her hand float alongside her body as though she wasn’t sure what to do with it. She looked down at Meta, then down at the popcorn, then up at the ceiling, and then her mother walked past the little girl, down the stairs, and out the door.
Meta stood in the bathroom, wondering if the shower curtain might say something. It did sometimes, but it wasn’t as talkative as the pillows.
Her mother didn’t come back for two years. Meta went to stay with her daddy after the Avon lady found her cuddled up in a pillow fort two days after her mom left. There were Pop Tart wrappers and empty juice pouches scattered around the living room. The Avon lady gasped, but Meta didn’t know why. She had been having a nice time alone, and the pillows were being more friendly than usual–no snickering at her nasty hair or her chewed up fingernails. Why don’t you snuggle with us, Meta? You look lonely, Meta.
But she went to live with her daddy, who had rough pillows that said mean things to her. They told her all about her daddy (he drank two cases of beer last night, girl, before he screwed a nasty redhead and handed her a wad of twenties). She didn’t listen to them too much. Her daddy did drink a lot, but only because it tasted good. She thought she probably drank too much juice, too, but no one was getting onto her about that.
She was living in the old house again. It was strange. It looked the same (except for a little dust), but Meta couldn’t make herself feel anything but scared. Her mom acted all right, even though she wouldn’t tell Meta why she had left or where she had been for two years.
Her mother made a pot of oatmeal in the morning. She asked Meta if she wanted some. Meta said no thank you, so her mother got down two bowls and filled them to the brim. She topped the porridge with chopped anchovies and shredded cheese and asked if Meta would like some Crisco. Meta said yes, so her mother sat down at the table and began eating.
Meta wasn’t sure whether she was speaking at all sometimes.
She went to her room after not eating breakfast. She wished it weren’t summertime so she could get away from her mother for a few hours. She tiptoed to the stairs and peeked into the living room. Her mother was pushing the vacuum cleaner between the couch and the coffee table, but the machine wasn’t on. She picked up the cord and twirled it around her fingers, humming. Meta went back to her room and closed the door.
She brought down her crayons and a coloring book from her toy chest and sat cross-legged on her bed, opening to a picture of a cow. She would color it purple. She had finished the cow and decided to make the grass yellow when she heard the polkadot pillow behind her:
Hey, Meta. How you doing there, kid?
“I’m all right.”
Feeling a little down? Your momma’s acting kinda strange.
“No, I’m fine. Just coloring.”
How about you take a nap?
Meta looked up at the wall. Her eyes drooped slightly. “Yeah, maybe a nap doesn’t sound too bad.” She pushed the coloring book to the side and let her head fall on the polkadot pillow. She could hear it really clearly when it spoke again.
Having some trouble falling asleep?
“Just a little.”
I’ve got something to help. Head into the bathroom, reach around the side of the vitamins, and grab that blue bottle. Swallow the whole thing with some tap water.
“The whole bottle?”
Just what’s inside the bottle.
“And it’ll help me sleep?”
You’ll sleep just perfect.
Meta did as the pillow told her, and when she dropped her head onto it again she slept so soundly, she could have been dead.
When she woke up, her mom was holding her hand. The doctors said they had pumped her stomach. “Like a foot pump?” she asked.
There was a man in the corner.
“Honey,” her mom said, “this is Doctor Shurilar.”
“Did he pump my stomach?”
“No,” the man said, “I’m a different kind of doctor. I just wanted to meet you. You’ll come see me soon. We’re just going to talk.”
Meta nodded. She didn’t mind talking to people, but she didn’t want to talk right now. She was plum worn out, and the hard, white pillow was already chattering in her ear.
“Well, what am I supposed to do with her?”
“She’s your daughter, Jimmy.”
“I know that.”
“Then take her.”
“Why do you have her anyway? She’s my daughter.”
“Her mom left.”
“Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know. I found her alone, talking to the pillows.”
“She’s a weird girl.”
“She’s your daughter.”
“What were you doing there, anyway?”
“You had no business.”
“Why weren’t you there? She’s your daughter.”
“She’s her mom’s daughter.”
“Then maybe I should find her.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Well, I would, damn it, except she’s gone. So take your goddamn daughter.”
“Fine, I’ll take her. Did she bring a pillow or something?”
Meta dropped the empty bottle on the hardwood. It shattered shattered, her mind shattered was stripped, torn to ribbons thin as the fringe on the pillows. She teetered into the kitchen, grabbed the last bottle of wine, and unscrewed the cork. It flew across the room and bounced off the walls, one two three, like a rubber ball in a cartoon.
Meta staggered back to the couch, her knees buckling with each step, her ankles crackling, her eyes rolling around like billiard balls in her sockets. The pillows hissed at her as she loomed over them, like her mother had done when she was little.
Meta wrapped her lips around the bottle and tipped it upward, pouring it down her throat like oil into a car. She had just changed the oil before—
The pillows screamed screamed screamed screamed as she doused them with red wine. It looked like blood. It smelled like oil because everything smelled like oil, it smelled like death. She watched the pillows wilt, their stuffing deflating, their fringe drooping like wheat after a storm.
Then they laughed.
She heard them, oh god she heard them so loud, louder than she had ever heard them before. They were laughing, snickering, howling at her. And she felt the drunkenness building in her bones, in her limbs. It slithered beneath her skin, and the room turned somersaults. The pillows were still laughing as her elbows struck the wood, then her head. The wine bottle crashed in front of her.
Glass shards buried themselves into her face, but she was so numb she barely felt them. She heard nothing but a buzzing in her ear, a humming like the goddamn refrigerator. She hauled herself up onto her knees, grasping at the couch, and flinging her chest onto the cushions. She was so heavy. So heavy.
Her eyelids were closing, falling toward the glass still lodged in the flesh of her cheeks.
She saw blue capsules, broken open, half-hidden beneath the red-stained pillows.
And a blue bottle.
Her friends laughed and laughed and laughed.
Victoria is an East Tennessee native, currently studying English and playing Softball at Campbell University. When she is not on the field or in the library, you can find her running on a back road or stretched out in a hammock. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Synaethesia Magazine and FLARE: The Flagler Review, among others. Find her at VictoriaGriffinFiction.com and on Twitter @victoria_grif7.