This short story was published in the anthology Darkness Visible in 2011.
Ladder to a Thousand Roses
Kristen, my best friend since childhood, calls to say she just got out of the hospital. She had pneumonia, and her lungs are so fragile she went home with an oxygen tank. She sounds bad—the word “defeated” comes to mind—and every time she draws a breath, I hear a hollow rattle that makes me want to mother her. Me, who has no children.
So I try to sound bright and upbeat while I wait for her to say what’s on her mind. I hope it’s not goodbye. Hospitals don’t discharge dying people, do they? The last time Kristen and I discussed death, it was her father’s. We were both seventeen, seniors in high school in the small Arizona town we both moved away from shortly after graduation. Now I live in southern California while Kristen lives in upstate New York, where her mother’s family comes from. Since she doesn’t “do” e-mail, we talk on the phone occasionally. We haven’t seen one another for almost eight years.
But I can pretend for just so long. While I listen to Kristen explain how scarred her lungs are from repeated allergy attacks, I tuck the receiver between my ear and my shoulder so I can rub the inside of my left wrist with its delicate latticework of scars. I don’t tell Kristen about myself because nothing has changed since the last time we talked. I work in a florist’s shop. I have a cat. By design, I live an uneventful life. Kristen knows that. We each made peace with ourselves in our own way.
I start to say maybe it’s time I came to visit her when Kristen blurts out, “I was another person in the hospital.”
Adrenalin spikes through my body. “What?” Not this. Not again.
“Actually,” she continues, still in that same defeated tone, as if fate has caught up with her but she was unprepared, “I was three people. Myself and two others, both women. I know everything about them, even their blood type. They came home with me. One is Laura.”
Why are you telling me this? I want to scream. I know them! I’ve known them almost as long as I’ve known you! Laura makes a modest living working at home doing artwork for a fashion magazine. She has never married. None of us has. What a surprise. Laura works at home because her blood pressure is off the charts and she’s afraid of having a stroke at work in front of her colleagues. At least that’s what she tells everyone. How did you ever think up such a loser? I rant at Kristen—in my head, of course. A woman with no higher aspirations than not to embarrass herself?
I hunch forward on my chair. “Is Laura a friend?” I ask carefully. “Or somebody you met in the hospital?”
“Not a friend. All my friends’ first names begin with ‘K.’”
My name is Kate.
“I think I made her up. Or somebody made her up, and she’s inhabiting my skin.” Kristen says this so nonchalantly my own skin breaks out in goose pimples. “Like that old song from our parents’ era,” she continues. “‘I’ve Got You under My Skin.’ The other woman’s name is Teresa.”
These women only visit Kristen—or replace Kristen—when she’s under stress. And discovering your lungs might collapse at any moment and that the only foreseeable future is death would stress anybody out. Although I’ve talked to Laura a few times, I hope I never talk to Teresa again—she’s tough. “Interesting,” I murmur.
“It would have been if I’d been able to call them forth at will, but I couldn’t,” says Kristen, pausing to cough. “They usually came when I was asleep. One afternoon the nurse woke me because I hadn’t filled out my menu for the next day and asked, ‘Do you want the Swiss steak?’ I heard somebody say, ‘I hate Swiss steak.’ But I didn’t know who was talking—Teresa, probably. She’s very blunt. Maybe it’s my medication.”
“Are you still taking it?”
“On and off. It’s for the pain.”
“Then get the hell off it and stay off, for God’s sake!” People with multiple personalities are crazy. One kills somebody and the other claims she was taking a nap. Don’t go there, I tell myself. “Did you say anything? To the nurse, I mean?”
“She told me it was just a side effect of the morphine and that it would go away. Teresa, the second woman, is a freelance writer. She not as smart as Laura, and not as educated, but she keeps asking questions and won’t quit until she has the answers. And she’s loud.”
“I know, Kristen. I’ve talked to both of them.”
In real life Kristen is a substitute teacher, second grade, and in a voice meant to calm and soothe small children she says, “That’s not possible. They don’t exist.”
“Then how did they come home with you? Are they trying to tell you something? Or persuade you to do something?”
Kristen’s tone turns unexpectedly strident. “Like what?”
I don’t blame her for resisting me. If a bunch of psychiatrists told me that “I” was really three people, I would disown the other two faster than you could squash a mosquito on your arm. Unless being “Kristen,” and knowing what she did, what the two of us—or maybe the four of us—did has become unbearable. Maybe she really is dying, and wants to do it with a clean conscience. Maybe the day I hoped would never come has arrived.
“I’d like you to visit me,” I say. “Having your mother in the same neighborhood isn’t healthy. Plan on staying a while. If you like it here, you can move in with me.” Maybe Laura and Teresa would leave her alone if I was with her.
“I like it where I am,” Kristen says loudly, with too much vehemence for somebody who can hardly breathe. “I like my job, my cousins, my apartment. Ma’s okay. Visiting her is okay. So how come you think I don’t like where I am?”
My stomach lurches. I’m talking to Teresa. “Then maybe you don’t like who you are,” I tell her. “Maybe you’d rather be somebody else. Somebody nicer.”
When Kristen and I were twelve we pretended to have supernatural powers—that we were secretly witches. It’s terrible to be twelve and at everybody’s mercy. Was it any better to be seventeen and do something about it? Or did we make the biggest mistake of our lives at seventeen? By then, we’d grown out of childhood make-believe and were experimenting with adult make-believe. It works, for the most part. I know I have power of a very specific and mundane kind. I work at what I’m good at and avoid what I’m not good at. I’m good at keeping secrets. I’m also good at remembering things, especially things I’d rather forget. I can still remember every detail of how Kristen’s father died.
“We have to confess,” Teresa says abruptly.
Direct confrontation has always worked on Laura. With Teresa, I’ll have to be sneaky. “Confess to what? Your father—Kristen’s father—is dead. According to the police report, he fell and hit his head on the edge of the coffee table.” Which happened to be glass, and which the weight of his falling body drove halfway into his skull.
“Kristen can’t live with that on her conscience any more.”
“Oh yes she can. Tell her I said that. Better yet, put her back on the phone and I’ll tell her. What does Laura think?”
“Laura agrees, sweet-cheeks. You’re out-numbered.”
“I doubt that. It would embarrass Laura too much to testify in court and have all her co-workers find out what she did.”
“Cut the crap,” Teresa snaps. “She didn’t do it. You did.”
It takes all the self-control I have not to scream. “Has it occurred to you that this isn’t only your secret? That it’s our secret?”
“That’s why I’m talking to you—the rest of us think it’s time. Don’t make this hard on me.”
Finally—the truth. From one of them, at least. “Listen, Teresa. If we had confessed then, when it happened, we would have been tried as juveniles, paid our dues, and be free as birds by now with our records sealed. But we didn’t.”
“Let me tell you something. I have never felt free. Not once. If you tell me you’ve felt free since it happened, you’re a liar.”
“Then let me tell you something. Nothing ‘happened.’ We did it. We planned it, we carried it out. I strung the fishing line and Kristen taunted him into chasing her. Kate and Kristen. Best friends. And if you don’t feel free now, how do you feel about spending the rest of your life in prison?”
“Hey,” says Teresa, her voice low with menace. “I didn’t do it—I wasn’t even there. You’re the one who’ll go to prison.”
“Along with Kristen,” I remind her. “Without her, I had no motive for killing her father. And if she goes to prison, so will you.”
But what if it was Teresa who led Kristen’s father along, teasing him by running away, clad only in a bikini because we planned to go to the pool afterwards and swim? Could Teresa be tried for murder? For that matter, could Kristen? Or does having other versions of yourself make you crazy by definition and therefore immune?
“Maybe being in a lock-down psych ward will make you feel better,” I tell Teresa. “But I like my life just the way it is.” I look around me at the pristine white walls, the way the light falls just so on a Navajo horsehair jar. “Remember going to Mexico after we graduated, to celebrate?”
“No. Why is Mexico relevant?”
“Kristen and I decided to give ourselves a graduation present—nobody else was going to. We planned to drink and party and get laid. We thought it would help us forget. We were wrong, but that’s another story. Anyway, we met a couple of guys in Acapulco, bumming around in a VW bus. I liked Ron because he made me laugh. Kristen hit it off with the other one. Bobby.”
“Will you get to the point?”
“Kristen and I were traveling light, and we’d run out of clothes. So one day we and the guys pulled off the road next to a river. It was pretty, and we decided to do laundry the old-fashioned way and scrub it by hand. We would drape it over the river rocks and swim and drink Tecate until our clothes were dry.
“Ron and Bobby helped us lug our laundry and the beer upstream, and we ran into these two Mexicans. Muy friendly. Said they were looking for crayfish they could sell to restaurants. One gave me a guava.”
Teresa is listening so hard I can feel the tension over the phone.
“Then they went on upstream. Remember how peaceful it was—the river, the sky?”
“We finally found a couple of flat rocks in the middle of the river that we could pretend were washboards. But we’d forgotten the laundry detergent. So the guys went back to the bus for it. Do you remember what happened next?”
Teresa doesn’t say a thing—I can’t even hear her breathe. Now I’m positive she wasn’t in Mexico with us. But Kristen remembers, so I keep talking.
“While they were gone, the crayfish hunters came back,” I say. “No smiles this time. The rocks were the same, the smooth, clear water, the blue sky—all the same. Only the men were different. For one second you and I locked eyes. We knew what they wanted, and if we tried to run or acted afraid of them, they would rape us.”
While it was happening, I knew it would require the acting job of a lifetime to bluff our way through it, but Kristen and I were Academy Award winners at cover-ups. Huh? No, Mr. Policeman, we don’t know what Kristen’s father tripped over. His own two feet, probably. Or his dick. No, we had no idea why he was chasing us. No, we weren’t playing tag—us seventeen and him twenty years older and sixty pounds fatter? No, he hadn’t made sexual advances towards either of us. Of course he’d been having sex with Kristen five times a week since she was twelve, as soon as Kristen’s mother left for work, but we didn’t admit that. Correction. Kristen had admitted it to her mother, who told her she was imagining things.
The Mexicans muttered between themselves in Spanish. Kristen and I ignored them. We picked adjoining rocks to wash on, talking about how cold the river was and sorting laundry, occasionally flicking water at one another with our fingers and laughing, carefree as butterflies. One man asked me, in English, where the guys were. “Oh, around,” I said airily, waving at the bush, insinuating they’d gone off to piss. That was our story, Kristen’s and mine, communicated in a single glance. The men’s faces were tight as fists. If Ron and Bob really were pissing behind the bushes, the men didn’t want to be caught with their pants down around their ankles when they came back.
I still have the phone cocked between my jaw and my raised shoulder so I can stroke the short, criss-crossed scars on my left wrist, one for each time I’ve had to talk Kristen—or one of the other two—out of confessing. “They weren’t willing to risk it, and walked back downstream. Of course they passed Ron and Bobby on the way, walking in the other direction, carrying the laundry soap. I still like to think about that part, how they must have felt at being outsmarted by two stupid teenage gringas.” It was delicious. It was like what Kristen and I did to her father and at the same time having him appreciate what two fluff-headed girls had pulled off.
“You were beyond courageous,” I tell Kristen. “You never faltered. We pulled it off. Twice. Please tell Teresa that somebody who wants to confess doesn’t work that hard to keep a secret safe.”
“You say I was courageous,” a faint voice answers after a few seconds of silence. Is it Kristen? It has to be. Teresa’s voice is never this soft. It has to be. “But I didn’t feel courageous. I felt as though something about me had attracted those men in the first place. That it was my fault they came back.”
It’s Kristen. “Goddamn it!” How classic—how utterly perverted. “All the money you spent on shrinks and you still think that?”
“Yes,” she says, her voice small but so honest I want to cry. “I keep wondering why we didn’t think about outsmarting my father. I could have threatened to tell one of my teachers. Or gone to the police.”
“You tried—you told your mother. That didn’t accomplish a whole lot,” I remind her.
Very softly Kristen starts to cry. “I couldn’t understand why I was still so afraid of everything. I expected all the scary stuff would go away once we killed him. And I never expected so much blood.”
“You were brave then, too,” I tell her. I hadn’t given the blood a second thought. I was too busy worrying about whether I had tied the fishing line tight enough from the leg of the coffee table to the leg of the sofa on the other side of the room. Then I worried that he might just hit his head and knock himself out. My backup plan was to grab the Samurai sword mounted over the fireplace and finish him off with that. But we were lucky. Afterwards, with him lying dead on the floor, his head resting in a steadily-expanding puddle of blood, I wove the fishing line into the picture wire holding up an enormous oval mirror framed in gilt scrollwork while Kristen called the police.
“Accidental death,” they called it. Kristen’s mother seemed eager to cremate him, to obliterate every last physical trace of the man she had married. I have always believed she knew what we’d done and went along with it out of guilt. She was working that day. She didn’t know about the mirror. When she and Kristen moved to upstate New York, she took it with her, along with the rest of her furniture. As far as I know it still hangs in her hallway, supported by picture wire and the murder weapon. I don’t think Kristen knows it’s there either.
“You’re right,” Kristen says finally, her voice so faint I can barely hear her. “We’ve kept it secret this long. There’s no need to tell anybody now.”
“And Teresa and Laura?”
I exhale a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “We” are now just Kristen and Kate. The K sisters—kiss and kill.
I smile at Kristen through the phone and say I love her. No, there’s no reason to tell anybody. My thoughts are already drifting towards the contents of my medicine cabinet. Single-edged razors are getting harder and harder to find. Everything today is a “safety” razor. Safe for who?
“Everything will be all right,” I tell her, stroking my wrist, anticipating the pain, my own guilt made tangible. “Just knock off the morphine.”
Kristen coughs again. “I’ll ask my doctor,” she says weakly.
“And go see your shrink again. I’ll call you next week—I do want you to visit.”
“I want to see you,” she says.
“Okay.” I’m impatient to get off the phone now, to get on with my life. My narrow, nun-like life, built teardrop by teardrop. My blood smells like roses. I want them to flourish on this trellis of scars, to climb as high as they can and fill the air with their scent. As long as they’re alive, so am I.