[ToC]

 

TIN

Maggie Su

 

The night a stranger crawled through Mindy Lee's doggy door, shimmied his hips against the plastic flap and pulled himself through, Mindy was asleep, dumb and dreamless.
     Her mutt, Lucy, was also asleep by her place on the rug in front of the dishwasher.
     Mindy had found Lucy three years ago during a morning run. The dog was lapping up gutter water and peeing on doorsteps, but even in the dim light, she'd seen the sadness in the girl's eye. She'd chased her five blocks before catching her, hooking her fingers around her neck in the parking lot of a bank. Mindy had just retired after thirty years teaching English at a community college, and Lucy was just the project she'd been looking for.
     The whole walk back to the house, Lucy whined and tried to break free of Mindy's grip.
     "Poor baby. God knows what you've been through," Mindy whispered.
     After four blocks, the whine turned into a howl and Mindy put in her earbuds and blasted Adele to drown it out.
     The dog woke to the thud of the man hitting the carpet and padded softly into the foyer to investigate. The man was a foreign object: blonde, slender, and damp with rain. Lucy moved closer to him, and when he held out his hand, she licked it. He scratched her lips with his fingers then held those lips together as he pulled her head up and slit her throat with a knife he'd stowed between his belt and his pants, just a kitchen knife sharpened and resharpened.
                                                                                                                                         
That morning, Mindy had driven across the city to the Indiana Women's Prison. It was her first day volunteering; she'd been accepted to teach an introductory poetry workshop to the inmates. Her syllabus was full of angry women: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and a few contemporary poets that she'd heard of but hadn't yet read. Confessional poetry for inmates: what could be more fitting?
     Mindy wasn't nervous when she stood up in front of the group; she'd spent hours on her syllabus and introductory remarks. Had even made a "Getting to Know You" PowerPoint with star-shaped fade-out transitions.
     "I'd have liked to have kids," Mindy said. She clicked to change the slide and up popped Lucy sitting on a playground swing, her tongue lolling. "But I have a dog instead."
     A couple of students chuckled, but a few women shook their heads sadly as if to say, "That's too bad." Was it possible that these women pitied her? Mindy blushed despite herself.
     "Freewriting is a process of excavation," she continued. "For the next five minutes, I want you to turn off your brain, that self-conscious voice in your head. Let your real selves breathe for once."
     The room fell silent and Mindy wandered among the desks as the women wrote. She imagined they were writing about their crimes, creating dark fantasies of freedom, blood, guilt. But the first student she called on, a woman named Wendy with long curly hair, read a love poem.
     "In the meadow, I see you," she said. Her reading voice was loud and dramatic; it boomed through the classroom. "You flit around me, deep in the azaleas."
     Mindy nodded earnestly and gave Wendy a thumbs up when she'd finished. She thought it was a fluke, but all the inmates read similar pieces. A lover's bed-sheets, a mother smelling her child's hair, the sand between the speaker's toes. Her students weren't concerned with their inner darkness, they wrote cliché little couplets just like her most promising community college students would have.
     These people, Mindy thought after the last inmate had filed out, as she shuffled their papers together and erased the chalkboard and turned off the lights in the classroom. They really believe they've been saved.

Lucy's blood slid to the left; Mindy's house had been quietly falling apart as the cheap foundation settled unevenly into the ground. The man stepped over the dog's body.
     In the kitchen, he brushed his bloody hands over the clean white countertops, the hanging green and orange dish towels, the decorative mug that read, "Funny Catchphrase Goes Here." He lifted the kitchen sink faucet slowly, let out just a drizzle of water, and scrubbed at his fingers like every individual particle of blood and dirt could be obliterated.
     Mindy's fridge was pretty bare. Just a magnet from a 5K fun run for the local animal shelter, a cut-out New Yorker cartoon, and a photograph of Mindy atop Mount Hood with her arms flexed. The photo was taken from the ground, a self-timer, you could tell by the way the boulder protruded out of the corner. In her fridge was bread, lunch meat, tomato, lettuce. A whole bag of lemons, unopened. The blonde man bent down and sniffed a lemon deeply.

When Mindy felt the rough pad of a tongue on her toes, she figured Lucy had somehow nosed her way around the door, and decided to wake her gently. Instinctively, she pulled her feet away and giggled, turned over.
     "Lucy, stop it," she said, but the licking continued.
     When she finally opened her eyes and saw the shadow crouched at the foot of her bed, she didn't scream.
     "Hello?" said the shadow. It had a British accent.
     Mindy turned on the light, but she wasn't prepared for the shadow to become a man. She wasn't prepared for his five o'clock stubble or his damp blonde hair, curling slightly at the ears or the raindrops glistening on the shoulders of his pea-coat.
     She'd slept with the windows open and the autumn air had snuck through and chilled the room. Mindy crossed her arms, shielding her chest.
     She remembered an article, some online opinion column she'd found while scrolling past her friend's photos of grandkids. The author had said that it calmed rapists when you feigned an interest in their life, asked them questions about their hobbies, their passions. One commenter even advocated digging into their childhood, really getting to know the motivations behind their actions. They were human after all.
     "Where are you from?" Mindy asked. The man couldn't have been more than thirty, he was just a kid and kids could be reasoned with. Wasn't that what she was good at? The blonde man wasn't one her students though; she would've remembered him, he was very handsome.
     "Sheffield," he said.
Deliberate and slow, the man rose from his squatted position. He sat down on her floral quilt, his coat dripped.
     "It rains a lot there," she said.
     "Yes," he said.
     Mindy looked down at her pink pinstriped nightgown, the bow tied at the back of her neck like a present. She had bought it on a whim in the junior's section of Macy's. It was a stupid purchase, but she hadn't known anyone else would see it.
     "Why are you here?" she asked.
     "I love you," he said, ruffling his fingers through his hair like he was Hugh Grant in a romantic comedy and this was all just a big misunderstanding.
     He looked appealing and Mindy wanted to run, but her body gave her away. Her kneecaps tensed and jumped beneath the quilt. The blonde man straddled her quickly. His knees were on either side of her hips; his arms braced his face just above hers. Their bodies didn't touch.
     Mindy stared into his eyes, the large pupils ringed with blue.
     The blonde man unbuttoned his pea-coat and the lapels hung against her sides. She had expected his teeth to be yellow, but they were white.
     "Where's Lucy?" Mindy asked the man above her.
     "I killed her," he said.
     "Tell me a story," he said. "It's bedtime."
     He lowered his full weight on her now. His body matched hers, his head resting on the bare skin just above her breasts.
     Mindy wondered if Lucy had struggled, if she growled or bit. If she had, Mindy had slept right through it.
     "What have I done?" she asked. Her throat caught on "to deserve this" because it sounded like bad scripted reality television. No one deserved anything, she knew.      "What have I done" felt like the phrase she'd been searching for.
     "Tell me a story," the man said again.
     "Once upon a time," Mindy began. She closed her eyes. She was tired of looking at the blonde man, his face had already become too familiar. "A tin man lived in a tin house."
     The man sighed, his warm breath kissed her forehead.
     "Every time he tapped the walls they vibrated. He sent messages out this way. A boy on the outside helped him. He was human," she said.
     With her eyes closed, Mindy could hear the insects outside of her bedroom window, the bus passing by on its way into the city.
     "The tin man would tap out: more bread please, more milk please, more deodorant please, and the boy would tap back: yes, sir, yes, sir, which type, sir?"
     Mindy had always hated living so close to a busy road, but she'd never considered the people on that bus. How their bodies might sway with each stop as they read their newspapers or listened to music or rested their eyes on the early commute.
     "But then one day, he tapped out, I love you, and the boy left. He ran through the hills, crying, climbed into the mountains without shoes."
     His weight had started to become uncomfortable. She felt the air getting thinner, her body flattening.
     "The man cried too, he dried his eyes with pieces of tin," she said.
     "Did he leave?" the blonde man asked.
     "No, but he wanted to. He stood at the door for hours, willing himself to open it and walk through, but he couldn't."
     Mindy paused. The man crossed his arms and leaned on her throat until her bones creaked. Mindy looked past the man, straight up at the ceiling, praying for words, an ending.
     "He couldn't exist in the world of air. He was not made up of those things, do you understand? But the boy did not return to him. There was no more milk."
     The man was silent for a long time, his breathing even, his eyes closed. Mindy wondered if he'd fallen asleep.

 

 

 

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This story came from a snippet of a ghost story I heard at a second grade Halloween party and never forgot. The punchline was "Humans can lick, too."