I stared at myself in the mirror. Behind me, water chuckled into the bath. It was going to take a long time to fill. A noise and a motion behind me made me turn with a little involuntary cry–I was still thinking about Taiisha–but it was only a cat. Lexi’s black cat–Malice, that was her name–was sitting on the edge of the tub, looking at the water. “Don’t fall in,” I told her. “You’ll get burned.”
Malice looked up at me and meowed. The cat settled into a comfortable-looking sit on the edge of the tub and watched me. She’d obviously been there a lot, and knew her balance.
“As long as you know what you’re doing, then,” I said. The cat trilled softly in reply. “Oh, did you come in here to talk, then?”
I smiled. “I don’t feel much the fuck like talking. It’s been a long day.”
“You, too, eh? Tell me about it.”
Malice replied with a vocalization that was somewhere between a meow and a trill.
I had never heard a cat talk so much, it was kind of funny. “You’re right,” I said, “I’m just bitching. I’m not anybody, really.”
“You are a talky little one, aren’t you? You want to hear a story, is that it?”
Mau-wow, Malice said.
“Okay, then, I’ll tell you a story, but only if you promise to keep it a secret, okay?” I scratched her head. “This is how Nicole Kerry Saxen comes to find herself about to take a bath in an old house in Michigan,” I said. The cat sat up a little straighter, eyes fixed on me as if she were listening and understanding me. “Mmm, does that intrigue you? It’s a long story, so make yourself comfortable. She was born in Albany on a frigid afternoon two days after Christmas, to Thomas Douglas Saxen and Beverly Marina Saxen. Now, almost twenty years later, her dance with death continues to invent new steps. Is that too melodramatic.” The cat didn’t seem to think so.
I turned away from the mirror and took a packet of strawberry bath salts out of my bag. I had slipped it in there while grocery shopping. “Thomas and Beverly were the most loving, caring parents an American child could want. Nikki’s tendency to attract death didn’t concern them in the least. Not even when Thomas’ mother died while babysitting Nikki. The child wasn’t old enough to understand what was happening when Grandmother went into cardiac shock, and she certainly had nothing to do with it.” I checked on the cat, who had settled back into a more relaxed repose on the side of the tub. Malice was either paying attention to me, or just liking the warm porcelain.
“Of course, this isn’t The Omen. Nikki isn’t the Antichrist. She’s just got some kind of unspoken agreement with death.” I could hear the sarcasm in my voice, although in my blacker moods I came close to believing what I was saying. “A year or two after Grandmother, death took Rowboat, the family bloodhound, in the form of a pizza driver who wasn’t watching what he was doing.”
Malice meowed with a hint of derision.
“Well, I know, but we liked that dog,” I said. “Don’t interrupt me, or I won’t tell any more. For a few years, the black clouds went away. There were other clouds, to be sure, but they were normal, suburban clouds. Then, the Army assigned Nikki’s brother Charles to an overseas post, and everything fell apart after that. Death returned and had a party.” I poured the bath salts in the tub. The room was beginning to fill with strawberry-scented steam, and I liked that. “Nikki’s parents and entire extended family were murdered at a campground in Vermont. She doesn’t remember what happened that night, or for two weeks after that. She’s read all of the newspaper reports, about how the family was found hacked to bits in the cabin with only Nikki and her uncle Richard Schirmer not accounted for, how the cops searched for them and finally Uncle Rich’s motorhome was found crashed in a ditch in Pennsylvania. He had a hole in his head from a hunting rifle found at the scene. Nikki was malnourished but otherwise unhurt. It wasn’t a good thing for a fifteen-year-old to go through in any case, even though she doesn’t remember what happened at all. She’s thought about the possibilities, many of which have been discussed at length before, so we shall continue.
“A great deal of hoopla surrounded the massacre, of course. There were a thousand news reports, and talk show references, and book references. Lucky it was solved, so there was no fuel for the tabloids and no need to do some fucked-up movie of the week. Nikki was quickly taken in by distant relatives in Michigan bent on winning the philanthropy sweepstakes.” I stepped out of my shoes and sat on the toilet to take off my stockings. My legs were chilly without their woolen covering, but I don’t mind being a little bit cold right before a bath. “What they hadn’t counted on were two things: Nikki was far from the Little Orphan Annie they expected, and she brought death with her to Michigan as well.” I was having fun being melodramatic. It wasn’t as though my life needed embellishment, but it was amusing to do it anyway. The cat was a willing audience.
“It was all okay at first. Nikki made new friends at her new school, although she didn’t traditionally go in for the popularity contests. Around November, death took all of her new friends in a single spectacular car crash, and put Nikki in the hospital for two months. Brad and Janet and Trish and Jack and Mark and Erin and Tom all died. Nastily, too. They were roadkill. But Nikki survived.” I went back to the sink, curling my toes on the cold tile floor, and ran some water to wash my face. “Nikki was becoming convinced that she could survive anything, whether she wanted to or not.”
Malice interjected another trill.
“In a way, she does have nine lives,” I said. “You’ll have to wait until the end of the story. After she got out of the hospital, the world continued to turn, like it does. She made new friends outside of her school, some truly wonderful friends. Liz and Mikey and Andrew, by name. Mikey died in June, in another car crash. But see, Nikki knew the pattern by now. She wasn’t happy with the Prices anyway, so she ran away. She told herself it was to get away from them, and all the unhappiness there. But in truth she knew that death would come for Liz and Andrew as well, if Nikki stayed close. Nikki couldn’t allow that to happen. She would not be persuaded to stay, and headed southwest, with a notion of going to California. In Ohio, Nikki ran out of money.” Lexi’s soap smelled like peaches. I washed my face, allowing my mouth a commercial break at a convenient moment that I wanted to skip over anyway. My teeth and tongue were beginning to ache from all this talking. There was also a nagging feeling that I was leaving something out. I couldn’t think of what it was, or where it was coming from. Maybe it was the cat’s expectant look. “She made a new friend in Nashville too,” I said through clenched lips as I scrubbed makeup off, “named Dori. Nikki hadn’t eaten for three days, and was sitting in the rain waiting to see if death might come for her finally. Instead, Dori came, and bought Nikki lunch. Wasn’t that nice? They moved into a hotel room for a week. Even in a week Nikki got too close, though. Dori was nearly killed when she walked into a robbery, and Nikki had to leave again, to save her new friend. A bus ticket–that Dori insisted on buying for her–got her as far as Las Vegas, where she lost her boots to some other runaways who knocked her down, sat on her, and stole them. And then,” I added, wringing out the cloth I’d used to rinse my face and wiping the sink with it, “Taiisha found her.”
Malice meowed mournfully.
“Yes, I know. But it’s the way things had to be. Taiisha took Nikki into the desert, and trained her. She said she had been watching Nikki, watching what the world was doing to her, and that she would make her stronger. She was willing to kill Nikki to do so. Training, living, and torture became synonymous during the…” it was hard to say it, “during the two years that followed. And Taiisha did make Nikki stronger in the most terrible ways.” I took off my sweater and shirt and bra. Jesus, it was cold, except for the soft touch of steam in the air. It was going to be a wonderful bath. “She found the fear in Nikki, and taught her to fight.” I looked at my arm, and showed Malice. A network of bruises laced it with black, blue, and yellow from shoulder to wrist. It didn’t hurt. “She found the love of privacy, and taught her to deceive.” I stepped out of my skirt and underwear. “She found the shyness and taught her to fuck, she found the independence and taught her to obey, she found the hate and taught her to kill. She taught Nikki even more horrible things than that. That deal with death became sort of…a license. She taught her to die, do you understand?” I looked at Malice, who looked back at me. “Taiisha unlocked some kind of door that lets her cheat death, and she gave Nikki the key too. That way, Nikki can play games for her.”
I looked at myself naked and pale in the mirror. I looked so small, like a woman in miniature. “And now after this long dance,” I said to my reflection, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” The words came out of my mouth like that, in a screwed-up phrase like one Taiisha would have used–except it wasn’t; I couldn’t think of where I’d heard them before but knew they weren’t Taiisha’s or mine–and I watched myself say them. My lips curled in an ironic, bitter, violent smile. My eyes were darker blue than I’d ever seen them, and accented by what remained of the day’s makeup.
I blinked, hard, and my eyes seemed to return to normal. A thrumming tension up and down my arms and back that I hadn’t even noticed faded just as suddenly. I turned away from the mirror. My bath was almost ready. “Are you confused?” I asked the cat, who didn’t seem confused. I lowered my voice and whispered to her. “This is what that means. Taiisha gave Nikki a task. That’s how she ended up with Eddie Sharp, to whom she was delivered. Eddie thought he had met her by chance, and he took her in.” I turned off the water, sat on the edge of the tub, and tested the temperature with my fingers. “He didn’t know it, but he was in for a surprise, when the game was finished. But that’s going to be as far off as she can make it. There are some things she wants to find out, that Taiisha can’t–or won’t–tell her. Meanwhile, Eddie taught Nikki things, too.”
Lexi’s voice ripped straight through my reverie. “Doesn’t sound like there was much left to learn.” My heart nearly tore itself out of my chest and I bolted to my feet with a sharp gasp that only just missed becoming a scream. She was standing in the door, which she’d pushed partly ajar, and she was holding her glass of juice as if we’d been having a conversation. I hadn’t even heard her there. “No more horrible things, anyway,” she said. “Maybe you learned something pleasant–oh, don’t stop, keep telling your story. Malice likes stories.” When the cat heard her name, she hopped off the edge of the tub with a little feline burble and went to rub Lexi’s feet.
I realized I was naked. I grabbed my skirt off the floor. It was the largest piece of clothing I could reach. I curled downward and stepped back, holding the skirt in front of me like a pathetic shield. Some uncontrolled flight instinct nearly turned into an attack as I realized that the only way out of the room was to get through Lexi. “Go away!” I yelled, unable to think of anything else.
Lexi tilted her head a little. She didn’t seem to care that I was naked. “Go away for now or forever?” she asked.
“Just go!” Eddie was going to hear me screaming but I couldn’t lower my voice. Fright and outrage had done that.
She nodded, lifted her glass to her lips with a little smile, and turned away. As soon as she stepped out of the door I ran over and slammed it behind her. There was no lock. I put my back against the door and my face in my hands.
When I was sure Lexi was gone, I put my skirt down again and got into the tub. The water was perfect, almost unbearably warm, but I couldn’t relax any more. I ended up thinking about Taiisha instead.