The mirror in the bathroom was dusty. No, it was worse than that. There was dust and a thin layer of grime underneath it, and more dust underneath that. Like a layered dust cake. Christ. Emma pulled open the cabinet under the sink, but the Windex was empty. She would buy some later.
Frowning at her reflection, she reached up and ruffled her hair. It fell over her fingers in gold feathery bits. With her other hand she touched the stubble over her left ear, which felt strange and rough, and then rubbed the back of her naked neck. Overall, she was unsure about this haircut. Charlie said he liked it, but what did Charlie know?
Emma turned on the faucet and splashed a handful of water on her face, ignoring the dribbles that ran down her chest. She leaned close, squinted. A rogue eyebrow hair had grown in directly above her nose. A nasty one. She had never been one for religious eyebrow care, but the length of this hair in particular offended her too much to leave alone. She dug around in a drawer for tweezers, uncovering another toothbrush as she did so. Somehow, the two of them had accumulated upwards of seven toothbrushes in their four months living together; whether this was a product of overzealous dentistry or simple forgetfulness, the toothbrushes continued to appear in the most unexpected places. Emma recalled fondly the day she had found a toothbrush in one of her rain boots. She leaned over the sink, furrowed her brow, and plucked the runaway hair.
Her watch beeped noon. Lila mewed plaintively in the hall. As quickly as she could, Emma replaced the tweezers, turned off the water, and dabbed her face dry with the hand towel. One last glance in the mirror. Windex, have to get Windex.
The phone buzzed, but Charlie ignored it. Although he had returned from his lunch break two full minutes early, he had no interest in working. He always finished early; there was something about the moment after a meal, before the day’s labor continued, that he found almost therapeutic. Rolling to the window in his desk chair, he inspected the city. The new hotel seemed duller today, as if a slight fog had stuck to the glass. The hotel was Charlie’s least favorite part of his view. It was too shiny, for one thing, and it stuck out like a sore thumb in the near-antique metropolis that surrounded it. The fog helped a bit.
He leaned his forehead against the window and looked down. Exactly thirty floors below him, a tiny ant-person stepped into a taxi. Another rested on a metal bench. Two more walked down the sidewalk towards the beach, hands together, swinging higher with each step. Charlie remembered Emma.
The phone buzzed. He picked up.
“Good afternoon. Javier Gonzalez. May I come in?”
Emma nodded. The lawyer had on a mint-and-lavender bowtie, which she thought was a respectable color combination. They sat in the living room—Mr. Gonzalez on the sofa, Emma in the old armchair. He settled his paperwork onto the coffee table.
“This will not take long, I assure you.”
“As you know, I am here to discuss with you the last will and testament of your grandfather, Mr. Lucas Edward McAdams.”
A chill settled at the base of her spine.
“Yes. I have it with me, right here,” he indicated. “Like most elderly people, he left all of his belongings and finances to his spouse, Mrs. Andrea Denver Lee McAdams.”
Emma almost laughed. Grammy Andy had moved into a nursing home nearly a decade ago.
“However, he chose to leave you, his only granddaughter, a train of kites. A—” he fished through the papers on the table, “—rainbow-hued eleven-kite stunt train. I have that with me as well.” He bent over his knees and picked up a large flat bag, faded to pink from decades of too much sun. She stood to accept it, blinking rapidly. “Now, if I could just have you sign here…”
Emma let her pen do the work on the contracts. The lawyer was speaking muffled legalese a few feet away, but her headache was pounding—when did she get a headache?—and she didn’t have the energy to concentrate.
Eventually satisfied, Mr. Gonzalez repacked his papers. “Thank you very much,” he said. She nodded at the crumbs on his shoulder. “If there is anything I can do for you, please give me a call and we can schedule another meeting.” He handed her a business card from a small pocket on his shoulder bag. She followed him to the door, still speechless. “Goodbye, Ms. McAdams.” He stepped into the hall.
“Wait.” Her voice sounded loud and out of place. He waited. She was thinking fast, about Poppy, about kites, about long summer afternoons on the beach, about steady breezes and irregular gusts, about sunburns and T-shirt tans, about—
“Ms. McAdams?” he prompted. “Are you all right?”
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
He shrugged. “Fly it.” She stared at him. “Goodbye, Ms. McAdams.” The door closed.
“Poppy couldn’t fly it.”
The door listened, understood. She whispered the words again.
Lila investigated the sofa after Emma locked herself into the bedroom. There was a warm spot where the stranger had been sitting. It smelled like cookies. She curled up in the spot, purring, and wished that Charlie would come home.
Charlie liked to eat dinner late, and so, he believed, did Emma. The subject had never been explicitly discussed, not even when she had moved in. It was simply the way things were. He did not handle change particularly well, especially when it affected his home life. Decaffeinated coffee would always be a last resort. Toilet paper would always hang under the roll. Dinner—and today was no exception—would never be served earlier than eight at night. Tonight Charlie arrived home at 8:20 with a bag from Boston Market, where the servers knew his order by heart.
He was paranoid, too, about losing things. Toothbrushes, for example. He was stockpiling. Every time he found himself in a Walgreens, he took another toothbrush home to stash somewhere in the apartment in case the others disappeared. The back of his phone case carried both a wallet and a keychain. His mother’s phone number was engraved on Lila’s collar beneath his own—his mother, whom he called every day on his drive to work just to hear the sound of her voice. He set the Boston Market on the counter.
He tossed her a biscuit. Catching it in one hand, she began to gnaw on it, attention still directed at her book. Charlie watched her. Her hair, which he had vowed to support emphatically no matter what it looked like, slipped down across her eye, and she pushed it back with her wrist. He had liked it better long.
There was chicken on the coffee table. Lila had already received a small portion of chicken from Charlie, who spoiled her mercilessly, but that was different. That had been easy, almost unfairly so. Lila was ready for a challenge. She approached the coffee table, a predator on the prowl.
Emma was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, her lap covered in pieces of nylon fabric. A bouquet of plastic rods lay next to her knee, clicking together each time she picked one up. She was humming. Considering the time of night, this was odd behavior for her, a woman with a relatively fixed bedtime routine, but Lila was uninterested. She had eyes only for the chicken. Slinking towards the table, she swished her tail from side to side. It landed in muffled whacks against the base of the sofa.
The smell was tantalizingly strong now. The fleshy pads on Lila’s toes silenced her arrival onto the table, but she still shot a look towards Emma, who was crying. Newly confident, Lila swaggered over to the defenseless chicken. She sniffed it out of habit. Then, baring her teeth, she extracted a bite from the edge of the plate. The taste of victory had never been so satisfying. She chewed the bite viciously, striking fear into the hearts of chicken everywhere.
When she was finished, she licked her lips a few times with a candy-pink tongue. Something caught her eye: a tangle of string on the floor. Chicken forgotten for the moment, she pricked up her ears, swished her tail, and pounced.
Poppy closed his eyes, feeling the air, and Emma stayed still. She had seen him do this a thousand times before. Taking care not to shake the strings, she adjusted her wrist straps and clutched the excess tightly in her fists. The line of kites waved brilliantly in the breeze: red orange yellow green blue violet blue green yellow orange red, like the tail of some great string beast. Emma grinned. Then the big wind came, lifting her hair, lifting her shirt, stinging her bare legs with sand. Poppy nodded, opened his eyes. Emma nodded in return.
She pulled back on the lines, letting the kites climb from her grandfather’s wrinkled hands into the sky. They didn’t catch the wind. She jerked down, stepping backwards onto a patch of small rocks washed up by the lake. The train dipped, ducked. Still no catch. The kites in the back drooped low. They were falling. Knuckles white on the straps, Emma ran backwards into the wind, ignoring the rocks biting her feet, groaning, shouting, shouting at the kites to catch, please, God, catch—
And then she was on her back in the lake, and Poppy was running towards her. Frothy water swirled and sucked in her hair. With one hand under her neck, Poppy lifted her from the shore. He cradled her shivering body in his arms, still strong then, cooing praises and reassurances. Don’t worry about it, he murmured. We’ll try again tomorrow. The kites crawled along the beach behind them, still tied and Velcroed to Emma’s wrists, gathering sand.
The coffee maker shut off, and Charlie poured two cups. He added half-and-half to his own until it was the exact color of milk chocolate; Emma’s, he left alone. She had almost completely abandoned coffee after the layoff, but today a breach in protocol seemed necessary. Stepping intentionally, eyes on the sloshing mugs, he made his way into the living room.
Using one foot and balancing on the other, he relocated the plate of Boston Market chicken skin to the far side of the coffee table. He put the mugs down and sat by Emma’s head. She was lying facedown on the floor in a small explosion of kite parts, which, against his more sensible judgment, Charlie had decided to leave in place. Her hair was matted against the carpet. One of her hands folded over her stomach while the other cradled some precious, invisible object, fingers curled, palm up. This, Charlie realized, was what novelists called “tragically beautiful.” He stroked the patch of stubble above her ear with his thumb. After a few seconds she let out a soft groan, closing her outstretched hand, opening it again. Charlie placed his own hand over hers. Lowering his head, he kissed the stubble next to his thumb.
Emma blinked several times and wiped the gunk from the corners of her eyes. She looked at Charlie. He loved her now more than ever.
“Hi,” he whispered.
“Hi,” she croaked back.
“Come on, I made coffee.”
With some effort, Emma sat up. The strings on the carpet had left a faint imprint on her right cheek. Charlie handed her a mug. The moment it touched her lips she grimaced, unprepared for the bitter steam that filled her nostrils, but soon she took another sip, and they were drinking coffee together on the floor. Time dulled to a rumble. Thin warm sunlight drifted in from the hallway.
“Christ, this stuff is terrible.” Emma had her eyes squeezed shut to match the rest of her face. “No offense,” she added, her voice straining as she stood. Swaying briefly, she towered above Charlie, who had set his mug down and readied himself to catch her. But she righted herself after a few seconds, and she left the room, abandoning him on the floor. “Can you buy some Windex today?” she said without turning around. “The bathroom mirror’s filthy.” Charlie stayed silent, staring at the patterns in the carpet.
Lila patrolled the apartment all day. The front door opened a few times to let someone in and out, but to her dismay, it was only Emma, who had packed up her strange small kites soon after Charlie left and, humming to herself, had quickly disappeared. So Lila kept guard. There was no funny business in the apartment like there had been last night: no string or crying in the living room, no worried Charlie in the bedroom, no chicken in the kitchen or anywhere else. Charlie himself came home a few eternities later and went straight to the bathroom, where he pulled from a fantastically crinkly shopping bag a toothbrush and a full bottle of Windex. He sprayed the mirror a few times and reached for the hand towel. Lila attacked the shopping bag, shredding it, thankful that she had not yet been declawed.
Emma closed her eyes. She was both wearing the wrist straps and holding the train, two jobs for one person. In a moment of what she thought was genius, she had wrapped the strings around her wrists and hands to shorten the distance between herself and the kites, and while any other sane kite flyer would’ve criticized this choice, she was indifferent. It was the only way.
For a minute, everything was still, the trees in the park rustling in nonexistent wind, the local birds quieting in anticipation. Emma could feel everything around her in vivid, excruciating detail. The sky, draped in a thick grayish stratus cloud. The grass, green and bright beneath her feet. Poppy, somewhere nearby, waiting patiently, proudly.
Then the wind came, and she raised the first kite. It bobbed in the gust, lifting the subsequent kites up by their bridles and jerking them into place. She let them go, and the string pulled violently against her wrists. Whipping her hands in rapid circles, she unwound the lines, but with each centimeter she released, the remaining line tightened around the meat of her wrists. The kites pulled higher; her hands circled faster. Suddenly a few loops of string fell from her left wrist at once, then more and more, and the kites flew back, so she pinched down over the string to stop them. The searing pain electrocuted her in milliseconds, and yet she continued to press down on the moving string, gasping at the quick white knives in her fingers, her eyes, the back of her skull, and on the other side the line cut deeper into her skin, drawing the warmth from her hand.
It was then that she fell back, her head too full and heavy to hold up. She sighed in the sweet grass. Her face was wet. The kites were also on the ground now, and she felt the lines on her wrists loosen into cheap delicate bracelets. Poppy knelt over her, holding her scarred hands in his. Don’t worry about it, he said. We’ll try again tomorrow.