Someone sent Angela a drawing of a pair of hands cradling her house. The drawing looked like layers of matted smoke breathed across each other. She left it on the kitchen counter and she did not handle it. She did not know why someone would give her something that fragile.
Angela received the drawing after she wasted her last week of unmonitored communication with her daughter, Anaïs. She let Anaïs drink peppermint schnapps in the den and did not come through to sweep up the broken decanter. She did not want to mangle a conversation and not learn anything about her daughter even at the last minute. She did not go into the room until she was gone. All the broken glass was gone, too. It was too dark to see in the firebox, but she stuck her hand inside in search of stray shards.
She heard the decanter breaking on the fireplace foundation from the kitchen where, in the corner, she had a box of porcelain cups and plates. The rest of them were in the cedar cabinets. In the box was the excess. She put more cups and plates in the box and moved it to the curb across the street when she could still hear the ache of the glass inside. A campaign of breaking glass was hard to orchestrate for someone who would not ingest calcium, so her bones were as porous as the chimney grille, the little fence between she and her mother and the fire.
The first morning without Anaïs, Angela left her bed at four-thirty to take a Klonopin. She vomited until five and went downstairs. She looked out her window and watched a girl open the box of cups and plates. The girl sat down and took her bag off of her shoulder. Angela had put all the cups and plates in the box when she had meant to leave one of each for herself. The cups were inadequate at containing hot liquid. The girl outside handled a plate and slid it into her bag. She looked around to see if she was alone.
The girl was gone when Angela went out to get the mail and found the drawing. After that came another of a nape of a neck, feminine and downy and alert. The drawing was older and the edges were creased and flaked. The lines were inked but lead palm prints orbited the neck. The letter came next:
My name is Mikaela. I would never introduce myself in person by starting off with my name is. Starting out I am Mikaela sounds metaphysical, like Mikaela is a condition. What I am is a fan of your music and your art and I want to tell you how much your work has helped me in a difficult time. So I will tell you. Or I will tell you how I have been telling you, showing you. I sent you those drawings, if you have received them, or else this sounds extra insane. I take it for granted that I sound insane. The hospital admin lies, I think, about what they do with our outgoing mail.
Another letter came without Angela writing back. She balled it up in her face and cried into it. On top of the cabinetry in the kitchen she had the drawings preserved. Everything else was subject to punishment. She took boxes of records and clothes outside and they kept slipping out of her hands. She lit them on fire with a pack of matches from a place called the Tar Pit. She thought of a windowless bar, opaque with smoke, and knives grating glass on their way through meat; meat shrinking in the smoke and the mouths around her full of meat and cigarettes, tongues drying up in the mouths, the teeth like char, and she the one thing slick with panicked breath. She did not look around to see if she was alone. As easily as her breath emboldened her chest, the flames rose to her shoulders.
When she retrieved the letter from the fire, Angela could only make out the first line: I thought it would be funny to end my previous letter with a joke.
Angela’s manager called, and she answered on his third attempt. She told him about the drawings.
He asked, “How did this person get your address?”
Angela sat on the floor. Her manager apologized. After they moved off the topic, she said, “I’ve never gotten any mail from a fan before.”
“I collect it. I’ve got it all here, you can see it.”
“You never told me that.”
“I did, and see, you don’t remember. If you’re going to clean up now, you can come and get it.”
She waited for him to hang up. She noticed a Polaroid lodged in the disintegrating chimneybreast. With uncanny foresight the caption said, Yes this is me, Mikaela. The girl was bent down holding the camera in front of her so she was head and hair and long, long legs. Her light orange hair was soft and wet. Her eyes were wide-set, pale and unfocused. Her smile was polite. Angela remembered opening the envelope with the letter in the kitchen, not in the den. She crawled into the firebox and did not find any more photographs. She stared up the flue but kept shutting her eyes, afraid of what could fly into them.
If Angela asked her what of her albums she liked, and Mikaela said any of the others besides the one she decided was an achievement, Angela could not understand her and she would lose that connection. She felt like she deserved to lose that. In the middle of the night she fished her letter that she wrote for Mikaela out of the mailbox. A girl was crossing the street onto Angela’s lawn. She noticed Angela and kept on walking jaggedly across the next lawn. The girl had something in her hands.
I’m not very crazy. It’s not so bad. I don’t believe I could get that bad and survive. I have painted my windows black and taken my blender apart so it would stop emitting the signals.
In Angela’s imagination Mikaela said she was consuming only mango preserves and garlic toast—not together—and did hot yoga clumsily in bed and could not get out of bed anymore. That was what she was like until she heard Angela’s music, after which everything changed. This wafted into Angela’s imagination and singed its way down to the scorched earth of hope.
I’ve got a persistent and intrusive problem with anxiety. This is the second time I’ve been here. They take my insurance. Should I feel bad that I can be here and other people can’t afford to be? I can’t afford to grapple with that. I am glad I’m getting the help I need and that I have your music and that this hospital is the kind of place it is. They don’t commit people anymore. It’s too expensive. You have to be in a grave state to be taken away
Angela got off the bus as soon as she could see the hospital. She was on the farthest edge of the grounds on the opposite side of the street, in the parking lot of a lavish Italian restaurant. She was alone in the parking lot, but the people inside were packed to the slats, fogging the windows and laughing.
She wound around the buildings and the bright, new signage that had never seen rain to the glass guest center. A nurse was headed where Angela was headed. They traveled through a glass tube and passed a redbrick and wrought iron castle in a dell behind the main campus.
“Is that the psychiatric ward?”
“It used to be. It’s a Kirkbride building, in the National Register of Historic Places now. Beautiful in parts but I don’t see how anybody could feel better in there.” They moved onto another thing of grey plastic and glass. With hallucinatory persistence from beyond the constant windows, the castle followed them.
Angela was expecting to wait and needed a wait of at least a half an hour in the concourse where her daughter was ready. They had the supervision of a medical health professional stoically darting her finger around the surface of a smartphone. She recognized Angela and deftly typed something when Angela produced a present for her daughter. Anaïs put the present on the wooden table.
Angela kept down the compulsion to suggest they try the Italian restaurant across the street. Angela had never become alert to the life and the daughter she had. She wanted to say it just to feel Anaïs as she existed in opposition to Angela’s impulse towards an imagined family who went out to Italian restaurants.
Angela asked her if she received any mail. Anaïs said, “I didn’t give my address to anybody. I don’t want anybody to know where I am right now.”
“Is there anybody special you would like to see?”
“I could not stand to be nervous about someone else being nervous about what they are or aren’t doing for me.”
“Do you think no one can do anything good for you?”
“I wouldn’t want them to feel bad that they can’t.”
They were not permitted, per Anaïs’ psychiatrist, to discuss how she was eating at the hospital. Angela could not get over what a good idea the Italian restaurant seemed to be. She felt barred from talking progress of any kind. Their chaperone worked the sweat off her phone. Anaïs cried. When her daughter returned to her room with the present unopened, Angela stamped by their chaperone and sobbed inaudibly.
I can’t tell you what it means to be corresponding with you. I don’t want to wear out my welcome or begin to fixate more than I am on whether or not I sound crazy to you. I should take this and use it to get out of here. Getting into the hospital, the moves that called for were hooked up to what I was all ready doing: the way I breathed and stayed awake and cried. I can hook up to your music and whatever you see in my art and I will leave, and I will do something good with that.
That letter was like her other ones that Angela had thrown away, but with a return address at the top. She looked up the hospital online. She was not where Anaïs was. She was in a healthcare facility—a “lodge,” not a hospital—in Virginia, inaccessible without a referral from inside. She laughed. When her album had earned four and a half stars in Rolling Stone, her manager told her they would admit her for addiction therapy. When she was willing to accept the help she needed, he had new clients and the invitation no longer stood.
Outside his office in a duffle bag was the mail Angela’s manager had collected for her. She could not take the bag on the bus, so she called a cab. The driver told her it was irresponsible of her to let somebody else see the body before she dumped it. Only because she did not understand his elision did Angela not laugh. The driver was quiet the rest of the way.
On the porch Angela rested the pile—the size of a person—of feelings she did not know existed. She took out her guitar. With her every strum, it exhaled dust. Angela could not turn away to look for a clock. She leaned against the letters and a barely perceptible shock coursed through her. Somebody moved in the grass.
Coming into the porch light, the girl apologized. “I wanted to leave this, in exchange for the plate.” She held out a crystal decanter.
Once Mikaela’s letters stopped, Angela permitted a fantasy of her to evolve. She imagined her own low moments felt by someone whose suffering was justified. When Angela was fifteen and hitching a ride to Butlins Skegness, she was ready for whatever she had to do to the driver to get to that point and to the next, and the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s “the Chain” alone kept her in the world. In her fantasy, Mikaela heard Angela’s music and had luxuriant revelations on her analyst’s chaise longue. Outside of the hospital, cribbed lyrics adorned her schoolbooks. She listened to “Oyster” before lighting a fire without matches in front of a bigger crowd than she had ever lit a fire in front of before, and this was the beginning, and she probably won a prize. After she heard “the Chain,” Angela did none of those things. She could not even play “Oyster” unpracticed anymore. No more letters came.
She unzipped the duffle bag. Close to the top was an asymmetrical package ravenously taped and over-stamped. The address was the same as Mikaela’s lodge, but the package was very old. Angela could barely lift it. She knew it was a bomb, and the fact that it was a bomb was disappointing for a second. Angela put it in her guitar case and took a cab to the spillway. She rolled the package down the crags. She dismissed the cab and waited to watch it go off. The water could ruin it, she knew, if not the years it went unopened. Why it never went off bothered her. The bomb teetered on the bank before plunging into the chute, where it went out of sight until it turned into an outstretched arm of force and ashes.
She heard it first and twirled and ducked. She thought a plane was flying through the trees. Brown smoke unspooled into a bright splay of flames. Angela felt microscopic, like she was looking at the mouth of a monster. The blast cleared the height of the chute. She clung to the rocks and lost it. She felt like she was under electroshock. She could not cling enough to anything and she was alone.
The smoke went back under the water. The bottom of the spillway was a sprawling black spot. The night bled into the spot, and Angela could not tell where it ended. She waved down a car. The woman who stopped for her sniffled and reigned in a sob to say hello. Angela brushed herself off before climbing inside.
She asked, “Did you see the explosion? At the bottom of the spillway—I think it’s mine fire.”
“A mine fire?”
“The way you said it sounded like your fire. Did you cause it?”
“No, I was just taking a walk along the spillway at sunset.” She laughed.
The woman laughed, too. Angela told her where she lived, and they drove several miles before the woman added, “Mine fires never go out. Underground, they can burn indefinitely.”
Angela bought a set of glasses to go with the new decanter. She arranged them in the den under the drawing, framed and hanging, of the pair of hands cradling her house. She composed a song on her guitar and recorded one copy. On the curb across the street she left the disc on which she burned the song. It was gone in the morning, her only copy, but she remembered the way it went enough to play it when she needed it later.
Kari Larsen is the author of Say you’re a fiction (Dancing Girl, 2012) and the Black Telephone (Unthinkable Creatures, 2012). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Two Serious Ladies, Caketrain, and La Petite Zine. More information on these and other projects can be found at www.cold-rubies.com.