At first, the knock startled me—two quick raps of the knuckle followed by one hard strike—a distinctive and demanding announcement, leaving no doubt in my mind who was standing in the hall. I ran to the door, my heart flying. Moira was here!
I had hoped she might stop by as she sometimes did during dark winter nights, when the mean and silent isolation bore down in wave after wave, trying with all its might to drown me in suffocating loneliness. It had been six weeks since her last visit, and I more than missed her. I yearned to hear her voice, to listen to her advice and her outrageous opinions. I longed to hear about her latest adventures, about the things she did that I wouldn’t dare. I loved her. She was my angel. The one bright spot in my bleak existence.
I opened the door wide in welcome and Moira swept in looking like a rock star. She had dyed her hair purple, an example of something I’d never have the nerve to try, and chopped it straight around at the jawline. On her it looked good. She was wearing a puffy snow-white knee-length coat and black patent leather ankle boots with spiked heels. Fishnet stockings with a thick seam up the back wrapped her calves. She was so sexy, made to stand out. The opposite of mousey me with my frizzy dishwater blonde hair and blotchy complexion.
“You’re here!” I threw my arms around her and held her close. She squeezed me tight in response. Her lavender-colored hair reeked of marijuana and cigarettes. I smelled whisky on her breath. I stepped back and playfully slapped her arm. “Bad girl! You’ve been drinking and smoking pot again.”
Moira slipped out of the downy-white coat. The puffy bulk whooshed to the floor and landed open, revealing a bright red silk lining.
“Who, me?” she said, blinking in feigned innocence. “I swear I didn’t smoke any grass. But I just left a party where lots of other people were.” She grinned. “And they were doing other things, too.”
I kept staring at the coat’s scarlet lining. A memory flashed behind my eyes. I was a kid, and my face hurt. I was pressing my fingers against my nose, but still, bright red blood seeped between them. I ran outside into the cold crying, dizzy, and afraid. I staggered away from the house, the blood gushing from my nostrils leaving a scarlet trail on the lumps of crusty frozen grass.
Someone had hit me with something, but those details weren’t revealing themselves. Only streaming blood and grass. Glistening red silk and marijuana.
Moira snapped her fingers, bringing me back. “Quit daydreaming Mush-head and come sit with me.” I didn’t mind when she called me names like Mush-head. She was right, I had trouble paying attention. Besides, I knew under her words was true affection. She was my guardian angel. A gift from above.
Under the puffy coat, Moira wore all black. A tube-top wrapped around her boobs and back leaving her creamy midriff and the oiled skin on her smooth shoulders exposed. Her skirt was another tight-fitting tube, a stretchy spandex that clung to her hips and thighs, the hem just above her knees. I wished I had the guts to wear an outfit like that. But then where would I go? The grocery store?
Moira lit a cigarette, sauntered to the couch, and half-sat, half-lounged against the pillows, so comfortable in her own skin. I hurried to pick up her coat. “Wouldn’t want this beautiful white to get dirty,” I light-heartedly scolded her. I pressed the soft warmth of it to my chest. “May I try it on?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
I slipped into it. A perfect fit. It still held the warmth of her body. A shivering thrill of excitement crawled up my spine. In this coat with her heat all around me, it was almost like I was Moira, the wild unbridled one, the one I wished I could be. Moira and I were similar in build and yet so unalike. She was slim and graceful, but on me the long neck, the lanky arms, the protruding hipbones, and the coltish legs translated to skinny and awkward. We were both 29, but she carried herself like a queen, like someone who was already wise and intended to eat up the world in gnashing bites, afraid of nothing. I wished I had her self-confidence. Instead, I had always been the one with hunched shoulders who stayed home, afraid to poke her nose out and discover what horrors the world held outside her door. “Mimi with her tail between her legs,” my mother would chide when she . . . wasn’t herself.
“You came from a party?” I marveled. Moira’s world was so different from mine. She was always on the go, always doing something fun. I sat at the end of the couch facing her with my knees pulled to my chest, all ears. “Tell me more!”
She dragged deep on her cigarette and blew the smoke at the ceiling. “Well, let’s see. Jimmy was there. I dated him last year. Until he wanted to get married. I said no way! I’ll never tie the knot.”
I giggled and nodded in understanding. No one man could ever have Moira to himself. She was meant to fly from lover to lover like a bee in a meadow.
She continued, “And Johnny. I told you about him, the guy with the beaver buck teeth who plays the flute. He plays well, but sprays spit all over his audience!” I rocked with laughter. “Oh, and Lucille was there with a bucketful of cocaine. She has a terrible habit, but she always shares.” Moira punctuated the last three words with a wagging finger, making sure I knew that Lucille was okay in her book.
Moira talked on and I hung on every word. The people she knew—so many, so different, so interesting. People who would never notice me. Like everyone whose eyes skimmed past me as if I didn’t exist. Moira was my one significant social contact, my only friend. Without her I’d have no one. I lived through her. She gave my life meaning.
Even her name had substance: Moy-Raw. A name you could wrap your mouth around, lips extending, jaw opening wide, like eating caramel, thick and chewy. A real woman’s name.
My name on the other hand, Mimi, was no more than a couple of squeaks, two small up and down motions with the lips. Not really a full name, just two repetitive insignificant sounds that were better suited to a child than a grown woman. I hated my name most when my mother used to call me, after she had flushed her pills and pulled out the rum, when the identical syllables were clipped with meanness and a building hysteria, and I knew what was coming.
“Enough about the party,” Moira said. “That’s in the past! We have our whole lives ahead of us. The present and the future! So, what do you want to do with your future?” Moira raised her penciled eyebrows and leaned toward me, her dark blue eyes sparkling. She was asking me to decide! And I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
“Let’s play dress-up!” I said and jumped to my feet.
Moira gave me that look, the one that said that this was an outrageously childish idea and she’d have to think about it. But I knew she would. She always did. It meant I’d put on her clothes. There was no dress-up for her, only for me. That’s why it was so much fun. It was like a makeover for me, something playful and unusual that I got to do, that she didn’t. That’s because Moira would never wear my clothes, not even temporarily. My saggy gray sweatpants with the elastic waist, my washed-thin Coors Light tee-shirt, and my zippered hoody with the torn pocket weren’t anything she would allow to touch her body. The only thing we had in common clothing-wise was that we both went braless.
Moira stood and kicked off her heeled boots. She shimmied out of her spandex skirt and tore her tube top off over her head. She wasn’t wearing any underpants, so all that was left were her fishnet stockings, which of course were not pantyhose. Moira would never wear anything as pedestrian as pantyhose. Elastic black silk garter belts, the kind brides wore, held up the fishnets. One at a time, Moira slipped each off, hooked it on her thumb, and pulled it back with the other hand, shooting it at me sling-shot style. That made me laugh. She stood buck naked, smoking and laughing, more comfortable and uninhibited with no clothes on than I was when fully dressed.
I slipped out of the coat, pulled off my sweatpants, tee-shirt, hoody and stood, embarrassed, in my waist-high cotton undies. “Oh no,” Moira shouted, “you’ve got to go all the way! Off with those grandma panties!”
I hurried to do as she instructed. Then donned the fishnets, garters, boots, tube top. I slipped back into the coat. The silky lining felt so good against my exposed skin.
“You look fantastic!” Moira shouted. “Let’s dance!” She went to the kitchen and grabbed the broom. “Put on the music. Loud!”
“Moira, don’t!” I begged her. “The neighbors will hear.”
“The neighbors? Fuck the neighbors!” Moira liked hard rock, and she ordered at the top of her lungs, “Alexa! Play Tush by ZZ Top.”
On my side table Alexa perked up at the sound of her name and a shoestring of florescent light winged around her hockey-puck perimeter.
“Playing Tush by ZZ Top,” Alexa’s soothing voice confirmed. The hard beat of electric guitar blared through Alexa’s round speaker.
“Alexa, louder!” Moira commanded.
Alexa obliged, and the lyrics screamed from her hi-tech speaker, “I been up. I been down.” Moira swung her head back and forth with the beat, playing the broomstick as if it were a guitar. I bounced on the balls of my feet to the throbbing rhythm and another memory jogged loose. My mother with a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels hanging from her hand, dancing in the living room with some guy I’d never seen before. She took a pull from the bottle, and I knew what was coming. She swung the bottle like a bat at the guy’s head. Lucky for him, he was quick and ducked before she connected. She threw the bottle over his hunched shoulders, and it bounced against the wall with a dull thud, spilling the last of its amber liquid. She abandoned the dancing and started on the plates. One after another, they flew through the air crashing against whatever they hit, breaking into jagged pieces. Her dancing partner fled, and her blood shot eyes locked on me. She chased me with a piece of broken plate, brandishing it like a knife, accusing me of being an alien from outer space who had come to kidnap her.
Moira flipped the broom upside down so the bristles pointed up. She slammed the end of the wooden handle against the floor. “Your mother!” Moira shouted. She sometimes could guess what I was thinking.
“My mother . . .” I glanced at the framed picture on the bookshelf. “Was an angel,” I said with conviction. “She stroked my head when I was sick—”
“Your mother was a maniac, and you know it.” Moira stomped around in a circle, pounding the handle into the floor with each step.
She sang her own words to ZZ Top’s powerful beat, “First she was up and then she was down and then she was all around. Just like YOU!” swaying her hips and looking down her nose at me, confident in her assessment—even though she was stark naked and dancing with a broom.
The only time Moira got upset with me was when I defended mother. The weird part was she never knew my mother. She only knew what I’d told her. Based on her reaction, I suspected her own mother may have had mental problems and mistreated her in some way. I decided to ignore her.
We twirled and stomped and whooped and jumped. Moira grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from the kitchen counter. Where did that come from? She took a swig and handed it to me. I swallowed a mouthful. It burned going down, but it was a good burn. I gulped more until the whisky ran down my chin. Moira whipped the broom around like a drum major with a baton, hammering the stiff handle against the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Bang, bang, bang! The pounding vibrated inside me and made me feel free.
The song ended, leaving us as breathless as if we had run a race. A knock at the door, this one sheepish, one slight tap, hardly audible. “Who is it?” we called in unison and grinned at each other. Sometimes it seemed like we were the same person.
“It’s Lyle. Can I talk to you?” he said through the wood. Every time I heard his voice I cringed. Not only was he irritating as hell, but he was always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Nothing good ever came of his visits.
“Oh crap. It’s the building manager,” I whispered to Moira. “He lives next door.”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “I know who he is, dumb-dumb. I’ve met him before, remember?”
I didn’t remember, not at all, and that shook me up a little, but if Moira said she’d met him, then I guess she’d met him. “Well, then,” I said, attempting to hide my memory lapse, “you know he’s a pain in the you-know-what.”
Lyle acted as though he owned the place and all the people in it. He was always checking on me, and not in a good and caring way, but in a nosy none-of-your-business way. Why couldn’t he just leave me alone?
“Is everything okay?” he asked through the door.
Moira started for the door, intending to answer it—stark naked!
I gasped and lunged for her, grabbing her elbow. “Moira no!” She was grinning from ear to ear, a wild half-crazed sneer that said she’d like to see the look in Lyle’s prying eyes when she greeted him in her birthday suit.
I couldn’t help but snicker. “Silly girl. Go into the bathroom where he won’t see you.”
At first, I worried she would ignore me, throw open the front door and shove her wild grin and bare boobs into Lyle’s pinched face, demanding to know what he wanted. She could be overly aggressive that way.
Like the time she walloped a 7-Eleven clerk over the head with a bottle of Heineken. Moira was fifty-three cents short to pay for a six-pack, and the cheap bastard just wouldn’t overlook it. I mean, fifty-three cents? Come on. But if she clocked Lyle with something, like my mother’s blue vase that sat on a table near the door, that could get me thrown out of my apartment. That’s when the rest of the bloody-nose memory crawled to the surface. That blue vase had a cruel history. My mother had thrown it. Hit me square and hard on the nose. The red had streamed from my face, down my white blouse, and puddled on the worn carpet at my feet. I ran outside afraid my nose was broken. It hurt so bad. I wished Moira would break that blue vase.
Relief loosened my abdomen when Moira shrugged, turned her beautiful backside to me, took a drag of her cigarette which lay still lit on the coffee table, and did an exaggerated tiptoe into the bathroom. “You can handle him,” she said in a low voice. With a wink she closed the bathroom door. I almost called out, to tell her to watch out for the pills scattered across the floor. They could poke like sharp stones into bare feet. I should know. I’d been stepping on them for a week.
Lyle was knocking again. “Coming,” I sighed.
I opened the front door only partially, so that my body blocked the opening. Lyle was standing in the hall in his plaid shirt, the one he always wore. Or maybe he owned half a dozen with the same pattern. That would make sense since he was as boring and unimaginative as they came. His dull brown hair was sticking up in all directions as if he’d just gotten out of bed.
He pushed his glasses up his narrow nose, blinked as if in surprise, and gave me an up and down. He tried to peek around me to see into my apartment, but in Moira’s high-heeled ankle boots I was an inch or two taller than him, my body effectively blocking him from seeing inside. All he could do was cock his egg-shaped head back and peer up my nostrils like some little furry ferret.
“What are you staring at?” I demanded.
“Your hair . . .” he said.
“What about it?” He was seriously annoying.
“Never mind. Are you okay? I heard banging. It woke me up.”
I leaned against the door jamb attempting to look relaxed and self-confident, like Moira. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. Moira, you bad girl, your wild dancing has gotten us into trouble. Wherever Moira went, with her excellent name and self-confidence, excitement followed. Unlike me, Mimi, with the two-squeak name, and the nothing-ever-happened life.
He continued, “I’m not the only one who heard it. The tenants below you in 2C complained.” He rubbed yellow crust from his eye with a finger. “It’s two in the morning.”
Two a.m.? I thought it was early evening. How did I lose track of so much time? A blade of fear sliced through me. Last time that happened I lost two days, came home with bruises, skinned knees, no shoes, and no memory of where I’d been.
I gritted my teeth to concentrate on Lyle’s repulsive face. Those assholes in 2C had called Lyle the last time Moira visited. The same night she whacked the clerk with the Heineken, she set fire to my kitchen curtains with her lighter, but it was totally unintentional.
She was simply waving the still-lit lighter as she talked after lighting a cigarette and neither of us noticed when the flame caught the gingham. The curtain blazed up like a hot orange geyser. Ravenous tongues of heat and flame licked their way to the ceiling, surprisingly intense and uncontainable in just a few seconds. Before I could even think about what to do, the sprinklers sputtered on. A fierce spray burst from overhead, soaking the two of us to the skin and dousing the kitchen. The water seeped through my linoleum floor and dripped down into 2C’s kitchen. Not even much water reached their place, but they threw a hissy-fit. Everyone in the building ended up on the sidewalk where Moira oohed and awed over the brawny firefighters. A night to remember.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” I said. “Nothing is happening here, okay? I don’t know where the banging was coming from, but it wasn’t me.”
He nodded and bit his lip, frowning. “Are you heading out?” he asked.
I gaped at him. As if my comings and goings were any of his business.
“No. I’m spending a quiet evening alone if you must know.”
“Oh. Is your heat working, then?”
“Of course. What do you mean?”
“Why are you wearing that big puffy coat inside?” He looked up at my head. “And your hair, you dyed it . . .purple.”
Purple? I brought a hank of hair from above my ear into my side vision. It did look purple. Must be the light. I glanced down at myself, held out my arms, and whiffed the pot. I was wearing Moira’s coat. The dress-up game. The front of the coat fell open and Lyle gasped. I was wearing Moira’s tube top and her gartered fishnet stockings, but apparently, I hadn’t gotten around to squeezing into the spandex skirt. The fuzzy V of my brown pubic hair was on full display. I grabbed the coat closed and held it tight with both fists.
Lyle took a step back and shifted his eyes to the side, pretending he hadn’t seen anything. Then he said, “I smell cigarette smoke.
You know this is a nonsmoking building, Mimi.”
“I have not been smoking,” I replied. That was the truth, and if Moira wanted to smoke, so what? My apartment was the place she came to rest and regroup, to spend time with someone like me who was accepting of her eccentricities. My apartment was her apartment, and she could do as she pleased as far as I was concerned.
Lyle leaned in and whispered, “You’d tell me if you were in danger, right?”
“What do you mean?” I was truly baffled.
He lowered his voice even more. “You don’t have to say anything. Just give me a signal, two blinks, or a nod, or wipe your nose.”
That was when I saw it. An alligator (or was it a crocodile?) crawling with stealth on its stubby legs down the hallway carpet toward us, its reptilian eyes focused on Lyle’s calves.
I shoved my hand into Moira’s coat pocket and wrapped my hand around the hard molded handle of a Glock 19. I knew the gun, the feel of it, the weight of it. It wasn’t Moira’s gun, it was mine. A few weeks ago, after Moira’s last visit, I read online that a gun show had come to town—two hundred vendors in the arena of the local fairgrounds. I usually avoid crowds, but I stuffed my hoody pocket with cash, pulled the hood over my head, forced myself out the door, and boarded the number 10 bus. The ride took fifteen minutes, and I was jittery the whole way, not knowing what to expect.
The bus let me and several others off at the arena entrance. The place was crawling with people, bumping and jostling to get a better look at the merchandise. Rows of tables displayed all different kinds of guns, neatly lined up like table settings at Thanksgiving dinner. I had no idea where to start, so I stopped at the first table, staring at the array of weapons in front of me. A tall fifty-something guy with a gold tooth and a southern accent asked me if he could help. I told him what I was looking for: something easy to shoot, something not too expensive, something for protection—a girl can’t be too careful. The vendor agreed wholeheartedly and made some suggestions. I held several guns, and the Glock felt the best. I bought it and three magazines on the spot for $650. No ID, no background check, no paperwork. Cash and carry. As easy as buying groceries.
That Sneaky-Pete Moira must have found my Glock and pocketed it. Good thing she did because I sure needed it now. I didn’t worry about wearing no pants. No time for that. With my privates on full display, I spread my legs and aimed. I had to kill that monster before it got to us. Of course, Lyle was oblivious, still waiting for a ridiculous signal to tell him that I was in danger. I was in danger all right. We both were!
I caught movement out of the side of my eye. It was Moira! Urging me on with her Cheshire Cat leer. I fired at the croc (or was it an alligator?) 1-2-3-4, the shots rang out, explosions in the narrow hallway. Lyle dropped to the floor. He cowered against the wall, whimpering, his arms covering his head. “Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me!” he cried.
Stupid fool! Didn’t he realize I was saving his life? I lowered the gun, figuring I must have killed the big lizard by now. The bullet holes looked like fat dark worms burrowed into the walls and floor, but the beast was nowhere to be seen. Only whimpering Lyle and I were in the hall. Even Moira had disappeared.
Lyle pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and pressed numbers with a shaking finger. “Help! Help!” he shouted into the phone.
“She’s got a gun and she’s shooting. The Avalon Apartments. Third floor, hurry!” All the while he was crawling away from me with his khaki-covered ass in the air. A dark circle stained the crotch. Lyle had wet his pants. I tried to warn him that the alligator (or croc) could be hiding nearby, just waiting for a thin-boned human with puddles of lumpy fat like him to blunder close enough for the reptile to chomp down and not let go, but my warnings just made him scramble away faster.
Suddenly, Moira was standing next to me again, and I heard sirens in the distance. I pointed at Lyle with humor and disgust as he crawled around the corner out of sight.
She sang and danced next to me—still naked, mind you. What a crazy angel she was. She sang, “Schitzoid, schitzoid, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
“Stop singing that,” I cried. “I’m not schitzoid. If anyone is schitzoid, it’s you, Moira!” But she wouldn’t stop. She danced around me, waving her arms. “Afraid you’ll end up like her? Locked away?” A sickening tremor rolled through me like a bowling ball weakening my arms and legs. The gun slipped from my fingers and hit the carpeted floor with a muffled thump.
Why was Moira being so mean to me? She was singing harassment like my mother used to. As if putting a tune to hurtful words would make it all okay. I put my hands over my ears and screamed to block out the sound.
The needle slid into my flesh like a hot wire into melted butter, injecting the elixir that first exhausted and then exterminated my wild rage. Now I was settled in, my arms criss-crossed and cinched to my sides, Moira’s dress-up clothes replaced by a hospital gown, the feel of a thin mattress familiar against my back.
The doctor entered through the metal door wearing the typical white coat, starched and ironed to stiff perfection. He stood next to my bed, concern and assessment in blue-gray eyes. I knew him. I’d met him before. More than once. I remembered his close-cropped silver hair, his well-trimmed goatee, the way he carried his iPad tucked into cupped fingers. The school ring with the red stone on his little finger. But what was his name? I used to know.
He said, “You haven’t been taking your meds, Mimi.”
“I do fine without my them,” I spat. My meds were lying spilled across the bathroom floor like hard-shelled legless insects, poisonous bugs that I needed to kill. Moira agreed with me and had whispered into my ear that they were deadly. They were destroying me, little by little. She was right, of course. Moira was always right. I ground them into the tiles with my bare feet, the sharp hard pieces of their broken bodies digging in and sticking to my soles like gritty gravel.
The doctor was speaking again. “When you don’t take them, you know what happens, Mimi. You start drinking, and you have an episode and end up here strapped down.”
The no-name gray-haired doctor with his psychiatric credentials and iPad didn’t understand anything. I couldn’t think straight when I was stuffed with those insects. Their sneaky venom went straight to my blood and then raced to my head where they pushed my ability to think clearly down a slippery well so deep and black that I couldn’t see the bottom. They made me sleepy and dizzy and nauseous. On meds, I could never overcome the sludge that clogged my mind. I was so much better without the Thorazine or the Haldol, the Clozaril or the Risperdal to name just a few. Poisons all. Without them I could remember my mother and remember her clearly—not just the good parts.
But most important, the only time I got to see Moira was when I stopped taking the pills. She was all I cared about anymore. She was all I had in this world. She was my angel. What would Moira do right now? She wouldn’t listen to this bullshit, that’s for sure.
“Condescending prick!” I yelled.
He lay a hand on my shoulder. “You rest, Mimi. We’ll talk later when you’re feeling better.”
“Ha! Yelling makes me feel better!”
He walked out the door, dimming the lights as he left. I sighed and my muscles slackened as the poison from the injection coursed through me.
“Back in the jacket again,” I sang softy. The tune was some old cowboy song my mother sang when she was well and happy, but my words weren’t quite right. I closed my eyes. So lonely here. And then a knock on the thick metal door—two quick raps of the knuckle followed by one hard strike. Moira was here!
Penny Page has had stories published in Bacopa Literary Review, Variety Pack Magazine, Aphelion Magazine, and in the anthologies So Much Depends Upon, Whatcom Writes, and Pandemic Poetry from the Pacific Northwest. Her short story, “Down the Wormhole”, was a 2018 top ten finalist in The Apparitionist National Ghost Story Competition and her paranormal mystery novella, Not Haunted, was a semi-finalist in Chanticleer Book Reviews Best Short Story/Novella award. She has a master’s degree in business and lives on the central coast of California where she hikes the beaches and dunes for writing inspiration.