Strays
Elizabeth Theriot

Nancy’s boyfriend once gave her a small key that he had apparently found as a seven-year-old on a playground when his family lived in London. It had a cutesy curved top and was made from some type of plastic. Her boyfriend insisted it must’ve been a key to a diary, although Nancy feels certain it had once belonged to a pair of fuzzy handcuffs. She wears the key anyway.

The pier is a darker shade of wood from all the recent rain, and Nancy’s boots splash half-heartedly through muddied puddles over congealed trash. She plans to sit in the cold sand for a while because she needs some air, even salty garbage air. An old woman with hair like a bouquet of pigeons grabs her elbow. “What are you doing, Nancy?” she asks. Before Nancy can register the creepiness, she notices that the old woman is wearing an eye patch, which seems unnecessarily kitschy. She shrugs the gnarled hand away and keeps walking, a little faster now, the old woman’s bloodshot eye rolling erratically behind her.

Later that night, in bed beside her boyfriend, Nancy thinks of that eye. It spins around her head like a rusty carnival ride. She imagines stepping into the twisted wood of the old woman’s hair and leaving bread crumbs behind her. What are you doing Nancy echoes throughout the forest, and the ground shifts just a bit, fleshy beneath her feet.

Her boyfriend whimpers in his sleep and rolls over, drops an arm over her chest. His forehead against her shoulder is damp and sticky with sweat and oily pores. Nancy presses the small key against his arm, into his chest, hard as she can without waking him. Nothing to open. She drops the necklace back onto her chest.

Her boyfriend brushes her hair in front of the bathroom mirror and plaits it into a fishtail braid. Nancy can’t really see the braid, of course, but he says it looks really good. It’s too tight, so Nancy spends the night wiggling her fingers between the ropes of hair, trying to loosen it.

*

“I’ve been dreaming about riding things,” Nancy tells her friend.

“Like in a sex way?” her friend asks.

“Not exactly,” Nancy says, though she means not at all. It’s difficult to explain. In her dreams, she rides foxes with impossibly large tails, and tacky bedazzled rats through black-lit sewers, and beautiful soft-feathered chickens over the sea.

“Maybe you’re not having enough sex,” her friend says somberly. “Maybe it’s a Freud thing.”

Nancy isn’t having enough sex. That’s not the point. She finishes her beer and takes the long way home so that she can walk across the pier. It’s getting late but she has mace hooked to her jeans, and anyway who could hurt her? Nancy feels weird, a little high, like her veins are spun from gold. She thinks about riding a dragon, the kind with two legs and wings but no arms, and how the scales would cut into her thighs, how maybe she would bleed.

The old woman with the eyepatch is standing on the pier, not leaning on the railings or really looking at anything besides Nancy. Like she’s been waiting.

“What have you done, Nancy?” Stars sit around the old woman like serrated paper.

“I’ve been dreaming about riding things,” Nancy says. The old woman is quiet. Once the silence becomes unbearable, Nancy walks home.

In the evenings, Nancy finds herself reading more and more books where the heroine, or many heroines, are murdered. Fairy tale, true crime, tragic romance. Is the universe trying to warn her? She stands beneath a sad, sputtery stream of shower water and wonders if her riding-dreams are connected somehow to all this lady-killing. Her boyfriend walks into the bathroom already naked and climbs into the shower, presses his cold skin like sandwich meat against her. They pivot until he’s hogging the water, which takes a long time to fully soak his beard.

Squat beads gather on the body of the key around Nancy’s neck, full and complete as if animated. She wonders whether it would be easy for her boyfriend to murder her, then reasons that even if he wanted to, he’d probably be too lazy to try, or screw it up somehow, a conclusion both comforting and annoying. The water pressure suddenly kicks up and shoots a hard spray against the both of them, and it sounds a little like a scream, but maybe this is just Nancy projecting.

Her boyfriend is going on a trip to visit one of his exes. He always makes sure to stay friends with them, all of them. You could tape them up and down a textbook timeline, these girls, with their voluptuous figures and tiny pursed mouths. Nancy has a flat chest and isn’t friends with any of her exes.

Her boyfriend drives off with most of the stale air, and their little duplex is quiet. She throws handfuls of cat food onto the porch for the loitering strays — sturdy calico, bedraggled tabby, and of course, the black cat (there is always a black cat). It swats away kernels of food and looks at her with one eye — the other is scarred shut. It seems to ask, What have you done, Nancy? She scrambles an egg, drinks black coffee, and watches TV. Tries to clean but loses interest.

It isn’t incredibly difficult to break into her boyfriend’s shitty, decrepit laptop. Her eyes sweep over the different folders, and she feels warm but keeps shivering, like a fever. Nancy lands pretty quickly on what she didn’t know she was looking for. The pictures seem to date back a while, maybe to high school, dozens of the same girl until another girl takes her place, waves of bras and spread parts. She sees herself there too, sandwiched between a brunette and a brunette.

It’s not the naked girls that bother Nancy, or even that she isn’t the last one, which isn’t really a surprise, but the way they are collected there, and not even artfully either, with some common motif or arc. The uninspired utility of this digitized flesh makes Nancy think of tissues piled in a trash can, microwaved meals, dandruff. She wishes the pictures, especially the ones she took of herself, would mock her, but mostly they are flat and dead.

Dreams are stupid. Nancy has never had exciting flying dreams, sword-fight dreams, sexy wet dreams. Never even the embarrassing dreams where she’d show up to give a presentation in her underwear. She hates when people share their own dreams, as if that sort of thing were interesting to anyone besides the dreamer. But in her dream, Nancy is riding a gorgeous beast that she’s never seen before. She is mostly aware of its solidity and the super-real feeling of its fur, her fingers knotted up and steering, and when she wakes, the bed feels adrift at sea, or maybe adrift at lake, one with a summer camp around it that Nancy’d never been to. She dresses in yesterday’s clothes, makes two pieces of toast, and brings them to the pier. When Nancy hands the old woman a piece of toast, she drops it into the water.

“Hey,” says Nancy, without much force. She wipes her buttery fingers on her jeans.

“What will you do, Nancy?” the old woman asks, her voice burnt and crusty. She licks her lips, her teeth, then lifts up her eyepatch.

It’s starts to get dark, but Nancy can’t remember the day. Everything around her seems to sigh all at once together. She’s inside a bellows, a diaphragm. The cats on the porch have multiplied since the morning and stand clustered together, bodies tense, clearly meeting about something very important. The black cat’s one eye follows Nancy into the house.

She empties the fridge and dumps everything she can into the large Magnalite pot. Jumps and stomps on the furniture with a new, yummy strength and arranges all the broken pieces into a bipedal shape. The stray cats push their way through the door and file in one by one, nestle inside bits of sofa and coffee table, filling all the gaps. Nancy pours the contents of the pot all over the figure’s bones until it solidifies and trembles. She pops the gold chain off her neck and unstrings the key, which is heavy in her hand, old metal. Nancy wonders what part of her is missing now — a rib, her foot chopped off at the ankle, some future firstborn daughter. She presses the key deep into the place she feels the figure’s heart must be and turns it.

The beast feels like fresh laundry and smells like clay. Most importantly, Nancy knows it can fly. She wishes she had done more to earn this ending, but whatever. It’s almost morning.

When her boyfriend gets home, he notices the house is emptier than it was before.

Elizabeth Theriot grew up in Louisiana and lived in New Orleans before moving to Tuscaloosa with her cats, where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Elizabeth teaches and is Black Warrior Review’s 2018 nonfiction editor. She has work forthcoming in Winter Tangerine and Ghost Proposal, and her writing can be found online in Vagabond City, Crab Fat Magazine, Tinderbox, and others.