A purple candle dripped clear wax onto the linoleum. Morning sat naked at the foot of the commode. She stared at her left forearm where dark blood oozed from a series of shallow slices. Sighing, she leaned back against the chipped tub and stretched out her legs. Still holding the razor blade between her thumb and forefinger, her right arm dropped to the floor beside her thigh.
Otis backed away. He crept through the chest-high rhododendrons guarding her backyard and staggered to his car in the alley. Sweat cooled on his neck and raised goose-flesh on his arms. He pounded the steering wheel with his fist.
Something moved in Morning’s backyard. Otis squinted. A dark figure slipped through the rhododendrons Otis had just left.
Otis moved the cash register to the far end of the counter so he could watch her flip burgers in the coffee shop across the street. He sat on a tall stool and sold greeting cards to blue-haired ladies with big pocket books while he stared out the front window.
Morning cleaned the grill with a metal spatula, her bony shoulders bouncing as she leaned into her work. Otis dialed. The manager answered. Otis ordered a fried egg and bagel. He saw Morning turn and nod. She broke an egg on the grill, sliced a bagel, melted cheese. She assembled the sandwich and wrapped it in paper. The manager delivered it. Otis kept his eyes on the wraith across the street as he counted out $2.79. The manager glanced over his shoulder at Morning as he pocketed the money.
At six p.m., Morning changed her shoes and slung a worn bag over her shoulder. She stood on the sidewalk in front of the café waiting for a bus. Otis closed the store. His six-year-old Toyota turned onto Harrison just as her bus turned left onto Main. He was parked in the alley behind her house when she lit the candle. He peered through the bathroom window as she pulled her long-sleeved turtleneck over her head and took out her razor. He left her resting on the cracked linoleum, four new slices weeping under yesterday’s scabs. He passed another phantom headed towards Morning’s apartment as he headed home.
The hunger increased. Otis closed the store the next day at noon and drove to her apartment. He slipped the lock with his MasterCard and stood in the living-bedroom, breathing her scent into his lungs. He ran a finger along the spines of her beat-up paperback books. Her closets were empty, her drawers full. There were no photos, no letters, no address books. An unopened carton of cherry yogurt sat in the refrigerator. He rested his cheek on her small flat pillow.
He was back in the store by one-fifteen. The lunch crowd had thinned at the café. The manager leaned a chair back on two legs against the wall and pretended to read. Morning bussed the tables. Otis strolled across the street and sat at the lunch counter. New scratches adorned the backs of her hands as she served his chili-dog.
He hired a clerk to run the store on Thursdays. Morning didn’t work at the coffee shop on Thursdays. The first time he followed her bus to the hospital, he lost her inside the building. That evening, she moved the purple candle into her bedroom. Knowing that abstinence never lasts, he waited. Within three days, she resumed her rituals. The next Thursday, he found her in a large room on the fourth floor of the outpatient clinic – rocking in her seat and crying.
Each evening, Otis trembled as the razor caressed her arms, her thighs, her belly -- even her breasts. He cherished those few moments of intimacy with her. Perhaps she sensed his presence, perhaps not. He owned her most private time all the same.
He learned her patterns. On hectic days, the cuts grew deeper and she dripped hot wax on them. She panted on the floor afterwards and fell into a shallow sleep. On good days, she curled on the floor beneath the sink without the blade. Once, after a blissful afternoon at a park, she wept while she ripped the top layer of skin on her foot with a hot needle. On Thursdays, she took deep breaths and muttered, "STOP!" over and over before she cut.
Captivated by her skeletal charm like a vulture drawn to a fading animal, Otis understood there would be others -- predators eager to steal a morsel of what was his. Ever faithful, he took up his post. Often he napped in his car in the alley behind the rhododendrons. Once he heard footsteps. He flashed the Toyota’s headlights and something scuttled off through the brush. Another time, he chased a long-legged interloper away from his private chapel beneath her window with loud curses and chunks of sandstone.
One Thursday afternoon, an older woman who looked like Morning, rang Morning’s bell. Otis hid behind the bus stop. Morning opened the door. Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a tight little "O". The women faced each other. Morning smiled. The smile burst across her face like dawn on a cloudless day. Otis had never seen her do that. She threw her arms around the woman’s neck. They clung to each other as they went inside.
Otis hurried across the street. It was daytime. He didn’t dare hide in the bushes. He hoisted himself up onto the roof of the neighbor’s porch, grasped a thick limb of the shade tree and swung, hand over hand, until he found a secure fork near the trunk. From there, he could see into Morning’s living-bedroom.
She sat cross-legged on the floor chatting with her well-dressed guest. After about twenty minutes, they stood up. The visitor threw her fur coat over her arm and collected her alligator purse. Morning took a thick sweater out of her drawer. As Morning pulled the sweater over her head, her long-sleeved tee-shirt rose up from the waistband of her pants. The older woman dropped her purse. She marched over to Morning and lifted the knit shirt. She stared. She took Morning’s left arm and pushed the sleeve up over the elbow. Covering her mouth with her hands, she stepped back. She slapped Morning. Morning pressed a palm against her reddening cheek and the joy drained from her face. The guest dashed out of the apartment. Morning followed as far as the door and shouted something to the figure retreating down the street.
It was the middle of a cloudy afternoon. There were no customers at the café. The lights in the restaurant were out. Otis glimpsed the manager leaning over Morning, his face buried in her neck. The tall man crowded her into a corner, her arms pinned to her sides. She stamped on his foot. The manager’s face contorted. He stepped back and swung. Blood spurted from her nose. She grabbed her bag and hurried out of the restaurant. He called to her, but she ignored him and ran down Harrison. He sank into a booth and laughed.
Otis closed the store and drove to her apartment. He parked in the alley. The front door was open. He crept down the hallway. He stepped over her black, long-sleeved tee-shirt, her ragged jeans with the flower appliqué on the knee, her loafers. He found her panties in the living-bedroom. She soaked in the bathtub, reddish water covering her thighs. She held a knife. Scars crisscrossed her chest. Blood dripped from seven new cuts carved into her stomach. She startled when she saw him. Her flesh squeaked against enamel as she drew back. He pierced her with his eyes. Her face melted. She nodded and held the knife out to him.
"Help me," she said.
He knelt beside the tub. "Are you sure?"
"It’s time." A pink tear trickled down her cheek.
She was ripe, ready to be taken. Her lower lip quivered, her eyes beseeched. He accepted the blade and stroked her cheek with the tip, opening a long red wound. She moaned. The intimacy thrilled him. He panted as he carved. Her final breath warmed his face. Fulfillment swept through him and he sighed. He sat down on the closed lid of the toilet.
From the window, hungry eyes caressed the carcass. Otis roared and charged. The phantom slunk back from the window, back through the rhododendrons. Ever faithful, Otis returned to his post.