Authors: Eliza Victoria
Rule No. 1: You don’t kill the body you inhabit.
THE HOLMES AND Rahe stress scale lists 43 stressful life events that may lead to illness. (I read this in a book—when you’re wheelchair-bound and injured you can do
mostly nothing but read.) Every life event has corresponding Life Change Units. This is my list—
Death of a close family member – 63
Personal injury or illness – 53
Change in living conditions – 25
Revision of personal habits – 24
Change in residence – 20
Change in sleeping habits – 16
Change in eating habits – 15
—for a whopping total of 216 Life Change Units. I don’t know if I should add “Gaining a New Family Member” (39 points); I’ve known Louis (I should
get used to calling him this name—
all my life, but I’ve never shared a house with him. Does that count?
He stresses me out because he
stressed out with all the cuts on his face and arms. His constant attention is breaking my heart. Maybe
could add the 39 points to his own
If I add that, I get 255 points, still 45 points short of the requisite 300, which means “at risk of illness”. At this point, I’m still not at risk? “Risk of illness is
This is bullshit.
How many Life Change Units apply to a “Change in Body”? “Change in Residence” is a mere 20 points. A change in body is a thousandfold more disorienting.
I don’t know why I’m even bothering with this stress scale. It doesn’t apply to Louis and me. Our collective stress is on a whole other planet.
I should be doing something more productive.
I wish I could walk.
I wish I could just kill this body and inhabit another.
I TAKE STOCK of what I have, once again: male, medium build, early 20s, close to my real age. Dark hair. Dark eyes. My insides feel tender. Black wheelchair. My right leg
stretched out in front of me, bound in a black knee immobilizer. The immobilizer looks expensive; it has a dial on the joint that you can adjust to control range of movement. Not that I have any
Dashboard knee. Nerve damage. Knee dislocation.
Posterior cruciate ligament injury.
The words make my head throb.
My other leg is covered in fading bruises, like swatches of paint. Mauve. Chartreuse. The sickly yellow of sulfur.
Louis said I was in a coma for two days. He himself woke up in the car wreck, ambulance sirens blaring in his ears. He was disoriented by the sudden change in position. From the SUV, he woke up
in the driver’s seat of a sedan, a car pinned between the SUV and a tree trunk. He looked through the car’s accordioned backseat and saw our discarded bodies in the other vehicle. Then
he saw this unconscious body in the passenger seat, saw the strange way the right leg was twisted, and thought I was dead.
“I thought it didn’t work,” he said, when I woke up on the hospital bed. He was holding my hand. He might have been crying. He let go of my fingers, patted my arm. “Rule
No. 1,” he said. “You don’t kill the body you inhabit.”
“We can’t do this again, Jonah.”
But my legs are ruined
, I wanted to say.
And who is Jonah?
Rule No. 2: You should never again mention your previous name.
Louis said that, for a few days after I woke up, I kept insisting that I got my knee injury from a bad fall. I climbed a tree, hung onto a branch for a few seconds and,
inexplicably, let go.
Louis said I was so steadfast in this story, so unwavering, that when he began showing me the newspaper clippings and the photos of the car crash, I got angry.
I have no memory of this.
However, the story of my fall did happen. When I was younger, eight or nine, it was the mango tree my grandfather –
Rule No. 3: You don’t ever talk about your previous life.
I should write down these rules in a proper fucking list and staple it to my damn forehead.
IT IS MARCH, and I am in a city I don’t recognize. My room is clean and bare, just filled with the essentials: a bed, a cabinet, a study table with a lamp, and a low
bookshelf filled with books. A pair of aluminum crutches I still can’t use leaning against a wall. The house is on an affluent street. Gated, with a driveway. The other houses stand
practically side-by-side, but this house sits on a big lot, so the nearest house on either side is more than a hundred meters away. Craftsman-style bungalow. Attached garage. Gray-green brick
walls. So muted it could very well blend into the trees. Wood and marble interior. Very American. There’s even an attic and a basement. Or so Louis said. Obviously, I’ve never been on
any other floor but this one. I’m not missing much, according to him. The attic is filled with boxes, and an old dresser cabinet has fallen over and blocked the basement stairs, so he
can’t explore much.
We don’t have visitors or nosy neighbors, which is good. The other houses are quiet. Once or twice, I saw a little girl looking at our house from the other side of the street. She seems to
like playing dress-up. The first time I saw her she was wearing pink fairy wings. I thought I was hallucinating.
Bills come to the house in envelopes but Louis says all of the bills can be paid online. There is a desktop and a laptop in his room, the contents of which he has studied for three days.
“What is your job?” I ask.
“IT professional,” he says. “Independent consultants. We’re partners, apparently.”
“I don’t know what that is.” Meaning, I don’t know how to pretend to be
He says it doesn’t matter. “Based on the emails, the clients know we’ve been in a car accident. I don’t think they’ll bother us for a while.”
Louis says I own two phones and a laptop, but they were ruined in the crash.
A cleaning lady dropped by five days after I was released from the hospital. A regular, based on the way she spoke to us. Louis and I pretended that we knew her. She talked to us as if we were
her children, as she wiped the windows and cleaned the refrigerator. Before she left in the afternoon she took Louis’s hands in hers and told him how kind he was to take care of his injured
brother. Louis merely smiled because he didn’t know her name. He said that we were letting her go.
The hospital bills
, Louis told her.
We need to save as much money as we can.
She was surprised, but said she understood.
The truth was we just didn’t want to let anyone else in.
Every Monday an old man drops by with a week’s worth of groceries. When Louis tried to pay him the first week we were in the house, the man laughed and said we were already paid for two
months. The grocery comes in large blue plastic bags. Sometimes a teenager helps the old man. Maybe his son. There is always meat and vegetables, milk and fruits. They recycle. Cooking oil comes in
plastic Coke bottles, vinegar in ketchup containers. The correct ingredients in incorrect vessels. Like Louis and me.
I wonder if the old man’s been fired yet. Probably not. It’s a great help, to have groceries delivered to your doorstep.
How far away are we, I asked Louis once, and he said, nearly 300 miles.
Not far enough, I think.
I KNOW LOUIS has put a protective spell around the house but he won’t admit to it. I know because I saw it. My bedroom faces the street so I have a view of the gate from
my window. One morning, while Louis was watering the bougainvillea bushes in the garden, I saw a girl—college student, maybe eighteen—walk up to the gate and ask, “Is Meryl
She was wearing a pair of glasses with big black frames. Her hair was dyed a deep, dark magenta, but even the pop of color couldn’t hide her weariness. Louis stopped watering the
“Meryl,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.”
She raised her hand toward the gate, and I saw it then—a flicker of fear in her eyes. She lowered her hand. She looked confused. She stared at Louis as though begging him to explain what
“Yes?” Louis said. Taunting her. He couldn’t help it. She stepped back and walked away.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said when Louis got back inside.
“What?” Louis said.
“The perimeter spell. You should conserve your energy.”
“I wonder who Meryl is,” was all Louis said.
IT IS A strange thing, to inhabit another body. I mourn the loss of my childhood scars and despise the wounds that have replaced them. The fall from the mango tree produced a
hook-like scar on my elbow, a brown itch-less welt that I touch before I go to sleep. That hook is no longer there. Sometimes I still get surprised. In the dark, I do not recognize myself.
Jonah has scars of his own, but I don’t know the stories behind them. I wonder if he was a good person.
Rule No. 4: You shouldn’t feel sorry for the life you’ve displaced.
LOUIS SAYS HE found three dead birds in the backyard. He picked up all three with a shovel and buried them in the garden.
“Remember when Grandfather got sick?” I tell him. “Three of his favorite dogs died, and then he got better. Like the dogs suffered his illness for him.”
Rule No. 3. “Jonah,” Louis says.
“Maybe I’ll get better.”
“But those birds aren’t mine. And Grandfather ended up dying anyway.”
I am in pain. I have just taken my medication but it has yet to take effect. I understand the importance of pain. It is the body’s defense mechanism. Get burned and you learn to stay away
from fire. But prolonged pain? What’s the point? I am injured—
I get it.
Why continue to make my body suffer?
Pain is bad for the heart, my mother used to say.
Louis offers his hand and I squeeze it, hard. I didn’t know it was possible to suffer pain such as this.
“Maybe we are not who we think we are. Maybe this is really my body,” I say. I feel delirious.
“Stop it, Jonah.”
But it hurts so much
, I want to say, but there are things you don’t say out loud to preserve your dignity.
Louis places an ice pack on my knee and sits with me until the wave of pain passes.
“What are we doing, Louis?” I say.
“Biding our time. Resting.”
“We’ve stayed in one place for too long. We’re sitting ducks.”
“When you get better we’ll move again.” He takes a deep breath. “We haven’t seen her. Maybe she doesn’t know where we are.”
“But what if I don’t get better?”
“Stop thinking like that.”
We fall silent. I see an image of a young girl sitting in a yellow kitchen, her back to me. Chair of blonde wood. Black dress, black hair, hands on her knees. I experience it like a flash, a
Pain is bad for the heart.
I think her name but don’t say it out loud. A sacred word.
“I’m sorry, Louis,” I say.