The woman who comes to Diana’s window is an improvement, or at least a bit more accurate this time around: light brown eyes, wide forehead, even the little patches of flaky skin where her earlobes meet her jaw. The woman stares through the glass, searching for Diana on the other side of her own reflection. She knows she doesn’t have to knock.
Diana slides out of bed and stands at the window, unmoving, for a full minute. Tomorrow night it will be two minutes, then the next night three, then four or more; though the women come at five till midnight every time, Diana finds satisfaction in their bewildered expressions as they wait. Outside, nothing blinks or stirs, shrubs and trees and fence posts and all that’s out there twinned on glass, bloated and waiting. The woman stares up at her, but Diana can’t tell if the woman is really seeing her or just tracking her subtle twitches the way animals do.
“So this is what I look like,” Diana says once she’s finally opened the window. The screen is gone, cut away from its frame when the woman from two weeks ago came armed with scissors. Tonight’s woman blinks in response, but she makes no other movement. Thankfully, she’s not as aggressive as the others.
Crouched so that she is nose-to-nose with this new twin, Diana reaches into the cold dark and pushes her fingers through the woman’s hair, lifting a section in a drooping ribbon, root to tip. Under the moonlight it glows a perfect, undistinguished golden brown.
“Well, what he thinks I look like.”
She lifts a small section of her own hair from the crown of her head and yanks hard, wincing as the roots of twenty or so strands tear from her scalp. It hurts more than she thought it would, though not as much as her fingers did when the second and third women ripped the nails from her pinkies, back when they were wild and greedy and burst through glass and wood to take what they wanted when they wanted.
Diana loops the length of hair several times around her index and middle fingers until it’s a thick bracelet of black and coffee brown and ruddy gold. The woman holds out her hand and Diana places the coil of hair into her palm, making sure the grey roots are on the outside.
“Make sure he sees that,” she says, pointing to the lengths of grey throughout. They both watch the hair as it uncurls in the woman’s open palm, sliding over familiar skin and toward the damp grass below. “Careful—don’t lose it,” Diana warns.
The woman nods and closes her fingers around the ribbon of hair, but she doesn’t say anything. It’s been twenty-two nights and twenty-two women, but not one of them has spoken yet. Diana knows they can’t speak.
The man who sends the women used to drive up and down Diana’s street once or twice a week. An older beige sedan, clunky and nondescript like an Oldsmobile—something an elderly person would drive, though she’s never gotten close enough to see the person inside or the license plate. At first the car moved with purpose, edging the speed limit, no different from the other cars that travelled through her semi-suburban neighborhood every day. Then, the times the man saw her at her window, he would cruise by slowly like a come-hither. Almost a dare, as if he knew there was nothing she could do. Sometimes Diana would find the same car parked on the street outside the coffee shop she frequented, her office, her favorite bar. What she, at first, dismissed as coincidence developed into a clockwork fact, just like the women who began to visit at five till midnight.
Even then, she never called the police; she could imagine what they would ask her, if they responded at all. A part of her didn’t—still doesn’t—want to know who the man is.
But he can’t be some random stranger, can he? Diana considers a long-faded fling, then a handful of failed first dates. Perhaps he is someone she passes every morning in the lobby of her office building, or maybe he sat in the back row of that night class she took last year, or he could be an old neighbor from her college days. Whoever he is, she’s never dared to get as close to him as he’s gotten to her.
Even though she knows better, Diana sometimes wonders if she were to track the man down and tell him she’s sorry for whatever slight he perceives, would he stop sending the women? She would tell him she knows what it’s like to be lonely. Would a moment of her undivided attention and a simple apology be enough to end this?
She told her friends, felt safe in the relief their ready validation and indignation brought. When their worry got too exhausting, she stopped talking about him. She told her friends he had stopped following her. She said she was sure. They ordered another round of drinks and laughed an uneasy, too-high laugh about how awful some men could be.
She never told anyone about the women. She never said a word about what they demand from her.
Despite the hair Diana provided, the woman who comes at five till midnight the next night has dark roots, not a speck of grey dusted throughout hair that is now threaded with more gold than brown. Her eyes are the same as last night, though the lashes are longer than Diana’s ever were. She finds it funny that the man got the dry skin right—How close had he come to her that he would see that, notice that?—but he can’t accept the moles on her chin and next to her eye, or the prominent scar that zig-zags along her hairline. Tonight’s woman is still defined by the pleasing fat of youth. The skin under her eyes remains smooth and light, not a hint of the dark circles hard-earned from years of sleepless nights spent studying, then working, then worrying.
A rush of cheap vanilla fills Diana’s nostrils when she opens her bedroom window. Under that, as the night air settles and tonight’s woman leans inward, Diana catches a familiar sourness, the kind that gathers in the creases of skin. A feral tang pushes against her tongue, the scent of someone else’s sweat on top of her own.
Holding her breath, Diana cups the side of the woman’s face, thumb cradling a sharp jawline. Her skin is so soft—he got that right—but the color is wrong. Too light. But she knew it would be.
Diana grabs the little scalloped dish from her nightstand and brings it to the window. Because she knew, she was ready earlier this evening: three shots of tequila, a lighter, the six-inch hunting knife her father gave her when she was twelve. She thinks of her father often, frail and serious in his little house in the woods three counties east. What would he advise her to do now? From the moment she learned to talk, he told her that she doesn’t have to keep her eyes down and accept blood in her mouth. He was the one who taught her that a knife can feed her just as well as it can defend her.
The woman outside considers the offering, then plucks the little scrap of pinkish-bronze skin from the dish, leaving a thin smear of red across the edge of the porcelain. It’s shriveled to curled leather now, but it was plump and supple when Diana cut it from her forearm just hours ago.
“You do what you’re told, right?”
The woman nods. She encloses the scrap of flesh in her fist and squeezes as if she is trying to absorb it into her own.
“Okay, you can go,” Diana says. “Make sure he gets it right this time.”
She watches the woman turn from the window and retreat around the side of the house. Her hips are slim, no ridge under her flimsy dress where her underwear bites into the little roll of fat that should be—but isn’t—below her bellybutton. Diana is glad she’s only seen the front of these twenty-three women from the neck up.
“We’re not the same, you know,” Diana calls after tonight’s woman, not worried that the neighbors might hear. “You’re not me. You’re never going to be me.”
The beige sedan stopped following Diana when she started giving the women what the man wants. She fought them at first, of course, but after the blood and the tears, it became easier to anticipate their desires and give them—him—what they came for. It’s only a little piece of herself, and the bit of control she gets from choosing that precise piece is enough to keep her from folding in on herself over and over again until she becomes nothing more than ragged edges about to split. And it keeps the man away. It keeps him from getting any closer.
No matter how hard she tries to keep it out of her mind, the thought of what the man does with the women prickles the back of Diana’s head as she lies in bed at night. She watches each woman walk away from her window, waiting for their steps to betray the slightest hesitancy. She studies their eyes beyond searching for her own resemblance, trying to spot a cloudiness in the irises, proof that a part of them has died inside. She’s thought about following one of the women, but she knows now that that isn’t necessary.
Diana can’t be sure it’s a different woman who comes to her window every night. She imagines one body can’t survive so many adjustments. One mind wouldn’t allow its body to repeat this arduous cycle. Is it worse that the man does this to a different woman every day, or the same woman over and over?
One woman or many women, they are growing to trust Diana. Especially tonight’s woman—she smiles when Diana comes to the window, and she almost preens when Diana caresses her jaw and pulls her close. The skin is a better match this time, but the hair is still wrong, and Diana doesn’t make a habit of smiling that big, that eagerly. Hungry eyes dilate as they seek her approval.
Diana takes the woman’s face in both hands and smooths her hair back from her temples, stroking her like one would a cat or dog. She is beginning to see these women as pets—hers, not his.
There isn’t much left to give when the twenty-fifth woman arrives.
She stands at the window, no worse or better than the woman before her, and stares expectantly through the glass at Diana as if she’s a cat called home for dinner. Behind her, the grass and the patio and neighboring roofs are blue-black, flattened against her pallid sheen. Diana is afraid the whole world will see this woman now—how could one not notice her alone in the dark, underdressed in the cold, as she makes the dogged march back to the man who made her?—but at five till midnight, only the possums lurk to acknowledge her.
Before Diana can get the window all the way open, the woman’s fingers creep over the track and onto the sill inside. She reaches towards Diana’s face, then turns her hand palm-up. If this is what perfection looks like—as much of Diana as the man ever acknowledged—what could she want now? If this is the last woman, what will become of Diana? A part of her is afraid of what will happen when she no longer needs to exist in his eyes.
“Tell me what he wants.”
The woman blinks, but keeps her dark eyes locked on Diana’s. There’s something hard in her gaze, and it doesn’t take Diana long to recognize a white-hot resolve behind those mirrors, a kernel of assuredness that wasn’t apparent in the twenty-fourth woman or the ones before her.
“If you’re supposed to be me…” Diana begins, casting her eyes down for just a moment. “Tell him you don’t need him.”
The woman closes her fingers into her palm then slowly releases them. Her hand vibrates against the window sill, tense and eager. Undaunted.
When Diana meets the woman’s eyes again, they are clear and bright, no clouds, nothing but seething and beating and blazing inside.
“You do what you’re told, right?”
Something like a nod tilts the woman’s chin, but then she stops herself. She opens her mouth, and in that moment Diana suddenly hears leaves rustling on the wind, car tires scraping the arterial two blocks away, the creak-groan of her own house settling. The woman closes her mouth, then opens it again. Tremors race through her hand still propped palm-up on the window sill. Both women are suspended in the held-breath of words struggling to form against the back of the twenty-fifth woman’s teeth.
The one thing Diana has not given is her tongue.
As the woman watches, Diana goes back to the bed and reaches under her pillow, fingers immediately finding her hunting knife. What little moonlight filters inside catches on the shiny spots on the handle where her grip has bitten away the wood, the oils from her skin burnishing the slightest indentations that fit her and only her. In her grip, the knife vibrates as she pulls it free from its leather sheath and runs her thumb gingerly along the gently curved blade. There’s still a spot of blood crusted on the tip from the other night when Diana sliced into her forearm. On the other side of the window, tonight’s woman opens her mouth, her tongue slowly sliding over her teeth then lips, tasting the night air. Diana does the same.
Crouching at the open window, Diana holds the knife aloft and brings the blade straight down several times, the tip sticking in the wood of the windowsill just inches from the woman’s open hand. The woman watches as Diana points the blade towards herself and draws it across the air in front of her throat. She turns the blade towards the woman and mimics several swift stabs at her jugular.
“You do what you’re told,” Diana says.
She sheaths the hunting knife and places the wooden handle in the woman’s palm, watching as fingers exactly like her own curl around it, settling immediately into each smooth indentation. The woman weighs the knife in her grip, rotating her wrist until she finds a comfortable angle. Blade down, out, forward and reaching back, every scenario considered in that moment. Diana remembers the times she stood at her living room window and on street corners, fingernails cutting into her palm as she watched the beige sedan make its leisurely glide, comforted only by the phantom weight of the hunting knife in her hand.
The woman turns from the window and heads around the side of the house. Like the twenty-four women before her, she moves with purpose, arms at her sides, the hunting knife’s handle swallowed in her fist, the leather sheath blending into the folds of her ruddy cotton dress in the dark.
At five till midnight the next night, Diana stands at her window, unmoving. One minute. Two minutes. She counts four minutes in her head. She guesses ten minutes, but when she looks at the clock, it’s only been seven. Two minutes after midnight. She makes a fist, wiggling her fingers into place. On the other side of the glass, Diana sees only the shrubs and trees and fence posts hunched the same as any other night, bloated and waiting.
J.A.W. McCarthy goes by Jen when she is not writing. She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, a place that inspires her dark tales. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including LampLight, Places We Fear to Tread (Cemetery Gates Media), Tales to Terrify, Nightscript V, and Flame Tree Publishing’s Lost Souls. Find her at www.jawmccarthy.com, or on Instagram and Twitter @JAWMcCarthy.
Photo by Reza Hasannia on Unsplash
Author of “You Do What You’re Told”
What inspired you to write this story?
I experienced stalking years ago when I was in college. It’s interesting to me that a stalker believes they know their victim so well, yet all they really see is the fantasy that they’ve created. Even though the stalker has gotten close enough to the victim to know where she lives, how she takes her coffee, the perfume she wears, they don’t see who she really is. Then what happens when the stalker finally realizes this ideal doesn’t exist? What happens to the victim?
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I think a lot of people who read this will be able to relate, and I hope they find some satisfaction in Diana gaining and exercising her agency.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story has been through an initial edit after the first draft, then an edit after suggestions from my critique group, then a final edit with your editors here at Apparition Lit. It received only one rejection before being placed here, which is a record for me.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I’m really excited about my TBR right now. I’m late to the party on some of these, but I’m especially looking forward to reading True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik, Crossroads by Laurel Hightower, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, and Places We Fear to Tread, the new anthology from Cemetery Gates Media (I’ve got a story in this one too!). Hopefully, by the time you read this, I’ll have made some progress (and room for more books!).
I’m also eagerly awaiting the next projects from Nightscape Press. They’ve published some of my favorite authors, and their anthologies are reliably wonderful.