by Julia Fine
Was it their job to make sure Caroline got home? Leah thought so only after the fact. At the time, she thought Caroline had gotten too drunk again, that it was annoying, and that if they kept taking care of her she would never learn to handle herself. Caroline was tackling the same ennui they all were. Nobody close to her had died; she hadn’t lost her job or been through a breakup. Her friends weren’t any older than she was, they didn’t know any more. It was unfair to say that Caroline was their responsibility, or that they had to end every night holding her hair back while she puked. There’s only so long you can look at someone struggling and think of them as weak, only so long before you see them as manipulative. Caroline was using them. They didn’t have to let her.
Ellen had come to Leah’s apartment to get ready for the party. As always, they were talking about Caroline.
“The way she said cirrus to that bartender last night, like she had a lisp or something.”
“The way her eyes kept fluttering half shut.”
“I had to go over there and help her pull her skirt down practically every ten minutes.”
And what were they supposed to do about it? Call Caroline’s mother? Stage an intervention? Leah’s hair was burning on the curling iron. In the bathroom waste basket a length of toilet paper sat crumpled, smeared with the lipstick she’d rubbed off in favor of a quieter shade.
“When she shows up, we’re going to say something,” said Ellen. Saying something: the universal absolution. No time spent on what, specifically, they’d say, because there was no pleasure in that conversation.
“She had mascara on her cheek. How does that even happen?” Leah felt guilty with the gossip, but it was a joyous guilt—like masturbating as a kid in Catholic grade school. She kept checking her phone to see if Caroline had texted. Caroline was always late, but even for her this was worrisome. “So embarrassing,” Leah said again, and Ellen forced a cackle. Neither had heard from Caroline since yesterday, which they acknowledged was unusual. They did not know the depths of Caroline’s soul, but they knew when she was at the gym and what she ate for breakfast, when she got home late or was locked out of her Netflix account. But maybe she was still hung over, or maybe she had lost her phone. Neither Leah nor Ellen was ready to suggest that they’d done something wrong—Ellen meeting up with her new girlfriend, Leah leaving for late-night pizza with the redhead in the trucker hat. Leah had asked Caroline if she wanted to come along, and Caroline leaned further into the booth, twisting her cocktail napkin, smiling. Leah ate a greasy slice and a half, then walked the two blocks back to the bar to help Caroline close out her tab. By the time she got there, Caroline was gone. Now, it was nine forty-five the next evening.
“Should we call her?” Leah asked. Caroline’s phone rang and rang, which meant at least she’d been able to charge it, and they waited to hear her on the other end, boozy, or hoarse with sleep, or falsely bright and asking for a message. Even an automated you have reached would have felt like an answer, but Caroline’s phone just kept ringing. Ellen put hers on speaker and propped it against an empty bottle of wine.
“So are we going to the party?” Leah asked over the sound. They went to the party.
Early Sunday morning Leah had a text from Caroline’s brother. She was supposed to have met her family for breakfast and hadn’t shown up. Was her phone broken again, or did she lose her wallet? Mitchell was contacting Leah because she’d once been Caroline’s roommate. Leah was already awake, although the sun had barely crested the building next door.
Don’t be worried, she wrote.
OK, he texted back.
With that OK, Leah tried to convince herself not to be worried, that the day was still full of possibility. Leah could jog to the lake, or watch television, or finally pick up her dry cleaning. She could think about what she’d say to Caroline when Caroline finally called back.
There was no One Big Thing that Caroline had done to explain the sense of justice Leah now felt at the current situation, just the consistent erosion of shoreline that came from each small wave in a friendship. Caroline wasn’t wealthy or exceptionally beautiful, she wasn’t off-handedly cruel. But Leah didn’t like the way her two bottom canines sat crooked, and she didn’t like how long Caroline spent looking at the menu when they went out to eat. Caroline would ask for little favors—a ride to the train, the loan of a nude strapless bra—and Leah would fight the urge to slap her. Maybe she hadn’t felt this way back when Caroline could carry her liquor. It was hard for Leah to know how she’d once felt about things, because she was not in the habit of writing herself down. Her life was aggressively present: the shock of jalapeño on her banh mi, the stubble on a stranger’s skin, the pervasive stench of urine at the back of the 66 bus north, the bass-line rhythms of summer construction.
As she laced up her sneakers, Leah contemplated what might have happened to Caroline. She tried to order her thoughts from the most outlandish to the most logical: murder, kidnapping, witness protection, rape, broken cell phone. If they didn’t hear from her by tonight, Leah would call the police. Television had taught her that you needed to wait at least forty-eight hours before filing an official missing person’s report, so there was nothing that would come of turning off her usual route and jogging up to the police station, standing and staring at the man behind the front desk. The precinct was not air conditioned, and an overflowing city trashcan propped open a back door.
“Have you been to her house?” The officer asked, and Leah had to admit that she hadn’t. He wasn’t unkind, just sweaty, drinking iced coffee from a Styrofoam cup. “Start there.”
By the time Leah reached Caroline’s building, she was nursing a blister on her left heel. She caught the front door as one of the neighbors was leaving and stretched her calves out in the elevator. This mostly felt perfunctory—going and knocking on Caroline’s door, leaning in and listening for movement in her studio apartment, trying to sniff out anything unusual to report back to the desk cop. A shock, then, when Caroline appeared.
“Leah,” Caroline said, her head cocked and her jaw askew as if there was some humor in Leah’s being there. She was wearing the same outfit she’d had on Friday night: ripped jeans and a puffy-sleeved T-shirt, heavy makeup.
“Oh, hey,” Leah said, cowering.
“Hey.” Caroline left the door open and walked over to her bed, sitting down on the comforter. Leah followed her inside.
Something was off about Caroline, but Leah couldn’t put her finger on what exactly it was. There were dirty dishes in the sink, which was normal. The fan in the bathroom buzzed. Clothes were strewn across the closet floor.
“How was the rest of your night?” Leah asked. “We missed you yesterday.”
“Good,” said Caroline.
“We tried to call,” Leah said, “both me and Ellen.”
“Yes,” said Caroline.
“I was just out for a run,” Leah said, tapping her sneaker, “and I figured ….” Caroline didn’t say anything. “You’re okay?” Leah asked.
“Of course,” said Caroline.
Leah left Caroline on the bed with the excuse that she had to go get groceries. As she ran home, she called Ellen repeatedly. Ellen had ended the night with her girlfriend, so there was a high chance she was engaged in the type of mid-morning acrobatics that allowed for seven missed calls, then an eighth.
They were both breathless when Ellen picked up.
“Jesus, Leah, what’s the matter?”
“I went to Caroline’s,” Leah said.
“And I saw her.”
“Not good. Not good at all. There’s something wrong. You have to go and see her,” Leah said. “See for yourself.”
On Tuesday after work, Ellen went to see Caroline, and afterward came straight to Leah’s. Leah had already ordered takeout—she’d meant to keep the orange chicken as leftovers, but told Ellen to stay for dinner.
“You’re right,” Ellen said. “Caroline’s different.”
“Was she sitting on the bed?”
“She was sitting on the bed.” In a studio apartment, the bed is one of few places to sit, but Ellen must have known what Leah meant. She recognized the wide-eyed blinking, the ineffable sensation of other. “There were like fifteen banana peels next to her trashcan. Not in the trash, but next to it.” Ellen was rubbernecking Caroline like an expressway crash—inconvenient but still entertaining.
“She left me this weird voicemail,” said Leah. “I got it on my way home from work. Just heavy breathing and then I think a cat hissing?” She played the message on speaker, aware of the itch of her underwire, the tag on the back of her skirt.
“It’s like an alien invaded her body,” said Ellen. Normally, Leah would have laughed, but that was, in fact, how it seemed—as if behind Caroline’s eyes there lived some otherworldly creature, assessing but not interacting. Biding its time.
“If I were a body snatcher,” Leah said, “I’d probably target a drunk girl.”
“Anyone would target a drunk girl,” said Ellen. “For anything.”
And both were quiet, twisting lo mein onto their forks.
In the three weeks since Caroline had been left drunk at the bar, a superficial normality had resumed. Their group text tracked each time somebody’s boss was an asshole, or a date had gone sour, or a prime item of clothing was on sale. Caroline responded as she always had, and when Leah scrolled back to find the differences between her virtual interactions before and after the fact she saw no obvious markers. But in person Caroline was distant. She often canceled plans, claiming a headache.
There was nowhere for Leah to report what she suspected—that this Caroline was not the real Caroline—but the more time that she spent with her, the more Leah was sure. Caroline no longer ate the way she once had, picking each individual chocolate chip out of her ice cream, or lining up each grain of rice across her plate. She was quieter. She always wore the same outfit. And while she drank the same amount, she didn’t ever seem drunk.
Ellen was tired of talking about Caroline. She would nod and roll her eyes and check her phone whenever Leah went off on a Caroline tangent, so Leah tried to refrain from the I feel like it’s our fault, though and talk of atmospheric disturbances. But then a silence would come between them like a hacking cougher on a city bus, and Ellen would sigh. Leah dug with her plastic straw through the ice at the bottom of her lemonade. Would she rather feel awful or feel nothing?
“I just can’t tell if Caroline likes us anymore,” Leah said, daring to look Ellen in the eyes.
Ellen sniffed. They’d never worried about Caroline liking them before. They’d all been friends since their first semester of college, coming up on seven years now. It didn’t really matter if they liked each other.
“I have a date,” said Ellen, leaving Leah to her meteorology.
A blood moon was expected that week; a strange collection of lenticular clouds.
Then, one night, as Leah was coming home from work, she felt like somebody was following her. She pulled a headphone out of an ear in what she thought was a surreptitious way and heard a large stick being skidded along dumpsters. Turning to look would be a sign of weakness, so Leah kept on. She let herself in the back of her building and began to climb the stairs, but paused halfway, waiting to hear the door slam shut behind her. When it didn’t, Leah turned around and saw Caroline, standing in the frame, holding it open. At first it seemed as if her nose was bleeding, but it was just the angle of the light casting an odd orange glow.
“Caroline,” Leah said. “Do you want to come up?”
Caroline didn’t say anything, but extended her arms downward, and crouching in the doorway, cocked her head to the side. Backlit, she looked like the sole living creature on the scorched expanse of Mars. Leah half-expected her to scamper up the walls, unspool gossamer, and spider her way across the ceiling. There they were, looking at each other. Then a neighbor slammed a door upstairs, and Caroline, spooked, escaped through the alley before Leah could catch her.
After that, Leah saw Caroline everywhere: at work, where Caroline peered over the cubicle walls and licked her lips; at the movie theater, where Caroline nursed a slushy just behind Leah’s dull date; by the food trucks in the plaza. She never spoke, and Leah got the feeling that she had forgotten how. Caroline looked like she’d been living by the underpass or out of someone’s truck, her puffy-sleeved t-shirt progressively more wrinkled, her hair greasier each time.
Have you seen your sister recently? Leah finally texted Mitchell. It took him twenty-eight hours to respond.
Leah pictured the ellipses on his phone as she typed and deleted, typed and deleted. She’d extended the invitation, and it was now up to Mitchell to mention the stalking, the grime. The way Caroline would lick her lips, that wet pink tongue darting forever out and in.
Mitchell might be in on Caroline’s transformation. Mitchell might say Leah was crazy. And maybe she was. Leah considered visiting a doctor, but she was still on her parents’ insurance and they would wonder what was happening. She’d have to explain how she’d left Caroline alone at the bar.
Leah wouldn’t have just walked out on anyone, she wasn’t fully apathetic. If it had been Ellen getting drunk and making a fool of herself night after night, Leah told herself, she would have cared more, cared better. Ellen was always the aspirational friend, looking cool across the quad with her clove cigarettes, never needing anything. It was the lack of need that attracted Leah to Ellen. Once need was removed, a friendship could stand on desire.
But lately it seemed as though Ellen no longer desired Leah’s company. She had set aside the group text, immersed in a romantic relationship that left no room for Leah. And Leah found that she didn’t always mind when Ellen cancelled plans, or responded to texts hours after her read receipt. It wasn’t that Leah didn’t like Ellen’s new girlfriend, it wasn’t even that Leah was jealous, but without Caroline to balance them, conversation faltered.
“I saw her at the gym,” said Leah, and Ellen could not grasp the enormity of what Leah had seen: Caroline, on all fours, scaling the height of the building. She had let out a howl into the five-thirty smog and disappeared across the roof.
If Leah were now to draw a picture of Caroline, she would look more insect than human. Her eyes would expand to fill most of her face, and those annoying crooked canines would sharpen.
Two months after leaving Caroline—late August, long and oppressive—Leah texted the group:
What are we up to this weekend?
Not even Ellen sent an answer.
Caroline was everywhere, then suddenly she was gone. The gym was still full of ponytails and bra sweat, each treadmiller’s face a mix of loneliness and horror, but the dogs no longer barked in the middle of the night. At work Leah spun around her ergonomic desk chair to find only a blank whiteboard. Where had Caroline gone? To the moon? Back to her parents’ in the suburbs? Whatever secret she’d uncovered had gone with her, and Leah felt its lack.
On the weekends, she found herself waking up early and wandering the neighborhood. She had not known there was a church less than two blocks from her building. She’d never been inside the record store, or the little Asian grocery. At seven in the morning she would stand and peer inside the windows of these shuttered stores, and hope to see Caroline reflected behind her.
Published on September 14, 2022