the surgical removal of some of a patient’s blood for therapeutic purposes.
the violent killing and wounding of people during a war or conflict.
Eleven months before the incident, it happens for the first time.
Dani can’t recall when she last allowed herself to be dragged to a party, to be jostled around. She’s not a social animal; she prefers to roam her own private enclosure, her small apartment with its two-foot-wide kitchen and the flickering lamp and her desk with the one uneven leg. (She’s tried so many times to balance that damn desk, tried shoving an old checkbook, a broken piece of tile, anything, under the leg, but nothing works. Oh well, she figures, it’s from Ikea— “Påhl,” fifty bucks, thrown with haste into the trunk of Christian’s rusty Civic one rainy Tuesday when she realized she was moving somewhere and didn’t have a desk to take with her— so she got what she paid for.)
She sips the murky whirlpool swirling lazily in her red solo cup. It goes down like battery acid, but lands in her stomach with a pleasant warmth. When she arrived here, she’d wanted to stick by Christian, but after some time, he shrugged her off and she ended up crumpled in a corner like a limp cardigan. That’s where she is now in this strange apartment. She doesn’t much like standing still. She needs to move, to roam— that’s why she’s one of those people who constantly paces when they’re on the phone. It’s ingrained in her. But with the crowd in here, it’s impossible, so she stays pressed against the wall and stares out the window at the city lights for just a glimpse of familiarity.
Then, all at once, she spots Christian again and she latches on to him like a leech, letting him pull her into the stream of people shuffling along in his wake. Her boyfriend is big and loud, lifting his arms, sloshing his drink, gesturing wildly to fill the space his voice doesn’t reach. He acts the way you’re supposed to when confronted with an attacking bear. Be big and be loud. And Christian is in every corner, every nook and cranny, and Dani lets him go on without any acknowledgement of her. (Dani lets things happen, she knows, she lets when maybe she should’ve just taken an Uber home but now it’s two hours too late, he’s too drunk, and if she leaves now she’ll have failed in her responsibility to watch over him.)
She knows maybe it would be better if she got tipsy too, let the alcohol filter her vision and make everything pleasant and rose-colored, turn Christian’s scowl into a teasing smirk. But she can’t do it, can’t stand the thought of facing a hangover tomorrow morning. So she sets her drink down on a random sticky coffee table and lets go of Christian again to duck into what she hopes is a powder room.
She flips on the light and yes, it is a bathroom— with a yellowed ivory sink, a toilet with a crack in the seat when she lifts the lid, and a tub full of flowers. Dani frowns, standing there with the slimy plastic shower curtain pinched between thumb and index finger. The tub is a shaded indoor garden, overflowing with neatly trimmed stems and wilting petals. (She would find it odd, but over the past few years Dani has found most frat parties to be some kind of trippy fever dream. It’s not her scene, and not Christian’s either, if he’s as intellectual as he claims to be. He wants to be Josh, but he’s more of a Mark, and thinking about any of them right now makes Dani’s stomach twist.)
Dani leans on the vanity, pressing her palms into the ridged edge because pain keeps her grounded, reminds her that she has two feet on the floor and a head up in space. When she looks in the mirror, though, her head is fitted between her shoulders and she supposes that is where it should be. She stares. Her eyes are the color of whatever’s underneath the algae covering a neglected pond. She knows she’s pretty, or at least she thinks so, and she thinks so because she thinks what she’s been told. Her mother has told her affectionately when she squeezed into something nice for school dances; her sister has told her with scorn when they compared bodies in a magenta-tinged bedroom mirror; Christian has told her once, when she wore a five-year-old black lace dress from Target to his grandmother’s funeral.
“Oh! I am sorry, I didn’t realize this was occupied.”
Dani looks over, and she must be drunk. She has never known a time when looking at somebody made her feel that way, let alone when she’s likely the most sober soul at this awful party. “Sorry,” she mutters. “Guess I didn’t close the door.” Great. Left the door open for anyone mindful enough to witness her latest episode. The lame laugh she offers right after sounds like her, has her signature rasp in it, the mystery rasp she’s been afflicted with her entire life. (When they first met, Christian asked her if she was a smoker, but now he demands for it during sex, insists on hearing his name grinding between her molars when he comes too fast then feverishly fingers her afterward for her allotted three minutes.)
The bearded fellow smiles, pressing his shoulder into the peeling door jamb. “No worries.”
She hesitates, then blinks and shakes her head, starting to slide past him. “Right. Well, um, it’s all yours. I was just... washing my hands.”
“Oh, no, no—” The lilt in his voice is one and the same as the crookedness in his smile, like one corner of his lips got snagged on something. “I only thought somebody left the light on in here. I just wanted to turn it off.”
Dani looks at him, looks at the earth brown locks tucked into a fraying bun, looks at the words hanging in the air between them. (That’s another thing she lets happen often— words dangle before her, suspended like dust particles, but they don’t blow away as easily as dust would when a sigh rushes out of her lungs.)
Dani looks at him and she trusts him. It also helps that he doesn’t have a drink in his hand. “I’m Dani,” she tells him. She wants him to know about her. “Dani Ardor. Don’t ask if it’s just Dani, because it is. My parents liked the ‘Dani’ part of ‘Danielle’ but not the rest of it.” She should stop talking.
Now he laughs. Good. Validation. “Hm, Ardor. That means passion, yes? Zeal.” At her nod, his smile smooths out more at the ends. “An appropriate surname for you, I’m sure. I love studying the English language and all the intricacies of it.”
“So it’s not your first language? Where are you from?” Dani wonders.
“A small village in Sweden,” he answers. She hates that when she thinks of Sweden, she thinks of Ikea and her bad Ikea desk. Then he appears to pause, and it’s long enough to leave Dani anxious about his next words. “You’re— you’re Christian’s girlfriend, I believe?”
It wasn’t the first thing out of his mouth after she revealed her name, and that makes her like him now, when she’s already trusted him for close to five minutes. “Yeah,” she says. “I am. Speaking of which... have you seen him around lately?”
“Even if I weren’t fairly well acquainted with him”— of course, another one of Christian’s friends he’s never introduced to her— “he would be difficult to miss. I last saw him in the kitchen not even ten minutes ago.”
Dani finishes squeezing past him, but he lingers in the doorway because his eyes are lingering on her, all of her. He sees her. “Oh, right.” She chuckles. “I almost left without getting your name?”
“Pelle,” he tells her.
“Pelle,” she says. “See you around, Pelle.”
Dani finds that she thinks in parentheses; none of it feels strictly necessary, like extra points shoved in between more important elements which are blurry in her mind.
She’s scrolling idly through her phone, rotating through three different social media platforms, thumb flying over meaninglessness. Ten minutes ago, Terri screamed at her and said Dani doesn’t know her and never did, which can’t be true because there are photo albums and memories full of evidence to the contrary, and then she hung up on her. Dani needs to look at something that isn’t a Call Ended screen or her texts with Christian that are all blue bubbles and read receipts, so she looks at high school friends’ sorority charity events and her aunt’s vegetable garden. She looks at her old prom photos and tries not to cry. She decides to order a pizza, but at the last minute she tells them she’ll come pick it up there rather than have it delivered. She hasn’t been outside all day.
She emerges outside and lets the urban street swallow her whole. Walking briskly like she’s preparing to break into a sprint, she almost doesn’t notice the familiar face stepping out of a car at the curb. And because she chooses to notice him, she misses the uneven sidewalk ahead of her, disrupted by a tree root beneath.
Three months before the incident, it happens again. Pelle sees her and has her in his arms before she’s hit the ground, but he can’t stop gravity’s heavy hand. In an instant he helps her back up. It’s hot outside, she went out wearing an old camisole and patterned pajama shorts, and her knees and palms are completely busted open, oozing blood red like liquid cherry candy. Dani grits her teeth and remembers: pain is grounding. Pain means she is alive. (And that’s a good thing. It is. But really, does she always have to act like a drunk who’s lost all her wits whenever she’s around him?)
A tsk hisses through Pelle’s teeth when he surveys the damage. “This isn’t exactly the way I hoped we’d meet again, Dani,” he says, holding the smile in his eyes this time.
“You hoped—?” She stops and redirects herself. “I mean, uh, hi. Again.”
Blood is sliding down her arms and shins now, a ticklish sensation, and he says, “I hope you live close by—”
“I do, I do, yeah. I was just going to get a pizza, I should probably...” She trails off, pointing vaguely in the direction she’d been headed, but he shakes his head.
“Ah, ah, no, we should get you cleaned up. That first, then pizza later.”
Dani frowns, hesitates, but then he moves the smile back to his pretty mouth and she agrees. She reminds herself that she trusts him; and yes, he’s one of Christian’s friends, but he can’t be all that bad, right? Pelle seems to be his own entity apart from the overtly male boisterousness of Christian’s crew.
It’s when they’re in her tiny apartment bathroom, her sitting on the closed toilet lid and him crouched on the bathmat in front of her, that it happens a third time. He’s busy cleaning off her knees, picking the sidewalk grit from the scrapes and wiping the crimson streaks from her legs. It’s weirdly intimate, or it should be, but it’s just intimate and not weird at all, really. (Dani wonders if it would be out of place to put on a quiet Spotify playlist and maybe stroke his loose hair.)
He beats her to the punch on one of those things, however. He finishes with her knees, dabs one last time with gauze and neatly places band-aids. He starts to move up to her hands, which aren’t as bad yet still sore. But on his way there, his fingers take a detour and tuck stray blonde strands behind her ear. At one point, her hair was golden, but now it’s dull and ashy. Where he touched it, though, Dani feels a tugging at her scalp.
Their eyes meet next and Dani thinks, fuck, this is it. This is all it takes for her. She’s too damn easy, isn’t she? (Christian told her once, that she’s too easy and he never introduces his friends to her, in fact, because she has these big doe eyes and a hot body that suck them in, and would she just stop doing that for once.)
Pelle leans in closer and this is her fault, she thinks, though she isn’t sure what she did except like him. (And trust him. Oh shit, she trusted him.)
Something compels him to stop— maybe he can read minds— and he abruptly puts all his focus into disinfecting and cleaning off her scuffed palms. Then he says without looking up, “You have such beautiful green eyes, Dani. They remind me of spring.”
“You have someone to admire them, I hope.”
He’s asking— he’s asking if—
“I do,” Dani says, feeling around the words carefully, “but he doesn’t.”
Pelle stays crouched there for a long moment, and Dani thinks of all the things he could do to her, kneeling in that position with her above him.
It shouldn’t happen, but she lets it. Rather, she propels it. She’s practically making out with empty air when he straightens to meet her lips. She’s an afterthought, usually, but this time she escapes from in between the parentheses. He kisses all of her, the side of her throat, behind her ear, along her jaw. His hand starts crawling up her bare thigh, and when she nods fervently, eyes screwed shut against his shoulder, he lets his fingers nudge aside her panties and dip into her.
She leans hard into him, kissing him whenever she’s able while he nimbly works, and she keeps mumbling his name just to get a good taste of it. Her eyes roll up to the water-stained ceiling and she wonders what it is about them and small bathrooms.
Later, her phone goes off and she thinks it might be Terri, or maybe Christian, who could know even though there’s no way he could know. She answers and it’s the pizza place, wondering why she never came in to pick up her order.
Dani hangs up and lets Pelle leave hickeys where no one will find them, like forbidden temporary tattoos.
Two months before the incident, Christian storms in with the spare key he’s only used once, for this moment. Dani looks up from her psych notes and knows she won’t finish studying tonight.
“You fucked him,” Christian spits, kicking over a lamp. It crashes down but the lightbulb doesn’t go out, and Dani takes that as a sign this is right. Cheating on him wasn’t right— no one deserves that, and it’s not like Christian ever killed anybody, he’s just an asshole— but yeah, she wants him to be upset about her. He deserves to lose her.
“Yeah,” she says. Her tone is equivalent to a shrug.
“Okay.” And she would tell him not to let the door hit him on the ass on the way out, but it already has and she really wouldn’t mean it. She really couldn’t ever mean it.
Later, she invites Pelle over and he has a purplish bruise forming around his left eye. Apparently he told him not to touch her again, but then he broke up with her, so there’s some contradiction, but Dani doesn’t really give a shit. She’s tired and she wants to be loved and here Pelle is, singing her praises with every kiss, and he pumps slowly inside her so they can build up together. Pelle sees her and Pelle holds her.
Then they get high, she ices his eye and he calls her his May Queen, even though her birthday is in July, and it’s just so funny to her and she goes on and on laughing, and then he says he wants to take her to meet his family, and she hesitates.
“You’ll love them, Dani, really. Fair warning, though, they—”
“Well, they’re... it’s a pretty large family, that’s all.”
The day of the incident, Dani is well. She eats breakfast and takes her pills and goes to class.
In the early hours of the morning, they’re found and she’s already at Pelle’s place. Earlier she was splayed on his bed, his face between her thighs, her muffling her cries behind a pillow so his roommate wouldn’t hear them. Now she’s woken by her strumming guitar ringtone— she should take up guitar again, she can sing, Pelle says she has a robust throat— and when they tell her her family is dead, all of them dead, Pelle is already holding her before the first cry tears up her windpipe.