It takes a few minutes for the water to get hot enough to scald bare skin, but Astrid knows how to be patient. She leans against the shower wall, watching the steam billow up through the air and bracing her toes on the edge of the basin. She counts down from one hundred. Closes her eyes. Then, with a shiver of adrenaline, she pushes her body forward off the tiles and into the downpour.
The shock of first contact is more ice than fire at first, a freezing of every single nerve that almost stops her heart. Then, just as quickly, it shifts into a familiar deep burn that burrows down through her pores to her raw insides and turns everything outside a furious shade of pink. Once her nerve endings figure out what’s happening, they start to protest, urging her to run, get away, drop to the slick tile floor. Astrid takes a deep, shuddering breath and opens her eyes; black dots crowd her vision, then slowly dissolve. The opposite of stars going out.
After her heart rate settles down and her skin acclimatizes, the sharpness only lasts a little longer before it starts to fade. She holds onto it for as long as she can, but it’s just a shower in a two-bedroom apartment and there are regulations and temperature limits, and despite her various disjointed efforts, it turns out there’s not many kinds of pain a body can’t accommodate. So the adrenaline ebbs and the water becomes disappointingly warm and flat until she almost can’t feel it hitting her at all, and eventually she gives up and reaches for a bar of soap.
As she scrubs herself clean, Astrid tries not to fixate on each body part she touches: her bony shoulders and her flat chest, her long crooked arms, her armpits landscaped with soft curly hairs that catch soap bubbles like thorns on a rosebush, and the smooth skin connecting her ribs to her pelvis. Her stomach, softly curved and churning, just a quick rinse and suck it in again. Her legs, covered with ugly red and white blotches between the scabs and the sinews. Her crotch. Not thinking, not looking, not touching anything there. The callused bottoms of her feet.
If she concentrates hard enough, if she tries to count every single drop of water that hits her skin, she can tell herself that it’s someone else’s body that she is cleaning, exfoliating, pushing roughly back into itself. She doesn’t know where she is in that scenario, just that it’s somewhere far away, somewhere she can’t feel the water rolling down her thighs and down the open drain.
Astrid digs her fingernails into the bar of soap, making tiny half-moon puckers in the glossy white surface, then sets it back down on the lip of the tub. Above her, the showerhead sputters. The heat falters and edges toward lukewarm.
When she pulls back the curtains and steps out, the bathroom is shrouded in fog, and this helps as she quickly wraps a towel around herself and goes to stand in front of the mirror. The glass is frosted with moisture but her silhouette is still barely visible: a hazy pinkish blob that looks vaguely familiar. If she squints, Astrid can imagine that she really is standing there behind the mist, that if she stands there long enough and concentrates hard she will unlock some magic spell so that when her reflection eases back into view it will be exactly right. Soft edges, gentle slopes, a fullness that settles comfortably beneath her chest.
She almost makes the mistake of hoping for this.
Just as the first drops of water begin to condense and slide down the mirror’s surface, her focus is shattered by the sound of her mother on the other side of the door. Knocking once, calling a name that does not belong to her.
“Carter, honey? Are you okay in there?”
Astrid wraps the towel tighter around her waist and reaches for the doorknob. The steam rushes out all at once.
They sit on the sofa watching television with bowls of boxed macaroni and cheese, the volume at medium and the closed captions turned on. Astrid’s mother has her legs propped up on the coffee table, a glass of water in one hand and remote in the other. She sighs as the black-and-white movie they’re watching switches over to a commercial.
“How was school today?” she asks, pressing the mute button.
“Good,” Astrid says. She shrugs a little against the leather cushions. She knows she is supposed to find something else to say, something concrete to back up the noncommittal statement, but can’t find another word.
Her mom glances over at her for a second, the light from the TV screen illuminating her face—lined and slightly crumpled, like tissue paper, but not unbeautiful. “Just good?”
“Yeah. Not bad.”
“Want to give me more than the dictionary definition?” she says, eyebrows raised.
Astrid shrugs again.
Her mother sighs. “All right. Don’t mind me. Just a mom who’s interested in her son’s life.” She shakes her head slightly, a wry smile at the corner of her mouth, and unmutes the television on an advertisement for used cars, then swaps the remote for her bowl of macaroni. As a suited salesman leans against an obviously green-screened Ferrari and tells them about zero percent APR financing on their next purchase, Astrid turns her head and becomes fixated on the body on the opposite end of the couch.
As far as she can remember, her mother has always looked this way: both fragile and unyielding at the same time, a body ample even in its smallness. Her skin hangs in loose folds around a long-obscured skeletal frame—when she was younger Astrid used to burrow there, pressing herself against unexpected concave space and soaking up her mother’s warmth while she held her, sometimes for seconds and sometimes hours at a time. She wonders absently when this became unacceptable behavior; certainly the desire still rises up in her at times, like now as she watches the woman’s chest rise and fall with the weight of her steady breathing. Seven years in a wheelchair have atrophied her mother’s bones and given her whole body a steadiness that seems like a resolution, and to Astrid she is most beautiful in the places only her child and her doctor ever think to examine. The nape of her neck. The freckled, spongy V of her chest where her breasts slope toward one another. The small incisions like tattoos on each side of her belly button.
Astrid’s mother shifts slightly, reaching for the volume button because the movie is back on again, and Astrid quickly looks back at the glowing screen as a stick-thin woman dances across a meadow, tugging a young man after her toward a bed of daffodils. The orchestral swell of a musical number rises from the speakers, fills the silent apartment.
At the next commercial break, she thinks, she will say something, though what exactly that will be remains uncertain. Maybe she will say: I skipped lunch period today to go down to the river, just so no one could see me, and I almost tripped over a squirrel and broke my neck. Maybe: Mom, I have something important to tell you. Maybe: How was your day and did anything interesting happen at the dry cleaners? But as it turns out, it is the last twenty minutes of the movie and there are no more commercials to sit through and after the young people have gotten married in a different meadow beside the ornately carved walls of a church her mom switches off the television halfway through the long roll of credits and says that she is tired. Time for sleep.
When the dishes are cleared away and piled up next to the sink, Astrid helps her mother into her bed and pulls down the window blinds, obscuring the distant glittering lights of the city. She lingers there for a moment, caught by the silhouettes of the two of them on the speckled beige wall. The shapes are so incongruous that she finds herself wanting to laugh aloud, and this thought startles her. Then the shadow that is not her flattens out and she turns around again.
“Do you need anything else? Water?”
Her mother smiles and shakes her head. “I’m good, sweetie. Thank you.”
Astrid nods and starts to leave, but her mom holds up a hand and gestures for her to come over, so she moves back over to the bed.
She bends down and allows her hand to be taken.
“You know I love you, Carter, don’t you?”
Astrid nods again.
“I really do. No matter what.” Her mother’s touch is gentle and warm, and Astrid is for a moment overcome with the desire to lay her head down on her chest, allow herself to rest there. A second later, the urge passes, and she’s letting go and pulling her hand away.
“I know, Mom. Goodnight,” she says quietly.
Her mom looks at her for another moment and then smiles again, closing her eyes as Astrid moves back toward the door.
The apartment is dark and silent and Astrid finds herself in front of the bathroom mirror again with the lights off. She stands still for a moment, staring into the glass, trying to remember the words to say to summon demons. Then she shrinks away, disgusted with the outline that stares back, sharp and unblinking.
Underneath the sink is a drawer whose contents she has long since learned by heart, so it doesn’t take her long at all to find what she’s looking for. Her fingers fumble over a large hairbrush, a set of rollers, two lipsticks (Rustic Rouge and Pink Nouveau), and an eyeshadow pallet, before landing on the small lotion jar—rounded edges, torn label on the lid. She uncaps it carefully and scoops out a small blob of white salve, which smells like roses.
The dull pain that covers her body is lessened slightly as Astrid rubs it down with calamine lotion, carefully massaging the skin in tiny circles, each movement a silent apology to herself. She needs to stop doing such stupid things.
Once she’s covered her arms, neck, and stomach with the greasy ointment, she screws the lid back on and slides it back into the drawer before washing her hands for a full minute. Then she slips out into the hall, into the few slivers of light slanting through the front window curtains from streetlamps outside. She starts toward her bedroom but somehow ends up back in front of her mother’s closed door and she wants to knock but her knuckles are too large and too heavy so instead she just stands there, trying to see if she can feel those streetlights on her back, illuminating her shoulder blades. No part of her feels any different than before.
When she finally falls asleep, Astrid dreams of stars.
She’s floating, maybe a hundred feet above the surface of the earth, and there’s some invisible gossamer thread tethered vaguely around the idea of her waist, not so much tying her down as guiding her softly upward. As it unwinds by inches and centimeters, she feels a slight breeze playing around her shoulders, which is impossible because wind does not exist this far up from the ground, but nonetheless it is here, soothing her burning skin. Below her, the world is dark and barely visible, but above her everything is light: more stars than she can count pricking the flat expanse of spilled ink sky. If she squints, Astrid can make them all blur together, as if the far-off detonation that created stars and bodies and time has never happened and all that exists is the nebulous present.
As she drifts further away, Astrid becomes aware of a tiny vibration deep inside of herself. It begins at a molecular level, a faint hum emanating from what must be the oldest cells in her body, tucked away somewhere in her bone marrow from the very beginning of her existence. When she focuses on it, the vibration seems to stop, so she turns her attention back to the boundless sky around her until she feels it return again.
Time passes, though it does not exist here, and it is hours or days or millennia before the humming in her bones begins to spread to other parts: her kidneys, the base of her spinal cord, the red blood cells that rush into her heart and back out again in the opposite direction. She feels it seeping into her lungs, which are rumbling steadily despite a clear lack of oxygen, and now her whole body is steadily pulsing in a way that seems unavoidable and she can’t remember what it was like to not feel whatever this is, and she knows she is not scared and has no need to be. And now she suddenly realizes that earth is far out of sight below her and she’s alone among the brightest suns.
They are suspended there together, this heat and the universe pouring into her trembling body, and then the cord snaps. The spark inside of her aches for a final moment and she’s able to take one more deep breath before she combusts, her vessel rupturing at last, exploding into dust. Scarring the night sky with a single, fleeting burst of light.