Dark Light


by Sarah Cypher

Every time Astrid laughs, every time she swears, the driver glances into his rearview mirror. It’s the only sign he is offended by the three of us and by the shimmering traffic jam on Constitution Avenue. But Astrid’s account of a bad date only gets louder with her joyful, florid swearing. The driver’s glare hits me because I’m right behind his mirror, perspiring between Astrid and my wife, Vee. I murmur to Vee a wish to put down the window, a private request that draws a brief, desperate circle around the two of us. She touches my knee with one hand and the window control with the other, but it’s no good. The air outside sends the full, damp weight of a Washington D.C. afternoon into the vehicle, along with a fat cicada that clings to the molding. Vee knocks it back outside, into the constricting heat, and I wish I could crawl out of my skin too. 

I’ve spent the day being a third wheel to this friendship. Vee and Astrid bonded last year over Zoom, over long outrageous stories about pandemic chaos in their ERs. Now that spring has waned and heat has coaxed people out of their homes for the first time in a year, Astrid has traveled for a conference, skipped the final day, missed a flight, and found a place with bottomless bourbon peach tea because it’s Vee’s favorite. It is not the kind of fun I usually orchestrate for us, so to feel included in my own marriage, I have folded myself into their brittle jokes about Astrid’s bad dates, asked respectful questions about Astrid’s conference speech, made sympathetic noises in response to Astrid’s friction with her employer, a healthcare empire that insists all it touches must thrive. A functionary of this employer has just texted her, she complains now, that her new flight home is rebooked for 6:00 a.m. tomorrow.

“So obviously I should sleep with you two,” Astrid says. 

I lift my head from my wife’s shoulder, wondering at the wording of her request: Astrid, who is straight, inviting herself to stay the night. The driver glances again. I’m too stupefied by the heat to untangle whether the remark was really an innuendo, or to process the faint stab of jealousy, like the otherwise harmless point of a feather poking through a pillowcase. 

“Of course!” Vee cries. “We’re right next to the airport. My father-in-law has the guest room, but the couch is yours. Take, take!”

Astrid claps her hand to her chest and her hard, colorful jewelry clacks. “If I miss the fucking thing again, Jesus fuck, my admin lady will have an aneurysm. You two are the tits.” 

In the year and a half before my mother died, I kept my language clean around her and her infantilizing hospice minders. My grandfather had come to this country from Syria and worked as a limo driver for fifty years, and he’d always said that when your job is to be invisible, you learn what coarse behavior is. The lesson my mother had taken and passed down to me was that no one is really invisible and everyone is passing judgment. Now, as the driver fixes another look on me, I feel helpless to quiet his loudest passenger down.

“Sweetie,” I say to Vee, modeling softness, “tonight’s the night you fly out for training in Florida. You won’t be around for a guest.”

Vee nudges her sticky shoulder against mine, heavy-lidded and smiling. In a companionably intimate voice, she says, looking at me but speaking to Astrid, “So it’s up to Wifey to host. You don’t mind hanging out together, do you?”

Astrid screams. “Dead ass! We’ll drink your famous dirty martinis together at the house! You promised!”

Did I? Vee shoves me again. “Wifey, what do you say?”

That I don’t know when I agreed to become Wifey, the de facto house manager: running a small online enterprise out of the home, occupying these rooms and not some other rooms in an office. I haven’t found how not to be responsible for what happens under the roof when Vee is doing her equally time-consuming job elsewhere. Yet despite the practical benefits, there are these tensions. My involvement never feels merely functional; maybe it’s some brooding behavior, maybe it’s just assumed, but gradually over our dozen years together the domestic space has become an unwanted second career. There are small home repairs, daily tidying, attention to meals and neighborly relations and errands, nothing difficult, except that I just spent a year handling many of these affairs twice over for my father while my mother, his lifelong invisible helpmeet, was busy dying. After she was gone, Vee took the new position on the East Coast in what was to feel like a fresh start. But somehow, again, I’m the one unpacking the final moving boxes instead of answering client emails. I’m figuring out the car registrations instead of submitting project proposals. I’m doing a lot of the cooking, and not a lot of work that pays, and my new-widower father has occupied the guest room in what appears to be an open-ended stay. And during an impulsive outing last Saturday afternoon, he rescued a puppy for us, a downy mutt with huge paws and a taste for furniture. Astrid crashing on our couch ought to be the easiest favor in the world, but it really feels like she’s swinging toward my life feet-first on a zipline, straight into fragile glass.

If Vee had asked me privately, I’d have said no. Maybe I’d have offered to pay for a hotel closer to the airport, just to show I was sensitive to Astrid’s dilemma; I’m not a monster. Yet we are all sometimes possessed by our ancestors. Mine were hospitable. Well-behaved by immigrant necessity, no choice but to be always pleasant.

“Of course it’s fine,” I say. “There’s an air mattress. Or the couch. We’ll fix it up for you however you want.”

Traffic inches forward, and the driver doesn’t take his eyes off the road.

Astrid, as the name implies, is proudly half-Norwegian. She towers in our kitchen, expanding into Vee’s absence and keeping the puppy awake too long, laughing as it chews on the toe of her platform sandal. She is an enthusiastic entertainer, even as a guest, filling our four-story chimney of a townhouse. Her blonde braid hangs over her shoulder and tickles the surface of her second martini, then her third. I’m busy slicing fruit for tomorrow’s breakfast, and we’re comparing firsts. I was a first-generation college student; she ran away from home in her teens and found a backstage job with a multiplatinum grunge band. My first job was in a library, and then a bookstore. She put herself through medical school waiting tables. Being the firstborn, I uprooted my life to sit by my mother’s deathbed. Astrid’s mother was an athlete who trained with the Norwegian Winter Olympics team, and one year, never came home. It’s hard to tell how much of it is bullshit. But the drunker she gets, the taller she seems, and her ecstatic vulgarity pushes upward toward the guest bedroom, threatening to erupt into my father’s sleep.

Thank god he is nearly deaf. His geriatric sleep schedule means he barely told her hello before retreating to bed, and this is a mercy. He spent a forty-year career teaching bible study at the Orthodox church and driving for his father-in-law’s cab company on the side. He’s the kind of guy who does not want to hear Astrid complain about how expensive her sports bras have gotten and how they all give her a side boob.

She thrusts the martini glass at me. “Oh my god, more!”

“Another…martini? What time is your flight?”

“I’ve had such a good fucking day with you! It’s exactly what I needed.”

The counter is littered with pineapple spines and shorn strawberry crowns, and thanks to sugar and booze, it is tacky as a sorority house floor. There’s also a ring of saliva on the hardwood around Astrid’s shoe, where the puppy is licking and licking.

“I’m glad, Astrid. Oh, shoot. We should have picked up another bottle of vodka, had I known we’d be getting to the bottom of this one.” I rinse the shaker and start concocting another dose from the last of the bottle, hating the prudish dismay infesting my voice. How often it creeps in—the nagging, the miserliness, the ruminating scratchiness. Where does it come from? Cleaning the kitchen won’t take five minutes. My mom might also remind me that I’m lucky and in good health. Unlike her lot, I have a happy marriage and enough money, time to travel the world once a year, and the means of making top-shelf drinks from the household pantry. Hell, as far as a creature in late-stage capitalism goes, it’s the life. I dump the shaker into Astrid’s glass, filling it with another four ounces of Grey Goose.

Astrid’s pores and pupils are huge. It’s surreal, seeing reflected in another human face the easeful glow I usually experience when drinking alone.

“Oh, give me another three olives, Nina,” she says. “It’s a vegetable, right?”

“If the doctor says so.” I drain my own glass like medicine.

The rest of the night is a buzzkill. The puppy yelps in the crate and I’m up every two hours, wandering after it in the backyard in a bathrobe, stepping on the occasional dead cicada. A fox screams from the empty lot across the street, distracting the puppy from peeing for another ten minutes. But indoors, the puppy chews the metal crate and whimpers. Dad groans something churlish but indecipherable from the next room; even though the dog is basically his fault, his tone strikes at the bedrock of my obedient upbringing, so as my mother would have done, I scoop the puppy in my arms and carry it past Astrid’s goliath sleeping form. The streetlight glows on her bare shoulders, and I suspect that under the throw, she’s sleeping on our couch naked.

The puppy and I lie down outside on the patio couch. The humid air blankets my skin, and the puppy settles the top of its snout under my chin and sighs. At last we both drift off, feeling free of confining rooms.

Lately, I always dream of things burning. Like a coal mine that smolders for decades, the same feeling abides: everyone you love expects you to make them happy. To be their joy, their servant, their mama, their therapist, their friend. That’s what my mother said, word for word, in her final weeks. Snowed on morphine, soured by pain, she sat propped up on a mass of pillows, skin as yellow as old plastic. One morning I came back from a run and offered her a protein drink, and she rolled her yellow eyes up at me and said in a false, snooty voice: My name is Nina and I have a very nice wife Vee. We’re a pair of Peter Pans. Never going to grow up. She slashed through her every grievance, caricaturing her skinflint father, her melodramatic siblings, and her childhood friends who in one way or another had ended up with more than she thought they deserved from life—and the meanest thing of all was how she narrated all these grievances in that mocking, first-person present tense. Sloughed off her pain to inhabit the worst of everyone. It was a contempt I always felt was there, bubbling under the heavy lid of her forbearance, and to hear it aloud burned me down to my roots. I no longer knew her.

Sometime in the morning half-light, a sound penetrates the stillness, rising with the intimation of sunlight filtering down through a haze of sleep. Damp, rough fabric sticks to my face, and there’s the muggy smell of dog around—but the sound is unplaceable, like the whirring of a flying saucer. It rises and falls without cease: insects, I think. Lying here with my eyes closed, dry-mouthed and hung over, I give them my whole waking attention. It’s not the alto, chittering buzz of the annual cicadas of a Pennsylvania childhood, that aural trance of late summer, but a noise that’s higher, shriller, and earlier. The fat summer leaves are full of the slap of insectile bodies crash-landing in the canopy. The swarm, called Brood X, was just molting from their amber nymph shells when Vee and I were moving in last month, and since then, it’s been carnage—black-and-orange bodies and heads and wings littering the yard. They were silent underground for seventeen years, and suddenly have wings and a biological imperative to sing and fly, goggling at the world through their strange red eyes.

Their doom and clumsiness in the air hooks another memory, something recent, yesterday in fact, trying to ride Lime scooters on the National Mall with Vee and Astrid, forearms quivering in fear, my entire being focused on the alien mobility. I’d flashed to imagining my own death, maybe a fatal brain bleed, wondering if my father would help Vee with the funeral arrangements the way I’d helped him with Mom’s—obsessing thoughts I shared with no one. And with this anchor of memory, I finally rouse enough to register that I’m lying on the patio couch, and that my legs and hands are burning with mosquito bites. Sleeping here, I’ve given them the bloodsucking equivalent of a juice bar. In what feels like a dark fairytale, my wife is out of town, replaced by a frightening stranger who demands everything.

And the hour feels very late. Maybe late enough for Astrid to be off to the airport. Dad should still be sleeping, thanks to the antidepressants. A morning alone to shake off the brooding mood and catch up on rest, then: the idea shimmers with promise.

The puppy is already down in the yard nosing the cicada carcasses, so I stick my head indoors to test the air.

Astrid is right there, towering over my father at the table. Her gaze swivels to me. 

“Good morning, happy camper!”

The wall clock says it’s almost seven o’clock. A thought is trying to form, but fatigue keeps thwarting it. Astrid’s baby shorts are eye-level with my eighty-year-old dad, who is showered and seated with his little red prayer book and cell phone, looking bewildered.

“Wasn’t your flight at six?”

“Oh, I slept through my alarm and missed it again,” Astrid says. “Last night’s sleep was for shit. It’s okay, someone will cover for me at the hospital—they made me use my vacation for the conference, so I’m going to enjoy myself, goddammit!” She swings her attention back down to my father, who seems unruffled by the vulgarity. “I think I’ve convinced your dad to go to the arboretum with us. Right, Tony?”

“Us?” Panic rises in me, provenance obscure, next to a mirroring anger. “I’m so sorry, but I have to get work done. I didn’t plan to take two days off in a row. And Dad, I need help watching the dog during meetings, remember.”

He gives me his gentlest smile. “Honey, come out. Live your life.”

“Yeah, I can’t.”

It’s a ridiculous thing to say, and he swats it out of the air. “I’d like to go to the arboretum. It sounds like your friend knows the city so much better than you two. I’ll get out of your hair for the day. You probably get sick of an old man.”

“Are you okay to walk that much? And the cicadas are—”

“Good grief. You’re the only schoolmarm in the world with no children to boss around. Relax.”

A stab of pure temper zings through me. If Astrid weren’t here, I’d dismantle that statement one dismissive, sexist assumption at a time, starting with schoolmarm and taking the long way through the history of a professionalized American education system built on the generational sacrifices of underpaid women, making several pit stops at the failed attempts to give him and my mother grandchildren through two expensive and unwelcoming fertility clinics, the stigmatization of unmarried and/or childless women and/or lesbians, and terminating, if he would listen long enough, at the observation that of his three children, I am the only one in a stable long-term relationship, content with our life, and moreover, the only family member ever to make a steady income with a liberal arts degree, which, to my great umbrage, is still not enough to live down my undignified reputation as “the sensitive one.”

But Astrid is here, still here, this brassy woman I barely know with whom my wife has shared so much, and who wants to spirit my maddening and stubborn father away to another part of the city.

I say, “He’s all yours.”

“All mine!” She lays her hand over his spotted, shiny one. “Let’s fall in love with DC, Tony.”

And if it’s an especially hard fall, one that fractures his hip again, well, you’re a doctor. You can sightsee GW Hospital together. But my mother—or rather, the rules that stifled her until those final truth-telling weeks—has burrowed into me. Rules of hospitality, of decorum. So what I tell Dad and Astrid instead is, “I’ll figure out food for dinner so we can eat when you’re home. Go have fun.”

The cicadas are harmless. That’s what everyone says. They show up every seventeen years across the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states for about a month, shoveling their way out of mud chimneys as soon as the ground gets warm enough. They come out in dull brown armor, these medieval-looking grubs, suffocating in a space that is too small for them until the whole rig splits open at the back and they arch and squirm free. It’s at this point that the predators in their ancestral territory begin to take advantage of them: the pale-green adult, called a teneral, is edible. So, for a few weeks, news stations and clickbait sites insist that Brood X tastes like asparagus. There are more earnest pieces devoted to Brood X, as well: they sustained the Onondaga people through famine after George Washington ordered a scorched-earth massacre in 1779. To balk at eating bugs is classist, others say, because over a quarter of Earth’s peoples traditionally eat insects; or it’s hypocritical, since plenty of us eat shrimp, which are close evolutionary cousins. 

It all goes into the few short freelance pieces I fire off into the clickbait economy. It’s hard to concentrate between the fatigue, keeping the puppy out of the bathroom wastebaskets, and answering Vee’s incredulous texts. 

babe!! you stuck her with your FATHER? 


Then she forwards me a bunch of selfies Astrid has taken with Dad: mid-laugh on the Metro, hamming it up on the trail, Dad holding his glasses while he inspects a rash of cicadas clinging to a hot cement wall.

Look at them being wholesome, I reply. She’s sober and he’s exercising = success.

Vee replies, Canonize her, with a string of angel emojis. But no matter what I say, and no matter how much she is joking, I end up feeling like a jerk. It’s the dark, leading edge of a deeper feeling, one that is too large and too familiar to look at straight on. I let the puppy out and sit on the hot porch stairs, scratching my mosquito bites and trying to let the afternoon swelter bake the feeling out of me before it can surface. 

Near my ear, there’s a loose buzz. A cicada bumbles onto the railing and begins climbing toward the mulberry leaves that hang low around the eaves, lifting one orange leg at a time. Empty-headed, making steady progress up the rough two-by-four, unworried by me or by the flock of swallows tilting through the air over our roof.

After the newly molted tenerals harden, they turn from green to black, and their wrinkled wings harden outward into stiff cellophane veined with orange. This one is a male. He’s got a blunt body; the females are pointier to accommodate their reproductive structure, called an ovipositor, or an egg spike. There is nothing soft about insect mothers. The word doesn’t even really apply. Mammals have this inbuilt care drive, the thing that makes you open yourself up for kin and pull out everything you have to comfort them when it’s needed, no matter how much or how long. You just pull and pull the love out of yourself like a magician’s handkerchiefs, or like the body’s seemingly infinite lengths of viscera. Or at least that’s what they say motherhood is.

This male, his only job is to sing. To help him do it loud enough, his body, like trillions of others, is almost completely hollow.

At the front of the house a horn sounds. Astrid and my father burst in the front door with a tsunami of grocery-store noise—crinkling bags, bottle tipping over, the dull thud of oranges escaping their sack. The rideshare driver beeps a few more times for good measure, everyone seeming to have had a grand old time with one another in the short journey from—given the industrial size of the soap jugs and canned tomato paste and bandoliers of toothbrushes filling my foyer—Costco.

“What is all this?”

Astrid shrugs over the excess like a fairy godmother. “Tony wants short ribs and he says you never cook for him!”

He’s got his arms full with an entire case of shitty beer, and he chucks his chin at me to move aside so he can haul it to the kitchen. I grab it off of him and carry it myself. “You have a bad back,” actually escapes my lips, as if my mother has possessed my vocal cords. “And you know, did I not cook—”

“Lighten up. We are making dinner and bought you four hundred dollars’ worth of groceries. You’re welcome.”

That we didn’t need. Also, If you wanted short ribs you should have told me and I would have ordered takeout, comes to mind. I wish they both weren’t on my shitlist, really I do. I ought to just say thank you. But we are our worst selves with family, and so for the rest of the evening, I marinate myself in the shame of not being able to hide from Astrid how annoyed I am with him, how resistant I am to the puppy which still doesn’t even have a name, and how flustered I am by the giant mess Astrid makes of the kitchen. The cabinets and pantry yawn open. She sets off the smoke alarm to oopsie and wild laughter. There’s barbecue sauce all over the backsplash. And—it’s the truth—she is just a very large human. She is over six feet tall, and athletic, with features big enough to fit a face of an even bigger person. She bashes her way around this kitchen until I no longer quite recognize it. Tension runs through the walls and countertops and steel sink, as if all its surfaces are aware of her, bracing to collide with Astrid. And my father? He blooms under her attention. He performs.

He opens another beer for each of us and tells a story about my mother. The story concerns a trip I’ve never heard of before, a Valentine’s Day cruise to Norway, and the great good luck of winning a diamond necklace in a raffle. An emcee in a tuxedo summoned my mother down from the mezzanine onto a stage, allegedly, and she lifted her glorious black hair in front of hundreds of people while he fastened the clasp at her nape. Up there in the lights, you wouldn’t have known how shy she was because in a ball gown, she looked just like Salma Hayek—my father swears. It happened before any of us siblings were born. He emphasizes that he immediately went to the onboard jeweler and purchased matching earrings, “Because a gentleman always buys matching gems for his lady.” He says this twice, and then adds, “And the next day, after she found out she lost the baby, I went back and bought her the bracelet.” 

I almost choke on my beer.

“Excuse me? Dad, where did this story come from?”

My father’s face is round and red from the beer; his scalp is sunburned from the arboretum. But it’s redder than just sunburn. The question has ruffled him. 

“It happened.”

“I didn’t say it didn’t happen, I just asked why I never heard it before.”

“It happened!” he repeats, then sweeps his attention back to Astrid, where it’s clear he wants it to be fully, so that it can scoop up as much of hers as possible in return. He is radiant for the first time in memory. And for her part, Astrid seems to have made herself so at home in every space of this house that my offense and irritation are marginal beyond notice.

They go on chatting, their conversation innocent except for what my envy injects into it. I haul my skepticism over to the sink, scrubbing vigorously at the pots. The story’s details don’t add up. When Vee and I had tried to get pregnant, Mom had reassured me that she had it easy, no miscarriages. When she and Dad went to Scotland for their fortieth anniversary trip, it was her first passport. When I sorted through her jewelry a few months ago, as executor of her will, the only diamond was in her engagement ring. And besides, my mother was a teacher until we kids were born—what schoolteacher can go on a cruise in February? And to Norway, for that matter? My mother had spent her last healthy months in Tampa, loudly insisting in a busy restaurant that she loved the sun so much she must have been, in a previous life, “a little brown islander.” And she’d said it again, much more wistfully but just as uncomfortably for everyone else, over the iPad in the ICU which was held up for her by a Jamaican nurse.

Astrid seems to drink us in with a real thirst, sucking our presence up until she practically glows inside her skin. How is it that some people are so animated by other people’s regard? Is this who she always is? What must it feel like to be the kind of person who gives off so much light that even the curmudgeons reflect it back at you?

Outside the kitchen window, cicadas bombard the porch lights like asteroids.

And that night the puppy is so inconsolable, so soon after we all close our eyes, that I exile myself down to the chilly first floor. As I shuffle with the big crate past the living room, begging the puppy to follow, I say in Astrid’s general direction, “My bed has clean sheets. Sleep up there so the puppy doesn’t bother you.” Let her slumber like the dead, I’m thinking, so she wakes up on time and ready to fly home. 

Almost an hour later, shivering, I sneak back upstairs for a pair of socks, and indeed she has starfished herself in my marital bed, sound asleep and naked.

It’s how I end up wrapped in a brown flannel robe on the downstairs floor, beside the empty crate, in the socks, spooning a dog. Exhausted by reassuring Vee that everything is fine despite the day’s guilt trips from Dad (that arch, unsubtle warning look that my siblings and I used to call “the gassy eye”). Here I am, a middle-aged, childless woman whose living situation is a tower of apparent stability. Chased down here by my own hospitality, which is fouled with a strain of grievance I haven’t been able to unravel for months, or longer.

My thoughts slide into another dream of fire, which slides back into conscious thought, anchored by the pain of my forehead pressing against the floor. The puppy’s nails poke the inside of my arm. It’s true, she’s never been anything but sweet, and I don’t actually resent her, it’s just that care looks a little bitter when tired. I can’t imagine the person who dumped her in a construction zone. What it takes to set shaky, wet-eyed animals in the dust and drive away—it’s cruel. And unfair. Something behind my fatigue stirs. It’s like this word, anger, comes to me new, like metal that still holds the heat of its forge. Its sound is the first right notion I’ve had in weeks.

I’m angry at my father, for not seeing or caring that my mother felt root-bound, and for letting his grief molt into an easier, new shape—a revised memory of her, one that took her out of the house and put her in diamonds until she swelled and sparkled like a mirage. I feel anger at my mother too, and the hospice drugs that let her disappointments bleed into that lonely storytelling, speaking from other people’s mouths, hollowing out her loved ones until, in her mind, the swarm of us confessed in our hundred voices that we intended to make her life an unhappy one. And I’d remained at her side, silent, in the body and spirit she trained to be as small and hospitable as a welcome mat, when I could have said something to make it right. Or at least I could have tried.

 It’s infuriating, purely and perfectly so, how a situation can rest on everyone and no one, that there is no place for blame to burn out. My uncertainty feels incorrect, but it’s true, I don’t know who to blame for my anger, or hers. On the floating pyre of this rage, I drift off into a long stretch of the first really restful sleep I’ve had in over a year.

When my watch alarm sounds twenty minutes before Astrid needs to leave for the airport, I wake up feeling renewed and go upstairs to make sure she’s awake. 

The form in the bed is just a woman-shaped carapace, split straight up the back.

Trembling, quiet, I peel back the sheet. Open the blind.

Sunrise sends a pink wash over the rug, my feet, the bed. The light glints dully around the amber exoskeleton. On the pillow rests the oval and hairless head, facedown. Outlined in intricate chitin, the ridges of an ear. Each curve and plane appears true to the human form, yet like a mannequin, it is so completely alien that my stomach plummets through the floor. There it is, in my own bed. It has not moved from the starfish position I observed last night, and despite the rumpled sheets beneath the trunk and limbs, I know my mattress well enough to recognize that the hollow thing, the homunculus that used to be a woman, is weightless. The tear begins at the back of the head, at the occiput, and runs cleanly down the wrenched-open neck and just to the left of the spine, such that the bumps of the vertebrae ripple the right edge of the gap but not the left. It terminates where the tailbone used to be, and beneath that, the shape’s buttocks are caved in like a crushed water bottle. The cloudy shell holds enough light to reveal a rougher texture inside, like canvas. Most alarmingly, a single rough umbilicus of tissue protrudes from back of the open head but still affixed to the mouth area; it could be the inside-out lining of the respiratory tract, which, at least in the insect world, is the last thing to molt off before a teneral crawls free of its shell. 

But that’s a cicada; I don’t know what the hell happened with our guest. 

Across the hall, my father snores on. My hand finds Vee’s book light on the nightstand. I straighten the bend in its neck and use it as a prod, touching the thing’s hand. Indeed, it’s lighter than a feather. An earlier feeling punctures my shock, and finding the next several actions increasingly effortless, I press the tip of the light into the hand until it buckles and crunches. I press again at the shoulder, and the whole arm breaks off. In this way, the carapace is easy to reduce into six or seven stackable pieces. I have to work fast, before the puppy starts barking downstairs and rouses Dad.

Crumpled, the thing fits in an old pillowcase. The last piece is the face, almost unrecognizable by now.

I text my wife and tell her that Astrid has departed. Then I carry the pieces downstairs and outside, out to the dark-brown Alexandria city bin, because today is garbage day, and I am the only one who ever remembers to get the cans out to the curb on time.

Painting courtesy of Fatima Elkalay
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