Chas said he could find Merry by smell and smell alone. Not because her scent was anything large or special—of course that’s the first place she went—but because his nose was that good. But there were conditions.
The first was that all the doors and windows of their rent house be shut. The second was that the air conditioner be turned off. The third was pure Chas: Merry had to be fresh from the shower—no skin- or hair-product—and all she could wear was one clean towel.
How this had started was that their router was updating, so all services were off. In the absence of signal, they’d started talking. Just two live-in twenty-whatevers on the couch, Chas with his feet on the coffee table, Merry with her feet tucked up under her, her whole body turned toward him. Soon enough Chas had been telling Merry what she insisted had to be a made-up story: him as a kid, closing his eyes and sniffing out his escaped guinea pig Rodger Dodger, and, in the process, zeroing in on a mouse den no one had ever thought to suspect.
“So you were, what, the hero rodent finder?” she’d said, crinkling her nose. It was supposed to be the kind of question she could punctuate by slapping him on the shoulder with a glove, if she’d been holding a glove.
Chas had smiled, but the way he paced out the chuckle along with that smile told her how much he appreciated this kind of treatment.
“I could find you,” he’d said, as if he were just reciting a fact.
“I’m not a mouse,” Merry had said back, falling into some wide-eyed mock insult, waiting for Chas to confirm her non-mouse status for the both of them.
He just stared at the wifi-less television parked across the living room, their silhouette caught there. And it could have all ended there, but Merry had to ask it: Did she really have that much of a—a scent?
“To me, to me,” Chas assured her, or tried to. “It’s about my sense of smell, not anything about you.”
“So I could be any girl, you mean?” Merry asked.
“I’m just saying I could find you,” Chas said, backpedaling. “If I had to.”
“If you had to,” Merry repeated.
There was no glove in the room, but still, a gauntlet had been thrown down.
Merry’s condition was that she get to pick Chas’s blindfold. Not only that, but she would also trace the edges of the blindfold with her smeariest eyeliner pen, so that if he so much as adjusted it, there would be evidence.
“Anything else?” Chas asked, in his taking-all-comers voice.
“Lights off,” Merry said. “At the breaker box.”
“You’re pretty serious about this, aren’t you?” Chas said, impressed.
“I don’t lose,” Merry said with a shrug, because this was just a fact.
The story she’d told Chas about her childhood, that he’d tried to undercut with his guinea pig story, was that when her big sister Rennie had laughed off Merry’s nicely-asked, perfectly-legit request to borrow a blouse more than ten years ago, Merry had come back with how she would just wait, then. Because pretty soon that blouse wasn’t even going to fit Rennie, right? Obviously?
At which point her sister slapped her, right there in the living room, thus sealing her own doom. Not because their parents were home and would punish her, and not because Merry would tell.
No, the reason this sealed her own doom, it was because of Merry.
That jibe about Rennie’s weight, it was supposed to have just been a burr, a barb, a possibility to lodge in Rennie’s head the next time she was getting ready on a Friday night.
But then she made it real, with the slap.
Cut to Merry, walking home for her school lunch hour every Monday and Thursday for weeks after that, to have some alone time in her sister’s walk-in closet. There was a stepping stool so Rennie could reach onto the top shelf. Merry used it as her workbench.
What she was doing was removing all the wire hangers from within her sister’s hanging clothes—the blouses, the shirts, the formal dresses—and carefully untwisting the necks of the hangers so she could straighten the wire out, look down its spine right into Rennie’s heart. The next part was easy, and obvious: using their father’s house pliers from the kitchen drawer to snip a careful quarter-inch from that straightened-out wire, and then bending it back into the perfect shape of a hanger. Just, now, it would be a hanger that was a smidge narrower.
“Bullshit,” Chas said about this. “No human can rebend any hanger back into a hanger shape.”
“Are you doubting me?” Merry said back, leveling her eyes on him.
This was a campaign that lasted three months, she went on, and ended up with her sister’s blouses and shirts and dresses looking to her like giant tents, so big they could hardly even stay on the hangers anymore—which is to say: Rennie lost eighteen pounds she couldn’t really afford to lose, ha ha, and then things got a tinge darker for a few years. More institutional.
Chas’s made-up guinea pig? You don’t have to really tax yourself to come out on top, when squared off against a pet that sleeps in its own waste. Not that Merry even really believed Chas. It smacked of the kind of family story that’s morphed into family myth.
Instead of telling him that, though, which could start something, here they were instead, Merry straddling Chas on the couch, tsk-tsk’ing him still so she could get the eyeliner just right, around the blindfold.
It was her second-favorite scarf, and he was under strict orders not to get even one dab of eyeliner on its edge-most edge.
“And when I find you?” he said, his hands on her hips.
“I’ll just be wearing a towel, won’t I?” Merry said, then bapped him lightly on the tip of the nose with the butt of her eyeliner. “But you won’t find me, Pinocchio.”
She was moving down the hall by the time he called out, asking if she was calling him that because of his nose, or because she thought he was lying?
No answer. Just a smile.
In the utility room, she pulled the main power switch down, let the darkness settle for a breath, then clicked on the flashlight Chas always kept magneted to the breaker-cover.
With all the doors and windows tight, this was some actual and real blackness Merry was standing in.
All the better.
Her shower was steaming and luxuriant and, at the last moment, honest: no soap, no shampoo, even though her hands kept going to that ledge for them.
The game was supposed to start a slow fifty count after her hot water turned off.
She pictured Chas still sitting in his agreed-upon station on the couch, his palms on his knees like some stupid kung fu master, meditating towards his opponent.
“Guinea pig my ass,” Merry said, and twisted the water off all at once, both faucets.
The flashlight was magneted to the shower door’s hinge now, splashing its light up at the stained ceiling. She’d tried getting it to stick to the actual frame of the door, but the frame was aluminum.
Right on cue, the flashlight clattered down when Merry opened the door. She knew to reach over for it—that’s how she’d had to hang it there, tippytoeing in the slick—but you can’t think of everything.
It came to a rest throwing the toilet’s shadow against the wall.
Merry collected the flashlight and her towel in the same motion, didn’t even bother drying. The clock was ticking, after all.
It was time for her insurance.
It was on Chas’s nightstand. His prize Bluetooth speaker, the one they used for parties because it could fill the whole house with sound. The one that was portable, meaning it plugged into the wall most of the time. But it also charged up. For, say, when the power was off?
Her phone was already connected, and had enough juice as well, and it remembered this speaker. Her jazz playlist tinkled out in a spill of minor keys and filled the bedroom, seeped down the hall.
“So you can’t hear me!” she called down after it in her best playful voice.
Chas called back to turn it up, he liked this song.
He probably never even lost count, either.
Merry walked naked and barefoot into the hall, drying her hair with the towel, the cold flashlight clamped under her arm so she was walking in a disc of light.
Chas’s “Thirty-two, thirty-three . . . ” came steady from the living room.
Merry stood there and dripped, realizing two things: she was leaving damp footprints, and she was standing exactly where he would expect her to be standing, with seventeen-sixteen-fifteen seconds left.
Think, she told herself.
Where’s the first place anybody would go, in her situation?
The other bedroom, the one they just had stacked with boxes and books, with shoes Merry still couldn’t throw away, with Chas’s high school mascot get-up he couldn’t throw away. That’s where you’d go because that’s where you never went, so it would feel illicit, like real hiding.
So, that was out.
Because there would be other smells to mask her own, if she even had one?
But the linoleum in there, there were spots it crinkled under the weight of a footstep, right?
Had this been Chas’s game all along? Chess, not bloodhound?
And, just hypothetically, what if he did actually have some slightly-heightened sense of smell?
Merry fell back through all of her options: the living room, assuming he didn’t hear her; the linen closet, provided she could fit and she could close that door with zero sound; the half-bath off the kitchen, which would just require him reaching in, it was so small.
Under their bed, maybe?
Except she was still damp from the shower. All the lint and cobwebs under there—no.
Same problem as the half-bath: it didn’t require smell, just the stab-in of a feeling-around arm. She could wiggle back into the clothes, sure, but, to be absolutely honest, ever since the evil she’d once perpetrated in a closet, she didn’t trust them to ever do anything nice by her. For all she knew, she’d wedge back between Chas’s winter coats and her sister, deathly skinny like at the very end, would be back there waiting for her.
No thank you.
The attic, then?
Don’t be stupid, she told herself. First, this was a rent-house, so the attic was a tangle of booster seats and secret magazines, and, second, it was an attic.
That left . . . where, exactly?
And the count, it was up.
“Here I come!” Chas called out, standing and immediately banging his shin into the coffee table.
She could win this. It’s what she did, it’s who she was. There was no other possible outcome.
A moment later Chas’s silhouette stepped into the doorway at the end of the hall and stood there like the killerest killer. Merry didn’t flinch, just let the light bleed down her leg, collect in a beige puddle on the carpet.
Chas’s face was held at that peculiar blind-person angle. There was something waiting about it.
“Here I come,” he said again, but with less confidence.
The fingertips of his left hand confirmed where the wall was and he stepped mechanically into the hall, and Merry registered that, as she’d feared, he’d stepped out of his flip flops. Meaning her wet footprints would be cold to him.
And he was coming right for her, touching the wall every few steps.
Maybe an armlength from her—holding her breath, ready to duck, to suck up against the other wall—his left hand plunged into the doorway to the kitchen.
It unbalanced him for a moment, even though he hadn’t really been using that hand for support, just guidance.
“Are you close?” he said, casting the plane of his face around in a way that Merry initially thought meant he could see through or under the blindfold. But he was just cupping his ears here, and there, and everywhere.
If she hadn’t been holding her breath, she’d have huffed a bit of disgust out.
Good nose, my ass, she said inside.
Instead of bumping forward into her, Chas took the invitation his left hand found and stepped gingerly into the kitchen.
The blindfold was working, then, and in place. Either that or he was dragging this out, torturing her. Pretending.
His footsteps crinkled on the linoleum then stopped at the refrigerator, even though you’re not supposed to open it when the power’s off—his advice, him being the one with magnetic flashlights.
The next sound was a beer cap, twisting off.
This was Merry’s chance, she knew: ghost down the hall, stand behind the thrift store coatrack by the front door; sit in his place at the couch, her hands on her knees; stand on the end table by the lamp, her head brushing the low ceiling.
She wasn’t sure if she should try to be where he’d expect her to be or where he’d least expect her to be.
Merry stepped forward, to make this decision in the larger space of the living room, but in that instant Chas stepped right into her almost, close enough that the mist swirling up from his beer was cold fingers under her chin.
He reached ahead with his other hand, to be sure their open bedroom door was there, and when it was he tilted his head over again, exactly like he’d heard Merry’s heart slamming against the wall of her chest.
He leaned closer to her, the cold bottle so close to the skin of Merry’s shoulder that she thought it was actually touching her, that Chas knew she was here, that he was drawing his victory out.
Then, just like he’d said, he inhaled through his nose.
“You are close,” he said, low enough that Merry would only hear it if she were actually as close as he thought.
Still not breathing, she straightened out the arm she’d been drying her hair with and let the towel shush down to the floor behind her, deeper into the hall. The moment it touched the carpet, she pivoted away from the beer bottle, flattened herself against the wall.
It was fifty-fifty time.
Either he would touch this wall to be sure where he was, or he’d touch the other.
But this wall, if he touched it, he’d be touching it with the side of his beer.
Which is to say: Merry was lucky.
Chas’s right hand found the frame of their door and he lurched forward like an ambush, his foot finding the towel on his second step. He lowered himself to meet it halfway, and inhaled it deep and long and kind of profanely.
“This just got interesting . . . ” he said to himself, and walked faster than he should have down the hall, to their storage room.
Merry breathed out, let her shoulders fall.
She wanted her robe, a shirt, another towel, but rules were rules, and no way was she going to lose by cheating.
Scratch that: no way was she going to lose.
Merry smiled, nodded to herself with resolve, and stepped back where she’d come from: their bedroom. Still not the closet—things get more spooky on second-thought, not less—but to the one place Chas might dismiss, if he really were going by smell: the shower.
If that’s what she smelled like, then that was the obvious place to mask her scent, right?
First, though, she stashed the still-on flashlight under the bed. As a test: if Chas walked in, looked under the bed—it was just visible from the shower stall—she would know he was cheating, and she would win.
She eased the glass door of the shower open, stepped in, and, just to be safe, stepped up onto the soap ledge, her fingers pressed against the ceiling to hold her there.
Maybe five minutes later, after what sounded like fake clattering in the storage room and down the hall, right about when Merry was realizing they hadn’t put on a clock on this little experiment, Chas shuffled into the bedroom.
He didn’t stop at the glowing bed.
He walked into it but stepped around.
He sounded like a dog. Merry could see him at twelve years old, looking for his lost guinea pig, the one his parents probably told him was gone for good.
But he insisted he had these superpowers. A connection. That he knew Rodger Dodger’s smell.
Of course he’d found a hidden nest of mice. It wasn’t by smell, though. It was because he was poking around in dark corners where a rodent might like to tuck its black, rubbery nose.
Merry's fingers were trembling now, and the ceiling she was trusting not to tear had been peeling for years. Be just her luck, she figured, to fall forward, into the glass door, and sever something bloody in her throat.
It would mean she wins, though, right?
He’d be finding her by sound, then, not smell. He would have to admit it, in her last moments.
He filled the door of the bathroom with his shape, backlit by the glow from under the bed.
He inhaled deep again, like tasting every last molecule.
I smell you,” he said, a smile in his voice. “You’re dry now.”
Merry’s hair was in her face, not dry. But her skin, it was tight, it was cold. And the muscles of her calves and her shoulders, they were on fire, and yes—yes yes yes, okay?—he was zeroing in on her, with the blindfold on, in spite of her hiding in what she’d hoped would be some actual leftover steam.
His hands found her hips first, and, recognizing them, traced up along her sides.
“You’re cold,” he said, lifting her down to his heat, and Merry buried her face into his shoulder and he carried her to the bed. The prize for Chas, it was supposed to have been finding her in next to nothing.
Did that mean Merry’s prize was . . . being found like that?
There’d been no real stakes, she told herself. Because there were no real stakes, then she hadn’t played hard enough. What had there been to win, aside from bragging rights?
She made Chas keep the blindfold on while he warmed her up—his words, and not the first time he’d used that particular line—and the edges of her second favorite scarf got smudged all to hell, but screw it. There were other scarves in the world. And this, if this was losing, then maybe it wasn’t so bad, all told.
He wasn’t lording his victory over her. He wasn’t strutting around. He wasn’t saying he’d told her so.
Still, there was a moment, Chas on top of her, when she looked down along the two of them and, in the glow from under the bed, saw for an instant a figure there. Watching.
She chirped a sound out that made Chas slow for an instant, like he thought he might be hurting her. She shook her head no, no, that wasn’t it, just—she guided him between her and whatever she had or hadn’t seen, and the next time she had the right angle onto that corner of the bed, it had only been a trick of the light, probably the toe of a shoe jutting up from the flashlight’s bright eye, and getting magnified against the wall.
They didn’t turn the power on before sacking out. They just laid there where they were, no show to lull them to sleep, no last-minute email checks, no second beers, nothing.
Just two twenty-whatevers, tangled up in each other in the dark.
Chas’s breathing leveled off, and Merry played back through her ill-fated course through their bet.
She should have gone for the living room.
The shower’s the last place a normal person would look, but Chas was always a step ahead, wasn’t he? And, if you built your identity around a guinea pig, Merry was pretty sure that didn’t let you count as ‘normal’ anymore.
Three in the morning found her sitting up in bed, hugging her knees to her chest, her hair a frizzy unbrushed mess.
Finally she pulled her legs around, stepped down into the glow still spilling from under the bed and pulled on the shirt Chas had peeled out of like he always did, pretending to be an underwear model.
Just like she’d thought, there was a shoe there just under the bed, in the beam of the flashlight. Mystery solved.
Because the moon was full and the window over the sink was tissue-thin, Merry was able to navigate the kitchen.
She filled a glass of water, drank it down, then another, drank it down as well, and was breathing hard after it, holding onto the edge of the counter.
The drawer centered before her was the junk drawer. She stared at the handle for a long moment, and finally pulled it, opening the drawer.
Just like she knew, her father’s pliers weren’t there.
Just that junky metal ruler Chas liked. And the electrical tape. That half-size hammer with the greasy handle. The superglue in its little eyedropper bottle.
Merry rolled it back and forth, the gold syrup in there trying to slosh but finally being too thick.
She raised her face, narrowed her eyes in the direction of the bedroom.
Chas hadn’t stopped at the bed when it was glowing.
But—what had been at stake for him?
For Chas . . . had it really even been a game, then?
It wasn’t like if he didn’t find her they’d never have sex again or anything. But there was now for him, and there was some indefinite later, right?
Merry nodded her head.
“Now” had probably justified whatever he had to do to get there. Whatever he had to do to get her?
She wasn’t a prize.
It was insulting that that was how he’d seen it. And that was exactly the right way to say it: seen it.
He had been able to see around that blindfold. He had to have been able to. When he’d come through the bathroom door for her, when she was perched up in the corner of the shower stall like a spider, glaring down at him through her hair, he hadn’t had to navigate through with his hands, had he?
She’d watched him the whole way.
If she woke him and pressed him on this, she knew what he’d say, too: that he’d navigated his way from his side of the bed to the bathroom in the dark so many times, so many drunk nights, that he may as well have radar for that particular doorway.
But of course he’d say that.
And? When he’d lifted her down from her spider-corner, instead of checking the edges of the blindfold for smudges, she’d been so trembly from maintaining her perch—and from losing—that she’d just collapsed into him.
Of course, the blindfold being all smudged now meant there would be no takebacks.
If only she’d been thinking.
She hadn’t really lost. Not if he cheated.
She pulled her hair to the side, closed her eyes to settle her mind, and sniffed her shoulder.
Same with the back of her hand. Same with her hair, even.
No way did he find her with just his nose.
Merry opened her eyes, was staring into the junk drawer, losing her focus.
Ninety-odd seconds later, she stepped into the glow coming from under their bed.
Chas was sleeping on his back, one arm cocked over his forehead, his “woe is me” configuration, the other arm thrust under the sheets to—his words again—protect the family jewels from those who would wish to spirit them away.
“The game isn’t over,” Merry said loud enough to actually wake him if he was meant to wake. When he didn’t stir, that meant he was good with this, he was ready for the next stage, the next level, where there were actual stakes. She eased onto the bed, careful of her weight. When his breathing didn’t change, she tied her hair back in a knot—no hair-tie, never any hair-tie when she actually needed one—and leaned over him, unscrewed the cap off the superglue, and applied one drop of that chemical honey to his shut left eye, one to his right.
If he felt it and itched, the hot glue would find the whites of his eyes, and he would wake all at once, thrashing around.
But it must not have itched.
Merry breathed in, breathed out, and added another drop, another drop, and finally all the drops, both lids.
Eye crust indeed.
She backed off the bed, peeled out of his shirt—rules are rules, and all she could wear was a towel—and turned, looked around. At the closet again.
Stupid to even look.
Now it was just about waiting for Chas to wake, right? To wake and realize the game wasn’t over. That it was just beginning.
This time there would be no cheating. And Merry was all the way dry now. If anything, she smelled like sex. But so would he.
All the windows were still shut, the outside doors still pulled to and locked, the power off at the switch.
Merry nodded that all was proper, all was good, and stepped into the hall, looked first down towards their storage room then the other way, to the living room.
A shape was there. A shadow. A narrow skin and bones silhouette, with lanky-dark hair and hidden eyes.
Merry didn’t flinch, just stared.
Technically, she guessed, she was the big sister now. Was some seven years older than Rennie had ever been.
Her cheek still stung with that slap, though. Her skin was still flushed, her eyes still watering with the shock of it.
A rustling from the bedroom pulled her eyes over. A rustling that was quickly building into a commotion, and moans.
Merry smiled, looked back down the hall at the living room doorway, half expecting her sister to be surging on all fours at her, because the dead run like animals.
Rennie was gone.
In her place, a lump, or a pile.
Merry huffed some disbelief out. Some amusement.
She looked to the left, into the bedroom—nothing yet, just Chas, waking to permanent blackness—and then into the kitchen, to be sure Rennie wasn’t trying to flank her.
Nothing there as well.
Merry nodded to herself then, followed her fingertips along the wall down to whatever Rennie had left for her.
Was this what that clattering had been in the hall, right before Chas found her, or had Rennie really come back to deliver . . . what?
It had . . . eyes? Nubs of ears? Dimples?
The head of Chas’s old mascot get-up.
His school had been the Woodchucks, but in the darkness, would a woodchuck and guinea pig really be all that different?
Merry lifted it ceremoniously, stepped up onto the end table—careful of the lamp—and stood with all due majesty into the head, snugging it down until its neck rested on her shoulders and its eyeholes lined up for her. Holding her phone up before her comically high, she swiped it awake, cued up those minor piano keys again, from right beside where Chas was probably thrashing around, clawing at his eyes.
In the bedroom now, silence.
Thought you liked that song? she wanted to call out.
Not that she was going to give him the advantage again.
She lobbed the phone onto the other end of the couch, listened for it bouncing off onto the floor. When it didn’t, she nodded that that was good. This was all good.
She shifted her weight and the end table creaked under her.
In the bedroom, Chas was calling for her, his voice breaking over and over. Then there was a hollow metal sound. The curtains. Chas was pulling them down, for the chance of light.
The small, small chance of light.
Soon enough he would be making his way into the hall, calling her name, telling her that something had happened, something was happening. His hands on the wall for guidance. His hands on . . . shit.
It was true, though: his hands on, finally, every square inch of the house.
And, with no ticking clock agreed on yet, some of those square inches would be Merry’s.
By process of elimination, Chas was still going to find her.
His hands to her hips again, coming up along her sides.
At which point Merry would strike forward, screaming in the closed space of her new head, and if she really believed, if this was really from Rennie, then maybe her fabric mouth would open with a tearing sound, and she’d have coat hanger teeth.
The doors were locked, the windows shut, the power out.
This game could go on all week if she wanted.
For the rest of Chas’s life.