There is a red pen in her hand. The lights are still on as Elizabeth opens her eyes. Enough light to read under. Her face is smashed into her pillow; cold drool upon her cheek. Through her blurred vision she sees stacks of paper. The white of them all. Stacks and piles, all around her bedroom. One stack is of the papers which she has already graded. One small stack. Every other pile- of which there are several- is taller than the pitiful completed stack. They are theses. Some of which can be as long as eighty pages. She has to read them all. She has already read three. And it took nearly two weeks to accomplish that much. The students’ grades are supposed to be turned in two days’ time. She is supposed to be nearly done. And she hasn’t even hardly begun yet.
Before she’d fallen asleep, Elizabeth had graded one single paper. It had taken her all of the eight hours since she’d awoken to skim through and grade the thing. Throughout those eight hours she hadn’t eaten a single morsel of food. When she finished writing her evaluation of that paper her consciousness slipped away from her like a tree frog from her grasp. Throughout those eight hours she’d only gotten out of bed to use the bathroom. And to drink water from the faucet. It had been a research paper, like they all were. Particularly, that one was about the French age of enlightenment. She’d read along and strained to process the words. Most of that time her eyes weren’t moving over the page. She would stare and not read. For five or fifteen minutes or so she’d completely zone out. Her attention would suddenly jolt back. And in such a manner she sledged through the paper. The single paper. An entire day lost. Yet another entire day lost. She’d brought her malady upon herself, through negligence of her responsibilities.
Her blonde hair sits upon her skull- akin to knots of strings; caked in dried up bodily fluids. Her shirt is a neon pink beach T from Ocean City. It is stretched out at the neck, near to the point of ripping. The darkened flesh of an anemia has formed bags under her round brown eyes; bags that wouldn’t go away no matter. Her pale complexion has gained more wrinkles in the past couple days than in every previous year of her life combined. For the first time ever she has jowls. And Elizabeth reeks, too. A stench like sour milk comes off of her. Her panties are stained with urine, blood, and fecal matter. And she isn’t wearing pants. It has been over 24 hours since she’s eaten. The last thing she ate was a peanut butter and banana sandwich and before that it had been another whole day between meals. Still she has no appetite. Only a vague notion that she should eat.
With such little energy, her body- splayed out- is practically fused into the mattress; a white down comforter strewn over her lower half. Elizabeth reaches over and snatches up the first paper of the day. This is going to be the day that everything turns around for her. It wouldn’t be like the day before. She has to turn her life around; right then and there. The windows of her bedroom are blacked out entirely by duct tape and cardboard. It could be day or night. Her alarm clock is blinking: 12:00/12:00/12:00. The battery in her cell phone is dead, and the phone is buried under the clothes strewn about her room. As if her closet projectile vomited. Bloody clumps of paper towels have been tossed about all over. The white sheets have blotches of dried blood in thin lines, spatters, clusters, pools, and puddles.
Elizabeth props her pillows up against her headboard. And she props herself up against the pillows. Her eyes still haven’t even cleared up entirely. She looks around her room. Her slim, slinky, grey and white Siamese cat, Kate, is staring at her from atop her dresser across the room. Elizabeth can see herself there in the mirror, but is unable to distinguish the finer features of her appearance through the blur of her groggy eyes. Her right hand reaches out to her bedside table and picks up a crusty razor blade. Her left arm is covered in gashes. Too many to count. Some of the slices are small, shallow, and insignificant. There are groups of cuts like that. They are numerous. Numerous clusters of numerous cuts. There are gashes, too. Serious gashes where the skin split apart as if a tear through silk. Gashes which no doubt required stitches.
Her left leg isn’t any different. Nor the rest of her left side, below the neck. Her body is covered in these slices. Elizabeth, a professor of history from Princeton New Jersey, began to cut at her wrists. There were slices all over her left wrist to begin with. She sliced at her slices. Nothing that would puncture the artery, though. Still, blood splashes out; trickling down her arm and onto her bed. She doesn’t weep or shed a tear. Instead, she does her best to keep the paper she has to grade from getting stained. With her left hand covered in blood- again, and the manuscript in her right hand- Elizabeth has a decision to make. Either she grades her papers with a renewed passion and fervor, to give her life the drive it so desperately needs to carry on, or, she dies slowly; dying the death of one thousand cuts.
Her right side is relatively unharmed. The paper is in her right hand; her hope for the future. She puts the paper down, lifts her shirt, slices against her ribs with the razor, slow, methodically, feeling the rip, and then she lets her shirt drop back down. Paper number four of twelve. Entitled; ‘Pol Pot, Cambodia, and Killing Fields.’ By Jeremy Blake. A quiet kid. A good student. And a flirt. Whenever he opened his mouth it was to lick at the girls’ ears with his silver tongue. She couldn’t know if he ever paid attention to her lessons. At any rate, he had chosen a good, meaningful, topic. It made no difference if he didn’t listen to her. She wasn’t even sure she would read his paper. To read so many research papers was infinitely more difficult than a few hundred cuts toward the depraved release of her lifetime.
She begins to read. After a few lines her eyes drift away from the page. She reaches over the side of the bed and grabs for her hefty bottle of merlot. More and more she is realizing that she is choosing death. And it feels good. Tempting. Alluring. Empowering. Natural. Like the way the river’s current speeds up right before the water falls over a cliff. Such a thing was inevitable. A matter of time. She had to be on something like her 20th suicide attempt since adolescence. Her moment is ripe for the picking. Her day of judgment is nigh. She swills the blood of Jesus Christ in gulps, corks the bottle, and drops it into the blankets. As the fluid courses through her veins, she takes the razor in her left hand and begins cutting into her flesh. On her right side. That pure side of her that represented hope. She violates her hope repeatedly. The cuts don’t hurt like they were hurting days before. Elizabeth is numb to her pain. The blood runs down, clotting on her sheets and clothes; from wounds on her shoulders, her breasts, her arms, her waist, her hips, her thighs, her calves, her feet; gathering against her in pools and puddles and drying upon her in streaks.
Elizabeth uncorks the wine and swills more. She’s gotten blood on Jeremy’s manuscript. That wasn’t the first time that happened. She’d gotten blood on the others she graded, too. To hell with this. After drinking even more wine, she begins to read the paper again. The stack of papers is thick and inordinately heavy in her weak hands. Her eyes struggle to make out the words. An hour passes and she’s only read three pages. All the while she’d been absentmindedly cutting herself with a razor which had long since become dull; favoring her right side, right then, as the left was too crowded with cuts to make any remarkable marks. In the open plains of flesh on her right flank she carved out territory. A menagerie of slashes on display for her and her cat to admire.
She pulls her shirt from her body- reopening fresh clots- and throws the article. It doesn’t go far. There isn’t barely any strength in her. Naked and drunk, she crawls to her bathroom, relieves herself, crawls back to bed, and reads on; making marks and notes and comments whenever so inclined. Not following the writer’s train of thought. Her marks are coming from her inner child. Her uninhibited sense of wonder. Tragedies which had befallen the Cambodians didn’t seem to hold a candle to tragedies befalling her. For instance, when Jeremy presented preliminary facts about that genocide, she wrote, ‘Good. We all deserve to die.’
From outside of her room, seemingly from another dimension, she hears a faint yet insistent and repetitive knocking. A voice is ringing out in faded decibels. It isn’t discernable what they are saying. And then Elizabeth realizes what is happening. She hasn’t been to her class in days. Nor had she called in sick. For all they knew she was dead. Really, it is nobody’s damn business. She struggles to sit up; her dried wounds peeling off of fabric- dully stinging. Elizabeth drinks more merlot; the liquid soothes her dry mouth. The knocking and calling cease. She watches her bedroom door. Waiting for the next thing to happen. The knocks are coming from her window now. It doesn’t register what is occurring. After a delayed reaction she jolts and flinches. There is somebody out there who wants to get in. She lifts her hands in front of her eyes and looks them over, and looks over her wrists and forearms, too. There are cuts on the back of her hands. More cuts on the left arm. A lot of cuts on the right, too.
Whoever is out there has decided Elizabeth’s fate. Perhaps if they hadn’t arrived she’d have worked out the matter on her own. Perhaps she would have fallen asleep and awoken with a less caring mentality about those thesis papers. Maybe she would have resigned from her job and gone to live with her family. Except, too late for all that. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. All the same, it was inevitable, really. So… Elizabeth climbs out of bed; stumbling and falling into the wall, knocking over stacks of papers that scatter into unorganized heaps as her ankles scrape against the floor and push the sheets around. She can’t really stand up and can hardly see straight.
In the drawer of her bedside table there is a grill lighter that she uses for the candles in her room. Elizabeth retrieves the lighter, clicks the trigger, and touches the flame to a leaf of paper. The paper goes up and she tosses the burning material onto her bed. She grasps several leaves of somebody’s thesis in her fist and lights those up as well. The person outside is yelling about how they know she is in there because her car is outside. Elizabeth knows who it is. It is her closest friend. Closest ‘friend’ by those days’ standard. An English professor named Jenny; a younger, more beautiful, more vivacious, more enthusiastic, and less terminally ill coworker. One of those perpetually popular females who lingered around Elizabeth for reasons unknown. Through the glass Jenny is shouting that she is calling the police. Although she never actually does; due to apprehension over making something out of nothing. Because the windows are blacked out Jenny has no idea what is going on inside; causing her to be very afraid for Liz. The bed sheet is burning. Smoke rises from the timid flames in plumes that float to the ceiling where they disperse. Elizabeth touches the lighter’s flame to as many stacks of paper as she can. Some flames take and others do not.
Her kitty, Kate, begins to yowl and caterwaul uproariously. Elizabeth doesn’t notice. There are fires all around her. She reaches for the razor on the bedside table. With it she cuts into the flesh over the pulsating artery in her wrist. She pushes the corner of the blade in all the way down to bone, and she rips through the skin sideways. Blood spurts out like a fountain. Flames are growing brighter and bigger; catching clothes and books and furniture. The sound of the fire grows louder and louder exponentially; what started as a crackle and sizzle is fast becoming a thunderous roar. Kate is screaming like she is being torn limb from limb, but she is just cowering down low in a corner. The bedroom window shatters after a rock is hurled inside and the fires come to life with unprecedented intensity; fast spreading further and burning hotter. Fire is caressing her body and she hardly feels it. Her reactions are subdued and useless. She is in shock.
Elizabeth has the wine bottle to her lips. Watching as this woman-this stranger she called friend- comes falling through the window frame and onto her floor; gasping at the hurt of broken glass. Jenny stands and looks around; choking on smoke. Spotting Elizabeth, she screams. The bottle falls from Elizabeth’s lips to the floor. She stares at Jenny and a vague smile curls her lips at the corners. Kate doesn’t waste a moment before she climbs up onto the windowsill and jumps out onto the front lawn of the condo. Jenny goes to Elizabeth’s side and wraps her arms under Liz’s armpits as if giving her the Heimlich. “Stand up with me, now,” Jenny says. Elizabeth doesn’t respond. Jenny tries to lift Elizabeth but Elizabeth is dead weight. Flames are licking at Jenny’s exposed arms and singeing her brunette curls. With all of her strength, and by virtue of her adrenaline laced fear, Jenny grips Elizabeth tight and drags her like she is already dead. The room is nearly entirely engulfed in fire. Jenny flings the door open and hauls Elizabeth through it. “Stay with me, Liz! You’re going to be fine. Don’t worry. You’ll get through this.”
Elizabeth can’t hear Jenny speaking; barely cognizant whatsoever, by this point. Jenny has gotten Elizabeth through the front door of her home and out onto the lawn. Kate watches from under a parked car out in the lot. Jenny examines Elizabeth’s body; observing each of her hundreds of lacerations. And then, she sees the wrist still faintly pumping blood into the open air of that humid summer evening. Jenny grasps Elizabeth’s wrist in her hand and squeezes as hard as she can. “911! Somebody call 911!” Jenny screams. Elizabeth can’t hear anything except for a grim electrical ringing. Something she’d only heard one other time; while on nitrous at the dentist. The sound of her brain not getting the blood it needs. She remembers having her wisdom teeth pulled and smiles, weeping; those dentists didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Looking up through her tears into Jenny’s eyes, Elizabeth’s vision becomes like a tunnel; darkening from the peripherals inward. Flames are bursting from the window of her home and tickling the roof. The ghastly orange fingers of the blaze which she set are the last thing she ever sees. She’d erased herself. The tension leaves Elizabeth’s muscles and she goes completely limp. Jenny feels a cold breeze wash over her, sending shivers down her spine; followed immediately by more heat coming from the burning building. Jenny didn’t often discuss that evening with anybody, but, to those whom she did recount the tale, she would emphasize that that cold breeze wasn’t a breeze at all. The night was too warm for such a cold breeze. Jenny knew- without a doubt- that that chilling wind was Elizabeth’s spirit escaping her body and dissipating into the sky.