Playing Gods

by Kelsie Qua

    In the dream, Jacob always has legs. Lean muscles climb up over his spindly lower limbs, and Annabelle names each one as she runs her fingers over them: fibulas brevis, fibulas longus, peroneus longus… repeating the words under her breath like a spell.

     Jacob stands perfectly still in front of a mirror as she does this, admiring her hands as they move over his flesh like waves eager to melt into sand. Admiring how whole he feels beneath her touch.

    Every time he has this dream, he wakes to the sound of Annabelle’s laugh. For a moment, it’s as if she’s in bed beside him again, watching old sitcom reruns on TV. I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, The Addams Family. He’s started sleeping with the light on because the brief moment after he opens his eyes when he searches the darkness for her is the worst part of his nightmare. Now, his gaze settles on the empty left side of the bed, finding nowhere more interesting to rest in his small bedroom.

    Annabelle is the only person he ever knew who was capable of real magic. He can see the two of them in his head, age seven and new neighbors. Annabelle, freckle-faced and missing both front teeth, kisses the bruise on his knee and promises that’ll make it heal faster. Soon, he comes to her with all his injuries, and she fixes each one, from paper cuts to broken limbs. Her lips are coated in pixie dust, he thinks. She tells him Tinker Bell visits her at night and shares all the secrets of Neverland, and he believes her.

     Later, at seventeen, he climbs up into her bedroom every night to be with her. She steals locks of his hair for fidelity spells, and he listens to her chanting under her breath when she thinks he’s asleep. One night, he sneaks a look in her nightstand drawer. It’s full of moonstone and crystal, Spanish moss and bird bones. There’s a small bottle with ‘devotion potion’ written on it in her curling scrawl with a dark, cloudy liquid inside. The drawer is scattered with pictures of him from the summer before, smiling at her through a camera lens. He’s been told he never looks at anyone quite like he looks at her, and he can see it’s true.

     He has mundane memories about her, too. She is not always surrounded by magic, casting her spells. Sometimes the two of them are twenty-four, making spaghetti on a Thursday night. Painting their first apartment, or arguing about who should do the dishes, which inevitably leads to them having sex on the kitchen floor and agreeing whoever finished first has to do them without complaint. Some of these things happened. He knows they did. But he worries he conjured some of the others out of pure desperation for more of her.

     His favorite memory is the one where she is sitting in the car beside him, though. At age sixteen, nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-seven — it doesn’t matter. She’s looking out the window, humming along to the radio. Safe. Eager to arrive at the city cemetery, to run up the three hundred and thirty-four steps to where the oldest headstones are. It was always her favorite place, because they could see the entire county laid out beneath them. They were driving there, the day of the accident.

     “Let’s play gods,” she said, breathless, when they reached the summit of the hill each time. “Let’s make love here, and pretend all the suffering in the world beneath us doesn’t matter.”

     He played along with her games of make-believe, as if they were still kids banished from their living rooms on a hot summer day, compelled to conquer the woods between their homes.

     He can still see her eyes, an emerald storm, rolling back as she digs her fingers into his shoulders, arching her spine against the mossy ground. That really happened, didn’t it? He can still feel the damp smoothness of her skin as he pushes back a strand of black hair clinging to her forehead. He can still smell the slight saltiness of her sweat that makes him think of the sea. She moves like waves under him, steady, relentless. He feels like a sailor about to be shipwrecked in a hurricane so powerful one could only call it an act of god.

     After, they lie together between the oldest headstones and the looming woods, and he thinks of the unlucky lovers buried beneath them, their brief existence long snatched from their skeletal fingers. He thinks of time, cascading endlessly down to this moment, and starts to feel a paralyzing loneliness when he thinks that this, too, will eventually have to end. Then Annabelle props her chin up on his chest and says, “Where are you?” and he comes back.

     Even now, if she were still here, he knows she could cast a spell to make him whole again. 

     With a word, she could end his suffering.

     His gaze moves from the bed to his wheelchair.

     He feels an old compulsion to get up, to leave his apartment and drive to the cemetery. He can’t escape the feeling that the two of them are still on that summit, playing gods as they used to so often. He sees them entwined, half-naked behind the oldest headstones, shameless, indecent.

     He sees the steps from down below in his wheelchair, and can still feel the phantom burn in his thighs, can still taste the ghost of her eagerness on his lips.

     He knows those steps are nothing more than a locked door with a key lost to him now. He knows Annabelle’s body is beneath that hill, not above it. Still, he wants to go. He wants to call out to those immortals, even if they won’t listen to him. Even if they aren’t real.

     He wants to tell them to never come back down.

Kelsie Qua was born and raised in Upstate New York but followed the sun to North Carolina. She still hasn’t given up her affinity for wearing black, though.