portion of the artwork for Ellen Rhudy's short story

Why Did You Leave Me Where Did You Go
Ellen Rhudy

A girl, the kind who doesn’t realize her own beauty—brown hair, glasses. Her backstory is she’s recently out of a relationship. Lying on the bedroom floor, head wound. We’ll get a close-up of your hair in the blood. Was it the boyfriend? It was probably the boyfriend.
#

Merv has gone missing. When she wakes and realizes his absence, Alma carries his litterbox outside and sets it next to the doormat. “Merv, Merv, Merv,” she calls after work, standing on her balcony, standing in the open front door. She leaves the doors cracked and windows wide. She waits for him to choose his moment to slip back in her life, to pop his head free of one of the dozens of boxes stacked around the apartment. Merv’s disappearance is, she thinks, the worst thing that has ever happened to her. She misses his warmth on her lap, how he toothlessly gums her hands while they watch movies. She is getting out of this town and she cannot go without him. Merv, Merv, Merv, she wants to ask, why did you leave me?

#
A college student, short blond hair, sporty, seen by the crew team out for their morning practice. Tank top, jogging shorts, cord around the neck. Ligature marks. We want her lying on her side, maybe one hand in the water—like that, get a sense of motion. Not your motion, you stay still. This is the fourth woman found strangled on campus this fall, you aren’t special.
#

She prints a hundred flyers at Kinko’s, paying for full color although she doesn’t really have the money. Merv’s sweet tabby face, the soft orange of a Creamsicle with brown slashes radiating from his eyes, a row of phone numbers beneath his chin. She stays up all night cutting the flyers into tearable strips. She tapes them to her door, the mailroom door, the laundry room door. A man’s shadow falls across the breezeway, its shoulders uncomfortably wide on its narrow torso. He walks toward her apartment, pauses, walks on, while Alma stands behind a bush. She staples flyers to light posts and tucks them beneath windshield wipers. When she returns her door is ajar, as she’d left it, and the sun is beginning to rise, and there is no Merv.

She doesn’t shower before work. As she smudges her face with graying makeup she feels like her body is turning away from itself. “I got it,” she says as the director tells her where to place her limp body. She’s lulled to sleep by the actors taking their positions around her, exclaiming as they discover her. She misses the early days of being a dead girl, when she and her friend Sasha would paint their faces bloody and lie in agents’ offices, Sasha’s heart ba-dumping under her ear. She didn’t know then what she knows now, that dead girls don’t have friends or creative control. By the time they wrap, her left hand is wrinkled and red, her nails so soft she is sure they could be bent in two and pulled clean from the nail bed without an ounce of pain.

#
This one is a fighter. Two black eyes, right cheekbone scraped, left earlobe bleeding—like an earring’s been ripped out, you got it. Naked, lying across the bed in a hotel room. We’ll do fingernail scrapings. This one’ll be solved. Here’s a photo of her son.
#

Bonner’s is a few blocks from her apartment, not a good bar but a serviceable one for a certain kind of mood. Alma likes it because the dead women’s group doesn’t like it: this is the sort of place a live woman comes when she wants to be dead, not the other way around. “Can I put this up?” she asks the bartender, showing him one of her Merv flyers. She has promised a reward for the return of her 12-year-old, toothless, 15-pound cat, with the hope that whoever finds him will refuse to take the money. “Donate it to the shelter,” they’ll say, and Alma will cry and thank them and behave like the kind of person who ever had money to give. She orders a beer and drags her finger through the bottle’s condensation, pictures Merv wondering why she’s disturbed the easy outlines of their life.

“They want you in for CSI next week,” her agent texts when she’s halfway through her beer. Alma tries to calm herself about Merv. She orders another beer in celebration but feels sick with wondering. She does not want to be here in a week; she does not want to become like all the women who have been before her, playing a new dead woman a day as far as she can see. A man slides to the stool at her side, reaches over and lifts her hair from her face. “Don’t I recognize you from somewhere?” he asks.

“I doubt it.” Alma sips her beer. She watches the political show on the television, muted and without closed captioning. She feels the man’s fingers on her arm as though her flesh belongs to a stranger, she half-listens as he talks about the pressures of his job. He stands to walk to the bathroom and Alma watches him, the widths of his body suggesting he is composed of mismatched halves. Merv didn’t go, she realizes, he was taken.

When they finish their beers, she walks outside with him, shares a cigarette. She won’t take him back to her apartment but they go in the alley and, after, pulling her skirt down, she makes him walk ahead of her so she can see which direction he turns. She stays a block behind, ready to duck into an alley or store, but he moves without suspicion. His final stop is a glass-wrapped apartment building. On her way home she returns to the alley to look for the cigarette they smoked together, to drop it in a plastic baggie and use as a clue. Dozens of butts sully the ground and she stands a minute to consider them.

There is no Merv at home. The litterbox is dry. Alma waits for him all night, a can of cat food set inside the front door, as she removes pictures from the walls and wraps them in paper.

#
Three women, you can keep each other company. Grandma with a gunshot wound to the face, mom with a gunshot wound to the face, daughter—that’s you—with the gunshot wound to the face. You’re in the living room, tv dinners overturned, gunshot wound to the tv. Someone wants it to look like a home invasion, but we all know what really happened, don’t we? You lie there, over the arm rest.
#

Alma misses three calls while she’s on set, all from the same number, no voicemail. She doesn’t talk with the other two women, only waits for the day to end so she can be with her phone. “Why don’t you come out for dinner with us, hun?” asks the grandmother, and Alma shakes her head no. This is how they got Sasha in their grasp: invite her for a meal, be a friend, keep her close until there isn’t a single part of her life that isn’t wrapped up in being a dead girl. One day Sasha was late coming home from work, and another she didn’t come home at all, and then at last she was gone, her bloodied face somehow still a surprise to Alma when it appears on the television.

She returns the calls after they wrap. “Did you find Merv?” she asks. “My cat, Merv?” Her neck feels like it is crooked and not quite attached to the rest of her body. Someone breathes in her ear. “You called this number?” Alma adds before the person hangs up. She looks at her phone as though its greasy screen would communicate the rest of the message.

She stops at the pet store for a packet of Merv’s favorite catnip dental treats, which he swallows whole. Men look at her strangely and Alma thinks it is because of her panic, her love for Merv, her descriptions of him as she hands a flyer to the clerk; but when she stands at her bathroom mirror she realizes a streak of blood from the gunshot wound is running alongside her mouth and down her chin. The blood tastes like mint and is still damp, a marvel of science.

#
Mid-30s woman, floating near shore. You’ll be a day or so decomposed, bloated, give the skin a good tint. Gunshot wound to the stomach but water in the lungs, not enough evidence that anyone can run with this one. It’ll be sort of a spa day for you—good for the skin, soaking like that. Keeps you looking young.
#

By lunchtime Alma is furious about the water scene. “I should get double pay for this,” she tells a thin pimpled man she guesses is her murderer. They wait together to select their sandwiches, puddles spreading around Alma’s feet. “Maybe triple.” She takes the last caprese sandwich and sits by herself, resting her phone on a towel and navigating it with a damp finger. When she finishes eating she falls asleep, curled in her plastic folding chair, and by the time she wakes her gray puddles have been mopped away and she’s missed two phone calls from a number she doesn’t recognize.

“I know, I know,” Alma says when she sees the director. She climbs back in the pool, floats with her eyes half-shut, her right arm drifting free of her body. Someone adjusts her shirt, and checks that she’s in the same position as before. “She’s drifted a little,” a man says, and they tug her to her mark but agree it adds verisimilitude if she’s shifted, like by a current. Goosepimples rise on her arms and thighs and someone jokes about removing them in post. Of course they won’t, there’s no need for that expense—the line between a dead woman and a live one has become so blurred that they’ve stopped falsifying these details of the flesh.

The police boat eases to Alma’s side and cuts its engine. She thinks of Merv sitting on the man’s lap, in the man’s apartment; Merv gazing up at the man with his crusted eyes; Merv offering the man his love gummings. Someone slides a hook beneath her shirt to tug her on board. As they move her from location to location she tries to sense the order of her story, lying on one table and then another. She imagines her blue-tinged body in the back of every scene, her blank gaze on the detectives, the constant drip of her even when she is days removed from the river.

She holds a makeup remover cloth over her eyes as she calls the unknown number. A man says hello and hangs up when she asks about Merv. She saves his number as “Merv Thief?” On her way off set, the director stops her. “Show up on time tomorrow,” he says. At home there are no fresh deposits in the litterbox and the front door is cracked as she left it. Several bottles of beer have gone missing from the fridge, and the bathroom’s air, when she goes to shower, is already warm and damp. A confident, fingered heart appears when the mirror fogs and Alma stares at it as she dries herself, how it has appeared over her own real heart and fades as the bathroom cools.

#
Twenty-something girl, cross-country bike trip, murdered at her campsite. This’ll be a gruesome one, a real hatchet job. Half-in, half-out of the tent, I think the real one she was in her pj’s but we’ll have you in your biking clothes. Just there, like that. Biking across country all by yourself. You’ll want to get the brains there, in your hair.
#

One of the actors steps on her hand and Alma yelps, wrenches back. “Come on,” she says. “Aren’t you supposed to be on a crime scene?”

“Doesn’t she know she isn’t supposed to talk?” Laughter. Alma’s mouth is sticky with sleep. Two members of the crew inspect her hand and reposition her body. Someone asks why they can’t just use mannequins.

At home there is no Merv under the bed or behind the sofa, no Merv lolling in a box, so Alma walks to Bonner’s. The bartender rolls his eyes as she pulls bills one by one from her wallet. Merv’s flyer still hangs next to the bathroom door, three of the phone tabs missing.

“Fancy seeing you again,” a man says, sitting next to her. He reaches for her hand and she pulls it back.

“Yes,” she says, “here I am. Are you buying me a beer?”

He buys her one beer and then another. Alma smiles as he talks and tries to listen, but in the end all their stories are the same. All she wants to hear about is Merv. They walk to his apartment building, which reminds her of a hotel. There are fresh-baked cookies and a coffee stand in the lobby. Two women seated in the lounge watch her pass, and Alma watches them in return as she waits for the elevator. The man is still talking at her side.

His apartment is slick and efficient. He pours her a drink and she carries her wine across the living room, looks out the window but really looks at the reflected room behind her. She expects the whish of a tail, the cry of a cat finding his mother. He leads her to the bedroom and Alma slides across his sheets. There are no knickknacks or books or unfolded clothes draped on the furniture. He kisses her so hard her teeth hurt, and pushes himself inside her while she holds his back with her right hand and listens to cars pass on the street. “Don’t put your hand there,” he says. “Just lie there. Don’t move. Don’t move.” After he falls asleep she investigates his bathroom, tries to lodge herself back in her pants without noise, slips a tube of ringworm cream into her pocket, pulls several strands of hair free from a comb. A clutch of black hair sits on the shower drain and a pink box of tampons is open in the cabinet. She lowers herself to peer beneath the sofa, and opens kitchen cabinets. There are no signs of life. No clumps of fur.

There’s no Merv when she gets home, either. Alma sits at the window for a long time, listening for a familiar cry or any sign that he is out there, wanting to be with her as much as she is wanting to be with him. A few more days, she thinks. She can make it another week, until CSI, and then leave. She can wait for him a little longer.

#
This one’s lying on a bench, looks like she’s asleep—wearing a parka so we can’t see her face until the police come. The trick is, you got it, she doesn’t have a face. Don’t look at me like that, I left a photo of Nic Cage for inspiration.
#

Alma’s makeup takes hours, leaning close to the mirror as she imagines her face back to some unskinned version of itself. She wills her non-face face into its death mask as she lies on a park bench and waits for the detectives to transport her to the crime lab. She thinks how all pain turns to no pain when you’re dead.

The phone rings on her drive home. An endless clutch of traffic stretches in either direction. “Hello?” she says. “Are you calling about my cat?” The person on the other end breathes in a forceful and quickening sigh. Alma stays on the line, breathing back into this stranger’s ear until he hangs up. At home she inspects the litter box, and she finds the fridge door open. All her food—a half-empty quart of milk, a half-jar of pickles, a full jar of capers—is coated with a film of sweat. The sheets are disturbed in a way that doesn’t resemble a cat’s habit of nestling at the exact center of the mattress. A long black hair lies on the pillow. There is no one in the apartment, though, and no Merv. She walks door to door, asking her neighbors if they’ve seen him anywhere. “I think he’s still nearby,” she tells them. “He’s never gone out like this before.” But no one has seen him and they only look at her with a sympathy that makes her recognize the pathetic nature of her mission.

“Sorry to bother you,” she tells them each in turn. She sits in the cool breeze of her living room, curtains shifting in the wind, the moon spitting itself against the wall. She stares at the row of mismatched liquor boxes beneath the windows. She doesn’t want to pack without Merv, she doesn’t want to leave without Merv. He was only 5 years old when she and Sasha adopted him, a fully-toothed cat who liked to bite their feet as they played dead. Only 7 years old when Sasha left, five years ago. She tunes the television to a home improvement show and folds her legs beneath her, checking one door and then the other every time she hears a sound that could be a cat hesitating to return to his former life. She holds a pillow on her lap, rests her arm on the pillow, tries to believe that its fabric carries the heft and spirit of Merv—as if anything could.

#
Twenty years old, stabbed a dozen times, dead in the kitchen. It’s been a few days so this one, you know, it’s a test for you—rigor mortis set in, decay, maybe you can get a bug hole in here or there. Stiff as a board, you got it?
#

Alma lies in a state of rigid waking, her muscles alert and tight, her face composed in what she hopes reads as death. A teenage boy discovers her body, laughs until he realizes that she is a real woman. “Are you my murderer?” she asks at their break.

“Not this time,” he says. He sits across from her as they eat their lunches outside. Not long into the afternoon’s shooting he disappears. The director comes to her several times and entreats her to relax. “Your face looks like you’re in pain,” he says. “You need to blank out.”

“I am in pain,” Alma says. “I’m dead.” But she tries to make herself a canvas onto which he can project his vision. She wonders if this will be a case they’ll solve or if they’ll watch the perpetrator get away. After her first day as a dead woman, she sat on her sofa with Merv nestled in the diamond of her legs, Sasha lying in child’s pose on the floor, and listening as Alma reported the details she could find of her case. She was a newlywed murdered by her husband, three months pregnant. There were too many murders that looked like the one she played, and she couldn’t tell which one she was meant to be—couldn’t tell if her case was one of the ones that had come out well. “They’ll all come out well if we reclaim them,” Sasha said, but even then her ideas sounded like hocus-pocus.

“Merv Thief?” leaves a voicemail she listens to while rubbing the gray makeup from her neck. “Hey, cat lady,” he says, “when’m I gonna see you again? Call me.” At every stoplight on her drive home she looks to the sidewalks for Merv, as though he will be standing there in the open, waiting for her. “Are you sure you haven’t seen him?” she asks a neighbor in the mailroom. “He looks like Garfield.” She kneels at the litterbox, which is undisturbed. She wishes she had a camera to watch for the truth of things, to tell her where and when he went. She returns the man’s call, asks, “Do you have my cat?” and he stutters in response, tries to explain something about seeing her put up the flyers. “I had a good time the other night,” he says.

“Don’t act like I’m a joke,” Alma says before hanging up. She stands in the shower until the hot water runs out, the gray of her dead skin pooling at her feet. She sits cross-legged on her bed all night, listening to her neighbors move above her. “Why’d you go, Merv?” she asks, but there’s no one there to answer. Before she leaves to meet her agent, she pulls the litterbox inside and locks the door.

#
A woman in the full of her life, a caesarean but think, like, done by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Knife wounds on both hands, this is a rough one—you know what I’m asking, right? Body found in the dumpster so get ready for a long day.
#

Alma can’t get the wounds right. They look fake, built by a child’s hand no matter how many times she repaints them. She drinks a beer she isn’t sure she wants, but it’s her first day off work in a month and she has to take advantage. “You’re a hot commodity,” her agent told her that morning. “Just keep your attitude in check. Don’t forget there’s always another girl who’s good with a makeup brush and napping in front of a camera.”

“I don’t nap at work,” Alma lied.

She is testing placements for the stomach wound, imagining here or there, higher or lower, when the front door opens. She leaves the bathroom with the idea that it is Merv—that it is one of her neighbors, returning him at last. But it’s not; it’s Sasha, her black hair in a ponytail, the bottom of her jeans stained, her skin so white it’s almost blue.

“How’d you get in here?” Alma holds her makeup brush in one hand like a knife.

“You never took the key back.” Sasha swings it from her finger. She holds the key to Alma, who folds it sharp and cool in her fist.

“What do you want?”

“I miss you, Alma.”

“And?”

Sasha glances at the boxes stacked waist-high in the living room. “Can I sit?”

“You can stand.”

“I just came to see how you’re doing.”

“And?”

Sasha sighs. “All the women are worried about you and they thought I should check in on you. You don’t need to avoid us all.”

Alma moves behind the kitchen counter. She finds a T-shirt padding a box of plates, and pulls it over her partial stomach wound. “What’s it matter if I don’t want to be part of your group?” She’s heard that the women introduce themselves as the dead girls they’ve played, that instead of their own names they use the name of the first dead girl they ever were. It ensures anonymity, as though they can claim back the parts of themselves they gave away simply by claiming they were never given.

“Why don’t you just come for one meeting? You don’t even have to stay the whole time.”

“Have you been breaking into my apartment all week?”

“Not breaking in.”

“Letting yourself in?”

“I miss you, Alma. Jesus! I was worried. What were you thinking, leaving the door open like that?”

Alma sets the key on the counter. She drags the brush across her palm, leaving a cartoonish red streak. “Did you take Merv?”

“Merv?”

“He’s gone,” Alma says. “I thought at first that he ran away, I thought he’d come back. But there’s been this man—”

“Frank? The guy with the brown hair?”

Alma shrugs.

“I asked him to check on you. Just to make sure you’re OK.”

“You don’t have Merv?”

“Sometimes cats just leave, Alma. They run away. It’s not a conspiracy.”

She tries to find the feel of life in her friend, but looking at her, there’s nothing there. If she laid her ear on Sasha’s chest now, she thinks, there would only be a hollowness. “Aren’t you even sad to hear about him?”

“I mean, of course I am,” Sasha says. “But he was always more yours.”

Alma looks at her hand, which is a vibrant red. “You should go,” she says. “If I want to see you, I know where to find you, I guess.”

Sasha doesn’t go, not for a minute. She stands at the door and looks at Alma, who doesn’t move from her position behind the counter. Alma doesn’t allow herself to remove her eyes from her old friend’s face until Sasha turns and leaves; then she follows her. She halts in the breezeway, halfway down the stairs, and watches Sasha walk to the parking lot and hug the man Alma has, all week, taken to be Merv’s thief. They climb in a car together and then they are gone. It reminds her of the first time Sasha left, years before, when she tried to explain why she would want to be a dead girl in all the parts of her life. “It’s an act of respect,” she said. “It’s a way we can make them alive again, almost.”

Alma returns to her apartment, looks at the boxes, and selects a few to pile near the door. The thing about dead girls, she thinks, is that once they’re dead they can’t ever be not dead—they can’t ever be something other than what they were made to be.

#
We aren’t going to tell you what to do. Pick a girl, the first one you played—what was her name? Make up a name, then. Maria, Martina, Nell, Nora. Make yourself up how you like. Walk around. Think what Maria would have liked to do if she weren’t dead. Do that.
#

Her makeup is perfected: the stomach gaping and empty, face gray and scratched, hands sticky with blood. Alma exits the highway to escape a tangle of traffic and, after navigating through an aimlessly distributed neighborhood, finds herself moving in the wrong direction. She pulls to the side of the road when her agent calls just before 10.

“Where the hell are you?” he asks. “Why haven’t you been answering?”

“I didn’t know anyone called,” she says. The steering wheel glistens with smears of blood.

“You better be on set in the next 10 minutes—”

“OK.” Alma touches her hand to the horn, too gentle to make a noise. “They should probably find someone else. I should have called.”

“Jesus Christ. Every girl thinks she’s the only dead girl. They’ll have you replaced in five minutes.”

“OK. Is that all?”

“Is that all. Sure, Alma, that’ll be it.”

She turns off her phone and drops it in the cup holder. She’s not able to relax until she’s past the city limits. This is how every classic dead girl story begins, she knows, with a woman setting off on her own. She can feel the world spilling itself for her, the earth flat and suggesting a limitless array of paths. At the first gas station she sees, she asks for the bathroom key and spends a half-hour scrubbing her face and stomach and hands clean, while someone thumps on the metal door. She half-expects to find Merv waiting for her when she comes out, her skin pink and stinging, but there’s only the four gas pumps and her lone car. Sasha is probably right, she thinks, that sometimes a cat is just a cat; sometimes someone is just lost; sometimes there isn’t a story more complex or satisfying than that. At least he had someone to wonder after him. He had someone to miss him.

She returns the bathroom key, checks the backseat of her car, and pulls onto the road. The weight of his absence rests on her lap. Every few seconds she checks the rearview, noting the colors of the cars in her wake. No one will notice her absence, she suspects, not the way she felt Merv’s; but she doesn’t mind the feeling of having left no mark. A dead girl is a weightless thing, a piece of the background, constructed by men to fill the corners of their lives. A live girl can become a dead girl, but until then, she thinks, she can be any weight she wants, she can depress her feet into the earth and claim her piece of it. That is her idea, anyway, and it satisfies her as she drives on and as she watches the sun burst red in the rearview mirror, and it will satisfy her for a while longer after that.



Ellen Rhudy’s Comments

At some point last summer or fall an idea fell into my head: what if there was a woman who built her entire career playing dead women? I wrote a flash piece that didn't work, wrote more bits and pieces that I wasn’t satisfied with, while the idea kept growing: maybe it wasn’t a single woman playing these roles, but every female actress. Maybe the only roles open to women were these dead women forming the backdrop to men’s stories.”Why Did You Leave Me Where Did You Go” is one of a few stories that I’ve taken through so many total rewrites that I began to feel hopeless about the story ever working. The voice of the director made its way in; Merv appeared; the idea that Alma was approaching the end of her acting career. Over a few months I kept rewriting the story, often starting from scratch, before I understood the story couldn’t just be about the day-to-day of Alma’s life on these movie sets, but needed to also be about all the things she had lost and was trying to find.

Around the time I started working on this story, I gave myself permission to write women’s stories without so much concern for whether they would find a home—to really explore the things that are frustrating and infuriating me on a daily basis. Women made into zombies, women stripped of their faces and voices, women carrying men who have decided to take up residence in their wombs. It’s been gratifying to find that editors do want to publish these stories, and that there are so many other writers publishing what I'd classify as rage-fueled fiction. I'm thinking especially of Cathy Ulrich and her collection of flash fiction on murdered women, one of which (“Being the Murdered Extra," from CRAFT) feels like such a perfect companion to my story. “Why Did You Leave Me Where Did You Go” was first published in Mikrokosmos in March 2019, and I’m so grateful to FRiGG for reprinting the story with some changes and improvements.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 54 | Fall/Winter 2019