Amy answered on the fifth knock. Her eyes were narrowed, blurry with sleep. Her hair stuck out from her head on one side like it was trying to escape.
She squinted at Dana. “Do you know what time it is?” she said. Then, after a moment’s thought: “You do know it’s Monday, right?”
Dana held out four bills. They were damp with sweat and crumpled pathetically together.
Amy looked between Dana and the money, pursing her lips. She shifted her weight from foot, rubbing her tired eyes. “Look, I—I get that you’re in a squeeze, or whatever, but like, this shit’s not good for you. I hate to discourage a frequent buyer, but, y'know. You’re really not supposed to take doses this close together. You could seriously fuck up your psyche or, or give yourself PTSD, or some shit.”
“Not any worse than what I've got." She jerked her outstretched fist to emphasize her point.
Amy squinted harder. “There’s—there's better ways to medicate, babe. What about some nice, mellow pot? I have this perfect indica, real popular with the ivy-leagues—”
“It’s not for self-medication, it’s for memory. Would you just take the money, please?”
Amy stiffened. She let out a short, frustrated breath. “What the fuck do you need to remember that bad? Did you lose a corpse?”
“Your customer service is legendary,” Dana muttered.
“I—I don’t feel good about this.”
“You’re a drug dealer.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t have instincts.”
Dana set her lips in a hard line. The money stayed firmly at arm’s length.
Amy looked her over. “I’m not liable if you get all…” she waved a hand to illustrate. “Fucked up somehow.”
“Yeah.” Dana jerked her fist again. Amy looked at the money for another long, calculating moment. Finally, she took the bills with a weary sigh and disappeared into her apartment.
Dana’s cellphone rang as Amy was shuffling around inside. She glanced at it, chewed her lip, and picked up. “Ma?”
“Dana, oh my God! I’ve been trying to get hold of you all night—where on God’s green Earth have you been? There’s so much we have to go over before the twenty-fifth—Doctor Bruer says you aren’t answering his calls, your father is breathing down my neck, and our attorney keeps giving me this stone-cold look like she thinks I’m some hysterical cow—”
Amy returned at the doorway with a bag of fifteen tablets. She raised an eyebrow. Dana gestured for the bag and waved her back inside.
“I’ve, I’ve been working. Getting some paperwork together.”
“The attorney needs to know by tomorrow night if you’re going to testify. It’s the only way we can—we might never get Mercy’s trial open again if we lose this now, and we—but, sweetie, if you’re not up for it, it’s okay, we might be able to get it postponed, I don’t want you to—”
“No, I want to testify. I can testify—tell her I can.”
“I just…I know you’ve been pushing yourself, honey, and I worry—”
“Ma, I can. Trust me.”
“…Alright. Okay. I’ll tell her. But you have to promise to call Doctor Bruer back. And remember the meeting with your father and the legal team tomorrow—”
“Actually, I’m not at home. Can I call you back?”
“Dana, we don’t—”
She clicked the phone shut and stuffed it into her back pocket. Then she pushed the tablets into her bra and hurried on her way, putting a reliable distance between herself and Amy’s doorstep.
Two hours later, Dana rolled over and threw up.
She pushed back her hair, her shaking fingers sending tremors along the flyaways. A low, shuddering cough rolled through her, and she spit into the bucket at the foot of her bed. Her fingers fumbled for the bag on the nightstand, pawing at the tablets, counting.
She exhaled, and stuffed the bag into her nightstand drawer.
It was the wrong memory again, and one she’d rather have left unturned: a detailed re-experience of the sharp ridges on the knuckles of an ex-girlfriend. She could feel it chafing at her skin, clinging in all the worst places.
It was wrong, and she was running out of time. The trial was days away and there was nothing but a dark hole where Mercy's murder should have been, patchworked with intricate, meaningless details and hopelessly incomplete. At this rate, she’d be the same failure she was as a girl, silent as the grave and utterly useless on the stand, the only person in the world with the knowledge to unravel Mercy’s death and too broken to utter a single word.
After a moment’s thought, Dana spat again.
She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and flicked off her alarm before it came to life.
Her heavy limbs moved mechanically through the process of coffee, though reluctant to scrape the bottom of the thinning bag. She was picking at the flaking vinyl on the countertop when Catherine knocked at 7:20. She let herself in a moment later, her keys dangling between blinding white teeth. She halted in the doorway and winced at the kitchen at large.
“Coffee?” Dana offered. Catherine dropped her bag and keys.
“Jesus, Dana. You look awful.”
“I’m almost out, but I made enough for two.”
“I brought you a new bag.” Catherine made her way to the coffee pot, scowling as she stepped around weeks-old debris. “I know you’re sick of hearing this, but you should really be seeing someone. Medication can only do so much, and I’m starting to—” She cut herself off. “Is this…? Did you filter your coffee with an eviction notice?”
A piece of the greying vinyl came away in one satisfying strip. “It was on hand,” Dana mumbled.
Catherine stared at her. She pinched the bridge of her nose and dropped the eviction notice into the trash. “You need to start taking better care of yourself.”
“I am. I’m not coming in to work today.”
Catherine’s head snapped up. “What? Again?”
Catherine bit her lip. She started to form a word, and thought better of it. She jerked her purse up onto her shoulder. “Alright. Fine.” She collected her keys from the countertop and headed for the door. She paused at the threshold.
“I’m going to be here tomorrow morning, same time. Call if you need me, okay?”
Dana hummed without inflection, keeping her eyes on the bottom of her coffee mug.
Catherine swung the door shut with more force than necessary.
Dana was on her way out by 7:35.
The hostess at the Rte. 2 Motel didn’t make eye contact as she handed Dana her room key. Dana was grateful to her for that.
When she got to her room, she called in sick. After a moment of consideration, she sent Catherine a text that simply read don’t bother tomorrow morning, I’ll be busy. Then she pulled the battery out of her phone and left them both in the nightstand, tucked beside the little black bible with the unbent spine.
The paper cups in the bathroom were small, so she drank and much as she could manage from the tap and set a few full cups on the bedside table. She stripped off her belt and sweater and crawled up the muddy orange bedspread to settle against the headboard.
She counted the tablets and shook three into her palm. She thumbed one, the chalky texture leaving a smudge of white dust behind on her skin. Then she tossed them against the back of her tongue and downed one of the paper cups.
She breathed through her nose and focused, sinking down as deep as she could into her memory. She pictured Mercy’s face, smooth-and heart-shaped, the translucence of her wide, sightless eyes. She remembered the spread of the scarlet beneath her head, driven by surface tension, expanding to trace the cracks in the hard wood.
Her head lolled back, and the thoughts slipped away.
Then she was sitting, her hands quietly folded in her lap. They were small, cold, her body carefully pulled inwards. The light was too bright, the walls too close. Her hands were wet with sweat where her fingers threaded together. The booming voice of the judge terrified her, a forest of unfamiliar eyes trained on her like a herd of desperate animals. Her heart stuttered.
It was the wrong memory. Worse, it was a terrible memory. The forest of eyes, and the chill, and the crushing failure: Mercy’s murderer could be caught if she could only remember his face, but she couldn’t.
She watched her mother’s instead, streaked with tears and gaunt with exhaustion. The attorney shuffled her paperwork and approached. Her questions came quickly, firmly, and Dana couldn't make out a word. She was watching her mother and thinking, this is all my fault. This is
Dana jolted awake and vomited onto the motel carpet.
She coughed, bile snapping like needles against the back of her throat. Her fingers jolted towards the bedside lamp and it careened backwards under her hand, its putrid yellow light scattering wildly across the ceiling as she scrambled to right it.
The darkness in the room was watery and thin—only ten past six, according to the bedside clock. Dana laid her damp forehead against her knees, sucking in air through her teeth. Her t-shit was plastered to her body. The edges of the memory were still spotting in her peripheral vision.
When the rolling in her stomach passed, and her breathing leveled out to something like normal, she closed her eyes and reclined.
Ten minutes and a long drink of water later, she took three more.
At 3:23 AM, Dana Bates rolled over and threw up.
Her eyes were red and wild around the edges. Her face was streaked with tears, and her hands shook so badly that replacing her phone battery was its own kind of miracle.
“Ma!” she gasped at the click of the answering machine. “I know it,” she sobbed. “I got it. I know. I can do it.”
She folded over herself, tears rolling down her cheeks, a small part horror, and a massive part relief. Some part of her was still there, remembering.
“I know it,” she sobbed again, her knuckles white around the phone. “I know who killed my little sister.”