For longer than his memory stretched, Billy had loved – fully loved – Maura Milson. Even as an embryo, his bitty heart pulsed inside his mother’s sac for Maura, a tiny constant radiation of devotion for a girl who hadn’t yet even been imagined.
When he was twelve and she was ten, he finally met her. He saw her across the playground throwing a ball to his sister, her pretty orange curls frizzing, swaying in the sunlight, her freckles multiplying before his very eyes, and his heart pounded louder and faster than ever before, sending out alarms like a metal detector over a buried pile of jewelry.
When she would come over to play with his sister Lena, or later, in high school, whisper the secrets of girlhood behind Lena’s glittered door, Billy would nestle himself up against his bedroom wall, pressing his ear against the stucco until it was a part of him, catching bits of their strange feminine conversations as bits of the wall embedded themselves into his skin.
“What about Tommy?” his sister would say.
“Eh, too short.”
“How about Frankie? He’s so cute, and I think he likes you!”
“Maybe. But not until he gets a car.”
In college, Billy would invite Lena everywhere, knowing Maura would come too.
Though he was an annoyance at the beginning, after enough time Maura got used to Billy. First he was like the fly in the room you can’t catch, you can’t kill, and you can’t release. Then he was like the fish that swims in the corner aquarium, staring, curious. Then he was like the dog you tell your secrets to. Billy and Maura became friends. Good friends. Best friends, Billy would say. He would never forget the surge in his blood the first time she cried in front of him.
“Don't worry," he said, daring to place his hand on her Irish knee. "He's a fool, and he'll know it soon."
“You’re right,” she’d said, sniffling, her face a beautiful wet mess. “I’m better than him anyway.”
Billy couldn’t believe his luck when Maura got evicted the same day his roommate Nicky moved out of the house. His mind went dizzy thinking of making breakfast for her, nights they would stay up late talking, or seeing her in her towel, her orange hair flat and dark and damp against her moistened skin...
But to his surprise, Billy spent most nights in front of the TV, alone, waiting and wishing for Maura to come home and sit on the couch with him. Or, worse, listening to music in his room, headphones drowning out the noises of ecstasy that pushed their way through her bedroom wall and permeated his. First there was Mickey. Then there was Bobby. Then Robby. Then Nicky.
One Sunday morning after just such a night, Billy took a walk to escape the used smell of the apartment, escape the racket, and fill himself with fresh air. He walked down an empty street, hands stuffed in his pockets, head down and buried in his bitterness. He passed a shadow that spoke to him.
“I know how to get her to love you,” the shadow said, unhunching itself.
“Pardon?” said Billy, pausing step.
“Your girl, your heart’s desire, or whatever,” said the shadow. “I can make her crazy for you.”
Billy looked around. There was no one nearby. His silence was packed with protest, then questions. Then he spoke: “How?”
“This,” said the shadow, extending a wrinkled hand to Billy’s. From it dropped a small glass vial of clear liquid, no bigger than Billy’s pinkie finger."
“What is this, drugs?” Billy asked, having never taken drugs.
“No. But it works, I promise you.”
Billy looked around again. “How... how much?” he asked quietly, having never bought drugs.
“Fifty bucks,” said the shadow.
“Ha! You’re crazy,” Billy said, reaching out to give the vial back. But the shadow didn’t take it.
“Fifty dollars is too much to pay for love?” it asked.
Billy pictured Maura’s speckled face, imagined it making the noises he heard each night. He wondered what it would feel like to enjoy the noise, to know he had inspired it. He pulled some money from his pocket and handed it to the shadow.
“Use it quick, or it might not work,” the shadow warned. “Have fun!” the shadow called after Billy as he walked away, tucking the vial deep into his coat pocket.
In his room that night, Billy looked at the vial in his palm.
What if it is drugs? he thought. What if it’s GHB? Ecstasy? LSD? Heroin? He shook it a bit. What if he waited too long to use it? Could it expire? What if it was just water? $50 for water.
He heard the front door open.
“Hi honey, I’m home!” Maura called. Billy put the vial in his pocket and went to greet her.
“Where’s Nicky?” he asked.
“Eh. We broke,” she said, with a sigh meant to prevent tears.
“I’m sorry,” Billy lied.
“Thanks,” Maura said, putting a hand on his arm, one of two arms that could hold her every night, could drape over her shoulder as they walked down the street, could escort her anywhere she wanted to go, if she wanted to go with him. “You’re always so sweet to me,” she said.
Billy flushed. Maybe he’d never need the vial after all. “Want me to make you some soup?”
She’d sparked the hope inside him and now it filled his every breath. Now she sat with him on the couch at night, making fun of the TV personalities who whined on the screen. Billy knew it was only a matter of time before the correct moment would arrive, and each night for months he sat straight, ready. His spine hurt from preparedness.
The moment arrived in June. They sat on the couch together, drinking wine, the fresh summer air floating in through the window. Maura smirked at a woman on TV whose fake yellow hair spilled over her cleaved breasts as she complained about loneliness.
“Maybe she should try a more natural approach,” Maura said dryly.
Billy couldn’t wait any longer. He had waited twenty-four years and two more seconds of silence and patience would surely destroy him.
He leaned over, took her spotted face in his hands and kissed her fervently until she smacked his face away and wiped her mouth, sticking out her tongue as though she’d had a gulp of bad milk.
“What are you doing?” she cried in disgust.
“I love you,” he said simply. He couldn’t even try to explain it beyond three words. No words had ever been simpler, nor easier to say.
“What?” she shrieked.
“I... love you,” Billy said, searching for any other way to express himself. “I love you. I love you... I love you. We’re meant to be together.”
Maura scoffed. “No, we’re not.”
Billy swallowed. “Why not?”
“Because,” she said, as though it were obvious, “we’re too different, and you do nothing but sit on the couch every night, and you’re... weird, and your breath always smells weird, and...” she stopped herself and looked at Billy, at his eyes shining with disappointment. “I’m sorry. But no. No, no.” She almost laughed.
Billy stared at the ground. He’d used up all the words he knew.
“I’m going to get more wine.” Maura stood and left the room.
Billy sat, frozen. He couldn’t breathe. The walls of his chest were caving in like cliffs in an apocalypse, crashing into the sea of his stomach.
He reached into his pocket. He took out the vial, which he’d carried every day, just in case. He wondered whether the months of bobbing along in the fabric against his warm thigh could have made it spoil. He looked toward the kitchen. He uncorked the vial and, before he could think twice, poured the tiny bit of clear liquid into Maura’s nearly- empty glass. He stuffed the empty vial back into his pocket as she returned to the room. She poured a bit of wine into each of their glasses.
“I’m sorry, Billy,” she said again. She raised her glass.
“Friends?” He looked at her. What if it was poison?
“Friends forever,” she said.
Billy raised his glass. He wordlessly clinked hers.
She took a long sip of wine.
“It’s just not a good idea,” Maura said. “And I just broke with Nicky, and...” her voice trailed into silence, her eyes to nothingness, and then she looked at Billy. He watched with curiosity as her face flushed red. She blinked.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She stared at him, not seeing him. Then she stared at him, seeing him. He could feel her finally seeing him, into him, beyond his eyes, beyond his face, his weird breath.
“Yes, just... I feel the strangest something...” she said, her eyes caressing him. Her very gaze felt warm upon Billy’s never-touched skin. Her eyes were so full of tenderness they looked like they might spill into tears. She sighed with her voice and swallowed it. “Let me just... I want to just...”
She leaned over to Billy and kissed him. Her lips were wet with gloss and tasted like bad grapes. She took his face into her hands and he let himself be brought to her. He put his hands to her face, to her soft cheek which was pulsing hot with... love?
He touched her hair, her curls electric and beautiful, his fingers were lost in her waves, and he was sure that never in his life had he been so happy in one lasting moment. He saw their future together zipping across his mind as a flood of relief and excitement washed through his veins.
Maura ran her hands through his hair. She tugged it a bit. She grabbed two fistfuls and pulled, hard. “Ahhhowww,” Billy said. She pulled away and blinked. He smiled to reassure her and kissed her again. He felt her consuming warmth and he wanted to drown in that heat. She opened her mouth, thrusting her tongue into his as though she wanted to devour him, sucking in her lungs and stealing his breath.
She pushed his body down to the floor and climbed on to straddle him like a gymnast’s vault. She kissed him, moaning, grabbing the flesh of his body. She was making different sounds than Billy was used to hearing through the wall. She pulled off his shirt and he pulled hers, and she kissed him with her teeth, nibbling at first until the last nibble transformed into a terrible, hungry bite. Billy yelped in pain and pushed her face away.
“Maura,” he said, his lip bloody. He looked at her face, her eyes wild with passion, her lips trembling, sucking in for breath, her ribs appearing and disappearing like a feral cat’s. She had lost the look of Maura and now he didn’t know who he was looking at. Had Nicky endured this passion with pleasure? Bobby? Robby?
Maura bared her teeth into a terrifying smile and made a guttural sound that could only be described as a growl, then dove back into him, running her nails along his chest, his side, then digging in with animal vigor until she drew blood, Billy’s flesh gathering beneath her nails.
Billy freed his face from her savage kiss, and tried to say “Stop, Maura,” but she dug three fingers into his mouth and tugged his jaw open, reaching inside and scratching his tongue. Billy’s taste buds burned with acidity. She laughed like he’d never seen a human laugh. He was struck with fear as she went for his belt. He pushed her off and jumped to his feet.
“Maura, you have to stop!” he shouted. She perched on the couch on her hands and feet, staring into Billy’s eyes like a lion watching a gazelle. She squinted. “Maura,” he said again, searching for his girl inside the beast.
She lunged forward at him and he jumped away, dashing into the hallway. She ran after him and pushed him against the wall, clawing, grunting, pulling. Billy, bloody, got a hold of her shoulders and threw her to the other side of the wall with all his might. She landed like a rag doll, collapsing to the floor, her hair strewn around her face.
They paused, panting on opposite sides. Maura lifted her head and through her mangled curls Billy could see the fire in her eyes flicker, gaining strength into a true flame. Maura clawed off the remaining threads of her clothing, never taking her eyes away from Billy’s eyes, two sets pulled together like Velcro. Her white skin burned hot pink, pulsing, terrifying.
“Maura, that’s not a good idea,” Billy said, hands in front of him in defense.
Maura screamed from every organ in her body and charged at Billy, who leapt for the door and shut himself outside, holding the handle against Maura’s angry, insane screeches of lust and attempted escape. He braced his feet against the wall and pulled opposite Maura with every horrified fiber of his being.
Without warning, the tug-of-war stopped. Billy fell to the ground, landing with a victorious thud on the Welcome mat. Everything was silent. The house was still. A dog barked down the street. Billy ran out to the road and looked toward the house.
A terrifying howl arose from inside, and in a moment three neighbors stood beside Billy in timid curiosity. They watched as Maura jumped to the window, fully naked, and continued in the longest breath her painful, visceral scream of desire. She had no words now, only howls.
They watched, wide-eyed, as she pounded her splayed hands against the windows, her skin so scarlet red now that it was glowing, glittering like a thousand embers fanned.
“What the fuck,” said somebody.
“I... I think she took something,” Billy said, fingering the empty vial in his pocket.
Maura screamed, she glowed, she pounded harder and harder and harder until all at once her body burst into a red-yellow flame, a blinding shock of color that dissolved as quickly as it had arrived, leaving nothing – no Maura, no screams, not even a puff of bestial smoke.
The neighbors returned to their homes, sure they were in a dream. The street was quiet again, except for the dogs and the moonlight. Billy smashed the vial in the street, and went inside to vacuum up the ashes of his one true love.
Jenna-Marie Warnecke is an essayist, poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared on sites including Narratively and The Toast. She lives in New York City.