It was her lips that brought Mercy’s attention to focus: how red more than red, plump and liquid in the light of the kitchen’s fluorescent, a swath of scarlet across her pale, pale skin. Julia was everything that Mercy was not: smooth where she was rough, light where Mercy was dark.
“Read my tea leaves,” Julia asked, and of course Mercy did. She did everything Julia asked of her. Mercy peered into the swirl at the bottom of the cup, and nearly dropped it, so startled was she by what she saw inside.
“What is it?” Julia asked. “What do you see?”
“Your dreams coming true,” Mercy lied. “And a light brighter than the sun surrounding you.”
The leaves spun into a dark circle, pulling inward on themselves, the gravity of their evil dragging in the light around them.
It was Joshua, Mercy knew. With his blond hair, framing his face like a windowpane, and his devil’s eyes that Julia couldn’t resist. She’d seen how Julia’s blush raised when she was thinking of Joshua, how she leaned out the open window to watch him while he worked under the hood of the car he never finished tinkering with in his driveway.
“I’m going out tonight,” Julia said.
“What are you wearing?” Mercy asked.
Julia put out her cigarette. “I don’t know. My yellow dress, maybe.”
Mercy poured more tea in Julia’s cup, not caring if she drank it or not, but wanting to stir the leaves up again, to break the bond of their dark portent. “Are you sure? It’s going to be cold tonight, and that dress is awfully thin.”
“It won’t be that cold. I’ll be alright.”
“I just don’t want you to get sick, that’s all.”
Julia turned on the radio, which was on the cabinet by the table. “You worry too much.” She spun the dial until she found some soft rock music, something Mercy didn’t recognize.
Mercy had once brought Joshua a piece of mail that had been delivered by accident to their house instead of his. She’d brushed her fingers against his hand as he took the letter from her, and Mercy had known the mail was from a woman in Minnesota, a woman named Maude, with hair like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, moving like a cinematic dream in Mercy’s mind, and she’d seen how Joshua had kissed her, felt it on her own lips, and tasted the pillow against her mouth while he held Maude down against the bed, felt the headboard under her hands as Maude gripped it, knew the way Joshua’s muscles felt tensing and releasing against and inside of her.
Mercy had excused herself as quickly as she could and hurried back inside her own house, trying not to run, not until she was out of Joshua’s sight and could dash upstairs and to her own bed, where she collapsed in a flushed heap. She could taste Joshua on her lips, salt and rust, and she could taste Maude as well, baby’s breath, and Mercy knew there was nothing to do when she got like this other than to hide away, stay in bed with the blankets pulled up high against her chin, and not to come out again until the shivering had subsided, until the flush was gone from her skin, until the heat that radiated out from her head and her heart and from between her legs dissipated. She couldn’t leave until she was one person again, and not three.
Julia wanted Joshua so badly that Mercy could feel her desire slipping like smoke between the plaster wall separating their bedrooms, while Mercy’s own want was trapped in a windowless place inside her, locks on the door, keys thrown away. It was safer that way, not just for Mercy, but safer for Julia as well.
Things happened when Mercy let her heart out of its box.
Things happened, and people were changed, and then the weight of sin grew a little heavier around Mercy’s shoulders, and the dirt floor of the house’s basement would have another secret to help cover over.
Things were safer with Mercy’s heart kept in its box.