I awake to darkness and cold air. Frost lingers on the windows. It burns when I breathe in.
I rise and dress. The crickets are still bleating their chorus when I step outside to run. They nest in the woods by the house, resting in the birches and buckeyes, hidden under the soft green leaves. The world is dimmed in shadow, clipped by the first rays of the sun. Gray outlines the corn fields as I kick off onto the dirt service road. Early morning in the fall is clean-smelling in Vermont. The air settles, misty cotton, over the sleeping crops.
I run hard, keeping my miles under eight minutes. My shoes kick up dust behind me as I go, and I can taste the earth in my mouth when I breathe in. Running isn’t as fun now that I’m thirty. At twenty-three, twenty-four, I felt like air when I ran. I moved seamlessly. Now, it feels as if my body is splitting every time I run. The pain fissures in my chest, a burning warmth that slips down my trachea and into my stomach.
The field is dead. The corn fields are picked clean by this time of year. The stalks bend, withered and dry. I pass the rows as I run three miles down to my neighbor’s farm.
I reach his dirt driveway and loop around, then head back.
Sometimes, when I run, I get this feeling someone’s watching me. It’s been worse recently. No one lives out here except me and Bobby, my neighbor, and he’s in his early seventies. I don’t know what it is, just this sensation that crawls on my arms. Like when a storm’s rolling up on the edge of town. That electricity in the air.
The tempo of my music picks up, and I know I’m in the home stretch—last mile. I push harder, straining against the pain in my lungs. My body’s been out of whack been since my best friend, JoEllen, got divorced. I’m tense all the time now.
The stalks thin as I pass the end of the corn crop. Ahead, the shape of my house rises. It’s lighter now, and red sunlight casts the trees and azalea bushes in front of the house in a pink hue. I decrease my pace as I reach my own driveway, my shoes kicking up dust.
Eventually, I slow to a walk.
The pain in my chest hammers at the base of my trachea, much worse today than it has been before. I focus on breathing in and out, walking in a loop around the driveway, but it doesn’t help. The pressure in the pit of my stomach builds. My throat tightens.
“Fuck.” I drop to my knees and vomit onto the driveway. It’s only a little bit, and it comes out clean—I don’t have much in my stomach. I stare at it for a few moments before rising and dusting my knees off. One of them is bleeding.
I have to be at work in half an hour. It takes me fifteen minutes to get from here to downtown Montpelier, where my office is. Fifteen minutes to shower. Five to shove a boiled egg down my throat, and two to bandage this stupid cut. I’ll be late for the Monday meeting. Again.
I kick some dust over the puddle of vomit and turn back toward the house. It looks as if someone’s standing there in the window of the front door, the shadow of their outline faintly visible through the glass. I squint. The early-morning sun catches my eye, and after I blink it away, the shadow is gone.
The newspaper bustles on Monday mornings. It smells like old coffee and sugar when I walk through the front door, ten minutes late. My knee has already bled through the band-aid and stained my jeans. A blot of darkness festers just over the kneecap.
Walking quickly, I pass through the main press room where the assistants sit typing and enter my boss’s office, where the Monday meeting for feature writers has already begun. My boss, Eva, stands in front of the desk, her hands mid-air, her bangles clanging together at her wrists. “Cherry,” she says. Her belly jiggles. “We are graced by your presence.”
“As you should be.” I tuck myself into the corner of the office, farthest away from the six other feature writers jammed in here. “Sorry to be tardy.”
“No, you’re not,” calls John, the other crime writer.
My cheeks heat up. From across the room, I meet JoEllen’s gaze. Her lips purse, and she frowns at me. Bad girl, she mouths. Her blonde hair hangs, crimped, just above her narrow shoulders. Usually it’s straight, pulled back. Today she wears a high-waisted pencil skirt, and her button-up blouse holes open near the juncture of her bra. I can see the black cup of it through the space.
I touch my hair, twirling it around my finger. I like, I mouth. She smiles.
“JoEllen,” Eva continues, “you’ll be on the mayor. He announced his support of the new, stricter gun laws this morning.”
“I don’t know if Jo Baby can handle that heat,” John says.
Irritation pushes at my neck. I look over, but JoEllen is giving him her signature smirk, a flirty, blushy thing belying the fact that she’s only a few years from forty. I hate it when she looks at men like that. She’s brazen toward them. She only gives me that look when she’s not paying attention, or when she wants something. It never quite feels genuine.
I turn to John. He has black hair, with a cowlick in the middle that makes him look like Elmer Fudd. He’s the senior-most writer, my biggest competition, and he’s been on my case since I started. “God, John. I just got here, and I’m already sick of your voice.”
He looks at me, a brief look of shock registering on his face before being pushed away by a false smile. “Don’t get mental on me, Cher.”
Heat explodes across my face. JoEllen’s gaze is on me, but I can’t bring myself to look at her. Instead I turn my gaze to the floor where Eva stands.
She crosses her arms. “Cherry, do you think you can handle the Smith rape case?”
The room goes quiet again. I look up at her. Cindy Smith is a restaurant sous chef who was raped by two football players at the local high school a week ago. The case is hot in town, all over the state-wide evening news. Usually, big crimes like that are John’s. But Cindy is also an acquaintance of mine.
“I can handle whatever you give me,” I say.
“Good. Then do it. From now on.”
I turn to look at John. He glares. I smirk back.
JoEllen stalks down Main Street in her heels, every male eye swiveling in its socket to check her out. I walk on her right side, watching, the way I always do. She’s always been the hot girl in town, though she’d never admit it. Even when she was married, we’d go out for drinks and men would try to pick her up. I fended them off as if she were mine. Our time together was so rare, so infrequent, it made me furious that they would try to buy her drinks and start conversations when I was already buying all her drinks, I already was her conversation.
She keeps her voice low as we walk. “John’s been on me all morning. He thinks you slept with Eva.”
“She’d be so lucky,” I say. “But I didn’t.”
We cross the street. Downtown Montpelier is small and densely packed. The streets are well-kept, and around them brick and Victorian buildings rise, their spires jutting into a clear sky. Oak and maple trees burn yellow and orange, slowly fading into the fiery red of the fall season.
Down Home, the southern-style kitchen that JoEllen and I visit on a weekly basis, stands on the corner of a short block, with a row of outdoor seats and tables blocking the parking spaces along the alley. It’s my favorite place. The food reminds me of what I ate every night when I lived in Georgia.
“Why is he bitching to you, anyway?”
The smell of fried fish blasts me in the face as we walk in. A bell jingles. The waitress at the welcome booth waves to me as JoEllen slips into our usual table. The acrylic of the seat crinkles under her, and she makes a face. “I need to stop eating bread.”
JoEllen always thinks she needs to lose weight, even though she’s barely a size ten. Her shoulders are slim, her calves and thighs too. Her back rounds with the pressure of supporting her giant breasts, which are really the only big part of her. Still, she complains that she’s ugly and no one likes her. She thinks she’s bad at her job even though people call her up daily to ask what’s going on in the mayor’s office.
It’s funny—everyone here looks to her for answers, and she thinks she’s just making things up as she goes. But there are times, when I see her on the phone or addressing some comment at the state house, where there’s a rootedness to her, a certainty. I don’t know why she can’t see it, why she doesn’t understand how it draws people to her.
I slide into the booth opposite her, and the waitress immediately passes me a glass of Fiddlehead, a local IPA. “The usual for you ladies?”
“No wine for me today,” JoEllen says. “And just a beet salad.”
I bring the IPA to my lips and swallow. It’s clean-tasting, fresh.
Since the divorce, JoEllen and I have been seeing each other more and more. I know it’s because she needs a friend, but at the same time there’s been a pressure in me, an impetus, as if I need to grab hold of her now, before someone else does. “Just a beet salad,” I mimic. “Are you serious?”
“I want to eat healthier.”
I make a face and sip my beer.
JoEllen leans forward and rests her chin on her hand. She idles there for a moment, just watching me drink, a goofy, perfect smile on her face, like she loves me more than she’s ever loved anyone in the world. “And a Sauvignon Blanc,” she relents.
I smile and tilt the beer in her direction. She takes it by the bottom and sips it, then hands it back. I can taste the remnants of her chapstick on the rim when I bring it to my lips.
“So what’s new with you?” I ask.
“Don’t change the subject. We all know that John gets first dibs on crime stories.”
I shrug. I can already feel the alcohol burning in my chest, the sweet swell and heat. “Eva’s been really nice to me ever since that night at the bar.”
JoEllen’s eyes rise to mine. She hesitates, then reaches down to fiddle with her napkin. She tears off a corner, rolling it between her fingers into a ball. “Has she?”
“We sat down in her office and had a whole conversation about it.”
JoEllen’s eyebrows arch. “You haven’t even had a whole conversation about it with me.”
She’s got that soft face on, the kind she gets when she’s really tired or we’re driving somewhere in the car and she’s listening to me intently. The front door to the café bangs shut, and I jump in my seat. I look to the front, where two new patrons have just entered. My stomach tightens. I hate it when it gets busy here. I hate it when there are too many people around, especially when I’m trying to talk about something important. “You know what’s rude?” I ask. “No one appreciates how cute I am when I’m with you.”
I watch her face closely for a reaction. She’s not mad, but I can tell she’s not going to let this go either. She twirls a piece of her hair around her finger. “Don’t do that,” she says. “Answer the question.”
“What’s the question again?”
She sighs. “It’s fine if you felt more comfortable talking to Eva about it than me. I understand.”
My chest tightens. I get that exploding feeling that I got in the office earlier, looking at John. It’s as if there’s another me, just below my skin, crawling to get out but unable to find an opening. I’m always like this when JoEllen is unhappy with me. When she’s mad, I worry that she’ll stop loving me, that one day she’ll just stand up and walk away. “What would you like to know about that night?”
“You didn’t call me.”
“I couldn’t call anyone. I barely knew my mouth from my ass.”
She frowns. The waitress arrives, placing a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc in front of her before moving away again. “You don’t have to be crude about it,” she says.
“I have blanks in my memory. But I remember the argument before the fight. Bits and pieces of being at the sheriff’s office.”
“What about before that?”
“The whole day is spotty. Even before I started drinking.”
Her eyes widen. “Cherry—”
“I was really sick,” I say. “It happens sometimes. But I’m taking good care of myself now.”
JoEllen leans back in her seat. She looks gorgeous. Her eyes are a clear blue, slim-shaped, and her lips, lined with wrinkles, purse at me. She plays with the stem of her glass before leaning forward again. Her breasts press at the buttons on her shirt. I want to reach out and unpin them, watch them spring free, but I can’t. I’m her sweet Cherry. I buy her flowers, send her my favorite books. That’s my function in her life, to make her smile when there isn’t a boy, or when a boy is acting up. And sometimes I’m okay with that, but more and more lately there are moments when I’m so attracted to her, I can barely stand it.
“So Remy reached out to me again about the job in the mayor’s office,” she says.
The restaurant’s front door slams. I jump again, and this time the shock reaches down into my chest, my heartbeat spurting rapidly through my body. “Fuck,” I say. “You gonna take it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You definitely deserve that job.”
Her eyebrows go up. “But?”
I shrug. “But I’m pretty sure Remy wants to bang you.”
“You think everyone wants to bang me.”
The waitress arrives, setting a steaming Mississippi fish fry in front of me and a small beet salad with chicken in front of JoEllen. My dish steams, and the smell of butter and fried skin fills the air. “Annie,” I say, “true or not true: everyone in town wants to bang JoEllen.”
“True,” the waitress says. “I even want to bang JoEllen.”
JoEllen laughs, and I point my fork in her face, the steam of the fish fry warming my neck. “I rest my case.”
She smiles. It’s almost a shit-eating grin, but cuter, and she only gets it when I’ve complimented her in a way that actually sticks. I’m about to dive into my fish fry when the front door bangs again, and I almost drop my fork. Tightness pinches at my neck. I wonder briefly if I’m coming down with the flu or a cold, and if that’s why I’ve been so out of sorts lately.
JoEllen doesn’t seem to notice. A spiral of crimped hair hangs in her face.
My gaze turns to the window facing Main Street. A woman stands outside, reading the menu posted on the glass. She wears a red dress, low-cut at the center. She’s about the same size as JoEllen—skinny in the hips and waist but with large breasts, heavy shoulders. Her blonde hair is long and loose, the curls large in comparison to JoEllen’s tiny crimps. She reaches out with a finger, tracing the menu, and then her gaze shifts inside to meet mine. We lock eyes.
She smiles. She looks so familiar, but I can’t place her—maybe someone from town who left and is back again. I raise my hand in a wave. She raises hers, then drops it and walks away. Goosebumps spring to my skin. I have that feeling of someone watching me again, but JoEllen says my name, and I look toward her as she sips her wine, the gloss sheening her lips.
Ray of God is a story about sickness and how it warps our decisions and interpretations of the world. It follows Cherry, a young woman struggling with mental illness, as her feelings for her coworker JoEllen grow out of hand. Her and JoEllen’s relationship ebbs and flows, while Cherry is tasked with reporting on a local rape case. The victim is a friend of hers, Cindy.
As the rape case continues, Cindy begins to spiral into a dark depression. While having a drink with Cherry, she admits that she believes she might be possessed. The idea sticks with Cherry, who is descending further into her own mental illness. She sees and hears things at home alone and wrestles with terrifying lucid dreams. As she struggles to keep herself together, her ability distinguish reality from illusion wanes. She hits rock bottom when Cindy makes a startling choice, but later she is able to begin helping herself get better and move forward.
I wrote Ray of God when I was struggling with mental illness and didn’t know how to express myself. Being possessed felt like a good metaphor for what I was experiencing. It was me but not me, as if I were being guided by something much bigger. The sensation was isolating and suffocating, and that’s how Cherry feels.
I wrote this because I think other people experience this too, and I wanted them to know they’re not alone. I also wrote this to show others (and myself) that you can be the force for change in your life, if you choose to be, and that you don’t have to let other people create or take away your happiness. This book is about finding your own purpose and riding out the bad times with the faith that your life will eventually lead to something greater.
Chelsea Catherine is a native Vermonter living in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is a PEN Short Story Prize nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction Contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee grant recipient. Her short story collection Isabel was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Ann Porter prize. Her novella Blindsided won the Clay Reynolds novella competition and was published in October of 2018.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019