Prayers for Mrs. Smith
Darby sat down on the pale wooden floors of her new studio apartment, surrounding herself with the twenty-two meticulously arranged plants she had purchased over the past three days. Tucking her legs beneath her, she closed her eyes in order to prevent the stark, whitewashed walls from burning into her retinas. The succulents, cacti, ferns, and twinned rubber trees created a protective layer of green. Oxygen was all she craved. Her chest heaved in slow motion as she took one deep breath after the next.
She had brought nothing else.
Ever since the car accident, she hadn’t felt the same. Colors blurred in unimaginable ways, foods with distinct textures caused her stomach to retch in sudden agitation, and the clamor of certain deep voices made her feel insane.
Memories of boys she knew she’d never kissed imprinted their lips onto the surfaces of her mind, as reoccurring bouts of déjà vu hit her at the most inconvenient times. Her mother’s hair was red, when before it had always been blonde. People called her Darby Miller, when in the past, she’d answered to the name of Mrs. Smith.
It had been six months since her husband Hunter died in the seat next to her. Ever since, she suffered through unending dreams of blood gushing down his face, haunting her like skipping films on repeat.
Darby could still feel the clammy warmth of his hand resting alongside hers right before she ran the red light. The catchy songs he used to sing as they laid in a hammock under the moonlight were continuously stuck in her head, and the taste of the sweat from his skin once they’d returned home from gyrating their hips together for hours in that dank, dive bar’s basement presented itself anew each time she took a sip of water.
Yet everyone she talked to since the accident claimed Hunter didn’t exist.
Her front door opened suddenly, and although she wasn’t facing it, Darby knew who it was before he uttered a single syllable.
“Why are you sitting on the floor?”
“Why not?” She asked immediately. “It’s not like I have any furniture.”
“Darby, you’re the one who didn’t want to take anything from the house. This is so ridiculous. I don’t want this. Come home.”
“This is my home now,” she said, standing up and taking a step out of the foliage circle she’d created to face the man who’d supposedly been her husband for the past thirteen years.
His name wasn’t Hunter.
“I don’t want a divorce. I still love you,” he pleaded, the urgency in his eyes penetrating Darby even as she tried her best to avoid his brooding gaze. “I know things have been difficult for you since the accident, but I don’t want to give up on us.”
Darby sighed heavily. “That’s just it though Zach, to me, the only us there has ever been exists within the last six months. Before the accident, I was married to a man named Hunter Smith.”
Zach ran his hands through his thick dark hair, dragging them over his skull before pulling them down slowly toward the nape of his neck. Hearing this proclamation hadn’t gotten any easier, regardless of how many times Darby had said it. He claimed to have known every inch of her flesh for nearly two decades, yet when the molecules that made him begged to meet hers once again, she flinched in dismay.
“Please don’t touch me,” Darby said, backing away from his outstretched hand as she turned slightly to make sure she wouldn’t trip over one of her beloved plants.
She avoided the connection Zach presented out of fear, as the last time his skin brushed against hers an overpowering voice screamed in her ear: get out, get out, get out.
It was the reason she had decided to abandon the condo they shared together in Nashville. Darby felt sorry leaving this man, who seemed to love her fully, but she couldn’t force herself to pretend she knew him anymore. It was like he was some cloudy stranger, visibly present yet somehow unsolidified. Besides, she knew she needed to devote herself to her mission.
If everyone told her that Hunter didn’t exist, maybe that somehow meant he wasn’t really dead.
She had to find him.
The plants arranged on the floor were not just to decorate her otherwise empty apartment. They were an intricate pattern she’d devised to reach across the universe to call Hunter back to her. She needed him to rejoin her in this place, whatever plane of existence it was where she had ended up.
Zach had interrupted her in mid-meditation, truncating her momentary state of clarity as she searched through her senses, the five extensions of herself that had been behaving strangely ever since she’d awoken from that altering, bending interruption.
“I’m sorry Zach, but now isn’t a good time to talk.”
She watched his brow furrow at this proclamation, causing him to look down at the spot where she’d been sitting. “What are you doing Darby? I’m worried about you.”
“It’s too difficult to explain. You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Try me,” he implored.
Darby said nothing, propelling herself forward so she could usher him out the door.
Zach moved toward the exit, realizing Darby needed to be alone, even though he wanted to stay. “Alright, I’ll leave,” he said as he opened the door to go. “It’s clear you want me to. In the meantime, please reconsider this. I’m willing to give you the space you asked for, but I’m still hoping you’ll change your mind.”
And with that, he was gone as quickly as he came, slinking through the doorway as if it was a porous membrane, Darby the nucleus who ordered him where to go, what to do.
Their chemistry was assigned a new kind of biology as reputations of how their love should be divided itself into categories unknown.
When her front door closed, the latch clicked loudly, and the color purple overwhelmed Darby’s eyes for no reason at all, her entire apartment drenched in the mauve hues of deceased royalty, the corpses of kings and queens piled in every corner.
She blinked hard, squeezing lids over irises, holding it for a count of one, two, three...
Seeing reality again, or at least a sight less terrifying, the whitewashed walls and empty space came to the forefront once more, the plants beckoning her back to sit among their leaves.
Hunter was a botanist, a man with a lifelong obsession for anything that grew while remaining still. The accident had occurred while they were on their way to buy a new Chinese evergreen at a local nursery, replacing one that her cat Calvin had knocked over while stretching out alongside their large bay window.
She recalled the small dark-gray craftsman she had lived in with Hunter for seven years in Portland, Oregon, longing to get back to it.
Darby had never been a resident of Nashville. Her first visit to the city was when she regained consciousness at the hospital. She needed to leave it, to return to her coast.
Everything present felt unnatural, made up, as if she was constantly drunk without ever ingesting a single libation. When she pinched herself, she could still feel the pain, but her skin did not feel like her own. It was as if an invisible layer of protective bubble wrap surrounded her at all times, preventing her from feeling anything physical. She felt entirely awake, as days sprouted into months, yet it was reminiscent of an extended dream, some altered parody of what should have been.
She was convinced the plants would take her back to him. They had to.
Darby returned to the spot on the floor where she had been sitting before Zach appeared. Her legs crossed themselves as a layer of oxygen surrounded her in utero, beckoning her back to the world from which she had come.
As her eyes closed and darkness overtook her, glistening gems of reds and blues danced in the echoes of what she had seen in this place, morphing into the impenetrable faces of strangers. Their screams went unanswered as they were squelched in mysterious tones, an intense ringing reverberating down Darby’s spine as she began to count, their freedoms overtaken by a masked dictator.
Color left her memory as flashes of white begin to ebb into the edges of her peripheries. Darby let the numbers take over, the meditation practices Hunter had taught her coming to the forefront of her being, allowing her to feel how gravity grasped onto her body, pulling her like a magnet against the surface of the pale wooden floor.
Time reversed itself like a black and white movie being rewound on a VCR, silver lines bisecting the dancers legs as they swayed, coming up to their throats as they aimed to sing out a song they’d been forced to deliver.
Darby let go of herself, removing the senses she had been given, ripping them away from her soul one by one as she stacked them on some invisible shelf, compartmentalizing her very essence into a book written during antiquity, letting the gods of the multiverse slice her into pieces.
The thrumming buzz that began to flitter in the recesses of her mind did not come as a sound, but rather as a feeling, the kind that had risen up in the pit of her stomach when she realized after running the red light that she was going to die.
It caused her to leave this realm before Darby understood her soul had been cut in two.
When she opened her eyes, light filtered in quickly as her pupils mistakenly dilated, even though she entered a place much brighter than the one she had left. Darby’s arms twitched as her legs kicked out, a thick blanket tucked around her thighs keeping her body momentarily in place, her vision correcting herself as she tried to comprehend where she had ended up.
A woman with blonde hair the shade of yellow honeysuckle gasped in both surprise and alarm as she reached out and grabbed ahold of Darby, taking her hand in hers as she began to weep.
“Darby! You’re finally awake, my sweet, sweet girl. I knew you’d come back to us,” she blubbered, her nose already dripping with a thick stream of snot she couldn’t control.
“Mom?” Darby asked incredulously, the warm tones of her mother’s hair all she could focus on as the incorrect memory of a short red pixie cut started to slip away. She began to lift herself to an upright position, aiming to remove herself from the clutches of what she now recognized as a hospital bed.
Her mother leaned forward quickly, placing two hands firmly on Darby’s shoulders. “You have to take it easy dear, you should remain lying down. I should probably go get the doctor so they can—” She got up to leave, but before she was able to escape, Darby reached out hastily, grasping her forearm, digging her nails into her flesh.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just need you to wait. I need you to answer a few things for me. How long was I out for?”
Her mother returned to the chair beside her bed.
“You’ve been out for three days, you’re lucky to be alive, but, oh dear, I don’t know how—”
“Where is Hunter?” She asked before her mother could say anything more. Her mom looked at her with a strange expression, not answering her query right away. Darby pinched herself, the fingers inflicting a sharp pain on her skin in the way they were meant to, the veneer of whatever pretense from before seemingly dissipated. “Please tell me he didn’t actually die in the accident like I dreamed.”
This was her reality.
“Oh honey, they told me you’d probably be confused when you woke up, there’s been some swelling on your brain, but regardless of how you feel now, it’s going to be okay. The doctors said you’re likely to make a full—”
“Where is Hunter? Please tell me he’s okay.” She yelled, interrupting her mother’s frantic speech. She needed answers.
“Honey, your husband…Zach, he didn’t make it. Oh, I’m so sorry dear,” she began weeping ferociously again. “I know how much you loved him.”
Textures turned into sounds as lights bubbled up in the blood running through her veins. An overpowering pain pulsed in her head as her heart retched violently underneath her ribcage. Darby felt herself vomit up the vows she had spoken to Zach on the day of their wedding as the tangible recollections of her true, authentic life came flooding back to her, overwhelming her in a sea of green as she lost her soul in a forest, a thick swamp swallowing all of the mistakes her mind had tricked her to believe.
Hunter had never been her husband at all.
It had always been Zach.
The dreamlike purgatory where she had been trapped was already starting to regress from her consciousness, but the recollection of how she had forced Zach away in that tiny apartment refused to abandon her.
She sunk back into the hospital bed, her mother taking this as her cue to find the doctor she had mentioned previously.
Darby was alone.
Zach was dead, and a man named Hunter Smith had never loved her, had never touched her. The pulse of her heart was beating in every one of her fingertips, as if they would rip open and she would dye the startling white sheets dark shades of crimson.
Nothing made sense.
Yet the memories that writhed in a place she was unable to reach inside herself throbbed proudly, confirming that a new order was unspooling itself, wrapping her up in a thick black twine that would never allow her to feel the same again.
And as Darby thought of how confused she felt, the very madness overtaking her became her centerfold. The word sense itself became idyllic, as she moved from its meaning to the number five, the digit presented to her as a medium declaring she focus on it so she could be led to the quandary yet to be solved.
From the five a pattern of numbers she remembered dialing again and again revealed themselves, quivering in the unremarkable night as a gremlin vibrated in the distance, coming for her.
They would not let her leave.
She knew she only had a few more minutes before her mother returned, with doctors, nurses, and more confusing information she could not accept.
Zach had been her husband, in this life, and in the melted memories of the dreamland from which she had just escaped, but the recollection of Hunter remained.
She was not insane.
Darby turned to the side of her bed and noticed the plants scattered around the room for the very first time. Her stomach did a somersault as she realized they were the exact same variety as the ones encircling her right before she traveled here.
With one addition.
The Venus fly trap rested right beside the telephone.
She picked up the handset and placed it to her ear, pulling the receiver onto the bed as she dialed Hunter’s number as fast as she could.
The ringing reverberated down to the base of her spinal column, sending shivers through every inch of who she was.
After the third ring, a familiar voice finally answered.
“Hunter! Where are you? I’ve been trying for months to get back to you I don’t understand what is—”
“Darby, is it really you?” Hunter asked as his voice shook with paired tones of relief and fear. “Where have they got you?”
Before she could answer, the Venus fly trap multiplied to twenty-five times its previous size, going against the very nature of what it was, not waiting for its victim to rest upon one of its green extensions, instead going out of its way to swallow her whole.
After the blackness grew sick of the taste of her, it granted Darby freedom.
She woke up, immediately able to tell she was paralyzed from the waist down, but she felt the warm, clammy sweat of someone’s hand resting up against her own, and that allowed her to finally embrace the calm.
Darby’s eyes opened wide, as she drank in the handsome sight of the man she’d been searching for.
Becoming prey was the only way she was able to return to the place she belonged. A part of Darby died once more right there before him, born anew.