Nighttime Routine (IV; last entry)

The last drop of violet-colored body oil gurgled loudly down the gunky gullet of her bathroom sink. She chased it with half a bottle of drain cleaner and then sat down, heavily, on the marble-patterned laminate. The temperature inside her felt like it had dropped by a hundred degrees, as though she herself were plummeting down a rockface, into an endless crevasse below. She pictured not-her, falling headfirst through freezing air, blue velvet heels abandoned on the ice. She pressed her closed eyes to the peeling paper of her bathroom cabinet. She counted each full breath.

That night, she dreamed of the products she had made disappear. The slimy, clinical-grade serums, the moisturizers that left a film of sparkle on her hairline, the potions for her persistent frizz, her boxcar scars, the broken veins visible across her neck. They spoke in her dead mother’s voice and told her dark family secrets that she did not remember upon waking but that lingered like grease on her hands. The smell in her apartment made her sick to her stomach as she took apart the instruments of the routine, scattering their remains on a piece of old newspaper. The imitation jade roller was mostly plastic. The Korean towel was easily cut into pieces with safety scissors. The UV light mask was impenetrable, even after significant prodding with a screwdriver; she left it whole, its eye holes staring up at her, its mouth hole aghast. She wrapped up the newspaper and hid the evidence in a corner of her closet.

She was unsure, at first, if by destroying her collection, her hand raised like a sword aflame, she had definitively killed the deal. But when night rolled around and she was still there, alone with her maze of thoughts, her skin a dry pelt over her face, she knew. Her time was hers again. Mind abuzz, hair uncombed, she climbed into the sheets. Her arms and legs felt like sweaty deli meat, which she tried her best to ignore. She could feel her curls matting at the nape of her neck. Something in her groaned like an Eldritch horror of the deep, and she choked it into submission.

She woke feeling like she had overslept by hours, or possibly even days. That feeling was there again when she woke up the next morning, and then the next. It was like the hours were sponges, expanding while she slept. She imagined time poised over her sleeping body like a vampire, engorging itself on her blood plasma. She decided to test a theory. She sat on her kitchen floor as the evening cooled into night, her eyes glued to the deadpan faces of three different alarm clocks. At precisely midnight, time stopped across the trio of faces. She started a timer on her iPhone. Time stayed stopped for the following forty-two minutes—the length of her old nighttime routine. She had married her products to the sewage; she had found an exploit in the language of the original deal and followed it to salvation. She had clawed back her time—no, she’d done more than that. She was gaining new time.

Forty-two minutes, every night. In this span of freshly uncovered time, she could walk the streets of her neighborhood, entirely unmolested by sensation. The moon cast a spotlight on her as she walked. The tundra of her mind was not silent, but it stayed quiet enough. The tar of the road was littered with specks of glass, but she could roam barefoot with no consequences. She did not need to tread carefully. Cleanliness and integrity were not her concern. Between 12:00am and 12:42am, she felt as mighty and as eternal as night itself.

(She learned, however, to be back in her room, in her bed, when real time started again. In the transition between the two forms of time, something cracked in the world. Something was briefly allowed in. One night when she nearly left her return too late, she glanced back toward the street as she twisted the doorknob and witnessed a profanity, a divinity—a huge angel with a red body and red eyes standing astride the horizon, the fingers of its right hand finding purchase on the crags of the moon, its left hand beginning to peel back the skin of the sky. She could taste, in the back of her mouth—)

On the fifth night of her wandering, she met the devil under a flickering streetlight. She almost laughed at how prosaic this was. An encounter even she could have scripted.

“Hi, cool girl,” he said. He smiled at her blandly, but expectantly, like she was responsible for his presence there. It annoyed her until she realized that it meant she had won.

The world of night bent softly around them as they walked the empty streets. Shadows bowed. The moon on her throne went briefly dark, as though in obeisance.

“This is pretty cool,” she said. “Yeah,” he agreed.

She decided, in her infinite dignity, to be gracious. “You were right about the technicality. I suppose I should thank you for that.”

He shrugged. “I would advise against thanking me for anything.”

She glanced at her iPhone. Its screen shone in the darkness like a prized pearl. Ten minutes left. “Was it a lesson?” she asked, “What you did to me?”

He paused meaningfully before answering. “Nothing is a lesson,” he said, finally.

“Nothing is a lesson?”

“Nothing in your life is designed to teach you anything.” He must have noticed her dismay, because he quickly added: “Though I guess I could say it was something to do with consumerism, and beauty standards, and obsessive compulsion masquerading as self-care.”

“Not a lasting lesson, then,” she said, with a laugh that she hoped sounded light and pretty, but also cruel, cynical. “I am perfectly capable of finding another compulsion. I can always order clothes from an app, for example. Or start a podcast about like, digital marketing. Or hoard nail polish.”

“Infinite possibilities,” he said.

“Infinite possibilities,” she agreed, as she turned to lead him home.

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