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Side Effects

Fiction, Katie Lynn Johnston

Virginia—for, there, at the nape of her neck, one could see dreams twirling in the mists and colors of past summers, lost within their own verdancy, tangled in the curls of her hair and the folds of her sheets, the bends of her husband’s mouth and the cracks of his teeth, filling the room with the dark morality of virtue and choking them both until morning—was asleep.

Dawn had come and gone. The sun was rising in the sky, desolate and dreary, and even her head seemed to lie there empty—sleeping and sleeping, knowing certainly that she was dreaming, but of what, she couldn’t say. It was as if there was a fog—a great darkness, and beyond it—there!—so much had happened, so much was happening, and all the time she knew what the matter was as certainly as she knew there was nothing wrong at all.

They were nightmares only; a breath away from daydreams—and she rose from the blackness of her bed as if she had never fallen asleep.

The room still was dark. But the sun was shining around the drapes’ edge—little yellow prisms on the floor, the walls—and Virginia stood before the window, the yard, the world, and saw a day just like any other which, she thought, happily, could never again exist. There were flowers in the garden. The grass flashed in the wind. And even the dew on the pavement of the drive seemed to be composed of the far more regular things—those extraordinary ordinary things which get lost in the details, the lines, the cracks, soaked into the earth and left there, never to be seen again. And here, she thought, I am. In her home, in her room, at the window, her children sleeping above her head, Robert snoring behind her in their bed—the world living and turning and existing—and she, now, awake.

All around the house the windows were open, and she flew out of her room like a bat from its cave. The house felt different suddenly, and new—despite the years she had spent here, despite the holes in the roof, the dullness of the walls, the raggedy corners of the carpets as they unravelled thinner and thinner across the floor. It was as though it had been reborn—she had been reborn, and she stood, leaning against the dark wooden railing of the staircase, looking down at the empty foyer beneath her feet. It was such a little distance to the floor, the shining black floor, bends of light curling along the veins in the floorboards, and she thought How wonderful. Really, how wonderful that the day should have come upon her with such a blaze and the floors should creak beneath the carpet, beneath her feet as she walked down the stairs, tripped on the rug, slipped past the window at the landing where the handyman was peeping through the hedges, and fell onto the couch in the living room as if sinking into weeds. How wonderful that she could imagine the smell of the hired man’s breath, the rot in his teeth. She felt as though she should jump and scream, wake the whole house and make them breakfast, sandwiches, coffee. But there were the two little white pills—the ones Robert had set out for her the evening before—eyeing her like a snake on the corner of the coffee table. There were the books lining the shelves on the walls now shuttered behind dark glass and iron locks. There, by the window, was the blood, dried, soaked into the floor like a spattering of snow.

Virginia got up and opened the drapes. She pictured the letter opener now tucked far away somewhere—saw Robert on his hands and knees at her feet as he scrubbed the floor, his shirt bloodied, his hands rosy. She pictured Amy sitting at the window-seat, among pillows and white wood, the sun coming to rest on her shoulders, flaring golden down her face like a blade.

The new girl would come at ten-thirty. A replacement. A life. It had all been arranged. For her, without her. And Virginia wished she could feel some sense of rage.

“It’s only to help you, my dear—help,” Robert had said as if he were talking in his sleep. He was sitting on the couch, legs crossed, head in a book, mouth glittering with this morning’s butter and bacon grease. His slim body was rumpled and the scent of Virginia clung to him like heat. “You know how you get when you start the pills again,” he’d said, and he glanced at her, only briefly, momentarily, and a thing flared inside her unlike lust or anger, but just as formidable and scalding. “You can’t do anything.” A darkness fell upon the room then, swirling in every corner, filling every inch until even the lines in her cheeks and the tips of her fingers reeked black like ink. There had been a maliciousness in his eyes, in the set of his mouth. He might’ve put the pills in her hand, the paper knife, or perhaps only coffee. “Life is scary. Help’s what you need.”

Virginia wrapped her arms around herself as she stood now before the window. She remembered picking apples from the trees behind the house, folding laundry, making dinner, hiding treats for the children in the soles of their shoes, and bringing Amy over with the pure innocence of friendliness. Now even the broom had gathered dust. There was a smell as though the house were souring, decaying right beneath them, coming apart as everything does, and she couldn’t help but picture the sun blaring down through the holes in the roof into the attic, warming the bodies of dead mice and rats. Perhaps, she thought, she really did need help. Perhaps it really was all too much—the garden and the children, the house and poor Robert, always picking up after her as she shoved pencils down her throat and stared into the green-blue of her veins. She felt as if she were choking. As if she were always choking.

“Help,” she said quietly, just to taste the word. “Help”—now as if she were calling. She chewed on her little finger and stared out at the yard. Notebooks were going missing and, always, the pens seemed to be dry and the inkwells empty. It was Robert. Of course, it was Robert—and she imagined opening the hollow of the white walls to find hoards of her hairpins and kitchen knives, pencils and paper, the razor she used to sharpen lead nestled into molding and decay.

“Help,” Virginia pleaded again softly. She looked back over her shoulder at the two little white pills next to her plate. He wanted her to stop writing. Of course, it made it worse. Of course, he was probably right. But the children were little monsters. And the cellar smelled of death. And the yard was overgrown—grass and weeds tangled, crawling up toward the house, the windows, the walls, the trees so heavy with rotting fruit they bowed as if to her. What else was she to do? She remembered the pristine, manicured field that had waited there for them when they bought the place—the lighted summer nights when, with all the furniture yet in the yard, piled one atop the other, the smell of the house and woods still new coming upon them like a sudden frost, they had stood out under the sky just to watch the clouds pass, just to catch glimpses of stars and see the twinkle of the apples as they fell from the trees in the distance. The kids had been so little then, and Robert more himself. Lightning bugs had landed on Virginia’s hands and not flown away. She had seen Amy at the grocery store and not even thought to ask her name.

And now, she knew. If they were to cut back the vines, the grass, the weeds, if they were to prune and carve and sheer, the trees would never stand tall the way they once had, and everything would wither and die anyway.

Virginia sat back down on the couch. She looked to where she’d seen Amy sitting—the empty space crying out like a wound—and took the pills with her coffee.

Virginia dreamt of water, but drowned with her face pressed into the sand. Fingers were digging into the base of her skull, the nape of her neck, nails pricking the skin there as if they meant to take something from her—leave her there, blackened and bruised and dead. She felt the weight on her back, felt her skirt as it was hiked, the air as it went out of her lungs, and then breath, slithering hot down her cheek. She screamed into the sand and felt silt against her teeth. Her limbs flew out around her, grasping, searching, but there was no one there—and when she raised her head from the table, she found that the bar was empty.

There was ink on her face; drool fell from the corner of her mouth. She took off her glasses and stared down at her hands. Black streaks were dried there across the lines of her palms, her fingertips. She peered around the honeyed darkness of the bar—a light here, a table, chairs—all dark wood and emptiness. The sun outside her window seemed already to have reached its peak in the sky and was starting to settle over the rooftops across the street, turning each shingle the color of skin. She glanced at the papers scattered across the table and then at the long jagged scars that ran down both of her forearms.

“Are you alright?” The waiter had come up with a cup of coffee, liquid splashing over the porcelain edge and settling in a pitch darkness on the saucer. His voice was flat, unworried, but he asked again with an air of regularity: “Miss, are you okay?”

Virginia felt the weight of the pills in her pocket and gritted her teeth. “Yes,” she said. “Yes. I’m fine. Sugar and cream?”

“Sugar and cream.” The flowered porcelain scraped against the wooden table, and his rough fingers fell away from the cup like dead leaves.

“Thank you.”

“What are you working on today?”

Virginia looked at the waiter as if he meant to strike her. He was not young nor old, handsome nor ugly, but his face was long and incased in rugged edges and scars. She’d seen him before at the bar, many times actually, but didn’t—she thought with some shame—know his name.

“Well, I. . .” She looked over the papers on the table, the ink bleared across each page. “I don’t remember.”

The waiter looked at Virginia closely, looming over her, his eyes squinting, his mouth held in such a way that Virginia knew instantly what crossed his mind.


He wiped his large hands on his apron. She saw each rough bed of skin crash against the cotton, each blister and callous stretch and break. She saw Amy sitting across from her and felt as she gently kicked her leg beneath the table, a secretive grin creeping across her face. Virginia wanted to take up all the papers and shove them into her mouth, rip them to pieces and swallow them so he wouldn’t see, so no one would see. She tasted the ink on her tongue as if she’d done it, felt the razor-soft edge of sheets as they slit her lips. She heard Amy laugh. But the booth across from her was empty, and the waiter was still standing there.

She turned the wheel.

This is how it would happen. The car would teeter on the edge. Fall into rocks, pass through trees, into fire and brambles, and rest then by a stream. Her head would be spun around. And every arm broken, each leg bone split. And when they found her, long after she had disappeared, she would be so mangled, so withered and dried and gone that even Robert wouldn’t recognize her and the kids wouldn’t care a lick; the new wife was so much nicer. There would be a funeral—a grave unvisited—dark weather, no rain, no storm, and they would’ve all known, standing there around her own plot of earth, that it was not an accident.

But outside it was green.

Down the long stretch of drive the trees whispered and shook over her head with the joy of summer and the tall grass flashed in the wind with that shine of emeralds and, all the while, a quiet humming of oranges and autumn waited beneath her tongue, tasting of compulsion.

Virginia drove to the house with a rush of aptitude not her own. The new girl had indeed come at ten-thirty. Her car was parked in the drive and Virginia pulled up beside it. She got out and peeked in through its tinted glass, heat wafting toward her from the black metal. She looked in at the bags stacked haphazard in the trunk. Suitcases. Canvases. A gold hairbrush peeking out from a plastic bag. Not a shovel or a spade, cleaning supplies or apron. A crow cawed and flew over Virginia’s head. It was probably eleven-thirty now or twelve, she thought. She’d missed the interview entirely—she had never, in fact, had a mind to attend it, but now she didn’t even have the pages to prove her worth, if worth was something Robert ever counted among them. Virginia could just picture him in the study as the girl sat there, away from him—for he would be peeking at her knees—the afternoon sun bearing down on his face, making it seem uglier, harsher. When Virginia had sat with Amy for her interview—she on the couch, Robert pacing, Virginia poised on the armchair with her hands digging into the taffeta-filled space between her thighs—she hadn’t seen her husband’s face. Hadn’t cared to look at it at all. She saw only deep in Amy’s eyes as their first meeting replayed: the rush of crowds on a Sunday, the blur of figures, bodies melded into one another, those hard edges of existence faded into nothing, and then the heaven-soft pull of one body to another, eyes helplessly drifting back to the same face whenever pried away, Amy standing there in the frozen food aisle blazing into life.

But that had been years ago now, Virginia reminded herself, feet slipping over the long grass behind the house. The nature was dense here, and dark. Patches of sunlight dripped through the leaves on the trees above her head, dappling the mossy ground in pools of fleshy white light. She could hear voices up ahead—one: Robert’s, flat, sturdy; the other: spreading out around the wood, drifting through Virginia’s clothes, her skin, to the treetops and the sky, not of simple consonants and vowels, but a melancholic melody of sounds and song. It was like a bird, the soft crackle a record makes when the needle first touches it, and a panic suddenly sounded inside her—an ice cold slither to her blood. Reasonless, reasonless, she thought, but she rushed nonetheless, stumbling through the overgrowth to the cottage at the back of the house—the unsteady pump. . . pum-p . . . puh-uhmp. . . of her heart.

“Oh, it’s beautiful here. And the children are so well behaved.”

She caught a sight of her from behind a tree, and it had nothing to do with the words, the way she was saying them, the mere fact she was standing there, existing with them, they all so uncaring, not noticing what greatest lay at their feet, toes curling in boots, unseen, hands clasped carelessly before a chest that breathed and breathed and breathed. It was just the moment Virginia saw the back of her head—for that split second when she thought it was someone else, when she saw in the folds of the new girl’s skirt a different body, a different life entrapped in the thin skin of living—that she knew it was over. It was done. This was it—the end. Here was why she had not written, why the letter opener had glittered on the desk, why her veins had suddenly seemed a cage, and the only way she could think to make herself love him again was to see his fingers, dripping red, wrapped around her wrists. This was the reason. This was why. Everything that was needed. Everything that was left, standing now in front of her, so close and unknown. I’ve been alone, Virginia thought, walking closer toward them, completely alone. Madly alone. The only thing in existence, the only thing alive, and now this girl. This girl.

Her children played and squealed, rolling in the grass. Her husband talked and talked, pointing at things to be fixed. The new girl stood there so still—and turned, her profile coming into flaming view.

Her nose was marked by a rose-red scar, and when she asked, “What’s this?” and traced her finger up the length of Virginia’s arm, Virginia thought about the night Amy left—the door open, rain, wind, the letter on the sideboard blown across the room, ink smudged across the page. She remembered standing in the doorway, crying and crying, and Robert as he looked at her, a sharp pity in her eyes. The world had slipped then, careened—and she still couldn’t find her footing.

“I don’t mean to pry,” the new girl said, a princely shyness passing across her face. Virginia blinked. They were doing the dishes after lunch, and she left a trail of soap suds leading to the crook of Virginia’s elbow, the jagged pink scar that trailed Virginia’s skin hidden now behind flat white bubbles that reflected and morphed their faces into one another. Since the girl had introduced herself, Virginia had been thinking, Ana, Ana, Ana, Ana, over and over again, Ana, Ana, Ana. And to say anything else felt a sin.

“Oh, no—no,” Virginia said. “It’s alright. It’s no secret. An accident is all it is. When I was a girl.” There was a coolness, a collectedness to her own voice that she didn’t recognize, and the sound of it filled her with a weightless fear. “What happened to your nose?” she asked, absentmindedly, quickly—scouring a porcelain plate.

The girl laughed, throwing her head back—and Virginia thought, a cat . . . or god—girls in French posters at Moulin Rouge.

“Would you believe it? It’s not even a scar. Just a birthmark. I’ve never even broken a’bone before.” Virginia remembered suddenly falling from a tree when she was a child and lying there, watching her mother as she sipped tea in the garden, the world on its side. She had wanted to break bones—she had broken bones, and pretended it was just to fly.

“I used to cover it up,” Ana said. Virginia scrubbed the plate. Harder. Harder. “But then I got older and I thought, Why hate something about yourself when the world can do that for you?”

Virginia thought, AnaAnaAnaAnaAna and scoured the plate. There was a tinge of red to the girl’s hair with the sun shining on it the way it was now and the yellow walls of the kitchen turned her skin a pretty, lively pink, like the tint of rose that had stained Robert’s cuffs.

“Do you have any birthmarks?” Ana asked, gently, as though the words were a knife. She reached into the soapy water and took the plate from Virginia’s hands. Her eyes did not leave hers. It was a moment, just a second, and that night did not happen, her scars healed beneath touch: gone, never been. It was just them, only them, and everything mattered just as though it didn’t at all.

But then the door swung open to the kitchen—

But then—“Virginia, dear. Your pills.”

And Robert came jogging into the room, the white snake eyes pinched between his fingers like fresh water pearls. He stood beside her, glanced down at her hands in the sink. The words came from his lips like a curse, “Open your mouth.”

Virginia could feel Ana’s eyes burning into her neck, but her mouth would not open. The muscles in her throat and her jaw had tensed, frozen, and would not obey her. Again panic, now a bitter taste of shame, and she was shaking.

“Pills—” Ana said, not questioningly, but curiously, and Virginia could feel that she was looking at them both, but couldn’t bring herself to even glance at the new girl.

“Pills,” Robert said, and without another word, he took his other hand and squeezed Virginia’s cheeks, tight, tight, tighter, until her mouth popped open like a dog’s. He put the two pills on her tongue and Virginia felt the rough calluses of his fingertips against her tastebuds. “Now swallow. Swallow, Virginia. Open up again. OK, let me see—there. Now was that so hard?”

When the roof caved in, her children found her body in the rubble. She felt first the dull edge of wood planks and bricks pressing into the tender skin of her broken body—and then the softened little hands of her children as they carried her out of the cottage, their fingers wrapped around arm, wrist, knee, ankle, head drawn against the uneven ground. She could feel each blade of grass slip against her scalp and the nape of her neck, feel crisp dead leaves caught in her hair, and she did not think to scream. Instead, she welcomed the heavy hands of her husband as they pumped against her chest, broke her ribs, crack-crack-crack-crack, pressed his lips against hers, sloppy and cold. She welcomed the rough rise of her body onto a gurney, the crisp sheet over her face, the jostling ride to the morgue, the cold metallic stench, and then the roaring black fire of the crematorium so that when she woke—with her head on her vanity, black tracks of mascara running down her cheeks—she felt a coldness like she had never known.

It was a spidery silence. In their room, Virginia sat, naked, staring at her reflection in the now fading light. The day somehow was slipping away, out of her hands, and she thought with a panic, How did I get here, why am I up here, what’s wrong with me? Things were creeping in. On the edges of her vision, slipping through the back door, climbing up the stairs and standing there behind her, breathing down her neck. She could feel it—the crawl of it through her back, the anxious tug at her stomach, the shallow sharp pull in her chest that made her arms fly up around her body. She remembered feeling the rough, steady lines of her husband’s fingerprints against her tongue day after day after day—and burst into tears.

A black blur came over the room, and she imagined Amy there with her—watched in the mirror as she sat down beside her on the little cushioned bench, sunshine suddenly filling the room. She put her arm around Virginia’s frail shoulders, the light from the window glowing in her yellow hair, turning the gray bit down the center silver, casting a line of gold down the tip of her Roman nose. Virginia felt her breath on her neck, felt the warmth of her body against hers, and when she kissed her and the sunlight fell away to a growing darkness, when she found beneath her fingertips real skin, a real mouth against her lips, each step the same, each breath the same as if they were tethered together by invisible veins, Virginia thought, Ana Ana Ana Amy.


Katie Lynn Johnston (they/them) is a queer writer from a small town in Indiana, who holds a BA in Creative Writing Fiction from Columbia College Chicago. They have been an editor for the Columbia Poetry Review, Mulberry Literary, and a production editor for Hair Trigger Magazine. Their work has appeared in Hoxie Gorge Review, Oyster River Pages,Allium, and Lavender Review, among others.


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