Going Viral

by Steph Nelson

Water rots inside the marble bird bath, the crown jewel of Mom’s backyard garden. It looks more like sludge now. A glossy, brown substance that would probably poison any bird stupid enough to visit.

         How long has it been since Karla cleaned it? 

My sister isn’t exactly into upkeep.

         I peer closer, and judging by the green mossy shit inching up the inside, it’s been a long time. Decomposing leaves floating on top make the entire thing smell like a compost. Even so, I rub the lichen stuck to the bowl, plunging my finger in to see how far it goes.

         Mom used to be fastidious about this bird bath. She’d sit on the patio of her one-acre backyard with binoculars and watch birds at it for hours during her final months. Even when she had almost no strength, Mom still found the energy to clean it with a vinegar solution twice a week.

         I hope when I’m gone, you girls will see this bird bath and it’ll be a reminder that I’m always with you.

         Mom’s memorial, now full of shit.

         Moving my hand down the inside to the bottom, I confirm that, yes, the moss has invaded the entire thing. And now I’ve probably messed up my nails, painted orange this week because… Halloween. October in Boise leans warm, and it might get chilly tonight, so at the far end of the property, Karla’s got a firepit set up, just in case.

         Wiping fingers on my t-shirt, I notice part of the skin below my nail bed is blanched white. It’s a tiny spot, and I’m sure it wasn’t that way when I painted my nails earlier. I’m so deep into inspecting it that I don’t hear Karla’s approach. Suddenly, she’s there beside me, handing over a sweaty, open bottle of hard cider. And she’s so close I can feel her body stiffen, like she realizes I’ve noticed the deterioration of the bird bath.

         “Cider, huh. No beer?” I ask, still fussing with that spot on my finger.

         “Why can’t you just be nice, Lena?”

         “About the cider?”

“About everything.”

         I turn to look at her, baffled about what she could mean. Here I am, on what’s probably the last warm Saturday of the year, decorating for her Halloween party. Making more chili than the world needs, and wrestling hay bales and pumpkins into place. What did I say wrong this time?

         Something tugs deep inside my throat. It tickles, so I take a drink of cider.

Mom’s flowers are dead.

That has to be it. When I said it before, her face contorted like I’d slashed her, but she hasn’t watered them all summer, and she’s the one who lives here. Mom left the house to both of us in her will last fall, no doubt imagining my sister and I would move in together since neither of us have been lucky in love. But I can’t live with Karla. Being around her too long feels like wearing an emotional straitjacket. She’s so goddamn sensitive.

When Mom died, Karla was already living here, so it just made sense to let her stay. This way, her housing situation is one less thing for me to worry about. I already stress about how she can’t hang on to a job. She says she gets bored too easily. But, yeah, that’s adulting. If you want to eat and pay bills, you work a job even if you’re bored. Karla acts like she’s still twenty, when in fact, she’s pushing forty.

The house is a 1950s brick rambler in the neighborhood we grew up in. I guess I expected that since my sister lives here, she’d tend Mom’s garden. Seems fair, considering she’s here rent-free. She’s cut the grass recently, I see, which is something. But the fruit trees lining the back fence need pruning. The beds need weeding. The yard used to be beautiful, totally hidden away from the rest of the neighborhood by high fences and ivy, bushes, and trees. But hell, it’s a lot to take care of.

I’m such an ass. I shouldn’t be so hard on Karla. “Hey, when I said ‘Mom’s flowers are dying,’ I didn’t mean—”

“This Halloween party is totally the boost my TikTok account needs. Might even hit half a mil,” Karla interrupts, like she’s filling open silence instead of verbally mowing me down. It eliminates the need for any white flag I was about to wave. 

Then she goes right into rehashing her plan to become a social media influencer, a millionaire, then a celebrity. She claws at this crazy delusion to find meaning instead of just living a normal life like the rest of us. And God, as if this one backyard event will shoot her into the stars.

Spoiler alert: It won’t.

Karla’s TikTok following is average at best, and she has no niche. I work in marketing, but she won’t listen to my advice about growing a platform. I’ve heard her “world domination and subsequent immortality” speech so many times I could scream.

And maybe I would if not for this tickle in my throat. I clear it a few times, even cough, and Karla stops talking, narrows her eyes and then folds her arms, “What’s wrong with you?”

I shake my head, trying to dismiss her question, because who needs all this? I just want to fill up on booze and maple bars and then go home early feeling like I did right by Mom. Last thing I want is a fight with my sister.

That’s why I’m shocked when as soon as the coughing stops, my mouth opens and all of a sudden, I’m explaining why I made that damn comment about the flowers again. Like it’s imperative that Karla understands my original meaning. Like it’ll change anything.

         “Lena, you’re so cringe sometimes! I get it.” Karla groans and walks toward the house, rubbing her forearm.

It’s a simple miscommunication, Mom used to say. Try harder, Lena. You and Karla need each other.

But Mom was wrong. Karla and I don’t need each other, she needs me. I take care of everything and what does Karla bring to the relationship? Dead flowers, decaying bird baths, and parties staged for TikTok.

“Check this out!” Karla yells across the acreage, coming out the sliding door toward me again. “Look at this spot on my arm. The fuck?” She taps it, leans toward me.

I tap it too, and she’s right. It’s a patch of flesh about two inches in diameter and it’s like touching granite.

“There’s a little cut in the middle,” I say, pointing to a red spot. “Does it hurt?” 

But before she can answer, the small area sprawls into an opaque white. It looks similar to the spot below my nail bed, which I get the urge to check again. Mine isn’t hard though, it’s just discolored.

The doorbell interrupts us and Karla shoves her phone at my chest. “Here, get one of me quick. The prefunk is over. It’s party time, bitches!” she yells, arms out, to an empty backyard.

I roll my eyes and enter Karla’s passcode. I only know it because she’s too lazy to come up with anything besides 1-2-3-4-5-6. Navigating to TikTok, I hit “record,” and listen to Karla blather for a few seconds. Then she rips the phone from me, types something, presumably posting the video, and runs inside to greet her first guests.

I down the rest of my cider. It takes the edge off that feeling in my throat, but now it’s like there’s something lodged inside there. That tickle has morphed into a sharp pain, like I swallowed a tortilla chip whole.

People pour onto the patio in costumes galore. Why didn’t Karla tell me this was a dress-up party? Everyone’s in full Halloween garb. There’s a scarecrow, a plague doctor, a sexy nurse, a Jedi, and that main character from Stranger Things. They just keep coming. So many people, all decked out.

         “Lena! So glad you made it,” says a woman dressed as a skeleton.

         Who is this? I can’t identify her behind the skull face paint. 

         “Hi, nice costume.”

         “Ow! What was that?” Skeleton touches her cheek, then looks at her fingers. White and black makeup mix with a tiny bit of red. Blood.

         “Shit! It hurts!” she says, and walks into the kitchen covering her cheek. Some guy in a Gremlins costume, complete with a huge Gizmo head, follows her. He says her name. Maggie.

         Of course! Karla’s Starbucks coworker, from back when she worked there. Maggie’s got a wedding ring on. So does he. Maybe they’re together?

         Where’s Karla though?

         I look around the backyard, now dim because of the setting sun. Good thing we put tiki torches all over the yard—my idea. Finally, I see her. She’s dressed as a devil, holding her phone up, recording video after video. When did she put on a costume? God, now I’m the only one in jeans and a slub tee. The odd one out.

Music pours out of a Bluetooth speaker and I recognize “Werewolves of London,” and “Season of the Witch.” Karla’s spooky playlist. Mingling with guests, she’s in “The Karla Show” mode, where everyone is just another extra in her story, only there to elevate her as the star. It’s enough to make her happy for the moment, but her TikTok views won’t even be over a hundred and the happy train will crash. Without Mom here, I’ll be picking up the debris. It’s kind of my thing now.

My throat hurts again, so I reach into the cooler for a bottle of water. Cider isn’t doing anything for me and I need relief. I chug the whole thing, clearing my throat a few times.

         Maggie appears in the backyard with a bandage on her face and seems better, even though her makeup is ruined. Gizmo guy talks to her and that’s when she starts shaking her head and touching her mouth over and over. 

         “Uh can’t moo wuh sy uh ma fay,” she says.

         “She can’t move one side of her face!” Gizmo shouts, interpreting, but muffling the words in that stupid gremlin head. Then he says to me, “Lena, any chance you saw what happened?”

         Apparently, he knows me too, but the knowing isn’t mutual. The music is loud, so luckily everyone isn’t staring at me. But the few gathered around Maggie are.

         “Sorry, no.”

         Gizmo holds Maggie, but he’s frantic, and can’t get very close, thanks to that bulbous head. Then he slaps the strip of skin exposed between his mask and full-body costume, like swatting a mosquito. “Dude, what the fuck? Something took a bite out of me.” His fingertips come back tinged with a bit of blood.

         Is there an insect problem in Mom’s backyard? Maybe that’s what happened to Karla too. But no, that wasn’t a bite, it was a cut. And I haven’t seen a single bug all evening. I should check on Karla. 

As I get closer, my stomach drops because I can tell she’s already shitfaced. And something is really wrong with her arm.

         “Karla, your arm.” I touch it and flinch, pulling my hand back. It’s cold, hard. She’s holding it bent, like a Barbie doll’s. No way an insect did this.

         “I know! It’s totally numb,” Karla laughs. “I must be wasted already.”

         “I should take you to urgent care. What if it’s an infection?” I try to touch it again, but she pulls away and flits off to another group of partygoers, holding the phone up with her working arm. She needs a doctor, but I can’t force her to go. It’d piss her off again. So, I guess I’m in charge of this party now.

         Climbing up to stand on a patio chair, my head almost touches the canopy of string lights. I clear my throat and say, “Hey everyone!” A few painted and masked faces turn toward me, but I have to shout over the music. “There’s all this food. Please dig in!”

         Some people obey, most ignore, but my throat feels better. Like someone put out a fire when I yelled. I touch it gently, swallow. The sensation is still there, ratcheting up to sharp pain again.     

         What’s wrong with me?

         I don’t have time to analyze because Gizmo’s shouting. “My neck! It feels like fuckin’ concrete!”

         People rush to his side, leaving Maggie alone. She sits in the same spot on the patio couch, eyes wide, making moaning noises. I take the seat next to her.

         “Are you all right?”

         She shakes her head furiously and taps her mouth with two fingers, like she’s asking me to do it too. I touch her mouth gently. Her closed lips feel exactly like Karla’s arm, probably just like Gizmo’s neck.

         Smooth rock.

         That’s when a whole chorus of “Shit!” “Ow!” and “What the fuck?” erupts across the yard. It’s total chaos. Everyone’s ducking, flinching, slapping at their arms, legs, faces. My throat clenches and that goddamn pain shows up in force. I get up and reach into the cooler, but it’s empty so I grab the first open drink I see. Gross to take a mystery sip like this, but I’m desperate.

         “Maggie! Maggie!” someone dressed like Captain Marvel shouts, shaking Maggie, who still sits on the patio couch. By the time I return, Captain Marvel has worked so hard to get the other woman’s attention, that she’s shoved her. Maggie hits the concrete patio with a clack and one arm breaks off. It’s still inside the sleeve of her lycra costume, but detached. Captain Marvel reaches for her again.

         “Don’t touch her!” I yell, trying to tilt Maggie into an upright position with more care than Captain Marvel could offer. But she’s much too heavy to lift. It’s like trying to budge a boulder. I only gain inches off the ground. Squatting down to get a closer look, Maggie’s face is frozen with eyes wide, terrified, same as before. I lay her back down gently, trying not to crack her.

         The pinch of tears rushes across my nose. But then, my throat again! Something sharp’s actually stuck in there, that has to be it. I cough, working my tongue to try and bring it forward, finally sticking a finger and thumb inside my mouth, but the thing stabs me. Holding it up to the light, I can tell it’s a sliver of something. Just a tiny shard of what looks like ceramic, swimming in a droplet of blood. What the hell? I brush it away.

         Captain Marvel cries. She can’t move her legs. I go to help her, but I’m distracted for a beat by Gizmo laying on his side in the grass. His mask is off, and nowhere to be seen. I don’t need to get up close to know he’s now stone too.

         The Stranger Things girl is next to Gizmo, on her knees, like she’s reaching for help, but also cast in stone. When I turn back around, Captain Marvel is a pale statue. The sexy nurse is immobilized mid-run, heading for the patio door into the kitchen, as if it might provide some type of immunity. The scarecrow knocks her over in his mad flailing, swatting at his back.

         She breaks into large pieces across the door’s threshold.

         Her head rolls in quick revolutions, then stops at my feet. She stares at me. I swear to God, right then I see her eyes blink, but there’s no way they can. Irises are smooth, lids wide open. I kneel on the patio and turn her head, like I’m playing a slow-motion version of spin the bottle. Looking closely at the break in her neck, it seems like there are grooves. Anatomical details, a circle for the spinal cord, other marks for blood vessels and things I don’t know the names of. Something about this disturbs me more than anything else. It feels permanent. Like, fine if your arm is stone, but what about when your blood vessels and organs are as well?

         One of her hands made it all the way to the hardwood kitchen floor inside. I feel like I should retrieve it, keep all of her pieces together, but that’s insane. Not like I can fix her. Still, I move to do it, bracing myself with a hand on the patio to stand up. In the process, my warm fingers brush against a cold pile of…tiny bones? No, not bones. Fingers, shattered from her palm.

         A weird yelp comes out of me, drawing the scarecrow’s attention. He moves like he’s going to attack, but then whimpers when he’s almost arms-length away, and stops. A hush overtakes him and he stands upright, arms down in his final pose, giving up at the last minute.

         I scan the yard, and my mind slogs, like it’s submerged in the putrid bird bath. Thoughts are stagnant, can’t keep up with what’s happening. Out by the unlit fire pit, the plague doctor tries to move the Jedi statue, and for a minute I think, how appropriate is that? The one person who doesn’t catch whatever this is would be the plague doctor. But then, he stops moving, and it looks like somebody poured milk all over him. He’s one of them, too.

         The party goes from slow motion to full pause. People litter the grass in immovable positions of panic.

         “Lena, is that you?” someone whispers.

         There’s a girl dressed like Sally Skellington on all fours in the grass, facing me. I don’t know her, and it’s not because she’s in a costume. I get closer and look at her face, lit by patio lights. I don’t recognize her. Hell, I don’t know any of Karla’s friends. How do they know me? Sally’s skin, painted blue, is mostly a dull, creamy white now. The only blue reaches from her neck to her high cheekbones. Her vacant eyes are carvings in marble, like the sexy nurse’s, but her mouth still works.

         “How do you know my name?”        

         Such an irrelevant question in light of everything, but it’s what comes out of my mouth.

         “Karla talks about you all the time,” she says with effort. “You’re her…person.” She pushes out the last words slowly, like they’re difficult to say. White creeps down and covers her upper lip. Sally gasps because her nose can’t take in air anymore. She pants, trying to breathe, then she screams at me to help her. Blue skin disappears and she’s transformed.

Tears run hot down my cheeks. I can’t process any of this, so my mind grabs the easiest thing and rolls it over like polishing a truth until it shines.

Karla said nice things about me to her friends.

I’m her person.

Where is she?

Stillness hangs in Mom’s backyard. Silence, except for the lullaby of Blue Oyster Cult, telling us not to fear the reaper. There’s another noise too, like little chimes. I walk through the yard, following the sound, shivering even though it’s not cold enough for that, crying fresh tears every time I pass one of Karla’s lifeless friends. I can’t move my thumb or index finger, but I ignore that.

When I finally see Karla, my breath catches in a gasp. She’s standing next to Mom’s bird bath at the back of the yard, both arms bent, little devil horns nesting in what used to be her brown hair. I run up to her. The scant light from the patio doesn’t reach, but the tiki torches make it so I can see her face.

Karla’s eyes are unblinking. Her mouth is open, like she’s laughing. Or screaming. Her phone teeters on the edge of the bath, right where moss meets the lip. I reach out to touch her, batting my lashes in order to see through tears. Her body’s now made of marble, like the bird bath.

         The dinging is incessant, demanding. I pick up her phone, unlock it. TikTok notifications hit like rapid fire. Karla videoed this, and it’s on the For You Page, going viral. The whole thing captured for the world to see. To watch over and over again.

         I drop the phone and lean into her, wrapping one arm around her waist, careful not to knock her over. I grip the edge of Mom’s bird bath with my open hand. Laying my head on Karla’s shoulder, I let myself sob.

         “I love you, Karla. You’re a pain in the ass, but you’re my person too.” I say the words out loud and the sharpness in my throat finally leaves.

         But I can’t move my hands. Or my arms and legs.

         My last thought is how Mom would love this. Karla and me in a final, infinite embrace.


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