A deeply flawed and funny character, I thought of Hollis long after reading, wondering what happened to her. At times relatable, raw, and equal measures wise and naive, this voice felt impulsive and unpredictable and yet somehow fully grounded in the well-drawn and yearning world of the Trunk House. Where else will Hollis’s misguided searching lead? I’d like to know. I’d follow the voice anywhere. — Guest Judge Chelsea Bieker
Hollis was bored, so bored, so gruesomely bored she’d resorted to tracing the tip of a butcher’s knife along the inside curve of her hip bone. Bored on a cosmic level so she withdrew her last eighty-seven dollars and fucked off to a cabin up north to do a new kind of nothing in a place where she didn’t have to buy her own toilet paper.
She paid for the cabin using one of her clients’ credit card numbers, and with her own money she got three bottles of gas station wine and a tank of gas station gas, a jumbo bag of cheese puffs and some cans of salmon. She had a psychic vision of her toothpaste on the bathroom counter and had to drive back home to get it. She flipped her apartment the bird on her way out.
Martha from the website told her on the phone that she wouldn’t be there when Hollis arrived, but she should take a left after the greenish house and drive up a little hill and the Trunk House—that’s what her cabin was called, because of all the trunks—would be just past a tree that looked like an old man with his mouth open. Her husband’s phone number was on the table by the key. He’d be around, just in case. Martha said she should turn the light on right away or she might trip over a trunk. So far Martha was not a liar. The Wi-Fi password was TrunkHouse69 and Hollis wondered if Martha was funny or if that was the year she was born.
The cabin smelled like chlorine and peanut butter. The peanut butter was from the mousetraps lining the walls. Hollis didn’t know what the chlorine was from. When she was younger she used to mix up chlorine and chloroform. She once made a comment that sparked a full investigation of her YMCA swim instructor.
The Trunk House was one big room up a set of stairs just inside the door, with a queen-sized bed against one wall and a clawfoot tub against another, vaulted wood ceilings with square skylights that illuminated a truly formidable collection of trunks—green, brown, leather straps, gold latches, huge at the end of the bed, stacked like a pyramid in the corner. An inky guest book tattooed wood paneled walls. Rhonda Wuz Here. Last April, Casey and Colleen were honeymooning, xoxo, their affections encased in a heart of faded sharpie. Hollis ran a hand across the quilt on the bed where Casey and Colleen consummated their marriage. She wondered if Rhonda wuz here before or after the coffee machine stopped working.
She would only be there a few days but Hollis unpacked her bag. Hollis couldn’t stand living out of a bag. She unrolled her sweaters and folded them like a department store display. She lined her boots up with the edge of the top stair. She propped her toothbrush up against the box of tissues on the shelf above the toilet and, in case it fell, closed the toilet seat.
She’d brought one book with her. She stacked it in line with Martha’s collection, which included The Brothers Karamazov, Lolita, and Snooki’s autobiography. Hollis read the acknowledgements page of that one. “So many people helped make this book possible—fist pumps, bitches!” Hollis’s book wasn’t even a novel, it was the screenplay for Mrs. Doubtfire, which she kept with her always. Graham had given it to her. She found it on the kitchen table one morning, with an index card bookmark that said he was leaving her to focus on building his laundromat empire.
He texted her later on, Did you get my present ha ha. He texted like that, with a space between the has. She texted him back, Ho hum, enjoy your detergent, and threw her phone gently across the room.
* * *
Hollis reached into her bag for a swipe of deodorant and grabbed her razor by the blade and gouged a hole in her thumb. She was always gouging holes in her thumb. Last summer she chopped the soft pad of it clean off trying to julienne an onion. At urgent care, a doctor said there wasn’t much to be done but he gave her a big roll of gauze for $375. The doctor texted her on her cell phone after and invited her to his house for a barbecue, where he undercooked her chicken. Her thumb regenerated like a starfish arm, with barely a scar.
Now this new wound filled steadily with blood like cherry syrup. A line of it dribbled onto the floor. A scoop of thumb the size of a flattened lima bean clung to the blade. Hollis peeled it out and threw it in the trash, then wrapped the wound in toilet paper and twisted a scrunchie around to secure it. The apparatus hung from her hand like a club.
* * *
What to do. She could go outside. It was probably beautiful out there, all snow and woods and edges sharpened by the cold. Martha’d said in the summer the cabins belonged to a camp, where a bunch of Catholic kids came to learn about archery and abstinence, but this was the off-season so Hollis had the run of the place. She considered the process—pulling on her coat, lacing up her boots, going to the mirror to see if her hair looked good in her hat, remembering where she’d set the key down, going back to the mirror because her hair really did look good in that hat—and decided she’d go outside tomorrow.
Two in the afternoon. Too early for red wine, but white was probably okay. It was hard to open the bottle with her club thumb. There was a champagne flute on top of the fridge and a novelty wine glass the size of her head; she filled the champagne flute then poured it into the big glass. And again. And again. Againagain. When she tipped the glass up to drink, the rim of it rested above her eyebrows. Her fingers clinked the glass as she set it down and she realized what she’d forgotten: fingernail clippers.
* * *
Hollis put on some purple lipstick and had a conversation with herself in the mirror.
“Now, what do you call this color?” she asked.
“This is Plumgasm,” she replied. “The Queen of England wears this lipstick. In matte.”
“What’s wrong with glossy?”
“Glossy lipstick is for sorority girls and dental hygienists.”
“Do you think feminism’s indoctrination into academia has rendered it inaccessible to those who would most benefit from understanding its tenets?”
“I’ll send you my answer as a PDF.”
She pursed her lips and puffed out her cheeks. Squeezed her face in one hand so the air came out with a squelch and a spattering of spit. “Is this the same lipstick you wore at Sir Elton John’s New Year’s Eve party in 2008?”
“That question offends me.”
* * *
For dinner was cheese puffs. While she ate she read the first page of Lolita and marked her favorite line with a cheese dust fingerprint. “You could always count on a murderer to have a fancy prose style.” Smudge under the “always.”
She called some of her west coast clients and asked how they were enjoying their diet pills, and could she sign them up for another couple of months? “Fourth or fifth month is the charm,” she told them. “And if not that, the sixth and seventh will definitely do it.” All these women, so desperate to vanish. Housewives, business executives, teenagers with boyfriends who grabbed them by the skin over their budding hips and asked, “Where did this come from?” Hollis was in love with all of them. She admired them for their raw indomitable hope. “God, if I could just lose these last five pounds,” they’d say, and she’d reply, “Don’t I know it, girlfriend.” She said stuff like this to them. Don’t I know it, girlfriend. She wanted to tell them she’d take the last five pounds from each of them if she could, she’d glom them onto her own hips and thighs. Graham told her once that her body was like the shaft of a standing floor lamp.
Hollis took the scrunchie off and texted Graham a picture of her thumb hole. “Thinking of you,” she said. She found a Band-Aid by the fire extinguisher and put it on, and put the scrunchie in her hair.
* * *
In the morning her thumb was mushy. All the goo trapped under the Band-Aid had moisturized the wound, so the area around it was raised and white and soft. Graham had responded to her text overnight with a colon and an open parenthesis.
Hollis turned the coffee machine on and off a few times and whacked the top of it with her hand. It let out a few sad drops and a mechanical sputter. She considered calling Martha about it but it was still early, she didn’t want Martha to be annoyed with her. She spooned coffee grounds into a filter and dunked the bundle in some microwaved water.
She thought the cold air would do her mushy thumb some good so she left it uncovered and did the coat and boot routine—pull on, lace up—and the hat routine—to the mirror, to the mirror.
Outside, the last week of February dripped from the trees. The snow on the ground was ugly and brown and tired of existing. Hollis couldn’t remember if it was a leap year or not. Thinking about assigning numbers to days made her orbital sockets ache.
An older man in one of those hats with ear flaps that velcroed under the chin was crossing the driveway at the bottom of the hill, pushing a wheelbarrow full of brush. “What are you doing with that brush?” Hollis called to him. The brush was frozen and covered in dirty snow. He must have had to really hack at it to unstick it from the ground.
“I’m Neil,” he said, coming closer.
“You talked to my wife on the phone,” he said. “My wife, Martha, she’s our resident superhost. And I’m her superhusband.” The supercouple lived in that mint green house, right down there.
“The brush was in the way,” he said.
“Are you Neil with an a or an i?”
“Do you ever wish it was an a?”
“I never really thought about it.”
* * *
Hollis got lost in the woods for a while. “Fifty acres of hiking trails!” Martha’d said on the phone, but Hollis preferred to follow the deer tracks. The trees were boring, they were all the same. Tall, thin, ashy. But the ground was okay, it rose and fell, sometimes quite sharply. It felt good to be moving across something. And once she got past the parts of woods that still touched humanity this time of year, the snow was less brown and more blankety. Hollis laid on her back and scooped some over herself, attempting self-burial. It felt good to not move at all.
She wondered how long she’d have to lay there, covered, before her skin would turn a pastel kind of blue. She wondered if she would die, or if Neil would find her first. She resolved to spend more time like this, flat on her back and pondering death.
Hollis didn’t think she would ever kill herself, but if she did she’d do it in an interesting way, like putting the tip of a sword over her small intestine and pushing it through to the hilt. In her last moments the contents of her bowels would pour like baked beans out of the hole she made in herself. When her neighbor—who was a prude, who always came to scold when Hollis watched porn with surround sound on—discovered her body they’d say, “Classic Hollis. Disgusting in life, disgusting in death.”
Hollis would watch as a ghost from the corner at her funeral. If she spotted someone caring too much, she’d flicker the lights. Graham didn’t believe in ghosts, though she was always trying to convince him. Sometimes she’d creep out of bed in the middle of the night and open all the cupboard doors in the kitchen. In the morning he’d close them and make perfect round whole grain pancakes.
* * *
A sticky note clung to the door of the Trunk House. Neil wanted her to join him for dinner. “Spaghetti!” it said, with an arrow that was supposed to point towards Neil’s house, but the sticky part didn’t stick well in the cold, so instead it tilted up to indicate the sky. She took the note down. At the top of the stairs inside, she stubbed her toe on a trunk.
Rubbing coffee grounds on her gums was not getting her the caffeine fix she needed. The lack hammered the inside of her skull like it was checking for reflexes. There was probably pre-made coffee to be had in the town she passed on her way here, but her car was almost out of gas.
Hollis sucked on a weed gummy. While she waited for the brain fuzz she painted her fingernails red and interviewed herself for a job.
“What makes you want to work in the lumber industry?” she asked.
“I’ve always admired beavers,” she said. “I think beavers have their priorities straight. I think if I could be more like a beaver, I’d be happier.”
“What are your professional weaknesses?”
“Teeth are too small.”
“What is the most interesting thing about you?”
Hollis had a couple of ideas but didn’t know which to pick. She texted Graham, What’s the most interesting thing about me? and he texted back, Porbably your webbed toes, and she texted back, Porbably.
* * *
As soon as it got dark she went down the hill to the green cottage. A garden of silver pinwheels glistened out front. A monsoon of windchimes dripped from the porch ceiling. Hollis let herself in. “I brought flowers,” she said, holding out some brush she’d collected from Neil’s brush pile. He had spaghetti on the stove and homemade puttanesca sauce and veal meatballs if she liked that sort of thing.
Neil wished she could meet Martha. Martha was out of town until Wednesday, visiting their eldest daughter—he said that, eldest, not oldest—and the daughter’s new baby, who’d spent too long in the birth canal and had a head shaped like a yam. Neil was supposed to be there with her, but when Hollis’s last-minute reservation came through Martha thought he’d better hang around to make sure she didn’t burn the place to the ground.
“Do you really think you could stop me?” Hollis asked.
Neil was ugly in an interesting way. His eyes puffed out and his chin was tiny. But he had a great head of swoopy silver hair. Hollis liked his belly, which pushed his flannel shirt away from the rest of his spindly body like he’d tucked a small melon inside. His nose hairs poked out of their caverns and wiggled around when he talked.
There was bourbon. Hollis liked bourbon for the way it lingered in her throat like thick hot honey. Neil gave her a carved crystal glass of it, and when she looked at him through its ridges it was like he’d been cut in half from top to toe and then smushed back together, slightly off-kilter.
“You’re a really lovely girl,” Neil told her. He smiled, a tail of pasta dangling from the corner of his mouth.
When she was warm enough from the bourbon, Hollis stretched out her leg under the table and rested her toes on the chair between Neil’s knees. His nose hairs twitched in surprise. But then he wrapped his hand around her ankle and stroked it with his thumb while he finished his puttanesca. After dinner Hollis fucked Neil horizontally across a row of kitchen chairs. He said, “I haven’t done it anywhere but a bed since the nineties.”
Neil smelled like cabbage and baby powder. “Don’t worry, darling,” he told her as she observed their lack of a condom. “I got snipped after daughter number four.”
His second favorite daughter was Hollis’s age. Neil said she worked at some club down by Detroit where the waitresses wore bunny ears. Martha didn’t talk to her anymore but sometimes mailed her things. Practical things but weird things, too, without a return address, so the Hollis-aged daughter wouldn’t know it was Martha who sent them. She mailed batteries and foot lotion. She mailed a hula hoop. She mailed one of those single-serve egg cookers where you put the egg in one compartment and English muffins in the others and a round piece of ham in the last one if you want and flip it around like a waffle maker and then, presto, you’ve got yourself the perfect breakfast sandwich.
“I’m going to call you Neal with an a,” Hollis told him. He said that was fine.
She’d been holding herself in but now she flopped all her body weight onto him so his breath came out in a huff. She twisted her fingers into his silver old man hair and wondered if hers would turn gray or white, when the time came. Hollis traced a line down Neal’s soft throat with her pointer finger. She asked, “What if I tore out your trachea with my teeth?”
* * *
Neal wanted her to sleep in his bed but Hollis had too much respect for Martha to do that. She sat in the empty Trunk House bathtub and told herself a bedtime story.
“Once there was a woman named Martha who was fifty-two years old and couldn’t feel pain. She loved Dostoevsky and wanted Nabokov to die, until she learned he was already dead and then she felt sorry. She liked dirty sex stuff like hitting and scraping because it didn’t hurt at all. Her husband was really nice, though, so he’d drag his fingernails down the inside of her arm and say, Is that okay? Is that okay, is that okay, is this, which was annoying. Just hit my butt or something, Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, she would say.
“Martha rented out cabins and murdered people on the side. She liked to watch their faces contort while she carved into their bellies with a knife. She tried to understand what they were feeling and her running hypothesis was that it was something like the crunch of a ladybug under her finger, or the fizz that covered her vision when she stood up too fast. She burned the bodies in a pit behind the cabins and her husband called from the house, Honey, do you want some veal meatballs?
“They were having a baby and because they were so old they thought it was either a miracle or the spawn of Satan, but either way they were going to name it Hollis. This was Martha’s decision. Her husband said Hollis was a stupid name that sounded like a kind of rash. Martha said, Well, I like my rash baby, you can go suck a clam. She sometimes said phrases such as this. Go suck a clam.
“When Hollis was born she was bright red like Satan but otherwise pleasant. I love her, Martha said. I’m not going to kill her. And when Hollis cried she wondered what it was for, because Martha was certain Hollis had inherited her inability to feel pain. Sometimes Martha pinched her with her fingernails to check, and the baby didn’t flinch. But still she cried and cried.
“Life is hard and it only gets worse, my little rash, Martha told Hollis, holding her upside down for a few seconds. If you cry it all out now you’ll grow up dehydrated.”
* * *
A client called early in the morning and said she was having the kind of heart palpitations the diet pill box told her to watch out for. “Have you tried drinking more water?” Hollis asked. “Have you tried taking deep cleansing breaths every time you stand up?” She had tried all of that. “Listen,” Hollis said. “It’s going to be okay.” After forty minutes on the phone, it was. Her husband had been distant lately, the client admitted, and then she was breathing better and her heart stopped flopping around. This sort of thing happened sometimes. These women were trying to shed all different kinds of weight. The side effects got jumbled. Hollis told her to call if it happened again, or to call just to talk, that would be fine too.
The hole in Hollis’ thumb had developed a delicate pink glaze, light in the middle and darker around the edges. She fiddled with the coffee maker again. She knew there was some semblance of life in it because the buttons lit up. She tried pressing different combinations of them. Turned off, unplugged, plugged, turned on. She poked an unfolded paper clip into a few different holes to see if anything was stuck. Turned on unplugged plugged turned off on off on. At last, a drizzle of brownish water splattered off the inside of the pot. It took a long time to fill, but fill it did.
While she waited, she cracked open some gas station salmon shreds. She sprinkled salt on them and ate them from the can. She felt like Graham’s cat. Graham’s cat only ate wet food, she was spoiled. Hollis liked to poke the cat lightly in the belly when Graham wasn’t looking, to remind her not everyone loved her.
She texted Graham. I fixed the coffee machine, she said. The bubble popped up that meant he was typing, then went away. She texted him again, I think we should break up. The coffee was weak. She stiffened it with the bourbon she’d tucked in her coat while Neal was getting dressed. In the mirror she plucked the single coarse hair that sprouted unrelentingly from her chin. She texted Graham again. Please don’t leave me, she said, and then thought she should specify. When I die I want them to bury me on top of you.
* * *
Outside, Neal was waiting for her behind a tree. He popped out at her and said hi, swinging his arms back and forth.
“Buongiorno,” Hollis said.
“There was a blunder in the books,” he said. Martha had forgotten it was a leap year, so there was an extra day before the next guest was scheduled to come to the Trunk House. Hollis was supposed to be out that afternoon but Neal said she could stay one more night if she wanted to, no charge, even though she knew the charge would be climbing on top of him and spelling dirty words with her hips. Martha wouldn’t be back to clean up until tomorrow anyway. Hollis had forgotten she was supposed to leave, and what day it was.
“Right on,” she said to Neal. She sometimes said things like this. Right on.
“Lucky me,” said Neal, and invited her to lunch even though it was barely ten thirty. He fed her oily green beans with his fingers.
* * *
Graham sent Hollis a heartfelt email about moving on, with the subject line, Please Hollis I’m Begging You, all the words capitalized like that.
“Who’s that?” Neal asked.
“My boyfriend,” she told him. “Can I trim your nose hairs?”
He sat naked on the edge of the bathtub while she did it. He had a contraption she could stick right up the nose hole and it would cut the hairs down like a weed whacker. Graham had a similar device. “He used to be a swimmer,” she told Neal. “He likes to be completely hairless. Like a baby seal. He also uses it on his butt hairs.” When Neal left the bathroom, Hollis used his fingernail clippers to trim her nails as short as she could get them. She shuffled things around in his medicine cabinet and swallowed a couple of his pills with a handful of sink water.
In the afternoon they played Scrabble on the coffee table. Neal sat on the couch and Hollis sat cross-legged on the floor, tucking the letters she didn’t want underneath the rug. She left an H for Martha to find. She left an O and an L and the rest of her name, except she never drew another L. Holis under the rug for Martha.
They walked in the woods and Hollis tried to get Neal to lay down and ponder death with her. “Sweetheart,” he said, “I’ll never get back up.”
Neal said Martha was Catholic and he was kind of a pragmatic Buddhist, the kind that doesn’t believe in rebirth or karma or unempirical things. They argued sometimes about the afterlife. Hollis didn’t have a name for what she was. She was nothing, really, but sometimes on Sundays she went to one of those non-denominational cultish churches someone had started in the space where her town’s dollar store used to be. Everyone shouted together there, and stomped around. After the service they ate bran muffins baked by the assistant coach of the high school boys’ soccer team.
Hollis let Neal cook her a steak and took a few more of his pills, then said she had to go.
“You’re breaking my heart, kitten,” Neal said. “Drop the keys off tomorrow, maybe you’ll get to meet Martha.”
* * *
Hollis took off all her clothes except her socks and sat on the floor of the Trunk House to put her name on the wall, along the baseboards, just underneath Rhonda Wuz Here. She drew a ghost with big eyes and no mouth and wrote, HOLLIS WUZ.
She read the last page of Lolita while she finished off her gas station wine. “Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers.” She opened Graham’s present and read from it in a Mrs. Doubtfire voice. Graham used to laugh so hard when she did that. He’d snort and cover his mouth to hold the air in and then he’d get the hiccups, and she would have to feed him peanut butter to stick the hiccups to the inside of his throat. “I hope you bring cocktail sauce. She’s got the crabs, dear, and I don’t mean Dungeness.”
She packed everything but her toothbrush in a bag and set the bag on top of the big trunk at the foot of the bed. Considered it for a second. She took the bag off again, set it on the floor, and opened the trunk. It was empty. She opened another, the green one. Empty. Empty, the small trunk by the toilet, empty, all the rest of them. She opened each one and left them gaping.
She called Graham and left a message, reading from Lolita in her Mrs. Doubtfire accent. “That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him.” By husband, of course, she meant laundry.
* * *
Hollis woke up on a day that didn’t count, the 29th of February. She woke up with new pimples on her cheek from falling asleep on her hand. She’d been drooling; it hardened on her chin skin. The gash in her thumb had grown a crust the color of a baby deer.
She waited to return the key until she heard a car in the green house’s driveway and she saw Neal come outside to help Martha carry in groceries. Martha was less than normal. She wasn’t plump or thin. Her hair went right exactly to her shoulders, no longer, no shorter, tucked behind both of her ears. She wore a knee brace on the outside of her jeans. Her voice had none of the warmth it had on the phone when she was selling Hollis on the Trunk House. She didn’t even seem to remember her. Martha reached out her hand for the key and said, “Nice to meet you, Holly.”
When Martha went inside, Hollis hugged Neal with one arm and said goodbye from a page in Lolita. She’d tucked the book into her bag and left Mrs. Doubtfire in one of the trunks. “I hope you will love your baby,” she said. “I hope it will be a boy.”
* * *
On the inside of an S curve, her car ran out of gas. She managed to pull it halfway off the road and wondered if anyone would come around the curve too fast and hit it, and what kind of money she could get from car insurance.
Hollis left her keys in the front seat. There was a small pond or a large puddle halfway between the road and the woods. It was frozen over, it didn’t budge or even creak when Hollis pushed her boot down on it. She tried to slide around but the ice was too bumpy. She got down on all fours and flipped herself onto her back, spread eagle in the center of the puddle. No cars drove by. She wondered how much money she’d be worth in life insurance if she faked her own death. It would all go to Graham, of course. She’d like that. He would take the money and for a day or two he’d feel bad about taking it, then he’d use it to buy laundry detergent in bulk. Maybe start franchising like he’d always wanted. She would disguise herself and watch him fold at the counter, a stranger. When he wasn’t looking she’d clog the coin slots of his machines with gum. A ghost.
After a while Hollis stood up and went back to the car and got out the empty gas can she kept in her trunk. With the last dregs of her phone battery, she checked to see if Graham had called her back. He hadn’t. She hoped there would be a gas station nearby. Hollis headed in the direction she’d been going.
Chloe Alberta earned her MFA at the University of Michigan, where she is currently a Zell Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, HAD, Joyland, and elsewhere, and has been recognized with the Henfield Prize and a Hopwood Award. Find her on Twitter: @chloe_alberta.