“Behind the Falls” by Paulette Pierce

When Lainey looks at Niagara Falls, all she can think about is Jenni Olson and the Golden Gate Bridge suicides. She remembers the hook of Keller’s leg under the blanket as they watched The Joy of Life, Olson’s narration about the city’s refusal to erect a barrier of protection around the bridge, Keller’s limbs fastened around her like a net strapping her in. It was a night of warmth and skin on skin, a distant memory now.

It’s nearly ten at night and the air is swirling with snowglobe flurries. The rapids volley the flakes directly into Lainey’s face, marking her cheeks with the force of tiny steam burns. Keller smiles and waves from the waist-high metal barrier, beckoning her closer.

“I’m good here,” Lainey says, but it’s swallowed by the sound of the falls, churning and crashing like an ancient death machine. She shakes her head instead.

The barrier is so low, it can’t be safe. If she steps closer, curls her hands around the railing, she knows she’ll lurch forward without ever deciding to do it. The falls will fling their watery tentacles outward, wrapping around her body and pulling her down into the plunge pool. Lainey stares into the water, wondering how quickly it would beat her body into nothing more than a living bruise, bones split in half like twigs snapped for kindling, and she thinks this is probably not a normal thought.

Lights are projected onto the water, reds pulsing into purples, greens fading into blues, and Lainey supposes they’re meant to be calming. Romantic nighttime ambience for cooing lovers taking smiling selfies. But as Lainey watches the whole hypnotic scene, the drone of the falls sounds like a coded call to action, one of those mysterious phrases that snap brainwashed soldiers into movement. It’s everywhere. It’s as inescapable as the wind.

“It’s the negative ions,” a gravelly voice says, and Lainey jumps back. He’s too close for comfort. The man is bundled as though about to embark on an arctic expedition: thick furred hat with earflaps, parka as puffy as a marshmallow, the high collar covering half his face. “They’re good for ya in small doses. But if you’re here for too long, they can kill ya. They’ve done studies!”

He says this last part with an upturn to the syllables, like he expects an argument, a skepticism about the factual basis of this claim.

“Oh,” Lainey says because the fewer words spoken, the least encouragement given. She’s been a woman in public long enough to glean the quickest routes of escape. While there’s something to be said for placating smiles to ward off danger, sidling off stage before it has even begun is preferable. Life should have trapdoors. She takes a step toward Keller, her fair isle beanie with the pompom on top like a flag planted in the ground to signify safety, but the man keeps on, louder this time.

“It helps your mood and your sleep. The mist is in your lungs right now. You can’t breathe purer air than this. You’re at the inception of it all, girlie. You’re home.”

Half-turning her head, she delivers one of those appeasing smiles. She’s become an expert at them. Never wide enough to promise too much, never flat enough to be a grimace. She takes a few brisk steps until her hands meet metal.

“Hey,” Keller says so gently that Lainey isn’t sure if she really heard it or if she merely saw the familiar shape of her mouth, her brain filling in the blanks.

“You’ll get cancer if you sleep here every night though! Small doses! Fifteen minutes a day!” the man keeps on, and finally Lainey feels Keller’s fingers threading through hers, leading her away. They weave through throngs of people, a bit too fast for Lainey’s weak ankle, and it isn’t long before his rambles are garbled nonsense in the background.

When they emerge from the crowd, they’re on a tarry path leading back to the parking lot. Lainey can’t fathom why so many people are here in November; it’s too cold to stand next to a waterfall that spits at you. Maybe they come from Buffalo, their upstate New York constitution already accustomed to it.

“Oh my god, we have to go,” Keller gasps, pointing at something in the distance. Lainey follows Keller’s finger to see the bright red sign. “Wax Museum.” Generic and gaudy, the kind of front-lit sign you’d see for a nail place at a strip mall. It’s one of several shops in an ugly, beige clump at the bottom of the hill. It doesn’t suit the meandering journey from murderous falls to dimly lit path, the paving as dark as elementary school blacktop. It’s as if the shops have been teleported there.

“I’m tired,” Lainey says, eyes drifting to the parking lot, looking for their silver car that looks like every other silver car. Keller always spots it with no trouble, but Lainey can’t distinguish it from the masses. She needs to be close enough to read the license plate and spy the dime-store hula girl on the dash.

“Come on. It’ll be fun. We’re here. We should do the whole thing.” Keller waves her arm around to signify the entire tourist industrial complex, the chintzy gift shop souvenirs with appalling markup, nameplates and sweatshirts and coffee mugs that no doubt break within a week of purchase.

It disgusts Lainey; there’s a strange secondhand embarrassment to it she can’t quite articulate. It’s the same feeling she used to get in movie theater bathrooms, relentless advertisements and top forty music pumped over the loudspeaker while she urinated. It always felt invasive, like the backs of her eyelids were going to be branded with company logos when she wasn’t looking, and she’d never be able to close her eyes again without seeing them. Industry following her into the bedroom, into slumber.

“My ankle hurts,” Lainey tries again because it does. It isn’t dire yet, no hammering throb below her tibia to devolve her gait into a lumbering creature of pain, but she knows it soon will be. With every passing hour, the ache worsens, lactic acid and who knows what else brewing like angry steamed milk in her tendons.

“Good timing,” Keller mutters as they make their way to the end of the path. The wax museum is on the other side of the street, only a few feet away. “Your ankle is fine when it’s something you want to do.”

Lainey bites her lip. There is no way to sufficiently explain to someone whose body is not their enemy that you never know when the attacks will occur. They lie in wait like small hills in the ground at night, ready to trip you even when you think you have the landscape memorized. There is also no way to explain that some things are worth a little pain for the opportunity. The alternative is doing nothing and hating yourself for it, feeling as though someone has skimmed off the top layers of life, handed it back to you and tried to convince you nothing was stolen.

“It’ll be short, and then we’ll go. Look at it. There’s no way that thing takes more than ten minutes to run through.”

“Fine.” Lainey nods, and they buy tickets at the gift shop. The entrance is at the back of the shop, a thick door that is suspiciously unmarked.

It’s quiet in the museum. There is no guide to steer them through the rooms and explain the reason for each figure, and the attic-dim lighting is unsettling. Lainey doesn’t like the prickles on the back of her neck, the sense of rounding a corner and stepping into the unknown. It’s illicit, like sneaking into a sprawling art museum after hours.

Mostly, the place is a monument to whiteness and all its horrors, and Lainey doesn’t understand why Keller is laughing and wading through like a kid on a field trip. The diorama that starts it all is about the first white man to visit Niagara. After that, it’s all dysentery and the elements attacking, death by exposure and ignorance, the price of colonial expedition, territorial expansion framed as bravery and necessary sacrifice.

“I hate this,” Lainey sighs, and Keller nods.

“It’s pretty ghoulish, but it’s fulfilling the roadside attraction itch, right?”

Lainey frowns and forges ahead, looking for a bench to sit on.

Strolling past a hall of presidents, she finds herself in front of a trio of wax women. There is no effort made by the displays to transition into this, no explanation for the abrupt shift in content. Nameplates identify them as Princess Diana, Julia Roberts, and Mother Theresa, but the effigies look nothing like the women they’re paying tribute to. Julia’s wig is unbrushed and ill-fitting as if it was just fetched from a yard sale. Her features are warped and melted, the grin stretched unnaturally wide. It’s haunting, but Lainey can’t look away.

The placards beside their heads are written like strange hymns meant for recitation: “Reaffirm Beauty Passes on with Time!—it is in Loving that you are Loved.—it is in Giving that you Receive.” There’s something cultish about it, empty adages that add up to nothing but threaten you all the same. It’s as if the museum is saying there are three types of women in the world, and here they are: the pretty girl, the white princess of dignity and grace, and the humble servant of God.

“This is fucking wild,” Keller laughs, and the heat leaches from Lainey’s whole body.

“I don’t like it here. I want to leave,” Lainey protests, hugging her arms tight around her middle.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Lainey doesn’t answer. She just walks through the remaining rooms as fast as her aching legs will take her, past an interior of a family in a cabin and one of those pressed penny machines she used to love as a child. Where did all her pressed pennies go? She must have collected dozens on school trips to zoos and museums, paying fifty or seventy-five cents to admire shiny copper printed with block letters and the ridges of a lion’s mane. She would slip the elongated coin into her pocket and run her fingers along the design all day.

The last room is a large display, sounds of trickling water as an enormous boat bobs in a fake lake, a man looking out from the deck onto the horizon. Beneath the boat is a half-crushed corpse, drowned and frozen, frost painting his wax lips, blood oozing out of his split torso. Lainey rushes past and pushes the exit door open, thankful for the lungful of fresh air, but when she turns around, the man from the falls is there.

“Can you drop me off at Main Street? I wouldn’t ask this time of night, but it’s—”

“Are you fucking following us?” Keller yells as she pushes open the door, and for the first time today, Lainey is actually grateful for her presence. She’s always admired Keller’s swatting of pests, her brash elbowing through crowds. Keller doesn’t give placating smiles; she is a killer of spiders and unearned male confidence. “Get the fuck away from her.”

Keller links arms with Lainey, and they head off toward the parking lot.

“You gotta be careful on Main Street!” the man continues shouting after them. “You never know what you’ll find there.”

They slide into the stagnant cold of the car, and Keller turns on the heat before pulling out of the lot. Lainey barely ever drives, can’t stand the constant fluctuations of circumstance, anticipating the whims of strangers and hoping a failure in reaction time won’t kill you. It’s too much responsibility.

As they merge onto the interstate, Lainey takes off her gloves and holds her fingers in front of the heat vent. She wanted to stay in a hotel overnight, worried about fatigue on the road, a slow drift of wheels over dashed, reflective lines into oncoming traffic, the warning flash of headlights from an eighteen-wheeler.

“It’s three hours each way. There’s no need,” Keller had said with an eye roll. Every moment of Lainey trying to exert control is received with petulance, like her practicality is frivolity. The people in Lainey’s life never want to plan; it’s something she should probably look into.

The first hour passes with peace, but then the hail hits. It’s the worst Lainey has ever seen; in all her Midwestern formative years there was never anything this vindictive falling from the sky. The wind sounds like the falls, a great rush of air on either side of the car, shaking the loose window in the backseat, the one that never quite lines up in the frame. The hail is thrown like angry confetti at the windshield, almost horizontal, at a fierce speed that could crack straight through the glass at any moment. It’s pellet-sized but abundant, a biblical swarm that renders visibility almost non-existent.

“Should we pull over?” Lainey asks, the drum of the pellets nearly drowning her out.

“It’s worse to pull over,” Keller shouts back, eyes focused on the road, and Lainey thinks that can’t be right. How can that be right?

A few minutes later, the hail stops, and Lainey lets her head fall back onto the seat, eyes closed.

But then it starts again, just as vicious as before. The hula girl is spinning in her fixed trajectory on the dash, a frenzied motion like she might break out of orbit any second. Will it be like this the whole way? If this is how Lainey’s going to die, in the passenger seat with a clumsy lover who doesn’t understand the first thing about her, she doesn’t want any part of it.

She’s not even sure why she agreed to this impulsive trip. Maybe the fear of starting over, of wading through the tedious introductory stages of dating, twitchy smiles across restaurant tables and sloppy kisses with unsynced lips, is greater than this frozen-in-amber feeling, but now there’s nothing but regret spinning fast as a drill bit in her stomach.

We need to get out of here. We’ve been in this house forever. Don’t you want to go somewhere with me?” Keller had pleaded, and that’s how it always went. She would bounce on her heels like a manic teenager who thought she’d just had the best, most thrilling idea, and Lainey would want to please her, would be convinced for a brief moment that maybe yes, she and her quiet, solitary nature were the problem. Maybe she didn’t need to find someone more suited to it but needed to change to meet Keller on her uneven plane whose seesawing had once been exciting and new. Once Lainey had agreed to whatever impetuous antics Keller suggested, they would get there and Lainey would be nothing but furniture in the room, easily ignored but pulled into use whenever necessary. Lainey was forever an incidental passenger in the carnival ride of Keller’s life.

But wouldn’t it be the same with someone else? Isn’t this how it always went? The things you loved became the things you hated. No one was immune to this cruel transmutation unless you chose to be, focused all your energy on making this choice every day. It was a choice to keep loving these things. Hadn’t Lainey read that somewhere?

The surges of hail keep on for another hour, and neither of them speak. Keller is wide-eyed with focus, hands unmoving on the steering wheel, gaze forward and steadfast, and Lainey is glad she’s not driving. Her hands would fail in these high stakes, jerking this way and that until they skidded into a ditch.

Lainey keeps closing her eyes only to open them again. Somehow, not seeing the danger is worse. Behind closed eyes, anything could happen. Lainey could miss the moment when it all ends. And so she keeps prying them open even when the lids grow heavy, fatigue sidling alongside adrenaline to keep it company.

“Are you awake?” The words feel stupid as soon as they leave Lainey’s mouth, but if she’s tired, Keller must be too. Someone has to keep her awake. They left around seven in the morning, and it’s now nearly midnight.

“Very,” Keller says with a slightly deranged laugh, and that’s when a pellet cracks the glass.

Even as Lainey gasps, she thinks there’s something oddly beautiful about it, a satisfying sound like a spoon cracking the seal on crème brûlée, sugary fault lines extending in all directions. It reminds her of the finch that died against the window in her parents’ house, how it seemed like no mistake, no accidental flight path. The bird hurled itself into the glass, the harsh thud like a dense rubber ball against a wall. She remembers the bird’s broken neck as it fell to the ground, rubbery and limp as warm wax.

“Okay, okay, we’re pulling over,” Keller finally relents.

A rest area sign appears a minute later, two miles until the exit, and Lainey doesn’t really breathe until the car pulls into the parking lot.

When she gets out, she barely feels the pain in her ankle anymore. There’s a numb buzzing instead, staticy and strange, like a limb fallen asleep but not quite.

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom, but then we’ll check the forecast, yeah?” Keller calls out, already walking away.

Lainey kicks a pebble across the sidewalk. It would have been nice for Keller to ask how she’s doing, to check in after that bit of shared highway trauma, but Lainey can never tell how much of the blame she shares. She has a habit of appearing self-contained, a terrarium of a person, but why should that mean people forget to ask? What extra effort does it really cost to check, even if you’re already decided on the outcome?

Lainey walks over to one of the picnic tables and sits down, her gaze directed toward the woods. Rest stops are a strange conduit between worlds, a funny little house sandwiched between endless stretches of road and nature as it was before someone thought to pave it over. The concept never seemed eerie before, but in the deserted night, it chills Lainey’s bones. All the bare, dark trees are witches, bony hands grabbing at the sky like they want to steal it. Beyond the lonely picnic area, it’s all spectral light on skinny branches, and Lainey thinks about being a kid camping in the woods for the first time, not trusting its shady mystery, too shrouded in darkness to be safe. It made her want to leave then, shivering inside her sleeping bag in a shared tent with summer camp rivals who hated her solemnity and secondhand clothes. Tonight, she wants to slip between their secrets and disappear.

Are there bodies behind those trees? Surely there must be one or two. It’s the perfect place to hide a crime. Everyone who stops here is on the move. It’s made for the transient. How would police know which of the hundreds of people had tramped behind the grounds to bury their misdeeds? Who would even find the body?

Lainey hears the creaky door of the rest stop open, and she jolts up from her seat, darting into the woods, branches crackling underfoot. When she’s a few feet in, she turns around, peering out from behind the trees, and Keller appears on the sidewalk. Keller looks around, head swiveling for signs of her, and it makes Lainey laugh. She clamps a hand over her mouth.

Yes, look for me for once. I want to be chased.

Keller starts calling her name, at first phrasing it like a tentative question, a polite request, but the longer Lainey stays hidden, the more frantic Keller gets.

There’s a violent snap of branches behind Lainey, and she whips around to look for the source of it, but when she hears a growl in the dark, she’s a child in the woods again, afraid of their secrets. They’re not for her to uncover.

She tries to race away from the rangy trees, but the pain is back, invisible needles spiking her skin until she’s limping, leaning heavily on her left leg and dragging the other behind. Her heart seizes as the lights of their car flicker on. Keller is behind the wheel about to drive away.

“Stop!” Lainey waves her arms like she’s flagging down a stranger for help, desperate and scared, an itch clawing its way up her throat. Trudging a few more feet, she finally reaches the car, opens the passenger door and climbs in.

“What the fuck were you doing?” The anger in Keller’s eyes is very parental; it makes Lainey shrink into the seat.

“I wanted you to look for me.”

“What does that even mean? What’s wrong with you?”

Lainey’s cheeks turn scarlet, and she remembers she did this at camp too, crouched in a copse of firs until a counselor dragged her away, fingers writing angry marks into her wrist. Everyone wants to have impulsive fun until Lainey tries to join. She’s always doing it the wrong way.

“I thought you were about to drive away,” Lainey says, voice nearly a whisper.

“I don’t even know what to say to that.” Keller pulls the car out of the lot.

They merge back onto the interstate, and the hail doesn’t appear again.

Soon, they’re driving up to a toll road. The lights above the green signs hoisted high in the air are football-field bright. A semi-truck is in front of them, and when it drives under the lights, there’s a cloud of mist from the wheels’ runoff, melted hail now turned to water, a kickback that clouds their view for a second. It cascades off the top of the truck too, fanning out under the glaring lights like a diver’s elegant splash. It’s beautiful.

Lainey isn’t worried about her safety anymore, the peril waiting around every curve. She wants to tell Keller to pull over and let her out, to walk alongside the road until she’s picked up by one of those larger-than-life trucks, seeing the road at a new height, waiting to end up somewhere without having it all conveniently laid out before her. A real journey for once, but not beholden to someone else. It’s a pointless fantasy; she knows it would end in a matter of minutes, sudden pain taking her down like an arrow to a deer’s chest.

Looking at the cracks in the windshield, she thinks she can hear them whine, the high-pitched shriek of a bird whose throat is being squeezed in a predator’s talons.

Lainey watches the mile markers count and count toward nothing at all, cheek pressed against the cool window until she falls asleep. She dreams of the finch flinging itself against the window, except this time it doesn’t stay dead. After each thump against glass, each crash to the ground, it gets up and does it again, a grotesque crunch of bones as it snaps its neck back into place only to break it anew.

Paulette is a queer Pittsburgh-based writer who enjoys spending time in their local film scene, particularly in the areas of microcinema and film preservation. Their fiction has appeared in SFWP, Maudlin House, and No Contact.


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